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Jesus as Yahweh’s Holy Warrior: A Peace Church Reading of the Old Testament

November 5, 2006


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
Babylon.

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
God’s promise.

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 k
ingdom 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.

Jesus and Hebrew Holy War: A Peace Church reading of the Old Testament

November 5, 2006


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
Babylon.

 

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
God’s promise.

 

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.

Jesus and Hebrew Holy War: A Peace Church reading of the Old Testament

November 5, 2006


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
Babylon.

 

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
God’s promise.

 

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.

Christian Peacemaking, post-September 11: An Abrahamic Paradigm for Just Peacemaking Practices

September 13, 2006

I am a doctoral candidate in Christian Ethics at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, the largest non-denominational evangelical seminary in North America.  I am honored by this invitation to take part in an interfaith panel seeking salaam, shalom, peace in our post-September 11 world. For the last three years it has been my privilege to be a research associate with Fuller’s Conflict Transformation Grant.  This project seeks to build bridges between Muslims and evangelical Christians and strengthen the peacemaking capacities of both of these Abrahamic faiths.  One model the project draws upon is a new angle on conflict resolution called “just peacemaking” theory, a stream of thought pioneered by my mentor at Fuller, Dr. Glen Stassen.  Glen collaborated with twenty Christian scholars to identify ten concrete practices that have been tested in the laboratory of history and proven effective in preventing, reducing, and transforming conflicts. 

As I thought about peacemaking in the Christian tradition, four sets of faith fathers and mothers came to mind.  The first pair is my own biological parents!  My parents were part of an American Mennonite mission team of five families and several single people who planted a church and did community service work in Saigon, Vietnam from 1960-1975. They did this in the midst of America’s misguided and highly destructive intervention into Vietnam’s civil war.  My parents and three older sisters have some great stories to tell about living through the Tet Offensive, when the war came right into their neighborhood!  I was born two years later, so missed out on that excitement.  My dad’s ten-year “tour of duty” in Vietnam more than met the alternative service requirements placed upon him by the American state as a conscientious objector to war.  

In the aftermath of that tragic conflict, my Dad used his fluency in Vietnamese and connections to North American Mennonite churches to help resettle several thousand South East Asian refugees on this continent, many of whom have become productive citizens of the USA. My Mom taught English as a Second Language to refugees and immigrants for several decades in the American public school system.  My dad recently traveled back to Vietnam several times to help strengthen the Vietnamese Mennonite church and advocate on its behalf in face of periodic harassment, beatings, and even imprisonment of its leaders by the Communist government over there.   

My parents’ lives are examples to me of how God uses our commitments in ways we can’t foresee, especially when we work within communities and not as lone rangers. Their experience also shows me how God blesses nonviolent approaches to peacemaking, especially when we are willing to cross cultural boundaries, take personal risks, and learn the languages of others.  Those who are willing to die for God’s cause but not willing to kill for it were the kind of peacemakers Jesus Christ called “children of God” in the Beatitudes.   

The peace church tradition my parents walk in has its roots in the Radical Reformation of the 16th century, in particular the Anabaptists, who got their name from for their practice of baptizing adults.  My second pair of faith parents, Michael and Margarita Sattler, lived in this tumultuous time of European Reformation. In 1525, the state-church—the wealthiest land-lord in
Europe—ruthlessly crushed a movement of Christian peasants seeking a more just society. Michael Sattler was a Benedictine abbot in charge of monastery in
Austria at the time.  He was so upset by the violence and greed of the church hierarchy that he left his religious vocation, married a like-minded nun named Margarita, and joined up with the emerging Anabaptist renewal movement. 
 

The Swiss Anabaptists who became their new faith family took seriously Jesus’ command to love our enemies. They believed that when Jesus told his disciple Peter to “put away his sword,” he disarmed his followers for all time.  If you know the story, Peter had just sliced off the ear of a soldier sent to drag Jesus off to his torture and execution on a Roman cross.  In restoring this soldier’s ear to wholeness, Jesus demonstrated in a single action both the healing vocation of the church and its rejection of violence as a means for doing God’s will.    The Sattlers followed Jesus into the path of martyrdom.  Both Michael and Margarita were tortured and executed by the Catholic Inquisition.  One of the charges against Michael was that he publicly stated he would neither fight nor kill the Muslim Turks who at that time were advancing on Vienna, one of the imperial capitals of Christendom.  In fact, Sattler declared he would rather fight against his fellow Christians than Muslims, if they could so distort Christ as to persecute their own sisters and brothers in faith.  It may sound paradoxical, but the peace church I belong to was born out of violent conflict.  

My third faith father is the Jewish prophet, healer, exorcist, and rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth.  The faith mothers I cherish from this era are the Jewish disciples that followed Jesus, like Mary Magdalene and Joanne of Galilee—who funded Jesus’ peacemaking ministry with their own wealth—and the sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany, who were two of Jesus’ closest friends.  The Gospels indicate that Jesus’ greatest political temptation was to join the Jewish revolutionary movement we call the Zealots.  Not unlike the Palestinian group Hamas today—Hamas means “zeal” in Arabic—these Jewish militants desired to violently throw-off an oppressive occupation.  Pagan Rome occupied the land of Palestine at that time, via the cooperation of Jewish collaborators like the high priests who ran the Jerusalem Temple-State. Inspired by the legacy of the Maccabbees, one group of Zealots called the Sicarii, or daggermen, would assassinate high priests in Jerusalem in broad daylight, during great religious festivals like Passover, which celebrated the Hebrew liberation from slavery in Egypt.  These extremist Jewish nationalists could be called the terrorists of the first century. They sought to sow fear in the hearts of all who collaborated with the occupation of their land through sudden, unpredictable acts of murderous violence.   

Jesus rejected the Zealot option repeatedly throughout his public ministry, just as he would repudiate terrorist violence today.  Yet he obviously was not a supporter of Roman rule either, or he would not have been executed as political rebel by the Romans! Jesus decisively called his first-century Jewish followers away from collaboration with the superpower of his day and its Gentile ways of domination, just as he would call his 21st century Christian followers away from complicity in imperial violence, especially when such violence is being commanded by a so-called Christian leader.   

We see a vivid example of Jesus’ anti-occupation, pro-justice stance in his famous encounter with the Jewish tax collector Zaccheus.  As a local tax collector for Rome, Zaccheus was despised by his own countrymen. After his life was turned upside-down by a personal encounter with Jesus, however, Zaccheus gave half of his wealth to the poor and restored any money he had stolen from his neighbors four-fold. That Jesus was the greatest peacemaker of his day can be seen in the fact that his band of disciples included both former Zealots, ex-revolutionaries against Rome, and former tax collectors, ex-collaborators with
Rome.  Together they led a nonviolent revolution to subvert pagan domination with transforming initiatives of love and justice, like those found in the Sermon on the Mount. The Apostle Paul called this “overcoming evil with good” in his letter to the Romans.
 

My final faith father is Abraham, set alongside the faith mothers of his wives, Sarah and Hagar.  Abraham, of course, is claimed as a faith father by Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, thanks be to God, for he was indeed a great prophet of God and a peacemaker.  I believe Abraham provides a powerful paradigm for the Just Peacemaking practices identified by Dr. Stassen that I mentioned at the outset.  I will conclude by offering ancient examples of these contemporary-sounding practices taken from the life of Abraham, as witnessed to in both the Hebrew Bible and the Quran.    The first just peacemaking practice highlighted by Dr. Stassen and company is nonviolent direct action.  This powerful new way of fighting for justice was made famous in the 20th century by a Hindu named Gandhi and black Baptist named Martin Luther King, both of whom read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and put it into practice. This method has subsequently been used by people-power movements to overcome Communism in Eastern Europe, apartheid in South Africa, and dictators like the Shah of Iran and Marcos in the Philippines.    

You could say that Abraham undertook a kind of nonviolent direct action when he intervened with God to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction.  The residents of these cities had committed great sins of violence, threatening Abraham’s own family.  They no doubt appeared to Abraham the most wicked of Canaanite peoples and his personal enemies, yet Abraham repeatedly prayed to God they be spared for the sake of even a few righteous people living among them (Gen. 18:22-33). Seems like the opposite policy to those who are willing to wreck whole nations as the result of the actions of a violent few, as we have seen in the US response to September 11 in Afghanistan and Iraq or Israel’s recent bombing of Lebanon in response to Hezbollah border skirmishes.  Anywhere from 20 to 30 times the number of innocent civilians have been killed in these retaliatory attacks than died in the original provocations.  This is nothing like the way of Abraham.  

Another nonviolent direct action of Abraham’s is recorded in one of the most amusing and amazing stories in the Qur’an.  Our hero, young man Abraham, audaciously undermined the authority of his own people’s idols, risking his own life in the process.  Abraham pretended to be sick during one of his community’s great religious festivals.  When the priests who maintained the idols weren’t around, he smashed every one but the largest, hoping through this dramatic initiative to reveal to his people that there was only one Creator God worthy of worship. One Islamic commentator adds the detail that Abraham smashed the smaller idols with an ax and then tied the ax to the largest idol’s hand! When the priests returned and asked who had done this outrage, Abraham suggested that the biggest idol had destroyed all the rest, and that they should ask the idols themselves if this was not true.  The priests were then forced to confess that their idols could not even speak!  They knew it was really Abraham who had done this iconoclastic act of civil disobedience, and they wanted to burn him in a fire for his prophetic courage.  But, like Daniel and his three friends in the Hebrew Bible, God preserved Abraham’s life from the fire of pagan tyrants.  Progressive Muslims around the world today might take inspiration from Abraham’s fearlessness in challenging the authoritarian violence and narrow-minded thinking of his own people’s religious leadership.   

The Abraham remembered in Islamic tradition also had a showdown with Nimrod, the King of Babylon.  Nimrod claimed for himself God-like powers, saying “I give life and death.”  Nimrod graphically demonstrating this to Abraham by having two men brought to him, killing one in that instant, and pardoning the other.  Again staring death straight in the face, Abraham calmly responded to the King, saying “God makes the sun rise in the east.  Can you cause it to rise in the west?!” (Q: 2:258)  The enraged Nimrod also wanted to burn Abraham, but God made the fire “peaceful and cold for Abraham.” (Q: 21:69)    (Such masterful rhetoric by Abraham reminds me of what Muslims have called “the jihad of the pen” and the Apostle Paul refers to as “spiritual warfare,” fought not with carnal weapons of war but the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and not against flesh and blood but the “Power and Authorities” who would unduly claim our earthly allegiance.)   

