Churchill and Gandhi and the love of enemies
For light reading just now I’m ploughing my way through Churchill’s history of World War II. Though I am told there are many inaccuracies in it — how could there not be?! — it’s a fascinating story of World War II, and from a unique and uniquely privileged standpoint. I’m reading The Hinge of Fate just now, and have in fact just read about the hinge, which was the Battle of Alamein. Around the same time that this battle was taking place, the Japanese were at the gates of India, and the Congress Party took this moment, of all moments, to demand Indian home-rule. Churchill agreed with the Indian (colonial) government that the only way to deal with this demand and the unrest that would no doubt have been consequent upon it, especially from the Muslim League, if the government had acquiesced, and from Congress, if they refused, was to arrest Congress Party leaders. Consequently Gandhi and Nehru were imprisoned, along with a number of other prominent Congress leaders.
The relevance of this episode, which took place in the waning days of the British Raj — independence was not at issue, though the timing was – at a point when the Empire was going through a series of unprecedented defeats, compared even to the disasters in Afghanistan in the 19th century, when the Great Game beyond the Hindu Kush was played out by an earlier generation, is that it frames Gandhi’s fantastic idea that if the British would just walk out of India, the Japanese would be stopped by the non-violent techniques that had almost brought the Raj to its knees. According to Gandhi, at the time:
The presence of the British in India is an invitation to Japan to invade India. Their withdrawal would remove the bait. Assume however that it does not, Free India would be better able to cope with invasion. Unadulterated non-co-operation would then have full sway. [ quoted in vol. iv, 1951: The Hinge of Fate, 196]
Whatever the truth about the ideal of pacifism, it does not seem to me that the Japanese would have taken any notice of Gandhi’s non-cooperation. They showed scant respect for the Chinese – the rape of Nanking is still amongst the great atrocities of the twentieth-century – and it does not seem to me likely that they would have shown any more respect for India and her people. The oil wells in Persia were Japan’s goal, as well as the goal of Nazi Germany, and had Japan and Germany joined hands in the Middle East, the Holocaust might well have seemed only a minor episode of inhumanity instead of the most singular act of mass murder ever perpetrated.
The reason I raise the point, is that in his book, The Dawkins Delusion, Alister McGrath purports to find in Jesus of Nazareth a moral exemplar which fully qualifies him to be counted the son of God — whatever that might mean. And it is important that that question should be asked, because, though the official church of the ecumenical councils decided what they would mean by it, it was a question that has never been settled to the satisfaction of everyone who counts themself a Christian. As Father Matthias Wahba says:
The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, in which I am a priest, is one of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. These churches are the Coptic, Armenian, Syrian, Ethiopian, and the Malankara Indian Churches. The common element among them is their non-acceptance of the Council of Chalcedon of AD 451. Accordingly they prefer to be called “Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox
(If you want to know more about monophysitism, you can read Father Wahba’s paper.) The point is that monophysites believe that Jesus had only one nature, and that one divine, whereas at the Council of Chalcedon it was decided that he had two, both divine and human, and that this is the doctrine that would define what is orthodox — that is, really Christian — and what is not. While this is doubtless all very interesting, and would have been amusing if people had not died over the issue, we will expatiate no further on it here; but it does point out, if pointing out is needed, that these things are never quite settled, no matter how much we would like them to be. It is interesting, though, that Christians should divide over the matter, and that the command of the one who said that we should love our enemies — you know, the one who was either simply divine, or both human and divine – was not heeded when his followers disagreed over just what could be said truly about him — aside, of course, from the fact, if it is a fact, that he said this one very important thing.
There is, indeed, a deep strain of intolerance running through the New Testament, as Gerd Lüdemann says in his book on The Unholy in Holy Scripture (and, of course, he is not the only one who has written on this subject). Amongst other things, there’s a lot of antisemitism in the book. McGrath even manages to choose a good example, which is hammered home quite often in the gospels, and in some of the letters. He tells us innocently but definitively that
Jesus’ mission was to challenge the religious forms of his day, and, in the end, that is what led to him being crucified. 
