the state, the sword, and the follower of Christ

I respect those who serve in the military, in fact I take my hats off to them, and to their families. It is a tremendous sacrifice which deserves not only recognition, but honor. These people are in harm’s way with the intent of doing good in securing justice in the world, and often in the most difficult places.

I can hear those who would critique a Christian pacifist stance say something like this: “I respect the pacifist Christian stand, and in life I want to live out that ethic in my relationships with others including enemies, but it is naive to suppose that there is no need to keep order with force in place, or even to have to use that force at times. Well meaning, even commendable, yet naive.”

My answer to that is simple: It is more complex than that. Yes, we’re in an area in which Christians disagree, and although there are probably more Christians than ever who hold to a pacifist Christian position (except per capita, in the earliest centuries of the church before the Constantinian shift), their numbers are still in the minority. There is no doubt that there is a justice that is secured oftentimes through both military and police force. It is inevitably imperfect in this life. But it does secure peace. In large part why I would think that Paul calls for prayer for rulers and all who are in authority. I think of the Roman empire in Paul’s time. Brutal and certainly not in the right always and surely never so perfectly. But keeping the peace and administering justice according to their rule of law and enforcement of that.

But the follower of Jesus is called to something higher, even to a higher form of justice, that no less than of the kingdom of God come in him. That calling is spelled out in detail in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And Jesus lived out what he taught of course to the very end. He loved his enemies and prayed for them. And we are called to follow in his steps. It is the way of the cross in this life, looking to God for a salvation not only for ourselves, but for all in this world even now.

The ethics of God’s kingdom come in Jesus are meant for this life, but in terms of the life to come. It’s as simple as that. What ends up complex and mind boggling is how order is kept in the restraint of evil doers and is called good, while at the same time Christians are called to a higher calling. The way of the cross to the very end, not just for one’s own personal salvation, but in one’s way of life, in all of life. God seems to keep the lid on evil to some extent, through the state. But he calls us who are followers of Jesus to lay down our lives for Jesus and the gospel. As we pray for the day when wars will cease. When sin (including our own) will be gone. And the peace secured by the cross will be the rule. A peace which, however inevitably imperfect our practice of it is now, we are to pursue and live out as lights in this world in and through Jesus.

following the example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as he followed the example of Christ

All but lost today, it seems to me, is a serious appropriation and adherence to Jesus’ cornerstone teaching of the ethics of the kingdom found in the Sermon on the Mount. Of course I’m referring to us who profess to be followers of Jesus, those of us who are called Christian. I’m afraid Christian has taken on a different and to some extent contrary meaning to what it originally had when the disciples in Antioch were first called Christian. The words of Jesus are either watered down or not taken seriously at all, it seems. They are hard, challenging words, to be sure. Love your enemies, pray for them. When struck, turn the other cheek. Don’t look lustfully on a woman, which in the heart is committing adultery. Don’t be angry with a brother or sister, or speak a word of contempt to or concerning them, which is on the edge of murdering them in one’s heart, and the first steps toward hell. Etc.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great man, I think the greatest American civil leader of the twentieth century. He was certainly flawed as well. He was a Christian along the lines of the more liberal wing, theologically. He was steeped in Jesus’ teaching and example, especially with reference to the Sermon on the Mount (the Sermon on the Plain, paralleling that) and with reference to the Hebrew/Old Testament prophets. The call was for justice for the oppressed, specifically for the African Americans, then called Negroes, who though emancipated from slavery were not seen as equals, were pushed to the margins in segregation, and too often brutalized by those who hated them. Indeed, their lives were sometimes in danger.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stepped into what amounted to be a civil challenge to the United States, to live up to the letter of the law by breaking down the laws of segregation. And to clamp down on those who threatened their very existence. He did so as a full participant, subjecting both himself and his family to the difficulties and dangers inherent in such a stand. And some innocents tragically did lose their lives. His family was protected, even if his home was not, though in the end he paid the ultimate price himself, for whatever reason gunned down, which may have come with the territory of being a high profile leader, and surely did have something to do with his stand. There is no doubt that there were people who could have been a threat to his life.