The confrontation between Nimrod and Abraham seemed headed for an armed showdown.  But God’s victories are not won by human-made weapons.  Rather, Allah causes a swarm of mosquitoes to devour Nimrod’s armies (not unlike the way Yahweh drowned the chariots of the Pharaoh in the Red Sea in the great escape of Exodus).  The Muslim commentator Zayd bin Aslam further reports that God sent one pesky mosquito up Nimrod’s nose, where it buzzed around inside his head for 400 years.  Nimrod kept bashing his own head with an iron rod in a futile attempt to crush the agitating mosquito, until God mercifully allowed him to die at his own hands! 

I cannot think of a more apt analogy in ancient literature for the persistent “people power” movements I cited above.  By continuously agitating against tyrants like a little, annoying mosquito, people-power movements reveal the illegitimacy of corrupt rulers (whether they be Islamic, Zionist, fascist, neo-conservative, neo-liberal, or Communist in their ideological garb).  Such pesky agitation inevitably draws out the tyrants’ desire to coerce the consent of the ruled.  Like Nimrod repeatedly bashing himself with his own rod of iron, however, all oppressors ultimately self-destruct.  This is how God designed the political laws of the universe.     

The second JP practice is to take independent initiatives. Abraham provides us a classic example of this in relation to his own ambitious nephew, Lot. When Abraham and Lot’s animal herds began competing for grazing land, Abraham willingly conceded to his nephew the first choice of land.  He accepted the land
Lot didn’t want, even though he had the prerogatives of power as the elder Patriarch (Gen. 13:2-12). In the end, Abraham got the better deal, as Lot’s choice to settle in the area of Sodom and Gomorrah proved ill-fated!  God works in mysterious ways for those willing to humble themselves, as seen in the Creator’s vindication of the suffering servant leadership of Jesus the Jew. 

The third JP practice calls for the use of conflict resolution skills. Abimelech, king of the Philistines (who later became archenemies of
Israel), freely
invited Abraham to “live where he will” and graze his animals as needed.  Abimelech was willing to share the resources of the land with this new immigrant in his territory, even after Abraham tried to deceive him.  Abraham, in turn, prayed for Abimelech’s people, healing their diseases and an increasing their numbers (Gen. 20:8-18).  Already Abraham is fulfilling his God-given mandate to be a blessing to other nations, not a curse! He thus succeeds where the later Israelite kings Saul and David would fail, making peace with the Philistines and not resorting to war. 
 
King Abimelech was so impressed with the integrity of Abraham that he make a treaty with him, declaring to Abraham “Swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants.  Show to me, and the country where you are living as an alien, the same kindness I have shown to you” (Gen. 21:23). This binding agreement became the basis for resolving a potentially explosive dispute that arose between them later over the ownership of a well of water, a resource as important for ancient nomadic peoples as oil is today in our industrial economies! (Gen. 21:25-31) It would be edifying for all the children of Abraham living in this same land of Israel/Palestine today—whether Jew, Muslim, or Christian—to remember this ancient oath taken by Abraham in the name of all his descendants.  

The fourth JP practice involves taking responsibility for conflict, by acknowledging one’s mistakes and asking for forgiveness.  According to Genesis, Abraham does this twice—first to the Pharaoh of Egypt and later King Abimelech—when he admits to his initial deceptions and asks for forgiveness. (Given later developments in which the Hebrew children were enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years, it is ironic that it was an ancient Pharaoh who forgave this “wandering Aramaean” and provided the first seed-money of Abraham’s wealth.  A potential diplomatic disaster is averted, as Abraham is able to make friends wherever he goes, even with the Pharaoh. (Gen 12:10-Gen. 13:1).)   

The fifth JP practice is “promoting democracy, human rights, and religious liberty.” Abraham took a “big tent” approach to politics:  he included many ethnicities within his extended family.  Abraham not only brings his own sons—first Ishmael (by his Egyptian wife, Hagar), then Isaac (by his Aramaean wife, Sarah)into the God-given covenant of circumcision, he also invites indigenous Canaanite peoples into this ancient ceremony of belonging (Gen. 17:22-27). The progeny of Abraham’s extended family become many nations: Arabs, Edomites, Israelites, Asshurites, Letushites, Ammonites and Moabites (Gen. 19 and 25).  In Genesis 18, all of Abraham descendants are instructed to “keep the way of Lord, doing what is right and just” (Gen. 18:19).  This means sharing land, water, and wealth with their neighbors.  Only by living in this hospitable way will the promise of God’s gift of good land be fulfilled.  No justice leads to no peace, no blessing, and exile from the land of God’s promise, as the rest of the Hebrew Bible sorrowfully narrates.  The violent seeds of conquest and ethnic cleansing sown by a later descendant of Abraham’s in this same land—Joshua’s “scorched earth” crusade—ultimately bears the bitter fruit of a failed mini-empire, the Davidic monarchy that ends in division, destruction, and exile.   

The sixth JP practice is to foster sustainable and just economic development. Several accounts in the Qur’an speak of Abraham’s remarkable ability to lead his neighbors into prosperity, security, and proper worship, that is, salaam, or the “common good.”  At Zamzam, Abraham’s prayers to the Creator God bring “fruits” to a barren place. (Q: 14)  Abraham established his most significant settlement at Mecca, of course.  This place was to be a “refuge for the people, a place of safety.” (Q: 2:125) 

While Abraham ultimately acquired great wealth, he maintained the spiritual stance of a “resident alien” or sojourner throughout his life.  He was always willing to share the bounty of the land with those who already lived there, and did not seek to dominate any other group. Ironically, according to Genesis 23, the only official ownership of the Promised Land Abraham ever acquired was a burial cave for his wife, Sarah.  Even this he gains not through military might or manipulation, but legal negotiations with the rightful land-owner, a Hittite king.  In classic Middle Eastern style, Abraham and the Hittite compete with each other to give the best price for the land, with the king offering Abraham the cave for free but Abraham insisting on paying a full and fair price.    The seventh and eight JP practices call for the strengthening of the United Nations and other emerging global networks of cooperation and mutual security. While these actions would obviously have been impossible for ancient Abraham, Abraham clearly possessed remarkable cross-cultural abilities.  God commanded that Abraham’s descendants be a blessing to all nations.  Abraham’s relations with other religious-ethnic groups were therefore predicated on the practice of hospitality.  (Middle Easterners have become rightly famous for this trait ever since!) For example, Abraham was blessed by God for his willingness to host three strangers in his tent (with help from his good wife, as is often true for us men). These strangers turned out to be angels from God, bringing unexpected good news of a promised child (Gen 18).   

JP practice #9 calls for the reduction of the weapons trade.  Alongside illegal drugs, war-profiteering is the most lucrative industry in the world today and one of the most unsavory.  While Abraham was not what we would call a pacifist (like one of his later followers, Jesus of Nazareth), he steered clear of the battles for conquest between squabbling Canaanite kings.  Abraham is much more devoted to increasing his herds and multi-ethnic children than his weapons!  When Abraham (in the Qur’an) smashes the many pagan idols of his homeland, he makes a history-turning move towards eliminating the primary reason that nations are willing to sacrifice their children to war:  their worship of the false gods of Mammon, Mars, and Eros.  These idols, often paraded under the banner of national security, Gross Domestic Product, and instant consumer gratification, frequently capture our deepest loyalties, regardless of the God to which we officially confess allegiance.  

Lastly, Abraham didn’t simply “encourage grass-roots peacemaking groups” (JP practice #10), he founded literally tens of thousands of them—more than the sands of the desert or the stars of the sky—as seen in his ramifying families and followers, who today we call Jews, Christians, and Muslims, in all their messy diversity.  Thank you.

Four Strategies for How to Read the Hebrew Bible on Matters of War and Peace

August 24, 2006

Key Question: A common challenge posed to a peace church reading of the Bible is “what do you do with the Old Testament!”  A better question might be, “How do you read the NT and the OT together on matters of church and state and war and peace?”  (I prefer the term “Hebrew Bible” or Hebrew Scriptures to Old Testament, even though, for most non-Western or pre-modern people, calling something “old” was a compliment, not a put-down!)  I will try to sketch four strategies for reading the Hebrew Bible with the New Testament in a way that supports the kind of peace church practice I highlighted in the first half of class.  First I’ll briefly introduce the four approaches, and then I’ll dig into each a little more deeply.. Four Approaches:  

Reading Strategy #1:  In answering the question “how should Christians read the Hebrew Bible?” the most obvious response might be “we should read it like the Jews who wrote the New Testament did!” Paul, Peter, James, John, and the Evangelists were all Jews interpreting their own Hebrew history.  They read their Scriptures in light of their personal experience of being with Jesus, whom they believed was God’s Messiah.  You could make a strong case that Jesus himself consciously tried to re-live the history of
Israel in his own life, stories, and prophetic actions.  He was performing the Hebrew Scrips like a play, but with a surprise ending called cross and resurrection.  But the playwright was leaving us clues all along the way, like the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, that foreshadowed the drama’s climax.

Reading Strategy #2:  We also need to respect the structure of the Hebrew Bible in its own right, before we even get to the NT.  In other words, we need to read it canonically, as having a beginning, middle, and end.  And how does the Hebrew Bible story end?  What is the great catastrophe that befalls the people of
Israel, the “cliff-hanger” that remains unresolved as the canon comes to its close?  Exile, the dead-end of the Davidic kingdom, and the ongoing reality of Gentile domination of God’s people and their land.  Another way to describe this canonical reading strategy is to say we should read the Hebrew Scriptures like the Deuteronomist does.  The Deuteronomistic editors re-read the whole story of Israel in light of Exile.  The red threads they saw running through the whole drama were idolatry, injustice to the poor, and war-crimes.  In shaping the Hebrew Bible into its final canonical order in the way they did, what message was the Deuteronomist trying to give Jews about how to live in the land while still under pagan rule?

Reading Strategy #3:  We should also read the HS through the interpretative keys of shalom, hesed, and Yahweh as Warrior-King.  Now, reading the Scrips in light of God’s eternal purposes for peace (shalom) and God’s eternal character of loving-kindness (hesed) would seem to fit logically with a peace church approach.  But Yahweh as a Warrior?  It might seem paradoxical at first, but the Hebrew confession that Yahweh is a Warrior and King is crucial to a peace church faith.  I think you’ll see how it works by the end of my presentation.

