Since I am moving this week to our first (and probably last) home that we actually OWN, computer access will be limited until next week. I am not ignoring you fine people, but interaction is not likely or will be sporadic. Normal blogging will be impossible until next week at earliest.
Cancelling regularly scheduled blogging. Two friends, not close, but friends, from college days have committed suicide within a few weeks of each other.
We need to reach out to each other, hold each other close. We must also trust that God’s love is stronger than our ability to comprehend matters.
This video was also courtesy of Derrick Crowe. Tomorrow (Sunday), I should have the next installment ready of my series on the Bible and Pacifism which finishes the section interpreting the Sermon on the Mount.
Thanks to Derrick Crowe of Rethinking Afghanistan and Return Good for Evil for this video.
We have to speak truth to power–always. In season and out, regardless of change of administrations.
The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is the largest block of Jesus’ teaching we have recorded. For our purposes, it does not matter whether or not Jesus gave the Sermon at one point or whether Matthew has arranged various of Jesus’ teachings into this current form, as many scholars believe. (A wandering preacher would most likely repeat many teachings in different forms before different audiences.) Many have believed that Jesus’ here gives incredibly hard teachings–counsels of perfection–that only saints can live (the Medieval Catholic view) or that no one can fulfill and which drive us to the sheer grace of God (Reformer Martin Luther’s view). I contend (with others) to the contrary that the Sermon is full of grace and shows us the God’s gracious way of deliverance from bondage to mechanisms of sin. (I will give a small bibliography on the Sermon on the Mount in a separate blog posting, but I will say that I am drawing strongly from the work of Walter Wink and Glen H. Stassen for much of what follows.)
First, to help us see the empowering joy of the Sermon on the Mount, we need a better definition of grace. Too often we understand grace only in terms of forgiveness, of “God’s unmerited favor on sinners.” But grace is not only forgiveness, but empowerment to follow God. Grace enables our faith to be lived out in faithfulness. Of course, we are never perfectly faithful. We fail and need forgiveness. But to use that as an excuse for continuing in disobedience is simply wrong–and leads us back into the bondage from which Jesus delivers us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the German Lutheran pastor who defied Hitler, ran an underground seminary for anti-Nazi pastors, was marginally involved in a plot to overthrow Hitler, and whose work to smuggle some Jews out of Germany led to his arrest and execution, called this kind of thinking “cheap grace.” He contrasted that with the costly grace of the gospel. Likewise Miraslov Volf, a theologian from war torn Croatia, says that to accept the comfort of the Crucified One while rejecting his Way to advocate not only cheap grace but a deceitful ideology in place of the gospel. So, let us approach the Sermon on the Mount prepared to hear it as a Word of empowering grace, delivering us from the mechanisms of bondage to various patterns of sin, enabling us as Christ followers to live by a new pattern, a way of life profoundly different from the world-system we know.
The Beatitudes (Matt. 5: 3-12). The Sermon is given to Jesus’ disciples/followers and to crowds who are potential followers. The crowds are not just any non-believers, but are those who have heard of Jesus (maybe even heard him directly) and are interested. They may even be half convinced that he is the Messiah, God’s agent for the redemption of Israel. In presenting it in his Gospel, Matthew is saying that the Sermon is to be of continuing guidance for his Christian community–and the Church’s decision to include it in the New Testament is their recognition that Jesus continues to intend this Sermon to guide disciples and potential disciples, now.
The Sermon begins with words of grace, of blessing for those who are citizens of the Kingdom or Rule that Jesus brings. Building on themes from Isaiah 61, these “beatitudes” are not commands or rules. They proclaim God’s blessing or joy on those who display the grace filled virtues of the inbreaking Rule of God. Because the characteristic of joy is so strong, Glen Stassen translates the beatitudes this way:
Joyful are the humble poor who know their need of God, for theirs is the very Reign of God.
Joyful are those who are deeply saddened to the point of action, for they will be comforted.
Joyful are those whose wills are surrended to God, for they will inherit the earth.
Joyful are those who hunger and thirst for restorative justice, for they will be filled.
Joyful are those who practice compassion in action, for they will receive God’s compassion.
Joyful are those who seek God’s will in all that they are and do, for they will see God.
Joyful are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
Joyful are those who suffer because of working for restorative justice, for theirs is the reign of God.
Joyful are you when they criticize, persecute, and slander you, because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in God. For in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.
