Erin, and our Kingdom Ethics textbook, has been promoting a narrative approach to Christian ethics, an approach that puts God’s story of salvation at the center. It my thesis today that Christians seeking to develop a theology of war and peace should also start with the biblical testimony. The biblical drama is an unfolding story of God’s transforming initiatives on behalf of an alienated but still alive-and-kicking Creation. We believe this story has already reached its decisive turning point in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—the Victory of God over the rebellious Powers of the world—yet the struggle continues. One writer makes an analogy to World War 2, in which Christ’s victory on the cross is equivalent to the D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy: the tide had decisively turned, the victory was no longer in doubt, but the Allied forces still had a lot of hard-slogging, “mopping-up” operations, and dying to do before Victory-in-Europe-Day arrived. Despite being a Christian pacifist, I like this analogy! The key for any Christian, of course, it perceiving the critical differences between how Jesus defeated evil as versus, say, the way Stalin’s Red Army ruthlessly crushed the Nazi war machine, leaving a trail of mass rape, murder, and carnage in its wake and keeping half of Europe in chains for another 50 years afterwards. As the Union general and US President Ulysses S. Grant famously and accurately reported, “War is hell!” We Americans often forget it was Soviet Communists who took 80% of the Allied casualties in defeating Hitler. The Soviet and American armies may have brought a certain kind of liberation, but it certainly wasn’t the Gospel “good news” of freedom in Christ.
N.T. Wright has described the Bible as a five-act play: the first act is Creation, the second the Fall, the Third the history of Israel, and the fourth the life of Jesus. The opening scenes of the fifth and final act are recorded in book of Acts and the New Testament epistles, but have been added to continuously for 2000 years by the faithful church. Now you and I have the privilege—should we choose to accept the mission—to join in this, as yet unfinished, performance. I am going to focus on acts three and four of Wright’s biblical drama today, the history of Israel and the life of Jesus. Hopefully by tracing the arc of history God’s people have already traveled, we will gain some insights as to how we are to perform, now that our turn on stage has come. Once we commit ourselves to the story, we are called to faithfully yet creatively discern what our role in the drama is going to be for our generation, in our culture, in our neighborhood, and in our congregation. Thankfully, we have the Holy Spirit to guide us as we read the Scriptures together, by the light of Christ, within the faith community. As John declared in chapter 17 of his Gospel, and as I also believe, the Holy Spirit will never guide us into something that contradicts what Jesus said and did, even if we may be empowered by the Spirit to do new and even greater things than Jesus. Indeed, Jesus promised this would be so for his disciples. Being a story in which human beings are leading actors, however, it is going to be a pretty messy affair! Just read some of the letters of Paul and you will see how messy even the New Testament church was! Before we get to the level of principles and theories of war and peace, I believe we need to wade through the ups and downs, failures and triumphs, sin and salvation of this messy biblical drama in all its details and diversity.
Given my commitment to narrative theological ethics, I will briefly note a bit of my own family’s story as it relates to war and peace. My parents were part of a Mennonite mission team of about five or six families and several single men and women who planted a Vietnamese church in Saigon, Vietnam in the midst of the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 70s. My parents and three older sisters have some great stories to tell about living through the Tet Offensive of 1968, when the war came right into their city neighborhood! Being born two year later, I missed out on that excitement. The Vietnamese give you credit for your time in the womb; they say you are already 1-year old the day you’re born…So, counting the Vietnamese way, I spent my first four years of life in a war-zone, three on the outside. But, in fact, I was in the bosom of my faith community the whole time.
My dad’s ten-year “tour of duty” doing church-planting and community service work in Vietnam more than met the alternative service requirements placed on him by the American state as a conscientious objector to war. After the tragic end of that disastrous war, my dad used his fluency in Vietnamese to help resettle thousands of SE Asian refugees in North America, where many have become highly productive citizens of the USA. My Mom taught English as a Second Language to immigrants for many years in the US public school system. My dad has recently traveled back to Vietnam several times to help encourage the fast-growing Vietnamese Mennonite house-churches there, in face of harassment by their communist government. Last year the government had six of the church’s leaders thrown into prison. All have since been released after pressure was applied by Mennonites all over the world, other evangelicals, and groups like Amnesty International, though not without some beatings and much hardship along the way. These are a few of the ways my parents have tried to live out the peace church stream of Christian spirituality that for them is rooted in the Anabaptist movement of the 16th century Radical Reformation, but more foundationally, in the New Testament witness to the way of Jesus Christ.
