As Christians living in a sin-tainted world, we’re engaged in a struggle–a resistance if you will–against powers that are rebellious and estranged from their true King, Jesus. In Jesus we participate in his project of regaining mastery of the created order and moving it towards re-creation, a new creation that mirrors the values of God’s kingdom.
Jesus is doing this by the creation of a new humanity—the church.
When I refer to the church, I’m thinking of –in the words of the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation”—“elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth, her charter of salvation one faith, one life, one birth…” In other words: the waters of baptism are thicker than the blood ties of ethnicity and nationality:
With Jesus’ resurrection, the new age has dawned. The new man has emerged from among the old humanity, whose life he had shared, whose pain and sin he had borne. For Paul, as throughout the Bible, sin and death were inextricably linked, so that Christ’s victory over the latter signaled his defeat over the former. – N T Wright
As Christians, as part of this new humanity, we are God’s agents working to subvert the rule of sin and death in the empires of the present age. This vocation is an active one, especially if we consider Paul’s description of his apostolic mission in 2 Corinthians 10:4ff. as a paradigm for engagement in the world:
Though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.
Notice again the comprehensiveness of this vision: between Colossians 1 and 2 Corinthians 10 we see the interplay of spirit and flesh, heaven and earth, dominions and opinions; and through both, powers that are at work.
The hope of Colossians 1—our hope—is that Jesus is not one power amongst a pantheon of competing powers. Instead, he is above, beyond, before, and over these powers—they have no existence independent of him.
This Jesus has given himself to the world in love in order to make reconciliation possible—a returning of prodigal creation to its father that results in a new humanity, the church.
This passage demands our acknowledgement that there is no sphere of existence over which Jesus is not sovereign. God’s rules, God’s values, aren’t legitimate in some places and illegitimate in other places—no, they are over all. As C. S. Lewis puts it, “There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.”
A wise friend–John Inazu–who teaches criminal law at Washington University in St. Louis has written an insightful piece about race and criminal law in St. Louis. I encourage you to pick up and read and consider how you might do likewise where you are:
John D. Inazu
“You spent too much time talking about race in this class.” Of all the student evaluations I’ve received over the years, this one rankled me the most. I teach criminal law. In St. Louis. It’s not possible to talk too much about race in that context.
In past years, our class discussions on race have centered on Trayvon Martin, or before that, on the kids shot up by Bernie Goetz on a New York City subway. From now on, the example will come from much closer to home.
In the coming weeks, we will have much to say about the tragedy, chaos and anger surrounding the death of Michael Brown. Among the most important issues will be the connection between law enforcement and race. That is not to say that all police officers are evil or that all black youths are innocent. But it is to insist that criminal justice and racial injustice are intrinsically linked in this city and its surrounding communities. And the injustices that manifest in handcuffs and bullets flow out of the injustices of neighborhoods, schools and shopping malls — all linked to issues of race that nobody in this city likes to talk about.
Ours is an age of hyper-connectivity. Yet despite the fact that there are more ways for the average person to communicate with others, loneliness is skyrocketing. The Wall Street Journal reports:
The rate of loneliness in the U.S. has doubled in the past 30 years, says John T. Cacioppo, a psychologist and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, who studies loneliness including analysis of several large studies. These days, he estimates, some 40% of Americans report being lonely, up from 20% in the 1980s.
Persistent feelings of loneliness, alarmingly, were as accurate a predictor of early death as was alcoholism or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It seems we are social animals, made for community. Robert Putnam argues in Bowling Alonethat participation in civic organizations has sharply declined with the advent of new technologies. This is a perpetual concern of the modern period. In the 1920s The Middletown Studies expressed concern that the advent of radio was causing a decline in social connection in the community of Muncie, Indiana.
Loneliness is more than being alone. Parents of young children will attest that being alone at the end of the day can be blissful. Loneliness is an internal sense of isolation:
You don’t have to be alone to be lonely, as anyone who has suffered through a bad relationship or an awkward holiday gathering can attest. “Loneliness is the feeling of social isolation or dissatisfaction with your relationships,” Dr. Cacioppo says. “It’s not just about whether there are others around you. It’s about whether the ones around you are those you can trust.”
Our growing sense of social isolation is a challenge and an opportunity for the Christian community. If the church can remind itself of our call to be a counter-cultural community of disciples then there’s hope that we can peacefully resist the tide of loneliness. It’s difficult to know exactly what this would look like, but it could include a number of innovations.
Leave a comment and tell us how you think the church can address the loneliness epidemic.
It’s been said that no publicity is bad publicity. Richard Dawkins is in the news for his recent comments on pedophilia. In an interview the famous evolutionary biologist noted that the “mild pedophilia” he experienced as a child did him no “lasting harm.” You can read the full story at Salon.
“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.”
As a general rule, it is true that it is futile to judge our ancestors by our current standards, however I’m not sure I’d say that Dawkins childhood was really in another “era.” And while the sort of pedophilia he describes may have happened in that era, it was not acceptable then as it is not now. The difference is that then, just as Dawkins is now doing, society would have hushed it it up and minimized it, telling the child to “get over it.”
It’s hard to be angry at Dawkins. He is, in many respects, a victim who is still living in the narrative of the 1940s and 1950s during which this event took place.
I recently saw a movie that was powerful in the way it dealt with some of these issues. Steven Spielberg’s Munich is a retelling of the events of the 1972 Olympic Games held in Munich, Germany. It was during these games that members of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist organization, took hostage members of the Jewish Olympic team. One or two were killed during the initial hostage-taking when they resisted the terrorists.
