Category Archives: Pacifism
The death penalty has been on my mind quite a bit lately. One reason is that I am teaching a course on Christian Ethics, and the topic came up as a part of the curriculum. Another reason is that there is a case currently in the headlines about a woman on death row who has, by virtually all accounts, made a complete change in her life and has become a Christian, and has been doing remarkable work with other inmates as she has contact with them. Many, both in the secular and the religious worlds, are working for the commutation of her sentence so that she be spared her execution.
I try to keep abreast of arguments on both sides of this issue. One of my mentors (by distance, and now only through his writings as he has passed away) was an avowed anti-death penalty advocate. I read his arguments closely, and while I agree with some of his logic, there are some other aspects of his (and the entire anti-death penalty movement) that I have great difficulty in accepting. So, I write this post as both a statement of my current position, and as a refutation, or a challenge if you will, of some aspects of the anti-death penalty moment that I would like to see clarified or explained.
As I understand the main theological objection to the death penalty, Jesus established in the Sermon on the Mount, and through later teachings as well, that his disciples are to forgive, are not to employ any means of violence, are not to retaliate in any way, and are to bear with any injustice, all for the sake of the Kingdom of God. This is a strong argument, and cannot be dismissed with the flippant attitude that many pro-death penalty advocates demonstrate. In this line of thinking Jesus has abrogated the Old Testament permission to take “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” While this is a strong argument, I believe there is an inherent flaw – a contradiction that weakens the argument significantly, if not totally.
The primary Old Testament passages relating to capital punishment (especially in relation to murder) are Genesis 9:6, Exodus 21:12-17, and Numbers 35:9-34. There is another key passage that must be included in the discussion, and that is the law relating to false witnesses, Deuteronomy 19:15-21. These passages reveal several critical components of capital punishment that I believe are NOT addressed by many anti-capital punishment advocates.
First, the basis of capital punishment is not revenge, retaliation, or retribution. The basis – the foundation – for the use of the death penalty in the case of murder is that murder violates the nature of God himself. Murder certainly is a violent crime – as is rape and kidnapping, other crimes for which the death penalty could be used. Murder violates the bond of humans in community, as does rape, kidnapping, and the sexual sins for which a person could be executed – adultery, bestiality, even homosexuality. But, while all of these crimes and violations of the Law violated God’s holiness, only the crime of murder violated his nature. Thus, the only crime for which there was no chance for a substitution was the crime of murder (Num. 35:31).
Second, to reverse the rationale or the exercise of capital punishment is to tacitly admit that the God of the Old Testament was a vengeful, angry, violent God, but the God of the New Testament is a kind, loving, forgiving God. It is to tear apart the Trinity – Jehovah is the God of the Old Testament, a warring, violent God; but Jesus is the God of the New Testament, a kind, gentle, forgiving God. This is a separation of the nature of God that I simply cannot accept. God is clearly described in the Old Testament as a forgiving God who seeks the restoration of a broken relationship with man. God is just as clearly described in the New Testament as a God who will ultimately judge the disobedient and unrepentant sinner.
Third, and directly related to the last point, when we turn the God of the New Testament into an exclusively kind, gentle, loving, forgiving God we create a god in our own image. We are just so kind, so loving, so forgiving, so much more mature than those bloodthirsty Israelites that we need a god who looks and acts like us. We need a compassionate god – and a god that condones capital punishment simply will not do. So, we create a new god – an anti-capital punishment god, and we do everything that we can to separate him from the God of the Old Testament. But this is pure idolatry. When we say we worship the God of the Bible, we must let the Bible describe who God is, and then we either accept that God or we reject that God. We cannot create him in our own image.
That leads me to my last point. I have a suspicion that one reason so many are so afraid of allowing that God can still condone the use of capital punishment is that we fear our own punishment. If murder (and other sins, to be perfectly honest) demand the death penalty, then hell is a very real possibility. But, if God utterly and totally reversed himself on that blessed night in Bethlehem when a little baby was born to the virgin Mary, then maybe there really is not a hell after all – how can a God who has abolished the death penalty actually use the ultimate death penalty?
As I said above – I continue to consider this question deeply. I know that in the United States we have employed the death penalty very unevenly and very unjustly. We certainly do not apply the penalty as it is described in the Bible. To pause for a season to make sure our system does not perpetrate the sins of our past is a wise move. However, our very human and very broken use of the penalty does not in and of itself eliminate the just and proper use of the penalty.
I am certainly open to the possibility that Jesus did, in fact, abolish the use of capital punishment. However, in order for me to be fully convinced, the objections that I have raised above must be answered. If murder in particular so violated the nature of a life creating and sustaining God, and if God in his divine justice system created such an explicit and carefully nuanced method of determining guilt and the protection of the innocent, how can we, as mere mortals, claim that justice system is unfair? Is it not OUR system that is unfair?
Just another flight through the thick fog of our broken humanity, and trying to see the light of God’s word clearly and faithfully.
I have not been posting much this summer (and probably will not, except for a stray column now and then). I am working on finishing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry program and I am up to my armpits in writing crises. I just have not had time for this space this summer.
But, some things are just too good to pass up.
As a part of my dissertation I was reviewing some material from earlier classes at Fuller Theological Seminary. I came across a book that I did not realize how important it was the first time I read it, but now after the passage of some time and the focusing of my dissertation I have an entirely new appreciation for the material.
The book is titled, Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor by David Augsburger. It is published by Brazos Press out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has a 2006 publication date. In a sentence, the book is a description of the Anabaptist view of discipleship.