The “poor in Spirit,” are called simply the physical poor in Luke 6:20 (which we’ll examine more fully in our chapter on Luke) and are contrasted with those who are “rich now.” So, who does Jesus bless, the poor or the poor in spirit? The problem disappears when we realize that Jesus is referring to Isa. 61. The anawim in Hebrew are traditionally the “humble poor.” They are economically poor but they also, perhaps because of their poverty, realize their need of God. The rich often believe they have no need of help from God or anyone. They trust in their riches. But if you are poor, one lost paycheck can lead to hunger; one serious illness can lead to foreclosure and homelessness. One divorce (perhaps even against one will), one catastrophe, is enough to turn their lives from barely liveable to disastrous. So, many poor more naturally turn to God. Luke emphasizes the Old Testament theme of God’s care and protection for the economically poor (e.g., Ex. 22:25-27; 23:10-11; Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut. 15:7-11; 2 Sam. 22:28; Ps. 72:2, 4, 12; Isa. 26:6, 49:13, 66:2; Zeph. 3:12). Matthew does not exclude this, but he puts the emphasis on their empty hand of faith before God.
The 3rd Beatitude is usually translated “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake,” but the same Greek word (dikaiosune) means both righteousness and justice. And today’s English tends to mean by “righteousness” what the Bible means by “self-righteousness.” They make it about ourselves, about a personal quality of righteousness. But Jesus wants disciples to be other directed, to seek to set right what is wrong. He wants us to hunger and thirst for the kind of healing justice that tends the wounds of individuals and societies.
I skip the details of the other Beatitudes for brevity’s sake. I note that they all fit together. Life in the Jesus Way is characterized by poverty of spirit (knowing one’s need of God), by mourning/grieving the things that grieve the heart of God–so much that we are moved to action; by wills completely surrendered to God. The Jesus Way people hunger and thirst for justice, who are merciful (practicing compassion in action), by purity of heart, by suffering for the sake of justice, by being persecuted for the sake of Jesus (just as the prophets were persecuted). In this pattern are the peacemakers–not the warmakers–who are called the children of God. Again, at this point, there are no commands. The Beatitude does not command us to be peacemakers in order to earn status as God’s children. Rather, Jesus’ followers are God’s children and joyfully make peace because they are God’s children. In describing this vision in the Beatitudes, Jesus is not heaping burdens upon his listeners and potential followers, but describing a vision of JOY and INVITING us to participate. This is the pattern of participation–a pattern that includes joyful peacemaking.
Of course, while all of us disciples and would-be disciples want to live a pattern of life like this, full of joy displaying the joyous virtues of the Way of Jesus, but we also know that we often find ourselves trapped in other, more destructive patterns. In our next installment we will see how the main body of the Sermon address these forms of bondage in 14 Triads that present a traditional moral teaching, describes the mechanism of bondage that make holding to that teaching nearly impossible, and then presents transforming initiatives–Jesus’ new commands that show us the way out of the destructive cycles that bind us–empowering grace, indeed.
I’m working on the next installment of the series on pacifism and the Bible, but here is a small interlude. I have on this blog tried to describe major people who have influenced my life and thought, both from within my Baptist tradition, and from other traditions in the Body of Christ (and, indeed, Jewish influences, too). But as a Christian pacifist from a branch in the Believers’ Church family, I have been more influenced by people from the Historic Peace Churches (Mennonites, Brethren, Friends/Quakers) than any other segment of non-Baptist theologians. I owe special gratitude to Mennonites–I feel very close to Mennonites. This is a small token of my deep gratitude.
I am probably one of the few Baptists to have read the collected works of the Dutch Anabaptist leader, Menno Simons (1496-1591). I’ve actually read through Menno’s works 3 times. He has areas of weakness, such as his strange adoption late in his life of Melchior Hoffmann’s “celestial flesh” theory of Jesus’ virgin birth. But Menno’s Foundation of Christian Doctrine, which was deeply influential on first generation Particular Baptists in England, is absolutely brilliant. I have not studied other 16th C. Anabaptists as deeply as with Menno, but I have read parts of the works of Conrad Grebel and Michael Sattler, Balthasar Hubmaier (whose defense of believers’ baptism and theological repudiation of the persecution of heretics is brilliant), and Pilgram Marpeck. I have not been influenced by later Mennonite thinkers between the 16th and the 20th centuries.
Of course, the strongest Mennonite influence on me has been from the late John Howard Yoder (1927-1997) but I have written on that elsewhere. I first encountered Yoder’s works in 1982, shortly after leaving the U.S. army as a conscientious objector. Yoder was my introduction to Anabaptists and Mennonites–so, for the longest time, I thought that Yoder was typical of Mennonites and did not realize that he was somewhat controversial within his own tradition–though also a major influence on that tradition.
Other Mennonite influences include:
Ronald J. Sider, Mennonite from a Brethren-in-Christ background, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action and Professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry, and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary, Wynnewood, PA (formerly known as Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary). Sider first radicalized me in my concerns for the global poor.
