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Posts Tagged ‘Peace’

Christmas Warfare

December 19th, 2013 No comments

Christmas Warfare
Every year, I just have to chuckle a little bit about the pundits and pastors weeping and wailing over the so-called “War on Christmas.” Apparently businesses frantically trying to respect their clientele by saying “Happy Holidays” and government sensitivity to religious freedom and the separation of church and state are ruining Christmas for us all. Of course, not even Herod’s bloody War on Christmas was able to destroy Christmas, and the Powers that Be would later kill the Christ but still lose the War on Christmas. I don’t think today’s religious hyper-sensitivity will destroy Christmas, either.

But as I was reading through the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke this year, I was struck that Christmas really has much to do with warfare.

“Fear not, the Lord is with you”
In the Christmas stories, unlikely people are repeatedly given the promise, “Fear not. . . the Lord is with you.”1 In fact, the entire Gospel of Matthew is framed by this promise.2 This is more than mere pious platitude; it is, among other things, traditional holy war language. It is the ancient battle cry of the children of Israel.3 This is the cry with which Moses rallies the people of Israel in the quintessential Old Testament Holy War at the Exodus (Ex. 14:13-14).

Political Intrigue and Subversion
Curiously, both Matthew and Luke make mention of significant political authorities in their birth narratives. What could a baby born into rags have to do with kings and emperors? Matthew’s narrative revolves around the sinister machinations of Herod, Rome’s client “King of the Jews.” Herod became king when, with the backing of Rome, he besieged and captured Jerusalem and ordered the execution of the ruling “King of the Jews,” Antigonus II. The Magi from the east come searching specifically for the child born “King of the Jews.” Herod perceived the child as a rival king and therefore a military, political, and mortal threat. Thus Herod launched the horrific War on Christmas (Mt. 2:16).

Political themes whispered in Matthew are shouted in Luke. It is Caesar Augustus’s census decree that lands Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Augustus’s birth was hailed as “the beginning of the good tidings [“gospel”] of the world.” Because he established the Roman Peace (Pax Romana/Augusti), he was revered as a shining light, a Savior sent by Providence. Augustus was all too happy to oblige, eagerly claiming the title of “Son of the Divine.”4 Later Caesars would require their subjects to confess them as Lord and God.5 Strikingly, Luke refers to Jesus as Son of God (1:35), Savior, and Lord (2:11).6 His birth is hailed as “good tidings [“gospel”]. . . for all people” (2:10), which marks the “shining” of an age of peace (1:78-79; 2:13).

Mary’s prophetic song (1:46-55) makes all these undertones explicit: proud hearts are scattered; the powerful are dethroned; the lowly are lifted up; the hungry are filled; and the rich leave empty-handed. It is the subversive language of revolution. The true Lord has arrived in the frailty of a tiny newborn, wrapped not in royal robes, but rag cloths; laid not in a bassinet fit for a king’s palace, but in a feed trough because this baby was apparently not considered important enough for more refined accommodations. This, we are told, is the true King.

Angels
Often the Christian imagination conjures up images of Precious Moments angel children singing sweetly through the night. But the heavenly host of the Christmas stories are more like God’s battle-hardened soldiers (lit. “army”) who combat the spiritual forces that oppose the purposes of God.7 Their message is not a pious table grace, but a triumphant battle cry. No wonder the shepherds were quaking in their sandals.

Gabriel in particular, whose name means roughly “God is my strength,” is mentioned only in Daniel and Luke. He is of some slightly lower or similar rank to his comrade, the illustrious archangel Michael, “one of the chief princes.” Both Gabriel and Michael join battle with the forces opposed to the purposes of God, identified with worldly kingdoms.8 In Daniel, he is “the man Gabriel” (9:21), “having the appearance of a man” (9:15). The presence of this battle-hardened messenger evokes fear (9:17). When the priest Zechariah dares to question Gabriel, Gabriel thunders indignantly, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the presence of God!” (Luke 1:19). Zechariah was scared speechless! The angels come announcing the very invasion of God into human life. A Savior is at hand, the Christ, the Lord, the Son of God, and Gabriel is the chief recruitment officer of heaven’s armies.

To War!
It would seem to be an incredibly bizarre way to frame the coming of a child born into rags. What could be more commonplace, more frail, more human? What does a baby have to do with battles and bloodshed? Yet this child’s advent is surrounded by a terrible war of cosmic proportion!

Depending on your view of holy war in the trajectory of biblical revelation, the New Testament completely replaces, rejects, redeems, upends, transposes, subverts, and/or fulfills OT holy war traditions. Following the lead lamb-of-godof Zech. 9:9-10, Jesus and his disciples make a pure mockery of military-royal pomposity in the (Anti-)Triumphal Entry. The Pauline writings spiritualize warfare (2 Cor. 10:3-4; Eph 6:12) and explicitly describe the “gospel of peace” as battle gear (Eph. 6:15)! In Revelation, Jesus’ weapon is his word of truth (19:15), and his robe is dipped in blood prior to battle. As John watches, suddenly the mighty pride fighter Lion shimmers into the Lamb Who Was Slain (5:5ff), the subversively true image of divine power and victory in battle. The faithful conquer by this Lamb’s blood, which they themselves also shed; by the courageous word of their testimony (martyria, 12:11); and by “following the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4).

The pathos of battle is retained in the mission and identity of God’s people, but its assault is redirected against the “spiritual forces of evil,” “principalities,” and “powers.” Its weaponry is remade into gear forged not of steel, but of truth, justice, gospel-peace, faith, salvation, and God’s Word. Its tactics and strategies are prayer in the Spirit, service, sacrifice, martyrdom, peacemaking, patience, testimony, and obedience.

At any rate, if you want to know what holy warfare truly looks like, Christmas is the place to start. God was invading the world not with the power of coercion, but with the power of grace. Heaven’s army was singing its battle hymn, not of yet more war-making, but of unprecedented peace-making. Its general is a helpless baby clothed in rags squirming in a feed trough in a backwater town. Its heralds are lowly shepherds. Its crushing defeat is its moment of greatest triumph, sealing forever the victory of the Kingdom of God.

God is invading every corner of human life with grace and peace!

And the Infant King wants you! Join now the Child of Rags, the Lamb Who Was Slain, in the battle of the age against domination, violence, hatred, oppression, lust, deceit, bondage, Satan, Sin, and Death! Join now the Infant’s piercing cry of defiant hope! Join now invasion of justice, mercy, grace, and love! Join this Christmastide the whole host of the Kingdom of God in Bethlehem’s onslaught of peace and salvation! By the Lamb’s blood flowing in and from our veins will we conquer. By God’s word of truth will we overcome. By the gentle word of our testimony will we gain victory in the Spirit. By following the Lamb wherever he goes will we share his triumph. Do not be afraid! The child is named Immanuel, God with Us!

Notes:
1 Mt. 1:20, 23; Luke 1:13, 28, 30; 2:10-11
2 Mt. 1:20, 23; 28:5, 10, 20.
3 See, e.g. Deut. 20:1; Joshua 1:5, 9; Judges 6:12; Isa. 7:4, 14; 41:10-13; cf. Gen. 21:22; Num. 14:42-43; Ps. 23:4-5; 27:1; 27; 46; 118:6.
4 Also in reference to his popular posthumous adoptive father, Julius Caesar, who had been divinized by the Senate.
5 Cf. John 20:28; Rom. 10:9.
6 Here Jesus is also called Christ, the title by which the Romans believed the Jews called their rulers.
7 See also Joshua 5:13-15.
8 Dan. 10:13, 21; cf Jude 1:9; Rev. 12:7.

Categories: Bible, Essays Tags: , ,

A Crying Babe

December 25th, 2012 No comments

“A Crying Babe” (Luke 2:1-20)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
December 23, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

A picture of tranquility?
Luke’s Christmas story may just be the most famous story in the Bible. It’s hard to travel anywhere this season without driving by at least one depiction of Luke’s nativity. In the 11 miles between North Newton and Goessel, I counted 3. And I mean, really, who hasn’t seen the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, with its memorable recitation of Luke 2?

Well, by the time I was six years old, I had heard this joyous story from Luke enough times and I had seen enough nativity displays or paintings or pageants to know exactly how the story went. Mary gave birth to the baby Jesus, wrapped him up, laid him in a soft, warm bed of straw, and she and Joseph, together with a gathering of shepherds, magi, and even barnyard animals, smiled warmly down as the baby slept and cooed softly all through the night.

The very picture of tranquility, filled with warm golden halos that somehow made even the animals holy, idyllic, perfectly reverent.

But when I was six years old, my idea of Jesus’ birth was completely shattered.

When I was six years old, my younger brother came home from the hospital, and I discovered that babies actually do more than just sleep and coo softly. Babies, I discovered, can actually be quite noisy. And having a baby around the house is often anything but tranquil. I was forced to reckon with the fact that little Jesus probably did not sleep “all through night,” and that first night, though no doubt “holy,” was most definitely not “silent”!

It’s like one of those family photos taken around the holidays, where everyone’s packed in close together with their festive Christmas sweaters, smiling perfectly. But it turns out that in real life, behind those smiling faces, behind the smiles, grandpa just got diagnosed with cancer but doesn’t want to ruin anyone’s Christmas and is keeping it to himself. And Aunt Ruth and Uncle Harvey aren’t sure if their marriage is going to last until next Christmas. And Aunt Karen and Aunt Elizabeth haven’t spoken since the late ’80s. And cousin Frank, he’s grinning from ear-to-ear, but he’s hurting so bad inside it takes all his energy just to get up in the morning, and the worst part is, if you asked him, he probably couldn’t even say why.

There is a reality of untold tears, I’m convinced, behind just about every picture of tranquility, and there were cries that night in Bethlehem. Not just the baby. As if the exhaustion and pain of childbirth weren’t enough, Mary had to worry about what people would say when they got back home. People could do basic math and count to nine 2000 years ago as well as we can today. And Joseph had just added his name to Caesar’s latest registry of subjects whose taxes would finance his next war to end all wars, and who knew if his simple skills would be enough to pay off the empire and support his new family?

God-With-Us: Jesus Cried
For many, this week will be a little bittersweet, because grandpa isn’t going to be there. Christmas may come and go in an empty home. A spouse’s presence will be sorely missed at the table yet again, and even though all the family may come home, the season will be thick with melancholy loneliness. Reunions will cause old hurts and rivalries to resurface from decades past.

The shepherds may have looked to the heavens and heard the angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace,” but tonight in Pakistan, children are going to be looking to the heavens and crying with fear as an unmanned aircraft appears on the horizon, wondering if their address is in its targeting computer, and there’s so much in our lives of acquisition, endless competition, half-truths, cover-ups, and secrecy that does just about anything but give “glory to God in the highest”.

The angel may have come with tidings of “good news of great joy for all people,” but tomorrow night, there will be parents in tears in Newtown, Connecticut, and our obsession with Christmas shopping will be anything but good news for the single mom next door who’s struggling enough as it is just to give her children a decent meal, to say nothing of the latest and greatest on their wish list.

