Ted’s Talk

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Modern Crusader

In his own words, Ted Cruz is a “Christian first, an American second”.  And, as America’s “most Christian” presidential hopeful, he won the Iowa Caucus this week and gave “God the glory” for his victory. With 56% of Iowa’s voters as self-described protestant Christians, Cruz relied on a surge of evangelical voters to give him a narrow victory over the evangelical come lately, Donald Trump. In January, Cruz created a National Prayer Team “To establish a direct line of communication between our campaign and the thousands of Americans who are lifting us up before the Lord.” And, while Cruz sounds more like a Southern Baptist preacher than a presidential candidate when praising the redemptive power of Jesus Christ and promising to defend religious liberty, it’s his violent rhetoric toward Muslims that is causing many thoughtful Christians to question his knowledge of, and relationship with Jesus of Nazareth.

In a December speech in Iowa, mobilizing his evangelical followers, Cruz said America “Will utterly destroy ISIS. We will carpet bomb (ISIS) into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”  So much for loving your enemies.

Cruz is no different from the rest of the Republican hopefuls, who with one breath praise God and with another define how they as Commander in Chief will hunt down and kill America’s enemies. Gentle Ben Carson, referencing ISIS, said American must “Eradicate them now”. In the fifth Republican debate, Donald Trump publicly admitted that his policy would be to kill non-combatant women and children. Was I watching a Republican presidential debate or a Nuremberg Rally? And, as much as I’d like to think that American evangelicals would be appalled at such hate speech from fellow Christians, most whole-heartedly agree. Of the 1.4 million people on active military duty in the United States, 77% profess Christianity. In a 2002 poll, 69% of conservative Christians supported direct military force against Baghdad, a full 10 percentage points higher than the U.S. population as a whole.  In fact, this study by the Washington Post shows that U.S. Christians are more supportive of CIA torture than non-religious Americans. How is this possible given the life and teachings of Jesus?  Why, in the face of such direct commands to love our enemy can Christians adopt a theology of redemptive violence, calling on God to divinely sanction our manifest destiny?  Killing your national enemy isn’t Christian, it’s making Jesus dance a jig for your imperial hubris. When God conveniently hates the same people your nation hates, be sure you are worshipping an idol.

There are a myriad of social and sexual issues that Christians can agree or disagree on, and still be Christian. But Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek, to love one’s enemy is the sin qua non of discipleship. Scripture reminds us that to shed human blood is an offense against God Himself, making it qualitatively different from other sins. Therefore, peacemaking isn’t a pious appendage to the Gospel for the liberal few, it is rather “the very form of the church, insofar as the church is the form of the one who is our peace”. As Miroslav Volf reminds us, “If you take the ‘love your enemy’ out of the Christian faith, you’ve ‘un-Christianed’ the Christian faith.” Or to put it bluntly, if war is right then Jesus was a liar.

Historically speaking, the church in America must confess that what we call public Christianity is actually “A fusion between something from Christ, and a whole lot from the Roman Empire”. In fact, it’s not Christianity at all, it’s civic religion. Prior to 400 C.E., Christians unilaterally refused service in the military, stemming from the belief that Jesus was Lord and Caesar was not.  In fact, their belief in nonviolence was so robust and universal that Emperor Diocletian forbade Christians to serve in the Roman Legions. And yet, just 100 years later with the unification of church and state under Constantine, no one could serve in the Roman imperial army without first professing faith in Jesus Christ. What a dramatic conversion! The church, which used to “give the empire fits, now fits so well within the empire”. What was at stake then, and continues to be at stake now is our ultimate allegiance. For many evangelical Americans, national loyalty almost always trumps their allegiance to Jesus.

Therefore, no matter how ‘Pro-Life’ our politicians claim to be, the church can no longer stay silent amidst wars and rumors of wars, as our nation spends billions of dollars every year on creative ways to destroy our enemy’s women and children.  What then, would it take for the Body of Christ in America to live a consistent ethic of human life that valued not only the fetus, but the fully formed and broken human person as well?

From Augustine to Tolstoy, generations of believers have wrestled with the problem of evil, and the temptation of redemptive violence.  But now, with feet firmly entrenched in the chemical and nuclear age where human beings have the capacity to destroy the earth 15 times over, we need room in our Biblical worldview to reconsider Jesus’ theology of nonviolent resistance.