But let’s get back to the Bible! In reading the drama of the Bible, the Old Testament is the logical place to start. Although the Old Testament is often used to support a just war position, in fact the Hebrew Bible offers us a “holy war” or “Yahweh war” tradition. The great formulators of just war theory, Augustine and Aquinas, based their ethic primarily on the natural law thinking of Greco-Roman philosophy, not the Hebrew Scriptures.
So what might be the theological meaning of these Yahweh-War stories in the Older Testament? Well, let’s take a look at a few of the most famous and see what we can discern. The OT scholar Millard Lind wrote a book called “Yahweh is a Warrior.” He sees the Exodus episode where the Hebrew children escape from Egypt through the Red Sea as the ultimate paradigm for the Hebrew holy war tradition. As you recall, Moses and his brother Aaron and sister Miriam have been waging a decades-long, unarmed, faith-based, civil disobedience struggle to liberate their people from slavery and the oppression of the Pharaoh. (It is no accident that Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement led by the African-American church resonated so strongly with this Exodus story.) The Exodus from Egypt began in an act of civil disobedience, when the Hebrew mid-wives, Shiprah and Puah, refused to kill all Hebrew boys (including little baby Moses), as the state had commanded them to do. I guess you could call them ancient pro-lifers! (How many of you have ever heard a sermon preached on these courageous female heroes of the faith? You might want to consider naming your first girl-child after one of them. I’d personally lean towards Shiprah over Puah, but that’s just me!)
At one point early on in the freedom struggle, Moses’ resorted to violence on behalf of his suffering countrymen: he kills an Egyptian slave-driver who is cruelly beating a Hebrew slave. What was God’s response to this seemingly courageous act on Moses part? He gets banished to 40 years of exile in the land of Midian to think about what he’d done! At least he ended up finding a wife during this time of penance! Moses needed a lot of contemplation time in the wilderness to begin to grasp that God’s ways of liberation are different from your conventional violent revolutionary. Kind of reminds me of the pilgrimage of Nelson Mandela from an armed guerilla in youth (or what the government called a terrorist); to 30-years of hard-time breaking rocks on Robbins Island; to peace negotiations that miraculously dismantled apartheid without bloodshed with the Afrikaaner president De Clerk, his old enemy and warden; to president of South Africa himself. God can sure take you on some wild trips, just ask Moses and Mandela! And these aren’t the Jerry Garcia kind either.
Anyway, back to the Escape from Egypt. The long struggle for freedom is reaching its climax. After the very first, and very hurried, celebration of Passover, the Hebrew children are on the run out of Egypt and pressed up against the Red Sea. The chariots of the Pharaoh are in hot pursuit, storm-trooping their way. And what does Moses tell the people in the midst of this chaos?: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only stand still.” (Ex. 14:14) Wow, that’s faith; that’s courage. And God delivers the people, just like he would deliver Daniel and his friends from the fiery furnace and the lion’s den of another pagan tyrant, King Nebuchenzzar, centuries later in
Well, let’s jump ahead a bit in the story, to the time of the Judges. In Judges 4-5 we find the story of Debra and Barak and their battle with powerful Canaanite kings. (By the way, many Old Testament scholars believe that the poetic songs of victory found in Judges 5 and Exodus 15 are the most ancient texts in the Bible. These are the deepest memories of the Hebrew people, the bedrock testimony of God’s ways with them in times of threat and danger.) The story of the judge Debra is unusual in several ways. First of all, it introduces unprecedented examples of what I would call ancient “girl power.” Debra, a woman, is the judge or ruler who leads her people to victory; the male general Barak is just her right-hand man, and gets overshadowed in the story. And remember who puts the finishing touches on this victory? Who kills the escaping Canaanite general? Another woman! Remember Jael? She drives a tent peg through the Caananite general’s head as he anticipates a sexual liaison with her. “All is fair in love and war,” they say. At both ends of this story, then, women upstage mighty male generals!
