Friday, September 30, 2016

The Case for Pacifism: A Christian Understanding of Power (5 of 7)

This is the fifth part in a seven-part series about pacifism. Click here to go back to the first post.

On the whole, this blog series is designed to be an evidence-based case for nonviolence. But as I explained in my last post, our beliefs peace and violence are not only shaped by evidence and experience, but also by deep assumptions that we make about power. Therefore, in this post, I am going to present an alternative understanding of power through an Anabaptist interpretation of Scripture. [E1] I realize that this kind of abstract and religiously loaded post risks alienating several of my readers, but I believe, as Thomas Merton said, that “the fully consistent practice of nonviolence demands a solid metaphysical basis both in being and in God.” Christianity is not the only religion that can provide a metaphysical basis for nonviolence – Gandhi was able to find similar resources in Hinduism, for example – but even if you are not a Christian, I think it is valuable to consider the religious and metaphysical beliefs which shape our everyday feelings about peace and violence.

One of the classic attributes of God, according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, is that God is all-powerful. As the One who created and sustained the world, God is the source of all being and all power. On the one hand, this is an inspiring and reassuring doctrine. But on the other hand, the very recognition of God’s power has led to some of the profoundest doubts and most painful feelings of abandonment for Jewish and Christian people. [E2] We wonder: if God is all-powerful, why doesn’t God intervene more? Where is God in the midst of all of the evil that occurs in the world? For the ancient Jews, this question came up the most frequently in the context of their national crises: [E3] “How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand? Why do you keep your hand in your bosom?” This is one of the most pervasive themes – if not the most pervasive theme – in the Older Testament.

God heard these laments and prayers of the people and responded by promising to send a powerful figure to rescue them: the Messiah. [E4] As God’s representative on earth, this Messiah would be an extremely powerful person. The prophets proclaimed that “authority would rest on his shoulders,” and “a stream of fire would issue from his presence.” He would be “triumphant and victorious,” and to him “would be given dominion and glory and kingship.” [E5] But that’s not all the Messiah would do. Although the people only prayed for God to liberate them from their oppressors, this would be “too small a thing” for God’s Messiah. Going further, the Messiah's reign wouldn’t be limited to Israel, but his “dominion shall be from sea to sea,” so that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” He would “establish [God’s kingdom] and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.” [E6]

With such a powerful description of a political leader embedded in Israel’s Scriptures, it should not surprise us that many aspiring politicians in Israel claimed that these prophecies applied to them. We know of several military leaders who claimed to be God’s Messiah in order to recruit more people to fight against the Greeks or the Romans. [E7] Most of these aspiring Messiahs were defeated and killed. Even among those who were relatively successful, they couldn’t live up to the bold promises of a Messiah who would create a global and eternal kingdom.

Now here’s the crazy part – are you ready? In the first century, a group of Jews started claiming that their leader was the Messiah after he had been killed. Of course, I am talking about the followers of Jesus. Perhaps this does not shock you, but it should. In order to understand the New Testament, it’s important for us to recognize how audacious this claim was.

It was very clear in the Older Testament that the Messiah would be a national savior who would defeat Israel’s political enemies and restore independence to the people of God. So the question people had to ask when presented with the idea that Jesus was the Messiah was this: did Jesus accomplish these political tasks? For most people, the answer is, “Obviously not.” In the first century, the main reason why many of the Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah was because the Roman Empire still seemed to be in control after Jesus left the earth. Clearly, he had not obtained political liberation. Unfortunately, some Christians agreed with them. They acknowledged that Jesus did not achieve national/political victory, so they radically redefined the Messiah’s job description in the Older Testament to make it look like God only promised to send a spiritual Messiah, not a political one. [E8]

But the earliest Christians made the counter-intuitive claim that Jesus actually succeeded as the political Messiah as well, and I agree with them. I believe that Jesus literally restored independence to the people of God and defeated Israel’s enemies. If you know anything about Roman history, that probably sounds bizarre to you, given the way that the Romans decimated Israel in the century following Jesus’ life. Even so, I would insist that it is true, and that the reason that we can’t see it is because we reading history with a biased lens. Let’s consider each of these two main claims.

