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.”
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.
Facebook is a treasure trove of graphics, many of them pretty crappy. However, this little gem stands out! It’s masterful–I can think of at least one person I currently know who approximates each of these, except perhaps the angry whiskers.
The Vietnam War was one of the most unpopular wars ever fought by the United States. It cost a lot of lives. It cost a lot of money. It ended unsatisfactorily. It never should have happened as it did. And while it might seem strange to point to Vietnam as a case study for mission in contemporary America, I think it’s apropos. The Vietnam War demonstrates what happens when leaders confuse tactical change with adaptive change.That is to say, the war in Vietnam turned out the way it did because its military leaders (with the prodding of their political leaders) tried over and over again to what they already knew how to do, only harder. If the church attempts simply to do what it’s already doing, only harder, don’t be surprised if the outcome is similar.
According to Thomas Ricks in his magnificent book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today (2012) the strategic failure in Vietnam took place because the senior military leader, Army General William “Westy” Westmoreland, had neither the intelligence nor the imagination to understand the type of war that he should have been fighting.
He failed to grasp that anything other than the force on force warfare of World War II and, to a lesser extent, Korea could be effective in achieving the strategic aims of the United States in Vietnam. In his defense, it seems that successive administrations had failed to successfully define those aims.
At the same time a different branch of the armed forces, the Marine Corps, was employing a remarkably different strategy. By the late sixties the Marine Corps had determined that a counter-insurgency strategy was the only option that would provide anything other than minimal results with a high price tag. They had learned this lesson both from French forces who fought in Indo China and the British campaign in Malaya. Writing in 1967 Marine Lt. General Victor Krulak wrote, “The Vietnamese people are the prize” rather than simply taking possession of territory or killing a certain number enemy combatants.
Westmoreland and other senior Army leaders failed to consult the French or the British in their planning. They derided the Marine Corps as avoiding the fight. As (Army) Maj General Harry Kinnard put it, “I did everything I could to drag them out and get them to fight….They wouldn’t play.”
The Army strategy in Vietnam was to envision it as a continuation of World War II only in a different place. This view is nicely summarized by one of Westmoreland’s commanders who said, “The solution in Vietnam is more bombs, more shells, more napalm…till the other side cracks and gives up.” The other side never cracked.
If the church insists that all we need to do is keep doing what we have been doing for the last fifty years, but harder or with better style, we will miss the great opportunity this present moment is giving us to move mission from the periphery of the life of the church to its very core.
Some authors who write on this topic suggest that almost all of our current ways of understanding and practicing being the church must be redefined or rejected. Sunday worship? Church buildings? Ordained clergy? All can be done away with according to these writers. The church can become a diffuse organic network of related Christ-followers spread throughout a city and living their lives in mission. This is a wonderful part of the story of being the church, but its just that–only a part of the story.
We have the chance to rediscover the many resources and ways of worshipping practiced by the ancient (pre-modern) church that will prove to be indispensable as we navigate into our postmodern world.
People can be stupid. Christians, unfortunately, are no different. Inside Higher Ed highlights a controversy embroiling Florida Atlantic University and centering around student reactions to the actions of a Deandre Poole, himself a Christian and a professor.
Here’s what happened according to the website:
The course at Florida Atlantic University was in intercultural communications, and the exercise involve[d] having students write “Jesus” on a piece of paper, and then asking them to step on it. When they hesitate, the instructor has an opening to discuss symbols and their meaning.
Are you following this? The point of the exercise is to demonstrate that the very letters J-E-S-U-S convey meaning and that in a culture influenced by Christianity, many will have some degree of moral dilemma in being told to step on a sheet of paper containing those letters.
There are other symbols that could have been used–flags, crosses, a Bible, etc. And the point of the exercise it to make students uncomfortable, good lessons often do. Yet, responses to the event by parties ranging from a student in the class, to politicians, and also to the university administration can really only be classified as stupid. Let me rephrase: responses have been ill-conceived and in some cases are inconsistent with the very values espoused. “This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings. Have the students write the name JESUS in big letters on a piece of paper. Ask the students to stand up and put the paper on the floor in front of them with the name facing up. Ask the students to think about it for a moment. After a brief period of silence, instruct them to step on the paper. Most will hesitate. Ask why they can’t step on the paper. Discuss the importance of symbols in culture.”
Here’s a list:
The belligerent student. We don’t know if this student is a Christian or not. For the sake of argument, and because many will assume he is, let’s assume it to. According to reports here’s the student’s response:
After class, the student came up to him [Poole], and made that statement [“how dare you disrespect someone’s religion] again, this time hitting his balled fist into his other hand and saying that “he wanted to hit me.” While the student did not do so, Poole said he was alarmed and notified campus security and filed a report on the student.
The racists. Apparently this Christian professor has received death threats, some of which make reference to lynching (which makes me nauseated even to type):
He said he has received hate mail and death threats, some of them coming in forms particularly hurtful to an African American. “One of the threats said that I might find myself hanging from a tree,” he said.
The university. Get a spine already.
A statement released Sunday by the campus chapter of the United Faculty of Florida said that the university erred in banning a classroom practice because some had been offended.
This unhappy episode suggests, once again, that not only is our society dysfunctional in communicating across disagreements but also that many of our cultural institutions seem unable or unwilling to make decisions or support faculty who are the subject of public disagreement or uninformed outrage.
Our culture is infantile. We stamp our feet. We scream our disagreement. And what’s sad is that often it is people who claim the name of Christ who are the worst–not always to be sure. However, in a culture that is moving beyond its Christendom moorings, we should be sure that when the offensive person or cause is related to Christianity, it is natural that our culture will make that connection an emphasis in describing the event or person.
St. Peter provides wise counsel for Christians in our current moment when he writes,
…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is within you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. – 1 Peter 3.16
That defense, I am sure, did not involve fists or shouts.