Packing heat in Jesus’ name? Three things he might say about that…

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My first reaction to the comments Jerry Falwell Jr. made about guns and shooting “those Muslims” was to wonder if we’re reading the same Bible. Or following the same Jesus.

Falwell probably didn’t intend for his remarks to be taken as a serious theological reflection on Christianity and the use of violence. And that’s the problem.

There is a distressing lack of reflection behind these comments. What do we find when we hold them up to the words of Jesus and see how they compare?

There are three things Jesus said that I think are worth considering, as we evaluate the prevailing attitude toward guns and our willingness to use them on enemies perceived and real.

1. “That’s enough!”

In defending Falwell’s remarks, some have appealed to Luke 22:36, where Jesus tells his disciples to buy a sword. The argument put forward is that these swords were intended for self-defense; therefore Jesus must have been OK with his followers using lethal force in at least some cases.

The problem is, this view doesn’t hold up in view of the larger context:

  • Jesus made it clear why he told the disciples to buy a sword: to fulfill a prophecy in Isaiah 53, a passage predicting the Messiah would be falsely associated with evildoers, despite committing “no violence.” How can a call to arms fulfill a prophecy about a Messiah who doesn’t fight? Answer: it doesn’t because this is not a call to arms. Jesus is drawing a contrast between the kind of Messiah the world expects—not to mention the kind many of us seem to expect—and the kind of Messiah that God gave us.
  • The disciples respond by telling Jesus they already have two swords—which, according to Jesus, is enough. If the intent was insurrection or self-defense, how are two swords among twelve people supposed to be enough? Answer: they’re not, because they were never meant to be used for violence.
  • Zack Hunt raises another important point: if Jesus really intended for his disciples to carry (and possibly use) swords, “Why there is no mention anywhere in the New Testament of anyone in the early Church carrying a weapon with them into any of the dangerous situations they found themselves in?” And why is there no criticism in the New Testament for their apparent failure to take Jesus’ words at face value? Answer: because that’s not how Jesus meant for them to take his words.

Jesus’ response to the disciples that night—“That’s enough!”—is emphatic. It’s a rebuke. Even after three years with Jesus, his disciples still don’t get it.

Apparently, neither do we.

If the context of Luke 22:36 doesn’t make it clear that Jesus is not endorsing violence, then the next thing he says about swords ought to.

2. “Put your sword back in its place.”

Later in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus rebukes Peter for defending him with a sword… likely one of the same swords that was presented to him earlier that evening.

Jesus does not simply condemn violence on this occasion—as if there were a temporary cessation of the normal rules permitting violence while he allowed himself to be crucified. Jesus denounces the futility of all violence everywhere:

All who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

This is nothing new. This is what he’s been saying his entire ministry. In Luke 13, when he’s told some insurgent Galileans have been slaughtered by the Roman governor, he warns: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

He’s not talking in generalities. He’s not talking about “perish” as in eternal destiny. Jesus is saying, “If you don’t repent of your bloodlust—if you don’t renounce the urge to fight violence with violence—you will meet the same end as your Galilean compatriots.”

All who draw the sword.

Back in Gethsemane, as Jesus is led away, he asks what ought to be a simple question: “Am I leading a violent uprising, that you have come out with swords and clubs?”

The obvious answer is no. The questions we should ask are:

What does it look like to walk in the footsteps of a Messiah who refused to fight?

What does it mean to be imitators of Christ when people come at us with swords and clubs? Or when we’re afraid they might do so?

3. “My kingdom is not of this world.”

 I had a t-shirt with this phrase on it when I was a kid. I thought it meant we weren’t supposed to behave like the rest of world: we don’t listen to the same music, watch the same movies, or have sex the way the world does.

The truth is, being a Christian does mean being different from the rest of the world. But the stakes are much, much higher than that.

Jesus spoke these words to Pilate, the Roman governor—the same governor who slaughtered those independence-minded Galileans. Pilate was trying to get at whether Jesus imagined himself a king—and therefore, whether he was a threat to Rome.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus replied. Hardly the most reassuring answer he could have given, under the circumstances. But what makes his kingdom “not of this world”? The fact that his followers don’t take up arms.

“If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest.”