Reading Strategy #4:  We could probably learn something about how to read the Hebrew Bible by exploring how the Jewish rabbis themselves read it for nearly 2000 years! The rabbis read their Scriptures—or more accurately, argued over their Scriptures!—in the context of Diaspora.  They lived for millennia with no nation, no king, no army, no death penalty, and no Temple, gathering for worship around God’s Word in synagogues scattered all over the world.  One of the great ironies of biblical history is that Babylon became the center of Judaism after the fall of the Davidic kingdom, not Jerusalem: the Babylonian Talmud is the premier Jewish commentary on the Bible.  John Howard Yoder sees this Diaspora model most clearly outlined in Jeremiah’s “letter to the Exiles.”  He suggests that if Christians are looking for a model for faithful living in today’s post-Constantine, post-Christendom, world, they should look to how Jews lived for 2500 years: for the nations, serving their pagan neighbors and even enemies, but loyal to Yahweh over any particular nation or ruler.   

Hebrew Bible Foundational for Peace Theology:  I want to stress from the start that the Hebrew Bible is an indispensable foundation for my peace church theology.  I couldn’t do without it.  I mean, that’s where Jesus got his peacemaking material…from Genesis, and Deuteronomy, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and the Psalms!  These are the most quoted Hebrew Scriptures in the Gospels.  Isaiah is the most quoted, which reveals Jesus’ primary identification with the prophetic stream of his faith.  I believe much of what went wrong with Christianity historically can be traced to the Gentile church cutting itself off from its Jewish roots, a Jewish Jesus, and the Jewish New Testament, especially when they began to put their trust in a new kind of Messiah, named Constantine.  (The famous church historian Eusebius actually applied the title “savior of the church” to this Roman emperor, who was, at best, a death-bed Christian!) 

In answering the question of what to do with the Hebrew Bible, I would thus reject the solution of the 2nd century Christian Gnostic Marcion, who recommended chucking the whole thing!  This strategy might initially seem like the reasonable way to deal with all the war, rape, patriarchy, slavery, and genocide in the Hebrew Bible, elements of the story that should give any decent person pause.  In the end, however, Marcion’s solution comes at too high a price.  Our theology would be deeply impoverished.  Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law of Moses, not abolish it.  So, let’s look at five important New Testament texts about Jesus, or what Yoder calls “cosmologies.” A more contemporary term for “cosmology” might be worldview, or ideology. 

I. Five NT Cosmologies:  

A. Yoder’s book Preface to Theology shows how the messianic Jews who wrote the NT used the language of both Greco-Roman and Hebrew cosmologies but radically redefined and subverted them, by putting Jesus in the center, or at the top, of these systems.  The most radical way Christians did this was in calling Jesus “Lord” and “Savior.”  Who would have been given these titles in the time of Jesus?  There are only two options…Yahweh and Caesar!  Jews for Jesus were thus redefining Jewish faith and subverting Roman religion they called the crucified criminal, Jesus of Nazareth, Lord and Savior.

1) Hebrews 1: “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.  He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”  Hebrews goes on to use the Jewish cosmology of Temple, high priest, and blood-sacrifice, yet radically redefines these symbols by making Jesus both the final mediating Priest and the final atoning sacrifice.  Our own bodies, or the body of Christ, the church, becomes the Temple of the Holy Spirit.  So, messianic Jews (and Christians) no longer need priests, sacrifices, or  Temples, because we’ve got Jesus!   

2) John 1: “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through Him and without Him not one thing came into being.”  Here John is using—and radically redefining—both the Greek Platonic concept of the cosmic Logos, the logic that ordered the whole universe, and the similar Hebrew notion of Sophia-Wisdom, or Lady-Wisdom, that Proverbs declares was the help-meet of God in Creation.  In other words, Jesus is the Lady-Wisdom of Proverbs, Jesus’ is Plato’s Logos! Again, a double-whammy, redefining both Greek and Hebrew theologies.

 3) Colossians 1: “Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or authorities or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church, he is the beginning of the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God was pleased to reconcile to Godself all things, whether on heaven or earth, by making peace through his blood on a cross.”  Here we find that “Powers” language popping up, with Jesus being placed above, or at the center of, all other Powers. 

4) Revelation 5: We find another remarkable NT vision of Christ in Revelation 5.  John of Patmos has been ushered into the very throne room of the Creator-God.  John is weeping, however, because no one is worthy to open the heavenly scroll that would reveal human destiny.  But one of the elders reassures him “do not weep.  See the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”  John whirls to look upon the throne of God and there he finds a ferocious lion and a great conquering king like David with sword drawn, right?  No.  What is seated on the throne of God?  A little lambkin, wet with its own blood, the martyred lamb that takes away the sins of the world!  This is how God conquers…lions into lambs, swords into plowshares.  The lion of Judah is a slain lamb; the Lamb Jesus, not King David, reigns from God’s Throne.  And we are to fight the Lamb’s War and conquer the same way Jesus conquered: by nonviolently pouring out our lives for others, even our enemies.  This is the bottom-line message of the book of Revelation.

5) Philippians 2: And finally, from Paul again, we find an incredible hymn of praise to God in Philippians chapter 2.  Nancey Murphy makes this passage the foundation to her whole theological program: “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”  I would wager this is the most scandalous statement ever made about God: the Creator of the Universe in the form of a humiliated slave!  But this tortured slave is exulted to the highest place in heaven.

B. Nicea-Chalcedonian Creeds:  Speaking of Cosmologies and Christologies, what about the great creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon? We in the peace church sometimes find the great creeds of Christendom inadequate expressions of our faith.  For example, the Apostles’ Creed jumps from Jesus’ birth right to his death!  Kind of leaves out all the wonderful stuff at the heart of the Gospels, doesn’t it?  But the great theological affirmations of Nicea and Chalcedon are at the heart of peace church theology.  What were the two inextricably intertwined confessions about Jesus that came out of the councils of Nicea and
Chalcedon?  Jesus is both fully human and fully God.  This would seemingly mean that a) Jesus is the consummation of human destiny, the New Adam; he represents God’s desire for all human living (and dying).  We have no other, or contradictory, model for how we are to live and die; and b) Jesus is also the full revelation of the Creator-God.  We know who God is and how God acts by looking at who Jesus is and how Jesus acts.  But how do we know the concrete content of this norm and this character, so we can know how we should live and what God is (really) like?  By reading the Gospels and other NT  ffirmations about Jesus’ mission, like Ephesians 2, which could be called Yoder’s “uber-text”:  “remember, that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the
commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Messiah Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us….making peace, and reconciling both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death hostility through it.  So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who are near.”  Jesus came “preaching peace”; he is our “peace”; he breaks down the wall of hatred between all competing social groups, Jew and Greek, male/female, slave/free, rich/poor, just as Paul declares elsewhere in the great baptismal formula found in Galatians chapter 3.

Well, the  New Testament is all fine and good, but let’s get back to the Hebrew Bible.

II. I talked about Reading the HS Canonically, like the Deuteronomist:

1) The first key to reading the Hebrew Bible canonically is to recognize that Israel’s history is presented like a “drama,” with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  You can’t understand how to think about all the twists and turns, ups and downs, until the drama reaches the final act.  So, don’t jump to conclusions about God’s ultimate will for God’s people, by freezing God at the Noah, or Joshua, or David stage.  The Deuteronomistic view is that the idolatry, injustice, and war-crimes of the false shepherds of Israel “won the day.”  The Deuteronomist highlights only a few bright moments of renewal in the time of the monarchy, like King Josiah, who miraculously discovered the book of Deuteronomy while dusting in the Temple one day!

2) To read canonically, it is important to know the end of the story, and the end of the Hebrew Bible story is, in a nutshell, Exile. The “Big Three” prophets of Exile—Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—are given pride of place.  These great prophets complete the Law and correct the kings and priests.  The Hebrew Bible was “canonized” (receiving its final shape and order) in Babylonian Exile and in the centuries of post-exilic pagan empire-rule (first Persian, then Greek, finally Roman).

3) Deuteronomy itself literally means Second Law, or re-telling the Law.  Many OT scholars, like James Brenneman, former adjunct teacher here at Fuller, would say it is the crucial pivot-point for understanding the whole sweep of the Hebrew Bible.  It is strategically placed at the end of the Torah, the five books of Moses, but before diving into the Joshua-Judges-Kings saga of life in the land.  The book of Deuteronomy imaginatively returns the people back to their origins, standing with Moses on the wilderness-side of the
Jordan River, being asked once again to commit their lives to the Sinai covenant with God.  But the writer and the readers seemingly know in hindsight the whole troubled history of the Israel’s national life.).  Deut. 17, for example, places many constitutional limits of the kingship and correct the abuses of Israel’s judges and priests.  Yet these offices hadn’t even come into existence in the time of Moses! (You might call this “Monday morning quarter-backing!”) The bottom-line of Deuteronomy’s retelling of the Law is “choose life or choose death!  God is giving us a second chance in the land; how shall we live this time around?  Will we learn from our past mistakes, or make them all over again?” We Christians might say that we don’t really get the final answer until “the prophet like Moses” predicted in chapter 18 of Deuteronomy finally comes along. This prophet’s name was Joshua, in Greek, Jesus.  He was the son of Miriam, in Gk, Mary.   An evil king tries to kill him at his birth; he later comes “out of Egypt” and into the Promised Land, to fight God’s Holy War against idolatry. Does any of this sound like Moses or the first Joshua?  But now the enemy is not the Canaanites, but Satan himself, who has infested even Israel’s most sacred institutions of family, clan, synagogue, and Temple.  It is Satan that stands behind Rome, and Caesar is the new oppressor of God’s people, not Pharaoh.

III. My Reading Strategy #3 says we need to read the HS using the interpretative keys of shalom, hesed and Yahweh as Warrior-King: If you re-read the Hebrew Bible with these lens, what do you discover?  Well, let’s give it try with Genesis, and a bit of Exodus, Joshua, and Judges! 

As you know, Genesis has two different creations accounts.  Recalling in your mind either story, what stewardship tasks are given by God to humanity? What does it mean in concrete terms to “take dominion” over creation?  1) “Male and female; be fruitful and multiply” (Sex/Marriage/Family; Community Life/Kinship); 2) tending the garden and naming the animals (Creation Care); 3) walking with God (Worship); and 4) sharing food (Economics).  And, of course, God in Creation also ordains the state too, right?  No, the state and its sword isn’t there at the beginning.  It is apparently not a part of God’ original design.

Well, let’s look after the “fall” of humanity in chapter 3 and see when something like the sword or the state shows up. When does violence first enter the picture? Cain murders his brother Abel.  And then the sword of state appears, right, to execute the rightful death penalty on Cain?  No, God protects Cain from vengeance and gives him a second chance at restitution.  Instead of putting his trust in this compassionate God, however, Cain seeks his own security by building the first fortified city in history, named after his firstborn son, Enoch.  Already the good gifts of God are being turned from glorifying God and towards self-serving security: the strength of my sons and my cities will save me, says Cain.  This has always been the faith of patriarchy. 