I believe the theological point of this story is that God doesn’t depend on military generals to accomplish divine purposes. And what forces actually defeat the Caananites in Judges 5? God sends rain from heaven and the Caananite chariots are sunk in the mud. You notice a pattern here? The chariots of the Pharaoh are drowned in the sea; the chariots of the Caananites get stuck in the mud. God uses Nature Power and Girl Power (those things considered weak in the eyes of the world) to overthrow chariots and generals. (Chariots were the cutting edge of military technology in the ancient Near East, kind of like the billion-dollar-a-piece Stealth bombers or thousands of weapons of mass destruction America produces today.) A repeated refrain in the OT is “do not put your trust in chariots and military alliances…not by might, not by strength, but by my Spirit says the Lord.”
OK, moving on in the book of Judges we come to the famous fighter Gideon. But remember his extremely odd way of recruiting soldiers for his militia? He starts with 30, 000 men, ready to rumble with the local Caananites. But God says, “this is way too many men. If you win the battle, you will boast in your own strength and believe your own military power is what saves you.” God knows the ways of men too well. So Gideon says to his men, any of you who are afraid, go home to your wives and families and farms. And 22,000 do. That sounds about right to me! It is natural and healthy to avoid war. Next, God does yet another round of winnowing, down by the river-side, and sends 10,000 more troops home. After starting with 30,000 men, suddenly poor ol’ Gideon is left with only 300 fighters. God’s battle plan is to reduce the troop levels, not expand them! Still, Gideon has faith. But what are his battle tactics? In the middle of the night, he heads out for the Caananite camp and has his men break some pots, wave some torches, and blow some trumpets. Sound more like street theater than conventional warfare! Still, it does the trick and the Canaanites are miraclously sent into a panic.
Of course, Gideon had a good tradition to follow. Remember how Joshua conquered the fortified city of
Jericho several generations before Gideon in the original Conquest of the land? He tramps around the city seven times (sounds like a protest march) and then blows his trumpets (sounds like a jazz jam session.) And, speaking of girl-power, it is an unarmed woman, the Caananite prostitute Rahab inside the walls of the enemy, who is the key to the success of the Jericho campaign. The bravery of this non-Israelite woman is so honored in Scriptures that she makes it into Jesus’ geneology in Matthew a thousand years later, one of four women to do so. (So pay attention, women; it seems God is counting on you to fight some of Her battles!)
Getting back to Gideon, we might notice that in the after-glow of his surprising victory and adoration by the people, he refuses to be made a king. Why? Because only Yahweh is to be king in
Israel. Gideon disbands his militia, which was a rag-tag affair in any case. He knows that permanent, standing armies are always a threat to civil society, an invitation to tyranny and corruption. The Founding Fathers of this nation also had grave suspicions about maintaining a permanent standing army and many were opposed to it. President Eisenhower, in his final “State of the Union” address, warned
America about the vast post-WW 2 expansion of what he called the “military-industrial complex.” Today that complex eats up a half-trillion dollars of tax-payer revenue each and every year, our military budget outstrips that of the next 30 nations on the list combined, and we have troops arrayed in more than 120 countries around the world. And yet they continue to call it the Defense Department!
But what is perhaps the most famous war story in the OT, probably one of the first Bible stories you learned in Sunday School? The showdown between David and Goliath. Again, this is not your typical glorious war-story. David was just a little shepherd boy, the youngest of his brothers, always being overlooked. Yet with five smooth stones and a shepherd’s slingshot (not a weapon of war) he topples the mightiest commando of his day, the Rambo of the Canaanites, who seemed invincible in his full body armor. As I read these stories, I can’t help but think God has a sense of humor. The Creator loves to undermine the arrogance and machismo of warriors who would strut their stuff for their own glorification and greed.
Despite Gideon’s refusal to become king, the people still clamored for one. And remember how God’s responds? Let me read from 1 Sam. 8, one of the pivotal texts of the entire Old Testament: (I Sam. 8:4-21)
The rest of the story of Israelite kingship confirms Samuel’s prophetic warning. During the glorious mini-empire of David and Solomon, things are indeed golden…for the elites of society! But remember, David’s hands were too bloody from war for God to allow him to build the Temple himself. And Solomon does the job via oppressive taxation and pressing his fellow Israelites into forced labor (not to mention appropriating hundreds of the daughters of Abraham for his own private harem). In two generations, the king of Israel has returned God’s people to a situation of oppression reminiscent of their enslavement in Egypt, just as Samuel told them a king would do. After Solomon, the monarchy dissolves into division, destruction of the northern kingdom by Assyria, and Exile into Babylon for
Judah. The Davidic project is judged a dead-end by God, a false start. It lasted a short four hundred years and was never really reestablished, despite repeated attempts to do so.