There is, in fact, not peace on this earth, and too many days, the carols of great joy have a hollow ring to them.

There will be some tears shed this week, this month, this year, just as there were centuries ago in Bethlehem.

That Christmas hymn “Away in a Manger” that we all learned in preschool is an all-time classic, but whoever wrote, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” could not have been there that night. Oh, dear friends, he most definitely cried. He wept for us. He wept with us. He died for us.

He was a newborn baby. Certainly he cried. That’s the incredible message of Christmas that you won’t find on any greeting card, or in any frontyard nativity, or in just about any Christmas pageant, and definitely not in any shopping mall, but it’s the very, very heart of the message. That’s the awe-inspiring, life-changing, world-saving, earth-shattering message of the birth of the Savior. Emmanuel. God-With-Us. God-With-Us in a child’s birth, in a newborn’s cries. God with us in a man who dwelled and healed and taught and brought God’s kingdom among us. God-With-Us, showing us what God intended for our life. God-With-Us enduring the full brunt of human sin, rebellion, rejection, and hate, and exposing the bankruptcy of our violent ways, and opening the path of salvation to the many. God-With-Us undoing death’s grip on human life.

He most definitely cried. He cried like you did and like I did. He cries like you do, and like I do. There are always cries at Christmastime, and the cries of Christ have been among them since that very first night.

The Savior’s sign
You know, it was the shepherds who got the news first that first Christmas night (after Mary and Joseph, that is!). We often have an idealized, tranquil picture of shepherds: simple, gentle folk, reclining on the Judean hills and tenderly caring for their flocks. But shepherds of the day had lost a good deal of the esteem they had enjoyed in previous centuries. These were rough, calloused folk, with course beards and courser vocabulary, and a less-than-honorable reputation. Theirs was a dangerous job, protecting their charges from marauders, thieves, lions, wolves, and the elements. Little surprise that a shepherd could get a little rough around the edges. Let’s just say no one would have considered them angels, and they weren’t particularly given to visions of angels either. Their concern was with protecting their sheep; not stargazing the night away.

Well, it’s not hard to imagine the terror of these rugged wilderness men as the angel appeared in a blaze of glory before them. This wasn’t your fair-faced, ecclesial-looking heavenly being offering bedside comfort to those in need. The angels weren’t your Precious Moments children’s choirs, but God’s battle-hardened soldiers (lit. “heavenly army”) combating the spiritual forces opposed to the purposes of God, and this one had come to announce the very invasion of God into human life. A Savior was at hand, the Christ, the Lord.

Why, if these shepherds were anything like my namesake Peter in the New Testament, they were saying his words, which I so often find on my own lips. “Keep away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8).

But then the angel says to fear not, for this is good news for all people – even scruffy shepherds, even you, even me – and there’s to be a sign that this has indeed taken place. That’s the way things worked back then. The Caesars declared themselves to be christened with the titles savior and lord, and whenever there was a new heir born, the heralds were dispatched with the good news. And as a sign, there were military parades, feasts.

You might think that the forthcoming choir of heaven’s armies would be a pretty good sign of the birth of this Savior and Lord. It certainly got these shepherds’ attention. But no, that was not the sign. The angel’s words are so well-known we often forget them. Remember what the angel said:
“This will be a sign for you: You will find a child wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.”

Now who gives a sign like that? The sign that the savior of humankind has come is a child of poor parents lying in feed trough? Where’s the glory in that? The hope of the world caught up in a tiny, frail, vulnerable newborn tightly wrapped in his very human trappings? Not even a halo? I doubt these shepherds would have thought anything of it if it weren’t for the heavenly messengers. Would they have seen the sign?

Imagine the angels have packed up and marched off. Imagine all those halos have been painted out of the nativity scene. Just imagine two exhausted parents wrapping their baby not in royal robes, but rag cloths, and laying their little bundle not in a bassinet fit for a king’s palace, but in a feed trough because apparently that baby wasn’t considered important enough for more refined accommodations. A bunch of wide-eyed squally-looking shepherds come in. The baby wakes and begins to cry.

And there you have it. That’s the sign. That’s how you know that the Savior’s come. Ask yourself this: Would you have seen the sign? Be honest with yourself.

Step quietly up to the manger, and look upon the crying babe. Would you have guessed that those tiny hands would reach out and touch blind eyes to restore their sight? Would you have ever thought that this vulnerable little body would one day carry within it the power to heal the sick? Would you have ever foreseen that this babe wrapped up in the rags of hardship was really the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?

Would you have ever even imagined that this shrill little voice would one day speak, and the dead would rise; that it would preach and the crowds would follow; that it would bless, and the troubled would be comforted, that it would command, and demons would flee before him and storms would be still; that it would invite, and the wayward would repent; that it would forgive, and the shackles of Sin would be forever broken of their power?

Would you have guessed this sign’s meaning? I’m afraid I have to doubt that I would have. Only one thing I could have guessed: that this baby had more crying yet to do, more weeping, that one day, this babe might even cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).

The sign of a King born into rags is about as obvious as a Savior who finds himself suffering the scandal and shame of cruel and public execution on a cross. Only those who are paying very, very special attention would ever even dare to imagine it.

An invasion of human life
But that, I believe, is the very truth of the good news proclaimed by heaven’s armies that night. God was invading the world not with the power of coercion, but with the power of grace. Heaven’s army was singing its battle hymn, not of yet more war-making, but of unprecedented peace-making. Its general is a helpless baby clothed in rags squirming in a feed trough in a backwater town. Its heralds are lowly shepherds. Its crushing defeat is its moment of greatest triumph, sealing for all time the victory of the Kingdom of God.

The crying baby in the feed trough that night in Bethlehem, that wasn’t “God-Up-There-Somewhere,” but “God-With-Us-Right-Here.” That was God invading every corner of human life, no matter what a far cry our tears fall from any veneer of perfection; no matter how little our lives and our world reflect God’s glory. God is with us always. Behind the veneer of perfection are untold tears, and behind the tears is the very face of God.

God is with your neighbor watching TV all alone in his room. God is with the child who is crying tonight. God is with old friends laughing together. God is with a mom nursing her infant. God is with us in prayer, in every moment of sickness or strength, in every season of joy or sorrow. God is with us right here this morning, and forever more, everlasting light in our deepest darkness, invading our lives with grace and peace.

I remember that in the first few months after our daughter was born, even through all the exhaustion of getting up every few hours, there was always a comfort in hearing her cry at night because it was a sign that this small, vulnerable life entrusted to our care and love was still okay, still strong, still full of the life and the breath God had breathed into her tiny, fragile body.

That cry, that very, very human cry that cut the crisp night so many centuries ago in Bethlehem, that sound of vulnerability, of weakness, of utter dependence, wrapped up so tight in human frailty, that is the sound of life and strength and hope for a wayward and weeping world. That is the sign that the Savior is among us, come for the righteous and the sinner alike.

Well, guess what, friends, wrapped up so tight in your human frailty, this Christmas, God doesn’t want any veneer of perfection covering a knotty and troubled life. God doesn’t need perfect smiles or perfect houses or perfect meals or perfect presents or perfect lives or halos on our heads. All God wants is an open heart, open to receive the Christ child, open to kneel before the feed trough of peace and goodwill.

“Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace; goodwill toward people!”

“O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today! We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell. O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!”

Categories: Sermons Tags: ,

Loving Our Enemies

August 26th, 2011 No comments

“Loving Our Enemies” (Matthew 5:38-48)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
July 24, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Audio: Loving Our Enemies

I wrote out the introduction to this peace sermon. Several folks found it helpful for our context:

As many of you know or could guess, today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount, which is the climax of the first part of the Sermon, touches on what I consider to be not merely a distinctive, but a core Christian conviction grounded in the teachings of Jesus, in the New Testament’s understanding of his death and resurrection, in the claims God’s grace has on us, and in our hope for God’s future.

And that conviction is the thoroughgoing Christian peace witness, which includes Christian pacifism. This is my heartfelt conviction I find to be revealed in Scripture and above all in Jesus Christ. This is the teaching and conviction of our church. This is our historic understanding for which we have suffered. This is an understanding and more importantly way of life that was the norm for the first generations of the church and has found expression in various ways throughout the entirety of Christian history.

And, there are many committed Christians who see much differently than I do. We are blessed to have veterans as members of our congregation. Many of our neighbors and friends in our community are deeply committed to Jesus, and do not share our church’s peace convictions.

And I want to be clear that because this is a conviction I hold deeply, I want to hold it with open hands rather than closed fists. I believe that as long as the Holy Spirit is present in the world, no one can claim to have a corner on God’s truth, and that belief begins with me. So we cannot claim to have everything figured out, and we welcome and value and want to hear everyone’s thoughts as we all seek to be faithful followers of Jesus.

So this morning, I will offer my reflections and heartfelt convictions about this text, while at the same time wanting to fully welcome, love, respect and accept anyone whose heartfelt convictions are different from my own as a brother or sister in Christ. And I humbly ask that we all extend this grace to one another, not just with this, but with many discussions.

There is no transcript for the remainder of the sermon. Enjoy the audio!

Ethical discernment in full-color

October 1st, 2010 No comments

A recent posting at Sojourner’s about an email exchange between Jim Brenneman and Shane Claiborne got me thinking again about Goshen College’s decision regarding the playing of the national anthem. I’ve been following the Goshen College national anthem decision and the surrounding debate (also here)for a while with a moderate level of interest, especially since Goshen is one of the colleges affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Yet I’ve only been on Goshen’s campus a couple of times, so I lack both the emotional commitment to the institution and the nuanced wisdom and insight of the Goshen community.

Some Mennonite colleges play the anthem; some don’t, though I think it’s a fair statement that the peace witness of all the colleges has a rich tradition that continues to express itself in beautiful ways. Because I seek to worship God alone, I always felt a little awkward when my own alma mater, Bethel College, played the anthem at sporting events (though having it accompanied by a prayer for peace made it more comfortable – Goshen will be doing the this, I understand).

As a pastor, it continues to be a struggle for me when I go to community sporting events as an obvious representative of my congregation and faith tradition. Is it idolatrous to stand and remove my hat for the anthem when I don’t necessarily do so for prayer? Is it a participation in the religion of nationalism? Is it worshiping the idol of the nation or the flag? Is it unfaithful to my calling as a witness to the Gospel of the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ to stand for the triumphalism of the Lord Caesar (cf. Rev. 13)? The Bible is, after all, unmistakable on the point: for followers of Christ, any action that worships (bows down to/pledges allegiance to/puts faith in) anything or anyone other than the one God is blasphemous and idolatrous (to state it strongly!).

Or, on the other hand, would sitting for the anthem unintentionally communicate the unjustified, uninformed, and sinfully arrogant message, “I think you’re just plain wrong, your actions are sinful, America is bad, and I don’t want a relationship with you”? Is standing for the anthem a faithful act of hospitality as a witness to the Gospel? Is it even an act of peacemaking that says, “I don’t agree with you, but I will honor and respect your convictions”? The Bible is, after all, unmistakable on the point: as followers of Christ, we are ambassadors of Christ’s reconciliation; anything less is blasphemous to the cross (to state it strongly!).