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What Falwell’s words—and the support for them—reveal is that we really don’t want to do things God’s way. We don’t really like his plan for the world. We don’t care for his blueprint for the kingdom.

What it shows is that we don’t trust Jesus enough to take him at his word. We don’t think all those things he said about enemy love actually work.

Most of all, it shows we don’t want to walk the path Jesus walked—a path that leads to a cross. But as my friend Tim Gombis writes, there is no other path for us to walk:

The cross is not a personal and private matter between me and God. The cross determines everything for God’s people. It claims our bodies, our communities, our loves and longings, and secures an eternal future for those who cling to it.

The kingdom God envisions comes by way of the cross, not through the barrel of a gun.

Images: YouTube, Claudio Ungari on Flickr

You’ll always need another scapegoat

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May 15: Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers kill two Palestinian teenagers, following a tense standoff during which protesters hurl rocks and soldiers respond with volleys of tear gas. The boys pose no immediate threat to the heavily armed Israeli soldiers. They’re an easy target. Scapegoats.

June 12: Palestinian insurgents go looking for an opportunity to vent their own pent-up thirst for violence and revenge. They kidnap and murder three Israeli teenagers. The boys are an easy target. Scapegoats.

The Israeli government quickly blames Hamas. Quietly, officials admit the murders were the work of a “lone cell.” But that won’t do. As violence escalates, so does the need for a bigger scapegoat.

July 1: The Israeli teenagers are buried. Huge crowds turn out for the funeral. Several hundred rightwing Israelis coopt what was meant to be a day of mourning. They shout for revenge, chanting, “Death to Arabs.”

July 2: A Palestinian teenager is kidnapped and burned alive by Israeli settlers hell-bent on revenge. But the scapegoating won’t end there. The thirst for vengeance is not easily sated. An eye for an eye, a life for a life… but when will it stop?

Hamas fires rockets; Israel reduces whole sections of Gaza to rubble. Well over a thousand Palestinians—the vast majority of them (75-80%) civilians—are killed in the first few weeks, along with 53 Israeli soldiers and 3 civilians in Israel.

The Israeli government thinks nothing of bombing schools, hospitals, and UN buildings. Those seeking refuge inside become scapegoats as well. We’re told their deaths are necessary (or at least an unfortunate necessity) to stop Hamas from firing their ordinances nearby. Civilians are warned to flee—no easy task in a densely populated and utterly isolated strip of land five miles wide. Then the places to which they’ve managed to flee are bombed as well.

Of course, Hamas has blood on its hands, too. They may not be capable of targeting much of anything with their rudimentary ordinances. But their intent to wage war—to unleash hell, to vent their bloodlust on innocent scapegoats—is undeniable. Hamas may not have murdered those three Israeli teenagers, but their political chief congratulated those who did.

That’s because Hamas and the Israeli government both worship the same god of violence. They offer sacrifices on the same bloodstained altar. They engage in the same endless cycle of scapegoating—justifying their violence by pointing to the violence of their enemy.

When will it stop?

18281678When we recognize scapegoating for what it really is: demonic. When both sides give up the absurd notion that if they kill enough of their enemies, they’ll finally achieve peace.

In his book Farewell to Mars, Brian Zahnd sheds light on the demonic scapegoating of our enemies, which lies at the root of so much of the world’s violence—including the latest conflict between Israel and Gaza.

This extended quote from Zahnd is worth considering in light of the current situation:

A crowd under the influence of an angry, vengeful spirit is the most dangerous thing in the world. It is closely associated with the essence of what is satanic… the inclination to blame, accuse, and recriminate. (The words satan and devil both mean to accuse and blame.) When the satanic spirit of angry blame and accusation infects a crowd, a perilous phenomenon is born. The crowd abandons truth as it searches for a target upon which it can express the pent-up rage it feels… The groupthink phenomenon of mob mentality quickly overtakes rational thought and individual responsibility… The mob becomes capable of evil that would be unthinkable for most people as an individual.