I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who are curious about my dissertation, but finding this book on my shelves again was huge. Augsburger works through eight core practices of discipleship: Radical Attachment, Stubborn Loyalty, Tenacious Serenity, Habitual Humility, Resolute Nonviolence, Concrete Service, Authentic Witness and Subversive Spirituality. Augsburger then concludes with six appendices, the most valuable to me was the seven “Core Convictions” of the Anabaptists. As you can tell from the chapter headings, this is not fluffy reading. Although Augsburger works through some heavy theology, the book is not written in “technical jargon” and is easily accessible, if the reader will simply devote some time to absorbing the material. The content will challenge you, regardless of whether you accept Augsburger’s conclusions or not.
Coming from a tradition that values reason and logic above all else, there was much in this book that was difficult for me to understand. I do not agree with everything that Augsburger says in the book – I never agree whole heartedly with any author (well, almost never). However, after the passage of several years, a whole heap of a lot of study, and the focus of my dissertation, all of a sudden I think I realize just how important, and how powerful, this book really is.
The fact that the book is based on the “radical” Anabaptist tradition will, no doubt, be distressing to many. If you judge a book, or an entire movement, by the fly-leaf of a book review or by the shallow lecture of someone who knows nothing about the tradition, then this is probably not the book for you. It would rattle your cage to the point you would probably lose your sanity.
However, If you are serious about learning about an often misjudged and abused people, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are serious about learning about what it means to be a disciple of Christ, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are interested in deepening your walk with God and your service to the church and world, then by all means buy and study this book.
But be careful, you just might end up becoming a dissident disciple.
“Chocolate Cake for Breakfast”
Anyone familiar with the comedian Bill Cosby has surely heard this story. His wife leaves him in charge of the children for a few days and the first crisis he meets is what to feed the kids for breakfast. They clamor for chocolate cake. He refuses. He is thinking in terms of healthy foods like eggs and milk. They beg, wheedle, demand and otherwise make it obvious they want chocolate cake. He still refuses, but something happens. He reviews the ingredients that comprise the chocolate cake. Eggs. Milk. Wheat. Healthy stuff. The kids get chocolate cake for breakfast.
The Churches of Christ in the United States over the past 200 years or so have been anything other than monolithic. The only thing that members of Churches of Christ universally agree on is that we cannot agree universally on anything. Well, almost anything. There is probably someone out there who even disagrees with what I just wrote. So, with that caveat clearly understood, what I have to share in this series of articles is purely my own observations and reflections. I speak for no one but myself unless a person so desires to publicly agree with me.
It might be argued that in its deepest psyche the Churches of Christ in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have been bi-polar. I believe this position could be sustained by the careful examination of two of the brightest lights in the formation of the group that now bears the name, “Church of Christ” – Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. While similar in certain respects, these men held vastly different views of human nature and the nature of the restoration to which they were committed.
Briefly summarized, Barton Stone was a deeply spiritual man who was convinced that the Holy Spirit was active in the early years of the 19th century to lead the church back to a pure form of worship. He was distrustful of human nature, and especially human government, and believed that while God would ultimately make things right, humans had very little or no power to do so. What humans could do was to follow the leading of the Spirit and submit completely to the will of God, particularly as revealed in the New Testament. Alexander Campbell was equally as spiritual as Barton Stone, but in many ways was the reverse image of Stone. Just as convinced in the power of the human being as Stone was distrustful, Campbell believed that humans could, and in fact were in the very process of, ushering in the millennial reign of Jesus on earth. Where the two agreed was in the normative power of the New Testament to guide the “restoration” of the church to a pure, apostolic form. Thus the two agreed to merge their fledgling movements under one broad canopy, but philosophically the two were nowhere close to being united.
Barton Stone’s “DNA” was carried down through the middle and late years of the 19th and into the 20th centuries by men such as Tolbert Fanning and David Lipscomb. In their writings we see this distrust, even blatant rejection, of human political structures and a greater reliance upon the Holy Spirit. While not exactly premillennial in outlook, their spirituality has been described as being “apocalyptic,” and that word accurately communicates what they believed and taught. As much as they looked back to the time of the apostolic church, they looked forward to the kingdom of God being made manifest on earth, and they knew that humans had no control over that event occurring. It would occur when, and how, God wanted it to.
It is extraordinarily difficult to remain apocalyptic in outlook when everything in the world seems to be proving that mankind does have the ability, and perhaps even the responsibility, to make things perfect on earth. So, little by little the influence of Stone, Fanning and Lipscomb disappeared from the ethos of the Churches of Christ. The first World War almost eliminated this counter-culture viewpoint. By the time the Japanese had crippled the American navy at Pearl Harbor the thought of remaining critical of, and aloof from, the American flag and “the republic for which it stands” was simply unthinkable. Except in small and isolated situations the Churches of Christ made the leap to equating faithfulness with patriotism, and the twain have never since been sundered. So, today a pacifist would not only be viewed as being “unAmerican,” he or she would be viewed as “unchristian.” Pleas for responsible gun control efforts are most vehemently rejected by ministers of the Churches of Christ who point, not to Scripture, but to the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, for their support. Prayers for the members of American military forces are routinely offered during worship services, but any mention of the civilian victims of American military actions are never confessed, repented of, or even mentioned. The one area where church and state are most certainly NOT separated is in the auditoriums of many Churches of Christ, where God, church and country are fused into one uniform entity.
Which, after over 900 words, brings me to the main point of this first reflection – (and to admittedly sweep with too large a brush) I suggest that a large majority of members of the Churches of Christ are far too wedded to the prince of this world than they are the slaughtered Lamb of God. And, if I am correct, within the next three years this incestuous marriage will have profound and irreversible implications for the future of the church.