During this time of monarchy, the prophets rise up again and again as the voice of God to correct the abuses of the kings and priests. The three great concerns of the prophets are idolatry (trusting for national security in some power other than God, like the foreign gods represented by other empires and their chariots); injustice to the poor; and war crimes against other nations. Elijah and Elisha; Amos, Hosea and Micah; and the big Three prophets of Exile, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah…these are the key agents of God’s salvation purposes, not the kings of Israel. That is why we say the “Law and the Prophets,” not “the Law and the Kings”…the Law of Moses is unfinished without the prophet’s interpretation of it.
The great prophet Jeremiah tells the final king of Judah, Zedekiah, “put down your arms and do not defend our homeland against the Babylonians, for God is judging your kingdom and it will not stand.” Is Jeremiah a traitor or a true prophet? Many of his countrymen, including the king, decided “traitor” at the time, and had him thrown in a pit and nearly killed. Time proved Jeremiah right. Rather than fight for their own nation, Jeremiah tells the people to “seek the shalom, the peace and prosperity, of the city where I am sending you into exile, the culture of our enemies, the Babylonians…Raise families there, plant garden and eat what they produce, and pray to God on the pagans behalf” as you gather for weekly worship in your synagogues, singing and praying the Scriptures. (Jer. 29) Jeremiah is saying, listen Israel, you no longer need a nation, a king, an army, or even a Temple to participate in God’s salvation plan for the world. You can worship God fully in Diaspora, in Exile, scattered among all the nations of the world and using God’s wisdom to redeem and redirect even pagan cultures, just like Daniel would do in the court of the Babylonians. In fact, Jeremiah is saying, this is the way God’s ancient promise to Abraham and Sarah—that their children would become a blessing to all nations—is working itself out. So go with God’s flow; don’t resist it by clinging to an ethnocentric and self-destructive nationalism. God is the Creator of all peoples, and the chosen ones are to serve the rest, not dominate them.
It is interesting how much Jeremiah’s mandate to the exiles in Babylon resonates with the original mandate given by the Creator to Adam and Eve in Genesis…be “fruitful and multiply” (that’s the raise families part), till and keep the Garden and share its abundance (that’s the plant gardens and eat what they produce part), and walk humbly with God in the cool of the afternoon (that is the worship, pray, and rest weekly on the Sabbath part).
Obviously, much more could be said about the Old Testament and war and peace than I have said. But it clear that the trajectory of the Old Testament story leads into Exile. In fact, the whole Hebrew Bible was reshaped and given its final form in the chaotic aftermath of Exile, not the affluent comfort of the Davidic monarchy.
But let’s turn to the New Testament. I personally get pretty charged up about the story of Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish Messiah of Israel. It may seem strange to say this as a pacifist, but I believe Jesus continued the Yahweh War tradition of the Hebrew Bible, albeit in a fully nonviolent key. As I hope you’ve noticed, the Hebrew Bible was already moving in a trajectory towards nonviolence. Isaiah’s vision of the Suffering Servant of Israel, for example, appearing at the very end of the Old Testament, in the time after Exile, was one of God’ most important clues yet as to how God truly saves. This figure remained something of a mystery to the Jews for centuries. In Jesus, God fully reveals the way that humans are designed to live, to fight for justice, and even to die: the way of the Suffering Servant Savior of Israel.
Let’s start the Jesus story at the beginning, with a baby born in Bethlehem. In answering the classic Xmas carol question “What child is this,” I would give the perhaps surprising answer of “a fierce fighter for God.” Despite the sugar-coating we typically put on the Christmas story, this is clearly going to be a very controversial and politically charged kid! The oppressive demands of imperial taxation displace Jesus’ family at the very vulnerable time of his birth…that why they’re in Bethlehem to begin with; the baby is immediately sought out by foreign kings, who after their visitation leave by a secret path; Jesus is hunted down by the death squads of the local king, Herod (just like baby Moses was hunted by Pharaoh); angels reveal to shepherds, the lowest-of-the-low in the Israelite class system, that this child would bring good news to the poor and be both a Lord and a Savior, titles reserved for Caesar Augustus alone; after his family’s flight to Egypt as refugees, Jesus comes “out of Egypt” just like the greatest liberator of Israel, Moses. And it seems like his momma is ready to rumble, too. Just listen to the prophet Mary’s expectations for her soon-to-born son, proclaimed in Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 2: “Yahweh has performed might deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” Wow! This is going to be some kind of upside-down kingdom, a truly counter-cultural politics and economics.