Did Jesus restore the people of God as an independent nation? – One way to interpret Jesus’ earthly ministry is that he was doing the work of nation-building. He went around telling people that the kingdom of God was near and recruiting them to “join” it. Once people joined his kingdom, they were expected to swear allegiance to Jesus and not to Caesar. Jesus gave this community his own laws and policies that were designed to govern their society, and he appointed leaders who had very specific instructions as to how to expand it. [E9] His teachings and ministry were not just a miscellaneous set of good things he did and said: Jesus was systematically creating a political community (the church) within Israel that was independent from Roman rule, and he did it without ever engaging in battle. [E10] Unfortunately, later down the road, the church got pretty entangled with the state, but it always remained a separate institution, one which Jesus founded. If you can accept this claim – that the church is actually an alternative political society – then you can see that Jesus fulfilled even the most ambitious Messianic prophecies: Today, this “kingdom” extends from sea to sea, claiming nearly a third of the earth’s population in its membership, and it has reigned unbroken for 2,000 years.

Did Jesus defeat Israel’s political enemies? Taking a broad historical view, you can make the claim that Jesus’ “political campaign” did, in the end, defeat the Jews’ political enemies – the pagan Romans. While it’s true that the Romans continued to control Israel immediately after Jesus ascended, Jesus delivered the fatal blow to their dominance while he was still on earth. He took their strongest weapon – the threat of a humiliating death through crucifixion – and showed that it was powerless to stop him. By doing this, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” In other words, he demonstrated to his followers that the violence power of the Roman Empire was actually quite weak. Violence doesn’t have any positive power at all. Its only power is the ability to scare people into cooperating with its own wishes. However, once we decide to stop giving into to those threats, violence itself becomes impotent.

Emboldened by this insight, Jesus’ disciples continued to make converts and extend Jesus’ kingdom, despite great resistance by the Roman Empire. The Romans at first ignored the Christian movement, and then they persecuted it with increasing degrees of severity, but their attempts to threaten or kill off Christianity didn’t work at all. On the contrary, this spiritual-political movement seemed to grow with each martyrdom. This came to a head at the beginning of the fourth century, when the Emperor issued an empire-wide ban on Christianity and Christian leaders were hunted down and killed. But after about 10 years of exhausting itself by trying to extinguish Christianity, the Roman Empire eventually submitted to the kingdom of God. [E11] Hence, one could claim that Christianity conquered the (pagan) Roman Empire without engaging a single military battle. Therefore, Jesus did what the Messiah was supposed to do: he led a movement that defeated the enemies of the people of God.

Christians believe that Jesus is the revelation of God: he reveals who God is and what God is like. They also believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the powerful one who was sent to redeem the people of Israel. If both of these claims are true and Jesus embodied the power of God, then it follows that God’s power is not violent. The Israelites of the first century and Christians today expect God to rescue us by a show of force. We look for salvation among rulers and generals because we don’t understand what the power that created and sustains the universe is really like. But Jesus showed us in his life, his death, his resurrection, and his victory that that peace is more powerful than violence, love is stronger than fear, and life is greater than death.  That is the metaphysical basis for my pacifism.

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End Notes

[E1] “Anabaptist” is the term that people used to describe some of the “radical reformers” in the sixteenth century at the dawn of the Protestant Reformation. The Mennonite Church, to which I belong, has its roots in the Anabaptist movement. However, I prefer the term Anabaptist to Mennonite here because Anabaptist refers to people who identify with that movement even if they are not associated with the Mennonite Church, such as Neo-Anabaptists.

I should also emphasize that this is an Anabaptist interpretation of Scripture, not the Anabaptist interpretation. There are many other Mennonite groups and other groups that wouldn’t read the Bible this way.

[E2] Of course, I am talking about the problem of evil, but I am not going to address that in its philosophical form in this post. However, you could extrapolate some of my comments on this post to get a window into how I understand the problem of evil. A big part of this issue is that we have a misguided idea of what it means to call God “all-powerful”.

[E3] Psalm 74:10-11. For other examples, see Psalm 44, 60, 79, 80, 85, Jeremiah 12, Ezekiel 19, the entire book of Lamentations, etc.

