The Politics of Epiphany

In the Epiphany (the visit of the Magi, see Matthew 2), the politics must be brought out from the background in order to understand the importance of the event.

First, the politics of the nation: Herod is the king of the Jews, but Caesar is his lord. The Roman Empire’s rule of the region is reinforced by an iron fist, a situation that is sickeningly normal after centuries of rule by the Greek empires. Mary and Joseph come to visit Bethlehem not to visit relatives, but by the order of Caesar (not Herod) to be registered for a census – which is itself a tool of oppression, as it provides the basis for levying taxes and conscripting soldiers.

Into this climate of oppression, Jesus is conceived. And even before he is born, he finds no welcome in his hometown. Jewish culture placed a large emphasis on hospitality, and his family’s inability to find a place to stay is reminiscent of the story of the angels who came to visit Sodom and found only one family willing to take them in for the night. While our common conception of Jesus being born in a stable is not borne out by Scripture (the only correlation is the presence of a manger, which would likely have been present in a house anyway – even up to the industrial revolution it would not be uncommon for poorer families to share their home with their animals), nonetheless Jesus’ birth occurs in a very humble and vulnerable setting. In Sodom, a lack of hospitality served as an indication of the hearts of the inhabitants of the city, which are clearly turned against God and headed for destruction. In this context Jesus’ other name, Emmanuel, is telling: Emmanuel means “God with us”, and we think this is warm presence, but in its original context it is the sign of God’s coming judgment.

So Jesus is born king of the Jews, an oppressed people who look for a saviour-king while they suffer under an existing Jewish king who himself is a puppet of a foreign emperor. Jesus is the saviour they are waiting for, but they do not recognize him – and even when they do, they respond with incredible violence rather than rejoicing. The religious and political elites refuse to recognize, and even work to kill, God’s anointed king from his very birth. Lacking proper recognition from his own, God welcomes it from outsiders, and in so doing judges his own. And they didn’t even notice.

I wonder how many of us notice today when God uses outsiders to do the things he has called us to do. Are Christians in North America conscious of our own lack of empathy for those who do not look like us, for those of other faiths, when those other faiths and cultures outshine us at generosity and hospitality? Are we shamed by unbelievers who, despite not believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ, embody his call to love and serve others? I come from a church that taught me that the Social Gospel traditions were anti-Christian because of their liberal theology, but all the while these churches have outshone us in the way that they serve the poor. And yet we continue to believe that God is only at work inside our doors, or that God works through other people only in spite of themselves, and that we are God’s only real partners.

I’m not sure that’s true. The Magi, whoever they were, were explicit in their aim to worship the king of the Jews. God spoke to them in a way that was true to their own traditions and faith, not to Judaism (which, so far as I can tell, does not have a strong tradition of astrology), and they recognized and served God in their own way, despite recognizing that he is the God of another people. God was bigger than Judaism, and was not afraid to conscript eastern astrologers to provide a proper recognition and welcome of his only son, the king of the Jews, in the absence of the hospitality and respect of his own chosen people.

So to the Muslims, Jews, Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Pagans, Atheists, and more – to all of you who work hard to serve others, whether as an outcome of your own faith or without any extrinsic motivation – thank you. You challenge me, not as an adversary, but as a foil, an example. I know it can be patronizing to tell you that you are serving or embodying my God, and I don’t want to come across that way, but you do inspire me to serve and embody my God more because I see God in you and your service. To all of you wonderful Magi, I’m happy for the “competition.” 😉

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Minimalism, Purpose, and Focusing on Christ

I finally took the time to check out The Minimalists podcast. It’s a long podcast (90 minutes!), and over that time I got the impression that I was hearing more or less the entire philosophy through a few particular applications, which suggests to me that I might find it repetitive if I listened to it regularly. At the same time, that also shows that they’ve boiled their philosophy down to something clear, and that they’re consistent in their application of it – which is great, because it makes it easy for me to connect it to my own life.

Their philosophy, in a nutshell, is that they want to only have things that they will use and use well; that they get more enjoyment and use out of things that are essential, that reflect their values, when their lives are not also cluttered by all sorts of other stuff that they don’t actually use or enjoy. The great thing about this philosophy is all of the ways that it connects to so many other values and philosophies I have: for example, the episode I just listened to on parenting had a lot of stuff that sounded like RIE, our favourite approach to parenting; and the regular references to Rob Bell (despite the host mentioning that he does not share Rob’s religious convictions) underscored just how much minimalism connects with Christian ethics and tradition.

What really struck me as I was introduced to the minimalist philosophy is how much it is about refining our sense of self: the process of going through our possessions and getting rid of whatever it is that is not essential to our needs, our daily life, and even our character and values, requires that we know ourselves. The process itself also helps us to know ourselves, because when we see what we do not need, or what does not fit with our values, we have a greater sense of who we are without those things.

Things have a way of not only cluttering our lives, but also of cluttering our reality and our very selves. Parting with things can be extremely difficult because of what we have invested in them: sentimental value, a sense of security, or even a sense of self. Getting rid of something, even if you haven’t looked at it or used it in years, can feel like losing yourself. If I lose my childhood teddy bear, am I losing a part of myself, my history? If I don’t have two of everything, will I be safe or prepared if I lose something? Am I defined by having the newest, coolest stuff – and who will I be if I don’t?

The more I think about this, the more I think of the early church. They obviously didn’t live in a consumerist society in the same way that we do; first century Jews, in Palestine or the diaspora, were lucky to have their basic needs met – and Christians moreso, because they were cut off from a lot of the Jewish community that otherwise would have supported them. Early Christians relied on each other in ways that we do not, and that in itself formed the basis for a lot of their community, and the context for most of the New Testament letters. But even in a context of scarcity, the early church was minimalist.

Consider the 72 disciples that Jesus sent out in pairs:

10 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.

“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.