And speaking of the great Exodus story of liberation from slavery, remember that Mary is simply Greek for Miriam, the name of Moses’ sister and partner in the freedom struggle against Egyptian oppression. Even more revealing is the name of Jesus, which is Greek for Joshua, the successor to Moses and the leader who took possession of the Promised Land for God’s people. (Joshua, or Yeshua…Jesus, literally means “God saves.”) Joshua led the people across the Jordan River to kick-off his campaign of conquest in the Promised Land. Where does Jesus’ ministry begin? Coming up through the waters of the
Jordan River! And what is the first thing Jesus does after his baptism? He spends 40 days in the wilderness, testing himself for his mission. Does that remind you of any previous episode in Israelite history? Moses led the people for 40 years in the wilderness, preparing them to enter into the land of
But if Jesus is the new liberator like Moses, leading a campaign to re-conquer the Promised Land like Joshua, what are his battle tactics…What are the weapons of Jesus’ holy war? If we can identify the core practices of Jesus, we’ve probably gone a long way toward understanding how we are to fight for God’s cause today, or, to put it another way, what “God’s politics” consist of. I will highlight only eight practices of the politics of Jesus. This not an exhaustive list, simply representative. According to the Gospels, Jesus’ battle plan featured:
• #1, exorcizing demons of political oppression and personal bondage: Remember the Gerasene demoniac who lived in the tombs? The demon that possessed him was called “Legion.” What was a “legion”? The name of the Roman military battalions that occupied Palestine at that time. We know from the historian Josephus that the Romans put down a Jewish rebellion in Sepphoris—only 4 miles from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth—right around the time of Jesus’ birth. They committed mass rape against the women of the city and left 2000 Jewish rebels hanging on crosses lining the roadside, so all could see what happens to those who dare challenge Rome’s control. This was the world Jesus was born into, my friends, a world of hierarchy and cruel domination. Well, Jesus sends this Legion-demon into a herd of pigs. (The Jews called Romans “pigs” and the military insignia of the Syrian legion, the one stationed closest to Jesus’ home in Galilee, was a boar’s head). The pigs rush into the sea and are drowned. Does this remind you of another story from Israel’s past that I’ve already highlighted? Just like the pig herd, the chariots of Pharaoh also rushed into the sea and were drowned. Finally, the local people get mad at Jesus and drive him away; his exorcism was messing up the economic system of the area. Apparently following Jesus will involve exorcizing the political, economic, and social demons of our culture. It was also mean exorcizing the very personal demons of addiction, depression, and compulsions, so that, like the demoniac, others can sit at Jesus’ feet “dressed and in their right mind,” as Mark puts it.
• A second tactic of Jesus is healing touch. Jesus repeatedly heals the sick and lame, even if it meant breaking the Sabbath rules or making himself unclean by touching a woman with a flow of blood, or a leper, or a blind man, or the dead and dying. All of these actions made Jesus ritually unclean. These healing miracles were also acts of civil disobedience, or unauthorized power. They repeatedly brought Jesus into conflict with the rulers of the synagogues and the Jerusalem Temple (just as did his annoying habit of forgiving sins outside the priestly system). Jesus confronts the Powers-that-Be at least 40 different times in the Gospels. That is what he meant when he said “I come not to bring peace, but a sword”…the sword of division that comes from confronting the Powers and forcing people to reveal which side they are really on. As Martin Luther discover 1500 years later, and Martin Luther King two thousands years after Jesus, social conflicts inevitably arise when you challenge unjust power systems, conflicts that may even take your life. Jesus’ over-turning of the tables in the Temple—which led directly to his torture and execution as a political rebel against the Roman Empire—is only the most dramatic and final of these showdowns with corrupt and violent authorities. Remember, the Romans reserved cruxificion for political revolutionaries; it was there must dreaded punishment.