Moving along in chapter 4, we meet one of the direct descendants of Cain, the rather unsavory Lamech.  Lamech also runs into conflict, remember?  Someone strikes him and he turns around a kills the dude (not exactly turning the other cheek, eh?)  He brags that he will violently revenge himself “70 X 7” times on anyone that crosses him again.  (Does 70 X 7 ring a bell for any of you New Testament scholars out there?)  Continuing this sorry saga in chapter 4, one of Lamech’s descendants, Nimrod, is said to be the founder of the kingdoms of both Babylon and Assyria.  Ok, OT scholars, what role will these two empires play later in the story of Israel?  They viciously destroy the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, respectively. And remember the crazy story of the rebel-angels or “nephillim” that inappropriately mingle with human women, in chapter 5 of Genesis?  They are called “mighty warriors of old,” but they hardly seem to be fighting for God’s cause! (Reminds me a much later story of mingling the divine and human, except this time the offspring grows up to be a nonviolent warrior for God.  Unlike his namesake, Joshua, Jesus liberated the Promised Land threw exorcisms, healings, subversive stories, table fellowship with outcasts, forgiveness of debts and sins, confrontations of the Powers, prayer, and, paradoxically, his own bloody death.)

By chapter six we get to the wicked generation of Noah.  Why does God judge humanity so decisively at this time?  What is the most obvious expression of their wickedness, according to the text?  Genesis says, God had to re-do the whole Creation because “all the earth was filled with violence.”  After the Flood, however, God makes a peace covenant with the Gentile Noah and his family, and every living creature, promising never to destroy creation again.  God hangs his bow of war in the sky, putting it into retirement; kind of like swords into plowshares, or God “laying down his sword and shield, down by the riverside!”  The bow of war becomes the symbol of God’s promise of peace.  If the earth every ends up getting destroyed, it will necessarily be the blasphemous work of humans, not God. 

Finally, in Chapter 11 we encounter the first great city-state, right?  The Tower of Babel.  All city-states of the ancient Near East were built around a heavenly Temple.  Israel would have its own version of such a Temple-state eventually, in Jerusalem. And what is God’s response to this first great nation-building effort and its ambition to unify the whole world under its sway?  In divine mercy, God confuses and scatters the empire-builders, so that God’s original design of a beautiful diversity of peoples and languages might be preserved. 

Well, so far states and swords haven’t been portrayed to positively in the Bible.  They seem to mostly rebel against God rather than serve God’s Creation.  But, finally, the story takes a turn for the better.  We get to Abraham and Sarah, God great transforming initiative.  The story of Abe runs from chapters 12-25.  What is the great commission given to Abraham, right off the bat in chapter 12?  To be a blessing to the nations.  Does Abe become this?  How does he relate to all the different ethnic groups and religions and kings he encounters in Canaan?  Well, first off,            

A.  Abe leaves behind his home in Babylon and the paganism of his Temple-building ancestors.

B.  His whole life he in Canaan he is a sojourner, a pilgrim, literally a resident alien.  While he becomes rich in the nomadic “currency” of animal herds and children, the only real estate he ever officially owns is a burial cave for his wife, Sarah.

II. Abe’s core practice is hospitality:  

A.  With Sarah’s help, he feeds and shelters three strangers in his tent, remember?  They turn out to be messengers from God with “good news” of a coming child.

B. Abe even advocates on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah (the most wicked of all Canaanites!), despite their violent inhospitality towards his family.  Abe argues with God to save his own enemies for the sake of even a handful of righteous folk among them (Gen. 18).  Kind of the opposite policy of those who would destroy a whole country trying to kill a few bad guys. 

B. “Hospitality begins at home” for Abe.  When his ambitious nephew Lot’s herds start to compete with Abe’s, he gives the younger Lot the first and best choice of land. (Gen. 13)  The self-empting principle of Jesus’ Lordship is here foreshadowed by our faith father.

III.  Abraham also pursues a “Foreign Policy” of Peacemaking with the many different ethnic groups and kings he encounters in Canaan 

A.  He makes an alliance with Melchizedek, a Canaanite king who is called a“priest of El.”  Abe refuses the spoils of war from their shared military victory and gives 10% of all his wealth to seal their friendship (Gen. 14).

B. Later King Abimelech of the Philistines (the future archenemies of Israel), invites Abe to share his land, even after Abe deceived him about the identity of his wife! Returning the favor, Abe heals the Philistines’ diseases and their numbers increase.  Kind of sounds like Jesus.  Abe is becoming a blessing, not a curse, to other nations! (Gen. 20)  Impressed by Abe’s integrity and prosperity, Abimelech makes an official treaty with him, saying, “Swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants.  Show to me and the country where you are living as an alien the same kindness I have shown to you” (Gen. 21:23).  As a result of this treaty, the two are later able to resolve an explosive dispute over ownership of some wells, water being as valuable as oil in the ancient Mid East! (Gen. 21:25-31)          

C.  Abe’s gains his first property in the Promised Land (a burial cave for his wife) not through military might or cunning manipulation, but by honest negotiation with the rightful landowner, a Hittite king.  In classic Near Eastern style, they compete in generosity:  the Hittite offers the cave for free but Abe insists on paying a full and fair price (Gen. 23).

D. Abe averts a diplomatic disaster after deceiving the Pharaoh, who still treats him with integrity despite his lying.  The Pharaoh even provides Abe the “seed money” that leads to his future wealth (Gen. 12).  This is quite ironic given the future of the Hebrew children in Egypt!  Abe makes friends wherever he goes, even with the Pharaoh of Egypt.

E.  Abe brings not only his first son (Ishmael) and second son (Isaac) into the God-given ritual of belonging that is circumcision, but even indigenous Canaanites who join his household as servants are included.  If only the current residents of Israel remembered and practiced anything like these peacemaking practices of Abraham, they would not be continually at war!

IV.  Father of Many Nations

A.  Abe does become a father to many nations, just as God promised: Arabs, Edomites, Israelites. In Gen. 18, all of Abraham descendants are instructed to “keep the way of Lord, doing what is right and just,” by sharing land, water, and wealth with others.  Only by living in this hospitable way will the promise of God’s gift of good land be fulfilled.  No justice leads inexorably to no peace, no blessing, and exile from the land of God’s promise, as the rest of the Hebrew Bible sorrowfully narrates. 

B.  The rest of Genesis could rightfully be describes as a saga of  reconciliation between estranged brothers; Ishmael and Isaac, after great tensions between their mothers, come together to bury their father Abraham in peace; Jacob and Esau, and later Joseph and his brothers, find a way to forgive each other after years of bitterness and strife.  The book ends on an ominous note, however, in the Blessing of Jacob in Gen. 49.  While the 12 sons of Jacob are promised an allotment of the land, Levi and Simeon are condemned for their rash and reckless violence against the Shechemites.  Like King Abimelech of the Philistines earlier, the Shechemites wanted to trade freely with Jacob’s sons, sharing the land, and even intermarrying with their women.  They were even willing to collectively undergo mass circumcision to do so! But as they lay in a weak and vulnerable state as the result of the painful procedure, Simeon and Levi launch a preemptive strike and slaughter them.  Jacob roundly condemns them, for their violence puts the very promise of God in grave jeopardy.

So, we have the amazing peace-making paradigm of Abraham among the Canaanites.  Next up in the drama of the Hebrew Bible we have Moses and the great Exodus from Egypt.  Starting with the courageous civil disobedience of the Hebrew midwives Shiprah and Puah, who defied Pharaoh and saved Moses’ neck as a baby, Moses (and Aaron and Miriam) grow up to challenge the great king of
Egypt again and again.  (Moses had to learn the hard way that killing the Egyptian slave-driver was not God’s way to achieve his people’s freedom, however.  He spends 40 years in repentant exile in Midian, trying to learn God’s true will.) Moses finally leads the people in their Escape from Egypt.  They walk through the Red Sea, chased by thundering chariots, but in what is perhaps the most paradigmatic moment in the whole Hebrew Bible, Moses dramatically proclaims to the people, “stand still and wait, for God will fight for you.”  Yahweh is our Warrior, or as the Apostle Paul later would say “vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” And what happens?  Pharaoh’s crack commandos are drowned in the waves before their eyes, with not even a slingshot-stone launched at their enemy.

But what about those most war-like Hebrew books of Judges and Joshua?  Well, let’s just notice how peculiar some of these war-stories are.  How do Debra and Barak win their battle with the Canaanites?  Through the nature-power of floods that sink the Canaanite chariots in mud, and by the hand of a single woman alone in a tent, armed only with a tent peg!  (You ever notice how God in the OT is always sabotaging chariots, the premier war technology of the ancient world?) And what about Gideon?  Remember his recruitment and training strategy for his militia?  He sends as many of his men home, for as many good reasons or outright excuses he can think of, and then wins his battle by breaking pots and waving torches.  Sounds more like street theater than warfare to me.  Or how about Joshua’s strange military tactics around Jericho?  Seems more like a jam session or a protest march than a normal, military attack, and yet the walls come tumbling down, again with the help of a women, the prostitute Rahab.  And what is probably the most famous war-story from the OT?  How was the Philistine warrior Goliath, the greatest commando of the ancient Near East, toppled?  By a little shepherd boy, with five smooth stones and a slingshot!  This is the once and future king of Israel?! God uses these wonderfully strange and weak methods for his own glory.  Paradoxically, many of the war-stories of the Hebrew Bible actually subvert the very mythology and propaganda of warfare.  What do you think is the theological message of all these stories of weird and wacky warfare?  That trusting in human military might, swords, chariots, kings, and states is the key to salvation and security?  Or, rather, “not by might, not by strength, but by the Spirit of God, says the Lord?!”  Why does Samuel tell the people that asking for a king to fight their wars like the other nations is a slap in God’s face, a direct rejection of Yahweh’s kingship?  Samuel warns them that this dream-king of theirs will inevitably lead them back into a kind of slavery, like Egypt.  Already by the time of Solomon this has happened, as Solomon conscripts Israelite slave labor to build his grand Temple and glorious palace.   Why do the prophets repeatedly say, “don’t put your trust in chariots or military alliances with foreign empires?”  Why does Jeremiah tell the last king of Judah, “do not fight the Babylonians; it is God’s will that we lose our kingdom?”  

   OT Political Models: 

1)      Abe the immigrant peacemaker among Canaanite kings

2)      Moses’s civil disobedience campaign against the Egyptian state

3)      the decentralized tribal confederacy of the Judges (no standing army, no hereditary leader, each tribe allotted their own lands and everyone “’neath their own vine and fig-tree”, with Sabbath and Jubilee redistribution of the the wealth

4)      the Davidic (divided, dead-ended) monarchy and Solomonic (eventually destroyed)
Temple

5)      Jeremiah’s “Letter to the Exiles”: 1) raise families; 2) plant gardens; 3) build homes; and 4) seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you in Exile (sound like the Garden of Eden commission again, no?)

