Monday, November 26, 2007

C.S. Lewis on War, Punishment, and Loving Others

By any account, C.S. Lewis was a remarkable individual. A bright scholar, Lewis abandoned religion in his mid-teens. In his early 30s, he finally “gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed....” Later with encouragement from fellow Oxford professor, JRR Tolkien, Lewis became a Christian. (Lewis became a professor at Cambridge after three decades at Oxford.) Lewis is the author of numerous books, including nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. His strong stance as a Christian apologist continues to make him a lightning rod for anti-religion and anti-Christian critics, nearly four and a half decades after his death.

One of Lewis’ hallmark books is Mere Christianity, which is based on a series of radio lectures delivered in the UK during the Second World War. Lewis portrays Christianity as a demanding multifaceted religion that is difficult for anyone to swallow whole. He writes that “every one is attracted by bits of [Christian doctrine] and wants to pick out those bits and leave the rest” (p. 81). Lewis also notes that people have a tendency to twist various points of doctrine and/or take them out of context to support their personal philosophies.

Chapter 7 in Mere Christianity is titled Forgiveness. However, the major point of the chapter is what it means to love our fellowmen, a point about which Lewis believes many people have mistaken ideas. He notes that each Christian is commanded to love others as he loves himself. He then asks (p. 105), “Well, how exactly do I love myself?”

Lewis responds, “Now that I come to think of it, I have not exactly got a feeling of fondness or affection for myself, and I do not even always enjoy my own society. So apparently “Love your neighbor” does not mean “feel fond of him” or “find him attractive.” … Do I think myself a nice chap? Well, I am afraid I sometimes do (and those are, no doubt, my worst moments) but that is not why I love myself. … Go a step further. In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know that I am a very nasty one.”

After a discussion on how one can love the sinner and hate the sin, Lewis says, “Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them.” But because Christianity concerns itself with the eternal soul, we are to want (and even work for) the eternal best for each and every individual, no matter how reprehensible that person may seem.

But what about the frequent claim that Christians are required to be pacifists? This view purports that there is virtually no legitimate instance in which war or capital punishment is warranted in Christian theology. Lewis bluntly disagrees with this point of view.

“Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment — even to death. If one had committed a murder; the right thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged. It is, therefore, in my opinion, perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death or a Christian soldier to kill an enemy. I always have thought so, ever since I became a Christian, and long before the war; and I still think so now that we are at peace. It is no good quoting “Thou shalt not kill.” There are two Greek words: the ordinary word to kill and the word to murder. And when Christ quotes that commandment He uses the murder one in all three accounts, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And I am told there is the same distinction in Hebrew. All killing is not murder any more than all sexual intercourse is adultery. When soldiers came to St. John the Baptist asking what to do, he never remotely suggested that they ought to leave the army: nor did Christ when He met a Roman sergeant-major — what they called a centurion. … War is a dreadful thing, and I can respect an honest pacifist, though I think he is entirely mistaken. What I cannot understand is this sort of semipacifism you get nowadays which gives people the idea that though you have to fight, you ought to do it with a long face and as if you were ashamed of it. It is that feeling that robs lots of magnificent young Christians in the Services of something … which is the natural accompaniment of courage — a kind of gaity and wholeheartedness.”

But Lewis warns that it is vitally important that we remove any notion of revenge or hate from our hearts as we carry out necessary duties. “We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it. … Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves — to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good.” Lewis admits that ridding oneself of feelings of revenge and hatred is a difficult task that may require a lifetime.

The Christian concept of loving one’s neighbor necessarily means “loving people who have nothing lovable about them.” Lewis says we love ourselves, not because we are lovable, but “simply because it is yourself.” He admonishes, “Perhaps it makes it easier if we remember that that is how [God] loves us. Not for any nice, attractive qualities we think we have, but just because we are the things called selves.”

I very much enjoy Lewis’ writings. I don’t always agree with him, but I often find his writings useful and frequently find them inspiring.


Cameron said...

I just finished reading my first CS Lewis book, The Screwtape Letters. It was great, and had a chapter or two that touched on what you have written here.

Reach Upward said...

The Screwtape Letters is kind of fun to read. Lewis said that it was extremely difficult to write because he had to force himself to think in twisted ways.

Chris said...

I enjoy CS Lewis very much but, like you, I don't always agree with him either. I appreciate the reminder of the insight Lewis provides to what it really means to love one's neighbor as oneself. Thanks for another great post.