Within 24 hours all of the hostages and all save three of the terrorists would be dead. Long story short, the German police attempted a rescue, which went badly wrong largely because it was poorly planned. When the hijackers realized the trap, they killed the hostages.
Within a month, the remaining captured terrorists were released after other members of Black September hijacked a Lufthansa airliner and demanded their release. They were released to Libya where they were treated like celebrities.
The movie itself deals with the Israeli response to the attacks. Golda Meir, the Israeli Prime Minister decided that the response ought to be swift and large enough in scope to serve as a deterrent to future attacks. Over the next several years Israeli assassination units killed dozens of high profile Palestinians and Arabs across Europe.
The movie follows the leader of one of these squads. It chronicles the toll that on-going vengeance took on one person. One man who killed to avenge the deaths of his fellow Israelis. By the end of the movie he is barely functioning in normal life as a result of the on-going stress and pressure of functioning covertly in a high stakes games of assassinations.
Interestingly, one scene frames the underlying conflict. The Mossad bomb-maker finally gives expression to his feeling that all of this killing is somehow in conflic with the values of Judaism. He notes that Jews are called to be holy and righteous. “We are not like the other nations.” Their actions as warriors seem to be in stark contrast with their values of Torah. A couple of scenes later, he is killed presumably by Palestinian terrorists who are now seeking the Israeli assassins. As Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”
The role of the Christian church in the world is to be a counter-culture, a new society that is based on the values of the kingdom and shaped by the teaching of Scripture and headed by Christ himself, a new Israel.It’s important to note that the role of the church and of the state is not the same. The function of the state is to restrain evil and to promote good.
Nowhere is the vision of this new counter-culture more compellingly communicated than in the Sermon on the Mount.
This is especially true when it comes to enemies and war. I’d like for us to explore these topics by looking at two passages of scripture from The Sermon on the Mount.
In Matthew 5:38-42 Jesus talks about retribution. Since Jesus doesn’t talk that much about war and since our enemies are mostly enemies since they’ve done something to us that we think is unjust, we’ll use this passage to think a little about how we respond to people who wrong us.
We will also look at Matthew 5:43-48 where Jesus talks about how we relate to our enemies.
War and Violence: When to resist (Matthew 5:38-42)
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (TNIV)
Jesus offers a response to the culture of the day (part 1). An “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (v. 38) was a principle of limiting retribution to what is a just amount (the punishment must fit the crime). The purpose was to avoid the sort of blood feud that could embroil multiple communities in generations of senseless violence. By the time Jesus spoke these words, it was common practice to impose financial sanctions rather than physical punishment.
Jesus is speaking to Jews who have come to view him as Messiah. It seems that his words are aimed at reforming and renewing Jewish society through this new movement of Christ-followers. They are a grass-roots source of influence that will bring change about outside of the normal structures of power and influence.
Jesus was not opposing brutality or physical retribution since these weren’t the common responses to injustices in the ancient world of Jesus’ time. Instead, it seems that He is opposing the principle of insisting on legitimate retribution, specifically using legal means to settle a score with another individual.
Jesus says, “do not resist…” (v. 39). This is wider, however, than simply insisting on not getting even. It is really, in the affirmative, a willingness to accept ill treatment and even to participate in it (by turning the other cheek, or giving your coat away, or walking a second mile). And it is not limited to simply physical nonviolence. Instead, what is said here also refers to the use of legal means to “resist” an unjust action.
The cases in point are all cases in which an individual comes into contact with another individual who does something wrong or unjust. Jesus is not outlining responses to evil in the abstract. These are concrete responses to concrete examples of wrongdoing. As a result, they’re not really verses that are meant to be applied to society as a collective. Many Christians have traditionally made a distinction between the actions of individuals and the actions of the state. Elsewhere in the NT we are told that the state has the power of the sword. That power, however, is never vested in individuals.
Jesus was not attempting to reform the legal code, but is suggesting an attitude that is loose on rights and entitlements. As I mentioned before, it is an attempt at changing attitudes and subverting the dominant values of a society.
“…turn the other cheek” (v. 39b) A backhanded slap to the face was an expression of contempt and extreme abuse…punishable by a fine. Jesus’ disciples are asked to accept the contempt and abuse without recourse to their legal rights in the situation.
“…hand over your coat as well” (v. 40) The OT Law forbade the confiscation of the coat on humanitarian grounds (Ex 22:25-7). If it was taken as collateral, it had to be returned by sundown so its owner could sleep in it.
“…go two miles” (v. 41) The reference is specifically to the practice of Roman soldiers commandeering local citizens to serve as porters to carry cargo, etc. Instead of telling his disciples to resist members of an occupying force, he tells them to do more than required. This would have been very controversial and set Jesus apart from the Zealots who attempted to drive Rome out of Israel.
“…give to those who ask…” (v. 42) Matthew’s retelling has in mind a specific instance. The verb he uses refers to a single act. The principle is that we ought to place the needs of others before our own convenience or our own rights.
R. T. France notes, “A willingness to forgo ones personal rights, and to allow oneself to be insulted and imposed upon, is not incompatible with a firm stand for matters of principle and for the rights of others. Indeed the principle of just retribution is not so much abrogated here as bypassed, in favor of an attitude which refuses to insist on one’s rights, however legitimate.”
There will be times when we as followers of Christ are entitled to use legal means to compel someone else to stop doing something to us that is wrong. However, Christ here suggests that we shouldn’t consider our entitlements and our legal rights as supreme. There will be times when we are called on essentially give up our rights in an instance and give to the other person something they don’t deserve.