He faced pressures on all sides. Many of his fellow African Americans were not interested in nonviolent protest. They were willing to do whatever necessary to secure justice and freedom. But Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed the course, not only preaching and teaching nonviolent protest in the way of self-purification and love even for one’s enemies, but in living that out to the end. By doing so he won over many of his own people, of the African Americans, and many others as well, in fact in the end, virtually everyone. He led the way to what became a national sea change, even if racism and hate along those lines remains in some latent and more overt forms to this very day.

I have found him especially inspiring in his sermons or addresses to fellow Christians. More difficult for me, but what I have come in some significant measure to respect and admire is his work on the civil end with reference to America and what it stood for in law as a democracy, or a democratic republic. Calling the nation to radical change in policies  which would not merely keep order, but change the order kept. Front and center for Dr. King, I’m sure, was his understanding and appropriation of Jesus and his teachings and example.

It is one thing to teach truth, but quite another thing to live that truth out. That is where the inspiration comes. I can say such and such, but unless I begin to live it out, I will help no one. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others with him, did live that out, practicing what they preached. They uncompromisingly and unrelentingly spoke and acted against injustice with uncompromising, unrelenting love. They did not succumb to evil, so as to respond with evil in return. Hopefully more than just a few of them did so from a personal, communal faith. And we do well today to follow in their steps, even as they followed the example of Christ.

A good, even if rather long read, Martin Luther King. Jr. Letter From Birmingham Jail.

some thoughts on Veterans Day (United States)

I agree with the point N. T. Wright makes, that God wants order in this world, and uses nation-states, or governments to maintain it. We live in a world in which anarchy would likely prevail if there were no authorities in place as we read of in Romans 13. Of course those authorities are answerable to God. With reference to force, they seem to be put in place to stop evildoers. Something akin to police work.

I also believe that a follower of Jesus is never to kill under any circumstances. I know that since Augustine and through Constantine, this has become a minority view. The “just war” tradition holds sway, even though that edifice is tottering. Many Christian scholars argue that “just war” as defined by Augustine and others is not possible today. And nations, including the United States, seem clearly to operate at least in significant measure on a different basis than that.

I have to admit that while I hold firmly to pacifist Christianity (or, Christian pacifism) as part and parcel of following Jesus, I also can’t put that together very well with the first principle mentioned in this post, namely the need for authorities to exist in a police-oriented kind of way, to restrain evildoers. And some of my favorite people, themselves followers of Jesus, serve either as police officers or in the military.

Today, on Veterans Day, I want to thank all veterans for serving in harm’s way, for their country and for the good of the world. Thank you for the sacrifices you have made in the name of justice and peace. Our prayers are with you during your active service, as well as during your life afterward. And for your families.

As we pray the prayer our Lord taught his disciples to pray:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one,
for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

what is the point?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

Jesus’ words make little to no sense to us today, especially, I say, we who have inherited the Christian just war tradition. Of course we have to contextualize it first (I look forward to getting my copy of this book and reading it, which will help here). In that culture and day, the meaning of Jesus’ words was readily apparent. Although a good number of Jews had come back to the homeland and the temple was rebuilt, they still felt like they were in exile. After all, how was the promise fulfilled that Yahweh would be king over all the earth, reigning from Jerusalem? It seemed like the beginning had come to pass without the whole of such promises fulfilled. The Romans were now the power over Israel, hated by some of the Jews, and for the common people, a burden. Of course any revolt against the Roman establishment meant death to a non-citizen by execution on a cross.

So Jesus’ words here would raise not a few eyebrows and many a head would be shaking in disgust. After all, no good Jew wanted to be aiding and abetting the enemy. Or seem to be in cahoots with their captors. Or at least this goes against the grain of all common sense. Holy war advocates certainly would take offense.

And besides all of this, Jesus was coming with a message of Messiahship to all who had ears to hear. Any would be Messiah would never cooperate with God’s enemies. God’s kingdom come was meant to smash all the world empires and become the huge mountain that would fill the entire earth, as we see in Daniel.