The presidency of Barak Obama has pushed the United States past a tipping point. Never before has a president been able to achieve the legislative and moral changes as has President Obama. From sweeping judicial changes, to the passage and implementation of a radical new health care mandate, to the unparalleled changes in the moral distinction of homosexual behavior, this president has indeed accomplished his goal of transforming America. If I am not mistaken, this surge past America’s previous conservative worldview will only accelerate after the presidential elections in 2016. As I view the political landscape the only thing that will prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming the first female president of the United States is if she declines to run, or if she should die before being elected. There are several solid reasons for my conclusion. The primary one is that President Obama has turned the citizens of the United States into wards of the state. Everyone is now dependent upon the government to a greater or lesser degree. Our national debt is exploding, but no one wants to surrender his or her entitlements. No true conservative, one who openly suggests that our government is out of control and must be scaled back, has much of a chance to defeat a progressive who will suggest that, far from being too intrusive, the government needs to take a greater role in directing the lives of its citizens. Simply stated, America’s narcissism virtually guarantees the victory of the nominee of the Democratic party in 2016, especially if that nominee is Hillary Clinton. I do not foresee any realistic chance of a conservative winning the election even if another Democrat should become the nominee.
Which, then, brings me back to my main point – because the majority of members of the Churches of Christ have not only been complacent as this political and moral metamorphosis has taken place, but have actually aided and abetted it with their defense of and subjection to the Constitution of the United States, a radical change is going to have to occur in the hearts and minds of these members of the Church if the Church is going to survive in any meaningful way deep into the 21st century.
In other words, we are going to have to reject the Campbellian (and utopian) view that mankind is smart enough and spiritual enough to direct its own footsteps. We are going to have to return to the Spirit led, overtly counter-cultural and biblically apocalyptic world view of Barton Stone, Tolbert Fanning, and David Lipscomb.
The New Testament begins with a radical sermon – one that calls upon its hearers to reject man-made philosophies and to accept whole-heartedly the vision and Spirit of the God who created this world. The New Testament ends with the most majestic description of this counter-cultural kingdom – a kingdom in which the godless powers of worldly governments are cast like large stones into the abyss. In between the sermon and the vision are the words of God revealed through the power of the Spirit, and not one single word teaches or even suggests that the way in which the final Kingdom of God will be revealed is through the power of a human government. While citizens of this kingdom must temporarily live in subjection to the laws of a human government, the worship of the citizens of the Kingdom of God must never be divided.
Either we worship God, or we worship the political powers of this world. There simply is no other choice.
In one respect I fear for the future of the Church of Christ. I fear because we are too American, too incestuously married to the spirit of this world. We depend more upon the Constitution of the United States than we do the inspired word of the eternal God. We allow politicians, comedians and common men and women to mock and despise the teachings of the Bible, and yet when our “rights” or “entitlements” are even remotely threatened we become apoplectic. Some members of the Churches of Christ have more of the Bill of Rights memorized than they do the Sermon on the Mount. And that, my friends, is truly pathetic.
On the other hand, my faith is not in the Church of Christ, but in the God who created this world and who established the church of Christ for a dwelling place for his faithful people. The church of Christ will survive, even if the Church of Christ should one day disappear.
I am an unabashed and proud member of the Restoration Movement in general and the Church of Christ in particular. I believe deeply in her goals and aspirations. I am firmly committed to the precepts and objectives of men such as Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell. I am also well aware of their failings and short-sighted goals, even the well-intentioned ones. I am aware that they were human, lived and breathed the hubris of the time in which they lived, and that as any human being, they made mistakes in what they taught. I also believe they were brilliant men whose vision far exceeded the time in which they lived. Those of us today who love and respect their work are truly standing on the shoulders of giants – and I will never, not for one moment, surrender that heritage.
But as a child of God and an heir of the Kingdom of Heaven I must also be aware of the fact that any human association can fall from its pure intentions. So, while I am deeply committed to the Church of Christ (capital letter C), I am first and foremost a member of and committed to the church of Christ (little letter c, meaning that assembly devoted to Christ whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life). Some say the two are identical. I cannot – for the very reasons that I have articulated. Far too many members of the Church of Christ have surrendered to the beast and proudly wear the number of its name. They want to walk, and talk, and do business with the beast while demonstrating the semblance of submission to the Lamb. While here on earth it is impossible to fully recognize those charlatans, but I rest in full assurance that God knows who is His and who is not. That will be made clear at the last judgment.
In other words, I just want to be a disciple of Christ. I do not want the additives that turn the Church into something that it never was intended to be. I certainly do not want to be a part of a religious institution that is simply a front for, and defender of, a godless and corrupt government. I want to be lead by the vision of the Kingdom of God as described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Revelation to John. While respecting my heritage and its respect for the past, I want to be pulled forward by the biblical vision of the Bride of Christ. As I have previously written, you cannot fly an airplane by looking in a rear-veiw mirror.
A juvenile world wants chocolate cake for breakfast, lunch and supper. Our government says, “Look at all this wonderful cake – full of sweetness and covered with all this luscious icing.” The Church must recover its apocalyptic voice and renew its strength to be able to say, “No. We will not be fooled. Politics is the play toy of the damned. We are children of the King. We will serve our God and worship Him only.”
Church, it is time to grow up. And if that means we must leave the chocolate cake on the table and be viewed as unpatriotic traitors, then so be it.
“I lift my eyes to the hills – from where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:1
Sources: I rely on many fine works related to the history of the Restoration Movement, and the Churches of Christ specifically. Of particular interest in regard to this subject are: David Edwin Harrell, Quest for a Christian America and Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ 1865-1900; Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America and Reclaiming a Heritage: Reflections on the Heart, Soul and Future of Churches of Christ; C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes and Michael R. Weed, The Worldly Church: A Call for Biblical Renewal; and Richard T. Hughes and C. Leonard Allen, Illusions of Innocence: Protestant Primitivism in America, 1630-1875. Beyond my love for Churches of Christ, I have been deeply touched and challenged by the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, these writings are simply too immense to list individually. His complete works are published by Fortress Press and can be found in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series, 16 volumes which includes all of his major writings, letters, sermons and theological reflections. In addition to Bonhoeffer’s original works, there are numerous secondary works of significant value. Chief among them would be Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Society; and Keith L. Johnson and Timothy Larsen, eds. Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture; and a book I am currently reading, Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel, Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking.
