Argument Is War

St. Nicholas punching Arius as the Council of Nicea, 325 AD

St. Nicholas punching Arius as the Council of Nicea, 325 AD

I’ve been talking about Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (you can read my first post here). It’s been an eye-opener, seeing how (largely unconscious) cultural metaphors can shape the very way we think about topics.

The very first conceptual metaphor they discuss is: “ARGUMENT IS WAR.”

They back this up with the following phrases: (pg 4)
“Your claims are indefensible.”
“He attacked every weak point in my argument.”
“His criticisms were right on target.”
“I’ve never won an argument with him.”

This is how we speak of arguments. We don’t think we’re talking metaphorically, the way we would if we said something colorful like, “Man, I lost that debate big-time. I was Bambi, and he was Godzilla.”

But our unconscious metaphors are powerful, and they put limits on how we think about certain concepts. If we think argument is war (or similar to war), even subconsciously, then we think in terms of winners and losers. We think in terms of weapons and tactics. We think in terms of winning at all costs.

We certainly don’t think in terms of vulnerability, humility, and opening oneself up to the possibility of learning something new.

That’s why a person can be very educated, have witnessed or been a part of many debates and arguments, and still have a narrow, unchangeable set of views. I’m not just talking to conservatives, here. I’ve seen it from friends from both sides of the aisle.

Even before I started reading Metaphors We Live By, I’d been wondering if there was anything worthwhile in ‘winning the argument’ or ‘defeating our opponents.’ Especially in the sense of Christian apologetics (or worse, doctrinal debates between Christians).

I’d been wondering if all this verbal conquest and victory and domination wasn’t just as much a tool of Empire as physical conquest and domination were.

I’d been wondering whether it ever changed people’s hearts, or whether it just engendered enmity.

What if we could look at argument through different eyes?

What if we could see an argument, not as a war, but as a dance? (pg 4)

What if we could be grateful to the person we’re arguing with for taking the time to talk to us?

What if we could view an argument as a journey?
Could an argument be a path to travel from our current disagreement and separation to a place where we understand each other, even if we don’t agree?
Could an argument take us to a place where we understand each other’s positions much better than we did before?

That would require humility.
That would require that we lay down our need to be seen as the smartest person in the room.
That would require that we lay down our false certainty, and admit that we may not understand everything … even in areas of faith, which are deeply personal.

That journey requires patience, on the part of both parties.

It won’t work if somebody’s trying to “win.”
It won’t work unless both parties are listening, not thinking of their next riposte.

That journey requires that we re-humanize our opponents.

Argument isn’t war. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

But we who were raised to glorify warfare, to think in terms of conquest, have made the very exchange of wisdom a form of violence. The opportunity to learn has become an opportunity for ego-gratification and domination.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

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Four Types of Violence, Part One: Conquest

David slaying Goliath, painting by Peter Paul Rubens circa 1616 AD

David Slaying Goliath by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1616 AD

I’ve been thinking a lot about violence, Jesus, and the strange fact that American Christians are among the most pro-war, pro-gun and pro-death-penalty of Americans (I even count myself in that second category, though not in the others).

In thinking about violence, I noticed four types of violence in the Bible, and I thought I’d talk briefly about each.

Conquest, or Selfish Violence – violence committed for personal gain, self-aggrandizement, or to satisfy an appetite, urge, or emotion (such as hatred).  This is the typical robbery and murder that is prohibited by all civilizations and most pre-civilization human societies.

We’ve known this was wrong since before God chose Abraham, but Christ did add something new to even this obvious, black-and-white case: we are not righteous if we only avoid committing the act of violence.  We must also resist the contemplation, the fantasizing, the hate itself that underlies the act [Matthew 5:21-22].

That said, there was one exception in the Old Testament: the Hebrews’ conquest of the Promised Land, which was specifically ordered by God.

Soren Kierkegaard had a term for such things: “the teleological suspension of the ethical.”  That is, the “Knight of Faith” may be asked by God to do things that would not, under other circumstances, be right, like wage a war of conquest or take his only son to the top of Mount Moriah to be sacrificed.

There is no reason to believe that, short of a divine revelation of the sort Moses received, that any later wars of conquest can be justified from a Christian perspective.

This seems so obvious to say, but the thing is, whatever war we’re currently contemplating always sounds like the “exception,” whether it involves a full-scale invasion or just bombing a technologically inferior enemy back to the stone age.

I’ve spent too much time talking politics lately, so I’ll just say this. As Christians, we must have some kind of belief that limits violence. We can make an argument for total pacifism. We can make an argument for just war theory. But we cannot, as Christians, argue for Clauswitz’s idea that war is, essentially, just another form of diplomacy. We cannot promote war for “national interests” alone.

We can’t say that whatever country we’re living in deserves our support for all its wars, uncritically. We cannot say, “my country, right or wrong.” We have to be willing to be considered “bad Americans,” “bad British subjects,” or “bad Russians” if that is required of us by Christ.

And if our theory of war never seems to find an “unjust war,” if it justifies every war that our nation desires, then we have a problem.

–A Note on Context–

I’ve been thinking about violence, justification, and the “kingdom of heaven” a lot lately. I’ve written a lot, too, but nothing I’d be comfortable publishing. But I’ve also been reading some things I wrote previously. I wrote this four-part look at violence back in 2011, and I’ve done only a little editing since.

Think of this as a time capsule as I struggle with the larger implications of the issue.

The four categories are completely of, for, and by me. They are not the product of theologians or biblical historians. They don’t have roots in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. They’re just something I noticed, and felt the need to work out.