The scapegoat is usually a marginalized person or a minority group that is easy to victimize. But the crowd does not admit that it has selected a weak victim as a scapegoat. The crowd must continue to practice the self-deception that the scapegoat is a real threat to “freedom” or “righteousness” or whatever the crowd is using to justify its fear-based insecurity and anger…

Sacrificing a scapegoat is highly effective in producing a sense of well-being and belonging within the crowd… It’s the blood-drenched altar of civilization. It’s the Cain model for preserving the polis. It’s collective murder as the alchemy for peace and unity. The crowd vents its violence and vengeance upon a scapegoat to protect itself from itself. 

If you follow an angry crowd—even if it calls itself Christian—you are likely to be wrong… Massacres, slaughters, crusades, pogroms, genocides, and the Holocaust are what can happen when people follow an angry crowd in search of a scapegoat.

We’re called to be peacemakers, and peacemakers cannot be fearmongers. The biggest difference between a peacemaker and a fearmonger is whether or not they really believe in the unconditional love of God.

There is no easy way out of this relentless cycle of scapegoating, violence, and bloodshed. But we will never find another way if we remain imprisoned by fear, unable to imagine that God might love the very people we’ve been told to hate.

If you’re a Christian and you consider yourself pro-Israel, can you see that God loves the people of Palestine unconditionally? Does that change the moral calculus for you in any way? If not, do you really believe in the unconditional love of God—or are you merely paying lip service to the idea?

For those of us who sympathize with the Palestinians, can we see that God also loves the people of Israel unconditionally—no matter how strongly we may condemn the actions of their government? Does this influence the moral calculus for us in any way? If not, do we really believe in the unconditional love of God?

God’s love demands that we choose peace over fear. As Patriarch Bartholomew (quoted by Zahnd) once said:

Unless our actions are founded on love, rather than on fear, they will never be able to overcome fanaticism or fundamentalism… Our peacemaking ultimately stems from and relates to love for all of God’s creation.

If you follow the crowd in pursuit of a scapegoat, the violence will never end. You’ll find that you will always need another scapegoat. And another. And another. Before long, you might become someone else’s scapegoat. It is folly.

The only way to end it is to give up our need for a scapegoat.

HT Zach Hoag

Photo by Basel Alyazouri on Flickr

Blueprint for a reconfigured humanity

Some of the discussion around Monday’s Memorial Day post reflects a tension Christians have long wrestled with in this country: just how far are we expected to go in living out Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount?

It’s tempting to think of Jesus’ definitive sermon as a personal ethic, a moral ideal meant for individuals, not whole societies or communities. And while the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount were directed to Jesus’ followers (and would-be followers), they were more than suggestions on how to be a better person. Jesus envisioned a far more radical transformation; his Sermon on the Mount was his blueprint for a reconfigured humanity. And this blueprint was built on a foundation of nonretaliation and enemy-love, which preclude violence as a way of achieving our desired ends.

Preston Sprinkle does a great job unpacking the nonviolent teachings of Jesus and their broader implications in chapters 6 and 7 of his book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence. What’s fascinating is that he does so from within a conservative Reformed perspective. I was part of this tradition for several years, and I never heard someone of his perspective advocate for nonviolence until now. As someone who wholeheartedly agrees that nonretaliation is more than some “insignificant whisper” on the margins of Jesus’ teachings, I hope Preston’s case gets a wide hearing in conservative Reformed circles—and beyond.

Here are some quotes were reflecting on:

Jesus’ Sermon [on the Mount] is more than a personal ethic—a way in which individuals can be better people. Rather, the Sermon is intended to reconfigure God’s new community, to mold His people into a visibly different kingdom in the face of all other imposter kingdoms. Or in Jesus’ own words, we are to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world”—a public display of a different way.

Jesus invades every sphere of our lives. He claims lordship over it all… He doesn’t let us hold on to little compartments of life where we can respond to evil however we darn well please. Trying to find exceptions to the rule works against what Jesus is doing here. Jesus demands Calvary-shaped behavior that confounds and loves the enemy.

The New Testament is ubiquitously clear: don’t retaliate with evil for evil; do good to those who hate you; embrace your enemy with a cross-shaped, unyielding divine love. Such a rich and pervasive trajectory—from Jesus’ Sermon [on the Mount], modeled through His life, commended to His disciples, taken up by the apostles, and demanded of the early church—shows that nonretaliation and enemy-love are not some insignificant whisper lingering on the edge of Jesus’ ethical landscape. They are fundamental identity markers for citizens of God’s kingdom.