“When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ – Luke 10:1-8

Jesus’ instructions strike me as being profoundly minimalist, but they are not minimalist for the sake of being minimalist; rather, they reflect the focused purpose of the disciples. They are sent out into the world with nothing but their message, leaving them with no distractions from their purpose. Where the message is appreciated, their needs would be provided for; where the message was not appreciated, they were instructed to waste no more time there.

Jesus never said that it was wrong to have possessions, but when wealthy people asked him how they might enter the Kingdom of God, Jesus told them that they had to give their possessions away (Matthew 19:16-30). Then we see in the early church in Acts that believers “were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything that they had” (Acts 4:32). Historically, there has been conflict within the church on the interpretation of this, with some using it as evidence for a kind of Christian communism and others finding ways to dismiss it as a non-binding suggestion for happiness or spiritual enlightenment (often in the context of a defence of capitalism). But seen in the light of the original context (of scarcity), it cannot properly be seen as a mere suggestion for personal enlightenment or happiness; and seen as an expression of the focused purpose of a disciple of Christ, it cannot be seen as a compulsory rule of community (that might be applied today) so much as the basis for that community itself.

The difference between the poor community of early Christians and the wealthy West today is so drastic that it’s difficult to directly apply any “rules” about possessions that we might find in the New Testament. They shared everything they had as a way to survive and thrive as social outcasts; we are all incredibly individually wealthy by comparison, and seek minimalism as a way of finding focus and clarity and peace in a consumeristic world. In both cases, it is an orientation toward possessions that is rooted in our focused purpose and identity in Christ (along with other often neglected disciplines and virtues, such as hospitality). But even back then it was difficult to do, which is why so much of the New Testament is about people looking to Jesus and his coming Kingdom as the example and reminder of who they are becoming. For example:

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. – Hebrews 12:1-3

Minimalism, in and of itself, is a useful discipline to help us have focus. But it is also a natural outcome of discipleship, if we are willing (as the rich young ruler was not) to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven. God is calling us to the kind of focused purpose that puts all other considerations second to the goal of embodying Christ and his Kingdom, to the type of life in which we do not let any material possessions clutter our houses, our lives, our purpose, and our identity. In a society and economy focused on consuming, this is the most counter-cultural (and difficult) part of Christian discipleship.

Seeing it as something difficult that we’re called to do is not particularly encouraging, so it’s important to see the benefits of this kind of minimalism: in a sense, it can serve as a gateway to better living out other values. For example:

  1. Giving away items we don’t need helps us develop the virtue of charity;
  2. Becoming more aware of our own needs helps us to become more aware of the needs of others;
  3. Living outside of a secure state of self-sufficiency leads us to share more with others, building a community of sharing;
  4. Reducing the things we own and do to just the things that we value most can revive traditional skills and communities, such as food preparation and preservation, repairing items, gardening, etc. – things that we can do rather than buy;
  5. Reducing the things we buy and keep helps us to be better stewards of our finances, which ultimately belong to God, and help us to be more aware of God’s providence;
  6. Similarly, minimalism helps us to lower our footprint on the planet, living lightly as better stewards of the earth and seeing how that duty is central to our identity and purpose as human beings and Christians;
  7. Having a stronger focus on the things we really value, and forming communities around charity and sharing, and having a greater sense of our role as stewards of the earth, also helps orient us to be respectful toward other people; showing restraint in the things we buy helps us to show restraint in how we respond to others; etc.

So don’t treat minimalism as an all-or-nothing requirement of Christianity, as if you’re the rich young ruler trying to prove himself to Jesus; like him, I’m pretty sure we’d all walk away under that mindset. Rather, see it as a gateway to greater clarity in your life, your identity, and your purpose as a follower of Jesus, and a practice that supports and enables other virtues to grow and flourish. And look to Jesus, constantly, to renew your sense of purpose and identity: behold what you are, become what you receive.

For other help and ideas, check out The Minimalists podcast, blog, documentary, books, etc.

No Buts

I’ve started attending a Bible study at my church, working through Romans. This morning we were talking about Romans 3-4, but I missed last week, so I read 1-4, and I was glad I did; after Paul’s greetings, his argument in the first four chapters is fairly unified: no buts allowed.

This is one of those passages that surprises me when I take my time and think it through, because I realize that I’ve been reading it and taking the opposite point from the one he’s making. For example, it’s easy to read Romans 1 and focus on the list of sins there; this chapter is also especially prominent in the debate about homosexuality for that reason. Taken in isolation, chapter 1 is a vision of life without God, of profanity and depravity that has no place in a church. It’s very easy for us Christians to read that and be glad that we’re not like those awful, sick people who hate God.

In context, though, Paul isn’t talking about irreligious people; he’s talking about the Gentile Christians in the church in Rome, for whom all of that was part of their culture and religion before they became Christians. Even so, we think, we’re glad that we were raised Christian and don’t have all of that nasty sin in our lives.

But Paul doesn’t let us off the hook, because then in chapter 2 he moves on to the Jewish Christians in that same church, and tears them apart for thinking those very same things. His scathing diatribe against hypocrisy points out that we (the religious) are in absolutely no position to judge others because we are similarly sinful. Our religious pedigree doesn’t matter.

It’s at this point that I’m prone to read this and think “I’m glad I’m not one of those religious Jews who depend on the Law,” forgetting already that I had previously counted myself on that side when I was disdaining those who did not have the Law to break.

With a small aside in chapter 3 about how having the Law does provide some advantage for the Jews, he rolls right on with his argument: that we’re all sinners, and nobody is righteous. This is where, taken in isolation, we get to feel some quality Christian guilt, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I memorized that verse in Sparks when I was a little kid, having no idea what it meant, and I wonder now how we manage to keep it so disconnected from its context.

We’re all willing to acknowledge that everyone is a sinner, sometimes even wearing this as a badge of honour because it is so central to evangelical Christianity – that everyone needs Jesus, even us. But we’re not able to identify with the two groups that Paul is referring to leading up to this key verse; we stand at a third point, from which we have managed to look down on both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.