But I don’t think we’re caught between two perhaps-over-stated blasphemies (that of worshiping the Beast vs. that of proclaiming the cross apart from the reconciliation it has effected). Nor is it a question of choosing between two modes of faithfulness (worship vs. reconciliation). The real question is: is either action (standing or not standing) really a witness to the Gospel if it goes unexplained? Perhaps I should wear a T-Shirt with Mt. 5:39, Acts 10:36, Rom. 12:20, 1 Cor. 1:25, Eph. 2:14-17, Eph. 6:15, Phil. 3:20, Col. 1:20, Heb. 7:2, James 3:18, 1 Peter 3:8-16, Rev. 13:9-10, or some other such verse on it, so people could ask me about it. Then maybe it would be a witness.

This is part of the difficulty of doing ethical discernment. What is black and white on the basic convictions or principles level (God is love, Jesus made peace in the cross, we are to entice others into God’s kingdom, Jesus taught and embodied peace and reconciliation, our citizenship is in heaven, only God is worthy of our worship, Jesus is Lord – not Caesar, etc., etc.), becomes brilliantly colorful on the immediate judgment or rules level (anthem or no anthem, stand or don’t stand). Unlike the black-and-white discernment at the foundational levels, reasoning on the particular/contextual level becomes more nuanced, and we may become tempted to forsake certain basic convictions for others.

A similar example: right now, our national assembly (Mennonite Church USA) is deciding whether or not to host a convention in Phoenix, given the recent passing of SB 1070. Many members of our churches are immigrants, and many are “undocumented.” All of us espouse the same basic convictions and principles of extending hospitality, seeking racial justice and healing, affirming the church’s prophetic voice, etc., but there is significant disagreement when it comes to the particular implementation of those convictions and principles when making this particular decision. Do we go and witness? Do we go out of solidarity? Do we go elsewhere in witness and solidarity? The basic convictions are clean-cut and clear; the particularities are more nuanced.

When we make the anthem issue or the convention issue to be black-and-white, we may indeed have given much thought to basic convictions and principles, but we have not paused to enjoy the beautiful colors of the nuance of the particular, immediate context. When we do engage these particularities, and Jim and Shane have modeled, that is where true witness happens. Basic convictions and principles are vitally important, but if we never account for the intersection of those convictions with particular contexts, we are left as mere self-righteous protesters. However, when that intersection does happen, we become, as Shane Claiborne puts it, “protestifiers” to the Gospel.

Christians – liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between and beyond – tend to be people who look at our basic convictions and say “no” a lot. We’re known all too well for what we’re against. We Mennonites in the U.S. have been pretty good with our self-righteous “no’s” – no to war, no to the death penalty, no to flags, no to anthems, no to alcohol and tobacco, no to infant baptism, no to. . . [fill in the blank here]. The inherent self-righteousness isn’t enticing. In my own community, we Mennonites are often looked down upon as disrespectful of the nation or military, or self-righteous, or just clueless.

While the “no” – the mere declaration that an alternative reality is both desirable and justified – is good news to some extent, its message is lost to vagary and cynicism without a clear “yes” to go along with it. Certainly in some cases “yes” requires an accompanying “no,” but “no” alone is hardly good news. But there’s lots of good news in saying “yes” to God’s kingdom, “yes” to the hope for peace that we have in Jesus Christ, “yes” to pledging our allegiance (worship) to our Creator! When our basic convictions start intersecting with our contexts, we become witnesses to the Gospel. Our struggles with the national anthem or the flag or the pledge of allegiance or the military-industrial complex don’t become confined to exclusivist self-righteous pietistic expression, but rather flourish as proclamations of the enticing Good News, the alternative reign of God.

After all, it’s good news that Jesus has broken down the dividing walls between us and has made peace possible, and has even revealed the way – what tremendous hope! It’s exciting that we have a standing invitation to God’s kingdom – good news, considering the brokenness of earthly empires and their emperors! It’s good news that we’re citizens of heaven, a union spanning the borders of culture, geography, politics, and even time! It’s good news that we worship God alone, that our worship liberates us from the chains of oppression, hatred, Sin, violence, and death, and that God draws us into the divine mission and purposes for setting the world to rights! This is a much different witness than the protest of “no.” I wonder how my community would respond – they’d probably still think us a little clueless (1 Cor. 1:18ff), but it doesn’t carry the baggage of self-righteousness or disrespect; to the contrary, it leaves room for affirmation of nation and respect and honor of the conviction and courage of those with whom we may disagree.

Jim and Shane published their email conversation as a witness to the ways the Spirit empowers us to agree and disagree in love. I’ll leave you with some excerpts from Jim and Shane’s conversation.

Shane:
. . . People have grown so tired of militarism, and are sensing the myopia of nationalism, and are questioning the patterns of the American dream (at least according to Wall Street). The Anabaptist witness and tradition is uniquely poised to bear witness in powerful and relevant way, and has a credibility that many of us evangelical types long for. . .

Perhaps there is a way to be creative in all of this, to make sure folks see a unique witness — of creating a new song or pledge that says, “We love the people of the U.S.A., but our love does not stop at any border… our Bible does not say God so loves America, but God so loves the world.” Even having flags from Iraq or Afghanistan next to the U.S. flag raises these healthy tensions. I love your desire to move beyond “no” — the time for yes is indeed here, a time of moving beyond protest to protestifying… committing not to tear down without building up something better. For too long, we Christians have been known more by what we are against than by what we are for. I want you to know I am continuing to pray for you. . .

Jim:
Greetings in Christ. As I have engaged with persons about our recent decision regarding the national anthem, I have been thinking a lot about your words and carrying them with me. . .

I couldn’t agree with you more that the moment is ripe — perhaps, especially so among young Evangelicals — to hear a strong Christian (Mennonite) voice calling into question unbridled militarism, materialism, and nationalism. My hope is to continue to keep Goshen College in the center of that conversation, alongside you and many others. There is much work to do in that arena — with this country involved in two wars and the national debate continually more uncivil — and we can’t do it alone.

I am also committed as president of Goshen College to an honest evaluation of who our neighbors are, which I believe is also an outgrowth of our Christ-centered core values of compassionate peacemaking, global citizenship, servant leadership, and passionate learning. . . In an odd way, Goshen College has been quite receptive to “Samaritans” far away, while tending to remain more distant to those right next door and down the street whose religious and political perspectives significantly differ from those more readily found here on campus. I believe Jesus invites us to live in the particularity of our “neighborhoods” — as you in The Simple Way community have done so admirably in a different way — even to the point of accommodation to some degree if it opens doors to common ground and true community, rather than closes them prematurely.

The playing of the anthem is a gesture of welcome to our immediate neighbors. . . many of whom are new immigrants who see the anthem as affirming of their hard won citizenship or other long-time citizens of our community who have no difficulty sequencing their loyalty to God over their loyalty to the nation. We make this gesture — incomplete and insufficient on its own — as a largely (Mennonite) Christian community that is saturated. . . with explicit core values and years of ardent peacemaking commitments. . . such that any student who comes to this college will have no difficulty understanding our greater allegiances and divinely peculiar practices as Anabaptist/Mennonite followers of Jesus.

Shane
I suppose the question that is always before us — whether we are a Mennonite campus wanting to be seekers sensitive to U.S. patriots or a mega-church wanting to be seekers sensitive to un-churched non-believers — in this: How do we remain unapologetically uncompromising in our convictions, while allowing others who may not share those convictions to feel included and welcome. . .

This is a timely conversation. The Mennonite witness of simplicity and non-violence is increasingly relevant and fascinating to our world that has felt the emptiness of materialism, come to question the unsustainable patterns of “progress”, and has grown tired of militarism and war. What strikes me is that this intrigue is coming at the very time when many traditional Anabaptists are questioning their “relevancy” and their cultural engagement. . . [beginning] to make steps to rethink or even compromise some of their rigorous convictions at the very moment when folks are beginning to listen and to pay attention to those convictions.

We must ask, could this national anthem riddled not be an obstacle to Christ rather than an invitation towards Christ? The god of the national anthem may be the god that we called upon when we took this land from natives and developed it with kidnapped Africans, but it is not the God I know or that I see in Jesus.

It strikes me as such a contrast to the beautiful words of Jesus in the sermon on the mount commending us to love our enemies, the beatitudes blessing the peacemakers and the meek and the merciful, the prayer of our Lord teaching us to forgive as we want to be forgiven, and the fruits of the Spirit that include things like gentleness, kindness, and goodness.

Jim:
I would dare say that we even struggle with some forms of arrested development because of this [legacy of separation of church and state], having never developed an Anabaptist articulation of positive civic engagement. For some Mennonites, the practice of playing the anthem even in this narrowly proscribed way, has offered a liberation of sorts. For still other Mennonite believers, playing the anthem has never been an issue. So there you have it: peace-loving Mennonites are not completely united on this practice either.

I’m sometimes baffled, but increasingly gratified, by how inclusive God’s embrace of others can be who disagree with what I believe to be Christ’s take on peace. For a pacifist like me, the account of Cornelius and Peter in Acts 10 is amazing. The author Luke could easily have let slide the fact that Cornelius was a Centurion in the Imperial Roman empire. . . He didn’t. Ironically, we have used this story as an interpretative lens for almost every other effort to expand the Christian church to include other groups or people shut out. And yet, we seem to overlook the fact that the central character in the story being filled by God’s Spirit was a Roman military person in one of the most oppressive occupying forces in Judea’s history. Unbelievable! And yet that’s what happened. So, I’m simply inviting us, perhaps, especially Mennonites, to come to terms with this text in welcoming others, trusting our core values to help transform them and us by studying, learning, and being together.

I can say with confidence that there is no way an attendee at one of our games could confuse the way we have implemented this practice with the way the national anthem is played in some other settings. In contrast to fighter jets flying over and military bands playing, we first share words about the college’s core values and commitments to diversity and hospitality, a beautiful instrumental version of the song is then played. . . and then the powerful Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi is read. I believe this provides just the kind of neighborly witness GC can give without compromising our deepest values of being compassionate peacemakers. . .

Shane:
I share your desire for the church to be socially and politically engaged, not simply withdraw into our own little world. . . I also know that the real question we have to ask is not “are we political” but “how are we political”… and Christians at their best have always been peculiar in how we engage the world, nations, politics, and powers of the empires around us. We don’t settle for political camps, but transcend them as Christ did. . .