You can order Preston’s book here.

An alternative prayer for Memorial Day

If you feel conflicted over Memorial Day, you’re not alone. On the one hand, it is right we should honor those who sacrificed everything, driven by the noble desire to serve. On the other hand, it feels less right that we should baptize their sacrifice as a pretext for the next war, and the next one, and the next one.

Other voices for nonviolence have shared their Memorial Day reflections. (See, for example, this prayer from Kurt Willems and this excellent post from J.R. Daniel Kirk two years ago.) For this post, I tapped into the two theological streams I’m drawn to most—the Anglican and Anabaptist traditions—to write an alternative prayer for Memorial Day…

—//—

We remember all who serve in the armed forces. We pray for their safekeeping.

We remember those stationed overseas. We pray they will be reunited with their loved ones soon.

We remember those who have experienced combat. We ask you to restore peace to their souls and wholeness to their bodies.

We remember those who have died in combat. We pray for the repose of their souls and the comfort of their families.

We remember the innocent victims of war:

We remember those imprisoned by war, including those at Guantanamo Bay. We pray for those innocent of wrongdoing, those cleared for release but with no freedom in sight, and those held more than a decade without trial.

We remember the children killed in our drone strikes:

Wajid, 9,

Ayeesha, 3,

Syed, 7,

Talha, 8,

Zayda, 7,

Hoda, 5,

and many more.

We remember civilians killed in war, including the 137,000 who died during and after the war in Iraq.

We remember the children of Syria, Nigeria, and everywhere conflict deprives a child of his or her right to live in a safe and nurturing environment.

We confess that evil is real and that it lurks within our hearts. We have been quick to condemn the violence of others while ignoring the deeds of our own hands.

We confess we have put nation above church, flag above cross. We acknowledge that Christ’s followers have but one Memorial Day, commemorated with bread and wine, not with beers and barbecue.

We confess we have failed to care for those we’ve sent into combat, for those who bear the physical and emotional scars of war. We acknowledge our duty to them, a duty that does not end when our attention turns elsewhere.

We confess we have not obeyed our Lord’s command to put away our swords. We acknowledge that war to end war is a fantasy, redemptive violence a myth, and that peace through conquest is an unattainable lie.

We confess that true freedom is not won by a soldier spilling someone else’s blood, but by a lamb who allowed his own blood to be spilled, refusing to take up arms.

We give thanks for the cross, God’s answer to a world addicted to violence. We mourn all whose lives have been sacrificed on the altar of war. We pray for the resolve to pursue another way, to “let go of the sword and take the hand of the Crucified One.” On this and every Memorial Day, we ask that we might prove ourselves worthy subjects of the Prince of Peace.

HT Brian ZahndJ.R. Daniel Kirk, Kurt Willems, Preston Sprinkle

Retributive violence is still violence, even when it’s a slushie

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Nonretaliation and enemy-love are not some insignificant whisper lingering on the edge of Jesus’ ethical landscape. They are fundamental identity markers for citizens of God’s kingdom.
— Preston Sprinkle, Fight

It can be argued that Christine Weick committed an act of violence when she spent Mother’s Day camped at a busy intersection in suburban Grand Rapids with her sign condemning gays…

Violence against a day meant to honor all the moms (straight or otherwise) who’ve chosen nurture over hatred…

Violence against those who already feel marginalized by the church…

Violence against her own faith which, however you feel about same-sex marriage, should never be reduced to this one issue.

But it can also be argued that Jessica Prince committed an act of violence when she threw her slushie at Weick. Granted, neither act caused physical harm. But we all know there’s more than one way to hurt someone.

To be honest, part of me wanted to cheer when I saw Prince empty the contents of her plastic cup over Weick on local TV. Like many on both sides of the gay marriage debate, I’m wearied by the antics of Westboro Baptist Church and their imitators. It’s not hard to think Christine Weick got a small taste of what she deserves.

Except that retributive violence — whether bullets, bombs, or projectile slushie — can never resolve conflict. Retributive violence can only escalate it.