6)      Inter-testamental options: A) Daniel and Esther: serving Gentile kings with Yahweh wisdom when they can, resisting state power courageously when they must; and B) the Maccabbees/Zealot approach (doesn’t make the Hebrew canon’s “cut”).

The Body Politics of the Synagogue 

1) Gathered around the Book in prayer, singing and reading the sacred texts (rabbis, not priests; no
Temple)

2) Only 10 households needed to form a political community (no need for king or nation)

3)  halakah “walk” of righteous living (ethics of truth-telling, parent-honoring, no stealing, monogamous marriage, alms-giving to the poor, fasting etc., which is attractive to Gentiles.)  A “living sacrifice,” not dead animals!

4)  Transnational network of mutual aid, giving and receiving counsel, exchanging letters and visits, intermarriage and hospitality (NT parallels in Paul’s “famine fund” for Jerusalem, or the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, or the circulating Pauline or Pastoral epistles).

5)    Innovation of new arts, trades, and languages (three kinds of language: 1) Hebrew; 2) hybrids like Yiddish; and 3) experts scribes, translators, diplomats etc. in pagan courts.

6)     Newly redemptive potential to suffering; martyrs, not the powerful, carry the meaning of history (the Suffering Servant and Daniel and his friends as prototypes for Jesus/the disciples).

John Howard Yoder’s Anabaptist Reading of Church and State: every church a peace church?

August 24, 2006

The first thing I can say about John Howard Yoder is that I once mowed his lawn.  Yoder lived across the street from the Mennonite seminary that I attended in Indiana (and where he used to teach).  I lived two doors down from him for a year.  So, other than having also lived for several years in the hometown of Floyd Landis of Tour de France infamy, this lawn-mowing encounter is my greatest claim to Mennonite fame.  I can say I did my best to mow his grass as nonviolently as possible.   

John Howard Yoder’s theology grew from the soil of the Anabaptist movement that was a vibrant, if controversial, part of the Reformation.  The controversial part led to about 5000 Anabaptists being martyred by both Catholic and Protestant overlords; the vibrant part made the highly decentralized Anabaptists the fastest-spreading and most mission-minded Reformation movement.  They were sort of the Pentecostals of their day!  Luther famously denounced them as “enthusiasts” and their born-again impulse to baptize adults quickly became a death penalty crime.  Adult baptism was seen as a treasonous threat to medieval Christendom’s unity of church and state.  The refusal of many Anabaptists to take oaths of allegiance to the state or kill at the command of their rulers at a time when Muslim Turks where knocking on the doors of Vienna also did not endear them to the authorities.  The reason they refused oaths and warfare was simple enough: they took seriously Jesus’ example and commands not to do these things but instead practice the nonviolent politics of the church.  They were willing to follow Jesus as Lord even if some European Caesar killed them for it.   

This Anabaptist angle on theology has been called peace church (as versus just war), free church (as versus state church), believers, or adult baptizing, church (as versus infant baptizing), or Radical Reformation (as distinct from the mainline Reformation of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin).  It has even been called a “third way,” neither Catholic nor Protestant, though I think it is better understood as both/and, rather than neither/nor.  While Yoder and my Mennonite denomination is rooted in the Radical Reformation, it also self-consciously imitates the nonviolent praxis of the messianic Jews who wrote the New Testament and the first two to three centuries of Church Fathers.  From Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Ireneus in the 2nd century, to Tertullian, Cyprian, and Origen in the third, no early church fathers offered a justification for Christian participation in the wars of the empire.  Nor did they support revolutions against it, like the Jewish Revolt of 66 AD that resulted in Rome destroying Jerusalem and its Temple, just as Jesus had predicted would happen a generation before it did.  The Roman Empire periodically persecuted the church during this formative period, as seen by the fact that many of the church fathers I just mentioned were executed for treason against the state.  In this they followed in the New Testament footsteps of John the Baptist, Jesus, Stephen, Paul, Peter, and James, all of whom received the death penalty from either Herod (in the case of John the Baptist), the Jerusalem Temple-state run by the Sanhedrin and high priests (in the case of Stephen, James and, indirectly, Jesus,), or the Roman superpower itself (in the case of Jesus, Peter, and Paul.) 

What came to be called the Just War tradition emerged only in the fourth century after Christ, first with Ambrose but especially with Augustine, in the new context of an officially Christianized Roman empire, emperor, and army.  This Constantian shift of the church actually developed gradually over the century following Constantine himself, rather than in one fell swoop.  During this momentous change in its worldly fortunes, Christianity went from being an illegal cult potentially punishable by death, to a tolerated mystery religions among many other Near Eastern cults, to the one-and-only-allowed religion of the empire (that is, a state-church)! In developing a Xian justification for war, Ambrose and Augustine drew heavily on the natural law tradition of Greco-Roman thought (such as the Roman philosopher Cicero), as it is very difficult to justify Christian participation in war directly from the New Testament, and if one wanted to develop the church’s ethic of war and peace directly from the Old Testament, you would necessarily end up with something much more like “holy war” than just war. 

So, although this peace church perspective has certainly been a minority position since Constantine, it represents the oldest Christian thought and practice about violence and the state.  You might call it the “classic” position.  It has been witnessed to by an unbroken succession of Christian groups through the millennia.  Sometimes this pacifistic stream flowed through monastic sub-movements within the official church like St. Benedict or St. Francis of Assisi.  Other times it bubbled up from lay renewal movements that ended up outside the official church, like the medieval Waldensians, Cathars, or Czech Brethren, or the Anabaptists of the 16th century (all of whom were persecuted as “heretics”).  The Quaker renewal that emerged from the 17th century Puritan Revolution in England, and the Church of the Brethren—an 18th century hybrid of German Pietism and Anabaptism—are also considered historic peace churches.  Like Mennonites, the Amish and Hutterites trace their roots directly back to the original Anabaptists.  The very first Baptists picked up the practice of adult baptism from Dutch Mennonites in the early 1600s, after being exiled from England by the King James of Bible fame.  They did not carry forward the peace teaching of Jesus as strongly.  However, the most famous peace church advocate of the 20th century, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was a Baptist preacher if ever there was one!

Many other individuals and traditions have come to similarly nonviolent conclusions about Jesus and the New Testament in the modern era, including the unorthodox Russian Orthodox Tolstoy, the American Transcendentalist Thoreau, the 19th century Stone-Campbellite revivals that birthed both the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, the first generation of Asuza Street Pentecostals, a Hindu who cherished the Sermon on the Mount named Gandhi, the Lutheran Dietrich Bonheoffer (despite his self-conscious choice to break faith with this way at the very end of his life), the French Reformed pastor Andre Trocme whose tiny village of Le Chambon saved 5000 Jews from Hitler without firing a shot, activist Catholics like Dorothy Day and contemplative ones like Thomas Merton, white Baptists like Walter Rauschenbusch, Clarence Jordan, Will Campbell, and Glen Stassen, and black ones like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Vincent Harding, Episcopalians like William Stringfellow, Anglicans like Desmond Tutu, Methodists like Stanley Hauerwas and Walter Wink, and current historical Jesus and New Testament scholars like N.T. Wright and Richard Hays.  Both American Jewish rabbis like Abraham Heschel and Michael Lerner, and much less known but amazingly courageous Palestinian priests like Elias Chacour and Naim Ateek have embodied this peacemaking way. 

Chacour, who I met in 2003 in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, is author of “Blood Brothers” and “We Belong to the Land,” which describes the Palestinian Christian experience with the state of Israel.  Naim Ateek—whose son and daughter-in-law Sari and Tanory are recent Fuller graduates and friends—has led me, and many other American Christians, on solidarity tours among Palestinian Christians and Muslims suffering under 40-years of occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

My two-part presentation tonight therefore represents an attempt to offer to you a (hopefully) compelling and coherent reading of how the New Testament and early church—reading the Hebrew Bible in light of Jesus Messiah—ended up taking a nonviolence-advocating stance.  In other words, as John Howard Yoder often insisted, a peace church praxis is not a peripheral or optional Christian teaching for especially holy saints or extremist cults, but emerges from the heart of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as testified to by the Gospels.  It can and should unapologetically call itself “catholic-with-a-small-c” theology, that is, a witness and a gift to all Christians everywhere and in all times.  I hope my own limitations will not cause this profound wisdom of the cross to appear to you as folly or become to you a stumbling block.  Hopefully by the end of the evening, even if you strongly disagree, you will have gained a better informed respect for this foundational part of our shared faith in Christ, the Suffering Servant Messiah of Israel.    

Before highlighting Yoder’s thought, I will give a brief “bio” of the man himself, in keeping with the “narrative” approach to ethics this course has taken.  As Yoder once said, if your “talking the talk but not walking the walk” when you go to speak to the government, you’re only “lobbying.”  When you do both, you’re witnessing to the state.  James McClendon—who used to teach theological ethics at Fuller—liked to talk about doing “biography as theology.”  What are the Gospels if not that, after all?!  Both the now deceased McClendon and his still-very-much-alive widow, Nancey Murphy, have also made peace church commitments to Christ as members of the Church of the Brethren.

Well, on to Yoder.  Yoder was raised Mennonite in Ohio.  After completing college in only two years, he was sent in the late 1940s by the dean of his school to do relief and refugee work in the devastated landscape of post-WW 2 France.  For five years Yoder administered an orphan’s home for boys, where he met and married a Frenchwoman named Annie.  (Nice fringe benefit to voluntary service work, eh?)  He then began doctoral studies in German at the University of Basel, studied under no less a theological giant than Karl Barth.  A famous story about Yoder recounts how he had the nerve to hand Herr-Professor Barth a 70-page critique of Barth’s own position on war as one of his class assignments! (Yoder’s paper was later published as the mini-book “Karl Barth and the Problem of War,” if you want to look it up.)  In the 1950s Yoder also helped pioneer the first ecumenical dialogues between the free and state churches of Protestantism since the Reformation.  Given the very fresh memory of the German church’s tragic capitulation to the demonic forces of Nazism, it is not surprising that the first topic on the table was church and state and war and peace. 