[E4] I am attempting here to give a very brief summary to the story of the Older Testament, and of course, there are many ways to challenge this. For example, one could rightly point out that the concept of the Messiah developed in the Scriptural canon: the earliest references just referred to David or another King of Israel, but by the time we get to Daniel, this figure has divine qualities. I see this diversity as a developing understanding of who God’s Messiah would be. But I realize that this discussion is complicated and needs to be nuanced, especially out of respect for the Jewish people who read the same Scriptures differently.

[E5] Isaiah 9:6, Daniel 7:10, Zechariah 9:9, Daniel 7:14

[E6] Isaiah 49:6, Zechariah 9:10, Daniel 7:14, Isaiah 9:7

[E7] Two of these “failed Messiahs” are mentioned in Acts 5:36-37

[E8] I believe that spiritual liberation and political liberation are interrelated. Unfortunately, this strategy of bifurcating the spiritual from the physical, which is often associated with the heresy of Gnosticism, has done untold damage to Christianity. Most Christians in the world today still believe that Jesus only came to be a spiritual Messiah, and they fail to appreciate the political implications of his work on earth.

[E9] There are plenty of Scriptures to back up each of these claims, but you also need a little historical/culture context to appreciate them. For example, Jesus' announcement about the kingdom of God is found in Mark 1:14-15 among other places, but context would reveal that not only the word' "kingdom" but even the word "good news" or "gospel" is politically loaded. There are several references to the powerful phrase, "Jesus is Lord" throughout the NT (e.g. Romans 10:9, Phil 2:11), but it is helpful to know that this phrase was a contrast to the common affirmation, "Caesar is Lord," and Christians were persecuted during the early part of the Roman Empire because they refused to say the latter. The political nature of his community was clear at many points, especially in texts like Luke 22:25-30, during which he finishes up his "ethical teaching" by reminding his disciples "I confer on you a kingdom." Even the fact that Jesus felt compelled to designate his disciples as apostles (Luke 6:13-16) reveals that he was thinking in structural terms about how to carry his movement forward.
[E10] A very important question for Biblical theologians is how the people of God in the Old Testament (Israel: the descendants of Abraham) relate to the people of God in the New Testament (the church: believers in Jesus). For a long time, theologians argued that the Jews failed as God’s people, and so God replaced Israel with the Church. This is called supersessionism, and it is a dangerous theology that has contributed to (if not caused) the persecution of Jews throughout the centuries.

I actually see an unbroken continuity between Israel and the Church. Jesus very intentionally recruited followers from within Israel first, and set them up as the leaders of this new community. Then, at his resurrection, he commissioned them to extend the boundaries of the Jewish community so that it would also include non-Jewish people. This, of course, was always the plan for the nation of Israel – going back to Abraham. So it’s not that the church is a “new Israel,” but we are a continuation of Israel, after it’s membership opened up considerably. This institutional continuity is attested by the fact that Christians still look to the Hebrew Scriptures as their own.

[E11] I am referring here to the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, at which time the Roman Empire did not become Christian, but it stopped trying to persecute Christianity, recognizing it as the true way of God. This is a complicated historical claim, which deserves an entire post to itself, and it is actually an odd one for a Mennonite to make. Most progressive Mennonites view Constantine’s conversion as a sad moment in the history of Christianity, and here I am hailing it as victory.


As an Anabaptist, I do have major concerns about the way that the church started getting invested and involved in the running of the Roman Empire, but I don’t think that this happened immediately at Constantine’s conversion, and I believe that the ending of persecution was a good thing. There are plenty of examples of early Christian leaders who refused to cooperate with or submit to emperors in the first couple of centuries after Constantine’s conversion. My favorite story is about Ambrose, the pastor of Emperor Theodosius. Ambrose learned that the emperor massacred 7,000 people in Thessalonica and refused to let him participate in church until he repented for this action. And it worked! Theodosius repented and was careful not to act that way again. I believe that Mennonites today, who live in an Empire that more closely resembles post-Christian Rome than pre-Christian Rome, should spend more time studying the successes and failures of the Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries.

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