When a news crew showed up to cover Weick’s solo protest, it was going to be a one-off story about the kind person that has nothing better to do on Mother’s Day than show the world how angry she is about the existence of gay people. Or maybe a story on some of the peaceful counter-protestors who showed up with handmade signs of their own.

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That was it. Weick would get her two minutes of fame on the local news, and the story would be history.

Now it’s taken on a life of its own, as a mildly trending story about an anti-gay/pro-family protestor (depending on your political point of view) becoming the victim of a slushie assault. It’s fresh ammunition for those who didn’t exactly need our help nursing a persecution complex.

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Jessica Prince’s action turned a minor story into something bigger. Because retributive violence can never resolve conflict. It can only escalate it.

Which, perhaps, is one reason why, if you’re a Christian, the option of dishing out violence in return for violence has been taken away from you. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus told Peter. Elsewhere, Jesus overturned the Old Testament formula of blessing those who bless you and cursing those who curse you:

Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who mistreat you.

Love and retributive violence cannot occupy the same space. Or, as Jesus’ brother James wrote, “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing… this should not be.”

Which makes the incongruity of Jessica Prince’s confrontation with Christine Weick even more distressing, at least from a Christian point of view. (The unedited version was posted to YouTube by WOOD-TV.)

After dumping the contents of her slushie cup on Weick, Prince told her:

God teaches you to love one another, no matter what you look like, no matter what you do, and no matter who you love.

Yet in practically the same breath, she went on:

You know what? You’re going to hell. God will make you burn for that… I hope someone who drives by who has bigger balls than me will beat your f****** a**.

OK, granted… no one appointed Jessica Prince a spokesperson for anything. She’s not a good representative for those of us who want churches — and society in general — to adopt a more loving posture toward our gay and lesbian neighbors.

But I think there’s a little bit of Jessica Prince in all of us — a part of us that wants God to make our enemies burn, a part of us that wants to watch someone beat the crap out of them. But as Preston Sprinkle writes in his excellent book Fight, Jesus “doesn’t let us hold on to little compartments of life where we can respond to evil however we darn well please.”

Subverting evil with love is the only option if you are a Christian. There is no other way, not even dousing someone with slushie.

Children of the drone strikes: do they matter any less than the children of Sandy Hook?

Predator drone (photo: U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt)

Like most people, I remember watching the news unfold on December 14, 2012, when Adam Lanza gunned down 20 first-graders and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

I’m old enough to remember the mass shootings that preceded Sandy Hook. Killeen. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook was different, of course. Most of the victims were six, maybe seven years old.

The horror I felt was different, too, because this time I was a parent. My daughter was only two at the time — young enough that, thankfully, we didn’t have to tell her what had taken place. Her innocence remained intact… for now, at least.

But for the first time, I felt what every parent feels when a tragedy involving children takes place. That sense of utter powerlessness. The realization that it could happen here, in my daughter’s school. I’ve heard others describe parenthood as watching your heart walk outside your body. I finally know what they’re talking about, and it’s a disquieting experience, to say the least.

In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, I remember watching President Obama assume the role of mourner-in-chief, a duty he performed with exceptional skill: comforting victims’ families, eulogizing the dead, giving voice to the grief we all felt, and standing up to a recalcitrant gun lobby whose only answer to unspeakable gun violence is… more guns. (When all you have is a hammer…)

In his book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence, Preston Sprinkle raises a troubling question: how can the president mourn the children of Sandy Hook while authorizing drone strikes which have killed hundreds of children in Pakistan and Yemen?

How can any of us mourn one while rationalizing the other?

Reports vary, but almost all of them (with the possible exception of the CIA) reveal that military drone strikes aren’t nearly as precise as our leaders have led us to believe.

  • According to a Columbia Law School study, up to 155 of an estimated 611 people killed by drone strikes in Pakistan during 2011 were civilians. That’s 1 innocent for every 4 suspected militants…
  • Suspected being the operative word. Only 20% of these suspected militants were “strongly identified” — that is, identified by name and their status corroborated by an independent, on-the-ground investigation.
  • Just last month, an errant drone strike killed more than dozen innocents in Yemen, because of an apparent failure to distinguish between a terrorist convoy and a wedding party.
  • In Yemen, drone strikes have killed an estimated 42 children. They’ve had to establish a counseling center to help surviving children cope with the traumatic effects of drone strikes — children who are terrified of the United States and its flying robots.

