The Peaceable Jesus I Have Come to See: A Response to Michael Kennedy

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.

Prayer for World Peace

On this day when Muslims, Jews, and Christians are praying for peace between Israeli and Palestinians, I prayed this prayer…

Prayer for World Peace
By Sister Joan Chittister of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie

Great God, who has told us “Vengeance is mine,”
save us from ourselves, save us from the vengeance in our hearts and the acid in our souls.

Save us from our desire to hurt as we have been hurt,
to punish as we have been punished, to terrorize as we have been terrorized.

Give us the strength it takes to listen rather than to judge,
to trust rather than to fear, to try again and again to make peace even when peace eludes us.

We ask, O God, for the grace to be our best selves.
We ask for the vision to be builders of the human community rather than its destroyers.
We ask for the humility as a people to understand the fears and hopes of other peoples.

We ask for the love it takes to bequeath to the children of the world to come more than the failures of our own making.
We ask for the heart it takes to care for all the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq,
of Palestine and Israel as well as for ourselves.

Give us the depth of soul, O God,
to constrain our might,
to resist the temptations of power
to refuse to attack the attackable,
to understand that vengeance begets violence,
and to bring peace–not war–wherever we go.

For You, O God, have been merciful to us.
For You, O God, have been patient with us.
For You, O God, have been gracious to us.

And so may we be merciful
and patient
and gracious
and trusting
with these others whom you also love.

This we ask through Jesus,
the one without vengeance in his heart.
This we ask forever and ever. Amen

Thoughts Gathered from Hiking on the Appalachian Trail

2014-06-12 09.51.51I finished my 8-day section hike on the AT just eight days ago. People have asked me about my experience and I have answered in a variety of ways: “epic,” “an adventure of a life time,” “totally fulfilling,”  ”an incredible experience.” I spent over 18-months dreaming, talking, and learning about hiking the Appalachian Trail. I tried to manage my expectations, so I didn’t start my hike with romantic notions about trail life. For the most part I did fairly well. I knew the trail was going to be hard; it was. I knew we would get rained on; we did. I knew I would have trouble sleeping some nights; I did. I knew I would run into interesting people; I did. I knew I would be overwhelmed by the views; I was. I knew I would be sweaty; I was. I did NOT expect it to be so cool at night. Most nights were fine, but I did get cold in my hammock one night. I used every piece of gear I took, so I felt really good about my gear choices. I got ZERO blisters, making me very happy in my decision to hike in trail runners and not boots. Would I do another section again? Absolutely.

I am not sure if I could do a thru hike or not. A thru hike is a complete hike of the entire 2, 185-mile trail from Georgia to Maine (or the other way around) completed in one hiking season. My brother and I discussed this topic a couple of times. I know I could physically do the hike. They say if you can make it through Georgia then you can make it to Maine. The Georgia section may not be as difficult as the White Mountains in New Hampshire or the rugged terrain of Maine, but the Georgia section is no walk in the woods. It is littered with rocks and roots; it is constantly going up and down. We completed the Georgia section plus the Approach Trail and 5- 6 miles in North Carolina in 8 days and I could have done it in 6 days. I know for sure I could do a thru hike physically, but I do not know if I could do it emotionally. On my 8-day trip I was still in the honeymoon of hiking. I hadn’t been out there long enough to hit the wall of monotony. I was out there long enough to miss home and that subtle homesickness would be the one thing to keep me from attempting a thru hike. I am blessed with a great wife and great kids and even though they drive me crazy sometime, I love them. I love being with them and leaving for a 5-6 month hike would be a daunting task.

This hike however was doable. I was only gone for a week and a half or so. Now that I have been home for a week and have looked back, here are my big takeaways from the hike. I did not learn anything new. I did not have any mind-blowing epiphanies. Rather the trail reminded me of a few simple things I already new.

#1 Technology is not the enemy of simplicity

There are a number of debates in the hiking community. One debate is over electronics on the trail. Do you carry the electronic comforts from home with you or do you try to “unplug” and soak in all nature has to offer? Another debate is pack weight. Do you worry about the weight of your pack? Are you a lightweight hiker? An ultra lightweight hiker? An extreme lightweight hiker??? These debates are somewhat connected because they are related to gear. To weigh in on the second debate, I would say I am a lightweight hiker. My base weight before food, water, and fuel for my stove is right at 14 lbs. With food for three days, water, and fuel my pack was 25.5 lbs. I am 200 lbs and a 25 lb. pack was very comfortable.  I met a guy on the trail, Hobbit, who was about 5’6″ and 130 lbs and he was carrying a 55 lbs. pack! Crazy talk!