What’s worse, we actually question their salvation, which we can only do by chopping off chapters 3 and 4 almost in their entirety. Paul goes on to say that, because we’re all sinners (as he has pointed out in chapters 1 and 2), we can neither boast nor judge. In one place he formulates it as “so that every mouth will be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” That is, under the law or not, we’re all going to stand before God for judgment, not each other. But he continues, and makes it clear that it’s not just that we cannot earn our own salvation and therefore not brag, or that we are all sinners and therefore cannot judge, but that we cannot speculate about the salvation of others because of the nature of salvation itself.

Salvation, or redemption through righteousness by faith, is described as something that existed before there was a Law to obey. By referring back to Abraham, Paul points out that the Law is not a precursor to salvation but rather a sign of it. But the sticking point for me in this reading is the nature of Abraham’s faith: it is not that Abraham believed that God existed, which was a given; it is not that Abraham believed the Scriptures, which had not been written; rather, it is that Abraham “believed God.” He took God at God’s word. That’s it. God made Abraham a promise, and Abraham believed that God would make good on it, and God credited that to him as righteousness.

What Paul is saying about faith is that simply believing God when God says that we are redeemed is enough.

But…but…but. We fight Paul when we read this book, setting up objections that he tears down one by one. He shows us life without God, and we feel good about ourselves and say “but we’re not like that.” And he says “yes, you are.” Then we say “but we’re not like those Jews and Pharisees” and he says “yes, you are.” Then we say “oh yes, we all need salvation (especially those other people), but we need to do the right things;” and he says “there is nothing you can do to earn this.” Then we say “right, but we need to believe the right things,” usually meaning that someone must have our precise notion of all of the Bible and church doctrines, and he says “you only need to believe, like Abraham, that God is faithful.”

Jesus talked about people like me when he told a parable about workers being hired in the town square. The landowner came by the square every hour to hire more workers, so that some were hired at the first hour of the day and some even at the last hour of the day. At the end of the day every worker received the same wage, whether they worked all day or just one hour, and the ones who worked all day were very upset about this; they hated the generosity of the landowner, who paid them a fair and agreed-upon wage but also gave the same wage to those who had done less. Salvation, Jesus points out, is not fair; it is grace.

We’re wired to desire fairness and hate unfairness, but grace is always and by definition unmerited, unfair. So we read a gospel of grace, and come up with all sorts of reasons to excuse ourselves to receive grace (because we need it), and all sorts of excuses for why others should not receive it. We’re full of buts.

Marriage and the Grace of God

Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that bans on gay marriage are unconstitutional, legalizing gay marriage throughout the US. I live in Canada, and have only a handful of friends from the US, but even so my Facebook feed was very polarized over the weekend: most of it was rainbow-coloured, thanks to Facebook’s feature that enabled users to put a rainbow filter over their profile picture in celebration of the ruling, and using the message “love wins”; but there seemed to be almost as many people posting articles and memes featuring various conservative Christian leaders decrying the SCOTUS decision and its popular support, or even writing their own comments reminding their Christian friends that as Christians they “cannot support this.”

This leads me to two thoughts. The first thought is “we don’t need to support this.” This was a Supreme Court decision about constitutionality, not the result of a referendum (as happened recently in Ireland). Many of the comments and memes make it seem like people believe that this signals a shift in public opinion, as if suddenly US citizens became much more gay-friendly overnight. In reality, most of those people with rainbow-coloured profile pics were already gay-friendly. I think many people were surprised to see just how much support for this there actually was, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is not a reflection of that support, this is a ruling on constitutionality. (It has also been noted elsewhere that many people don’t seem to realize that Canada has had legal gay marriages for a decade already.)

The second thought, far more important than the first, is that we should support this. We should support this because Jesus would support this. Allow me to explain.

So far as I can tell, marriage has always been idealized. Most of the debate coming from Christians against gay marriage has been about the definition of marriage (I know the arguments well, as I used to make them frequently). But the idealized Christian notion of marriage has always been tainted: patriarchy, divorce, abuse, adultery, childlessness and infertility, etc., have always undermined the ideal. It does not logically follow that the imperfection of marriage in general means that we should endorse marriages that are obviously imperfect from the outset, but oddly enough, that’s what Jesus does.

In Jesus’ day, marriage was largely a financial transaction in which one man would pay another man for his daughter, so that she could produce children for him. Some dowry systems required that the groom paid the father; other dowry systems required that the father pay the groom for taking his daughter off of his hands. This all had to do with the economics of poor agricultural societies in which families were the primary unit of work and productivity, but in a heavily patriarchal society, it’s still just thinly veiled slavery. A daughter received no education, no birthright or inheritance (unless she had absolutely no brothers), no say in matters of the community (unless she was a prophetess), no share in the priesthood and a lesser space in worship, no control over her own sexuality or fertility or body in any meaningful sense, and no choice over who she married. Legally, an unmarried woman who was raped was supposed to be married to her rapist; this was even an act of mercy, because an unmarried woman who was not a virgin would never find a husband willing to pay to marry her, which would leave her destitute, probably working as a beggar or prostitute (for a look at how desperate this situation was, read Ruth). Polygamy was surprisingly common, too. Women were unable to initiate a divorce from their husbands, but a man could divorce his wife for any reason he wanted; some rabbis in Jesus’ day insisted that burnt dinner was sufficient cause for divorce. While the law said that both the man and woman caught in adultery should be stoned to death, in practice the man could often get away with it while the woman would still be killed (unless Jesus was there to draw a line in the sand and say “he who is without sin, cast the first stone”). And women were often married off to much older men: some scholars believe that Jesus’ mother Mary was probably about 13, while Joseph was probably in his thirties or older.