9.11 is always a tough day for me. A dozen years ago I was a pilot. I was flying an FAA mandated check ride, flying between Albuquerque and Las Cruces, NM. We, my check pilot and I, had overheard some chatter about some planes hitting some towers, but with only one ear on the radio and never once considering that the “towers” were anything more than some radio towers we never even turned the radio up.
What a difference 15 minutes can make.
I’ve blogged about this before, and probably will every year. 9.11 changed everything – the way we navigated, the way we identified ourselves in the air, the way we thought about airplanes. It even changed what we as pilots could carry onto our airplanes.
You would think, if you were a sober person and not intoxicated with the wine of global superiority, that in the dozen years since 9.11.01 we would have learned a thing or two about making and keeping peace. But you would be wrong. We are just as war mongering today, if not more so, than we were 12 years and 1 day ago.
Even as I type this our “Nobel Peace Prize” winning president, the Grand Poobah of stupidity, is preparing to throw the United States headlong into another senseless civil/religious war that we have no business getting involved with. Adolf Hitler was wrong on so many things, but on one thing he is reported to have said he was absolutely correct. Every generation needs its own war. It seems even winning a Nobel Peace Prize does not keep a power hungry maniac from starting his own war.
So, every 12 months America will pause to remember the tragedy of 9.11.01, and every year hundreds, if not thousands, of young men and women will put on the uniform of the United States Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and National Guard. They will train relentlessly with the most up-to-date methods for exterminating entire nations of people. Our politicians will strut like a bunch of little Bantam Roosters and throw around empty phrases like, “preserve the peace” and “defend our nation’s honor,” all the while being complicit in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians a half a world away whose only crime is that they live in a different country and speak a different language.
There is no national honor in killing children and old people with guided missiles shot from unmanned arial drones.
We live in a schizophrenic country. We claim to follow the Prince of Peace, the crucified Lord of life, and yet our most fervent prayers and most solemn national holidays all revolve around our ability to kill soldiers of other nations. The closest holidays we have that might possibly relate to spiritual thoughts are now all about football and “Black Friday” and greed and consumerism. There is not enough Christianity in modern day celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas combined to fill up a decent sized worship service. And that is being generous.
So, to make a too-long post even longer, every year I remember 9.11.01 – but not in the way that most people do. I observe it with regret; regret that we have not learned any valuable lessons from that horrible day. Regret that I, too, was sucked into a poisonous nationalism. Regret that our civil leaders will still send young men and women to their deaths for no other purpose but to buttress a “national honor” that has become tarnished. Regret that after 12 years we still have to carry bright young men and women home in stainless steel coffins covered with an American flag.
We need those young people at home. We need them to be safe. We need them to be working on principles of peace rather than strategies of death.
9.11.13 – God, in your infinite wisdom and your immeasurable patience, please give us the courage to follow your Son and his way of the cross. We need that message today more than at any time in history. We are so close to destroying not only ourselves, but this incredible world you have given us. Lord, as in the days of your servant Jeremiah, please bless us with a humiliating defeat so that we may once again learn to trust only in you. Humble us, strip us, starve us until our bodies and our souls long only after you. And then, having chastened us with a pure and holy love, please restore us to your healing presence, for it is only in you that we live, and move, and have our very being.
I read just this morning, via an Associated Press story, that both the United States Senate Armed Services Committee and the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee have passed legislation that bars the military leadership in the Pentagon from closing any more military bases/installations (at least in the United States, I am not sure if that includes foreign bases or not.)
Sometimes I, ever the most loquacious one, am struck utterly and profoundly speechless.
Here we have the grand poobahs of boom-boom and bang-bang saying they don’t need all the guns, tanks, planes, ships and runways that we currently are paying to keep shooting and flying and swishing around in the oceans. So, the military brass says, “Hey congress, you guys are short on money, here is a win-win situation – you get to keep more money and we get to off-load some extraneous stuff we no longer need.”
And the Senate and House of Representative knuckle-heads join together in one unified chorus and yell back, “Put your proposal in the garbage disposal.”
All across America countless heads are bowing in thanks and countless “amens” are heard as people realize that their precious army, navy or marine base will stay open, at least for the next few years. And the reason why – well, its the economy, stupid.
You see, even though the country is experiencing billion dollar annual deficits and we are buried in trillions of dollars in debt, we cannot afford to give up our military. We need to create, maintain, and endlessly practice using the implements of death in order to live.
Sometimes hypocrisy is so blatant even the most hardened cynics cannot see it. Thankfully, since apparently cynicism is one of my specialties, I am immune to this particular form of blindness.
Just stop and think about it for a minute. Every Sunday, if not every single day, thousands, if not millions, of prayers are offered up in the name of the Prince of Peace begging the God of all reconciliation to please end all wars and “bring the boys home safely.” We pray for our leaders to make wise decisions about the use of our tax dollars. We pray for love and charity to overwhelm the powers of hate and evil.
And we scream like a bunch of scalded dogs when the military suggests that we no longer need the base down the street. (I was going to use more colorful language, but decided against it.)
Christian brothers and sisters – can we not stop and think about this for a moment? Of what earthly or heavenly good does it do to pray for peace, of what earthly or heavenly good does it do for us to pray that God end all wars if we proudly and stubbornly refuse to turn our swords into plows? And why, among all peoples, are disciples of Christ among the most vociferous defenders of our killing machines?
Can we not, just for a moment, stop and think about the mixed message we are sending?
