A Christian Response to Fascism: Part 8 of 16
If you’re new to this series, I’m a pastor countering aspects of fascism with Christian theological critique.
Fascism glorifies violence and warfare. In “The Doctrine of Fascism” by Benito Mussolini, he romanticizes combat and rejects pacifism — calling the latter “cowardly.”
Fascism does not, generally speaking, believe in the possibility or utility of perpetual peace. It therefore discards pacifism as a cloak for cowardly supine renunciation in contradistinction to self-sacrifice. War alone keys up all human energies to their maximum tension and sets the seal of nobility on those peoples who have the courage to face it. All other tests are substitutes which never place a man face to face with himself before the alternative of life or death. — Benito Mussolini
Militarism becomes the means by which the leader exerts strength and rallies his followers. He does this in myriad ways: military parades, military spending, military solutions to international issues, surrounding himself with military leaders, thuggish violence toward opponents, and talk of violence as “purification” of the state.
Donald Trump warms up to several of the above — some more than others. He doesn’t seem to have a coherent ideology around violence as purification, which significantly separates him from full-blown fascists. His lack of military training or service leaves him inept at shaping such narratives. But he flirts (and more than flirts) with other aspects.
Regardless of Trump’s specific attractions to violent solutions for perceived threats, Christians of all stripes should dismiss the idealization of warfare. Christianity’s grappling with violence runs deep and wide; we have multiple theologies of pacifism in our tradition, as well as Just War Theory and Just Peacemaking Theory (the latter of which was formed by my seminary ethics professor, the late Dr. Glen Stassen). Just Peacemaking Theory is an extension of pacifism, arguing that peacemaking can not be passive but is an active posture that can be codified — an idea most pacifists embrace.
A new angle on Christian pacifism emerged these past two decades as the work of Dr. René Girard began influencing the wider church. In our book, Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, Ken Wilson and I explore Girard’s scapegoat theory and its implications for theologies of violence and peacemaking.
In a nutshell, Girard’s theory of scapegoating says:
- All human desire is mimetic, or imitative. I want something because you want something. (The entire advertising and marketing industry is built on this foundational idea.)
- When we desire the same thing someone else desires, envy and rivalry can develop if we both can’t have the object of desire … or if we believe we can’t both have the object of desire.
- Rivalries escalate, with each side growing increasingly desirous and each mimicking the others’ increased desire — until obtaining the object itself becomes less important than dominating the rival. Unbridled rivalry results in intense group anxiety/tension.
- When group anxiety reaches a tipping point, violence erupts and the group turns on itself. Girard postulates that many of the earliest civilizations self-imploded.
- Humans discovered a mechanism over time that prevents full-scale violence from breaking out. To save their communities from self-implosion, the group members identified a scapegoat on which to project their collective anxiety and envy and rivalry.
- The scapegoat is rounded up, falsely accused of a taboo crime, and dehumanized. The people falsely accusing the scapegoat genuinely feel like they’ve been “victimized” by the scapegoat, and so justify the false accusations.
- The group then forms a mob, uniting around the false accusations and condemnation of the scapegoat. Even those who might feel sorry for the scapegoat, or who are not sure the charges are accurate, often meld into the crowd by not speaking out. The silence of the majority enables the functioning of scapegoating mobs.
- The scapegoat is then sacrificed — bullied, fired, exiled, isolated, crucified, incarcerated, killed, and/or deported.
- A false peace descends on the group and the group creates myths justifying the violence and disperses responsibility for said violence so no one claims responsibility for “what happened.”
- The cycle repeats to manage group tension and maintain a false sense of stability.
- Scapegoating cycles used to achieve a false peace mean that, in the end, no one is safe in the group. Because there will always be a “next time.”
Girard looked at the life of Jesus through this lens, viewing Jesus as a scapegoat — sacrificed to keep a temporary false peace in turbulent times. But, Girard goes on, (unlike all other scapegoats) Jesus didn’t stay sacrificed. The resurrection of Jesus, he says, is to be viewed as God overturning our human verdict. Humans scapegoated and sacrificed Jesus to assuage our own anxieties and sins, and God declared our verdict of “guilty” to be null and void — so God repealed the verdict and made our human solution to such things look foolish.
In following such a God, we are asked to avoid false peacemaking. We do this by keeping our rivalries in check — because rivalries either lead to widescale violence, or they precede a scapegoating event whereby all of the violence is channeled on an innocent victim. Instead, we’re to live humbly, relinquishing our rivalries by trusting God to provide for all our needs. Violence is not an option.
If such a way of living sounds naïve, perhaps it is. Girard had no such illusions that humans could manage this way of life in any near-future scenario. But it is a legitimate Christian path, and it negates a militaristic posture toward the world.
But if Girard’s theory sounds too idealistic, Just War Theory has long been held as an orthodox Christian stance. However, it’s been incredibly overapplied to warfare and, anymore, is rarely appealed to by American leaders. The last president to invoke Just War Theory was George H.W. Bush in regards to the U.S. liberation of Kuwait — though Rev. Susan Thistlethwaite, then-president of Chicago Theological Seminary, wrote her opposition to that invocation. Just War Theory is meant to severely minimize chances of war, and is seen as a last case resort in the face of overwhelming evil and violence. So Christians who support war in limited situations should by no means support using military bluster or force to ensure American interests in a broad sense.
The facist glorification of violence is obscene. I’ll blog more about the idea of using violence to purify a society in my next post, but Christians must be adament in rejecting violence as providing personal and national glory. And we must be adament in rejecting warfare as a primary means of national existence.
One Last Note: And, for the love of all that is holy and good, let’s take care of those who have already been harmed for the sake of serving in our military … providing adequate medical and mental health care to veterans. It’s the least we can do. If we can’t take care of those who have suffered on behalf of our collective agenda, we have no business increasing our miliary enrollment. Not to mention the utter waste of resources that would be, given that our current military spending is more than three times higher than the next highest-spending country (China).