This kind of marriage is far from our ideal today, in which marriage is a result and expression of love and personal devotion. This kind of marriage seems gross, barbaric, even a form of domination. Our society has outlawed almost every aspect of this kind of marriage, and I don’t think that it’s a stretch to say that this wasn’t what God had in mind when he created Adam and Eve and said they’d be one flesh together.

Even so, a wedding was one of the greatest celebrations in Jewish culture. It would often go on for days, include the whole community and as many family as could attend, and involved drinking a lot of wine in celebration. Love was not the purpose of weddings back then, but it was a blessing bestowed on the couple, that they would love one another and be fruitful and multiply and find rest and peace together. The marriage ideal that we hold now as a pre-requisite for marriage, back then was just a wish and a blessing, the ideal that people hoped marriage would turn into over time. There was an understanding that marriage wasn’t a perfect thing, but that it could become perfect if the people involved in it devoted themselves to each other. Marriage was not the zenith of a perfect society, it was a means of God’s grace in a broken one.

We can see this in the way that marriage is used as a metaphor for God and his people. Much is often made of the Christological interpretation of Song of Songs, which is essentially erotic poetry about enjoying love, but the main place that the Bible uses marriage as a metaphor for God and his people is in Hosea. God tells the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute who repeatedly runs away from him and continues to ply her trade, and says that this is the way that God was married to Israel. Hosea always takes her back, and pursues her, even as she runs away. All he wants is for her to remain in the security and providence of their family, and finally to love him and their children. Hosea’s persistence in following his prostitute-bride is God’s grace on his people Israel. Marriage is not a perfect union, but rather an image of God’s grace, and a means by which we can experience that grace and understand God’s providence.

In the New Testament, the marriage metaphor continues – except that now the metaphor is that Christ is the bridegroom and the church is the bride; and Christ is the exemplar for husbands, who should give themselves up for their wives (rather than dominate them, as they had every legal right to do). Wives who become Christians are urged to stay with their unbelieving husbands (who continue to have almost total control over them, by the way), so that their good example might win their husbands over, i.e., so that their marriage might redeem their family, and their presence within that marriage might function as a vessel for God’s grace on an unbelieving spouse in an imperfect society. Paul says that being married is a wonderful burden, but if you can be like Christ without getting married, you’re even better off.

When Jesus performed miracles, it was expressly to lend the authority of God to his teachings and actions. Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of John was to create extra wine for a wedding he was attending (yes, even after everyone was already drunk). His presence at a wedding could be seen as an endorsement of the practice, but his catering of it by divine miracle can be read no other way. And the wedding that Jesus endorsed was just like any other in his day: an economic transaction, an imperfect institution of a patriarchal culture that gave one person license to dominate another, license for an old man to have sex with a young girl…and a way that God shows grace to his people, an incubator in which people can show grace to one another and become more like Christ, and a way by which, we hope, people can love each other more.

So if we’re concerned that a gay marriage is incorrect, imperfect, even sinful – well, it fits right in with marriage through the ages. It’s a way for gay and lesbian people to foster deeper love and grace for one another within a broken world, in spite of any imperfections and sins they may have and will continue to have. It is not a sacralization of sin – it’s not about sin at all; rather, it is an opportunity for love and family to grow in the midst of and despite a sinful world, and therefore a means of God’s grace to the world.

So if we ask the perennial Evangelical question of What Would Jesus Do in response to the legalization of gay marriage, I’d say he’d probably bring the wine.

The Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese

Beyond Just War and Pacifism

In what is so far the most challenging chapter (at least for me) in Christian Political Witness, Peter J. Leithart begins his essay “Violence” with a rather controversial claim: “From beginning to end, the Bible is utterly opposed to violence.” Violence, he says, is the only thing that “God hates down to his ‘soul’” (147). He then goes on to reference just a smattering of the many times that God directly commands Israel to wipe out entire races of people or vows to utterly destroy entire nations. Where’s the disconnect?

Leithart suggests that the Bible has a different definition of violence than we would normally use. While we would normally define violence as any use of force that inflicts harm on another, Leithart catalogues the many uses of the word hamas (Hebrew for “violence”) in the Old Testament and notes that it primarily refers to sinful uses of force, while just uses of force – even those that inflict harm – are not referred to as hamas. God hates hamas so much that he goes to war and wipes out entire people groups to eradicate it. Hamas includes false witness, exploitation of the poor/widow/orphan/stranger, fraud, and corruption. On the other hand, the intensely fiery words of the prophets are not hamas, nor are physical discipline or punishments (including capital punishment). So while our standard definition of violence refers to the use of force resulting in harm, it appears that the OT definition is the use of force (physical or verbal) from sinful motives. Or as Leithart put it, “As a shorthand answer, I would say that violence is unjust and sinful use of force.” Which raises the question: “what counts as a sinful use of force?” (155).

Leithart refers us to the theological just war tradition for guidance, and it certainly appears that God’s actions against sin and injustice support just war. “Yahweh’s war against violence is the paradigm for human judgment. Rulers are to be deacons of God’s avenging wrath…punishment is not counterviolence that keeps violence within bounds but an act of purgation…force can be used not to oppress but to deliver the oppressed” (154). I have a hard time disagreeing with his reading, and up to this point in my life I’ve placed those violent texts from the OT in my “I don’t know what to do with this, but I don’t like it” category and hoped for something that can help me to connect those passages with the teachings and actions of Christ that have led me toward pacifism. Because of this, I only reluctantly admit that just war is probably the best way to interpret God’s stance on violence (or physical force) in Scripture. But that still leaves the question of whether just use of force is actually possible for us today, or a good option even if possible. How does the Church fit into all of this, and how do members of the Church balance this with being members of a society in which this occurs?