I think the terrible shortcoming of patriotism is that we begin to think that our nation’s people or our family’s lives are more valuable than the lives of folks somewhere else. . . We protect our family or our nation with an idolatrous fervor (I once heard someone say an idol is something you would kill for and sacrifice your children for… which I would say is precisely the language of nationalism and the nature of flags). I would also suggest this is exactly what Jesus is hinting at when he tells the disciples they must forsake (even hate) their own family in order to be his disciple. We must have a love that is far bigger than the myopic love of biology, tribe, ethnicity, or nation. Moreover, when we mesh God and country we face the grave danger of taking Gods name in vain as we print it on money. . . and what becomes at stake is not just the reputation of America, but the reputation of Jesus and the gospel. . .

Who woulda thunk of an instrumental version of the national anthem followed up by the prayer of St. Francis!!! Hahahaha. It does seem to have a certain “peculiar” charm about it. It is a peculiar way of doing a sports event. It has the dazzle of the “third way” of Jesus that carves out a new path amid poles. The national anthem seems like a funny opening band but I think it may work, brother. . .

It also seems clear that the primary work of Goshen (and of all Christians) is to woo people to God and God’s kingdom. That does not happen through force, but through fascination. It happens as we get outside of ourselves, stop preaching to the choir… and allow the distinctiveness and peculiarity of the Christian logic and witness to interact with the world around us. I pray that your decision(s) there at Goshen do just that… invite new people into a relationship with God and God’s Kingdom. . .

Not only is it an important conversation, but I feel like what has been just as important as what we have talked about is HOW we have talked about it. Our ability to have civil discourse, even amid disagreeing, is a healthy witness to folks who may listen in at some point. . . It seems that healthy dialogues like this one are in danger of extinction.

Jim:
I’m writing to you on the eve of 9/11. . . What a tragedy. Can Christ really break down the walls that led to such evil? Can Christ break down walls that separate a Muslim from a Christian? One Christian particularity from another? A Democrat from a Republican? Can Christ break down the walls that separate us by racial, ethnic and cultural prejudices? Can Christ break down walls of separation between people from different social classes and philosophical persuasions as well? Can Christ break down walls that divide an anthem-singing citizen from a citizen who does not? If we cannot learn to agree and disagree in love, especially on what seems to be lesser matters of distinction, then what hope is there for true reconciliation to happen, ever? That’s why I find this exchange so heartening because it is a sign, a foretaste, that the answer to all the looming questions above is a resounding, “Yes! And Amen!”

Shane, I have truly appreciated this opportunity to dialog with you these past months by letter. I look forward to those opportunities we will again have to sit across the table face to face, breaking bread, drinking the fruit of the vine, sometimes agreeing and other times disagreeing, but always doing so under the Lordship and loveship of Christ.

Categories: Essays, Theology Tags: , ,

He Came and Proclaimed Peace

September 10th, 2010 No comments

“He Came and Proclaimed Peace” (1 Samuel 15:1-3; Joshua 11:10-20)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
July 25, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

This sermon is a “sermon from the heart” as part of a “difficult passages of the Bible” series.

These passages in the Old Testament that depict God as one who is violent, hateful, and vengeful have always greatly disturbed and troubled me. These stories do not seem to be at all consistent with the God who I have experienced in my own life. These violent stories certainly are not at all consistent with the God who we have encountered in the person of Jesus Christ. It would be like seeing my husband Peter, who I know to be a very compassionate and loving person and who has never uttered a hurtful word about another person, it would be like seeing him walk up to a nursing home resident, yelling obscenities at them, then spit in their face, and punch them in the nose. To see Peter do this would leave me dumbfounded, confused, even horrified. It would make no sense, as this is not the type of person who I know my husband to be.

I feel dumbfounded, confused, even horrified when I hear these stories that portray God as the one who commanded the people of Israel to mercilessly slaughter their enemies; it makes no sense. If we truly believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that Jesus reveals to us the very nature and character of God, then how can this be? How can the same God who tells us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors also command Israel to kill their enemies and leave not one of their persecutors alive? Did God change? We sing in our hymns, proclaim in our Affirmations of Faith, and teach to our children that God does not change. Yet clearly something has changed in the portrayal of who God is from some of the violent stories of the Old Testament to the encounter of God in the person of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. So did God change?

No, God has not changed, but our understanding of God and our experiences of who God is have certainly changed. God is forever the same, but how we experience God depends upon where we are. It is a beautiful thing to know that God has been acting in history since the beginning of time and that people have experienced God in many different ways and interpret God’s movement in many different ways. Do I believe that God provides for God’s people even in the face of overwhelming odds? Absolutely. Do I believe God meets us where we are and enters even into our brokenness and sin? Completely. Do I believe that God commanded the merciless slaughter of Israel’s enemies? Here I certainly struggle. For if the person of Jesus Christ as revealed to us in the gospels shows to us the very nature of our God who does not change, it simply makes no sense to me that God is also a violent, spiteful, and vengeful God. God looks like Jesus; no one knows the Father except through the Son.

And we know that the Son never commanded his disciples to kill those who stood against them, but instead commands his followers to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. We know that the Son would rather die for his enemies than send down legions of angels to destroy them. We know that the Son does not slaughter anyone, but instead prays for the forgiveness of those who slaughtered him with his dying breath. We know that the Son weeps over the people of Jerusalem for they do not know the things that make for peace. I wonder how often God has wept over humanity over the injustice, oppression, and bloodshed that we have committed in God’s name. How often has God wept over humankind

seeking answers in the guns that preach a gospel of hatred rather than seeking answers in the God who died for the gospel of peace. How often has God wept, beseeching us to know the things that make for peace?

We as Mennonites have historically been opposed to war in all forms since the birth of our faith, and yet there are fierce battles that are waging within our own pews. How can we witness to the gospel of peace if we do not always seek reconciliation with each other? Yes, these violent stories from the Old Testament haunt us and trouble us and lead us to condemn the wars of our nation, but when it comes to our own personal wars with each other, perhaps we identify a little too much with this portrayal of God as one who is vengeful and full of hatred. We talk about our neighbors behind their backs instead of loving them as ourselves.

We complain to those who are most like us about those who are not instead of practicing the Rule of Christ. We come to offer our sacrifice of worship without first going and being reconciled to our brother or sister, our mother or father, our pew-mate, our grandparent, our neighbor, our spouse. Though we cringe at this portrayal of God as one that leads us to kill in God’s name, why does this portrayal of God as one who is hateful and vengeful not cause us to cringe when we continue in our loathing, when we continue to seek revenge, when we continue on unchanged or unrepentant of our ill feelings towards those who adhere to the “wrong” political party, the “wrong” theological interpretations, to those who have abused us, to those who have wronged us. These Old Testament stories may be difficult for us to hear when we encounter these perceptions of a God who commanded a merciless slaughtering of Israel’s enemies, so that not even one is left breathing. Yet it is so much easier for us to identify with the portrayal of a God who is vengeful and who smites enemies when it comes to our own broken relationships with those we consider our own enemies, than it is for us to identify with the Christ who calls us to love them and pray for our persecutors.

Do we know the things that make for peace? Do we seek to embody the things that make for peace? It is one thing to reject the image of a violent and vengeful God. It is quite another to refuse to hate and seek revenge in our own lives. What if we sought to embody peace in every aspect of our lives? What would happen if we took Jesus as seriously as we say we do? To believe that Jesus Christ is “the way”1, is to live the way that Christ lived. This is the road not often taken, the straight and narrow path that requires us to lay down our grudges and hatreds and instead take up our cross; it requires us to reject violence and hatred in all forms and instead embody reconciliation, and prayer, and love; it requires sacrifice, just as the one who lovingly and nonviolently sacrificed his own life for a world full of violence and hate. Let us bind our hearts with the Christ who took the way of the cross rather than the way of the sword, the one who died for his enemies rather than sending legions of angels to destroy them, the one who did not kill but instead prayed for forgiveness for his persecutors with his dying breath, the one who came and proclaimed peace.

1 John 14:6

Thinking about War in the Old Testament

September 10th, 2010 No comments

“Thinking about War in the Old Testament” (1 Samuel 15:1-3; Joshua 11:10-20)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
July 25, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

This sermon is “sermon from the head” as part of a “difficult passages of the Bible” series.

Thank you, XXXXX, for reading the Word of God for us. I’m guessing that those selections are rarely read from the pulpit in most Mennonite pulpits. There are, of course, many such texts of violence that most Christians would rather their children didn’t hear, would it not be in the Bible. For instance, the conquests of Canaan in Joshua, the skirmishes of Judges, the wars of Saul, David, and Solomon, and the graphic language and hatred of Obadiah and Nahum.

So, I was excited when we decided to include violence in the Old Testament as part of our brief series on difficult passages. Katherine and I are switching assignments from last Sunday, and this time I get to do the thinking meditation, which I’m excited about because this is essentially a question of biblical interpretation, and one of my hobbies is something called hermeneutics, which is the study of interpretation. Some of you enjoy boating; I enjoy hermeneutics.

The question, on the surface, is: How does the violence of the Bible (and specifically the OT for this morning) fit in with the peace witness of the Bible, which reaches its climax in the NT?

The Bible and Violence The Bible and Peace
In the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. (Deut. 20:16) Blessed are the peacemakers. . . Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:9, 44)
They devoted Jericho to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys. (Joshua 6:21) Do not repay anyone evil for evil. . . If your enemy is hungry, feed him. . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17, 20)
“‘Totally destroy everything that belongs to the Amalekites. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Samuel 15:3) Because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. . . When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
(1 Peter 2:21-23)
But all the people they put to the sword until they completely destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed. (Joshua 11:11) “All who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare for war! Rouse the warriors! Let all the fighting men draw near and attack. Beat your plowshares into swords. (Joel 3:9-10) They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
(Isaiah 2:4)

From Today’s New International Version

To think about this question, we are going to go on a brief tour of interpretation. Much of our tour comes from a fantastic book from the 1980s that we actually have in our very own library, called Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation. It’s written by Willard Swartley, a retired Mennonite seminary professor best known for his careful biblical scholarship (especially with regard to the Bible’s peace witness) and for his work with exorcism. Today’s subject, is of course, the former. In the book, Swartley looks at these four issues and analyzes how interpreters who draw vastly different conclusions use and interpret the Bible.

Well, our tour of interpretation of OT violence will begin with two traditional perspectives – what I would call “modernist” interpretations, as I will explain later, and then finish with a pacifist interpretation. And then we will go back and analyze these interpretations. Here we go.