Over the last 18 months, I have enjoyed learning how to hike lighter. I have learned how to weigh all my gear, choose certain gear according to weight, and figure out what I could leave behind. I number of hikers have experienced the freedom of simplicity on the trail, learning to live on just the essentials. I too share the love of the freedom of simplicity, but on the trail I did carry my iPhone, an iPod shuffle, and an external battery charger. The iPhone may be the best piece of technology ever invented for the hiking community. (I am sure Steve Jobs was thinking about hikers when he created the iPhone, right?) My iPhone, case, charger, and ear buds weigh in at 8 oz. and it may had been the most important 8 oz. I carried. My iPhone served as my camera, video camera, journal, communication device, music player, and video player. (I had the movie Tombstone on my phone. We watched the first hour of it one night in the shelter.) It was a piece of technology that did indeed make my life simpler. I was able to document our hike and carry a little entertainment we me as well. I enjoyed listening to music when I had trouble sleeping or when I was tired and was facing a tough uphill climb. You can be a lightweight hiker and still carry key pieces of technology. In the “real world” we all need to simplify our lives and possessions, but simplifying does not mean throwing everything out.

#2 I am my brother’s keeper

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote: “We are all responsible for everyone else—but I am more responsible than all the others.” Never did I find these words to be MORE true than on the trail. There exists an unspoken ethic on the trail that everyone is responsible for everyone else. Whether it is warnings about bears or rattlesnakes or directions to the water source or warnings about the weather, it seems like the hiking community understands we all need to watch out for each other. Such an ethic flies in the face of a culture dominated by rugged individualism and yes, such stubborn individualism can be found on the trail. You hear it behind the condescending and over-used-trail-phrase: “Hike your own hike.” I refuse to use the phrase because it is just a way to dismiss other people. Obviously, each person is going to decided what is the best way to hike the trail and we will not always do things the same, but “hike your own hike” sounds like a way to tell people off. It sounds like there should be an expletive at the end of the phrase: “HIKE YOUR OWN HIKE, @#$%# !!!” We do not need to judge one another on the trail. If Hobbit wants to hike with a 55 lb. pack, then so be it; I say nothing.

But…we should watch out for each other. This thought became clear in my encounter with Paul. I have reported on Paul in my previous blogs, but we stayed with him on our first night. He was hiking in flip-flops and carrying a gym bag. We shared food with him and boiled water for him. We later learned that he is a mission person who may be suicidal. When I first met Paul, I knew he was strange. I was not surprised to learn he was suffering from a metal illness and was off his medication. We shared gear and food with Paul because he was hiking the trail and he was in need. I felt responsible for him as I felt responsible for everyone I met on the trail. I understand how deep bonds are formed among thru hikers. It doesn’t take long for that sense of responsibility to carry over into a solidified emotional bonds. I have heard more than one thru hiker on the AT speak of their “trail family.” I understand why. On the trail we look out for each other and we form a bond; we begin to love each other in the way I hear Jesus calling us to love one another. I wonder if such love for neighbor can really happen in the real world?

#3 Community is not only necessary for human existence; it makes life better

We cannot survive on our own because we were designed by our Creator for each other. We were created to live in community, to go through life living interdependently with other people. I could not have hiked the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail if it had not been blazed and maintained by other people. I could not have got off the trail in rainstorm and taken into town if it were not for other people. I would not have a backpack or gear to put in it if it were not for other people. I would not have had delicious freeze-dried trail food if it were not for other people. Yes community (other people) are necessary for human survival, but other people also make life better.

I loved hiking with my brother Jeff and our friend John. My brother and I had not spent that much time together since we were kids. I loved it, even when Jeff got impatient like our dad. I enjoyed calling him “Ed Vreeland.” John cracked me up constantly. I will never look at a purple shirt again and not think of John (sorry…inside joke)! I also enjoyed meeting so many interesting people at the shelter at night. Our first night it was Paul. Enough said. The second night was Senator, Amanda, and Kendall. Kendall had a can of bear spray proudly displayed on her hip. I think it was creepy-guy spray as much as bear spray. She was not wearing it the next morning. I guess she figured we were harmless. They were all great fun. The third night we were in town. No interesting people in town. Night #4 was the best night at camp. We slept in the shelter with Colin, Jason, Sampson, and Hobbit. Too many stories. Too many laughs. Those guys were great. Night #5 we camped alone. Night #6 we stayed the night in a cabin at Neel Gap. Night #7 was the most crowded night at the shelter, maybe 13 of us. Most of us tented. I did enjoy talking with Carrie and her husband from Atlanta. We were hoping to stay the night with them on the eighth night at the Springer Mountain Shelter, but we hiked out on the eighth day. These people were really a major highlight of the trip. I love hiking, but walking into camp always felt like a downer, except for the people we encountered.