For starters, we must dispense with the labels and negative identify formation that comes with ‘pacifism’. Nonviolent resistance is more than passive or willing suffering, Jesus never asked his followers to stand idly by in the face of evil. The spiritual poverty embraced in the false, uneducated dichotomy of ‘kill or be killed’ fails to account for the myriad of active ways Christians can respond when confronted with evil.  This break from Darwinian determinism is an evolutionary progression away from the trademark ‘pacifist’ to a more appropriate moniker ‘nonviolent resistance’.[3]  Modeled by Christ himself, nonviolence is not passivity or quietism, but an active application of truth and love in the face of a violent world.  The nonviolent resister promises never to kill, or to be complicit in killing. Instead she offers the world an alternative paradigm. One that loves the enemy while confronting his evil. Simply put:

“Nonviolence is a way to fight against injustice and war without using violence. It is the force of love and truth that seeks change for human life, that resists injustice, that refuses cooperation with violence and systems of death. It is noncooperation with violence. It says that the means are the ends, that the way to peace is peace itself.”[4]

Nonviolence isn’t meekness in the face of evil, it is the courageous and oftentimes creative task of disarmament. To be nonviolent means to deal with an aggressor as God through Christ dealt with me. In God’s willingness to take on suffering, to right wrongs and overturn evil, He himself refused to let rebellious mankind be identified as His enemy. From this perspective, the cross is the ultimate paradox. It is the embodiment of suffering power, not weakness.  Creative nonviolence acknowledges that loving one’s enemy is far from easy, but incredibly liberating. “When am I more a slave to my adversary than when I allow him to define our relationship as my being his enemy?”[5] In Christ, one’s enemy becomes a privileged object of love since God himself worked out the reconciliation of the world at the cost of his own suffering.[6]  As Father John Dear reminds us,

“As our adversaries begin to recognize our humanity, the sacrifices made, the risks taken, and the violence hidden in their practice of injustice or evil, their eyes may be opened and their own participation in the injustice becomes apparent to them. In that instant of recognition and subsequent shame, the violence and injustice can stop—forever.”

Beating swords into plowshares is liberating action on behalf of the suffering and oppressed. It is freedom from our enslavement to violence.

In a world where smart bombs are smarter than our presidential candidates, it is time for Christians to shed the vestiges of our Constantinian past and rediscover Jesus. Nonviolence is the foundational ethic of Christ, who in disarming Peter, disarmed us all.

As American politicians hijack Christianity to provide divine sanction for our manifest destiny, may we remember how God in Christ dealt with His enemies. Look afresh on the crucified God and ask yourself: ‘What kind of God does the crucifixion reveal’? Can this God, whose full revelation to the world is manifested as a defenseless man on a cross be a tyrant who returns evil with evil? “When the crucified Jesus is called “the image of the invisible God,” the meaning is that THIS is God, and God is like THIS. Are we called to imitate this crucified God or Mars?

Radical Christian faith means committing your life to the crucified God, whose death wasn’t so much about delegitimizing violence as completely overcoming it. Jesus gives us tangible ways of dealing with evil, injustice, and violence without resorting to evil, injustice, or violence. The stumbling block for American evangelicals and our Christian politicians isn’t just that our God in His divine defenselessness would choose to die for His enemies rather than destroy them, but rather that we as His people must go and do likewise.

[1] Isaiah 2: 4.

[2] Dear, Father John. Our God is NonViolent.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., pg. 7.

[5] Yoder, John Howard. Nonviolence: A Brief History.

[6] Yoder, John Howard. What Would You Do?.

[7] Ibid., pag. 1.

 

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Beating Swords Into Plowshares

Unknown-1Several weeks ago ESPN reporter Chris Broussard made headlines answering a question he was not asked on whether or not a homosexual can be identified as Christian. And while the church should be very careful receiving her theology from an NBA reporter, his comments did incline me to ask a more statistically valid question: “Can Christians Kill?”  Can followers of Jesus, who profess faith and hope and love in the Prince of Peace, engage in the planning, preparation and execution of violence for the sake of family, kin or nation?  More specifically, in light of the recent chemical weapons abuses in Syria, can Christians support and engage in retaliatory violence against an evil regime for the sake of the suffering?  Is it ever appropriate to return evil for evil?