Traditional Interpretation A

  1. God commanded Israel to go to war and to do violence. We just heard a couple such passages read; there are many more.1 Because killing in warfare is different from murder, it does not violate God’s perfect love.2
  2. God commended people who were military leaders (Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, etc.)
  3. Regarding the apparent conflict with the NT, in John 18, Jesus himself didn’t turn the other cheek when one of the temple police struck him, but rather, Jesus challenged the aggressor, saying “If I have poken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?”3 Could he have expected his followers to do different?
  4. Resolving the tension, some interpreters say that the Sermon on the Mount and similar passages are guides for personal, neighbor relationships, but not for official or social relationships.4
  5. A few interpreters who follow this pattern are dispensationalist, where history is divided into various ages, or dispensations, where God relates to humans in different ways. The peace witness and teaching of the NT, then, applies to the final dispensation (the kingdom age), which has not yet begun, whereas OT warfare applied to a previous dispensation.5

Traditional Interpretation B

  1. Scripture should not be used simplistically, but rather in terms of its larger themes and in consultation with more sophisticated theological reflection.6 God as a warrior is foundational to OT theology. The story of the Exodus, celebrated by Moses in Exodus 15, is the epitome (esp. 15:3). The OT describes God as “Lord of Hosts” (lit. Armies) over 200 times.7
  2. The language is part of God’s participation in sinful history. A history of war was necessary because Israel was called to be a nation, and nations survive by war.
  3. There are Kingdom obligations (NT peace witness) and worldly state obligations (including violence), which are different.
  4. “Realism”: Kingdom teachings can’t be absolutes in a fallen world. War is a necessary, lesser evil, while Jesus’ ethic is too perfect to be attainable.8
  5. God uses violence to establish new, just orders.9

Pacifist: A collection of voices, not all of whom agree with each other

  1. Warfare’s roots are in humanity’s fall (Gen. 3-4), when humanity decided to go its own way.
    • Some say that OT warfare was God’s will for the people when the kingdom and state were combined (loosely dispensational).10
    • Others say God “allowed war as a concession to Israel’s sin.” Israel fought wars as a result of not following God’s “perfect will, through which Israel could have taken the land without use of sword and bow.”11 God’s original plan was to drive the enemies out of the land miraculously.12 God’s permissive will included war into Israel’s civil law; God’s perfect will in the moral law forbade killing. The concession is similar to allowing kingship or polygamy; the prophets indicate that the time of warfare is over.
    • Still others say Israel’s military warfare “resulted from its failure to trust God as warrior.”13 Exodus 14:14 is the prototype: Israel didn’t fight or assist God’s victory; justice comes not through the sward but by obedience to God’s Torah.
  2. The OT critiques carnal warfare and prepares for the NT peace witness.14
    • The OT has many examples of nonviolent action (e.g. 2 Kings 6:8-23).
    • The patriarchal/matriarchal narratives are mostly pacifist, perhaps a critique of kingship patterns of the monarchy period.
    • The OT does not glorify death in war or develop war hero stories as other ancient near eastern cultures did.
    • The pervasive criticism of kingship with military power indicates that the OT points another direction (Isa. 2:1-4), toward the suffering servant (Isa 40-55).
    • Yahweh’s warfare called Israel to “defenselessness and faith in Yahweh,” arguing against a military caste, military alliances, and political maneuvering based on military power.
    • The prophetic vision – especially Isaiah – emphasizes a coming reign of peace.
    • Israel’s Holy war tradition culminates in the strategy of the suffering servant of Isaiah 40-44, where victory is won through obedience and suffering for the sake of God.
    • The OT, while affirming a warrior God and including numerous war stories, also contains the roots of the NT peace witness. “Moses takes a shepherd’s staff and burning heart into Egypt and leads out a band of slaves who raised not one sword against the world’s greatest empire.”15
    • The NT transforms the OT holy war tradition, turning “Battle Songs into Hymns of Peace.” Jesus’ ministry is a “massive warfare of teaching, healing, proclamation, suffering, death, and glory.”16 Much of the Holy War language is present in the NT: assurance of God’s presence, God’s deliverance, trusting God to win the victory, and relying on nothing but the power of God (Holy Spirit). Read this way, the gospel of Matthew may be framed by Holy War language (“do not be afraid;” “God is with us;” obedience, “I am with you always”).17
  3. The OT prepares for the NT
    • The Bible is a progressive revelation of the nature and will of God.
    • War/violence is sub-Christian ethic of unredeemed society; while Christians live in a new reality (2 Cor. 5:17).

Hermeneutical Analysis

Well, where does this tour of interpretation leave us? Gordon Clark says, “If the Old Testament is clear on anything, it is clear that God positively commanded war.”18 conversely, Guy Hershberger concludes, “The entire Scriptures correctly interpreted will show the Old and New Testaments to agree that the way of peace is God’s way for His people at all times; that war and bloodshed were never intended to have a place in human conduct.”19 How can two people read the same book and reach such entirely different conclusions?

I believe there are several reasons, but would like to focus in on one: the different ways we understand the nature of the authority of Scripture, especially in light of the apparent diversity of viewpoints represented within the Bible (we saw some such examples earlier).

As I said, from a hermeneutical perspective, both of the traditional interpretations have grown out of Modernity, sometimes also called the Age of Reason or the Age of Enlightenment. Though very different approaches, both traditional perspectives tend to define biblical authority in terms of modern values or notions of truth as logical and rational. That is, something is true if it really, really happened and is consistent in an encyclopedic sense.

Traditional perspective A assumes a priori as a matter of doctrinal ideology and biblical self-reference20 that the Bible is authoritative because it is true in a logical, rational, encyclopedia-sort of way. Any apparent rational or logical inconsistency in the biblical witness, anything that an encyclopedia editor would flag for correction, therefore doctrinally must be harmonized rationally. In the case of warfare, this is achieved by having one ethic for social and one for personal, or assigning various ethics to various dispensations. We might call this a flat Bible approach, where each part of the Bible is equally authoritative (often referred to as fundamentalist in hermeneutics). This view of Biblical authority looks like this:

Flat Bible

Traditional perspective B makes no such claim, but rather looks to larger patterns (noticing the warrior God), and holds those patterns up to the authority of reason and logic. Thus, while acknowledging a strong peace pattern, Traditional perspective B decides that it does not measure up to realistic, rational possibility. The Bible is authoritative in the extent to which it passes logic/rationalism. This view of Biblical authority looks like this, where the Bible is held up to the authority of Modernist ideals:

Bible and Reason

For entirely different reasons, then, this perspective (often referred to as liberalist in hermeneutics) comes to remarkably similar conclusions to perspective A: There are two realms of ethics: one personal or for Kingdom citizenry and one social or for worldly citizenry.

Pacifist interpreters, however, are different still. Some will give higher authority to the New Testament because it talks about Jesus:

Others give higher priority still to the Gospels because they tell the story of Jesus:

Reading the Bible this way, the New Testament is seen as fulfillment to Old Testament promise, and thus has greater authority, and even has authority to critique the OT, just as Jesus did. This sort of understanding of Scripture is becoming more and more common, especially among evangelicals, who, by definition, hold the gospel of Jesus Christ in high regard. And they are coming to similar readings of Scripture to traditional pacifists.

However, pacifists in the Anabaptist tradition reached these conclusions for somewhat different reasons. The Anabaptists were so committed to the Lordship of Christ, so radically determined to follow Jesus Christ that he became the highest authority:

For Anabaptists, Scripture has authority not because it fits nicely into Modern values of truth or reason, but rather because it bears witness to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the Word of God become flesh. And it’s Jesus we follow, Jesus we love, Jesus we live and die and rise again for, Jesus who saves us.

Just as Jesus opened the eyes of the travelers on the Emmaus road to the meaning of Scripture, so too Anabaptists sought to read Scripture through Jesus’ eyes; as Jesus is the “exact representation of God’s being,”21 on whose behalf the scriptures testify.22 From this perspective, the apparent diversity of Scripture can be viewed not as a potential doctrinal weakness needing to be harmonized, and not as a this-is-right-this-is-wrong choice, but rather, positively as the unfolding revelation of God in history.

Jesus reveals that God is incarnational, entering the limitations of language, culture, history, economics, and even ideology to meet us where we are and call us forward. Diversity of perspective in the Bible, in this view, is the result of the one true God graciously interacting with humans, which means that scripture is “historically and culturally conditioned.” The variety in the Bible testifies that God, like a missionary, takes history and culture seriously.23 For example, the letter to the Galatians would have made little sense had the Philippians received it. God took each situation seriously and entered it, worked with it, and ultimately transformed it.

Willard Swartley concludes, “The divine is not diminished by the human in Jesus. . . Precisely when Jesus suffers and dies, testifying to his complete humanity, the Gospel of Mark declares that then, in that context, he is truly the Son of God, divine (Mk. 15:37-39). To hold then that Scripture is conditioned by the human element – i.e., the historical and cultural – is a confession of its glory, since it brings the divine presence and Word into the midst of real human situations.”24

Through this process, God has been revealing himself throughout history, and most fully in Jesus Christ, our peace. The story of that revelation is recorded in the Bible. Thanks be to God!

Notes:
1 In Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women, Willard Swartly lists the following as used in interpretations: Ex. 17:8-16, Num. 33:50-66; Josh. 1:1-9; 5:13-6:27; Judg. 4:1-23; 6:12; 1 Sam. 15:1-13; 17:1-54; 2 Sam. 5:19-20; Psalms 35:1-2; 68:1-2, 12, 17; 83:2, 17; 108; 124; 136; 144:1; Num. 4:39-45; Josh. 7:1-8:29; 1 Sam. 28:15-19; 2 Chron. 18:1-34. There would be many more.

2 Willard Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women, 97-98.

3 John 18:22-23. See also Paul in Acts 23:3.

4 Swartley, 101.

5 Ibid., 101.

6 Ibid., 102.

7 Ibid., 103.

8 Ibid., 105.

9 See Swartley, 106-112, on Liberation Theology.

10 Ibid., 103.

11 Ibid., 113.

12 See Ex. 23:20-23.

13 Swartley, 114.

14 The following are highlighted from Swartley, 115-117.

15 Jacob Enz, quoted in Swartley, 117.

16 Ibid.

17 See Lois Barrett, The Way God Fights for more on this.

18 Quoted in Swartley, 98.

19 Quoted in Swartley, 141.

20 2 Timothy 3:16. The passage does not necessarily support the Modernist priorities, but is often interpreted so.

21 Hebrews 1:3.

22 John 5:39.

23 Swartley, 218.

24 Swartley, 218.

One God, Creating with Grace

August 20th, 2010 No comments

“One God, Creating with Grace” (Genesis 1:1-2:3)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
July 4, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Today is our last Sunday in the worship series with Genesis 1-3. Our worship has only begun to scratch the surface of the significance of these passages for our lives. There have been lots of things we haven’t touched on. Katherine and I recently completed a seminary class, in which half of the term was focused on these three chapters, and we still didn’t feel like we had discussed it enough!

Here are some additional important questions we ought to ask, but won’t have time for: How do we think about theories of the Fall or Original Sin? Why don’t Adam and Eve get mentioned again in the rest of the Old Testament, and only by Paul in a significant way in the New Testament? How does Paul interpret Genesis 2-3?

In what ways does Genesis 1-3 lend revelation to discussions of the intersection of faith and science from the past several decades? How have Christians and Jews interpreted Genesis 1-3 throughout history? What nuances do the particularities of the ancient Hebrew text add to the English reading of the text? We encourage you to be asking these questions with one another, along with any others that have come up for you. And of course, you’re always welcome to visit with your pastors about any of this!