• A third tactic of Jesus’ liberation campaign was to feed the hungry. Just like Moses and the manna and quail, Jesus feeds Israel’s people in the Wilderness with loaves and fishes. In proclaiming the purpose-driving his ministry in his inaugural sermon at Nazareth in Luke 4, Jesus declares he has come to bring “good news to the poor” and declare the Year of the Lord’s Favor, the Year of the Jubilee. What was supposed to happen in the year of Jubilee, every 50 years? Debts are forgiven, slaves set free, and ancestral land was restored to each family. Every generation, everyone in the community, was to be given a second chance for a life of dignity, responsibility, and freedom. Jesus’ economic program of perpetual Jubile sought to bring a second chance on life for every child of Abraham, no matter what their caste status within the Levitical holiness code of clean and unclean.
• A fourth practice of Jesus’ radical politics was his table fellowship with sinners and outcasts, like the hated Roman tax collector Zaccheus. Rabbi Jesus’ instructions about meals represented much more than banquet etiquette; he was breaking down the barriers that divide people into social classes and give more resources, power, and prestige to some and less, or none, to others. Probably nothing was more controversial about Jesus than who he was willing to break bread with. Is the church equally inclusive in its fellowship and mutual aid? Or to put it another way, do we party as well and often as Jesus did, with the people Jesus did?!
• Fifthly, Jesus is a friend to, and advocate for, women and children, who didn’t even rate as third-class citizens in ancient Israel. In that highly patriarchal culture, women were considered the property of either their fathers, or after marriage, their husbands. Some of Jesus’ closest disciples were women, like Mary and Martha of Bethany, or Mary Magdalene and Joanne of Galilee, who funded Jesus’ peacemaking ministry with their own wealth, according to Luke 8. (What is interesting about Mary Magdalene, the first witness of the resurrection, or we might say the first apostle, is her radical discipleship, not the slander that Jesus had a romantic affair with her!) The Samaritan Woman became the first Xian evangelist in history after her encounter with Jesus the Jew. When Jesus commanded his followers to “call no man ‘father’ on earth, for you have only one Father, in heaven,” he struck a decisive blow against patriarchy and showed himself to be the most radical feminist of the 1st century. And, of course, his free embrace, and strong defense of children, the weakest members of society, caused an uproar even among his own disciples. When Jesus said, “if you want to enter the kingdom, become like a child,” he didn’t have modern, romanticized notions about the innocence and wonder of children in mind: being a child meant be the least powerful member of the community, the ones with no rights. This is for whom the kingdom has come, Jesus is saying, the least, the last, and the lost. Better a millstone be hung ‘round your neck and you be thrown into the sea, Jesus warns, than you take advantage of the most vulnerable members of society.
• Sixthly, Jesus was a creative performance artist. He loved to tell subversive, sophisticated, hard-to-pin-down stories. These parables turned the conventional world of so-called “reality” upside down. Like the creators of the Twilight Zone, X-files, or Lost, he was trying to get his audience to think on a whole new wavelength, to stretch their moral imaginations so they might become as big as God’s vision of the world, a God who caused rain to fall on the just and unjust, and loved even God’s enemies, including us. Jesus even had the nerve to make a despised Samaritan the “hero” of one of his most famous tales.
• Seventhly, another weapon is Jesus’ arsenal was contemplative and intercessory prayer. Jesus regularly went off alone to pray. He had mystical mountain-top revelations like the Transfiguration. His Lord’s Prayer is the heart of his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.
• Speaking of the Sermon on the Mount, and finally/eighthly, Jesus was the greatest teacher in history. He taught with an authority the scribes and learned lawyers could not match and the people had never seen. The most important block of wisdom Jesus gave us was the Sermon on the Mount. It is the part of Scripture most frequently cited by the church of the first three centuries, as it ought to be for us as well. Sometimes Jesus’ sayings in this Sermon seem to offer us only a kind of doormat or “wimp” philosophy of passive powerlessness: turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give your tunic as well as your cloak. In his amazing book Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink places these sayings in their first-century context and shows how they can be understood as bold yet nonviolent challenges to the status quo of political domination and economic exploitation.