Yoder returned stateside in the 1960s and served the Mennonite church through its mission board and seminary.  Yoder’s most influential work, “The Politics of Jesus,” was published in 1971, causing a stir in the academic world.  It is widely considered one of the theological watersheds of the 20th century, putting him on a short list with the likes of his mentor, Karl Barth.  Shortly after the Politics of Jesus made its splash, Yoder was invited to teach ethics at the prestigious Catholic university of Notre Dame, a highly unusual opportunity at the time for an unsystematic, low-church scholar.  At Notre Dame he made a big impact on one of the other Protestants on the faculty, Stanley Hauerwas.  Hauerwas, a disillusioned liberal mainliner and contrarian rabble-rouser, has done much to spread Yoder’s influence beyond the historic peace churches.  The differences between the two can be seen in the fact that Yoder self-consciously titled his last collection of essays “For the Nations” to counter Hauerwas’ earlier book “Against the Nations.”  Yoder always insisted that Jesus’ nonviolent Way was God’s gift of grace to, and for, nation-states, not just the church. 

Like one of his favorite Reformed dialogue partners, Richard Mouw, Yoder believed in the Lordship of Christ over all of life.  Mouw and Yoder engaged in several friendly exchanges through the years, for example, their co-written article “Evangelical Ethics and the Anabaptist-Reformed Dialogue,” which can be found in the Fall 1989 edition of the Journal of Religious Ethics.  You also might check out Mouw’s “When War is Unjust: Being Honest about Just War Thinking” in the Fall 1985 edition of the Mennonite Quarterly Review.  Yoder himself taught Just War theory to ROTC students at Notre Dame for decades.  He believed those who claimed the just war tradition ought to take it very seriously, and few knew it better than this pacifist.  In advocating Just War criteria to other Christians, Yoder perhaps realized that, in practice if not principle, the devastating “shock and awe” power of modern weaponry has made 20th  and 21st century warfare very nearly unjustifiable, as civilian casualties now make up more than half the wreckage of war.  Despite much hype about “precision-guided” missiles, the percentage of civilian casualties in war continues to increase, as the current conflicts in Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and
Iraq graphically display.  The “civilian immunity” clause of classic Just War theory has been shredded by modern weapons, most especially the widespread acceptance of the once-shocking practice of dropping bombs on cities from airplanes.  This tactic was pioneered by the Nazis but taken to unprecedented levels by British and American bombers by the end of World War 2. 1.5 million German and Japanese civilians lost their lives in the firebombing of dozens of cities, including hundreds of thousands of women and children. 

Yoder’s fluency in both his mother-tongue of New Testament pacifism and Just War theory demonstrated his belief that Christians need to know several languages to carry out the mission of the church.  He learned at least five or six languages in order to teach around the world and translate the work of non-English scholars.  He translated the Dutch Reformed scholar Hendrikus Berkhof’s “The Powers” into English, which helped set off the torrent of theological reflection on the contemporary meaning of this Pauline Powers language that has reached a highpoint in Walter Wink’s work.  Yoder died at age 70 in 1997, sitting in the chair of his Notre Dame office.  A true scholar’s death! 

Enough of Yoder’s life.  Also by way of biography as theology, I will just briefly note my own family’s engagement in issues of church and state, 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 older sisters have some great stories about living through the Tet Offensive of 1968, when the war came right into their city neighborhood!  I was born two year later, so I missed out on the excitement.)  My dad’s ten-year “tour of duty” in mission and 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 the US and Canada, where many have become highly productive citizens.  My Mom taught English as a Second Language to immigrants for many years in the public schools system.  In his retirement, my dad volunteers with a local Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program, or VORP, a restorative justice approach to crime and punishment that Mennonites began experimenting with in the early 1970s and which is now an alternative track option in some North American court systems.  My dad just recently traveled back to
Vietnam to help strengthen the Vietnamese Mennonite church in face of discrimination by their communist government, who last year 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.  Thus these contemporary Christians are re-living the struggle for religious freedom that characterized the Anabaptist movement of the Radical Reformation.  Which brings us back to where we started, with the Anabaptists!

The Gospel Realism of Jesus:  Reinhold Niebuhr was the most influential American Christian ethicist of the 20th century.  He became famous for his brand of Christian realism. Niebuhr was admirably honest about writing off Jesus as an “impossible ideal.” He presumed he had a more penetrating analysis of power and politics than Jesus did.  If we look closely at some provocative Gospel sayings of Jesus, however, we may find grounds to challenge Niebuhr’s assumption of superior insight.  Yoder makes one such Gospel saying of Jesus the centerpiece of his essay “A Christian Case for Democracy” (found in his A Priestly Kingdom: the Gospel as Social Ethics).  Remember, the cornerstone of Anabaptist ethics is always starting with Jesus and taking pretty seriously what he said and did!  Then we can test whether what Augustine or Calvin or Niebuhr or Menno Simons or President Bush says lines up with Jesus.) 

Luke 22:24-28 is part of Jesus’ Last Supper instructions to his disciples before his Passion on a cross, that cruel and unusual torture reserved by Rome for political rebels and slaves.  In characteristically pithy style, Jesus declares “the rulers of the nations (or Gentiles) lord it over them, and those who exercise authority let themselves be called benefactors.  But it shall not be so among you; the greatest shall be like the youngest and the leader as one who serves.  Who is greater, the one at the table or one who serves?  Is not the one at the table?  But I am among you as one who serves.”  (To show how politically loaded Jesus’ teaching appears once we remove our modernist evangelical blinders, Jesus in the very next verse explicitly promises to confer a kingdom on his disciples.  He says they will sit on the thrones of the 12 tribes of
Israel, doing justice for, or judging, the people.)

Yoder’s essay divides this Jesus saying into three.  First, Yoder notes how Jesus straightforwardly acknowledges the reality of pagan domination in his society, without any special fanfare.  He simply states, “your rulers lord it over you.”  He neither justifies existing state power as directly ordained by God, nor does he seek to deny or overthrow it.  He simply says, “the state is…It exists and we Yahweh-believers must deal with it.”  The Bible, Yoder claims, has no comprehensive theory of the state.  (Don’t worry I’ll get to Romans 13—and Revelation 13—before all is said and done this evening!)

So, first Jesus says, “the state is.” In part two of his teaching he goes on in almost cynical fashion to notice “and these rulers allow themselves to be called your benefactors.”  In other words, all governments—from monarchies to democracies—attempt to justify themselves by claiming they do good things for the people under their rule.  Jesus here seems to have a strong dose of Niebuhr-style realism about power!  Maybe Jesus wasn’t so naïve about politics after all, Reinhold; maybe he wasn’t quite the otherworldly dreamer you thought he was.  

Remember, this is the same Jesus who called his own local ruler, Herod Antipas “a fox” and sent him a message on no uncertain terms that he was not afraid of Herod’s power, nor would he be intimidated by him into changing his ministry plans.  In Luke 13, verses 31-35, Jesus is warned by some friendly Pharisees that he better skedaddle, because Herod is looking to kill him.  Jesus replies, “Tell that fox, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow and on the third day I finish my work.  Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my Way because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.  Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.  I wanted to gather your children like a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing.  See, your house is abandoned.”  Notice the power-packed meaning for Gospel readers of Jesus “finishing his work on the third day” (resurrection day is the third day, remember) or Jesus being “on his Way.” (The Way was the first name by which Christians identified themselves.)  Or, how Jesus directly challenges his own capital city, where sat the glorious seat of King David and King Solomon’s great “house” the Temple.  He says, this Temple-state kills the prophets and rebels against God.  He indicates that Yahweh has abandoned this Temple-system, just like Jeremiah declared six centuries earlier, and that God’s children are still living in exile and under oppression.  Sadly, it is just as true today as it was the first century that Jerusalem “does not know the things that make for peace,” a fact that Jesus’ later laments in Luke 19.

In thinking about Jesus’ own relationship to the state, it is absolutely crucial to recognize that the
Jerusalem Temple was much more than a religious institution: it was a full-fledged client-state of
Rome.  As the center of economic and political power in 1st century Judah, it possessed the legal powers to tax the people via multiple tithes.  Alongside the tribute demanded by Rome and Herod, the Temple tithes represented a triple-tax on the peasants, which was pushing them to the brink of survival.  This reality is represented in the Gospels by the poor and destitute folk who so often populated Jesus’ parables and encounters.  The Temple also had its own judges and court system, even its own death squads.  Remember the thugs with clubs sent by the high priest to drag Jesus from the
 Garden of Gethesmane?

Unlike modern Western attempts to somehow separate the spiritual from the secular, religious, economic, and political institutions were fully enmeshed in the ancient world.  To imagine that someone could be religious but not political would have made no sense in the time of Jesus, whose career was politically charged from its very beginnings.  Just think of the plot elements in the birth narratives about Jesus: imperial taxation; forced displacement of Joseph and a pregnant Mary from their homes in Nazareth to go to Bethlehem; no housing for the poor when they got there; foreign kings visiting secretly from afar; local kings and their terrorizing death squads; escaping as refugees into Egypt; political praises to a Lord and Savior other than Caesar being sung to the lowest of the low, the shepherds.  Well, you get the idea.   

This same Jesus of Nazareth also once said “have no fear of those who can kill the body” (like Herod Antipas, whose father Herod the Great attempted to murder Jesus as a wee baby) “but fear only that which can kill the spirit,” that is, Satan.  And remember, the Gospels present Satan as being in charge of the kingdoms of the world in Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.  Wow, this is getting pretty realistic, Jesus!

Cynical as Jesus’ attitude about the state might seem, the self-justifying government language of benefaction—call it rhetoric or propaganda if you like—can be quite useful for kingdom-comers seeking first the salvation and shalom of their neighbors.  It opens the door wide for subjects and citizens of whatever state—whether oil monarchy, socialist, neo-liberal, Zionist, Islamic, or fascist—to hold their government accountable to its own best principles and claims for itself.  Martin Luther King Jr. was a master at this.  I believe he was the greatest patriot America has ever seen, even though the state threw him in jail dozens of times, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI wire-tapped and harassed him for years, and his own countrymen killed him in the end.  Rev. King was no Communist.  He was a black Baptist peace church preacher who said “Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence two hundred years ago and declared ‘all men are created equal’ (sorry women); Lincoln proclaimed the Emancipation Proclamation one hundred years ago, setting us free from slavery.  So how come my people are still in bondage to the segregation and terrorism of the Jim Crow South and the vicious racism of Chicago or Philadelphia or LA?”  King used the benefaction language of the greatest heroes of the American republic to challenge democracy to live up to its own best principles and potential. 

As Christians we know that the “will of the people” does not carry the same authority as the voice of God speaking through Torah, the prophets, and Jesus Messiah.  We know that the majority is not often moral.  And being “wise as serpents” we also recognize that even democracies—at least those on a large national scale—are always managed by a ruling elite, who make most of the decisions without consulting us ordinary folk.  (How many of you were consulted about the free trade agreement between Mexico, the US, and Canada called NAFTA?  I know they never gave me a call!) Yet while we remain realistic about the limits of large-scale democracy, we are eager to use the tools of citizenship, consent theory, democratic representation, rights to assembly, free speech, petition, and nonviolent protest to battle the inevitable injustices that arise from inherent concentrations of wealth and power (a central insight of Reinhold Niebuhr’s, by the way.)  Our freedom in Christ allows us to use any democratic tools that come to hand on behalf of the peace and prosperity of our neighbors and even our enemies.

“Seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into Exile” God commanded Jeremiah in Babylon, and this word from Yahweh is at the heart of Yoder’s political ethic for Christians through all time and in all nations, Lebanon as well as Israel, Iraq as well as the good ol’ USA.  Democracy is to be affirmed, Yoder says, because it offers so many more ways to hold the rich and powerful accountable to the most marginal and weak in our society.  Treatment of the “least of these” is the litmus test that separates the sheep from the goats, and democracy can help us advocate for those lost sheep.  Yet Yoder also warns about the dangerous and self-righteous arrogance of military crusades that would impose democracy by force on others.  This Yoder essay, written in 1984, somehow rings a bell for me today.     

Most of the time, Yoder says, when we try to hold the state accountable to the poor, the widow, the orphan, the illegal alien—or for that matter, hold to account corporations or the media or public schools or hospitals or whatever societal institution you choose—we will do so in a second or secular language, different from our mother tongue of worship.  We will sometimes speak in terms of equality or rights, for example.  Yoder calls these translated, second language terms “middle axioms” in Christian Witness to the State. However, there is no reason we cannot also speak publicly in our mother tongue of biblical faith, as Martin Luther King also did so vividly, like when he quoted the prophet Amos: “let justice roll down like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  After all, the Bible speaks of public justice in over 1000 passages, more than any other theme.  We bible-believers don’t need Enlightenment liberalism to talk about justice; we have plenty of our own material! 

But there is a third and climactic conclusion to Jesus’ triadic teaching: “The rulers lord it over you; they say they are your benefactors, but, third, it shall not be so among you, for you are servants because I am a servant.”  In the church we do servant leadership and reject worldly hierarchies of domination like patriarchy and militarism.  Yoder says “we play a different ethical game” than our pagan rulers.  In this Christian game we fight evil like Jesus did: through nonviolent healings and exorcisms, subversive stories that turn the world upside-down, preaching unto repentance, feeding the hungry, offering hospitality to the outcast, befriending women and children, engaging in contemplative and intercessory prayer, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, partying with sinners, and loving enemies. Or as the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 6, we fight only with the weapons of the Holy Spirit, never the carnal weapons of the world. Yet, as John of Patmos repeatedly promises us in his Revelation, the Way of the Lamb is more than enough to conquer to the world and its Roman beast.  We go the extra mile and turn the other cheek, taking the transforming and reconciling initiatives of the kingdom and pouring hot coals on the heads of bullies and oppressors so that they might be shamed into repentance, like King and the black church did to Jim Crow racists like Bull Conner, or Gandhi did to the British Empire, or Palestinians did to the Israeli occupiers of their traditional lands in the first and nonviolent intifada of the 1980s. 

Yoder calls this engaging in “holy experiments” and encourages the church to constantly, creatively, and concretely to be about this work of innovating new social forms of compassion and service.  Yoder takes the term “holy experiment” from William Penn’s Quaker colony of Pennsylvania, which operated a state for some 80 years on pacifist principles.  This New World experiment set many important precedents of governance later enshrined in the US Constitution.  Once the calls of the non-pacifist majority of
Pennsylvania’s citizens to kill the Indians on the frontier became vociferous enough, the Quakers resigned their seats in the state legislature, not wanting to impose their peace ethic on others. My Mennonite ancestors bought land from the sons of William Penn in the 1720s and farmed that land in
Lancaster County for 6 generations, and I am proud to lay claim to this peace church stake in
America’s origins.  When it comes to discussing with my neighbors how to respond to September 11, for example, I believe my peace church perspective has earned a place at the table.   

 Yoder’s (vastly simplified) Critique of 6 Historical Models of Church and State: 

Let’s look at Yoder’s rather goofy-looking, old-fashioned graphics of 6 different historical Christian approaches to the state found in Christian Witness to the State, to close out the first part of my presentation. 1) Roman Catholic clergy/lay dualism: “counsels of perfection” for the holy orders/ordained priests, and a lower standard for the rest, including the emperor and the vast majority of Christians; 2) Lutheran ethical dualism between inner/outer, public/private, and face-to-face relations vs. “stations”/vocations/occupations (like being a hangman for the state!); 3) Reformed/Calvinist theocracy: Renewed monotheistic affirmation of one standard of God’s will for all, but the public responsibility of Christian magistrate to whole of society means it can sometimes actually be immoral to act with Christian love rather than secular justice.  Introduces right of “just revolution”—like the Puritan Revolt and execution of the English king in the 1640s— alongside “just war” (the roots of modern liberation theology).  A state can be both too good (acting too much like Jesus and putting citizens at risk) and too bad (straying so far from its ordained Rom. 13 calling to the Rev. 13 “beast” that Christians must rebel against it); 4) liberal Christian pacifism: The standard of Christ’s love can be applied to society and state—a “social gospel”—but the criteria is fuzzy/uncertain; its contradictions collapsed in face of World War 1, with Barth and Niebuhr revising their original liberal pacifistic stance towards “neo-orthodoxy”; 5) Niebuhrian realism: Combines a) Catholic affirmation of Greco-Roman “natural law” principles of justice as a necessary supplement to Christian love in statecraft; b) accepts the role-specific ethics of Luther (private vs. public ethics); c) agrees with the Reformed that there is only one standard of love, but the heavy weight of sin greatly limits the possibility of a straight-forward application of it to mass society; and d) agrees with the liberal pacifism Niebuhr first espoused that Christ-love is a theoretically applicable standard, but defines “agape” as (essentially) complete self-abnegation and renunciation (quite differently than the Bible, which says love your neighbor as you love yourself; love God and love enemies, because God loves God’s enemies, including you/a sinner far from grace). Niebuhr’s historical-realist analysis means, unlike all the previous models, there is no attempt to identify a fixed point or universal norm; we rather must be attuned to the interplay of forces in whatever context we are in and seek the best love/justice compromise available (the flexibility and freedom of this non-foundationalist approach is actually quite similar to Yoder’s radical reformation/“always reforming” ethos); 6) sectarian: For the first time a clear testimony to the difference that faith makes for the possibilities of one’s political ethic.  Yoder compares and contrasts a spectrum of sectarian praxis, from a) traditional Amish-Mennonite way, that says the government is ordained to use the sword but it is “outside the way of Christ”—a kind of “two kingdoms”/Schleitheim Confession of 1527 dualism—and yet still holds the state accountable on some matters of justice, like religious persecution/ freedom.  They also allow for their being other kinds of Christians than their own group; and b) Jehovah’s Witnesses, who say all government is evil/of the devil, and the church is a strictly/exactly defined remnant of 144, 000).   

Yoder’s Model: Jesus’ Body Politics: In his 75-page mini-classic Body Politics: Five Church Practices before a Watching World Yoder takes five central sacraments of the church—baptism, Lord’s Supper, binding and loosing, the many gifts of the Spirit, and the open meeting of discernment—and shows how they are not only fully “political” actions—in the sense of having to do with power-distribution among people—in their own right within the church, but could also be translated more broadly into redemptive practices serving the wider society and state.  These focal practices include: 1) the Lord’s Supper: breaking-bread in the communion of the body, the “love-feast”/shared meals of Acts 2 and 4, and Jesus’ open table fellowship with sinners and outcasts translates into the practice of everyone having an economic right to food, security, and a sustainable livelihood; 2) Baptism: breaks down the divisions between Greek and Jew, slave and free, man and woman—Galatians 3:28—just like Christ “came preaching peace” and “breaking down the dividing wall of hostility,” as Paul proclaims in Ephesians 2.  This translates into a practice of giving civil rights to all kinds and classes of people and God’s creatures; 3) binding and loosing (or what Anabaptists called the “rule of Christ,” found most explicitly outlined in Matt. 18).  This describes an orderly, nonviolent, social process—moving personal to communal levels, as needed—for resolving conflicts and doing reconciliation, restitution, reparation, restoration, “tough love/“care-fronting,” and forgiveness between victims and offenders (or simply disputants) within a community;  Glen Stassen and company’s “just peacemaking practices” take this to a global/political science level of application; 4) the many-gifts of the Spirit: the practice and principle of valuing and facilitating the participation and skills of every member of a society, no matter how weak, despised, or seemingly “disabled”; and 5) the “open meeting” (or what Yoder calls the “rule of Paul”); the principle/practice that every voice must be listened to in a consensus-building process of discernment and decision-making about matters that affect the whole body. 

These five practices are not exhaustive, simply representative, and Yoder calls each of them “sacraments,” defined as social processes where human and divine action come together.  Duane Friesen in his Citizens, Artists, and Philosophers: An Anabaptist Theology of Culture outlines a dozen or so such practices, including the ones Yoder cites, and divides them into a) ritual practices of moral formation; b) process practices; c) pastoral care practices; and d) community service practices.    

Accounting for this war (and Hersh’s scoop on joint US-Israel planning)

August 15, 2006

On a final note, if, God willing, this most recent Lebanon-Israel war is drawing down, what is the accounting?  The reports coming out of Lebanon are 1 million refugees, 200,000 with no homes to return to, more damage to the civilian infrastructure of Lebanon in one month of bombing than occurred in 15 years of civil war (they had just gotten to the “take-off” point of rebuilding from the rubble of that disaster, which ended in 1992), and more than a 1000 dead civilians.  Israel has about 100 hundred dead and is quite shook up about the tenacity of Hezballah. The Israeli public liked the war at the beginning, but now they are starting to realize they’ve made even more enemies with their Arab neigbhors and gained nothing, except dozens of dead Israeli soldiers, coming home in caskets.

I think that is a reasonable price to pay for Hezballah having taken prisoner two Israeli soldiers, don’t you?  (By the way, as the Palestinian Anglican priest Naim Ateek points out in his “Israel’s Summer Rains; the Arrogance of Power” (www.sabeel.org,), the day before Hamas had its border skirmish with Israel and took a single soldier prisoner (one of two border provocations leading to Israel’s attacks), Israel had kidnapped two Palestinians out of the Gaza Strip.  The fact is, Israel regularly kidnaps (and assassinates) Palestinians out of Palestine, as well inflitrates other Arab countries (Israel currently keeps 10,000 Palestinians rotting in jail, subject to torture, and often denied due process, including hundreds of women and kids).  