Perry B. Yoder (Yoder is a common name among Mennonites), Professor of Old Testament, Emeritus at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary first helped me to find the strong peacemaking (with justice) theme in the Old Testament. Other Mennonite Old Testament scholars who have been helpful to me include Jacob Enz, Millard C. Lind, Waldemar Janzen, Elmer A. Marten, and Ben Ollenburger. Lind’s work on the Holy War texts has been very helpful (if not completely satisfying at every point), and Janzen’s “paradigmatic” approach to Old Testament ethics makes a great compliment to that of Methodist OT theologian Bruce C. Birch. (Get both Birch’s and Janzen’s works on Old Testament ethics–and ignore that of Christopher Wright.)
Willard Swartley, is the Mennonite NT scholar who has influenced me the most (though I disagree with him on “homosexuality”). Other Mennonite NT scholars with whom I regularly interact include Tom Yoder Neufeld, Lois Y. Barrett, Dorothy Jean Weaver, William Klassen, Donald Kraybill, and David Rensberger.
Among Mennonite theologians and ethicists who have had major impacts on my thought are: J. Denny Weaver (especially for his rethinking of atonement in light of Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence), Clarence Bauman, Ted Grimsrud (whom I think is fast becoming a major theologian among Mennonites whom non-Mennonites need to hear), Thomas Finger (who interacted with the eschatological theology of Moltmann in a VERY helpful way), C. Norman Kraus (missionary cross-cultural dialogue that keeps Jesus at the heart of theology), my friend Mark Theissen Nation (who, in addition to being one of the leading experts on the thought of John Howard Yoder, also interacts helpfully with Stanley Hauerwas, Nancey Murphy, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my own teacher, Glen Stassen, and with his own teacher, James Wm. McClendon, Jr.), my friend Duane K. Friesen (especially for using conflict resolution studies, and the work of Gene Sharp to forge a post-Reinhold Niebuhr realist form of Christian pacifism, and for his more recent work on theology of culture beyond Troeltsch and H.R.Niebuhr), my friend Ted Koontz (for his interactions with Just War thinking and his helping to forge the emerging ethic of Just Peacemaking) and his better half, Gayle Gerber Koontz ( for Mennonite feminist theology, for several collaborative works and for helping disciples of H. Richard Niebuhr and disciples of John Howard Yoder better understand each other).
The African-American historian (and friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.), Vincent G. Harding, is a Mennonite historian who has influenced my view of both U.S. history and the civil rights movement.
I need also to briefly mention such friends as Leo Hartshorn, Susan Mark Landis, Gerald Schlabach, Keith Graber Miller, John K. Stoner (who was also my employer for a time), Ray C. Gingrich, Marian Franz, and Joseph Kotva. I am doubtless forgetting many. Suffice it to say that, as an “Anabaptist-Baptist,” Mennonites have given me a second spiritual home. During my time as a Visiting Professor in far-off Pasadena, CA, I split my church attendance between First Baptist of Pasadena and Pasadena Mennonite Church. I have also been welcomed into the congregational hearts (and sometimes the pulpits) of Peace Mennonite Church in Dallas, TX, First Mennonite Church, Allentown, PA, Lancaster Mennonite Church, Lancaster, PA, College Mennonite Church, Goshen, IN, Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, IN .
Church of the Brethren influences: Smaller in number, but still significant. I love the blending of German pietism with Anabaptism in the CoB. I am still reading the great founders of the Dunker/Brethren movement, Alexander Mack, Sr. and Jr.
The C o B. church historian, Donald Durnbaugh wrote a study of the Believers Church tradition that I continue to use in courses on ecclesiology and ethics. I am deeply impressed by the feminist C o B theologian, Lauree Hersch Meyer and by philosopher of religion, Nancey Murphy, who was raised Catholic and converted as an adult to the Church of the Brethren after a course on 16th C. Anabaptism. Widow of the late Baptist theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Nancey is a friend and a powerful scholar who does much work on the interaction of science and faith and on post-liberal approaches to theology and ethics.
Vernard B. Eller was very wrongheaded in his attack on all feminist-inspired inclusive language for God, and his laudable efforts to communicate to non-experts could sometimes give his writings a non-scholarly look and feel, but he introduced me to the importance of Jacques Ellul and “Christian anarchy,” and he showed how to re-think Kierkegaard in a direction more appropriate for a more communal, less individualistic, ecclesiology.
Dale W. Brown has continued to be a model of communicating Biblical pacifism to mass audiences.
Dan Ulrich in New Testament and Stephen Breck Reid in Old Testament both are Brethren biblical scholars who deeply influence me. Reid, who is African-American, is a major voice in cross-cultural biblical interpretation.
