A photo of Andrew DeCort and Eskinder Nega
Eskinder Nega

From Prison to Public Theology in Ethiopia, Part II

One-on-Ones

I have hopes that a more “religionless” but publicly engaged Christianity is possible.

EN: I read Mandela’s wonderful Long Walk to Freedom in prison. There he justifies ANC’s armed struggle by citing Jesus’ forceful protest against the merchants in the temple. To Martin Luther King, however, nonviolence is unconditional, and his followers insist that the overall example set by our Lord Jesus – who did not insult when insulted, who did not threaten when threatened, who did not strike when struck – is on the side of MLK. Assuming that you live in a violent dictatorship, would you fight for your rights, as Mandela did, with force of arms?

AD: I think we should start with basic Christian convictions and build toward greater complexity when addressing difficult questions like the ethics of resistance. 

First, Christians affirm that God has made a good world and created each person in God’s image (Genesis 1). Thus, God’s original will is for peace, unlike the violent myths of ancient Mesopotamia and Greece. Second, Jesus commands us to love our neighbors, including our enemies, as a condition for being children of God (Matthew 5:41-46; Luke 6:27-36). Thus, we are called to sacrifice ourselves for the wellbeing of others. In my opinion, these are most precious principles of Christian ethics, which lay the foundation for universal respect for others and decent society.

Now, when a violent dictatorship rebels against God’s sovereign will for peaceful order and desecrates God’s image-bearers, we must ask, “What does it mean to love a violent dictator and those the dictator seeks to destroy?” Here my thoughts are influenced by Thomas Aquinas’s reasoning in Summa Theologica (see Pt. II-II, Q. 25, A. 6).

If we believe (1) God has created all people in God’s holy image (Genesis 9:6) and (2) God wills for all people to flourish and not be destroyed (John 3:16), then (3) we can argue that love itself compels us to forcefully oppose violent dictatorship. Why? Because such resistance (1) aligns itself with God’s will for life, (2) prevents violent idolaters from further damning themselves by sinning against God and neighbor, and (3) protects the weak and powerless from being further destroyed (Proverbs 31:8-9).

In other words, not to intervene in the face of violent dictatorship would be (1) to ignore God’s original will for peace and justice, (2) to allow idolatrous aggressors to radically condemn themselves, and (3) to condone (indirectly, at least) the destruction of God’s beloved image-bearers. None of this can be interpreted as love, and thus none of this can be interpreted as obedience to Jesus’s command.

Further, Jesus himself said that it would be better to be drowned in the sea than to harm the vulnerable (Matthew 18:6-9; Mark 9:42-50; Luke 17:1-5), and Paul insisted that a God-ordained government “holds no terror for those who do right” (Romans 13:3). So when a violent regime systematically harms the vulnerable and terrorizes those who do right, love – for both the victimizer and the victim – requires action. In extreme conditions where King’s nonviolent practices would be powerless, enemy-love may demand forceful intervention, including what the Christian political tradition calls “tyrranicide.”

However, I would modify your question – “would you fight for your rights” – to focus on the Christian obligation to prioritize others. I believe that followers of Jesus are called to lay down their own rights – to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) – and also to struggle for the rights of others (Isaiah 1:17). Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an exemplary case.

Bonhoeffer believed in God’s fundamental will for peace and Jesus’s command to love enemies. And under the extreme dictatorship of Hitler’s Nazism, these convictions drove Bonhoeffer to participate in plots to assassinate Hitler and transition Germany to a new political order. But Bonhoeffer did not join the resistance for his own sake but for those he called “the defenseless brothers and sisters of Christ” – Jews. For this, Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate price, and he was hanged by the Nazis on April 9, 1945. Bonhoeffer is a model for us today, holding together Christ’s cruciform self-sacrifice and the Bible’s command to protect the powerless.    

To sum up, I believe that under extreme conditions of systemic injustice and violence, strategic action should be organized (1) to preserve God’s will for basic peace, (2) to prevent dictators from more radically damning themselves, and (3) to protect the powerless from wanton destruction. This is the theological foundation of John Locke’s “appeal to heaven” (Second Treatise, §§20, 168) and the American revolutionary tradition enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

Of course, this position raises the crucial questions of (1) what the criteria are for judging when a regime has become dictatorial enough to warrant forceful intervention, (2) when revolution will actually do more good than harm for those in need of liberation, and (3) what should be done if revolution is not a viable option. The Arab Spring, especially Syria, is a sobering case study. When a culture is deeply authoritarian and an alternative political platform has not been robustly developed, revolution may aggravate what it aims to improve.

EN: The Netherlands is beautifully built up – lovely people, peaceful, prosperous, tolerant. But then a visitor cannot help noticing that churches have been converted into museums or much worse. Ask why, and you will be told that the Dutch have now become a post-Christian society. Believers have become a minority. And this is true of not only the Dutch but also many parts of Europe. What is happening in Europe, Andrew? I am perplexed.