Caveat: I took a two-week learning tour of the Occuppied Territories of Palestine with Naim Ateek/Sabeel in 2003, and greatly admire his/their continuing non-violent Palestinian Christian resistance to Israel’s Sharonite policy of subjugation/occupation.  He’s another one of those Arab-Israeli citizens I highlighted in my last posting, who are crucial to peacemaking between the two sides.  Also, his son and daughter-in-law are Fuller grads, live in Pasadena currently, and I count as friends.) 

Everyone knows that these minor (and regular) border skirmishes with Hamas and Hezballah were used as a pretext by Israel to launch a long-in-the-works, double-barrelled attempt to destroy its two most pressing opponents in one fell swoop, on the way to going after Iran.  The crack Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has just revealed in a New Yorker expose that the US had cooperated in planning this attack with Israel for some time, as the first stage in potential strikes against Syria and, especially, Iran.  The White House denies this, but in everything important in the Mid East of late (pre-war intelligence about WMDs, Abu Graihb and torture, etc.) Hersh has been right and the White House has been lying.  Who do you think is telling truth on this one?  It’s a no-brainer. (It so happens that Hersh is Jewish, by the way.)

The fact is, Israel’s attacks were so disproportionate as to amount to serious war crimes, no matter what “self-defense” defense they continually parrot.   It’s a tragedy and a travesty, but hopefully it can (truly) wind down soon and the reconstruction can begin.  Get out your wallet, American tax-payer, Israel’s bill has come due!

 Peace in Christ,

Kent 

Why a Palestinian civil rights movement is key to Israel’s peace

August 15, 2006

I recently saw a moving documentary called “Seeds of Peace” (part of the Conscientious Projector series in Old Town Pasadena). It followed the course of a 3-week summer camp in Maine that brings teenagers together (for succesive years) from opposing sides of a conflict zone (like Israelis and Palestinians).  One scene that proved particularly revelatory was when the camp counselors (after several weeks of intense, face-to-face and polarzing debates) had the group line up on one end of the cabin if they believed in Israel’s side of the story and the other end if they believed in Palestine.  Guess who was left in the middle? The Israeli Arabs.  (Palestinian Arabs with Israeli citizenship make up 20% of Israel’s population, a percentage that will keep increasing.)

Why could these particular Palestinians empathize to some degree with Israel’s interests/needs (as versus the Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank or Gaza)?  Because they had some basic civil rights and protections under the umbrella of the Zionist state (albeit a second-class citizenship, replete with the usual,deep-seated discrminations that minorities face even in democracies).  They had personally enjoyed some benefits of Israel’s democracy and economy and, logically, did not want to see it destroyed (it was their country, too, kind of!) They had been included, even if back-handedly and grudgingly.  (The fact is, like the US economy and Mexicans, Israel is ultimately dependent on the labor of Palestinians if it wants to be a middle-class nation.)

What do I learn from this?  If Israel was actually serious about giving civil rights to the 5-6 million or so Palestinians who have lived (and died) under its (dehumanizing and debilitating) thumb for the last 40 years in the Occuppied Territories, they would (slowly but surely) have a kind of peace with their Arab neighbors that will forever elude them if they continue on the self-destructive path they have pursued especially since 1967. 

This is what the Afrikaaners in South Africa finally came to accept (or at least key and wise leaders, which Israel seems to be singularly lacking in currently).  They realized they had to give at least second-class civil rights to the black, indigeneous majority in their country, or they would be continually under threat and their economy would never be viable.  Perhaps not incidentally, they also realized the other path of continually oppressing their neighbors would sicken and destroy their souls, a living (and dying) hell.  What whites in South Africa have discovered is, they still have more than enough power, privilege, and property to live “the good life” in the new, more just, South Africa, even if they get out-voted in elections and our a (elite) minority.  Israel faces the same, inescapable choice.

What prevents such a seemingly sensible/inevitable political solution in Israel?  Many things, of course, but primary among them is a Zionist (racist?) insistence on maintaining a demographic majority of Jews within an officially Zionist state (the kind of “blood and soil” politics that really went out of style by the end of the 20th century).  

I believe, ultimately, only a federated or one state/one economy solution–with civil rights of some kind for everyone, and, inevitably, a Palestinian majority population–is possible in the region.  The smart Palestinians in the past (and in the future) will put down their guns and wage an MLK-style civil rights campaign, essentially saying, “you win with your European colonial state; now you have to include us in it.”  However, given the level of disintergration and degradation experienced by Palestinians vis-a-vis Israel, they may very well require a transitional period of two states, so that Palestinians finally have the dignity of sovereignity that has been denied them for so long.  The Palestinians are one of the world’s most politically educated/savvy people (much more so than Americans; they’ve been figting for their civil rights for decades), and are quite capable of governing themselves, if not actively and constantly undermined by their Israeli Big Brother (who is currently quite unabashed about its intention to destroy the elected government of the Palestinians and imprisoning the whole of their civil society within a series of discontiguous and encircled reservations, with no exits).    

Peace in Christ,

Kent

Vietnam shadows Iraq: The inevitablity of atrocities

August 9, 2006

The August 6 Sunday LA Times has a front-page, in-depth, investigative report on thousands of newly declassifed Army documents revealing that the extant of US military atrocities against Vietnamese civilians during the Vietnam War was much greater than previously known (frequently against women, children and elderly; often including rape and torture, along with killings).  Hundreds of massacres/”incidents”, across all Army divisions, involving, minimally, hundreds of deaths, are now part of the public record.

The story features an anti-war medic (last name Henry, a new hero of mine), who reported on atrocities committed by his own unit, including the dreadful day when 19 huddled women and children were executed in cold blood.  His captain–radioing in for his operational command–was told to “shoot anything that moves.” He asked for volunteers, got at least one (a sergeant known as “Crazy”), and, noticing that the women and children huddled in front of him were indeed moving as they begged for their lives, opend fire.  In twenty seconds of endless AK-47 automatic fire, these precious daughters of God were blown into eternity, their bodies shattered by a hail of bullets.  They await the resurrection of the body on the Last Day to restore them to wholeness.

The reportor tracked down various members of the unit, and many different ones confirmed the same basic story, from different angles.  “Crazy”–now a 58-year old hotel worker in Hawaia–says he has blocked out all memories of the ‘Nam, but readily acknowledges such incidents occurred.  He does not remember that day, he says.  The captain refused to comment.  The medic, after being shown the Army documents confirming his memory, said he shook for hours after the reporter left.  He had tried to forget the war after his initial years of courageous vet activism (he worked for years as a lumberjack in the Sierra Nevada range; he was a hippie at Berkely before getting drafted. Sounds like a character from a Grateful Dead song to me!) 

This medic (who was highly decorated for repeatedly risking life and limb on behalf of his wounded brothers in the field) had reported these and other atrocities he had witnessed to Army investigators at the time, while still in the service, told it to the media after coming back from his “tour of duty,” and was one of hundreds of vets who testified at the “Winter Soldier” Congressional hearings of early 1970s made famous again by the leading role played by a young John Kerry.  However, the Army (and most American people) had no stomach to know what was done in Vietnam, and very few of these hundreds of massacres were ever prosecuted.  A few received sentences of less than a year for murder, rape, and pillage in cold blood (a time-honored tradition of warriors through the millennia.) When this medic initially confronted some of his unit-mates about throwing an old Vietnamese peasant man off a cliff, and stabbing some pigs (earlier incidents), they made it clear they would kill him if he didn’t shut up.

The conditions that created these atrocities are many, but easily identified: 1) the on-going American PR obsession with “body counts” of enemy dead, to prove to the folks back home that we were “winning” and unwinnable war; some units consciously padded their body counts by taking out the easiest available targets: women, children, and elderly in the villages. (I have a new-found respect for the chosen immorality of Gen. Westmoreland, the top Vietnam general for a time, who simply fabricated false body counts, that is, bold-faced lied to the American press and people, like Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush are currently doing); 2) under constant stress and risk of instant extermination, difficult jungle conditions with buddies dying regularly around them, some soldiers will inevitably cross a threshold of restraint and unleash their fear, rage, and often racist hatred against whoever happens to be “in the wrong place, at the wrong time”; 3) “free-fire zones” and “search-and-destroy” missions were commonplace in Vietnam; the very structure of the rules of engagement frequently allowed soldiers to shoot anything that moved; 4) in guerilla warfare, the distinction between civilian and enemy soldier all but disappears; and 5) Satan will rule, when you worship his ways of domination and destruction. 

What can we learn from these latest revelations?: 1) John Kerry and the Winter Soldiers were telling us the truth (many tried to undermine the veracity of their witness at the time, to their enduring dishonor, including current prominent neo-con “thinkers”); 2) Vietnam vet Oliver’s Stone portrayal of the war in the movie “Platoon” struck close to home (many accussed him of sensationalizing the Vietnam “scene” at the time.  Of course, Stone’s JFK theories are whacked!  He was actually in Vietnam); and 3) most importantly, in their own unique way, all the same conditions are present in Iraq currently, which is why we are hearing about the first 5 or 6 investigations into vicious atrocities (killings, rapes) committed by US soldiers over there. (Obviously there are differences of desert and urban warfare vs. jungle warfare, Shia/Sunni Arab civil war versus communist and capitalist or North/South Vietnamese etc.) 

That is why any American who continues to counsel us to “stay the course” and “finish the mission”–or attacks withdrawal or draw-down proposals as “cutting and running” or “defeatism” or “irresponsible”–is personally endorsing the guaranteed continuation of US atrocities and massacres in Iraq.  This is exactly–emphasis on exactly–the kind of logic that bogged us down in Vietnam for nine long years, when anyone with sense recognized after the Tet Offensive of Jan. 1968 (which my parents and sisters lived through, garnering some great stories!) we were in an intractable, dead-end civil war (as Walter Cronkite fairly immediately recognized, God bless him!) 

Nixon and Kissinger and that cabal are responsible for the needless deaths of ten of thousands of US grunts who died after 1968, partially responsible for the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who died after that time, and totally responsible for the (illegal, secret, and vicious) expansion of the war into Laos and Cambodia, where unexploded, people-shredding ordinance still scars the farmers and mars the land today.  Senators Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman–to name but two prominent Democrats–will have the same kind of blood on their hands if they don’t change their tune, save their souls (and the bodies of US soldiers.) Though, I guess “Joe must go” may actually be happening (hooray!), though he might still sneak in through the back-door.

 Well, learning this saddened me greatly and also left me a bit angry at those faciliating war crimes currently who will probably never be held accountable (I’m talking mostly about Bush and Cheney).  It was good to hear that Bush is having fun goading his aides into running 3 miles in the 100 degree heat on his Texas ranch, while he rides along on his mountain bike.  What a man!

 Peace in Christ, 

Kent