Leithart notes how a dominant view of power in the past few centuries, and most recently exemplified by Slavoj Zizek, is the “valorization of violence” which, in the words of Hannah Arendt (from her 1970 book On Violence), is the idea that “violence is nothing more than the most flagrant manifestation of power” (157). Arendt takes Max Weber’s definition of power as the legitimate right to violence and turns it on its head, instead defining power as “the human ability ‘to act in concert’…empowered by a group to act on behalf of the group” (158). As such, a government or ruler resorts to violence due to a lack of actual power, while the use of violence erodes power, so that violence and power are actually mutually exclusive. (Note: Arendt’s definition of power corresponds to Weber’s definition of authority, which he contrast with power and violence, so that they end up saying much the same thing!) The problem with both Weber and Arendt is that they define a polity by who has power or uses violence, which means that the Church is not recognized as a polity. It is a polity, but it doesn’t use violence. It also doesn’t have much in the way of power, at least in our society: power as Arendt defines it (and authority as Weber defines it) depends on the empowerment or assent of others. The Church places authority in Scripture, but as Leithart points out, Habakkuk complains that Torah cannot restrain violence. “If the Torah cannot restrain violence, neither can the US Constitution, the criminal code of Illinois, or the Geneva Accords” (159). So while the Church does not resort to violence, in either the OT definition or our common definition today, even “legitimate” uses of force (in the just war sense) or uses of force that the OT wouldn’t consider to be hamas are incapable of fulfilling God’s war against violence.

So we see that God’s definition of violence is limited to the unjust use of force, that God readily employs just use of force to purge violence, and that God’s use of just force is a model for our own use of force. But we also see that our own use of force is incapable of finishing the job, and vulnerable to corruption:

As institutions of the saeculum, governments use force to curb worse violences, but all too often they become agents of violence themselves. Even at their best they do not have the kind of tools needed to carry on Yahweh’s war on violence. Law enforcement is a good, and Christians may legitimately do this good work. But it does not swallow violence in victory.
Only Jesus does that. (159)

This is the point at which I expect to see Leithart turn to pacifism and nonviolent direct action, and start talking about the church subverting violence with love. Not quite. While acknowledging that Jesus and his church do not engage in violence, Leithart also does not see Jesus as nonviolent: “Scripture is a manifesto neither for pacifism nor for law-and-order conservatism” (159), and “The church is not violent in either the biblical sense or in our usual sense of the word. She does not employ the normal form of political force, but negative ‘nonviolence’ is not her essence. Jesus’ city is something far stranger” (160).

“…‘nonviolence’ is not her essence.” This is hard to swallow, because I see Jesus as being nonviolent. But Leithart has already shown that God is ready and willing to kill in order to fight violence in the biblical sense, and has even pointed out with Paul that “God’s treatment of sin in the Old Testament was mild, almost jocular” (149) compared to the coming judgment. There is continuity between God’s war on violence and Jesus’ nonviolence: “God purges violence in the flood, clears out the violence of Pharaoh, destroys the Babylonian destroyers. It is Jesus who launches his decisive campaign against violence” (159). Jesus does so by absorbing violence in his own body, the Suffering Servant pierced both by and for our transgressions who swallows death and overcomes it. Jesus’ nonviolence is not a sharp contrast with God’s war on violence, but its fulfillment. As his followers, we are not nonviolent in the sense that we are not to show pity as we flay the unjust with our prophetic critique, nor are we necessarily to abhor war or punishment as inherently violent in the OT sense, nor are we to be strangers to violence. Instead, we are called to go beyond avoiding and decrying violence, and instead to act as a human shield for those who are victims of violence.

I think that Leithart has a limited notion of nonviolence when he says that the church is not essentially nonviolent. While I see his point about the biblical definition of violence, and can concede that just use of force is not inherently wrong and may even be very godly and good, I still see the example of Christ (to nonviolently absorb violence in himself) as better. Many/most nonviolent theorists would also include absorbing violence in our own flesh in imitation of Christ as essential to nonviolence, a point that Leithart’s chapter misses. But even so, without naming it he touches on something that I think is key to the just war/pacifism debate, and which may even lead to a synthesis: the gratuity of God’s grace in Christ.

While it may be good and just to use force to punish and purge violence from the world, God in Christ gives grace and forgiveness and in so doing makes peace. While it may be good and just to avoid the use of force altogether, love of neighbour compels us to protect the weak and purge violence from the earth to bring about peace. Neither just war nor pacifism in itself is wrong – both are very good! – and neither view should look down on the other (and those who hold either view should hold the other to account for any corruption or failure in practice), but what is better is the gratuity of grace and love that leads us, like Christ, to absorb violence into our own bodies for the sake of the other, even our enemies, even the enemies of God, and in so doing bring about peace.

I propose, then, a new branch of peace/just war studies that explores in practical terms just how one might sacrifice oneself for another nonviolently yet to great effect. Because I know that the first thing that people will say about the notion of self-sacrifice as the ultimate expression of both pacifism and just war is “well, it sounds good in theory, but…” A good start is made by the next chapter, “Just War as Christian Politics” by Daniel M. Bell, Jr., wherein he distinguishes between Just War as a Public Policy Checklist (i.e., Just War as it’s actually practised) and Just War as Christian Discipleship, working through the traditional criteria of just war from both perspectives to contrast them and highlight how Christian discipleship forms people capable of actually abiding by the just war criteria reflexively and generously. It’s a good start, but I’d like to see it go further.

 

On Forfeiting the Right to Life

In discussing pacifism and just war recently, the argument has come up several times that some violence is acceptable or morally just because the recipients of this violence (in this case, ISIS) have forfeited their right to life. This is a popular argument in favour of the death penalty, but I have difficulty figuring out where that logic comes from: what is a right to life, and where do we get the idea that it’s something that can be forfeited? There’s a lot to be said here, but I’ll limit myself to looking for a biblical and/or theological argument.

1. On Forfeiting the Right to Life

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of “forfeiting the right to life” is Genesis 9:

“But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

“Whoever sheds human blood,
    by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
    has God made mankind.

As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.”

