C.S. Lewis: Violence and Suffering
Guest Contributor, Ryan Mullins, offers this review of Part II: Thinker (chapters 14-15). Stanley Hauerwas, “On violence,” 189-202; Michael Ward, “On suffering,” 203-222 from Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, edited by Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 2010.
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Chapters fourteen and fifteen focus on violence and suffering. Michael Ward’s chapter on suffering examines Lewis’ views on the problem of pain. Ward’s contention is that Lewis’ views on suffering develop between the end of WWI and Lewis’ conversion in 1931. After Lewis’ conversion he explores his ideas in various writings, but Lewis never changes his position on the nature of suffering. Several aspects of Lewis’ views on suffering are discussed as they appear in The Problem of Pain, Five Sonnets, and A Grief Observed. I’ll mention three. First, pain and suffering can have a positive effect in one’s life. One may recall Lewis’ idea that pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. Second, despite the potential benefit of suffering, pain is something that we should seek to avoid and relieve. Suffering is not a good in itself. Third, the suffering of Christ is something to be imitated. The cross of Christ, however, can only be understood by the miracle of the resurrection. The vindication of Christ on the 3rd Day allows us to reinterpret Christ’s sufferings. When one looks at the cross, we see the agony of Jesus. He is despised by all, condemned by the authorities, and put on a cross as one forsaken by God. But the miracle of the resurrection demonstrates that Jesus is not forsaken.
In the chapter on violence, Christian pacifist Stanely Hauerwas delves into Lewis’ views on war. Hauerwas examines and rejects Lewis’ arguments against pacifism. For Lewis, war is a fact of life that must be dealt with. As Hauerwas points out, Lewis never explicitly defends just war theory, but Lewis does hold many of its common elements. For instance, war is always a last resort that must be declared by a lawful authority. A just war must be a defensive act and never imperialistic. In order to be just, the war must have limited aims with a substantial chance of success. Also, the combatants must have a willingness to take responsibility for their actions and seek to protect civilians. For Lewis, a just war can only be fought by people who exemplify virtues like justice, goodness, chivalry, and honor.
During WWII Lewis presented a paper called “Why I Am Not a Pacifist” to the Oxford Pacifist Society. Part of Lewis’ argument depends on his version of natural law ethics. For Lewis, moral reason must work from principles. One starts with moral intuitions and self-evident truths. A moral intuition is a basic principle that no rational moral agent would doubt. Then one must arrange these intuitions with a possible moral task in such a way that they yield a proof (a deductive argument) that can be judged as true or false. This process of moral reasoning is always open to correction by argument and authority. As Lewis sees it, certain moral principles are derived from the authority of common sense which reflects the natural law that constitutes our human nature. For instance, the notion that one should act benevolently is obvious to everyone. As one moves from culture to culture she can find differences in customs, etiquette, and laws, but she will not find a difference in basic moral principles. (For Lewis fans, you may recall Lewis’ doctrine of the ‘Tao’ found in The Abolition of Man.)
One of his objections to pacifism is that it rests on a moral intuition that it is always wrong to take a human life. This is connected with another moral belief that persons can do good for someone without harming others. Lewis objects to these principles on the grounds that they are not obvious. In fact, they are obviously false. There seem to be instances where we cannot do good to person X without causing harm to person Y. Say a homicidal maniac is attacking an innocent victim. It may not be possible to save the victim without using force against the maniac.
Hauerwas’ finds Lewis’ objection unpersuasive. He notes that Lewis is arguing against a version of pacifism that was popular in England after WWI. Hauerwas does not think that the objection refutes his version of Christian pacifism. However, Hauerwas concedes that Lewis’ argument could be used to establish a peaceable police force, but denies that it could be used to justify a war. Why could it not justify a war? Hauerwas doesn’t say. I suspect that his reasons derive from a fundamental difference that he has with Lewis. For Hauerwas, ethics is not based primarily on principled reasons. Ethics is based on virtues that appear in narratives. The basis of Christian pacifism is not the moral principle that it is always wrong to kill a human person. Instead, Hauerwas holds that the basis is the entire character of Jesus’ life.
Space does not allow me to examine the arguments over which are more fundamental—principles or virtues. Nor does it allow me to ask if Hauerwas’ ethical theory is a plausible option for Christians to take amongst the available ethical theories. Instead, I will end with some reflections on the agreement between Hauerwas and Lewis.
For both thinkers, our imaginations must be baptized. Out entire way of thinking about reality must be reinterpreted by Christ’s resurrection. Until Christ returns we will have poverty, natural disasters, and war. Instead of trying to eradicate all evil, Christians should be engaged in small specific tasks such as ending the slave trade. One aspect of apocalyptic writing that Lewis and Hauerwas agree upon is that it teaches us that the way the world at present is not the way things have to be. Violence and suffering are facts of life, but they do not have to be. Pain is God’s megaphone that tells us that something is wrong with the world. Suffering can be good for us in some instances, but on the whole it is to be resisted. Christians ought to engage in non-violent activities that demonstrate God’s goal for the world. “We live as though the world is as it should be, to show it what it can be.”
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Ryan Mullins holds an M.A. in Philosophy of Religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is a current PhD student in Theology at the University of St Andrews working on the philosophy of time and God’s eternality.