We have practiced listening to the story in different ways these past weeks, making use of different translations, which each capture the beauty of the Hebrew language in different, yet incomplete ways. We’ve read it broadly and narrowly, hearing it in conversation with the larger witness of scripture, or within itself. We’ve recited together many of the creation psalms, and we have experienced the text through Courtney’s paintings.

I imagine we all have ways that we prefer listening, ways that speak to our hearts and realities of life more clearly. Today, we want to listen yet another way. We want to try, as best as we can, to listen through ancient Israelite ears, to hear the voice of God speaking through and above and beyond the din of world’s ancient and modern priorities, presuppositions, values, and ideologies.

Israel searches for God amid the ruins of exile. . .
Situated along the Mediterranean and in the Fertile Crescent, the people of Israel were hardly an isolated lot, at the trade and convoy routes of many of the world’s ancient empires – the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Medes, and many more – each with its own particular set of religious beliefs, values, and practices. The law given at Sinai simply assumes the presence of foreigners in Israelite society.

The people of Israel heard many stories, even as they told the stories of their own sacred tradition. Nearly every culture has a creation story of some sort. Today, you might say, we are reminded of the creation story of the United States. Well, there was one particular story, aside from their own, with which the people of Israel were likely especially familiar.

Between 597 and 586 BC, the southern and only remaining Israelite kingdom of Judah was conquered, its king deposed, its holy Temple sacked and ruined, and its people carried off to Babylon for several decades of exile.

For a people whose sacred texts unconditionally promised a king to rule on David’s throne forever and assured God’s eternal presence at Zion in the Temple, it is difficult to over-estimate the spiritual distress experienced by the people of Israel. What did it mean to be God’s people in such a place and such a time?

Even as they were surrounded by Babylonian culture, the people of Israel worked to preserve their own identity, while considering what faith would mean now that king and Temple were artifacts of a nostalgic past. Scribes doubled their efforts to preserve the sacred stories of Israel. Many scholars – though not all – believe that during this time in Babylon and soon after, large sections of the Old Testament, likely including Genesis 1, took on their final form.

What did scribes and priests and teachers hear in the streets or in the back of their mind as they were working to preserve their own identity, convictions, and practices? Undoubtedly, they heard the ancient Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish, which was re-enacted once a year at the Babylonian New Year’s Festival.

Moreover, the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, is one of the oldest and most influential creation myths known to exist, and the Israelites likely knew of it even before exile. Hearing this story that the Israelites likely knew well may1 help us to identify some of the significance the biblical creation story would have had for the people of Israel, as they told the story to one another while struggling to discern their identity in a foreign land with foreign values and beliefs.

The Enuma Elish
In the Babylonian creation myth, in the beginning, two primordial water-gods, Father Apsu and Mother Tiamat, beget a pantheon of other gods. These younger gods raise such a babel or racket in their frolicking that Father Apsu and Mother Tiamat cannot sleep at night and become enraged.

Father Apsu resolves to kill them all, but some of the younger gods plot against Father Apsu and kill him. Mother Tiamat becomes enraged at her husband’s death and gathers an army to have her revenge. The younger gods turn to one of their own, Marduk, for salvation. Marduk extorts a steep price: if he succeeds, he will be given undisputed power and authority among the gods.

Marduk slays Mother Tiamat. He stretches out her corpse to form the cosmos and places thirty-six star-gods into the sky to regulate seasons, and the sun- and moon-gods to govern day and night. The gods who sided with Mother Tiamat are forced into Marduk’s service. However, they begin to complain. So Marduk kills the leader of the rebel gods and fashions humankind out of the slain god’s blood. The humans are impressed into the gods’ service, and the gods at last are at leisure.

The gods, the Babylonians believed, appointed a king as their earthly representative. The king became divine, ceremonially playing the part of Marduk at the New Year’s Festival re-enactment of the Enuma Elish myth.

Creation wrought in violence and bloodshed?
We are indebted here to the insight of Walter Wink. Creation, according to ancient Babylon, then, is an act of violence. Mother Tiamat is murdered, and the cosmos is formed from her corpse. Creation itself is a “violent victory over an enemy older than creation” in the Babylonian imagination. “Evil is prior to good. Violence [is inherent to the Babylonian] godhead.” Evil cannot be overcome – only responded to in kind.2

Moreover, Humankind is created “from the blood of a murdered god. Our very origin is in violence. Killing is in our blood.” According to the Babylonian myth, humans are not the originators of evil, but “merely [find] evil already present and [perpetuate] it.”3 In this myth, human beings are incapable of finally living peacefully together, and war is present from the beginning. Such were the stories the Israelites heard form their neighbors.

The basic structure of this myth is found far and wide, in the mythology of ancient Syria, Phoenicia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Germany, Ireland, India, and Mesopotamia.4 Anthropologists variously call this structure the “Babylonian creation story, the combat myth, the ideology of zealous nationalism, and the myth of redemptive violence.”

The distinctive feature of all such mythology is the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. “This myth is the original religion of the status quo, the first articulation of ‘might makes right.’” The divine favor rests on those who overthrow and conquer. “Peace through war, security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion”5 It is a familiar story. Christianity may have been the dominant religion of Western civilization for 1500 years, but the mythology of Babylon has been alive and well in our history.

Imagine leaving the cities and streets with this story of despair, murder, violence, and slavery ringing in your ears and gathering around a table, or the fire, or for worship and hearing the biblical story of creation, which we find in Genesis. What would tug at the strings of your heart and stir your faith and conviction? What would you hear?

One True God
Most notably, the people of Israel were surrounded by cultures who believed in many different gods – of nature, sun, moon, stars, seas, mountains, and creatures. But as they told and heard the creation story of Genesis 1, they radically affirmed one true God, one ultimate reality. It almost seems as though each day of creation in the Genesis story dismisses another class of their neighbor’s gods, as though smashing another set of idols.

On day one, the gods of light and darkness are dismissed, for both are created by the One God. On day two, the gods of the sky and the sea are removed. On day three, the earth gods and vegetation gods are dismissed. The fourth day, sun, moon, and star gods are discounted, for the sun, moon, and stars are ordered by God but clearly not divine in themselves. On the fifth and sixth days, animal gods are dismissed, and finally the notion that human kings are divine6 is abolished, as humans are created in the divine image and likeness, but clearly not gods themselves.

The Idols of Our Age
God, in Genesis 1, is the unrivaled Creator of all that is. Nothing is outside of God’s power and influence.7 The various regions of creation are found not to be divine in themselves, but rather to testify to the sovereignty, power, and awe of the one true Creator God. We worship and recognize the idols of our age less overtly, but they receive no less homage.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann identifies several contemporary idols8: the gun is the idol of violence.

  1. From the silver screen to the federal budget, we bow to the power and sovereignty of the gun, just as the Babylonians bowed to the sword and its master, Marduk.
  2. The mall is the idol of consumption of goods. We place our pride, worth, and identity in stuff and gadgets.
  3. The game is the idol of athletics. We talk more about Friday night’s football game than we do about our faith. We obsess about this team or that team’s performance. When we’re young, we devote ourselves to honing our own skills and physique.
  4. The body is the idol of vanity and sexual consumerism. Airbrushed magazine figures become our obsession; gratification and fleeting pleasure come across in nearly every movie, book, of television series.
  5. The television is the idol of entertainment. We get our identity, our care, our hopes caught up in this or that media production.
  6. The computer is the idol of communication and information. We long not so much to encounter Christ in our lives, but for another update, another message, another blog post to satisfy our need for superficial connectedness and talking head ideology.
  7. Finally, Brueggemann lists the car as the idol of power and transportation. We idealize our individual freedom, the consumption of resources confirms our status and power as we hear the engine roar.

I’m sure many more idols could be added to this list. Perhaps listening to Genesis 1 through the ears of ancient Israel, we hear that to the extent these testify to the sovereignty and power of the one true Creator God, they may have some place in our lives, but when we give our heart to them, or when they move contrary to the grain of the universe, Genesis 1 quickly shatters them as false competitors to the one true God.

When we put our faith in other gods, following them to the ends of the earth, we find ourselves on many different tracks moving apart and occasionally colliding, without any ultimate reason to come together harmoniously. But if there is one true God, then everything is created and related, and we have hope and reason to seek peace with one another.9

Which Empire?
For our origin is not in cosmic conflict, but in the word of Almighty God. Ours is a world, Genesis 1 says to us, that embraces order, peace, and finally rest. Our salvation, Genesis 1 reminds us, is not tied to identification with any king or president or four star general, but rather to our relationship with the one true God.

For in contrast to the combat myth of Babylon, in which humans have their origin in divine murder and their destiny in slavery to the gods, the Genesis story declares that humans are desired by God for relationship and partnership in the on-going work of creation. Ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, speaking on this day 152 years ago, after a biting invective against the hypocrisy of celebrating independence while slavery persisted, nevertheless concluded that “The fiat of the Almighty, ‘Let there be Light,’ has not yet spent its force.”10

And the light that has come into the world, we believe, continues to cast its light even on our darkest myths, even on our best-kept secrets, and testifies to the one true God, the Almighty Creator, whose voice has ordered creation and declared it good. That same voice, heard speaking through and above and beyond the myths old and new that wish to enslave us to violence and bloodshed, offers us freedom and choice.

Which empire will we follow? The empire of Babylon, ever rising from the seas of chaos, founded on its myth of redemptive violence, created and conquered by princes of vengeance and violence? Or the empire of God, founded on the divine word, created and ordered good, redeemed by the Prince of Peace, whose triumph came through obedience unto death and whose final victory will come once again through the word of his mouth.

A Fourth of July/Independence Day Prayer11

Sovereign God, yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. On this Fourth of July, we pray for the President and the leaders of our nation to lead our nation in goodness, justice, and peace, and we pray that as citizens we might live peaceful lives “in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:2). Today, Lord, we give thanks for the beauty of the land we live in. We give thanks that we may freely gather for worship, for the many opportunities this nation offers us, for the opportunity to have at least some say in our own future. On this day, Lord, we also lift up to you those who serve in the armed forces. Surround them and their families in your comfort and peace, as they serve with inspiring courage, conviction, and sacrifice. Lord, grant to us all your peace.

Today, Creator God, we also lament and repent. We grieve the time when we took up arms instead of crosses, when Christian brothers met on the battlefield as enemies and fired bullets into each others’ bodies, instead of assembling together for worship as fellow citizens of heaven, praying for one another, and breading bread together as followers of the Lamb. Today we repent that we continue to lay the veil of lofty rhetoric of freedom over the ugliness of our bondage to violence. Direct our courage, conviction, and sacrifice to the service and ministry of the gospel of reconciliation, granting us courage to make peace both with sisters and brothers within our own congregation, and to pray for enemies across the seas. Teach us, Lord, to be truly patriotic as we seek the shalom of this nation, though we are ambassadors (2 Cor. 5) of another kingdom, one of your own design.