But that is, sad to say, an expression of the old blood libel, and there is little reliable evidence that it is true. Quite aside from the fact that McGrath assumes that Jesus was on a (divine) mssion, the truth seems to be that Jesus was executed by the Romans, not the Jews, as he suggests. The gospels wanted to exculpate the Romans — who turned out to be more interested in their scaled-down version of Judaism than the Jews themselves – so they blamed it on the Jews instead, and, clearly, they’re still at it. These stories have long memories. And Christians have been doing this sort of thing ever since Paul, for instance, in his letter to the Galatians, expressed hatred of the Judaisers, who insisted that, before a man became a follower of Christ, he must be circumcised, and in fit a pique Paul expressed the hope that while doing it the knife would slip, and they should castrate themselves! It may be hard to put that in the ”love your enemies” box, but, even if you don’t practice it, I guess it’s still profound.
…ly wrong. Sometimes, doubtless, approaching people belligerently will prompt a belligerent response, and no one should be deliberately obnoxious for no reason. But there are times, surely, when it is important to show steel, to show that you are not prepared to have your rights trod on, and your dignity despised. Loving the people who do such things, and who act in such ways, is only giving permission to evil. It’s not, as Jesus suggests, a simple either/or. There are times when negotiation is in order, times when diplomacy should be practiced, in order to try to find peaceful resolutions to differences, but when diplomacy fails, to respond with a careless unwillingness to criticise, obstruct, or oppose, or to refuse to take any risk to protect yourself or others, or the values that you treasure, is foolish and dangerous.
Christians themselves know this. No one practices love of enemies. McGrath gives the example (see p. 77) of an Amish community who had responded with open arms and forgiveness to the widow of a man who had killed their children and then turned the gun on himself. This is not a good example. Of course, they should have responded with forgiveness to someone who was as much a victim of violence as they were. No doubt it was generous of them to do so, but she was by no means their enemy. Why should McGrath think that she was? And to suggest that Dawkins, by being dismissive of people who have lodged themselves firmly in the 17th and 18th centuries, and who remove their children from school before they have had education enough to challenge their religious indoctrination, has missed something of significance, because the Amish do not resist evil, is surely missing the point about so many other important things.
Christopher Hitchens is surely right to say that love of enemies – even if it were possible, which it isn’t – is a dangerous principle to follow. Sometimes he takes the contrary principle to extremes in the heat of debate, but it is surely not unreasonable to object that non-resistance to evil is a not only unwise, but morally wrong. While one is not always in duty bound to protect the innocent, or to stand up boldly for freedom and justice, one who does so acts admirably, and many have so acted at great cost to themselves. Those who refuse so to act may, in some circumstances, be justly accused of cowardice.
And even if Jesus did say that we should love our enemies, there is abundant evidence in the gospels that that is not all he taught. He spoke of a god who would punish with everlasting torment those who did not believe. He condemned two villages, and all their people, because they had refused to respond to him in faith. And while he did speak of brotherhood, and the duties that we owe to our brothers and sisters, there is no reason to suppose that later followers got it wrong when they interpreted this as being directed to the fellowship of the followers of Jesus, and not indiscriminately to strangers. The stories of the Good Samaritan and the woman caught in the act of adultery are often used as examples of Jesus’ generosity to sinners and strangers. But it is significant that in the story, while Samaritan is praised, the religious leaders of the Jews are condemned, and in the other story, the woman alone was accused, though caught in the very act.
Like so many of the stories about Jesus, we find here an alarming ambiguity. Another example can be found in the story of the Canaanite woman who came to Jesus asking for mercy for her daughter, who was, she said, possessed by demons. First, his disciples ask Jesus to tell her to go away, that she’s making too much noise; then he tells her that his mission is limited to Jews (the lost sheep of the house of Israel). Since that didn’t work he said he didn’t feed dogs, and only when she wittily responded with, “Yes, yet even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table,” did Jesus reach out to her. He exclaims about her great faith, and then we are told that her daugher was healed at that very hour. But the story raises important questions about the reach of Jesus’ humanity. I remain unconvinced. There is no reason to think that Jesus was morally perfect and spiritually whole, as the church claims. Like all of us, he was from the earth, earthy, as fallible, and as limited in sympathy as the rest of us.