In the name of everything that is high and holy – can we not see the blatant hypocrisy here? Christians should be the ones begging for guns and tanks and planes and ships to be mothballed. Turn them into museum pieces. Tell our children what it used to be like when men and women had to go to war and actually kill each other. Instead of this ridiculous love affair we have with our modern day “horse and chariot,” should we not be learning to lean upon the outstretched arm and mighty hand of God? (Consider the book of Isaiah if you need Biblical evidence.)
We just observed the 69th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of the beaches of Normandy. I do not think the men who died on those beaches, nor the men who survived, were fighting so that their children, their grand-children, and their great-grandchildren would be caught up in an endless cycle of war-truce-war. I believe they fought so that their descendants would never have to fight again. In my most benevolent spirit I believe every war veteran comes home saying the same thing, “May God grant us the wisdom to never go to war again.” Maybe I am wrong. Maybe scarred war veterans actually want their sons and daughters to experience the hell of seeing their buddies die in unfathomable ways.
But, dear Christian brothers and sisters, as long as disciples of Christ are the ones who are most loudly beating the war drums and demanding that the military spend money it does not have on products it no longer needs, there will be no peace. And at some point another generation of young men, and now women, will be sacrificed to the god Mars.
Are we not a smarter people than that? If not smarter, are we not more faithful?
“Why are you afraid?” Jesus asked. “Have you no faith?” (Mark 4:40)
June 6 1944. D-Day. The day the world had been waiting for what seemed like an eternity. Hitler and his minions had been stopped at the English Channel, but for how long? Would the war sink into another interminable volley of punch and counter-punch, or would one side finally gain the upper hand? The allies had carefully planned this day for months, and had been practicing for weeks. Literally thousands of army, marine, navy and air force troops would face their destiny on this day. All of the remaining pictures of that day are old and grainy. Nothing can accurately or adequately describe those harrowing hours.
Every day now we lose dozens of those brave men who turned the tide of the war against tyranny. Soon all we will have left are those old grainy pictures and the written words of those who survived. We have not done a good job of carrying the memory of those war years forward. History has a way of washing over the past and distorting the reality of what occurred. World War II was masked by the Korean “conflict” and that was further distorted by the Vietnam “war” which was never really declared a war. Now we have “operations” – not wars. We had Operation Desert Shield which became Operation Desert Storm. Then we had Operation Iraqi Freedom. The current commander-in-chief does not even want to use the word “operation.” He just launches missiles from secret drones in what is referred to as “surgical strikes” to kill suspected terrorists.
Everything has become so neat, so tidy. Notice the progression. We went from “war” to “conflict” to “police action” to “operation” to “surgical strikes.” We are not fighting wars or killing people now, we are becoming world wide surgeons, removing diseased or vestigial organs.
And every year the memory of June 6, 1944 fades a little deeper into the collective amnesia of a nation. That day was not neat. It was not tidy. It was not surgical. It was brutal – hell on earth. When the last army private, the last paratrooper, the last sailor who survived the “day of days” finally passes from this life an entire generation will be gone. A generation that was called upon to make a genuine sacrifice, and a generation that heard and answered the call.
I hate war. I hate the thought of war. I hate what war does to people – both soldier and civilian. But I stand in honor of those men who stepped out of those airplanes and who crawled down those rope ladders into those landing craft on that foggy June 6 morning. For so many it would be the last morning they would see.
And I am alive and breathe the air of freedom because of what they were able to accomplish that day – and for basically the entire next year. I cannot fathom their courage. I cannot comprehend their strength.
But I can honor them.
And the best way I know how to honor them is to teach that we should never again be faced with the need for another June 6. Let’s pray that we can rise above the insane desire to destroy ourselves through another world wide war. Or, another surgical strike, for that matter.
Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2008) 234 pages including end notes.
I have not mastered the art of making proficient book reviews. If you have read any of my other reviews they are basically extended comments about why you should obtain the book for yourself. A proper book review includes summaries of the author(s) main arguments and an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Like I said, I’ve never really been taught how to do that exceptionally well, and I’m lazy to boot. But, that having been said, I will try to evaluate this book a little more carefully.
How is that for brevity? I was guided in a study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Dr. Stassen as a part of my Doctor of Ministry work at Fuller Theological Seminary. I read and loved his Kingdom Ethics. I appreciated his Living the Sermon on the Mount although it was written on a much more popular level and I felt like he oriented the book a little too much toward the popular reader. I was excited to purchase this book, which Dr. Stassen edited, as a continuation of his discussion on the importance of “Just Peacemaking” in a world that has basically gone mad.
This book simply disappointed on so many levels. I will attempt to share with you some of my frustrations.
The book begins with a 40 page introduction that needed an introduction. It was kind of like turning on the TV and hearing the announcement, “We now return to our regularly scheduled programing already in progress…” There are five names associated with the writing of the introduction, and it genuinely reads like the product of a committee. The first eight pages contain a rambling discussion of terrorism with no real context to frame the discussion. It is not until page nine that a coherent discussion of Just Peacemaking begins. The rest of the introduction is valuable, but perhaps overly lengthy. The purpose of an introduction is to introduce the subject. At 40 pages the introduction was a chapter in and of itself. As I said, the introduction needed an introduction.
The first chapter, “Support Non Violent Direct Action,” written by John Cartwright and Susan Thistlewaite, was, in this blogger’s estimation, simply dreadful. Not only dreadful, but profoundly contradictory. The authors state as the lead of the second paragraph, “Nonviolent direct action is a strategy that lances the festering boil of violence and produces healing without resort to war.” (p. 42) All well and good, if not a little flowery in the language. What “nonviolent” actions do the authors recommend? The first is boycotts, which they define as “…a concerted action designed to isolate an individual, group, or nation in order to express disapproval and to coerce change.” (p. 44) I nearly gagged on my coffee when I read that sentence. Let me get this straight – we are to lance the festering boil of violence by isolating and coercing people that we disagree with into behaving the way we want them to. It gets better. The lead of the next paragraph reads, “After 1880 the term soon came into common use, broadening to describe and include all forms of nonviolent intimidation.” So, now the priests of nonviolence have encouraged their followers to use isolation, coercion and intimidation to achieve their goals. I almost put the book down right then, but I soldiered on. (Pardon the pun).
