Sunday, April 08, 2007

Robert Wright's Easter Sermon in the NYT

Robert Wright, writing in the Saturday, April 7, 2007 New York Times, on the op ed page but behind the Wall, offers an account of how the teachings of Jesus can be understood to be strategically good for dealing with terrorism - "Jesus as a counterterrorism strategist," in the words of the headline. Wright is a writer who is often too clever for his own good, and this column is no exception.

I leave aside the incentive problem - see, in the post below about my reading list, the If you give a mouse a cookie entry about the incentive problem in turning the other cheek. The real issue in Christian ethics concerning the use of force is one that is not in the least unique to Christian ethical theory, but has a prominent place in it because of the history of a religion that began as a despised mystery cult of the lower orders that eventually became the religion of all society, including the Roman Empire's rulers. That is the question of trusteeship.

When you act for yourself - negotiate for yourself, for example, make deals for yourself - you can afford to take risks that are, so to speak, yours to take because you can decide for yourself. But the nature of diplomacy and international politics, the negotiations over war and peace, are never so easy, because the inherent nature of negotiations is that negotiators and diplomats and poltiicans and presidents and even, one might hope, Speakers of the House speak on behalf of a political community, with whose safety and security they have been entrusted. When you speak and negotiate for others, for their safety, the ability to take risks with the safety is necessarily curtailed by the nature of the fiduciary role you play. It is a common error of international relations modeling games - to assume that the same level of risk and safety that a non-fiduciary can negotiate is the same as that of a fiduciary. What you might risk for yourself - to turn the other cheek, to engage in the highly personal, individual, person to person ethical stance of Jesus' teachings - is not something a fiduciary can afford to do. Christian rulers have understood this - and so have Christian theologians, in elaborating a theory of just war under natural law that comprehends that war can be an aspect of Christian love for others in protecting them.

It might be possible to do what Wright recommends, and might be a good idea as a matter of strategy. But that's not because it is Christian or comes from the sayings of Jesus of Nazareth. A ruler, including one who takes the obligations of Christian ethics seriously, must consider the safety of others than himself. In a pluralistic society, this is actually an even greater ethical obligation. A committed Christian community might commit itself, including its children and infants, to martydom in the arena, although today we would no longer countenance it; the leader of a pluralistic community cannot make such a commitment on behalf of others. But the ethical consequence of being a fiduciary means that it constrains even actions that the political actor, acting for himself or herself alone, might be willing to risk. Not completely, of course, because prudence and safety can also counsel compromise, but the range of action of a fiduciary is significantly constrained.

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