I am thrilled to be able to move a Twitter conversation (with its 140-character limitation) to the blog. This post is a response to my friend Pastor Michael Kennedy who leads Crosspoint Community Church in Dublin, Georgia. We began a conversation on Twitter in response to Brian Zahnd’s blog post: “What if Hitler Invaded Your House?,” a discussion on the two common objections to Christian nonviolence, i.e. what about Hitler and the Nazis? and what about an intruder in your home?
Michael wrote a respectful, biblical critique of Brian’s vision of Christian nonviolence: “A Jesus I Don’t Recognize (My Response to Brian Zahnd)” a response which critiques Brian position. Brian and I share the same view of Christian nonviolence, and because Michael and I are friends, I gladly offer my response. (Please read Michael’s blog post before continuing with mine.)
Michael’s critique is organized around three points:
- Championing a Jesus of peace without emphasizing the justice of God is problematic.
- We are both Jesus and Pilate.
- Lasting peace will only be present when Jesus returns to set up his kingdom.
I am not going to respond line-by-line to everything in Michael’s post, but I will respond to each of these main points.
1) Championing a Jesus of peace without emphasizing the justice of God is problematic; true, but justice can be accomplished without war.
Brian does preach a Jesus of peace and while he may not have emphasized justice in the blog post on home invasion or in his book A Farewell to Mars, he did address the issue of justice in Unconditional? in Chapter 6 “Forgiveness and Justice.” Justice is indeed the other side of the coin and is connected inextricably to peace. In Jesus “justice and peace kiss” (Psalm 85:10). Jesus is the one Isaiah spoke of calling him both the “prince of peace” and the one who would rule with justice (Isaiah 9:5-7). Rejecting war as a plausible means of shaping the world is not the same thing as rejecting justice. The justice of God can come upon the earth without the shedding of blood. Indeed the reign of Messiah according to Isaiah would be a rule where the “every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire” (Isaiah 9:5). Where Michael and I disagree perhaps is when Jesus’ rule begins, but I will save my comments on this disagreement for the end. The justice of God—God setting to right a world gone wrong—is connected to the Jesus’ primary teaching theme: the kingdom of God. Therefore there is no separating peace from justice.
My question about justice is: Do we see the justice of God in Christ as more punitive or restorative? I suppose Michael sees justice as more punitive, but I see Jesus—in the tradition of God’s dealings with Israel—as promoting a justice that is restorative. More of a punitive view of justice led to Michael’s statement: “The entire reason Jesus came to this earth was to satisfy the justice of God.” This is a bit of an overstatement. It seems like Michael’s views on atonement theory (i.e. penal substitutionary atonement) has overshadowed the gospel writers’ presentation of Jesus and why he came. Atonement theories are numerous and important. I am fine with making room at the table for a certain version of penal substitution, but we cannot allow our theories to overshadow the Jesus revealed in the gospel texts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John do not present a Jesus whose central role in the incarnation was to satisfy the justice of God. In John’s gospel, for example, we see Jesus who comes to reveal God. “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). Jesus comes primarily to show us what God is like, to save the world, to be the bread from heaven that brings eternal life. In this revealing, saving work, there is justice, a condemnation upon those who do not believe (John 3:17), but not a condemnation without the declaration of love (John 3:16) and the extension of mercy.
Furthermore, mercy-giving and peace-making are not acts of passivity. At this point it would be helpful to define some terms. By “peace,” I am referring to “non-violence” and by “violence” I mean “exertion of physical force so as to injure, harm, or abuse.” Jesus was consistently non-violent. Yes, Jesus drove out the money-changers from the temple. Yes, he turned over their tables. Yes (according to John and John only), he did so with a homemade whip in hand. My question is this: Was the actions of Jesus in the temple an act of mafia-style intimidation or an act prophetic judgment upon the temple itself? To say Jesus was trying to use force to intimidate people would be inconsistent with the Jesus we see everywhere else throughout the gospels. His actions in the temple with the money-changers were dynamic. They were demonstrative, but they were not “violent” in that he was not attempting to harm or injury anyone either physically or psychologically. Jesus’ actions in the temple would not be considered violent in his historic context. Many Galilean would-be Messiahs had already come, waged wars (armed revolts), and were dead and gone. The zealots (Jews ready to liberate Israel by violence) were popular in the day of Jesus, but Jesus did not join their ranks. Whenever Jesus was given the opportunity to use violence or sanction violence he refused. He taught us to love our enemies not kill them (Matt. 5:44). He rebuked James and John who suggested calling down fire from heaven to consume a Samaritan village (Luke 9:54). He refused to stone the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:11). He challenged the Judeans who were seeking to kill him, condemning their intentions as of the devil (John 8:44). At his arrest he shouted “No more of this!” when disciples wanted to strike with the sword (Luke 22:49-50). Then at the cross he chose the supreme act of non-violence by dying with words of forgiveness, and not vengeance, on his lips (Luke 23:45). At the cross, Jesus demonstrated for us that non-violence is anything but passive. In his suffering, he gave us an example to follow (1 Peter 2:21).
2) We are both Pilate and Jesus; sorta, but ultimately we are followers of Jesus.
I understand the use of the metaphor “We are both Pilate and Jesus,” but I am a bit uncomfortable with seeing ourselves as Pilate. Michael’s point is that we, as citizens as a republic-style government, are much more involved in the State than Christians in the days of the Roman Empire, so we should see ourselves as Pilate the representative of the State. Michael’s argument is: God has put the sword in the hands of the State. We, as US citizens, are the State. Therefore the sword is in our hands.
