Whatever one’s take on the later rise of capitalism in the Christian West, entrepreneurial genius was at work in describing the Gospels as “good news.” In contrast, the title of Ronald E. Osborn’s wide-ranging collection of essays seems dour and forbidding. That’s a shame, because the book is rich in subject matter and argument, and evangelical in spirit.
Commonweal readers will be familiar with Osborn’s clear-eyed, well-honed analysis (most recently in “Still Counting: How Many Iraqis Have Died?” February 11). This book reveals the foundation of his analysis of headline events. While neither anarchistic (in the colloquial sense of advocating violence or extreme libertarianism) nor apocalyptic (in tenor or proclamation), there is a stringency in Osborn’s thinking that is prophetic and liberating.
The collection consists of eleven essays published over a dozen years in a variety of journals and online publications. The chapters vary in length and theme and are, without exception, personal—that is, never mere academic exercises. We learn that Osborn is a Seventh-day Adventist who is deeply committed to his community’s historic pacifism—and to restoring it—and that in 1999 he spent part of the year ministering in war-ravaged Kosovo. But the essays are personal in another way, too: they reveal Osborn’s intellectual and spiritual engagement with all the topics he treats. A Bannerman Fellow in international studies at the University of Southern California, he has the skills and clarity of mind such a position requires. Still, each of the essays in this book deals with how a contemporary Christian might hope to respond to a situation of raw evil. Osborn’s treatment of Bonhoeffer’s pacifism is worthy of the complexity the German theologian/resister faced in the apocalyptic days of the Third Reich. There are no easy answers to this or any of the issues Osborn raises concerning faith, war, and the mind of God—and no easy answers are offered. Rather, he faces these issues with such candor the reader will be challenged to attempt to do likewise.
Three examples. Osborn analyzes Barack Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech in light of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Christian Realism.” Osborn knows Niebuhr’s thinking and explores Obama’s debt to the theologian. In the process, he does justice to the intentions and the character of both men. But he refuses to soft-pedal criticisms. He writes that there is nothing distinctively Christian about Niebuhr’s realism. Rather, it follows the well-trod path of the ancient Stoics. Osborn deftly contrasts this approach to the militant nonviolent activism of Martin Luther King Jr. and to the classic just-war tradition of the Catholic Church. As he notes,
honest just-war theorists and pacifists will stand united in opposition to virtually every war since the purpose of the just-war tradition as developed by the Catholic Church was never to justify war but to place stringent limits on what those in power can do.
Osborn concludes that as realists Niebuhr and Obama ought to be held accountable to the just-war tradition’s proven standards.
Next, Osborn analyzes the nature of power or force, and its propensity to dehumanize the Other—a propensity that invariably undermines the limits warring states claim to observe. He presents a telling chapter on force in The Iliad as analyzed by two mid-twentieth-century philosophers, Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff. This pairing builds on another chapter in which Osborn examines the Allies’ policy of restraint early in the air war of World War II, a policy that eventually gave way to Churchill’s firebombing of German cities and Truman’s obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The author never downplays the dangers or the challenges those leaders faced, but argues that their lack of attention to the principles of noncombatant immunity and proportionality led to the end of restraint. The same lack of attention continues to distort our military doctrine to this day.
Finally, Osborn wrestles with the Shoah, not only its calculated depravity and singularity, but how it continues to confront Christian theology and moral understanding. As Weil used Homer in her analysis of war, mayhem, and violence, Osborn turns to the literary work of Elie Wiesel to examine the complicity of Christians in the Holocaust. But Osborn goes further with Weisel to ponder the apparent silence of God at that critical moment of history. Osborn’s discussion (really a climactic meditation) brings to bear his familiarity with a range of Jewish thinking, from Primo Levi and Wiesel to Abraham Joshua Heschel, Irving Greenberg, and Martin Buber. He also provides Christian perspectives—including insights from Dostoyevsky and Bonhoeffer—but he does not attempt a full-scale Christian apologia, agreeing with Wiesel that any such effort would inadvertently rationalize the inexplicable.
On these and other issues examined in this collection, Osborn indicates that the real challenge will continue to be overcoming human passivity in the face of injustice. That includes addressing the stupor that envelops us morally, politically, and culturally. Osborn’s arguments do not deal primarily with the past. Rather, they point to ourselves and to the future.