The next nonviolent action the authors recommend is a strike. They suggest that, “Strikes have often met with considerable violence on the part of both business owners and government.” (p. 47) I suppose the authors have never heard of, nor read about, the horrific violence that strikers have used against business owners and non-workers alike. Oh well, if you are going to advocate coercion and intimidation, a little violence might not be too bad. Except that the whole point of the chapter was supposed to be “nonviolent” actions. This chapter was clearly the worst of the book, and if you can get past this entry, the rest of the book is not that bad.
The next chapter, “Take Independent Initiatives to Reduce Threat” by Glen Stassen is quite good. It is brief, to the point, and well written – all hallmarks of Dr. Stassen’s expertise. The third chapter, “Use Cooperative Conflict Resolution” is a little bit longer, but still valuable. I found the fourth chapter, “Acknowledge Responsibility for Conflict and Injustice and Seek Repentance and Forgiveness” written by Alan Geyer and Donald W. Shriver to be particularly valuable. Once again the chapter was direct, fairly brief, full of legitimate examples, and the concepts espoused fit directly into the title of the book, Just Peacemaking.
In the second (chapters 5 and 6) and third (chapters 7 – 10) sections of the book the second major flaw of the book was revealed. These chapters read like a manifesto produced by the Democratic party of the United States. The only American Presidents who received any positive mention were Democrats, and Jimmy Carter was clearly the favorite of all the authors. Ronald Reagan was vilified at every opportunity. Likewise, the Palestinians and their cause received all the positive comments, whereas the Israelis were never described as anything other than land hungry war mongers. I do not doubt but what the Palestinians have a legitimate complaint against the colonization of their land. But the one-sided nature of the treatment in this book made it sound like the suicide bombers and the indiscriminate missile firing of the Palestinian terrorists are somehow justified. The political stance of the authors was utterly transparent. And that was unfortunate in a book that was designed to be about Just Peacemaking. You cannot be a peacemaker if you are lobbing verbal hand grenades at your political opponents.
After finishing the book, especially the last sections, I could not help but think of the irony that the authors of the book really needed to read chapters 2-4 of the book and put those principles into practice in their own chapters. The authors of chapter one just need to re-write their chapter from scratch.
Okay, so I am not an accomplished book reviewer. I usually only review those books that I genuinely love and want others to read. I made an exception here, not that I do not want people to buy this book, but only that if you are interested in the title of the book that you purchase it carefully. If your politics are even moderately left-of-center you will probably love the book. The more left-of-center your politics the more you will like the book (if you can get past the theological arguments and the references to the Bible). But, if you are like me and have somewhat to moderate right-of-center politics and you are fairly conservative in your theology, this book is a frustrating read.
I will recommend you purchase the book with the above caveat in mind. If you are interested in the “new paradigm” of Just Peacemaking (a concept, by the way, that I approve of whole heartedly) then this is a good resource. The middle chapters are good, and the later chapters do have some good points. I simply wish the authors had checked their politics in the coat room when they entered the conversation hall. It would have made the book much more valuable, and also much more enjoyable to read.
We live in a world of comparative justice – or comparative injustice if you will. By that strange term I mean that all we experience as justice, or injustice, is compared to others. We know what we think justice should look like, and “compared to _______” what we see is either very just or very wrong.
Jesus lived in a world of comparative justice as well. Consider the following:
There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners that all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:1-5, RSV)
We know little, if anything, about the two incidents that Jesus referenced. But obviously they were current topics, and the people to whom Jesus was speaking understood them quite well. The first was obviously an example of murder – Pilate had a group of “Galileans” killed while they were offering their sacrifices (at the temple in Jerusalem?). Why they were singled out as “Galileans” we are not sure. Was it because they were insurrectionists, or believed to be plotting an insurrection? Or were they just “out-of-towners” who got mixed up in an ugly case of mistaken identity? And what of the unfortunate 18 who happened to be in or under the “tower in Siloam?” Were they meeting there as a part of a plot? Or did the tower just give way as they happened to be gathered in the shade of the tower?
We have a lot of questions to which we may never know the answers. But one thing is quite clear – Jesus does not buy into “comparative justice” or injustice. Twice he asks, “Do you think this group worse that another?” and twice the answer is “No.”
We watch Tim McVeigh detonate his bomb in front of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City and we recoil in disgust. We watch two airplanes being flown into the World Trade Center and we react with hatred and revenge in our hearts. We watch as two bombs are detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and we are repulsed.
And every day bombs are detonated in crowded markets and in busses and in places of worship and we hardly notice. Every day (it seems like) President Obama agrees to use another secretive drone to bomb a target in Iraq or Afghanistan and scores of innocent bystanders are killed and if there is any reaction in the United States at all, it is simply to say, “Serves them right.”
I remember in some bygone conflict (Desert Storm I or II, or in Afghanistan, even I lose track) there was a member of the media that was killed. Dozens of American soldiers had already died with barely even a mention or without hardly a whimper raised by the TV talking heads. But when the media person was killed you would have thought the entire world had come to a crashing end. There were pictures on the TV, dozens of stories about how this person was trying to make the world a better place through journalism, about how it just wasn’t fair for such a young person to die, blah, blah, blah. Comparative justice. According to the TV types, it was okay for soldiers to die, maybe even expected, but it was NEVER expected or okay that a reporter or camera person to die.
In comparative justice, it is okay for our enemy to die, but never okay for one of ours to die. It is okay for other children to be cut in half by a roadside bomb, but never in America. It would be okay for our American President to use a secretive drone to bomb innocent bystanders into eternity, but what if it happened in Boston? Or New York? Or Dallas?