For example, when a master slapped his slave, or a husband slapped his wife or child—as he had every right to do—he would always used a back-handed slap. This was a sign of his superiority. An open-handed slap was reserved for challenges to social equals (kind of like a Frenchman challenging his opponent to a duel; he could slap him, but it had to do it in a dignified way. Slaves and wives were never afforded such “courtesy”!). So, if a slave, or wife, or child, received a back-handed slap, and then “turned the other cheek,” they were in effect saying, “yes, you have the legal right to humiliate and beat me, but if you are going to slap me again, you will have to use an open-handed slap. I am forcing you to consider my dignity as a human being of equal worth in God’s eyes, even as I refrain from slapping you back,” which, in any case, would probably just lead to the slave or wife or child getting a severe beating. This “turning the other cheek” initiative of Jesus’ gives new meaning to the idea of being “cheeky.”
Or take “go the extra mile.” The Roman occupying troops in Palestine had the legal right to demand that any Jew haul their heavy military gear one mile. By volunteering to take a Roman soldier’s pack a second or extra mile, not only did the oppressed Jew take back some freedom and initiative in the situation, they could even get the Roman soldier in trouble with their commander, by going beyond what the law allowed. One can almost imagine a suddenly anxious Roman grunt running along behind this happy-go-lucky Jew, begging him to put his pack down before he got in trouble with his commander! Or perhaps the Jew took that extra mile to talk with the Roman about the struggles of life under occupation, how he was a human being, too, with hard work to do and a family to feed, and didn’t need any extra harassment that day. Jesus is giving his followers a concrete, doable example of how to love one’s enemies and do good to those who persecute you, while still fighting for justice and dignity. Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the same land today have daily opportunity to put such unexpected tactics into practice.
The setting for “give your tunic as well” was a courtroom, says Wink. Giving one’s cloak was a common form of collateral that a poor debtor would give in pledge to a rich creditor whom they owed money. The Hebrew Bible instructs rich creditors to always give the cloak back by evening, for example, so the poor man would not have to shiver through the cold night. In this teaching Jesus is saying, if a rich man is so greedy as to use the courts to take the very cloak off a poor man’s back, well, than give him your undergarment, or tunic, as well. What happens if you take off both your outer and under garment? The poor man would be left standing buck-naked in the middle of the courtroom! In the ancient Near East, to see someone naked was to bring shame on yourself, not the naked person. In essence, the poor person is shaming the rich man, saying, “yes, you have legal right to take my cloak, but I will show the whole neighborhood the injustice jof this system and your intention to impoverish me and strip me of all dignity.” This is the kind of thing Paul is talking about in Rom. 12, when he said that by giving your enemy food and drink you poured hot coals of fire upon his head. Such coals might shame the oppressor into repentance and acting like a decent human being for a change. This is what Gandhi did to the British colonialists in India, and MLK and the black church did to us white supremacists in the USA. So, we see how Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount offers oppressed people creative, nonviolent, but confrontational ways to challenge the injustices of the powerful and return some dignity to the weak. As you know by now, Glen Stassen calls these “transforming initiatives.”
Well, these are only eight of Jesus’ tactics, his core practices, his weapons for fighting God’s kingdom cause in the ancient tradition of Yahweh War. But what about the use of violence? Was violence an arrow in Jesus’ quiver that he might pull out in great need or for an especially just cause? Believe me, Jesus was sorely tempted to do so. We can gather from the Gospels that the political party most attractive to Jesus was the revolutionary Zealots, who were waging an insurgency against Roman occupation in the glorious tradition of the Maccabbees of old. In fact, Jesus has several ex-Zealots in his personal band of disciples. You don’t get the nickname “sons of thunder,” like James and John, by bowing and scraping before the Romans! The best evidence I know of that Jesus was the greatest peacemaker of his time is that his most intimate band of followers included both ex-Zealots like Simon, Jewish revolutionaries against Rome, and ex-tax collectors like Matthew, Jewish collaborators with the hated Roman system. By way of comparison, the American church today often struggles to get Democrats and Republicans to do ministry together! It is clear from the Gospel witness, however, that at every turn of his ministry Jesus rejected the temptation to use violence to accomplish God’s purposes. I will just cite a few prominent examples:
• In his temptations in the wilderness, Jesus rejects Satan’s offer to use the coercive power of the state to gain the conventional power of domination. (He also rejects the offer of Mammon or market power, symbolized by bread, and magic or charismatic power, that would bring the cult-like celebrity.)