These are statistically and philosophically valid questions.  Of the 1.4 million people on active military duty in the United States, 77% profess Christianity, not to mention the hundreds of thousands employed as sub-contractors producing and exporting weapons of mass destruction.  In a 2002 poll, 69% of conservative Christians supported direct military force against Baghdad, a full 10 percentage points higher than the U.S. population as a whole.  How is this possible given the life and teachings of Jesus?  Why, in the face of such direct commands to love our enemy can Christians adopt a theology of redemptive violence?   Historically speaking, the church is returning to her vomit by repeating the acculturated sins of her past. Prior to 400 C.E., Christians unilaterally refused service in the military.  In fact, their belief in nonviolence was so robust and universal that Emperor Diocletian forbade Christians to serve in the Roman Legions. And yet, just 100 years later with the unification of church and state under Constantine, no one could serve in the Roman imperial army without first professing faith in Jesus Christ.  It seems the twisted notion of ‘God and Country’ isn’t a new phenomenon after all.

But let’s get back to the original question. If the answer is ‘We are not allowed to kill’, then the church is in dire need of repentance.  If the answer really is no, then this transformative cultural institution can no longer stay silent amidst wars and rumors of wars, as our nation spends billions of dollars on creative ways to destroy our enemy and his family.  As one Twitter user recently posted, “Those  same #Xtians who are the loudest in protecting the unborn are damningly silent when it comes to killing our enemy’s women and children.” What would it take for the Body of Christ to live a consistent ethic of human life that valued not only the fetus, but the fully formed and broken human person as well?

From Augustine to Tolstoy, generations of believers wrestled with the problem of evil, and the tempting philosophy of redemptive violence.  But now, with feet firmly entrenched in the chemical and nuclear age where human beings have the capacity to destroy the earth 15 times over, we need room in our Biblical worldview to reconsider Jesus’ theology of nonviolent resistance.

For starters, we must dispense with the labels and negative identify formation that comes part and parcel with ‘pacifism’.  Nonviolent resistance is more than passive or willing suffering, Jesus never asked his followers to stand idly by in the face of evil. The spiritual poverty embraced in the false, uneducated dichotomy of ‘kill or be killed’ fails to account for the myriad of active ways Christians can respond when confronted with evil.  This break from Darwinian determinism is an evolutionary progression away from the trademark ‘pacifist’ to a more appropriate moniker ‘nonviolent resistance’.[3]  Modeled by Christ himself, nonviolence is not passivity or quietism, but an active application of truth and love in the face of a violent world.  The nonviolent resister promises never to kill, or to be complicit in killing. Instead she offers the world an alternative paradigm. One that loves the enemy while confronting his evil. Simply put:

“Nonviolence is a way to fight against injustice and war without using violence. It is the force of love and truth that seeks change for human life, that resists injustice, that refuses cooperation with violence and systems of death. It is noncooperation with violence. It says that the means are the ends, that the way to peace is peace itself.”[4]

Nonviolence isn’t meekness in the face of evil, it is the courageous and oftentimes creative task of disarmament. Nonviolence deals with the aggressor as God through Christ dealt with me. In God’s willingness to take on suffering, to right wrongs and overturn evil, He himself refused to let rebellious mankind be identified as enemy.  In this praxis, the cross is the ultimate paradox, it is power not weakness.  Creative nonviolence acknowledges that loving one’s enemy is far from easy, but incredibly liberating. “When am I more a slave to my adversary than when I allow him to define our relationship as my being his enemy?”[5] In Christ, one’s enemy becomes a privileged object of love since God himself worked out the reconciliation of the world at the cost of his own suffering.[6]  As Father John Dear expresses,

“As our adversaries begin to recognize our humanity, the sacrifices made, the risks taken, and the violence hidden in their practice of injustice or evil, their eyes may be opened and their own participation in the injustice becomes apparent to them. In that instant of recognition and subsequent shame, the violence and injustice can stop—forever.”

Beating swords into plowshares is liberating action on behalf of the suffering and oppressed. It is personal as well as global. It impacts how I treat my family, my neighbor and especially my posture toward this latest national enemy.  It is freedom from the enslavement to violence; freedom into a life lived in the Spirit of God.  And, it is a real possibility even here, even now.