Jesus would not buy into the idea of comparing the value of deaths. A death was a loss of a human life to Jesus. There were no “greater” and “lesser” sinners in his eyes. There were none who did not deserve their deaths. No, for Jesus we all stand guilty. We all deserve the death that awaits us.
Or, I guess I should say the death that awaited us. Because, you see, Jesus stepped into the middle and “took the bullet” that was intended for us. We have the opportunity to live eternally because he died temporally (in time) on that cross. But his death was not without meaning; not without a warning.
“Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” I don’t think Jesus was talking about physical death here and was telling us in to how we can avoid murderous tyrants and creaky towers. I believe he was using two tragedies to tell us that a far worse death awaits those who continue to live in rebellion to God’s Kingdom.
The bombings in Oklahoma City, New York, Washington and Boston were horrific, make no mistake. But let us also be very clear. God does not view the death of an innocent American as any worse than an innocent Palestinian, an innocent Israeli, an innocent Iraqi, or an innocent Afghan. Let us dispense with the comparative justice concept. The murder of any human being is a stain against the image of God – for every human was made in the image of God.
And that should make us be very careful as we consider our response to whoever it was that murdered and maimed those people in Boston, as well as the victims and the families of the latest drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A bit of a warning here for those readers who are not members of the Churches of Christ, the group that is most widely recognized as the most conservative wing of the American Restoration Movement. If you are not familiar with our history or our struggles this post may sound strange, if not worse. If you care to read on I do believe that what I say, or rather ask, is beneficial for any group, any disciple of Christ. I am writing from my own experience, my own heritage. Therefore, I do feel I have a right to voice these concerns.
As a member of the Church of Christ I have felt a special blessing. I have been raised from an infant in a heritage that treasures the written Word of God and seeks to measure all matters of faith and practice by this outside measuring tool. In addition, the history of the early church is often researched to illuminate various issues and to provide guidance where the Scriptures are silent, or are at least open to more than one interpretation. This is how we have lived and worked and studied and worshipped.
This dual basis of authority is seen in virtually every aspect that makes the Churches of Christ “unique” or “different.” In the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper we see where Scripture and the history of the early church point to both the immersion of adult believers and the weekly remembrance of the last supper. In matters of worship, where specifics are not readily forthcoming, we believe that the history of the early church validates our understanding of acapella singing and an emphasis on the preached word. In church organization we believe that each congregation is autonomous and that each congregation is to be led by a plurality of male leaders, known variously as elders, bishops, or overseers. We refer to ourselves as the Church of Christ (or little “c” church of Christ for some) as we do not want to be known as a denomination, but as an identity – the church which is known as being owned by Christ. The capitalization of the “c” has caused no small amount of ink to be spilled, and I do not wish it to be a symbol of denominationalism.
I know what to do if I was to challenge or to reject any or all of these identifiers, plus a number of others. Integrity would demand that I would say, “Listen, I love my heritage but I no longer believe ‘x’ ‘y’ or ‘z’ and so I am leaving the fellowship.” But what do you do if the church leaves you? What if you are standing where you think you need to stand, and you look around and everyone is looking at you as if you just cursed your mother?
I know I spend a large part of my life confused. But that is where I am right now. I am confused. Bamboozled. Flummoxed. Gobsmacked.
Part of my confusion may be my own limited point of view. Maybe I am just not seeing the whole picture. But it appears to me that a huge number, perhaps a majority, and perhaps an overwhelming majority, of members of the Church of Christ see absolutely nothing wrong with using violence and weapons of violence, perpetuating the cycle of violence, and even demanding that others perpetuate the cycle of violence all in the name of “self-defense” and the right to own guns.
There is nothing in the Scriptures which teach this – particularly the New Testament. Jesus clearly and repeatedly renounced violence and the use of weapons of violence. The early church, as evidenced in the book of Acts, certainly did not condone using weapons of violence and did not use them. Stephen and James went to their deaths as martyrs, not casualties of war. The other apostles and early disciples were arrested, but none resisted with force. What we see from the pages of the early church historians validates this adherence to a policy of non-violence.
The modern response to this biblical and early non-biblical evidence is, “well, of course they did not resist. They were in the minority. If they had resisted they would have all been killed.”
Oh. So the nations that have been trying to exterminate the Jewish people have not been able to do so because the Jews were more numerous and had better weaponry? From the days of Mt. Sinai until today? Is that your understanding of history?
It is far easier to exterminate someone who is unarmed than someone who is well armed. At least that is the argument that is being made to promote a violent response to violence. Why then was the church able to survive and even grow when their response to violence was pacifist? The church has grown the fastest in times of persecution. So, what exactly does that do to the argument that we must use violence to protect ourselves?
This turn of hermeneutics is a fascinating method of doing theology – especially for a movement that is known for being a biblicist movement. “Avoid weapons if you are a minority and will lose, because that is what the Bible teaches, but the moment you attain majority status and have access to better weaponry it is perfectly okay to use weapons of violence because that is what the Bible teaches.” I think I lost something in the logic there.
What I see happening is this discussion/debate is ultimately a battle over power. Those who own guns and teach that we ought to use them as a response to violence believe that they are in the ultimate power position and they refuse to consider leaving it. They do not want to surrender their power. And believe me, if you have a gun and I do not, or if you have a bigger gun than I do, you are in the power position. That is what is being taught, and it apparently is being followed by a great many people.
But, and correct me if I am wrong, did not Jesus teach a reversal of the power equation? Did he not come to surrender his power? Did he not come to teach us that the only way we are going to have peace on this earth is if we learn to do things God’s way? And is the cross not the ultimate image of the reversal of power? Is not the cross the picture of the Son of God surrendering all of his Divine power in order to bring peace and salvation to a violent world?