• When several Samaritan villages rejected Jesus’ teaching, his Jewish disciples want to call down the hell-fire of heaven to destroy them. But Jesus rejects such vindictive ethnic hatred, just like Abraham begged God to spare the pagan cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of a few righteous folk among them.
• In John 8, Jesus rejects the use of the death penalty against the woman caught in adultery, a capital crime under the Law of Moses. In the end, Jesus himself would be “numbered among the transgressors” and given the death penalty of the state (as had his mentor John the Baptist and as would his followers Stephen, Paul, Peter, and James of Jerusalem.).
• And remember how Jesus makes his “triumphal entry” into the capital city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday? If you sought popular kingship, the mantle of a Davidic Messiah, and acclaim as the great liberator of your people, how might you be expected to enter your capital city at the time of Passover, the great festival of liberation for the Jews? On a magnificent warhorse, of course, not a humble donkey! In his dramatic Palm Sunday action, Jesus is consciously recalling to his audience’s mind the prophecy of Zechariah 9, which reads: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout daughter of
Jerusalem. See your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of the donkey.” The very next verses declare, “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the Earth.” There is that familiar anti-chariot message of the Bible again! God really seems to dislike chariots…and tanks…and missiles…and bombers. What Jesus’ almost comical donkey-ride into Jerusalem tells us is that the kingdom of God could never be established with violence of any kind, though, as it turned out, it would be born in the willingness to suffer violence at the hands of the Powers.
• And recall this core teaching from Jesus, which he gave to his closest disciples on the very night of his betrayal. Luke 22 tells us, “a dispute arose among his disciples as to which of them was considered to be the greatest. Jesus said to them: the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; those who exercise power say they are your benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you is to be the youngest, and the one who rulers like the one who serves. For who is greater the one who sits and dines at table or the one who serves the diners? Is it not the one who dines at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” Jesus goes on to graphically demonstrate this servant leadership model by washing his own disciples’ feet, taking the posture of a slave. Just in case his disciples are missing the political meaning of his action, Jesus says in the very next verse, “I confer on you a kingdom, just as my father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, doing justice for the twelve tribes of Israel.” Jesus is saying, just because my politics are nonviolent, serving the weak, befriending the marginalized, and even loving enemies, do not think I am not political or don’t care about doing justice for the people. In fact, that is why I have come. God’s kingdom is not just for heaven, but for earth as well, as the Lord’s Prayer should reminds us on a daily basis. It is a real kingdom, a real way of organizing politics and economics and communities, but it is radically upside-down in its techniques and rejects violence as a means for doing God’s will.
• My final example comes from Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane by a bunch of club-wielding thugs. You remember the story…How does Peter respond when the Temple death squad come to drag Jesus away to his torture and execution? He chops off the ear of a soldier in his defense of Jesus. You gotta love the guy! My heart is with Peter, cheering him on. But Jesus says “put away your sword, Peter” (just as he had earlier said “get behind me, Satan,” when Peter insisted that nonviolent suffering was not at the heart of God’s saving gospel). Not only does Jesus disarm Peter, he immediately heals the soldier’s ear, revealing the profound healing ministry at core of the church mission. The faithful church does healing even on behalf of those who would persecute God’s saints, just like Jesus was willing to heal the child of a Roman centurion, his logical enemy as a Jew, or, later, in Acts, Peter would eat with and even baptize another Roman centurion, Cornelius. This is enemy-love in action.
Jesus’ whole way of nonviolent living and loving reaches it climax in the cross itself, the central symbol of our faith, the deepest wisdom of God, and the strongest power in the Universe. And Jesus told his followers, “take up your cross daily, and follow me.” The Creator of the Universe vindicated this nonviolent way of living and dying for all-time, by raising Jesus from the dead, the first-fruits of the new creation, and placing him at the right hand of power and authority. This was God’s dramatic way of saying and showing, for any with ears to hear or eyes to see, “Listen, look, Jesus got it right. Jesus has revealed fully my desires for what human living was designed to be and do from the beginning. Go and do likewise, and you will also receive resurrection life to overcome even the Powers at their most violent and rebellious,” even if you must walk through the valley of the shadow of death. For I will prepare a communion table for you, in the presence of your enemies.