AD: This is a question better addressed by historians and sociologists, but I will hazard two thoughts.

First, Christianity creates the conditions for secularization. Christianity is a secularizing religion.

Ancient religion often saw nature, people, and events as suffused with gods, and thus politics as such, which I understand as merely human speech and action in concert for shared goals, was not a real option. Instead, what really mattered were spiritual rituals like incantations and sacrifices to try to bend reality to your will through divine backdoors. Reality was magical.

But then Genesis and the wider biblical tradition insisted that nature, people, and events are simply God’s (and humans’) creation, not themselves divine or filled with gods. And this opened the space and supplied the energy for politics as such – merely human speech and action in concert, hopefully striving for God’s peace, justice, and freedom.

In a profound sense, then, “secularization” is a paradoxical victory of Christianity. Rather than casting a spell on you or invoking my god to come kill you, you and I have to talk with one another as neighbors and find political arrangements that allow us to coexist until we die and face God’s ultimate judgment. Like Larry Siedentop and others, I would argue that “secular,” “liberal” Europe is largely a Christian invention.

But, second, “secularization” obviously has a negative connotation, and I would tentatively argue that what you have observed in the Netherlands involves numerous factors, including but not limited to the following.

First, European Christianity, amidst its positive contributions to human life mentioned above, has been woefully hypocritical and often terribly violent, both within itself (e.g., the Inquisition and Thirty Years War) and beyond itself (e.g., the Crusades and colonization). This has surely damaged the credibility of the churches and contributed to larger processes that Weber described with the term “disenchantment.”  

Second, modernity, as Charles Taylor has argued, has transformed homogeneous societies and created conditions of “fragilization,” in which the same street can have an atheist center, Christian church, Muslim mosque, and Buddhist temple. This proximity to others and explosion of plurality can create confusion and malaise. People feel overwhelmed, lose interest, or explore other options.

Third, Christians believe that humans endlessly reinvent idols or ways of closing off reality to God and worshiping ourselves. The increasing materialism of Western life can be interpreted through this lens. Past generations may have worshiped what their hands made, like statues to their ancestors and spirits in the forest. Present generations often worship what their hands have made, like technology, sex, money, identity, nation, etc.

Fourth, I think that new forms of Christianity may be expressing themselves in less traditional ways, shifting from songs-and-sermons in church buildings to small groups, service projects, and social movements in the name of Jesus. In other words, a post-Christian Europe may also be a pre-Christian Europe or a Europe rediscovering Christianity. My friends in Europe tell me they see mustard seeds of this.

In short, then, I see secularization as a deeply Christian and deeply idolatrous cultural phenomenon. It should be simultaneously celebrated and critiqued. In many ways, after the paganism of ancient Europe and the problematic Christianity of pre-modern Europe, secularization presents an exciting opportunity for people who desire to see an authentic expression of their faith but freed from imperial religion and privatized spirituality. Like Bonhoeffer, I have hopes that a more “religionless” but publicly engaged Christianity is possible.

EN: We know what the Golden Rule is: love thy neighbor as thy self. What, in your opinion, would be its golden opposite from a Christian perspective?

AD: The essence of neighbor-love is a practical commitment to celebrate and serve the wellbeing of others with the same seriousness that one cares for oneself. It includes everyone and cancels self-privileging. Neighbor-love recognizes Christ in the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, foreign, and imprisoned person (Matthew 25:31-46). Neighbor-love sees the religious and ethnic enemy as a person worthy of attention, embrace, and sacrifice when religious clerics leave them for dead (Luke 10:25-29). This was the point of Jesus’s Parable of the Good Samaritan – an astonishing story that made a hero out of the most hated group in Israel. (Imagine a pastor making a homosexual the hero of his story in a traditional church today. No wonder Jesus got murdered.)

Thus, the opposite of neighbor-love is dehumanization. Most simply, dehumanization says that certain others are not part of the moral community. “They” are outside the sacred circle of “our” concern and care, and thus free to be branded, excluded, and/or eliminated as “we” wish. This often begins with language and/or imagery that represents the other as an animal, insect, weed, demon, etc., and it can lead to genocide.  

The iron law of dehumanization is, “Idolize your self and tribe at all cost.” Of course, one’s “tribe” can be ethnic, religious, political, economic, sexual, and/or much else. It thrives on the predatory principle of superiority and survivalism.

Theologically, then, dehumanization is the desperate human attempt to be god. It blasphemes God’s freedom to love, create, and redeem all people, and it insists that some people – the ones we despise – do not bear god’s (our) image. This ideology fuels the myth of redemptive violence, the zero-sum belief that “we” can only be ourselves by devaluing or destroying others.

From this perspective, neighbor-love is an urgent antidote to catastrophe and the way to human flourishing and the common good.

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