We pray this in the name of our true Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

1 Historical analysis has some significant weaknesses, including the attempt to ascertain what people would have been thinking in an ancient culture, based on secondary sources.
2 Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, 14.
3 Ibid., 15.
4 Ibid., 14.
5 Ibid., 16-17.
6 Held in many of the worlds empires, including Babylon and Rome.
7 Thanks to Jerry Truex for articulating several of these ideas in a lecture.
8 Haven’t been able to locate the particular article/book where this is listed.
9 Thanks to Brian McLaren for that phrase.
10 Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2927t.html
11 This is an approximation of part of the congregational prayer from our sharing and prayer time. As I prayed the lament of “the time when Christian brothers met on the battlefield. . .” I was filled with grief and had to pause to re-collect my voice.



Nonresistance? Nonviolence? Pacifism? Another Look at Matthew 5:39

July 7th, 2010 No comments

This post is part of the “Gospel of Peace” series. The series grows out of conversations and concerns of congregation and community members. It is not a comprehensive statement on peace, but rather and occasional engagement with peace in light of Jesus Christ. The series is outlined below. Feel free to suggest additional topics. I suspect that each installment will evolve as the project rolls along, so readers may want to check back for updates to each essay. Thank you for your interest, and may the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ abound in your life and witness!

    Prologue

  1. Peace Conversations
  2. Vocabulary: Nonresistance? Nonviolence? Pacifism? Another Look at Matthew 5:39
  3. Peace and Eschatology

  4. Peace and the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ
  5. Peace and the Coming Fullness of God’s Reign.
  6. What about. . .

  7. The Old Testament: A journey of Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics)
  8. The New Testament: The Lordship of Christ in conversation with “difficult” NT texts
  9. If someone threatened your family: The “what would you do?” question
  10. Hitler: The problem of structural/institutional evil
  11. Living the Call

  12. Just Peace Initiatives
  13. Peace and Witness/Evangelism
  14. Peace and the Redeemed Community: A Theology of the Church through a Peace Lens

Nonresistance? Nonviolence? Pacifism? Another Look at Matthew 5:39

The vocabulary we use to talk about peace is important and often leads to confusion. When speaking of a “Peace Church,” the very use of the qualifier “peace” at least implies some sort of deviation from the norm of “church” – that peace is a distinctive of a certain tradition but not necessarily intrinsic to “church.” Similarly, to speak of a “nonresistant Christian” at least implies that being nonresistant is a particular minority flavor of being Christian – that nonresistance is an optional add-on to the core of Christian faith. Indeed, previous confessional language speaking of “Anabaptist distinctives” has perpetuated these notions of optionality over centrality (a distinctive is something optional). Future essays will address such issues. For now, I’d like to focus specifically on more particular peace vocabulary: nonresistance, pacifism, and nonviolence, and certain liabilities inherent to each.

I recently had a conversation with someone who had attended two Mennonite colleges. One he characterized as advocating nonresistance (which he could tolerate); the other pacifism (which embodied everything wrong with the college in question). To him, nonresistance indicated a biblical opposition to war, while pacifism meant a humanistic opposition to war. While I believe the distinction between the two colleges on the matter is doubtful, the distinction of vocabulary follows traditional Mennonite thought of the past several decades.

Nonresistance

In the pre-English days, Anabaptists would often speak of Gewaltlosigkeit, meaning abstaining from violence or force. In Anabaptist usage, it came to indicate a refusal of violence and rejection of military service.1 Vocabulary of nonresistance was used in the early 1800s by some abolitionists. Apparently, the contradiction in terms was not an issue,2 or resistance was clearly understood to mean violent resistance. Mennonites in the U.S. began using the term at least as early as the Civil War. In Mennonite writing and theology, the term indicated a refusal of military service, violence, or force to further personal or social ends.

Nonresistance comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. . .” (Matthew 5:39). Did Jesus mean we are to be completely passive, not resisting evil? Are Christians supposed to be doormats to the evil charging through our world? Judging by his numerous confrontations with the devil, demons, corrupt authorities, and the evil of the human heart, Jesus must have had something else in mind. Jesus himself frequently resisted both evil and evildoers. Mennonite have long recognized this, speaking of how we can resist (nonresistantly!) – by loving the enemy, etc. (Mt. 5:44; Romans 12:14-21), as opposed to carnal warfare or similar means. The term nonresistance thus either communicates, at least implicitly, an acquiescence to evil, or a severe contradiction in terms (resisting nonresistantly). Neither is desirable!

Objection can also come from the appropriateness of the translation of Matthew 5:39. The phrase in question is antistēnai tō ponērō, literally “to resist the evil (one).” First, antistēnai, alternately translated “retaliate,” is generally used as a military term.3 Meaning literally “stand against,” in common usage it comes to mean “to draw up battle ranks against the enemy.”4 Furthermore, tō ponērō in Greek grammar, can be translated as a dative instrumental: “by evil means.”5 Hence, “Do not resist by evil means” is a perfectly legitimate literal translation. Considering the semantic field of antistēnai, we are left with “Do not retaliate or resist violently, by evil means,” together with connotations of rebellion and insurrection (two historical realities of Jesus’ time).

And what might those retaliative, violent evil means be? Perhaps we need look no further than the immediate context of the lex talionis: repaying “eye for eye and tooth for tooth.”6 The examples that follow (the cheek, the cloak, the second mile, giving) describe situations where retaliation would be a common response. If a bully hits you, you hit him back, after all. If you don’t, you’ll come across weak, and he’ll think he can get a way with it – and more.

Often this is how “turning the other cheek” is viewed: let the bully (personal or social) pummel you until he tires of it (nonresistance in the full sense of the word). However, there are ways of reading the text wherein the action functions redemptively, rather than acquiescently. Walter Wink’s historical reading has gained significant support and has broken into the popular setting. According to Wink, a backhand slap to the right cheek was a sign of domination. To turn the left cheek was to say, “If you are going to strike me, strike me as an equal.”7 Similarly, one could offer a garment as collateral against a loan.8 People were often forced into these loans by unjust economic conditions. To give up both coat and cloak was to become completely naked, which in Jewish piety brought shame not on the naked person but on all who looked on him. Finally, Roman soldiers were permitted to force locals to carry their packs for one mile; no more. To go the second mile was to make the Roman soldier liable for breaking the law.9 The idea, of course, isn’t that these are supposed to be timeless rules, but rather creative examples of peaceful resistance. As we will see in a later article, such creative response invites the transformation of the Spirit and can even lead to reconciliation. Of course, it is not guaranteed to “work” every time (neither is a violent response).

For some, Wink’s interpretation comes too close to violating the principle of enemy-love. They prefer to read Matthew 5:38-42 more along the lines of Romans 12:17-21:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is right in the sight of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. By doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

These actions become acts of prophetic judgment, exhortation, or proclamation of God’s sovereignty through enemy-love, “heaping coals of fire on their heads.” The function, however, remains similar to Wink’s interpretation: opening the door to transformation and reconciliation. Even in this interpretation it is still resistance: overcoming evil with good.

Is the use of non-lethal force ever an appropriate expression of enemy-love? Most agree that the use of force is acceptable in some situations (to protect our enemies from their own violence, necessary restraint, etc.). The question is where the line is drawn. We need vocabulary that allows us to ask this important question. Nonresistance limits the discussion significantly.

Finally, using the term nonresistance defines discipleship in terms of what we do not do. Peace in biblical terms is much broader than something we do not do. For all of these reasons, I find nonresistance to be an insufficient term for the Christian call to peacemaking and enemy-love.

Pacifism

The term pacifism comes from the Latin for peacemaking and is derived from Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers. . .” As such, its meaning in the Christian context is close to nonresistance. This is generally a good term for describing the Christian life of peacemaking, with noteworthy liabilities: First, pacifism is often confused with passivism – that is, doing nothing about evil in the world. As discussed above, this misses the point of Christian peacemaking and resistance to evil (Mt. 5:9, 39).

Second, Christian pacifism often becomes conflated with secular forms of pacifism. Secular forms of pacifism tend to see peace as an end in itself, fail to take seriously the reality of the power of Sin, are anthropocentric/humanistic, and tend to rely too heavily on the state to create and enforce peace.10 My conversation partner mentioned at the beginning of this essay was really not objecting to Christian pacifism, as much as its conflation with secular pacifism.

Nonviolence

Nonviolence is a similar term to nonresistance, though it captures some of the essence of Matthew 5:39 in a more satisfactory way (see above). The main problem with this term is that, like nonresistance, it describes what one does not do.11 Stanley Hauerwas’s observation here is salient:

. . . pacifists cannot let their understanding of Christian nonviolence be determined by what we are against. . . The very phrase “Christian nonviolence” cannot help but suggest that peace is “not violence.” Yet a peace that is no more than “not violence” surely cannot be the peace that is ours in Christ.12

Additionally, nonviolence or derivative forms like nonviolent resistance describe reactive action, rather than the gospel call to proactive peacemaking. Nonviolence also carries some of the secular association common to pacifism.

Conclusion

When I hear the terms nonresistance, pacifism, or nonviolence used, I generally assume they mean mostly the same thing. Though I’m not terribly fond of any of the terms, I usually favor pacifism, then nonviolence, and then nonresistance. I generally prefer to speak of the “peace position,” or even better, of peace, peacemaking, or peace witness. These terms help to move away from rigid doctrinalism and into the the lived experience of faith and calling to discipleship. It is one thing to be intellectually opposed to war (which doesn’t necessarily require any action); it is quite another to be an active witness to peace with one’s life, making peace at home, at church, at work, at school, and with enemies across the seas. May the dawn from on high break upon us to guide our feet into the ways of peace.

Notes

1 Guy F. Hershberger, Ernst Crous and John R. Burkholder, “Nonresistance,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/N656ME.html. The following also comes from GAMEO.
2 Abolitionism is necessarily a resistance to something; hence the contradiction with nonresistance.
3 E.g. Ephesians 6:13, also major military use in Josephesus and Philo.
4 Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, 185.
5 Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 138.
6 It is interesting that Jesus truncated the “life for life” clause. Of course, he also leaves off other things like hands and feet. See Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-21, Deuteronomy 19:21. My guess is that Jesus was quoting a common shorthand summary of the lex talionis.
7 Turning the left cheek requires a forehand offense used between equals. The left hand was considered unclean and would not have been used (Wink, 176).
8 See, for example, Exodus 22:25-27; Deuteronomy 24:10-13; Ezekiel 18:5-9; Amos 2:7-8.
9 Wink, 176-182.
10 Though he did not distinguish between Christian pacifism and secular pacifism, these objections come from Guy F. Hershberger, “Pacifism,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/P340.html. His objections come from a conflation of the two. Hershberger held a very nonpolitical portrait of Jesus – a perspective which has since faded.
11 Willard M. Swartley, Covenant of Peace, 6.
12 Quoted in Swartley, 6.

Peace Conversations: Some Random Ramblings (Part 2)

June 8th, 2010 No comments

In Part 1 of this post, I shared a bit about engaging the world, while not conforming to the world. It’s a tough question.