I doubtless need far more contact with scholars in this Historic Peace Church. The first peace studies program in North America came from a Church of the Brethren college and one of the C o B programs inspired the birth of the Peace Corps.
Influences from Friends/Quakers: The early 17th C. Friends, growing out of a radical Puritanism, combined a high Christology with a mystic theology. I identify with those Christocentric early Quakers. But the movement splintered (especially in the U.S.) in the 19th C. between liberal (Hicksite) Friends who kept the unprogrammed meetings and resisted conforming Friends to the rising evangelicalism, but which seemed, in many cases, to lose the Christocentrism of George Fox, Margaret Fell, Barclay, Woolman and others. Many in today’s liberal Friends (part of the Wider Quaker Fellowship) embrace a relativistic form of universalism that is not concerned that Quakerism remain Christian. On the other hand, Evangelical Friends have programmed meetings, pastors, and look and feel much like evangelical churches (hymn singing, lack of silence) that simply do not practice water baptism or physical eucharist. These evangelical Friends have lost much that is distinctively Quaker, including, in many cases, the peace witness. In between are Conservative (Wilburite) Friends which attempt to hold onto the original Quaker ethos, but which are very tiny in number.
All this unhealed division has affected Quaker theology and scholarship: Liberal Quakers often dismiss theology altogether and Evangelical Friends are simply apologists for the creed known as the Richmond (IN) Declaration. All this is distressing to this outsider who believes that without a vibrant Friends’ testimony, the wider Body of Christ will be the poorer.
George Fox’s Journal is very influential on my devotional life as is John Woolman’s Journal. I admire the deep abolitionist witness of the Grimke sisters and Lucretia Mott. Among modern Quakers, my spiritual life has been enlivened by the late Thomas R. Kelly, and the late Douglas V. Steere.
Bayard Rustin, an African-American Quaker who played a tremendous role in the Civil Rights movement was behind the scenes for much of the movement because he was gay. Rustin had flaws, but I find his witness compelling.
I find the theological writings of Chuck Fager (peace activist and editor of Quaker Theology), to be helpful in many cases, along with the different emphases of co-editor, Ann K. Riggs, (who directs the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches, USA). I am just discovering the theological emphases of Rachel Muers, Douglas Gwyn, and Stephen W. Angell, along with the New Testament studies of former Baptist-turned-Friend, Michael W. Newheart.
There are numerous ways that Christians claim that Jesus is Lord, but still manage to evade his teachings and examples as claims on their lives as disciples. I was first alerted to this by John Howard Yoder, who describes many of these evasions early in his The Politics of Jesus. Later, my teacher, Glen Stassen presented a similar lengthy list of ways people evade taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously. (Since the Sermon on the Mount is the largest block of Jesus’ teaching we have recorded in the Gospels, how we treat it is a strong indication of how we’ll treat Jesus altogether.) If we name and describe (briefly) the various ways we dodge Jesus (while swearing loyalty to him), it will help us avoid falling into the same traps.
- The Dispensationalist Dodge: Jesus’ teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount, were not meant for the “Church Age,” but for the future Kingdom of God. My disagreements with Dispensationalism, even “progressive Dispensationalism,” are legion, but now is not the time to rehearse them. Suffice it to say that I find it extremely unlikely that when the Kingdom or Rule of God comes in all fullness that we we will still have enemies to love, that anyone will backhand us on the right cheek, sue us for our cloaks, or any occupying troops will force us to carry any packs even one mile. In the fullness of God’s Rule (whether in heaven or on earth), will we still have relationship problems that require us to stop our worship, go to our sister or brother and talk to them, seeking peace? All these teachings seem very much for this world. And at the end of the Sermon, Jesus tells the parable of the houseowner who built his house on rock (comparing him to the one who hears Jesus’ teachings and puts them into practice) versus the one who built his house on sand (comparing him to the one who hears Jesus’ teachings and doesn’t practice them.) The idea that Jesus never intended his teachings to be for the “Church age” is falsified by the very words of Jesus in the text.
- The “Preterist” Dodge: Jesus expected the Rule or Kingdom of God to Come either in his lifetime or shortly after–and his teachings were only meant to be an “interim ethic.” He did expect his disciples to practice his teachings, but they are so heroic that they could never be practiced for long–and the ongoing centuries required a different ethic for the Church. This view was made popular by the New Testament scholar, Albert Schweitzer, in his classic The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer had much right, but this seems off. Why would the ongoing centuries make Jesus’ ethic less normative? It is true that many Christian pacifist movements throughout the history of the Church had, at least initially, a heightened eschatological feeling, but the resurrection and the Holy Spirit give an empowering grace for Jesus’ ethic. When Schweitzer later adopted his own spirituality of “reverence for life,” I wonder that it did not lead him to reconsider his “interim ethic” view.