Are the children killed in these drone strikes worth any less than the children of Sandy Hook? Did their parents love them any less? Did God love them any less?

Many of us are uncomfortable putting them in the same category as the children of Sandy Hook. When it happens in Connecticut, we call it murder. When it happens in Pakistan, we call it “collateral damage,” if we acknowledge it at all.

Preston Sprinkle won’t let us off the hook, as I found out while reading his book yesterday. Contrasting the president’s response to Sandy Hook with his handling of drone strikes, Preston writes:

Can we extend his sympathy to the Middle East? Are the deaths of 168 incinerated children any less a tragedy than the massacre at Newtown? Or does their color, ethnicity, and religion justify their deaths?

Hard words.

They come at the end of a chapter in which Preston shows how the New Testament book of Revelation (famously the source of Mark Driscoll’s prize-fighting Jesus) is actually a message of nonviolence. Preston demonstrates that Revelation is a polemic against the violence and excess of the Roman Empire — and all empires that follow in its steps. He argues that God does not dish out violence in Revelation; he absorbs it. The blood spattered on Jesus’ robe in Revelation 19 is not the blood of his enemies; it’s his own.

Human violence is condemned, never encouraged in Revelation. The Pax Romana (peace of Rome) — which was really peace for some, violence for the rest — is a myth. It is anything but true peace. Some day, Rome and all other nations will be held to account for the blood “of all who have been slaughtered on the earth,” according to Revelation 18.

And that includes us.

Which is why it’s high time we heed Preston’s call to untangle our faith from American nationalism. It’s time we speak out against violence in all its forms, especially violence against children — no matter where it takes place. As Preston writes:

I mourn both tragedies — the death of innocent beautiful children in Connecticut and of the precious children in the Middle East. Both tragedies are evil. Both will be vindicated. Both will be judged.

 

Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence by Preston Sprinkle

Words matter: the language of warfare in a kingdom of peace

Battle of Nandorfehervar (image public domain in the United States)Last week I was at a conference in Bangkok where the military metaphors flowed freely.

“We’re raising up an army.”

“Fighting for God.”

“Doing battle with the enemy.”

“Going to war for this generation.”

It felt like an awful lot of violent imagery for a conference that was all about kids and faith.

It’s true you’ll find military metaphors in the New Testament, as friends on Facebook and Twitter pointed out when I aired my concern the other day. Jesus talks about bringing a “sword” of division. Paul greets his friends as “fellow soldiers,” counsels believers to put on “the armor of God,” and urges Timothy to “fight the good fight.”

But there is, I think, a crucial difference between us and the earliest Christians: the pre-Constantine church was united in its opposition to violence of any kind. As Preston Sprinkle writes on Scot McKnight’s blog (and in his book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence):

While early Christian writers were divided on many issues (e.g. the mode of baptism, the role of women in leadership), when it came to killing, their voices seemed to be unanimous: believers are prohibited from taking human life.

The early church rejected the distinction that some like Mark Driscoll try to make between “authorized” and “unauthorized” killing. Origen, Tertullian, Lactantius — they condemned killing, period.

The Church Fathers prior to Constantine were united in their opposition to military service. For example, Tertullian argued that, “The Lord, by taking away Peter’s sword, disarmed every soldier thereafter.”

The New Testament writers took pains to emphasize the metaphorical (or at least non-physical) nature of the church’s “fight.” Jesus’ kingdom was “not of this world,” meaning that his followers would not fight. Paul insisted that our struggle “is not against flesh and blood” and that we “do not wage war as the world does.”

The New Testament’s military metaphors must be read in light of its larger commitment to nonviolence — a commitment to which the early church held unwaveringly. For ancient believers, there was no mistaking the significance of these metaphors — or what they didn’t signify.

But all that was before Constantine.

That was before Augustine and Aquinas and just war theory.

That was before the Crusades.

That was before a millennium of wars fought in God’s name by those who saw themselves as God’s people doing God’s work.