And there’s another tough question: How does the church, called to proclaim the gospel of peace, relate to its members who are veterans, veterans’ families, or subscribe to one just war theology or another? I’m all for standing up for what Jesus says; the question is how do we do it redemptively and in community? Perhaps it begins with confession. I said the following in last year’s peace Sunday Sermon:

We as a historic peace church ought to confess the ways in which we have at times seen the gospel of peace not as Good News, but as judgment on those who are different from us. We have failed to honor the valor and courage and conviction of our sisters and brothers who serve in the armed services, when we as a people have for three centuries run from the sword. Instead, we have chosen to cut off conversation. It is an issue that many of us hold dear, even non-negotiable, but that doesn’t mean the conversation is over; rather, if there’s one thing we want to talk about, it’s what’s closest to our hearts. The conversation needs to go on, no fear when the Spirit is present.

We ought also confess that we have often failed in our evangelistic responsibility to share the good news, the gospel — the gospel of peace that the world so desperately needs to receive. Instead, we have again chosen to cut off the conversation; we have not passed on the gospel to our children; we have seen the gospel as a liability to its own advancement; we have feared the clash of culture that it creates. Let’s be passionate about what we believe, and Let’s also teach our children and all who have joined us this day what it means to be the church, to love one another as Christ loved us, to be the community united under Christ.

Let this day, this International Peace Sunday, be different. Let it be a time when we re-open the discussion, not as adversaries, but as seekers of truth, as seekers of God’s guidance. May we see those with whom we disagree as fellow travelers on the journey of following Christ, as people who take faith and Scripture, and life as seriously as we do. May we be one in Christ, just as Christ is one with the Father. Let’s want to journey with people who care enough to disagree with us. May we seek not vindication of our own agenda and opinion, but understanding and God among us and in each other.

And then after a sermon on the power of peace, I concluded:

Indeed, the extent to which we believe Jesus’ teaching to be unattainable ideals is the extent to which we do not believe that Christ really is Lord of all of life, that we trust the sword before the cross, that we kneel before Caesar’s false idols rather than coming face to face with our creator God, that we fear death and do not trust in God’s salvation.

But we will not fear death and ridicule, for we are blessed children of God. Our faith will not be shaken by the false gods of security and wealth. Our knees will bend for one master. And we will rise and march not for rockets’ glare, nor bombs in the air, but for for the way of the cross, and the one who knew greatest loss. We will pledge the allegiance of our hearts to one God, for there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all.  We will love our enemies near and far, and we will value those who disagree with us. We will not rattle sabers wrought in steel, but we will proclaim the good news of the gospel of Christ crucified. Popular opinion will not silence the gospel truth of peace. Mercy will not stop with us. Grace will not be held back from our hands. Peace will not be stopped by the limits of our imagination. Fear will not silence our action and witness.

Not in this world that God created good. Not when Christ is our Lord. Not when we wield the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. Not when we walk in the power of the Spirit. For we will follow our Lord wherever he may lead us. Salvation will come to this people, to this world, because the prince of peace, the lamb of God who was slain has entered into the kingdom of his righteousness and has raised the justness of his cause, and we are his people. The Prince of Peace has ascended his throne; he is at work in the world. We cannot but follow in his Way, trusting in its ultimate victory over violence, evil, and hatred.

This was part of my attempt to recognize, respect, and honor the diversity in the pews, while at the same time articulating what I humbly see as the gospel vision for peace. The fact that veterans and just war advocates are a part of a Mennonite congregation says something about their character that we need to honor. People who put their lives on the line for a cause they believe in deserve our respect; they deserve to be our heroes, whether they serve in the military, law enforcement, Mennonite Central Committee, or Christian Peacemaker Teams. We need to recognize that all of us are committed to the Lordship of Christ, and that we all take the Bible seriously and authoritatively.

A true relationship is one in which acceptance does not require agreement on every point, but rather, it even values diversity as something that makes us stronger. When I meet with new people in the congregation, I explain to them about our peace position — that this is who we are, what we believe, and how we try to live. I also say that because it’s something we care about, we want the conversation to be open, that we don’t claim to have all the answers, that we value other opinions, experiences, or whatever you may bring as a welcome part of the conversation, and that we want to be held accountable for who we say we are. I don’t think this weakens our peace witness, but rather opens a discussion and invites a relationship, trusting the Prince of Peace to be present.

Well, thanks for sticking around this far! This is all a round-about and rambling way of introduction for an upcoming blog series on peace. I’ve had numerous conversations recently with congregation and community members about peace, and thought it would be fun to do a blog series on some of the issues that have come up. Here’s what we’re planning so far:

1. Vocabulary: Pacifism? Non-resistance? Non-violence? Another look at Matthew 5:39
2. Peace and Eschatology I: Peace is grounded in the climactic story of our faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
3. Peace and Eschatology II: Peace is grounded in our future hope of the coming fullness of God’s reign.
4. What about. . . the Old Testament: A journey of Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics)
5. What about. . . the New Testament: The Lordship of Christ in conversation with “difficult” NT texts
6. What about. . . if someone threatened your family: The “what would you do?” question
7. What about. . . Hitler: The problem of structural/institutional evil
8. Living the call: Just peace initiatives
9: Living the call: Peace and witness/evangelism
10: Living the call: Peace and the redeemed community: A theology of the church through a peace lens

I might also include a “Peace and Archeology” essay on the peace foundation of the biblical creation stories. If you have additional questions you think should be addressed, let me know!

Postings will probably be mostly in essay form — that is, thesis and defense of the thesis. This is an academic form that can sometimes come across as abrasive or exclusive if not read as part of a larger conversation. In the articles in this series, I will defend my theses as strongly as I can (or have time to!), but it does not mean I claim to have all the answers, and it certainly does not mean that I do not welcome and respect diverging views. I will argue that peace is at the heart of the gospel and our faith, but this should by no means (as Paul would say) be construed that I think you’re not a Christian if you disagree with me. Thanks for your understanding!

Grace and peace,
Peter

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Memorial Day in the Friedhof: Some Random Ramblings (Part 1)

June 8th, 2010 No comments

Grace Hill Mennonite Church has a beautiful cemetery just outside the church building.The cemetery is diligently cared for by a family in the congregation, and I watched as more and more flowers appeared during the days leading up to this past Memorial Day (May 31st). The way most of the headstones face, it’s as though the cemetery looks over the church building, making the “cloud of witnesses” a sort of monumental reality. (Actually, the cemetery is just outside my office window, so I like to think the saints “have my back!”). It’s an ever-present reminder that who we are today, what we do, and the faith we hold dear is a part of a long and rich trajectory of embodied faith in Christ.

I remember when I was little, I would go around with my mother and grandmother to put flowers on relatives’ graves in preparation for Memorial Day. Although I was often more interested in trying to climb the larger monuments, I recall sensing the reverence involved. This was a good time for us to remember those who have gone before, and, in my case, to learn to know those who died long before I was born. The only person I actually knew was my grandfather on my mother’s side. He died when I was six, and the annual trek to the cemetery was a good way to keep such young memories alive. Grandpa Klassen is buried in the Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church cemetery. Entering the cemetery from the west, one passes under the old German sign “Alexanderwohl Friedhof.” The etymology of Friedhof, the German word for cemetery, is roughly “Fried(e) (peace)” + “Hof (yard).” A more dynamic translation might be “peaceful field” or “field of peace.” I think Friedhof captures my Memorial Day memories well — the cemetery is a place of peace. The beauty of the cemetery at Grace Hill does likewise.

I always thought it was curious that there were lots of U.S. flags in the Friedhoefe we would visit, but never made much of it. Because of my experience with Memorial Day, I assumed it was a general holiday for remembering loved ones, which some people had militarized at some point or another. It actually wasn’t until I was in high school or college that I learned that the opposite is true!

There’s an irony of bearing that history to the Friedhof. I’ve found it to be interesting that many U.S. churches hold a Memorial Day service. Of course, the church has a long history of appropriating festivals as its own. Even our highest festivals, Easter and Pentecost, find part of their origin and significance in the Jewish festivals of Passover and Weeks, respectively1 The festival of Christmas, along with several Christmas traditions, have significant ties to pagan religious practice. Little surprise, then, that the church has appropriated a holiday from the rites of the pagan religion of Nationalism.2 But what is even more surprising is that the church actually has a memorial holiday, called All Saints Day, dating back to the fourth century. In Western Christianity, the day falls on November 1; in Eastern Christianity, it is one week after Pentecost (which is actually around the time of Memorial Day).

What’s a church in the U.S. to do? I think this calls into question two important faces of the church’s calling:

1) To be engaged in the world (2 Cor. 5:20: “So we are ambassadors for Christ. . .”) and
2) To be non-conformed to the world (Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed. . .”).

“In the world, but not of the world,” we sometimes say (John 17:11, 16). The tendency is to view these two as polar opposites, and we need to find a balance — as if being more “in the world” makes you less “not of the world.” But I’m not so sure it works that way. What if, rather than polarities, it’s two different axes alltogether. That is, let’s say “engaged in the world” is the X-axis, and “non-conformed” is the Y-axis. Is it possible that what we really need is more of both (Could we say the same about outreach and internal life? Grace and works?)?  Thanks to Lois Barrett for ideas for the following diagram:

What does this say about the church and Memorial Day? How can we engage Memorial Day, but be non-conformed? Do we make little mention about Memorial Day, but advertise and celebrate All Saints Day instead? Do we hold a Peace Picnic on Memorial Day? Do we acknowledge Memorial Day, but with very intentional liturgy? I think all of the above (and many more options!) have good potential, depending on the context. From my own experience growing up, the latter was the practice. Our liturgy was one of honoring the faithful dead (regardless of military service). I learned that it is not so much sacrifice on the battlefield that confirms the honor of our memory, but more so the living sacrifice of faith (Romans 12:1; Hebrews 13:15). The liturgy of Memorial Day was a time to recall the lives of loved ones lost, and inevitably, of their witness for peace that lives on in us. So successful was the liturgy that I didn’t realize this was a military holiday, but would it have been better to make our non-conformity clearer?

At Grace Hill, we’ve had discussion as to what our engagement/non-conformity with Memorial Day should be. We continue to discuss some of the above options and considerations. For this year, we continued a long tradition of a Memorial Day service in the cemetery after worship, with intentional liturgy. Our service began, “We have gathered here in this peaceful field. . .” It ended, “We go now from this peaceful field, sent into the world as ambassadors to Christ’s reconciliation, strengthened and encouraged by the witness and faith of our loved ones. . .” Was that the best for our context? How could we be more counter-cultural? Tough questions that all come together while recognizing Memorial Day in the Friedhof. To be continued. . .

Notes:

1 The Easter story takes place at Passover. That freedom comes to those who put their faith in the blood of the lamb is common to both easter and Passover. Weeks celebrates the giving of the Torah; similarly Pentecost celebrates the giving of the Spirit.

2 For additional critiques of the syncretism of Nationalism and Christianity, see some of Greg Boyd’s work here, here, and here. Also, see his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation.