Archives For War

Immortal Combat

Jason Micheli —  May 29, 2017 — 2 Comments

     Here’s my sermon from Ascension Sunday, kicking off a series on Romans.

     You probably saw the story in the Washington Post this week. I blogged about it too- as it turned an unwise move that netted me 73 colorful comments from all over the interwebs most of which contained too many four-lettered words to publish.

I didn’t know they had emojis for some of the acts critics suggested I do to myself.

You probably saw the article about how the Alexandria chapter of Washington Sport and Health this week cancelled the gym membership of Richard Spencer, the president of the Alt-Right/White Nationalist ‘National Policy Institute’.

Spencer was pumping iron in safe anonymity, when C. Christine Fair, a Georgetown University Professor, recognized him and then confronted him. At first he denied his identity. But she was sure it was him. According to the other patrons, the professor lambasted him, yelling:

“Not only are you a Nazi — you are a cowardly Nazi… I just want to say to you, I’m sick of your crap — that this country belongs [to people like you]. . . . As a woman, I find your statements to be particularly odious; moreover.”

The gym cancelled his membership after the altercation.

I doubt Richard Spencer was surprised at getting the heave-ho. The episode this week was only the latest in a string of ugly confrontations.

He was punched in the face on Inauguration Day by an anti-Trump protestor.

The chocolate shop on King Street near Spencer’s rented town house went bust after boycotters assumed both spaces shared the same owner.

Before he was working out at the gym this week, Spencer was leading a march of demonstrators in Charlottesville, protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Perhaps it’s because we’re kicking-off a summer long sermon series in Paul’s Letter to the Romans- the most important book of the New Testament- but reading the article in the Washington Post this week, my first thought was:

“That’s what makes the Church different than the gym.” 

     I don’t know Dr. Fair, the Georgetown Professor, and I wouldn’t disagree with her characterization of Richard Spencer as a repugnant, cowardly Nazi. I’d even go father than her. I don’t know Dr. Fair but- if she’s a Christian- rather than agitate for his removal from a club her first response to Richard Spencer should have been to invite him to the club we call Church.

———————————

      Now, hear me out. I’m NOT suggesting Richard Spencer is entitled to whatever beliefs he wishes to hold. 

I’m a Christian. I don’t believe we’re entitled to whatever beliefs we wish to believe.

After all, today is the holy day we call Ascension, when the creeds shift from the past perfect tense to the present tense. Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father who has given Jesus dominion over all the Earth.

Because of Ascension, because Jesus is Lord and King over all the Earth, it now makes no sense whatsoever for us to say “As a Christian, I believe ______ but that’s just my personal belief.” The language of personal beliefs and private faith is unintelligible in light of the Ascension.

Jesus is Lord- that’s a public, all-encompassing claim so, no, we’re not entitled to believe whatever we wish to believe. We’re required not only to believe in Jesus but to believe Jesus, believe what Jesus says and does, and what Richard Spencer believes grossly contradicts much of what Jesus says and does.

I’m not suggesting Richard Spencer is entitled to his noxious views nor am I minimizing the sort of person Richard Spencer appears to be in public.

By all accounts Richard Spencer’s awful hipster side-part comes accompanied by monstrosity.

He’s racist. He’s anti-semitic. He’s xenophobic. He’s an America First nationalist, which- by the way- is idolatry. Given that string, he’s likely homophobic and sexist to boot.

During the campaign he provoked audible revulsion in the NPR reporter who was interviewing him. Atlantic Magazine posted video of him leading a conference room full of disciples in the Sieg Heil salute.

In response to getting booted from Washington Sport and Health, Spencer tweeted: [Does this mean] “we can start kicking Jews and coloreds out of our business establishments?”

He has a knack for inducing revulsion.

I can think of no one who fits the definition better:

Richard Spencer is ungodly.

And that’s my problem- and your problem.

Because the Apostle Paul says it’s exactly someone like Richard Spencer for whom Christ died (Romans 5.6).

———————————-

     Obviously private gyms can do whatever they wish. And if it was a gym to which we all belonged then I’d be the first to say kick him out on his a@#.

But we’re not members of a club.

We’re members of a Body, a Body created by a particular kerygma, a particular proclamation: the Gospel proclamation that on the law-cursed cross God in Jesus Christ died for the ungodly and that that death defeated the Power of Death.

Christ didn’t die to confer blessings upon good people like you. Christ didn’t die to make nice people nicer. Christ died so that ungodly people might become a new humanity. Richard Spencer is precisely the sort of ungodly person we should invite to Church.

Where else could he go?

This is the only place. This is the only place where the Word of the Cross might vanquish him, delivering him from his bondage to the Power of Sin.

I chose that last sentence with care:

This is the only place where the Word of the Cross might vanquish him, delivering him from his bondage to the Power of Sin.

“Bondage to the Power of Sin,” with a capital P and a capital S, is the only way to speak Christianly about Richard Spencer’s racism; in fact, the Power of Sin with a capital P and a capital S is the only way to speak Christian.

———————————

     Despite what you may think, the letters of Paul are not secondary to the Gospels, they are the means by which we read the Gospels, for the Gospels are not self-interpreting nor is their meaning self-evident.

No matter how your New Testament is ordered, Paul’s Gospel message predates the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (1.16-17).

This is Paul’s thesis statement and from it he unwinds a single, long, non-linear argument. The argument itself is odd.

Like Paul’s other letters this one is addressed to a particular people but unlike Paul’s other letters this one continuously shifts focus from the congregation to the cosmic, that what concerns this little house church in Rome somehow also concerns all of creation.

The letter is also odd in that Paul sticks the salutations along with the introduction of the main theme not at the beginning of the letter but at the very end. The introduction of the main theme doesn’t come until the very end of the letter, like a final, it’s-all-been-building-to-this reveal:

  “The God of peace will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet” (16.20).

This whole letter, all 16 chapters of it, all the pretty parts we like to read at funerals and to stick onto Hallmark cards, all of it is driving towards this: “The God of peace will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet.” 

     This whole letter is about the defeat of the Power of Satan.

That’s why throughout Romans Paul’s focus keeps shifting from the congregational to the cosmic and why the language he most often uses is martial language, the language of combat and battle and powers and invasion (4.25, 8.32 et al).

The theme of this whole letter is the defeat of the Power of Satan, and Paul’s thesis here in Romans 1 is that the Gospel is the Power by which God defeats that Power: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel…For in it the righteousness of God is revealed…”

———————————

     Trouble is-

Paul’s thesis statement doesn’t much sound like its about the defeat of anything much less the Power of Satan.

That’s because the English language lacks any equivalents to the Greek word Paul uses here, the word that gets translated throughout Romans as either “righteousness” or “justification.”

It’s the same word: dikaiosyne.

When it gets translated as “righteousness” we hear it as an attribute or adjective of God, as God’s holiness or perfection- the arrival of which to us doesn’t sound like it would be good news.

When it gets translated as “justification” we hear it as our acquittal, as God declaring us something we’re not: justified.

Neither is correct, and the problem is with the English translation. In the Greek, dikaiosyne is a noun with the force of a verb; it creates that which it names.

The only word in English that comes close to approximating dikaiosyne is rectify-rectification.

So “righteousness” here in Romans 1 isn’t an attribute or adjective. It’s a Power. It’s a Power to bring salvation to pass. It’s God’s powerful activity to make right- to rectify- what is wrong in the world.

To say that God is righteous is that God is at work to make right.

And the way God is at work in the world, rectifying what is wrong in the world, is the Gospel, the Word of the Cross. Through it, God’s rectifying power is revealed.

That word revealed– in Greek it’s apokaluptetai: Apocalypse. Invasion. 

     Literally, Paul says: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it the rectifying power of God is invading…” 

Note the present tense.

    ——————————-

     “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it the rectifying power of God is invading…”

     You can only invade territory held by an enemy.

The language of invasion is the language of liberation.

For as much as we think Christianity is about forgiveness, the Gospel of John uses the word forgiveness only once and Paul never does- nor does he use the word “repent.”

Repenting is something we do.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans isn’t at all about anything we do. It’s everywhere about what God does.

It makes no sense to forgive slaves for their enslavement. Captives cannot repent their way out of bondage. Prisoners can only be freed. Liberated. Delivered.

You see- if you think of sin as something you do, then you cannot understand what the Son of God came to do.

Only at the end of his long letter does Paul finally reveal the Enemy as Satan.

In chapter 3 he names the enemy Sin with a capital S and calls it an alien, anti-god Power whose power we are all under and from whom whom not one of us is able through our own agency to free ourselves (3.9).

In chapter 5 he make Sin-with-a-capital-S synonymous with Death-with-a-capital-D (5.12).

In chapter 8 he identifies the forms that the Power of Sin and Death take in our world to contend against us (8.35, 38) then he widens the lens to show how it’s not just us but all of creation that is held in captivity to the Power of Sin and Death (8.21).

And in chapter 13 he tells the Christians in Rome that they should put away the works of darkness and put on the “weapons of light” (13.12) which 7 chapters earlier he calls the “weapons of rectification” (6.13).

Then, finally at the end, he reveals the Enemy as the Power of Satan.

Cliff-Notes Takeaway:

Only the faithfulness of Christ unto the cross is able to rectify what the Power of Sin has broken in God’s creation.

And only the power of this Gospel can free us from our bonds to a Power that doesn’t yet know its been defeated.

    ——————————-

     Outside the Church this weekend it’s Memorial Day when we remember those who’ve fallen in war.

But inside the Church we’ve not remembered.

We’ve forgotten that salvation itself is a battle. We’ve forgotten, such that this all probably sounds strange to you.

We’ve forgotten that God has a real Enemy God’s determined to destroy (1 Cor 15.24-26).

We’ve forgotten that the cross of Jesus Christ is God’s invasion from on high and that our proclamation of his act upon the cross is itself the weapon by which the God of peace is even now rectifying a world where Satan still rules but but his defeat is not in question.

We’ve forgotten that the language of salvation is itself the language of war.

Salvation isn’t about individuals going to heaven when they die.

Salvation is cosmic because all of creation is in captivity to the Power of Sin, the Power of Death, the Power of Satan whom Paul finally names at the end of his letter.

     Salvation isn’t our evacuation from earth to God.

     Salvation is God’s invasion of earth, in and through the cross of Jesus Christ, the Power that looks like no power.

Only when you understand scripture’s view of Sin as a Power and our sinfulness as bondage to it can you understand why and how Paul can claim something as repugnant as there being no distinction whatsoever between someone like you and someone like Richard Spencer (2.1).

That’s not to say you’re all as awful as Richard Spencer; it’s to say that all of us are captive, because all of creation is captive.

We’re all captives to a Pharaoh called Sin, which is to say, we’re all ungodly (5.10).

And not one of us is safe from God’s rectifying work.

To invite Richard Spencer to Church then isn’t to minimize or dismiss his noxious racism or odious views.

It’s to take them so seriously that you invite him to the only place where he might by assaulted by the only Word with the Power to vanquish him and create him anew.

Or, to put it Paul’s way plainer:

 “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

For in the Gospel the rectifying work of God is invading the world through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ who was obedient all the way to the cross, a faithfulness which has power to create faith…’”

“[A Power]…that will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet.”

——————————

      During their confrontation at Washington Sport and Health, Dr. Fair, the Georgetown Professor, yelled at Richard Spencer: “I find your presence in this gym to be unacceptable, your presence in this town to be unacceptable.”

The gym later terminated his membership without comment.

In all likelihood inviting him to church would be as bad for our business as the management of the gym judged it to be bad for their business.

But maybe ‘bad for business’ is what Paul means by the scandal of the Gospel.

You haven’t really digested the offense of the Gospel until you’ve swallowed the realization it means someone like Richard Spencer might be sitting in the pew next to you, his hand out to pass the peace of Christ, the weapon which surpasses all understanding.

You haven’t really comprehended the cosmic scope of God’s salvation until you realized it includes both you and Richard Spencer, both of you potential victims of the awful invading power of the Gospel of God’s unconditional grace.

I haven’t actually invited Richard Spencer to this church.

Yet.

But I did leave a copy of this sermon in the door of his townhouse yesterday.

I don’t know that he’d ever show up.

But I do know- I’m not ashamed of it- I do know that this Gospel is powerful enough to defeat the Powers of the Enemy that enslaves him.

 

Memorial Day Weekend is approaching.

So is the Holy Day Christians call ‘Ascension’ when Jesus is given by the Father dominion over the earth.

Memorial Day, though it’s not a Christian holy day and though we won’t change out the parament colors to observe it, it’s a tricky time for preachers of the Gospel. It’s tricky not because the valor of the fallen lacks honor but because the story of America, particularly when its cast in terms of those who’ve died in its service, is a story that is more powerfully felt by many Christians than the Gospel story. You don’t need sociological surveys on the Nones to give you a picture of religion in America; the fact is (and maybe always has been) many of us are more moved by the love of those who lay their lives down for their countrymen than we are moved by Christ who lays his life down not for his neighbors and nation but for the ungodly.

War, as Stanley Hauerwas acknowledges, is beautiful in the noble and heroic virtues it can call out of us and therein lies the danger for Christians for it presents a powerful counter-liturgy to the eucharistic liturgy.

Like all liturgy, the liturgy of patriotism forms us. It’s meant to form us. And, especially, our children.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended the Nats home opener with my boys. The entire field was covered, like a funeral pall on a casket, with a giant flag. Wounded warriors were welcomed out and celebrated. Silence was observed. Colors were processed in with priestly soberness. Jets flew overhead and anthems were sung. There was even organ music. People around me in the stands covered their hearts and many, I noticed, had tears in their eyes. If there’d been an altar call my boys, my wife and I, and the Mennonite family 3 rows up would’ve been the only ones left in the stands.

It was a kind of worship service, a liturgy, that was discipling us into being certain kinds of people who view the world through a particular narrative. It was preparing us, equipping us, to respond ourselves in a certain way if/when called upon.

(My friend tells me this ‘liturgy’ is even thicker at NASCAR races, which I take to be ironic since only Southern Baptists go to NASCAR and they’re all on record as loathing liturgy. But maybe it’s just the Christian liturgy they’re against.)

I’m not suggesting (as some might do) that there’s anything wrong with any of the above. I’m instead suggesting that Christians (at least those in America) must be mindful about seeing in it a temptation that is ever before us; namely, the lure to make our national story more keenly felt than our Gospel story. Just because golden calves seem stupid doesn’t mean we’re any more immune than Israel from offering God a qualified obedience. If we can’t serve God and Mammon, as Jesus teaches, then why are we so cavalier about God and Country?

The Christian ‘We’ can include but never necessarily so the American ‘We.’ God has called not our nation but first Israel and now with it the Church to be a light to the nations. The Church, not our nation not any nation, is the means by which God has elected to finish his New Creation. As a leader of the Church, I think it’s a dumb strategy too, more so even than you, but as a preacher in the Church I’m stuck with the message I’ve been given to relay.

Christians, after all, are not, from the vantage of the fullness of time, invested in democracy. We’re not republicans or democrats. We’re theocrats. We live in America, yes, but we belong to a Kingdom. We may vote for a president (or we may not, Christians are free of any ‘duty’ to vote), but by our baptism we pledge allegiance to the Prince of Peace. And that peace, we believe, is wrought not by the sword/gun/battleship/drone but was wrought by the cross.

If you doubt the danger I’ve posed actually exists, consider how no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even to die for it- that’s what the ‘liturgy’ of the baseball game intends. They even sing the National Anthem at my boys’ swim meets. Fine.

Except…people do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’ The only convictions we’re willing to inculcate into our children for which they might one day have to suffer and die is not our Christian convictions but our American ones. It’s just such a prejudice that produces nonsense like the statement: ‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion.’ And its just such nonsense that makes one rightly wonder if the Church is really the entity the separation of Church of State is meant to protect and serve, for so long as my faith is relegated to the private/personal then the State will always be the beneficiary of any such separation.

The Church is called to reframe everything in light of the Cross and Resurrection, even our patriotism, and then to submit it to the Lordship of Christ, and ‘Lord’ of course isn’t Jesus’ last name or even a religious word.

It’s a title: King.

And so on a day like Memorial Day that call upon us doesn’t mean we dishonor the sacrifices of the fallen or beat our breasts and pretend that America is anything but a unique nation among nations (because no matter what the Huffington Post says, it is).

It instead means we hold fast to our commission to proclaim the Gospel, which in this instance on America’s calendar means we proclaim that the sacrifice offered by the fallen was not, in fact, the “ultimate sacrifice.”

The ultimate sacrifice was made by God himself, in Jesus Christ, on Golgotha, a death delivered up by the best and brightest of the Church, and the State, and the Military, for the ungodly.

‘Ungodly’ happens to be a border-breaking (Don’t tell The Donald), multinational, trans-historical catch-all category of humanity.

Thank God.

On Memorial Day Weekend preachers of the Gospel remind adherents of the Gospel that Jesus made is the Ultimate Sacrifice, that he is, as scripture attests, the Sacrifice to End All Sacrifices (including the sacrifice of war), and that Good Friday 33 AD, not all our battles and victory days, is the date that changed the world.

We preach the Gospel and, I think, we search for ways to make that story register as deeply as the story I saw felt in section 136 at Nationals Park.

When Potter Becomes Clay

Jason Micheli —  September 11, 2016 — 3 Comments

fullsizerenderFor this weekend’s sermon, in view of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I chose to use all of Jeremiah 18, a passage that begins with the familiar Potter/Clay metaphor but ends in a visceral, spittle-on-the-lip prayer for vengeance against enemies.

Special props to my dear friend, Laura Paige Mertins, who worked at her potter’s wheel while I preached (and distracted everyone from anything I said). You can find LP’s work for sale at her Etsy shop here. You get this blog for free so you should at least make up for it by buying something of hers.

     ‘Just what the blankety blank is your problem?! Reverend?!’

Because it was New Jersey, at first I thought she had a problem with my holding the church door open for her.

Her sorta, kinda of a question had been loud enough to stop the worshippers ahead of her on the front steps outside. And she was obviously angry enough that everyone behind her in line suddenly weren’t in a hurry anymore.

‘Just what the…is it with you?! she asked exasperated.

Little did I know then how that would become the defining question of my pastoral career.

She had close-cropped Terri Gross hair and the kind of horn-rimmed glasses you expect to be distributed by the Democratic National Committee.

I’d seen her come in to the sanctuary as the service began; I’d never seen her before. Like most of the crowd who gathered that evening she was a stranger, a visitor, a mourner, searching for meaning in a place she hadn’t searched before.

It was Wednesday evening, September the 12th, 2001.

The day after.

I’d been working in the campus mailroom at Princeton, my supervisor, Vince, on the phone with his wife who was in the hospital dying of cancer.

The nearest TV was mounted in the corner outside the dining hall. The TV was on mute. And for a while all of us standing there staring up at the buildings we were on mute too.

Until the tower fell and the silence became a chorus of whispered ‘Oh my God’s.

Then we watched what everyone else everywhere else watched.

     I remember Vince, a Catholic, his fair-skinned face turned a splotchy red as he pointed angrily at the TV and said through clenched teeth: ‘God damn them!’ 

     In the moment, it struck me as faithful a thing to say as anything.

 

I was still just a student at Princeton. I was approximately 7 weeks in to my first gig as a solo pastor at a small church that’s no longer there.

Irma, the church organist, and Les, the church accordion player (yes, the church had an accordion player) had helped me put up some xeroxed signs around town that morning.

I didn’t really know what I was doing other than to think offering a worship service might be a good idea.

‘Service of Lament’ read the xeroxed signs I stapled into telephone poles.

The small sanctuary was Christmas crowded that evening, filled with bloodshot eyes and tear-stained faces I’d never seen before.

My preaching text that night was that ‘For such a time as this’ line from Esther, a little book rife with violence and ethnic hatred and where God seems present NOT at all.

The other scripture passage I used I used as the opening prayer: a lament. A clench-fisted, spittle-on-the-lips cry for vengeance.

Vengeance against our enemies.

I took the lament from the Book of Jeremiah. Chapter 18.

Jeremiah 18, as you heard, begins with that beautiful- and possibly even flattering- metaphor of how we’re like clay in God the Potter’s hands. But only a dozen verses later Jeremiah turns ugly:

“Pay attention to me, Lord; listen to what my enemies are saying…

Enough! Let their children starve;

let them die by the sword.

Let their wives be barren widows;

let their men be slaughtered

and their youth struck down

in battle.

Let their screams be heard

from their homes

when you suddenly bring armies

against them.

They have dug a pit to capture me,

set traps for my feet.

By you, Lord, you know

all their sinister plots to kill me.

Don’t overlook their wrongdoing;

don’t cleanse their sin

from before you.

May they stumble before you;

when you become angry,

do something about them.”

Look it up.

Because I used Jeremiah’s prayer as the opening prayer, we ended it by saying ‘Amen.’ As in: ‘May it be so.’

It seemed the kind of prayer that captured how everyone felt that day. I didn’t notice the volume go soft before we got to the amen.

So I was caught off guard when the woman with the short hair and arty glasses met me at the front doors with: “What in the…is your problem?!”

“Um, excuse me?” I replied.

“Praying for God to wipe out our enemies?! Isn’t that the same kind of religious fanaticism that led to yesterday?!”

As is my habit, I tried to diffuse her anger with ill-advised humor.

So I said: ‘“Oh no, ma’am, it’s much worse than that. That word ‘stumble’ in the prayer it’s the same Hebrew word from the flood story. It’s actually a prayer for God to do to our enemies what God did to all those who didn’t make the 2×2 cut.’

I was new to ministry, but I could tell I’d just stepped in it.

“Christians aren’t even supposed to have enemies!” she shouted softly. “They’re supposed to love everybody.”

Then she pointed her finger at me scoldingly and asked:

“Do you really think Jesus would approve of you praying something like this?”

 

I’d thought the lament from Jeremiah an appropriate scripture for the day after.

After all, Jeremiah’s own career as a prophet coincided with a date seared into the collective memory of God’s People every bit as much as 9/11 is scarred into our own.

587.

587 BCE

Five- hundred and eighty-seven years before Jesus.

The date Babylon attacked and invaded the Promised Land, burning the City of David and razing the Temple, the symbol that Israel was, literally, ‘one nation under God.’

Not long after the attack there were deployments. Deployments of the nation’s best and brightest and, too often, the tragically young.

The Bible names the deployments “Exile.”

587: Jeremiah’s 9/11.

So what better piece of scripture to pray on the day after the 11th, I thought, than one of these six laments woven throughout the Book of Jeremiah.

Except-

That woman with the Terri Gross hair and the horn-rimmed glasses, she had hit upon a problem.

She’d greeted me by asking what was my problem, but what she’d hit upon with her question was our problem.

As in, you and me. Christians.

What do we do with a scripture passage like that? A foam-in-the-mouth prayer that desires the destruction of our enemies?

Because, of course, we don’t just believe we’re clay in the Potter’s hands. We believe the Potter became Clay.

We believe that the Creator became a Creature, that God became flesh.

In Jesus Christ.

And we believe that, in Jesus, God the Potter displays what it looks like for us to be his earthen vessels. And, of course, a big piece of that is what Jesus tells us to do about our enemies. To LOVE them.

So…what do we do with a passage of scripture like Jeremiah’s prayer against his enemies?

Would Jesus really approve of a prayer like that?

What do we do with it?

 

Of course, for the heretics and anti-semites among us, the easiest thing to do is just dismiss Jeremiah’s nasty prayer for vengeance and violence against his enemies.

You know, roll of the eyes and dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts. One of those angry, jealous, wrathful God passages. One of those Old Testament texts.

Like the passage in Samuel where, because God is holy and we are not, a boy named Uzzah is struck down dead for accidentally touching the ark.

Jeremiah 18- we could say- it’s like that, one of those Old Testament texts.

The problem though is that those Old Testament texts, warts and all, are stuck on to every promise God makes to his People Israel. And if you dismiss those, you’re left with a Jesus in the New who has no promises for you.

So what do we do?

Do we chalk it up to context? Put it in perspective?

Do we say that this prayer, Jeremiah 18, gives voice to the voiceless? That it’s anger and rage and lust for payback are exactly what you’d expect to hear from an impoverished and exploited people?

It is. And it does.

So we could chalk it up to context and remember that the people who proclaimed and prayed Jeremiah’s lament weren’t like us at all and maybe feel a little better about this bible passage.

At least until we remember that over and over again God promises to be on the side of people like the ones who prayed this prayer.

People who, on most days, are not like us at all.

And that puts me right back feeling a little queasy about what I should do with a passage like Jeremiah 18.

Maybe we could go the other way with this passage. Just say no.

No, Jesus would not green light the defeat and destruction of your enemies.

But, no worries, because that’s not what’s going on in this passage.

It’s not as troubling and incongruent as it sounds at first, we could say.

Because praying to God to avenge you- as ugly and visceral as it seems- IS  a way of acknowledging that vengeance, no matter how bad you want it and how justly its deserved, isn’t yours to mete out.

Praying to God to avenge you is a tacit recognition that vengeance belongs to God alone.

And so we could say that a passage like Jeremiah’s prayer isn’t as nasty as it sounds. We could say that giving over your vengeful rage to God is a way of giving up your claim to it.

That it’s better to put your hate and violence into prayer than into action.

I think there’s something to be said for that.

But the words still stick in the throat, don’t they?

“Let their children starve;

let them die by the sword.

Let their wives be barren widows;

let their men be slaughtered

and their youth struck down

in battle.

Let their screams be heard

from their homes

when you suddenly bring armies

against them.”

Even if it’s about putting your anger into prayer not action, it still doesn’t sound very Jesusy.

It’s hard to imagine the Potter who commanded us to love our enemies green-lighting the wailing of their children.

 

‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of a prayer like that?’

The Terri Gross doppleganger asked me a second time.

She’d upped the ante with the anger in her voice.

But I was just a 3rd semester theology student. Just in my 3rd month of ministry. I hadn’t yet been dressed down by an exiting worshipper as I am by He Who Must Not Be Named here at Aldersgate every week.

So I didn’t know what to say.

Not knowing, I simply told the truth:

“Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that,’ I said, ‘Jesus prayed prayers like that.”

She shot me the kind of look I’d reserve for Joel Osteen and she walked out. Disgusted.

But it’s true.

As a Jew, Jesus would’ve prayed 3 times a day, the shacharit in the morning; the minchah in the afternoon; and the maariz in the evening.

3 times a day.

And each of those 3 devotions would’ve included at least 1 prayer from his Bible, what we call the Old Testament. And of the prayers contained in Jesus’ Bible, the single largest genre are laments- prayers for vengeance against enemies.

So do the math:

At the very least, Jesus prayed a prayer like Jeremiah 18 every 50 days.

At a minimum, Jesus prayed for the defeat of his enemies 7 times a year.

When you do the math, you discover that as Jesus hung on the cross and said ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ he had prayed for the defeat of them at least 210 times in his life.

That means when Pontius Pilate executed a gathering of Galileans for worshipping Yahweh and mixed the Jews’ blood with the blood of animals as a final insult, chances are Jesus had prayed something like: ‘By you, Lord, you know all their sinister plots to kill me.’ in the past month.

210 times.

That means when King Herod conscripted the poor in Galilee to construct his palace at Sepphoris, a sentiment like “Don’t overlook their wrongdoing; don’t cleanse their sin from before you” had only recently been prayed on Jesus’ lips.

And when Herod took John the Baptist’s head, it wasn’t long after that Jesus prayed a prayer that ended just like Jeremiah’s in chapter 18: ‘Do something about my enemies.’

Like any good Jew of his day, Jesus would’ve had them all memorized.

210 times.

Jesus prayed such prayers.

For the defeat of his enemies.

So I said to Terri Gross:

“Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that, Jesus prayed a prayer just like that.”

But I was just a student, still only a rookie pastor. I didn’t know what to say.

Because if it’s true that Jesus the Jew prayed a prayer just like Jeremiah’s, then the better answer to her question would’ve been another question:

Who do you think Jesus had in mind when he prayed like Jeremiah?

Who do you think Jesus pictured when he prayed for the defeat of his enemies?

 

It’s the better question.

Because to ask ‘Who did Jesus have in mind when he prayed his Bible’s laments?’ is but a way of remembering that Jesus had enemies.

I mean- we know Jesus had enemies, but so often we act as though Jesus didn’t know he had any enemies.

Which of course makes the cross an abstract, a-historical solution to our spiritual problem: sin and salvation.

Or worse: it treats the cross as inadvertent, unhappy end that Jesus didn’t see coming.

So often we act as though good, loving Good Shepherd Jesus never had an impolite or unkind thought in his head. Not so.

To ask ‘Which enemy did Jesus have in mind when he prayed prayers like Jeremiah’s?’ is but a way of remembering that he had them.

For Jesus to be fully human- as human as you or me- in 1st century Galilee means that Jesus had enemies. Enemies he wanted to defeat. Enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel.

It’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies whose defeat he prayed for that you’re able to hear his gospel the way he intended it to be received.

Because when Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, there’s a 1 in 3 chance he was thinking of King Herod.

And when Jesus commands his followers not to resist evil and violence with evil and violence of their own, the odds are even better Caesar and Pilate immediately came to everyone’s mind.

And when Jesus commands them to forgive a fellow believer who’s wronged you, I’m willing to bet the Scribes and Pharisees were on Jesus’ mind. They plotted against him at least that many times.

It’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat that you’re able to hear his gospel rightly.

But maybe we don’t want to hear it.

Because once you hear his gospel rightly, you can’t help but notice how Jesus does exactly as he says.

For when the Scribes and Pharisees finally condemn Jesus and come for him in the Garden, Jesus tells his followers to put away the sword.

And when Jesus is mocked, beaten and scourged, he makes good on his commandment.

He doesn’t retaliate.

He turns the other cheek.

And when Pilate and Herod and Caesar and the priests and the soldiers and the crowd and you and me crucify him- when his enemies crucify him- Jesus responds by loving them: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’

He dies rather than kill.

He doesn’t resist evil with evil.

He suffers it.

He dies to it.

And in dying to his enemies, Jesus defeats them.

Destroys them, the apostle Paul says. Triumphs over them.

When we forget Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel, we then don’t know what to do with a scripture passage like Jeremiah’s vengeful, clench-fisted lament.

We think we need to dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts replaced by the New.

     But the confusion we feel about a passage like Jeremiah 18 is really our confusion about Jesus

Because it’s not that Jeremiah’s prayer is antithetical to Jesus.

No.

Jesus is God’s answer to Jeremiah’s prayer.

Pay attention, this is everything.

     Jesus doesn’t replace Jeremiah’s angry prayer.

Jesus enacts it.

It’s not that Jeremiah’s prayer for his enemies to be defeated is the opposite, alternative to Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemies.

     No, it’s that when the Potter becomes Clay we discover:

the love of enemies is the way the Potter defeats them.

We completely miss the revolution Jesus leads from the get-go because all our faith is in the kind of battles we wage.

Love of enemies is not Jesus telling us we should passively endure our enemies; it’s his strategy to defeat them.

The cross is not how evil defeats Jesus.

      (If that’s what you think, then why are you even here on a Sunday morning?)

The Gospel is that the way of the cross is how Jesus defeats them.

     The way of the cross, the way of suffering, forgiving, cheek-turning love is the something Jeremiah prays for God to do against his enemies.

And I know- at this point someone always wants to argue that Christ’s enemy loving offensive just isn’t effective in our world.

But today, right now, the crucified Christ rules the Earth from the right hand of the Father.

And Caesar? He just has a salad named after him.

So you tell me what’s more effective.

 

After the woman with the Terri Gross hair and horn-rimmed glasses stepped out the sanctuary doors in disgust, a few strangers later a 50-something man came up to me.

His thick white hair had a severe part on the side. You could tell from his dress that he’d come straight from work. His red tie matched the color of his countenance.

When he shook my hand, he pulled me towards him in a ‘I know it was you, Fredo’ kind of way.

And he said, angrily: ‘I’m not a religious person, but you’ve got a lot of nerve.’

‘Here we go again’ I thought.

‘Where do you get off praying that? Forgive those who trespassed against us?! Did you see what they did?! Just where did you get an irresponsible idea like that?!’

‘Uh, well, um…Jesus’ I said.

He shook his head. ‘This was my first coming to a church. I can see I haven’t missed anything.’

And he stormed out.

I wonder-

If our discomfort with a prayer like the one Jeremiah prays

If our dismissals of Christ’s commandment to love our enemies

is because we’d like to go on thinking Christians can be Christian without having enemies, or just having the same enemies everyone else has.

I wonder if our discomfort and dismissals are because we’d like to go on thinking we can follow Jesus without making enemies.

Making enemies for the way we follow Jesus, the Clay in whom we see what the Potter desires for all of his vessels.

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“Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?”

Here’s my sermon this Memorial Day weekend on the Sunday’s lection from Galatians 1.1-12.

When I returned initially from medical leave, I was so excited over coming back to work and I was happy because (most of) you all seemed excited to have me back at church. At least, I thought that was the case.

But then, one morning while I was unpacking and organizing my new office, I heard a soft rap on my door. I looked up and my illusions of happy homecoming burnt away like so much dross. There they were, Murice Kincannon and Marcie Bowker, with a question in their eyes so obvious it bore like a bullet hole straight through me.

“We were just discussing after our meditation group,” Marcie Bowker began “innocently,” “and we thought we’d ask you.”

“Ask me what?” I said as though I was curious but I could already smell sulfur in the air.

Marcie leaned in, wraith-like, through my doorframe and with a ghoulish smile she asked me: “Do you think there’s anything wrong with having an American flag in the sanctuary?” 

And that’s when I knew not everyone was happy to have me back, at least not Marcie and Murice because why else would they have pulled the pin on a query like that and thrown it at my feet?

“Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?” That question- it’s like the theological equivalent to when your wife asks you “Does this dress make me look fat?”

There’s no good way to answer because you can tell from the way the question is put to you that there’s no way to slip loose of it without causing offense.

“Not that dress honey.”

There’s no good way to answer especially when you consider that, with Shirley Pitts’ passing, Murice Kincannon is now Aldersgate’s token liberal and Marcie Bowker is most definitely not so I felt trapped. Entrapped.

“Did the Bishop put you put to this?” I asked.

Murice and Marcie- they didn’t catch my meaning. They instead asked me their question again: “Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?” At least, I think they asked me it again. It was like that scene in Teen Wolf when an underage Michael J. Fox tries to buy a keg of beer and the crotchety guy at the counter asks for his ID. All I could hear was my own heart beating in my forehead as I watched their lips forming the question.

It was like that scene where Ferris Bueller and Cameron Frye send a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder crashing into a ravine and they see their entire future destroyed with it.

It’s the kind of question churches have split over, the kind of question theologian bloviate over, the kind of question that preachers get fired over and after my vacation called cancer I’m sort of attached to my health insurance.

So I didn’t answer their question.

Instead I did what I only do in the case of emergencies like when my wife asks me if this shade of makeup makes her look old or when son asks me if he can ask a girl out on a date. I just laughed this high-pitched, manic and hysterical, eye-twitching laugh like a Disney Store worker on an acid trip.

When I regained consciousness and picked myself up off the floor, Murice and Marcie had snuck away like ninja assassins presumably waiting, like the devil himself, for another opportune time to undo me.

So I never answered their question.

But I didn’t forget it.

—————————————

I thought of their question again a few weeks later, a few weeks ago, when Ali and I took our boys to the Nationals Home Opener.

Before the game, the entire outfield was covered, like a funeral pall on a casket, with a giant flag. The colors were processed into the ballpark with priestly soberness. Wounded warriors were welcomed out and celebrated. Jets flew overhead and anthems were sung and silence for the fallen was observed. People around me in the stands covered their hearts and many, I noticed, had tears in their eyes.

And it struck me that it felt like a kind of worship service. I mean, there was even organ music and a young family being shushed by an elderly curmudgeon, which is as close to a worship as you can get.

And that’s no great insight on my part because after the silence my oldest son, X, said to no one in particular “that was just like church.”

If there’d been an altar call my boys, my wife and I, and the Mennonite family 3 rows up might have been the only ones left in the stands.

It was a kind of liturgy in that we were celebrating what’s been done for us and offering gratitude. It was a kind of liturgy in that it was discipling us into being certain kinds of people who view the world through a particular story. It was preparing us, equipping us, to respond ourselves in a certain way if and when called upon.

To be honest, looking up at the scoreboard at the pictures of fallen men and women- kids really- I even had tears in my eyes. And here’s the rub- I don’t know that I’ve ever once teared up during a Christian liturgy. Realizing that in Section 136, I thought of Marcie’s and Murice’s question again.

———————————-

Though we haven’t changed out the parament colors to observe it, Memorial Day is a delicate time for Christians. It’s a day that requires discretion not because the valor of fallen soldiers lacks honor- not at all- but because the story of America, particularly when its cast in terms of those who’ve died in its service, can become a story that is more powerfully felt by many Christians than the Gospel story.

As Christians, we have to be cautious that we’re not more moved by the love of those who lay their lives down for their countrymen than we are moved by Christ who lays his life down not for his neighbors and nation but for the ungodly.

War, as Stanley Hauerwas acknowledges, is beautiful precisely in the noble and heroic virtues it can call out of us and therein lies the danger for Christians for it presents a powerful rival liturgy to the communion liturgy.

Like all liturgy, the liturgy of patriotism forms us. It’s meant to form us.

Now, hear me out. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with any of the baseball park pageantry. I’m instead suggesting that, like any other good in our lives, Christians (at least those in America) must be mindful about seeing in it the potential temptation that is ever before us; namely, the lure to make our national story more keenly felt than our Gospel story.

Just because golden calves seem stupid doesn’t mean we’re any more immune than Israel was from offering God a qualified or confused obedience. If we can’t serve God and Mammon, as Jesus teaches, then we have to be discerning about God and Country too.

If you doubt the temptation I’ve posed actually exists, the lure of a rival counter-liturgy to the Gospel liturgy, consider how no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even to die for it. They even sing the National Anthem at my boys’ swim meets. And that’s fine.

Except

People do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’

This is hardly the fault of our troops but why is it that the only convictions we’re willing to inculcate into our children for which they might one day have to suffer and die is not our Christian convictions but our American ones?

When engaged couples tell me they plan to let their children choose their religion for themselves when they’re older, I often reply to those couples that they should raise their kids to be atheists, for at least that would require their children to see their parents held convictions for which they might have to suffer.

How is it that we consider our children’s American convictions non-negotiable, but we deem their Christian convictions something they can choose for themselves, something about which they can make up their own minds?

But if what it means to be fully human, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself just as Jesus loved how could our children ever make up their own minds, choose for themselves, until after they’ve apprenticed under Jesus?

Quite literally, they don’t have minds worth making up until they’ve had their minds shaped by Christ. I know my kids still don’t have minds worth making up for themselves.

Western culture teaches us to think we should get to choose our faith story for ourselves, but notice how that story (the story we should get to choose our faith story) is a story that which none of us got to choose.

Which makes it not just a Story but a Fiction. A lie.

It’s a lie that produces nonsense like the statement: ‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion.’ 

And its just such nonsense that should make Christians wonder if the Church is really the who the separation of Church of State is meant to protect and serve, for so long as our faith is relegated to the private then Jesus is necessarily demoted from Lord and King to Secretary of After Life Affairs.

And that’s no small thing, for as Paul argues angrily in our text from Galatians today to alter the Gospel is no Gospel, to revise the Gospel is to reverse the Gospel.

—————————————

Look-

The Church is called to reframe everything in our lives in light of the Cross and Resurrection, even our patriotism, and then to submit it to the Lordship of Christ, and ‘Christ’ of course wasn’t Jesus’ last name or even a religious word.

It was a political word.

It’s a title: King.

     The King who elects.

Us.

To be a light not to our nation but to the nations.

And so on Memorial Day that call upon us- it doesn’t mean we dishonor the sacrifices of those who’ve laid their lives down for their friends.

It instead means we remember that that love is not how Jesus loves us. Jesus laid his life down not for his friends and countrymen but for sinners, for his enemies. For the ungodly, as Paul puts it.

Our call as Christians is to remember that it’s true, freedom isn’t free, but for us, we Christians, that means “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (Galatians 1.4).

That call upon us- it means we hold fast to our commission to proclaim the Gospel, which in this instance on our national calendar means we proclaim that the sacrifice offered by the fallen, though significant, was not, in fact, the “ultimate sacrifice.”

The ultimate sacrifice was made by God himself, in Jesus Christ, on Golgotha, a death- it’s always good to point out- that was delivered up by the best and brightest of both Church and State.

     The ultimate sacrifice, we proclaim, was made God.

For the ungodly.

Jesus made/Jesus is the Ultimate Sacrifice.

He is, as scripture attests, the Sacrifice to End All Sacrifices (including- in a way we don’t yet understand- the sacrifice of war), and Good Friday 33 AD, not all our battles and victory days, is the date that changed the world.

     Maybe that just sounds like a slight linguistic matter to you, but for Christians such matters matter, for as Paul warns us today in Galatians 1 to get the Gospel wrong is to get everything wrong.

To get the world wrong, which correlatively is to get our nation wrong too. To get the Gospel wrong is to get everything wrong.

So much so that even Paul says he should be accursed if he communicated any Gospel other than the Gospel of how Jesus Christ has freed us (past perfect tense) from the present (tense) evil age.

—————————————

Such linguistic matters matter for Christians.

They do so because they help us answer questions like that question Marcie and Murice asked me: ‘Is there anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?’

Or rather, they help us to see that such a question is the wrong question. I mean, sure, if you’re more moved by the flag than you are by the cross or the cup then it might be an idol, but it’s still the wrong question.

The question about the flag is the wrong question because as Paul says here in Galatians the spatial metaphors the question relies upon (church vs. country, sanctuary vs. America)- the spatial, place-oriented categories get the Gospel wrong.

According to Paul, here in Galatians, if we’re going to remove anything from the sanctuary it should be the clock.

     We should tear down the clocks in our sanctuaries.

Because according to Paul the Gospel is that God has invaded the present evil age, that in the cross and resurrection the old age has been destroyed, and we have been transitioned into a new time in which Jesus Christ reigns with all dominion, and power, and glory.

The trouble is so much of the world doesn’t yet know it’s been transitioned into a new time.

The dichotomy that matters for Christians, the dichotomy we should be concerned with, isn’t God or Country it’s Before and After.

Before and After- Between the old age and the new.

    Christians aren’t people who occupy one space, the Church, within another space, the Nation.

     Christians are People who live under, belong to, participate in a different time.

The New Age inaugurated by Jesus Christ. And we can live according to that time in any place.

So don’t worry about the flag, get rid of that clock because it lures us into forgetting that Christians are called by God to be the People who know what time it is. It lures us into forgetting that the time we call the Kingdom isn’t something we await far off in the future. It’s now.

And it’s here whenever we gather together to do the things that Jesus did and to proclaim what God did through him.

And that’s why what Christians do in here is the most important thing to do on Memorial Day weekend. We worship the One who sits on the throne.

If the Gospel is true, if the old age has been invaded and destroyed, if we’ve been set free into a New Age then worship is the most important thing we can do because, if the Gospel is true, then that means what’s wrong with the world (the sin that leads to war that leads to Memorial Day) is that it fails to acknowledge that God is God.

The world doesn’t know what time it is, but we do. So come, let us worship God.

 

 

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517Here’s a Memorial Day weekend sermon from the vault. The text was a smattering of verses from Colossians 1 and 2.

The argument I attempted to make in the sermon is indebted to two books I recommend:

 Lt Col Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society  

Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity

Central to Hauerwas’ work is the assertion that war presents a powerful counter-liturgy to the Cross that the Church must always reframe in light of the Cross and Resurrection. Such reframing is what I attempted to do in the sermon.

My Grandpa died this spring, just before Holy Week.

Maybe it’s because I preach so many funerals, but I’ve learned that when it comes to death this paradox is true: while no amount of words can ever do justice to a person’s life, sometimes a single sentence can encapsulate the essence of a person.

The paradox is true in my Grandpa’s case.

If you want to get a sense of my Grandpa, a sense of who he was and how he was to the world around him, then really you just need to learn my Grandpa’s favorite joke.

     “Why don’t they send donkeys to college?”

Answer: “Because no one likes a smart-ass.”

That my Grandpa had occasion to repeatedly tell this joke to me will probably not surprise anyone.

I remember once when I was a boy we were eating burgers at a diner near the stockyard where my Grandpa had been buying some cattle, and I remember I’d said something snarky and sarcastic, and my Grandpa responded by saying ‘Remember, Jason, why they don’t send donkeys to college.”