We are citizens in a republic where we have a voice in the State, but the way the New Testament talks about the State is as an entity separate from the church. Indeed this was the Church/State relationship for the first three centuries of the church until Constantine and the subsequent merging of the Christian Church with the Roman Empire, a horrible disaster for the church which I do not have the space to address in this blog post. My point is we have to read the texts (like Romans 13) in their historical context seeing the Church as distinct from the State. If not, I fear we will misunderstand Romans 13 and other texts and miss some of the central teachings of Jesus.
One helpful practice is to separate out the Christian “we” from the American “we,” when talking about political theology. We, the Christian “we,” should be the voice of Christ to the nation in which we reside. We should be a prophetic voice for truth and justice. We should feel free to participate (or not participate) in the politics of this nation as our consciences allow because we, the American “we,” are citizens here. BUT our core identity comes from our position in Christ. Our most primary citizenship is from heaven. Our deepest allegiance is to his kingdom. The kingdom of Christ—which is not here in fullness—is, nevertheless, a kingdom of peace as Michael noted. In the overlap of ages between this present evil age and the age to come shouldn’t we be informed by the age to come making ethical decisions based on kingdom values? I agree “it is necessary for someone to stand up against evil,” but we, the Christian “we,” can stand up against evil without violence. Isn’t this the example we see in Jesus at the cross? He made a stand against evil without a single act of violence. Can nations do this in the modern world? I think post-apartheid South Africa is a modern example of how evil can be defeated and justice be served non-violently. Of course Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi are examples too. We may indeed have to suffer. Our children may indeed have to suffer, but Jesus invited us to follow him carrying crosses—implements of execution—on the way.
The problem with Constantinianism (and to a lesser degree the Just War Theory) is we become scripted to see war as a legitimate response to global problems. When war (or violent acts) are an option, we lack the imagination (and yes imagination, a renewed imagination, is essential for Christians who submit to a King who is ruling the earth from heaven and will come again to rule on earth) to think through non-violent solutions.
Michael’s comment: “In every war, there is a side that is right and a side that is wrong” is a sweeping generality, which does not hold up to historical evidence. I am no expert in the history of war but from my limited knowledge it seems that Solzhenitsyn’s axiom is true: the dividing line between good and evil does not run between nations but through the heart of every human being. It seems to me that most (maybe “most” is a generality on my part?) nations in a war see themselves as “good” and the enemy as “wrong/evil.” This is the fundamental flaw of war in general, and Constantinianism (i.e. “God’s on the side of my nation”) in particular, we normally justify our acts of violence, which only fuels the ongoing cycle of war. Never has this flaw been so clearly seen as in the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides see themselves as recipients of injustice. Both sides see the justness of their cause and the evilness of the enemy. Both sides sense a god-given responsibility to condone good and punish evil and so the un-banned cannonballs continue to fly and innocent people suffer. Jesus is the judge of the nations and he will judge the masters of war. When we mistakenly see ourselves as both Pilate and Jesus, we fool ourselves into thinking we can always judge the right side and the wrong side in a war. Jesus will come to judge the living in the dead. Until then, Jesus has already showed us a better way than war; it is the way of enemy-love, the way of reconciliation and justice, the way of peace. I imagine Jesus weeping now as he did as he entered into Jerusalem, lamenting that humanity has not learned the things that make for peace.
3) Lasting peace will only be present when Jesus returns to set up his kingdom, yes, but Jesus has already begun setting up his reign through the church.
I agree with Michael’s comment he made regarding our dual identity as Pilate and Jesus: “We submit to our government until the government requires from us what we cannot do as citizens of the God’s kingdom.” But I ask: Is the kingdom of Christ a violent or non-violent kingdom? It is a kingdom of justice (even punitive justice) and peace, but is it a violent kingdom where Jesus rules by war and violence? Scripture demands we answer “no.” I am a citizen of a peaceable kingdom and therefore I cannot, in good conscience, kill on behalf of the nation where I live. While those of us who advocate peace are accused of an over-realized eschatology those who subscribe to a Constantinianism-view of political theology can be accused of an UNDER-realized eschatology. It seems that Micahel and I are viewing things from opposite ends of the classic “already/not yet” spectrum. We may disagree to what degree the kingdom has come but we cannot disagree on the nature of the kingdom. If we are being formed by a non-violent kingdom then it follows we would live as a non-violent people.
Before I am accused of holding to an over-realized eschatology, let me make this clear: I understand we live in a violent world. If an intruder enters my home intent on doing my family harm, I will use all the strength I have to subdue him, but I not making any plans to kill him. On a large scale, I understand we need law enforcement, men and women, who use the act of force to “condone good and punish evil,” ( I am reading Romans 13 in the context of a State policing its own citizens and not waging war against other nations), but as followers of Christ we should be the voice of moral constraint calling for the least amounts of violence as possible. We should look at acts of violence with shock and disgust. They are a part of the world that is passing away. We are being formed into the image of a peaceable Jesus who is presenting ruling over a peaceable kingdom. His kingdom will come in its fullness and so we wait and pray “May your kingdom come, may your will be done.” And until then, we embody his peaceable kingdom in the way we live, which leads us enviably down a path of non-violence.