- The public/private split dodge. Jesus’ teachings are only for individual Christians in their private lives, but if they hold a public office requiring violence (e.g., soldier, judge, executioner, head of government) they must be governed by some other ethic. This dodge was a favorite of the Reformer, Martin Luther and many Lutherans (and others) since then. The problem with this is that there is no evidence for this in the New Testament texts. Nowhere do we find Jesus saying, “In your private lives, if struck on the right cheek, turn the other also, but as a member of the Sanhedrin it’s okay to condemn people to death.” The problem with such “two kingdom” thinking was shown most graphically in the German Third Reich–with many Christians reserving their Christian behavior for private lives, but as guards or doctors at death camps they used a different morality. We cannot limit Christ’s lordship to the church; Christ is cosmic lord and if that is still hidden in the world (to finally be revealed at the End–Phil. 2), it is to be manifest throughout all aspects of the lives of Christians.
- The “inner attitudes” dodge. This one was popular with John Calvin. Jesus’ teachings are about our inner attitudes more than about our outer actions. We can love our enemies even if, in war, or execution of criminals, we must kill them. There are attitudinal dimensions to Jesus’ teaching. Jesus wants us to renounce the nursing of anger and holding grudges rather than just avoiding killing people. But Jesus has plenty of instruction for actions, too. He tells us that we love our enemies by praying for them, seeking to do them good, stopping our worship to make peace. We confront those who backhand us (an act of humiliation) by turning the other cheek, so that they are forced to acknowledge our human dignity; we confront those who who would sue us poor for the very coat on our backs by stripping naked in the court of (in)justice; we react to the occupation troops who force us to carry their packs one mile, by carrying them two miles. None of those commands are simply about our inner attitudes.
- There is the dodge that simply ignores Jesus’ teachings and example because, supposedly, the only that counts is Jesus’ atoning death. Historically, one strand of Lutheranism took this view–even concentrating on justification to the exclusion of sanctification. (I’ll never forget how stunned I was when one Lutheran theologian defined sanctification as “getting used to your justification!”) But this view is becoming more popular with a broad range of American evangelicals–especially the resurgent 5-point Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention. But this makes Jesus into a cipher–so that he was just marking time until the crucifixion. It also reduces the cross and resurrection into a divine transaction–not asking what the human motives of the Romans and their Jewish puppet leaders were for killing Jesus (something this series will discuss). While it is true that the Apostle Paul could say that he determined to know nothing “but Christ Jesus and him crucified,” (1 Cor. 2:2 ), but even Paul could paraphrase Jesus’ teachings (e.g., Romans 12) and was quick to say that Christ was also an example for his disciples. The Baptist prophet Clarence Jordan mocked this view by saying that American Christians “will worship the hind legs off Jesus, but not do the first thing He says!” The debate in the ’90s among some American evangelicals over whether or not Jesus could be someone’s savior without also being Lord gets into this, too. The answer is clear: Jesus called out disciples, that is followers and in the Great Commission commanded them to make disciples from among all the nations and part of that disciple making would be “teaching them to practice all things that I have taught you.” (Matt. 28:18-20). Following Jesus’ example and teachings is not an optional add on to Christian salvation–but part of the very definition of the term “Christian.”
There are other evasions, other dodges, but these are the most common, especially among lay Christians. Readers can bring up others in comments. Naming and rebutting these dodges, these ways we evade Jesus’ claims even while calling him “Lord, Lord!” puts us on guard against the evasive tendencies of our own unfaithful hearts. For, as John Calvin rightly noted, the human heart is an idol factory. We seek to root out these evasions and to be able to take Jesus’ teachings seriously as describing a distinct way of life for Christians who embody a foretaste of inbreaking Rule of God.
In beginning our examination of Holy Scripture on the questions of war, violence, nonviolence, and peacemaking, we will begin with Jesus, as presented in the 4 canonical Gospels, then turn to the rest of the New Testament before examining large sections of the Hebrew Scriptures or “Old” Testament. Why are we taking this approach? Why begin with Jesus?
We begin with Jesus (and, in a different sense, end with Jesus) because, for Christians, Jesus is the ultimate authority on matters of faith and practice, of doctrinal and ethical convictions and living. The earliest Christian confession, found repeatedly in the New Testament, is “Jesus is Lord!” That is the ultimate title of authority in the first century Roman empire in which the NT was written. The Romans proclaimed that Caesar was lord–was supremely sovereign. For the early Christians to proclaim, “Jesus is Lord!” was to say “Caesar is NOT lord! NOT supreme! NOT our ultimate authority!” It should carry the same political weight today. No Christian can give ultimate authority to anything or anyone else than Jesus. There have been many attempts at political or religious or other Powers and Authorities to try to usurp that authority. In the days of the Third Reich, the Nazi ideology claimed by the “German Christian” movement argued for “Christ for the Church, Hitler for the Fatherland!” They proclaimed that considerations of “Blood” (racial-ethnic identity), “Soil,” (national land ownership, but also implying cultural superiority), and “Volk” (Peoplehood, a term having far more racist overtones in German than the English equivalent of “Folk” carries) could be valid revelations of God alongside biblical revelation. This is what led the Swiss theologian Karl Barth to reject the ancient tradition of “general revelation” of God through nature and reason, along with the particular revelation of God in and through the unfolding history of Israel and the Church recorded in Holy Scripture. The Barmen Declaration of the Confessing Church (which arose to combat the heresy of the German Christian movement), written by Barth declares in Article I, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we must trust and obey in life and in death.” Then along with this affirmation, it gave a denial, “We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and and truths, as God’s revelation.”
In considering a biblical case for Christian pacifism, we do well to heed the lessons of Barmen. I am not claiming that any particular government is “another Hitler,” (a charge that is flung about by both Right and Left far too quickly). I am saying that governments make idolatrous claims and they want obedient subjects whenever they want to wage war. Even liberal democracies like the U.S., which allow for conscientious objection to military service, prefer that the numbers of conscientious objectors remain small. They give out propaganda campaigns through military recruitment commercials and military recruitment in public school classrooms and this seeps into the minds of churchmembers almost by osmosis.
In the 1990s, I was slightly irritated with the U.S. evangelical fad of wearing “WWJD?” (for “What Would Jesus Do?”) on bracelets and T-shirts and other paraphanelia because I didn’t think that this was accompanied by any serious examination of the Gospels to see what Jesus did in his time and place as any kind of guide to what the Risen Christ would have his disciples do here and now. The question WWJD? was not, it seemed to me, being answered by serious Bible study, but by mere guesswork–informed no doubt by sermons and praise songs, etc., but not tested by serious NT study. Yet, immature as that fad was, it was onto something. It could have led to a great reformation of the Church in these United States. It at least understood that Jesus’ life, teachings, and death are a model for Christian discipleship (1 Peter 2:20-22). But since the attacks on the U.S. on 11 Sept. 2001, these have all but disappeared. Most ordinary American Christians are not asking themselves anymore “What Would Jesus Do?” certainly not in responding to terrorists (or suspected terrorists), to Muslims, to immigrants, to treatment of “detainees.” These ordinary Christians are not asking, “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” or “Who Would Jesus Torture?” but are taking the name of Christ as a totem in all out war against declared national and religious enemies. (I remember how shocked I was when newspapers ran a picture of a tank in Iraq with the words “New Testament” painted on it. See below.)
See also my previous post on the “Military Bibles” with accompanying quotes by George Washington, George W. Bush, General Patton, etc. designed to remake Christianity into a religion of war and conquest.
Beginning with Jesus, and reminding ourselves via Barmen, of how crucial it is to begin with Jesus, and to expect that the gospel message of Jesus will be one that other Powers and Authorities don’t quickly welcome, is a helpful corrective to the many insidious ways that rival messages try to pour Jesus into their preexisting molds: Jesus as CEO of a Fortune 500 company preaching a gospel of capitalism; Jesus as Therapist, preaching a gospel of self-actualization; Jesus as Self-Help Guru; Jesus as Super-Patriot (forgetting that Christians are a global community, called out “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9); Jesus as Warrior and not the Prince of Peace.
This brings us to another problem: If we “begin with Jesus,” whose Jesus? That is, what view of Jesus guides our interpretation? The “politically correct” Jesus of the so-called Jesus Seminar is very different from that planned by the folks at “Conservapedia.” The Jesus of Rod Parsley stands in great contrast to the Jesus of Jeremiah Wright; the Jesus of Rick Warren is vastly different from the Jesus of Tony Campolo or Jim Wallis. Whose Jesus? How do we keep from making Jesus over into our own image? Well, as the late theologian H.Richard Niebuhr said, we have the “Rosetta Stone” of the original Gospel portraits. There are no absolute guarantees against misinterpretation, but we will consult a range of contemporary New Testament scholarship, and the Gospel portraits resist attempts to fully distort Jesus into an idol of our own making–as often as that has been tried.
An objection to this method of beginning with Jesus is that God’s revelation begins with the First or “Old” Testament–with Abraham and Sarah and Moses, with the faith and history of Israel, and the critique of the prophets. This is true. One does not fully understand Jesus apart from his context and heritage–his teaching in parables paralleled the teaching style of the sages of the Wisdom tradition (as found in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Job ) and he stood deeply rooted in the tradition of the prophets of Israel/Judah. Those not familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures miss all the “Old” Testament quotations, paraphrases, themes, and allusions throughout the New Testament and especially in the Gospels and on the lips of Jesus. We also misunderstand Jesus by not understanding the rival factions within first century (i.e., Second Temple era) Judaism–rivalries so sharp that some scholars speak of the rival Judaisms of the Second Temple era–prior to the “normative” rabbinic Judaism of the 2nd C. We will have to situate Jesus (and the Jesus movement that became the early Church) within the rivalries of the Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots (or proto-Zealot revolutionaries and social bandits), Essenes, or Hellenized philosophical Judaism like that of Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE-50 CE). And it is important to note that what we call the “Old” Testament was the Bible of Jesus and the early church.
But we must still learn to read the Hebrew Scriptures as Jesus did. For us, all these centuries later, there is often a tendency to develop our theology from a particular reading of the Old Testament and then decide to fit Jesus in and be sure he says or does nothing to disturb our view of biblical revelation. Yet Jesus was constantly surprising both his rivals and his disciples–who read the same Scriptures. Flat Bible approaches end up subordinating Jesus to a doctrine of biblical authority or a reading of Scripture derived apart from Jesus. They end up becoming religions “about” Jesus that stand in contrast to the faith of Jesus. The NT writers resist this tendency. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is they that speak of me.” John 5:39. Or, as the writer of Hebrews put it, “Long ago at many times and in various ways God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets, but in these final days God has spoken to us supremely by a Son.” Heb. 1:1.
Christians throughout history have reacted to previous moldings of Jesus into mistaken shapes by affirming the supremacy of Jesus himself as revelation. Thus the Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, in 1925 and 1963 said, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”
So, we will begin with Jesus, with the portraits of Jesus and his teachings found in the 4 canonical Gospels. In our next installment, we will consider ways in which people try to avoid or water down Jesus–often without realizing that’s what they are doing. And we will argue for reading the “Old” Testament as Christian Scripture, as the Bible of Jesus and the earliest Christians.
Note: My approach is not the only way to present a biblical case for pacifism. One could read the entire Scripture through lenses shaped by Jesus but present such a reading in a “Genesis through Revelation” canonical order. That is the approach taken by Church of the Brethren scholar Vernard Eller in his classic, War and Peace from Genesis to Revelation (Repr. Wipf and Stock, 2004). It’s also the route chosen by Mennonite theologian Ted Grimsrud on his website, PeaceTheology.net in a blog series that will become a book, The Bible on Peace. I recommend both works strongly. But I have seen so many recent attempts to remake Jesus and distort Jesus’ message (see the picture above for an extreme example) that I am taking extra precautions that, in the words of the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, “We Do See Jesus.” (The phrase comes from the essay, “But We Do See Jesus”: The Particularity of Incarnation and the Universality of Truth” reprinted as chapter two in Yoder’s The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (University of Notre Dame Press, 1985). )
One word leaps to mind in considering the Nobel Committee’s announcement yesterday that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize would be awarded to President Barack Obama: premature. Alfred Nobel’s will was very clear on who could nominate someone for the peace prize (members of national parliaments or congresses, political science or philosophy faculty in universities, and persons who have already won the prize) and who would determine (in secret) the recipient (a committee formed by the Norwegian Storting or Parliament but whose members cannot include sitting members of the Storting or the Norwegian government). But Nobel’s will (largely because he wrote it without legal help, distrusting lawyers) is notoriously vague on the criteria for winning the Peace Prize. This has led to a wide variety of Nobel Peace Laureates in the century plus of the award–from pacifists and peace activists, human rights activists, to politicians and diplomats from many countries, to organizations that work for peace in a wide variety of ways. The award has been given for diplomatic efforts leading to the end of wars and to signing of peace treaties. It has been given for relief work in the midst of war (e.g., the International Red Cross and Crescent Societies, Doctors Without Borders, etc.), for aid to refugees. It has been given for efforts in arms reduction, or to nonviolent social movements, and for efforts to eliminate major causes of war and violence such as poverty, ethnic or religious conflict, or environmental threats.
But the vagueness of criteria for the recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize has led to some very odd choices: most notoriously when former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnam’s chief negotiator Lu Duc Tho (neither a person of peace) were awarded the Prize jointly for negotiations toward ending the Vietnam War. Lu Duc Tho became the only person in history to turn down the Nobel Peace Prize saying, rightly, that no peace had been achieved and that the talks were breaking down. Another time the Nobel Committee made an embarrassing choice designed to encourage a peace process was when they jointly awarded the prize to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat. Both Rabin and Arafat had previous histories as terrorists and some argued that Arafat had not yet abandoned that role. One member of the Nobel committee quit in protest.