At first glance, this passage seems to imply that God sanctions humans to shed human blood in response to shedding human blood. This passage is traditionally taken to be the creation and sanction of the first form of government for this reason. I think that reading is difficult to follow, for a few reasons.

a) Cities of Refuge. The rest of the Pentateuch has several examples of God deliberately working against the vengeance/retaliation mentality that was prevalent among Israel and in the rest of the Ancient Near East. It used to be believed that the several passages that refer to taking “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth” imply that it’s morally acceptable (and even a duty) to repay a wrongdoer in the same manner in which they’ve harmed another; this has been thoroughly debunked by looking at the social context of these laws, wherein it was considered acceptable to escalate in retaliation. “Eye for an eye” is a limitation on retaliation, not a sanctioning of it. Note also that God limits our right to just deserts in Deuteronomy: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” But limitations on retaliation are more practically shown in the example of Cities of Refuge.

Cities of Refuge were designated in all of the tribal territories allotted to the tribes of Israel, and their sole function was to provide sanctuary that allowed someone to escape the practice of retaliation or vengeance. If God told Noah that humans who shed human blood will have their blood shed by humans, and he meant it in a prescriptive sense (i.e., if he said “humans who shed human blood should have their blood shed by humans”), then we’d have a strong case for retaliation as justice; why, then, would he command his people to construct a network of sanctuaries and an intricate system of appeal and protection, if retaliation is just?

b) Prescriptive vs. Descriptive. In light of the fact that God says a lot more about limiting retaliation than he does requiring it, it’s worth considering whether this passage in Genesis 9 is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Could it be that God is actually saying the opposite? That he will demand an account of everyone who sheds human blood because he recognizes that it creates a cycle of retaliation and endless violence?

There are several places in Scripture where interpreters are asking this kind of question. Several of Paul’s sayings, for example, are now thought to be quotations of his opponents that he challenges or strips down; this makes more sense of the troublesome verses in their context, and often leads to a clearer message for the letter as a whole. The confusion about such verses has to do with punctuation and a lack of context: the Greek text had no quotation marks, and thus we aren’t aware right away that this is a quotation; and we’re unfamiliar with the works or arguments that he’s quoting or making reference to. The other reason that we don’t pick up on quotations, or descriptive statements that appear to be prescriptive, is because we (and especially us Evangelicals) have been conditioned to read the Bible as straightforward and prescriptive, so that every text is a letter directly to me, telling me how to live. This leads to assumptions about the intent of the text, and in this case I’m not 100% sure that we’ve been reading it correctly. Given the repeated contrary messages to this in the rest of the Pentateuch, I’d say the chances are good that this is one of those verses we’ve missed the point of, and in the process reversed its intended meaning.

2. On Whether We Have a Right to Life in the First Place

While talk of “human rights” is commonplace today (and I’m generally supportive of the concept and its application), it’s a very recent idea. Despite the fact that this idea descends from the ancient codes of law found in the Bible and elsewhere, as well as the application of Christian theology and morality, the Bible itself has no real notion of “rights”, except perhaps the right of ownership and a few other rights implied in the Law. The rights that existed were not universal, and the right to life wasn’t one of them in any case.

On the contrary, the dominant notion in the Bible about human life is that it’s a gift, offered at God’s good pleasure and easily withdrawn. The value and sanctity of human life is provided by its status as a gift from God: it has sanctity because it belongs to God and reflects God (as the passage from Genesis 9 says pretty clearly). While we can see that God is a giver of good gifts, and that he is both generous and full of grace and mercy, it is clear that human life does not belong to humans. This is further emphasized in the New Testament, where it is stated explicitly and in many ways that the value of a Christian’s life is in its service to Christ and to others: we are to die to ourselves and embrace a new life in which Christ lives in us. Christians recognize that we have no right to life, but only live because of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, apart from whom we’re already dead. Christian theology has held, based on passages in Genesis, Psalms, Romans, and many other places in Scripture, that all human beings are fallen and under the penalty of death.

So how can we forfeit something that we’ve never had?

3. On Jesus’ Mercy and the Time and Place of Judgment

It’s always good to end with Jesus (and start there too). My ethics (hopefully) always come from Jesus, and my stance on pacifism comes directly from the way I see him interacting with his own enemies in the gospels, as well as his explicit statements about loving enemies and serving those who persecute you. So I was pleased to see that I’m not the only one who thinks this way when a student asked my friend and colleague Dr. V about how he can square his view of forfeiting the right to life with Jesus’ mercy and salvation. I appreciate Dr. V’s response, though I disagree with him on it.

Dr. V says (in the comments) that he sees the salvation that Jesus provides pertaining to the second death, i.e., the judgment of the living and the dead. I can certainly agree with this: one of the big changes that occurred between the OT and the NT eras was the view of an afterlife (the OT had very little notion of one, while by the NT time Jewish theology had developed a much stronger notion of a resurrection). You can actually see the turning point in Daniel, which speaks specifically of a resurrection, though not all Jews in Jesus’ day believed in an actual resurrection of the dead. The basic idea is that all of the dead will be raised to new life, but will also be judged and separated (by Jesus), good from evil. However, given the nature of this final judgment, I find it problematic to distinguish one form of salvation from another. Said differently, I don’t think that Jesus acts in two ways at the same time, demanding death in one place and giving life in another for presumably the same offences. Let’s unpack that a bit.

There’s been a recent resurgence of emphasis on the embodied nature of human existence. We long believed that “heaven” is a place on the clouds where disembodied souls spend eternity in the spiritual presence of God. Aside from the obvious gnostic problems this can create for our theology, it’s just not what Scripture describes. In the Old Testament, salvation is a physical salvation: God saved us from Egypt! God saved us from Babylon! Heaven is depicted as everyone having their own fig tree, and all of the nations coming to Jerusalem to worship God. It’s very physical. In the New Testament, in spite of the development of a notion of after-life, that after-life is (as noted above) a physical resurrection of the dead. Salvation is from sin (in its power over us as well as the consequences, both personal and social/corporate), and heaven is depicted as a city (the “new Jerusalem”) where all the world lives with and worships God. In both the OT and the NT, heaven is life on earth as God intended it, and salvation is God’s work to make that happen.