If you arm a half-dozen men (and women) in your congregation to guard against a violent encounter, you may never have that encounter. But you will not have peace in your assembly. You will have overcome evil by means of evil. You will have overcome the use of violence by the threat of greater and more lethal violence. That, by its very nature, means the absence of peace. You may not have open conflict. But the fear that destroys peace will always be present. It will always keep peace from your assembly. And, if I understand Jesus correctly, that means you lose.
So, what I am wondering is, what do you do when your church leaves you? I still believe in defining doctrine and practice by first examining Scripture and then by confirming my conclusions by examining the history of the early church. That is what I was taught, it is what I believe, and I cannot leave that position in good conscience unless someone teaches me that I have been wrong.
Now I am being told that Jesus’ words of non-violence, that the early church’s use of non-violent resistance and the clear evidence of the first couple of centuries of church writings are all to be ignored because of the 2nd amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the overwhelming need to arm ourselves for the purpose of self-preservation.
I am experiencing a major case of spiritual whiplash here. Everything that I was taught is being rejected, and everything that I was taught to reject is being promoted.
Am I wrong here? Did I, as Bugs Bunny so famously did so long ago, take a wrong turn in Albuquerque?
Who moved? And where am I supposed to go now?
Sometimes serendipity is serendipitous. I have arrived at this passage just as the state of Arkansas has joined several other states in allowing individuals to carry weapons into a church building. The irony of some local yokel carrying a loaded gun into a worship service for the purpose of “self-defense” is simply too vast for me to comprehend. I’m glad I’m not asked to make this stuff up.
The traditional teaching in this passage is easy to identify – “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” This is the lex talionis which allowed an aggrieved party to punish the guilty up to, but not exceeding, the range of the crime or affront. Although it is often viewed as permissive, or even mandatory (you must pay back an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth) the original intent was prohibitive. If someone knocked your tooth out, the most you could exact in recompense was a tooth. You could not retaliate violently for a minor offense. Of course, give humans an inch and they will take a mile; so the limitation soon became a freedom and then a requirement.
Jesus, however, not only slows down the descending chain of violence begetting violence, but he actually reverses it! Beginning in v. 39b he gives a series of imperatives that force people to react to evil in novel ways. A humiliating slap does not invite a responding insult, but the offer of further insult and humiliation. A lawsuit does not create a counter-lawsuit but a surrender of more than what is at issue. Forced labor becomes an opportunity for unexpected service. Begging becomes an opportunity for giving. These imperatives (commands, by the way) are so counter-intuitive. They are counter-cultural. They are radical. No one in the United States in their right mind would think of such bizarre behavior. Not today when the mantra is “Stand Your Ground” and “Bring Your Favorite Gun To Church Day” (with a potluck sure to follow).
The key to the passage is found in v. 39a. Dr. Glen Stassen, in his article “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12) [Journal of Biblical Literature, 122/2 (2003) pp. 267-308] has a wonderfully brief but profoundly loaded discussion of this partial verse. The phrase is most often translated, “Do not resist the evil one.” However, Dr. Stassen notes that the Greek construction of the phrase can also legitimately be translated, “do not resist by evil means” or “do not resist violently.” The question is, is such a translation valid in this passage? Is Jesus telling us to never resist an evil person, or is he telling us to not use the tactics of the evil person to respond to a real or perceived injury?
First and foremost, if Jesus told us to never resist the evil one, then he clearly violated his own commandment. He resisted many evil beings, beginning with the Satan himself, and continuing through a ministry in which he confronted and resisted many individuals who were bent on evil. He scolded the Pharisees. He resisted Herod. He challenged those who would stone an accused adulteress. He cleansed the temple, throwing out the money changers and those who were taking advantage of the poor. He repeatedly cast out and defeated evil demons, or spirits, within helpless humans. Jesus clearly and often resisted evil and the Evil one. So, strike that option out.
Second, if Jesus taught that his disciples should not use violent tactics against the violent people, it would seem that we would find traces of that teaching throughout the remainder of the New Testament. Well, consider Romans 12:17, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes.” Or how about 1 Thessalonians 5:15, “See to it that no one repays evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all.” And then there is 1 Peter 2:21-23, “For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth; when reviled he did not revile in return; when suffering he did not threaten, but committed himself to the one who judges justly.” (all quotations from the HCSB).
Nowhere is there a command of abject nonresistance. But everywhere there is the teaching of rejecting violent means to achieve retribution.
As such, v. 39a is a truncated form of the “vicious cycle” that we see throughout the rest of the sermon. But we can see the process playing out in front of our eyes every day. First you get in a fist fight. Then your opponent brings a knife. Then you bring a gun. Then he brings a bigger gun that shoots more rounds. Then you get body armor and a bigger gun with more violent ammunition. On and on the vicious cycle continues.
Jesus’ answer to this mayhem is simply to stop it at the first volley. If someone punches you, turn around and walk away. Don’t escalate the violence. If necessary, be the one willing to absorb the violence.
Jesus died on a cross, people. After telling his disciples to put their stupid swords away.
So, I’m just wondering where in the Bible, especially where in the New Testament, do we as disciples of the crucified one get permission to take up violent weapons and use them against perpetrators of violence. I am not speaking of duly sworn and highly trained peace officers. Check the statistics. The overwhelming majority of those peace officers spend their entire careers never having removed their weapons from their holsters. Many who do are traumatized for the rest of their lives by the experience.
Do we really want some “Dirty Harry” wannabe packing a loaded handgun into a crowded auditorium? Honestly?
And, with our ears focused on this radical sermon from the mouth of Jesus himself, dare we even suggest that such behavior would be a pleasing response in the eyes of our God?
Occasionally I think my atheist friends do have something to add to the conversation. Lord, save us from your followers.