In a world replete with injustice and brokenness, do we dare discuss nonaggression?  Is there yet any room in our world to move from the visceral to a rational conversation on this topic?  The skeptic  of course must ask, ‘Aren’t there many other issues to decry or to defend’?  Of course there are. But in a world where 45,000 people starve to death every day, in a world that spends $1.7 million every minute on weapons of death and over $800 billion annually, when else should we talk about this?[7] What better time to lean into a paradigm as fundamental to the Gospel as Jesus is himself.  In the words of Jesuit priest, poet and peacemaker Daniel Berrigan,

“The only message I have to the world is: We are not allowed to kill. We are not allowed to be silent while preparations for mass murder proceed in our name, with our money. I have nothing else to say in the world. At other times one could talk about family life and divorce and birth control and abortion and many other questions. But (violence) is here. And it renders all other questions null and void. Nothing can be settled until this is settled. Or this will settle us. It is terrible for me to live in a time where I have nothing to say to human beings except, ‘Stop Killing.’ There are other beautiful things that I would love to be saying to people…And I can’t…Our plight is very primitive from a Christian point of view. We are back where we started. Thou shalt not kill; we are not allowed to kill. Everything today comes down to that—everything.”[8]

[1] Isaiah 2: 4.

[2] Dear, Father John. Our God is NonViolent.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., pg. 7.

[5] Yoder, John Howard. Nonviolence: A Brief History.

[6] Yoder, John Howard. What Would You Do?.

[7] Ibid., pag. 1.

[8] Berrigan, Daniel. Opening Statement in The Trail of The Plowshares Eight.

The Third Way: Nonviolent Resistance

“He who says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”

Most of us simply dismiss Jesus’ politic of nonviolent resistance as either impractical idealism or an outdated, extinct appendage to the Gospel.  Pacifism just doesn’t work in our world of chemical weapons, Delhi bus rapes, Boston bombs and Newtown shootings. To even discuss it draws the angst and ire of the most devout evangelical. Sooner rather than later, in every conversation about peace and nonviolence, someone will most assuredly ask the question, ‘What would you do if a criminal or insane person threatened to hurt or kill your mom, sister or daughter?’ As if the question alone provides the coup de grace for anyone naïve enough to believe Jesus really meant what he said.  Or, more timely, what should we do when a regime uses chemical weapons to kill innocent men, women and children? While serious doubt can be raised about the validity of the first question, the second is a shameful reality right here and right now. Thankfully we who inhabit this fallen world do not have to rely on hypothetical answers to guide us. We have as answer witness to the life, ministry and death of Jesus, the par excellence of nonviolent resistance who as God made flesh confronted injustice, violence and evil by dismissing the underlying assumption that the only two options are to ‘kill or be killed’.  This limited reserve of reaction reveals our own physical and spiritual poverty. Mahatma Gandhi even said that if the only two choices are to kill or stand idly by while the weak are exterminated by the strong, then of course, we must kill.  And to that end I acquiesce.

But thankfully, Jesus gives us a third way; a different path beyond quietism or redemptive violence.  It is the radical way of the omnipotent, which, when the hypothetical became a reality, practiced nonviolent resistance as a just means of opposing the enemy in a way that opened up the possibility of the enemy, even an enemy brandishing chemical weapons, to become just himself.  Do you remember the scene in John’s gospel when the life of a defenseless woman was about to be taken?  With stones in hand and a terrified woman at their feet, Jesus interrupts the plans of the self-righteous by interceding on her behalf. He didn’t sit idly by or meet the Pharisees viciousness with force. Rather, he placed himself between the woman and her attackers and bore the brunt of their accusations on her behalf.[3] He met the Pharisees lethal force with an altogether different form of power, a power manifested in suffering love on behalf of the oppressed which when practiced, elevates the dignity of the downtrodden.  Christ’s third way of dealing with evil is therefore not some form of negative pacifism that we in the policing West can dismiss as superfluous in our attempts to meet evil with evil, it is active love and truth in the face of evil on behalf of the subjugated.

Consider Jesus’ most famous polemic on nonviolence in his political manifesto, the Sermon on the Mount.  Written as the platform for Jesus’ call to radical discipleship, the sermon commands his would be followers to confront evil in a third, revolutionary way.

“Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, walk with him two miles…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”[4]

What is Jesus up to when he asks us to ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘go the second mile’ and ‘give up your cloak as well’? In the first instance, Jesus speaks of being struck on the right cheek and turning again the other.  In the Jewish world where the left hand was only used for unclean tasks, to hit the right cheek with the right hand required a backhanded blow, meant not to harm but to humiliate. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents their children; Romans, Jews.[5] A backhanded blow brandished contemptuous superiority over the weaker party, akin to kicking a stray dog.  Jesus refuses to allow both himself and his followers to accept such treatment.  Instead, he offers a creative way of resisting unchecked power.  As Walter Wink explains, “by turning the left cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again. The left cheek offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish through his brutality the equality of his underling.”[6]For Jesus and for us, turning the other cheek establishes equality; it is nonviolent resistance resulting in status equalization.  In the first century world of honor and shame, this brutal superior who relies on violence to maintain his status, is now the one publicly humiliated.[7]

Jesus’ second scene of assertive nonviolence is staged in a court of law. A creditor has taken a poor man to court for an unpaid debt.  Only the lowest of the low were subject to this form of duress. The Mosaic Law stipulates that a creditor could take as collateral for a loan a poor person’s outer robe, but it must be returned each evening so the man can have something in which to sleep. Instead of accepting this form of economic inequality, Jesus commands his followers to oppose the entire system of prejudice by counseling the poor to give to their wealthy creditor all their clothing, willfully standing before the law and the community completely naked!  Can you picture the scene, a poor man, forced to give up his coat, removes all his tattered clothes standing completely  naked as public witness to an unjust system. And, since nakedness was strictly taboo in Judaism, the shame of such a public display fell not on the naked party, but on those viewing or causing the nakedness.[9]This very public, shocking display by the beleaguered debtor ironically restores his dignity while simultaneously rebuking the greed and power of the creditor. Again, Jesus’ third way of confronting oppression turns the tables on those in power, which should cause us who live in the first world to seriously ponder the weight of our economic, social and political decisions toward the vast majority of the underprivileged world.

Finally, Jesus’ third example of ‘Going the second mile’ is drawn from the common practice of impressment levied by Roman soldiers on subjected colonial populations who were forced by law to carry a soldiers pack one mile upon request.   Jesus offers yet again a third way of confronting power and injustice.  Instead of dropping the bundle the moment one reaches the mile marker, Jesus slyly urges the Jewish peasant to continue hauling the pack a second mile. In this way, the subjugated colonial assumes power over his imperial overlord since requiring an individual to carry one’s pack a second mile was a severe infraction of military code, met with strict punishment.  Our peasant takes back the power of choice. As Walter Wink so poignantly illustrates, “Imagine a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew to give back his pack! The humor of this scene may have escaped us, but it could scarcely have been lost on Jesus’ hearers, who must have been delighted at the prospect of thus discomfiting their oppressors.” It’s no wonder Jesus is so loved by the marginalized.  It’s no wonder the powerful killed him.

In a world where smart bombs are smarter than our politicians and diplomats, it is altogether fitting to rediscover Jesus’ polemic on disarmament. Our world is replete with evil, the powerful consistently abuse the weak. The hypothetical is reality. Nonviolent resistance is not a platitude discussed from the safety of ivory towers; it is the foundational ethic of Christ, who in disarming Peter disarmed us all.  As our nation ponders military action against injustice, we Christians must remember the posture God took when dealing with His enemies. We must look again upon the crucified God and ask ourselves anew: What kind of God does the crucifixion reveal? “Can this God who is most frequently represented as a defenseless baby in a manger and as a defenseless man on a cross by a tyrant” who meets evil with evil? Are we called to follow this God, or the God of our civil religion? Jesus gives us real, tangible ways of dealing with evil, injustice and violence without resorting to evil, injustice and violence. But there are times when even this posture will not safeguard our lives, and so we look again to the one who was raised up on our behalf, who once again did not sit idly by, but stepped between us and a righteous God whose hands were raised against our evil, and, in Christ’s greatest act of nonviolent resistance, took upon himself the sin and shame of mankind by suffering on behalf of his enemies. If we who claim to be his disciples believe that the life, ministry, words and death of Jesus are more than mere pithy clichés for an ancient world, we must have the courage and creativity to go and be like Him.  After all, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

I John 2: 6

[2] Sider, Ronald J. “God’s People Reconciling”

[3] Aukerman, Dale. “The Scandal of Defenselessness”.

[4] Matthew 5: 39-41, 44.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Genesis 9: 20-27.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Gandhi, Mahatma.