If the final judgment is to separate the good from the wicked, we must remember that these are living people in physical human bodies who will be expected to live together in the just ways that God intends for human society. If God has decreed to us that human beings can be the agents of God’s justice upon each other in this life and society by killing those whose sins warrant it, and everyone who is killed is resurrected to be judged by Jesus (who is also God), then Jesus has judged people twice. We would expect him to be somewhat consistent in his judgment, but this may not be the case. He might a) allow a sinner to live a long life and die of natural causes, only to resurrect them and consign them to death for their sins; b) authorize humans to kill someone for their sins, only to resurrect them and kill them again; or c) authorize humans to kill them, and then resurrect them to eternal life. Now surely Jesus has the ability and right to do all of these things, but the idea that God would demand us to perform his judgment duties by killing those who are deemed to have forfeited the right to life, and then either double-up on it or reverse it, seems a bit convoluted to me. It seems to pit Christ against God or Christ against us.

(Also, if God has decreed that retaliation and retribution are just, and we’ll all live in a physical world and real human society, presumably that sense of justice hasn’t changed (and there are no verses that I can think of suggesting that it has). Would we live in perfect society in the new world under the threat of righteous vengeance from our fellow citizens of heaven?)

My train of thought is unravelling a bit (it’s late), but the point is that in Jesus we see God revealed in his fullness. If Jesus tells his followers to reject the sword (and he does), we should question whether or not God has told us to pick it up. If Jesus dies for his enemies, who are certainly sinners and murderers, then we should question whether or not God has asked us to kill them for their crimes. And if Jesus will judge the living and the dead, then we should remember that God said “Vengeance is mine” and not try to add to it.

4. Okay, one more thought: Who Decides What Constitutes Forfeiting One’s Right to Life?

While not a biblical or theological objection, I can’t get past this one: who are we to say that certain people have forfeited their right to life? ISIS believes that everyone who is not of their particular brand of Islam has forfeited their right to life by rejecting God. Theologically speaking, their version is probably more accurate and certainly more straightforward (for if life is but a gift from God rather than a right…). They believe their killing is just and a service to God; we believe that using lethal force against them, whether as punishment or deterrent or in defence, is justified for the same reasons. We could go around and around this circle forever – and we already have been for far too long. So long as both sides justify their actions in reference to a different religion, there isn’t even any common ground on which to judge one side’s argument over the other. Even if we were to make the argument specifically about forfeiting the right to life by the killing of others, ISIS has more claim against Westerners in this regard than we do against ISIS: Westerners have been bombing them for decades. To say that their crimes forfeit their right to life places us on a very high horse indeed, and I hope we can get off of it in time to get out of this cycle of killing before we have another generation of it rise from the ashes of today’s conflicts.

Criminals with the Best of Intentions

I just finished reading Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, The Weather Underground, and Beyond by David Gilbert, and it was a bit of a surreal experience in that it held up a twisted mirror to me, revealing my darkest timeline. I resonate with a lot of Gilbert’s story, his analysis of events, and even his politics and intentions; but the book begins with the story of how he was arrested for robbing a Brinks truck, which resulted in a shootout and three dead police officers. Like me, Gilbert began as a pacifist; but within a decade he was participating in bombings and living as a fugitive.

After he starts from the beginning of his story, it becomes clear that self-criticism with the goal of improvement is one of the principles that Gilbert carried through every collective and organization he was a part of, and this book amounts to an extended self-criticism of his life. He says so in the introduction, pointing out that he wrote this book for the sake of his son Chesa, and also in response to the many letters he’s received from activists asking for wisdom and advice. He’s had a lot of time to reflect on his life, as he’s been in prison longer than I’ve been alive, and the depth of his self-criticism shows the perspective he’s gained, no doubt partially from growing older but mainly (I think) from time outside of his life as a revolutionary. His distance from the events has allowed him to acknowledge persistent flaws in his character, repeated mistakes both personally and organizationally, and flaws in the radical Left in general. A few things stood out to me as I read this book:

1. The Left Eats Its Own

Someone once told me that the Left eats its own, and I was disappointed to acknowledge how true that is, even in my own experience. Love and Struggle confirmed that for me, with story after story about infighting within organizations and between organizations who, by all accounts, should have been the closest of allies. Gilbert points out how much false motives played a role in this, over and over again: self-proclaimed “revolutionaries” who talk about solidarity with armed struggles abroad, but who actually just want to stoke their egos and dare themselves to be more radical; organizations who uphold being anti-male-supremacist and anti-white-supremacist as core definitive values, and yet maintain hierarchical structures and harbour racist and sexist attitudes; etc. To put it more bluntly than Gilbert does, a lot of the time they were being poseurs.

I think that the infighting in the organized Left is somewhat inevitable based on the character of the Left: it values education (and educated people love to debate), principles (and no two people have completely identical principles), and passionate advocacy. Add in a dose of human pride (leftist activists are often perceived to be holier-than-thou, and the perception is often all too accurate), and it’s easy to see why there would be conflict. Especially when leftist activists are concerned with so many issues, most of which are intertwined yet still represent so many perspectives and people groups; contrast that with the Right, which is much more homogenous (mostly middle-class, mostly white, mostly Christian or otherwise religious) and places a higher emphasis on cultural uniformity. Gilbert’s life as an activist included involvement with anti-war, anti-imperialism, anti-sexism, and anti-racism groups, often working in alliances (or working to build or maintain shaky alliances) between white, Black, Mexicano/a, feminist, and more generically leftist organizations. Each of these organizations had its own principles and purposes, and while they were all against American imperialism, sexism, and racism, their other principles often conflicted, sometimes over slight variations in interpretation of Marx or Lenin or Mao.