What sense then can we make out of Jesus’ words here?  Specifics aside, Jesus was certainly teaching his followers a different way to live. And in this case, this is the only place in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in which he actually overturns and changes, indeed contradicts that which is in the Law. Eye for eye and tooth for tooth was taught in more places than one in the Hebrew scripture for Israel. But now the fulfillment of what Israel was to be would be set in place in Jesus’ reign in God’s kingdom. And it would end up being the way of the dreaded, in fact hated cross. It would turn on its head what people thought power ought to be. Not everyone was a zealot, eager to overthrow Rome in Holy War. But no one supposed that death would be the way to life through the resurrection. That in the middle of history, as opposed to the end (which they did look forward to) one would be resurrected from the dead and thus would begin a resurrection people who live in that same identity.

But back to the scripture itself. The point of adhering to Jesus’ words plain and simple is to be a witness. A witness to the world, at that time to everyone. A witness of Jesus, of God’s kingdom come in and through him and his death and resurrection by which those in authority should come to recognize that their days are indeed numbered, and that they are answerable to the true King, the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus.

And so, where we can, we need to resist evil not with evil, but with good. And we need God’s help by the Spirit to know how to do so in a given situation. One wonderful example, right here. And by this we can fulfill Jesus’ words in the same sermon:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”


where (or which one) is the church?

I wish I would have read and studied much on the church, both in regard to scriptural exegesis, theology, and especially with reference to the historical (called, historical theology). Younger folks dive into this kind of stuff, and I’m thankful for that, but as I get older, I confine myself to the niche I have (whatever that is). Though in this day and age with Wikipedia, and other resources online, it is amazing what one can pick up in an hour or two (or even less).

Why I ask the question, “what is the church?” is because of the question of authority with reference to tradition. This is not entirely a moot question, because there have been councils which spoke authoritatively for the church along the lines of theology. Some carry weight and some don’t (or maybe all do), depending on which Christian tradition one is a part of.

Of course we know from scripture that the church is the body of Christ who regularly meet together, most of them on the Lord’s Day (Sunday). The church is also called the pillar and foundation of the truth, in other words where we can find the truth lived out, proclaimed and taught. It should go without saying that the church is not infallible in its own judgments and pronouncements. At the same time it also needs to be said that safety is found only where the Spirit has said the same thing to God’s people, not just to one person, or one group. Scripture is the source from where we gather truth, but theology includes all that we bring as humans and from culture, to decipher and express that truth.

Every generation has to continue this work, not because past generations have gotten it wrong, but to speak the truth afresh with the Spirit’s help to each new generation.

I wish it was all this simple. Tradition is important, because God works through tradition to help us rightly read and understand scripture. But what tradition? Which one? And where do we appeal to defend one particular group as the bearers of the tradition? Yes, we appeal to scripture, but God uses the church to read scripture rightly, to get the message of the gospel straight.

I think in the end we have to appeal to something like C. S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity,” which is widely appreciated by Catholics and Protestants alike. There are significant differences across tradition, but we perhaps come closest to the truth as we find common ground. At the same time, I am not at all convinced that the broad tradition is going to get everything right. For example the pacifist Christianity of the early centuries of the church has been buried through a union with the state in which it was taken for granted that Christians would go to war and kill if need be, sometimes -sadly- even in the name of Christ. The Great Tradition got it right when they made all soldiers upon their return do penance (sadly, not the case with so many churches today). Penance from my perspective: considering the seriousness and gravity, as well as wrong that is inevitably done in such endeavors, with accompanying repentance. But that tradition went astray, I take it, by not following the teaching and example of our Lord against all such violence for the follower of Jesus.

This question goes on. I will continue to count as church wherever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, with the promise that he is with them (yes, in a disciplinary, judging context, but I take it to be a general promise, as well). And I will respect that this is so wherever true followers of Jesus meet across all the traditions in which the truth found in Jesus is taught and followed. All of us in Jesus are in this together for the world.

Richard B. Hays on evil overcome by righteous suffering*

Just as Jesus suffered for his word of testimony, so those who follow him must testify and suffer. The repeated call to the community is to endure and to bear witness faithfully….

Those who follow him in persecution and death are not filling a randomly determined quota of martyrs; rather, they are enacting the will of God, who has chosen to overcome evil precisely in and through righteous suffering, not in spite of it. That is why those who bear the name of the Lamb on their foreheads must also share his fate.

Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, 176, 179.

*From the chapter: “Revelation: Resisting the Beast,” under the subheading: “The Vocation of the Saints,’ with particular attention given to Revelation 14:4; 12:10,11; 13:9-10.

respect and honor to veterans and prayer from a pacifist Christian

Today is Memorial Day in the United States in which veterans, especially those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice are honored. I too want to honor those who have served along with those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, since I believe scripture teaches me to do so. I know as well that the state is used by God for good, indeed his very servant to put down evil.

As a pacifist Christian (or a Christian pacifist, not sure which terms to use, the emphasis should always be on Christian and the common reality we share in Christ) I believe I follow the teaching of scripture quite literally on this in a simple, straightforward kind of way, Romans 12:17-13:7 being a prime example, as well as panoramic view so to speak I believe, of this vision. I have to say I think (based on a study of it) the words in the opening verses of Romans 13  apply at least mostly to something of a kind of police activity, rather than war.

We also are taught to make it a priority to pray for those in governmental positions of authority, that there might be peace in which we can live out the faith, as well as share it with others.

I want to stop and say that even though I think there is a significant number of Christians becoming pacifist (or almost completely so), across denominations, the majority still are of the “just war” persuasion. And there are many strong Christians serving in the United States military, as well as in other militaries, I’m sure, around the world. They share Christ and seek to live out their faith in those difficult places. And for those who do not share in the faith, I also want to honor as those who for the most part don’t want to be in harm’s way (who really does?), but have made that choice. And in large part to stop evil. I say that as one who believes that most of what America does militarily is for national self-interest. And yet I think there is often hope in all of that for a better world for all.

I close these thoughts with a prayer from Mother Theresa’s version of the prayer of St. Francis, and the prayer our Lord taught his disciples to pray:

Make us worthy Lord to serve our fellow men throughout the world, who live and die in poverty and hunger. Give them through our hands, this day, their daily bread and by our understanding love give peace and joy.

Lord, make me a channel of thy peace.
That where there is hatred I may bring love,
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness,
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony,
That where there is error I may bring truth,
That where there is doubt I may bring faith,
That where there is despair I may bring hope,
That where there are shadows I may bring light,
That where there is sadness I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted,
To understand than to be understood,
To love than to be loved.
For it is by forgetting self that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven,
it is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one,
for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.

taking the teeth out of the satan

Scot McKnight wrote an excellent post worthy of framing on the meaning of Jesus’ death. What is often lost in the reformed emphasis especially, is the view that for God’s people (and ultimately for the world) God puts in place a new way of being human that breaks the endless cycle of tit for tat, violence. And refuses every other way other than the way of the cross in this life.

We must love our enemies no matter what. We must refuse to listen to the accuser both of God and of the brethren (sisters and brothers in Jesus), the satan. No matter what, we must take the way of not only nonviolence and nonresistance, but active love, the way of the cross.

But since Constantine, the church largely took another way. From it being illegal to be a Christian and serve in the Roman military, in time only Christians could serve in the military. Before Constantine, the church fathers taught against Christians using violence. But Augustine rationalized such use with the help of worldly sources (Cicero, someone like that). Augustine had to talk around Jesus’ teaching, and much of the church followed his error. And the result over the centuries has been anything but pretty, oftentimes even from worldly standards. Not that the world is going to put a charitable construction on what Christians do. But admittedly, aside from that, this is sadly the case.

However you see the relation of the church and state, or whether or not a Christian can kill, we must still take the way of the cross, the way of love. We must love our enemies, and refuse the voice of the accuser against our sisters and brothers in Jesus.

It is through Jesus and his cross that this new way of love was made possible. Through the cross God set in life a new way of love which is to rule the day, over the old way of force, which at best has limited value, and at worst is detrimental, as has been seen over and over again in old and recent history. It is only through God’s grace in Jesus that we can walk in this way. But this is the way we are to choose. And we do so, regardless of how we feel about it, or whether we’re ready or not. I am speaking of a posture of how we obey, how we live with reference to Jesus’ commands in this world. Of course we want to pray and grow to the point that it is in our heart to do these things. But the grace of God in the love of God in Jesus helps us to take the way of the cross, even when we don’t want to do that. The way of humility and love.