The selection President Obama is not that bizarre. In fact, if his ambitious foreign policy agenda is successful at any of his peacemaking goals: a just two-state peace between Israel and Palestine, reversing the nuclear arms race, etc., then I fully expected that he might be a future Nobel Laureate. But this seems, at best, premature –even to Pres. Obama to judge from his reaction. Yes, he has stopped U.S. torture, although failing so far to hold any of the torturers accountable and pushing for the continuation of the practices of indefinite detention without trial (for some al Qaeda members that the administration believes guilty of crimes but cannot prosecute because the evidence was obtained by torture under the Bush regime) and rendition. But the prison at Guantanemo Bay is not yet closed and the “detainees” have not been either tried in regular courts or released. Yes, he has begun the slow ending of the occupation of Iraq, but most of our troops are still there. Yes, he wants to restart the Israel-Palestinian peace process, but has failed so far to get Israel to stop building new settlements or get Palestinian factions to reconcile with each other or stop stockpiling weapons for future attacks against Israel–nothing has yet happened. Yes, we are scheduled to have nuclear arms reduction talks with Russia–but they haven’t yet taken place. He has expanded the war in Afghanistan and started an undeclared one in Pakistan with predator drones. He wants a new engagement with Iran that leads to their abandoning of their nuclear weapons ambitions and, eventually, to the first resumption of U.S.-Iranian diplomatic ties since 1979–but no progress has yet been made and recently he seemed to imply a willingness to bomb suspected Iranian nuclear plants.
The hawkish Obama has proceeded apace, but the Obama who dreams of peacemaking has yet to move from hope to actual change. Thus, I call this award premature, and Obama himself calls it “a call to action.” That, I suggest, is how peace activists from around the world should react–not by mocking or condemning this choice, but by using it as moral leverage in encouraging real peacemaking from this administration. As filmmaker Michael Moore said yesterday, “Congratulations, Mr. President–now go out and earn it.” That should be the unanimous note of peace activists–encouraging this president to live into the award that he does not (yet) deserve.
Later this weekend, I will email the White House with this message and a list of suggested actions that Pres. Obama can take between now and the formal presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize in December that will act as steps toward fulfilling that “call to action.”
- Announce that the U.S. will “re-sign” the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty “unsigned” by former Pres. Bush. Since the legality of “unsigning” a ratified treaty is murky (and unprecedented!) under both U.S. and international law, I doubt that this would even need ratification by the U.S. Senate–but with 60 Democratic Senators, such ratification should be pro forma.
- Announce that the U.S. will “re-sign” the Treaty of Rome that authorized the creation of the International Criminal Court and will join the ICC instead of continuing the Bush-era attempts to evade the ICC’s jurisdiction. Joining will require Senate confirmation, and some will balk out of fear that the ICC might attempt to try members of the Bush admin. for war crimes related to torture and rendition if the U.S. does not prosecute them, but Obama should take that risk.
- Sign the International Treaty Banning Landmines. The U.S. is one of the few democratic holdouts even though American Jody Williams (who won the Nobel for her efforts) founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Even many famous generals around the globe support this since landmines are of limited military value in war, but continue to kill and maim civilians long after wars are officially over.
- Sign the Treaty Against Child Soldiers. Former Pres. Bush refused because he wanted the U.S. to still be able to have 17 year olds in the military–but out military will hardly crumble without them. And this treaty gives some teeth to efforts to stop the kidnapping and forced induction of adolescent and pre-adolescent children into both government and rebel armies–most notoriously by the so-called “Lord’s Resistance Army” in Uganda.
- Announce an increased pace of the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq.
- Announce an end to use of the predator drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan because of the enormous loss of civilian life.
- Deny General McChrystal’s request for additional troops in Afghanistan. Freeze at current levels while re-thinking Afghanistan–seeking a new way forward.
- Announce that the U.S. will unilaterally reduce its nuclear weapons by 10% across the board. We need MUCH deeper cuts around the globe, but this unilateral step could jump-start the talks with Russia and show the world that you are serious about reversing the nuclear arms race. It could be a transforming initiative that invites similar moves on the part of others.
Beyond these steps, the way grows harder and must include cooperation from both Congress and international partners. Grassroots peace and human rights organizations should do our part by supporting the actions the Obama administration takes for peace, praising them, and encouraging more and criticizing steps in the wrong direction. Also, not waiting for governments or prizes, we need to continue our own, independent, actions for peace.