There’s also the Left’s desire to be non-complicit with evil or oppressive systems, and their ability to see systems everywhere. Not only are the principles of different organizations conflicting with each other, but they do so because the organizations have differing views of which systems the other is complicit with (e.g., sexism, racism, imperialism), and they vow not to ally themselves with that kind of complicity in order to maintain the stability and clarity of purpose of their own organization (but to the detriment of the larger movement). Ironically, the clarity with which they see the specks in their neighbours’ eyes not only doesn’t reflect in how they manage to miss the logs in their own, but also the logs in the eyes of the third-world revolutionaries they claim to have solidarity with: Gilbert describes Soviets and Maoists in a generally positive light in spite of their obvious horrors, and recalls an argument he once had with another revolutionary about whether or not it was alright for the communist Vietnam to invade the communist-of-a-different-stripe Cambodia. It turned out that the imperialist move by the Vietnamese (invading their neighbour) stopped the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of its own people. The third-world nationalist struggles were clearly idealized uncritically, except perhaps through analysis of their brand of theory (Marxist-Leninist vs. Maoist, etc.).

So how can people who work to allow the greatest extent of human freedom and individual rights and expressions maintain cohesiveness in spite of their differences? Individual critical thought and aversion to authority, while often excellent and necessary traits, keep the Left from working together with even a shred of the cohesive power of the Right, and I’m sure that this is why communist regimes tend to have well-developed propaganda departments. Leftist cohesiveness is impossible in an educated society that allows for criticism, even when there’s a common enemy to unite them.

2. It Takes More Than a Common Enemy

The principles that united the various groups that Gilbert interacted with were generally based in excellent values: anti-imperialism, solidarity with the oppressed, anti-male-supremacy, and anti-white-supremacy. The various groups also shared a foundation in socialist thought and analysis, mostly Marxist-Leninist though sometimes Maoist or Islamic. That said, the extent to which these values or perspectives were emphasized in each group led to divisions, as noted above; the only thing that kept them together, it seems, is a general sense of having a common enemy, American imperialism. Their major emphasis on solidarity was proved fragile by instilled racism and sexism, their distance from the third-world revolutions that inspired them, and their own differing analyses of theory and events and practices. There was a general assumption of humanism that undergirded all of the other values and principles, but at least in Love and Struggle it was merely an assumption and not elaborated upon.

Without a strong core, it’s easy for values to shift. How does a pacifist student protester evolve into a violent revolutionary? If generic humanism alone is the strong core, then the project was doomed from the outset, because humanism itself is not a core: it is derived from, and a mere shadow of, the true Human. Humanism itself can have many different perspectives and values that range widely simply because of its generic nature: humanism is basically a generic appreciation for human life, abilities, accomplishments, etc. It’s a powerful value that spawns many other powerful values, but it’s very non-specific. But if we recognize that humanism is a development of Christianity, which is based on the person and character of Jesus Christ, we can see the true strength of humanism and everything that comes from it: it comes from Christ, and without Christ it’s just a generic sense of goodwill that has no anchor to root it. Revolutionaries can justify violence against the bourgeoisie in solidarity with the proletariat by emphasizing the humanity of the oppressed and dehumanizing the oppressors: in the name of humanism for the oppressed majority, dehumanization of others on a smaller scale seems permissible. But Christ defines what it means to be human, and calls us to humanize our enemies, showing us how to do it in his own life. With his teachings and examples (and continued presence among us), there is a specificity to our humanism that doesn’t allow for a shifting scale of values or justification of means in light of desired ends.

3. Radicals Are Often Forced Into Radicalism

Reading this book was a lot like watching the documentary If a Tree Falls, about how environmental activists became “eco-terrorists.” In both cases the shift toward more radical and revolutionary action came in response to the inefficacy of more congenial and conventional means of dissent. Basically, when all legitimate avenues for being heard are blocked or undermined, activists are faced with the choice of giving up or trying less legitimate actions. When I watched If a Tree Falls I resonated more with their struggle, as I too find it difficult to promote environmental sustainability in a nation with the world’s biggest environmental catastrophe as one of our primary industries. But seeing this shift toward radical and revolutionary action in Love and Struggle about issues that I’m less involved with helped to frame it for me a little better, and I think that the shift to violence is a false choice.

While I do think that the powers that be force greater radicalism on dissenters by blocking any legitimate methods of organized dissent, I don’t think that radicalism or even revolution require violence. Gilbert points out near the end of the book that many leftist organizations thought that the violent organizations he worked with hurt the cause by resorting to violence, and I think that they’re right: a regular strategy these days is for undercover police to infiltrate an otherwise peaceful protest and try to whip up a mob in order to discredit the claims of the protesters and legitimate the use of force to put them down. Gilbert describes this strategy going back to the 60’s, so I’m surprised that he didn’t catch on that engaging in violence actually undermines the position of dissenters.

Radicals who have left the biggest mark on this world were those who chose radical love (not in the sense of the free love of the 60’s, which Gilbert admits was quite poseur-ish in its deliberate flouting of societal norms for the sake of flouting societal norms, as well as being largely a cover for men to hook up with multiple women). Jesus, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., made themselves stand out by their radical refusal to be violent toward their enemies, and their efforts to bring peace to those who would kill them. These people were forced to radicalism in the same way that Gilbert and the Weather Underground were, but their radical methods were more innovative and truer to their core values. Their shift to radicalism was not a compromise with the powers that be, but rather a fuller and more drastic expression of their very selves as human beings. Their radical insistence on love in the face of adversity made dehumanizing them completely impossible, and made any violence against them very obviously illegitimate.

 

Overall, this was a very fascinating book, and a cautionary tale for me. No matter how frustrated I get with doing things the right way, I can never let it drive me to become what I struggle against. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and though I admire Gilbert’s passion and principles, I think he lost his way. A good read for inspiration and practical advice, but take Gilbert’s self-criticism further than he does if you want to gain more foundational wisdom here. B+