When I considered possible objections or qualifications to my “A Christian Answer to Coercion,” I realized that these questions led quickly into a dense thicket of some the thorniest questions of Christian ethics. Without trying to resolve these fully or offer answers to how we ought to act in every conceivable situation, I will try to address three particularly important objections, without being more laborious than necessary:
- Doesn’t this response amount to quietism, leaving coercive structures in power?
- Even if we shouldn’t fear for ourselves, isn’t it legitimate to act out of fear for others?
- Isn’t there such a thing as legitimate self-interest? If so, doesn’t this mean that a certain amount of fear and a certain regard for my own well-being is part of an appropriate Christian response to would-be coercers?
So first, haven’t we left the coercion of kings and corporations unchallenged? By saying, “Oh, don’t worry, you don’t have to demand our tax money, we’ll give it to you freely!” or “Don’t worry, you don’t have to threaten to fire me, I’ll work hard freely” don’t we simply leave the power structures in place, to continue demanding, oppressing, trampling on people? Even if I myself am so holy that I don’t care how much I’m trodden on, don’t I thereby invite the powers to tread on my weaker neighbors and co-workers? This is a powerful objection, as it appeals to love. If I love my neighbor, I will resist the would-be coercer–not for myself, but for my neighbor’s sake. To be a quietist who simply let coercive structures do their thing wouldn’t be Christlike–he challenged such structures in defense of the defenseless.
Two points may be made in response. First, willing service is not mere quietism; it is not only morally right, but often the most effective way to resist the coercive powers that be. “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). The simple act of fearlessly and voluntarily doing good to the oppressor, when they are desperately trying to intimidate you and elicit a fearful response, is a dramatic act of subversion, which knocks the sword out of the oppressor’s hands, unmasks the emptiness of his power, and may even bring him to repentance. So fearlessness is in itself a powerful response to coercion.
Second, when a further response is required, fearlessness is a necessary prerequisite for such a response. We should love our enemies, but not to the point where this requires us to stop loving our neighbors; thus Jesus did not just yield to the Pharisees’ wishes, but openly opposed them and spoke out against them on behalf of the weak and despised. However, this challenge was so effective because Jesus was not himself afraid of them; he had no fear on his own account. So, while there will be times when certain government or corporate policies must be opposed for the sake of those who will suffer from them, our opposition will be far more effective if it is clear that we fight not for our own rights, or out of fear of our own suffering, but from love of neighbor. Conservatives will argue that higher taxation will hurt everyone, including the weakest; the argument may or may not be sound, but if it is, it would be far more effective if anti-taxation rhetoric was not couched so often in terms of “leave me alone,” “I want my rights,” “It’s my money!”
With the discussion of love of neighbor, another challenge arises: shouldn’t I be moved by fear for those I love?. Perhaps I cannot loose coercion’s hold on myself so easily as it seemed above. Let’s return to the initial classification of motivations given in Part 2 of this series to see how this might be the case. There we noted not all “fear” is selfish fear; fear for another’s well-being can be driven by love. At the time, it seemed that we could easily enough say that, being subordinate to love, this kind of fear was simply an element of love. But if fear can be present even in love, how can perfect love cast out fear? If I love others, it seems that coercion does not disappear so easily; perhaps I don’t mind if the SS officer points the gun at my head, but what if he points the gun at my wife’s head?
But I don’t think this fundamentally changes anything. All fears are to be relativised by our fear and love of God; thus no one should be able to coerce me by fear for another’s well-being to do what is wrong; I will fear God more and still disobey. Likewise, if they are trying to get me to do something that is not in itself wrong, my response should be motivated by desire to do what is right, and their attempted intimidation should be irrelevant. Fear prompted by love of another is not in itself wrong, but if it leads us to act in a way contrary to the love of God, it is revealed as the product of distorted, wrongly ordered love.
A third objection might appeal to the notion of “legitimate self-interest,” a popular theme not only of capitalism but indeed of centuries of the natural law tradition. I am to love my neighbor as myself, not against myself–it is perfectly legitimate and morally upright to have a certain concern for my own survival and well-being, and thus to act in my own defense. Because of legitimate self-interest, it is not always wrong for me to fear for my own safety, and to act to protect myself. If someone tries to kill me, I am not required just to stand there and say, “Well, I’m not afraid of you, so go ahead and kill me”–I can legitimately try to run away, right? After all, the apostles fled Jerusalem when they were being persecuted there. On a more mundane level, if a thief comes into my house, can’t I defend my possessions? And if so, if a government demands too much tax money, can’t I try to defend myself against it?
This is a fair objection. What I said above was, more or less, that Christian should respond to coercion by voluntarily giving the would-be coercer what he wants, as long as it wouldn’t be immoral to do so, and if it would be, then to refuse fearlessly. But if a certain degree of self-interest is legitimate, then wouldn’t it be “immoral” to act carelessly against it? E.g., Wouldn’t it be immoral not to preserve my life if possible, and not to preserve my possessions if possible?
I confess that I am not altogether sure what to do with this objection, since I am not altogether sure how far I think “legitimate self-interest” extends. Certainly I think that, if are to think in terms of rightly-ordered love, then self-interest cannot extend to the point of depriving another of what I am seeking to protect for myself. Thus I cannot seek to kill another merely to protect my own life; but if I can protect my own life merely by escaping, without doing harm to another, then I ought to. This would suggest that if I could protect my possessions merely by withholding them when they are illegitimately demanded, I ought to. All of which would suggest, for instance, that I would be perfectly legitimate to oppose heavy taxation, and avoid paying if possible. But this argument seems to have led us into direct contradiction of Romans 13, at least as I have read it. It also seems to contradict, “If someone asks you for your cloak, give him your tunic also” (Mt. 5:40). But that command seems absurd, especially in light of the examples of economic bullying we’ve looked at–does this really mean that, whenever someone tries to intimidate me into buying or selling something, I would have to respond “in love” by doing as they asked, and doing more than they ask? This seems absurd.
A closer look at the context of commands like “If someone asks you for your cloak, give him your tunic also” readily suggests an answer. Self-abnegation is not a goal in itself, so I do not have to act against self-interest anytime anyone wants me to do something for them. Rather, I think that the concern is to avoid and overcome conflict. If someone demands something from me in a way that I cannot refuse without generating conflict, and if their demand has negative effects on myself alone, then I ought to willingly yield to their demand, and try to go above and beyond, to overcome their evil with good. However, if someone wants something from me, but I can reasonably refuse without conflict, then I may take self-interest into account and refuse their demand. This explains why it is that, if the government seeks to coerce me to to pay exorbitant taxes, I should willingly yield, but if a business uses one of the more subtle forms of coercion we explored above, to try to take advantage of me and get me to buy a product, there’s no reason I have to buy it. (Of course, I still ought never to return evil for evil, e.g., by trying to rip off a store that I know is trying to rip me off.) Thus, there does remain an important distinction in this regard between many forms of political coercion and certain forms of economic coercion, but, as we have seen earlier, it does not lie where many imagine it.
These answers do not provide a comprehensive account of how we ought to respond to all coercive situations. Clearly, the picture is more complicated than merely saying “‘Perfect love casts out fear,’ so just love God and love very oppressor and there will be no reason to fear.” We always have to take into account all kinds of questions about what is being demanded of me, why, what will happen if I acquiesce, what will happen if I refuse, etc.
None of these complications, however, should change our fundamental posture when faced with intimidation and coercion. We should seek to cultivate a faith that fears God above all else, and which thus cannot be easily swayed by worldly fears. We should seek to cultivate a love of God, neighbor, and even enemy that strives to do good even to those who don’t deserve it, which thus heaps coals of fire on their heads, and renders their coercive sword powerless.
Other Posts in This Series
The Psychology of Coercion
Coercion and Motivations in the Economic Sphere
Coercion and Motivations in the Political Sphere
A Christian Answer to Coercion