That was before God’s name was invoked in our own lifetime to justify military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That was before some Christians in Uganda, backed by others in the US, rallied behind an anti-homosexuality bill that included the death penalty for some offenses.

So when Christians today speak of “raising an army,” “going to war,” or “doing battle with the enemy,” what exactly do they mean? After centuries of killing and war in God’s name, is it still just a metaphor, as it was for the early Christian writers? And if so, is that clear to those listening on the outside?

I’m not so sure.

The origins and implications of our words matter, as David R. Henson’s thoughtful post reminds us. The language we use should reflect our commitment to the teachings of Jesus — including his call to nonviolence.

Choosing our words carefully is perhaps even more important, precisely because we haven’t always lived up to this call.

How the Iraq War changed everything

John Moore / Getty Images
Ten years ago.

Close to 200,000 people dead. Most of them civilians.

To say nothing of the more than 30,000 US soldiers wounded — many with debilitating injuries they will carry for the rest of their lives.

Or the undetermined number of “excess deaths,” likely in the hundreds of thousands — those who died not necessarily from bullets or bombs but from the general disruption of war.

Or the 3 to 5 million people displaced, many driven from their homes forever — including most of Iraq’s Christian minority.

Or the nearly $2 trillion price tag of this war. Never paid for, and about 25 times higher than what was promised.

Or the most recent projection, which puts the final price tag at $6 trillion, once the full cost of veteran care is accounted for.

That’s $6 trillion we don’t have to spend on our children’s education, healthcare, international aid, infrastructure, environmental cleanup, or any number of other worthy endeavors.

All in the pursuit of weapons that didn’t exist.

Was it worth it?

For me personally, Iraq marked a turning point. It was the last war I will ever be lured into supporting.

Like most Americans, I threw my support behind the call to arms. September 11 showed us how vulnerable we are (even though Iraq had nothing to do with the events of that day).

I wanted to feel safe again. I wanted to believe that a little bit of “shock and awe” could deliver on its promise of security.

It couldn’t and it didn’t, because there is no such thing as redemptive violence. There is no such thing as a war to end all wars. Violence only ever breeds more violence.

“Peace through victory” is the myth of empire. It didn’t work for the Romans, and it will not work for us.

May God forgive us for what we’ve done to ourselves and to the people of Iraq.

Ten years on, kyrie elieson. 

Lord, have mercy.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the myth of “moral symmetry”

This is part 1 of a series on rethinking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a Christian, inspired by the most recent assault on Gaza. Part 2 can be read here.  

Here’s a little perspective on the conflict in Gaza…

gaza_updated

Update (03/21/13): An earlier version of this infographic ended with an iconic photo of BBC journalist Jihad Mishrawi carrying the wrapped body of his son, Omar, who was thought at the time to have been killed in an Israeli air strike. A report was publicized last week suggesting that Omar may have been killed by a Hamas rocket instead. So as not to distract from the larger point being made, I’ve removed the photo. What remains unchanged, in my opinion, is: (1) firing rockets at someone is never, ever justified, and (2) Israel has utilized disproportionate force to subjugate the Palestinians. Until both sides renounce violence as a misguided path to security, the death toll is sure to rise.

Global voices of nonviolence (including mine)

Global Voices of Nonviolence (GVON) is a new initiative to share stories and perspectives on nonviolence from around the world. It was started by EthnoGraphic Media (EGM), the film company behind the documentary Little Town of Bethlehem.


This week they republished an old post of mine called “People of the third way,” in which I share how Jesus practiced (and taught) nonviolence against a political backdrop every bit as volatile as the modern Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Rejecting both violent uprising and docile acquiescence, Jesus offers a third way: confronting the oppressor without fighting back. Refusing the be enemies. Subverting evil with love.

I hope to contribute more to GVON in the future. I tend to write a lot about “love your neighbor” and how this idea is central to the way of Jesus. GVON and EGM are putting these words in action, calling the church to recover its rich heritage of nonviolence.

I don’t do many shameless promotions on this blog, but here’s one. Support GVON. Follow their blog. Connect with them on Facebook. Listen to their stories of nonviolence and maybe share some of your own.