Monday, March 24, 2014

A Letter to Sam Harris about Nonviolence

Dear Sam:

A couple of years ago, I read my way through your Letter to A Christian Nation, that bit of provocative neoatheist polemic that sold so very well.

Although you're a bright guy, it was an impressively shallow bit of writing, one that tried to articulate Christianity through the peculiarly clouded and simplistic lenses of anti-theism.  Provocative and simplistic sells, I suppose.

Nothing good has ever come of Christianity, or so you argued.  Ever. It is terrible and hateful and violent.

In your writing, you anticipated a response: "Well, er, what about Martin Luther King and the whole nonviolent civil rights movement?  That was grounded in the churches, and in Christian faith."

But you had an answer, which you expressed in your book.  That wasn't Christianity.  That was MLK  stealing an idea from Gandhi, who got that idea from the Jains.  You had a bit of a forbidden crush on the radically nonviolent Jains back then, one that eventually got you into trouble with the "all-faith-is-icky-poo-poo" crowd you run with.  

But you confidently presented this thesis: Nonviolence had nothing at all to do with the teachings of Jesus, or with the faith that rose from his teachings.  Having actually bothered to read the Gospels and the Epistles, that felt wrong to the point of being a little bit insane, but gawrsh, you were just so confident.  Let's take a look at what you said, why don't we:
While King undoubtedly considered himself a devout Christian, he acquired his commitment to nonviolence primarily from the writings of Mohandas K. Gandhi.  In 1959, he even traveled to India to learn the principles of nonviolent social protest directly from Gandhi's disciples.  Where did Gandhi, a Hindu, get his doctrine of nonviolence?  He got it from the Jains. (Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 12)
Now, Jains are awesome. I love 'em too. And I loves me some Gandhi. I find common cause with everyone for whom truth and love for others matters.

But I recently came across something that makes your statement seem even more off.  I was reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.  Being a pastor and all, Tolstoy's passionate, heartfelt Christian faith led me to read more Tolstoy.  He wasn't just a novelist.  He was also the founder and leader of Christian anarchosyndicalist communities in Russia, and wrote extensively about abandoning force and power in our relationships with one another.

And in that reading, I came across something interesting.  It's a sequence of letters, part of the very real history of humankind.  Follow this link, and you can read them for yourself.  Gandhi, you see, did learn nonviolence from the Jains.  But he also paid attention to the world around him, and to other faith traditions.  One faith tradition he found remarkably inspiring was Christianity, and so he sought out Tolstoy, one of the most eloquent Christians of his day.

Early in Gandhi's career, he wrote to Leo Tolstoy, asking permission to print up tens of thousands of copies of one of Tolstoy's writings on nonviolence, to be circulated in India.  They corresponded back and forth, and their mutual respect was powerfully evident.  Gandhi, for his part, describes his relationship with Tolstoy as that of "...a humble follower of that great teacher whom I have long looked on as one of my guides."  Gandhi went so far as to create a community, in which he and others lived out the values Tolstoy taught.  It was called a "Tolstoy Farm," on which Hindus and Muslims and Christians worked side by side.

There are other influences on the both of them, of course.  But Christian faith was an influence on Gandhi.  Meaning: your statement about nonviolence, bold as it is, isn't just wrong about Christian faith understood theologically.  It's also materially and provably incorrect as a matter of historical record.

So, a suggestion, should you choose to ever make that argument again in one of the talks you give.  Human history, like the interplay of neurons and the the fabric of our time and space, is a complex and interwoven thing.  When you reduce it to the clumsy binary negation of anti-theism, you are no longer describing the real.

Just be aware of that.  It matters.

Peace and Blessings,