Like many other young Christians, I learned how to “think christianly” by reading the works of C.S. Lewis. In fact, Lewis’ introduction to what Christians believe, Mere Christianity, left such a deep impression on me that the efforts of my university professors to turn me into a liberal only succeeded in making me an Anabaptist.
What Anabaptism is is not important. I mention it only because my Anabaptism taught me that nonviolence is an essential part of being a disciple of Jesus. In this post, I would like to make the case for Christian nonviolence to you. More than this, I want to make this case as an extension of the way C.S. Lewis thinks christianly in Mere Christianity.
Jesus and the Ethics of Mere Christianity
Lewis begins Mere Christianity by arguing that a law exists behind human beings’ experience of morality. This ‘law of human nature’ is the moral standard whose authority everyone naturally assumes when they do things like quarrel, make judgments about others’ behavior, or excuses for their own. Later in Mere Christianity, Lewis describes the content of the law of human nature as the “cardinal” and “theological” virtues. The cardinal virtues – justice, temperance, fortitude and prudence – are those that Lewis thinks “all civilized people recognize.” The theological virtues of love, faith and hope “are those which, as a rule, only Christians know about.”
The main weakness of Lewis’ view is that it does not take seriously enough the impact Jesus should have on Christian behavior. Lewis describes morality as a law that is naturally recognized by almost everybody. Anabaptist thinkers like John Howard Yoder criticize this way of thinking because, for them, taking Jesus seriously means sometimes taking action that would commonly – even naturally – be unthinkable. The specifically Christian virtues of love, faith, and hope do not go far enough to overcome this weakness. Yoder rightly points out that generalities like these are not substitutes for the Sermon on the Mount or the Cross.
If Lewis’ account of Christian behavior is to pass muster, it must include the teaching and example of Jesus. Here’s one way this can be done.
According to Lewis, almost everybody accepts most of the general principles that are a part of the law of human nature. However, he acknowledges that different people’s beliefs about the world change how these principles play out in practice. For example, we would never dream of executing anyone as a witch. But this does not mean we don’t accept the same moral standard as those in the past who did. The people who executed witches did so because, unlike us, they believed witches exist! It is our different beliefs about the world, and not the law of human nature, that explain our different moral practices. Perhaps Christian beliefs about Jesus affect our behavior in a similar way.
Lewis himself articulates how Christians’ beliefs affect our personal and religious ethics. For example, he writes that Christians believe we are going to live forever. This makes our personal ethics much more important than they would otherwise be. Minor sins often become more serious with time. A friend of mine thinks about this in terms of his attitude toward pea soup. He worries that his present dislike of pea soup will become a deep-seated and categorical opposition when he’s an old man. If nothing intervenes in this process after he dies, how deep would his hatred for pea soup grow after only a few centuries? Now, what if the issue were not his attitude toward pea soup, but pride, greed or lust?
Jesus and Nonviolence
Lewis assumes that Christian beliefs do not make a similar difference for social ethics. But why not? Perhaps this assumption keeps Lewis from fully acknowledging Jesus’ rightful place in Christian ethics. Consider the difference these central Christian beliefs about Jesus make to our social ethics.
We believe that Jesus confronted the Jewish and Roman powers and was crucified. The crucifixion of our king forces us to reject pride and violence, and take the way of the cross in our own confrontation with the powers of the world.
We also believe that Jesus was raised by God from the dead, that he now sits at the right hand of God, and that he is coming again. This means we should not act as if there is no one behind the scenes who is in control and will make things turn out right in the end. But this is how we act when we think that killing others is necessary to right the wrongs in the world.
Finally, Christians believe that Jesus is the head of the church. America is not God’s people. Not even Canada is God’s people. As Christians, we affirm that it is the church who are God’s people. Many Christians in the West remember the events at Nagasaki and Hiroshima as a Christian nation doing what was necessary to our enemies to end World War II. This is tragic. At Nagasaki, a wondrously resilient church and the people they had been called to serve were decimated by the most awful power the world had yet seen.
I happened to learn nonviolence by becoming an Anabaptist. It would be a mistake, however, to think I was trying to turn you all into Mennonites! Christian nonviolence follows from Christians’ central convictions about Jesus. It should therefore be a part of mere Christianity.