We in Jesus are in this way in him together for the world.

read the Sermon on the Mount

I really don’t think Christians or the Christianity in general which I grew up with (even as a Mennonite, perhaps) took seriously enough Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. And Jesus told his disciples before his ascension that they were not only to be witnesses of him, to proclaim him, but to teach all those baptized from all nations to the end of the age to obey all he commanded them. The Sermon on the Mount is a centerpiece of what he taught and commanded.

I have seen gossip*, as well as unloving attitudes among Christians, rolling one’s eyes up against another, simply too common (with wonderful exceptions). We chalk that down to the thought that we’re sinners (and, “Everyone does it.”). Or we even justify it. But actually it’s disobedience to Christ, the one who says that if we love him, we’ll do what he commands. We make a big deal out of protecting ourselves with guns from any intruder, or any enemy, when Jesus tells us otherwise. We make it a priority to gain wealth, maybe get a nice slice of the pie in the American enterprise to realize something of the American Dream when Jesus tells us plainly in the Sermon that instead we’re to pursue his kingdom. And not to do that. Or what about our propensity to put hard and fast judgments on others.

From a misreading of scripture we’ve had at least one whole section of the church relegate the Sermon on the Mount either to a bygone day, or a time yet to come. Which actually ended up infecting many churches and Christians, who officially did not hold to that doctrine. And we’ve had other leaders who gave lip service to the Sermon (in the Reformation), but whose theology really had little room for it. They still lived in and imported much of what had been the norm for Israel in the old covenant.

Reading the Sermon on the Mount, and then seeing much of the rest of the New Testament to a large extent echoing as well as unfolding the teaching of that Sermon is not only eye opening, but revolutionary to one’s faith and practice. Instead we are relegated to a significant degree to get on better on our worldly way, now that we have Christ.

Words are cheap, and it’s easy to talk this way. Much harder to live it out. But we need to do just that. We need each other in this. As the Sermon along with all of Jesus’ teachings and example, and all the truth that is in Jesus becomes more and more the heart of who we are together in him in our witness to the world.

*I mentioned gossip when writing this, probably because those who see Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount as important for our lives today, would at least know better than to do that. Although gossip does not break the letter of the Sermon since it is not mentioned, it shatters the spirit of it.

the church not of the world, but in and for the world

The machine grinds on. I didn’t stay up to hear the president’s State of the Union speech last night, partly due to the hour I need to rise. I don’t like to be up that late, or I likely would have been tuned in. I will gather what I can, and perhaps will listen to it on the computer downstairs (this computer spews everything out faster and in a higher pitch).

I am betwixt and sometimes not knowing just how to look at it. Except that I believe the good news of God’s kingdom come in Jesus does have something, even much to say with reference to the world’s mess. But it says it in terms of Jesus and God’s will in him. And that is to be played out in the mission of the church, no less. Although I don’t think I’m in danger of becoming a Roman Catholic with all due respect to them, I think the Vatican gets something right on this score. It is about the church in the world, to them. And yet they endeavor to speak as a moral witness to the world against war, abortion, the death penalty, injustice to the poor. But they too were victims of the Constantinian shift, which in time resulted in Christian killing Christian in the name of the state, not to mention Christians killing non-Christians. Not following our Lord in that.

And so yes, I think I ought to pay attention to the politics of this world. At the same time I know that’s not where it’s at in terms of God’s calling for us who follow Christ, for the church. In Jesus there is something much better, which America, which the world is to see from us. Even in the midst of all our brokenness, growing up, even our errors and deficiencies. Yes, the world should be impacted as well as see the salt and light that we are. Through Jesus by the Spirit, I think that is true to the extent that we don’t sully and hide ourselves through embracing something less than our calling in Jesus.

And so hopefully we speak prophetically in Jesus across the board. Here in America to Democrats, Republicans, Independents, to the entire system. Not just to one side or the other. Following Jesus together as the one holy nation in and for the world.