#4 Everyone needs a little kindness

This need for kindness is connected to the idea that people make life better. Philo of Alexandria said: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” The trail is an adventure and, in some ways, it is a kind of battle. You are battling the weather or the terrain or the ascents OR the descents (we would say that going downhill is just a different kind of pain). Sometime you are battling your body or mind. I love hiking, but it includes some degree of suffering. Everyone is fighting something. A small act of kindness goes a long way. After shivering in my hammock one night I was looking to sleep in the shelter the next night on the trail when we expected a thunderstorm. I did not have a sleeping pad, but Hobbit loaned me his. He wasn’t using it and it was just a small act of kindness but it went a long way.

We never know what small acts of kindness do for other people. I included Paul in our morning prayer before we left the shelter. He said, “Thanks for the prayer.” Who knows, maybe that prayer saved his life? Maybe Paul was ready to take his life that night at the shelter, but he found some kind of hope in the prayer from a stranger. By the way, we have received word that Paul is still on the trail. His girlfriend is concerned about his well-being. I hope he can find his way home.

#5 Physical health is a part of the good life

I worked hard to get in good physical shape for the hike. I turned 40 years old while on the trail and I believe I am as fit as I have been since college. I lost 12 lbs before the hike (and lost another 5-6 lbs while hiking). I ran hard during the winter and spring months and it really paid off. It is true; you do not need to be in shape to hike on the Appalachian Trail. If you start with low mileage days and then build up, you can get into trail shape. You do not HAVE TO be in shape to hike the trail, but it sure makes hiking much more enjoyable. John was…how shall I say…the least fit hiker in our group. He was a trooper though. He never complained, but I can tell he was struggle up some of those mountains. (We did find out John lost 18 lbs while hiking on the trail!) I found the climbs to be difficult at times, but not strenuous. I was easily able to set a pace and then hike 30-45 minutes up the mountain without a break.

As I enter my 40s, I am more convinced of the importance of good physical health. I do not want to go back to the laziness of my early 30s. I started running about five years ago. I loss over 30 lbs. and I feel great. I am thankful for good health and I want to treat it as a gift. I know our human bodies are a part of God’s good creation and I know God is a healer, but I have to participate with him. I cannot choose a sedimentary lifestyle and eat junk food every day and then expect a miracle when my body begins to fall apart. I want to live the good life, the life God has designed for us and a part of the good life is staying in shape.

#6 The God of the trail is the provider for and sustainer of his good and beautiful creation

I have often heard the popular saying on the AT: “The trail will provide.” The thought is whatever a person needs they can find on the trail. Very often the trail provides through the kindness of other hikers. Other times provision comes through trail angels, people close to the trail who provide food or rides or some form of “trail magic.” We did not experience “trail magic,” but Jason at Mountain Crossings did give me a piece of foam that kept me warm in my hammock. I understanding the saying, but every time I hear it I want to rephrase it to say, “The God of the trail will provide.” The God of the trail did provide for us at every turn. He provided everything we needed including the occasional encounter with his beautiful creation.

The very first overlook view I saw was, in my mind, the best. I described it in my Day 2 blog post. We had been hiking for two days in the green tunnel, under a constant canopy of green leafy trees. We followed a blue-blazed trail .2 miles off the AT to a vista and we were reward with a breathtaking view. It was a God-encounter. I brushed up against the finger prints of God. I do believe in Natural Theology, the idea that the attributes of God can be seen (in a reduced way) in creation. As the Psalmist declares, “The heavens declare the handiwork of God.” Well the mountain declare his handiwork too! Seeing the mountains from that overlook took me by surprise. It took me to a place of gut-instinct primal faith, where I could look at creation and see the work of the Creator. God not only creates things like this, but he sustains it. Encounters like this one remind me that life is such a gift. Humanity has such a way of screwing things up…myself included! The only thing holding us together is the gracious hands of a loving God.