And little elementary-aged me replied innocently: ‘Gee, Grandpa, did they come up with that policy after you went to college?’

And my Grandpa stared at me and then slowly knit his eyebrows and then like a tire with too much air he suddenly burst out laughing and pounded the table as if to say:

Like Grandfather, like grandson.

My Grandpa went to Drexel in Philadelphia for college, an opportunity made possible by the GI Bill. My Grandpa was part of what Tom Brokaw called the ‘greatest generation,’ a description that embarrassed my Grandpa.

My Grandpa fought in the Pacific in World War II.

He never spoke about the war, which sort of taught me never to ask about it.

He only spoke about it to me once, in fact. So rare was it that the memory has always stuck with me.

I was in Middle School and, after my Grandma moved into a nursing home, my Grandpa moved out of their big, brick Georgian in Downtown Norfolk and into a condo .

The moves rearranged all the familiar furniture and knick-knacks. Thus, hanging on the wall in the new condo was something I’d never seen before. A medal.

‘How’d you get that?’ I asked him, pointing to the medal.

‘Ah,’ he waved it off, not saying anything

I just stood there, waiting for more of an explanation behind the medal. But none was coming.

So I asked him- what it was like, being in the war.

And I remember, he looked at me like you do when you want to warn a little kid away from touching a hot stove and he said:

‘What was it like? Scary as hell.’

chagall

In his Letter to the Colossians, St Paul makes the audacious claim that on the Cross Christ has made peace.

That the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross was a sacrifice not simply for our individual sin but rather the Cross was a triumph- a Roman military term- over all the Powers of Sin and Death (with a capital P, S and D).

Paul says here in Colossians what the Book of Hebrews means when it says that the blood of the Cross is a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice that eliminates the necessity for any further, future sacrifices.

Including the sacrifice of war.

In other words, what Paul and Hebrews are getting at is the counter-intuitive claim that Christians are people who believe that war has been abolished- a claim that would seem to be rendered false by something as simple as that medal on my Grandpa’s wall, whatever he earned it for.

     Christians, Paul is claiming, believe that war has been abolished.

The grammar of that is very important; the past tense is the point.

It’s not that Christians work for the end of war. It’s that Christians live recognizing that in the Cross of Christ war has already been abolished, that Christ has made peace.

But what does that even mean?

After all, many of you know first hand as my Grandpa did that war is anything but absent from our world and sometimes its presence is unavoidable.

So what does it mean to believe that on the Cross Christ abolished war?

To believe that on the Cross Christ has made peace once-and-for-all means that we live as faithfully as we can to that reality even though the “real world” doesn’t seem to corroborate what we confess.

But to live and believe what scripture tells us about Christ’s Cross begs the question, especially this weekend:

 How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has abolished war?

Notice- the suggestion is not that it’s wrong for Christians to observe Memorial Day.

Instead the suggestion is that how we observe Memorial Day should be different from how others observe it.

Others who haven’t pledged allegiance to Christ the King.

A King who established his Kingdom by giving his life rather than resort to taking life.

How we observe Memorial Day should be different from how non-Christians celebrate it.

Because non-Christians are not caught in the tension between remembering those who’ve died in war and remembering that we believe on the Cross Christ has won a once-for-all peace.

That tension- it’s been with Christians from the very beginning.

For instance, for the first 3 1/2 centuries of the Church’s history soldiers could not be baptized until after they resigned their commission, a position the Church changed when they decided that sometimes responsible citizenship demands war as a last resort.

The tension has been with the Church from the very beginning.

For example, in the Middle Ages the Church recognized that one of the dangers of war is that we forget who and whose we are.

So during the Middle Ages the Church insisted that during feudal wars certain days on the calendar be set aside- called the Truce of God- when the warring parties would cease and desist, abstain from all violence.

The Truce of God was the Church’s way of reminding Christians that even when war is a necessity and peace is not possible our ultimate identity and loyalty remains.

To the Prince of Peace.

I remember my Grandpa giving me that ‘don’t get too close to the fire’ look when I asked him what it was like, being in war.

And in an almost confessional tone he said: ‘Scary as hell.’

‘Scary because you thought you might die?’ stupid, Middle School-aged me asked.

‘No’ he said ‘scary because I thought I might have to kill.’

Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but the fear my Grandpa gave voice to was the same aversion General SLA Marshall observed in his study of men in battle in the Second World War.

 

General Marshall discovered that of every hundred men along a line of fire, during battle only about 15-20 of them would take part by actually firing their weapons at another human being.

The other 80-85% would do everything they could (short of betray their comrades) to not kill.

This led General Marshall to conclude that the average, healthy individual has:

“such an inner and usually unrealized resistance to killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is at all possible to turn away from that responsibility.”

General Marshall’s observation is not, I think, a psychological insight- at least, it’s not only a psychological insight.

It is, I think, a theological one.

I believe it’s a theological insight that we heard confirmed in scripture today.

Many assume that the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is the sacrifice of their lives, to lay down their lives for us, and, obviously, that is a great and grave sacrifice.

But I think the argument of scripture and General Marshall’s study invites us to see it differently.

The Book of Genesis tells us that each of us- we’re made in the image of God.

But then Colossians 1 tells us what the prologue of John’s Gospel tells us:

That Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Jesus is the logic, John says, of God made flesh.

Speaking of logic, scripture gives us a simple formula:

We are made in God’s image

Jesus is the image of the invisible God

Therefore:

We are made in Jesus’ image.

We’re made, created, hard-wired, meant to be like Jesus.

That’s what St. Paul means he calls Jesus the 2nd Adam. We’re created with a family resemblance to Christ. We’re made in Jesus’ image.

And Jesus would rather die than kill. And so would we.

You see,

If we believe the Bible, if we believe that we’re made in Christ’s image then that means the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is not the sacrifice of their lives, great as such a sacrifice may be.

No, if we’re made in Christ’s image, then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is to sacrifice their innate unwillingness to kill.

For us.

If we’re made in Christ’s image then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops isn’t the giving of their lives, it’s to sacrifice their God-given unwillingness to take life.

Too often liberals use Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies and turning cheeks and putting away swords for moralistic, finger-wagging.

That we should oppose this or that war because we should be more like Jesus.

But- politics aside- that kind of finger-wagging, I think, is to get it exactly wrong. Or backwards.

Because the claim of St. Paul and the Gospel isn’t that we should be like Jesus.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are like Jesus. Already. More so than we believe. We’re made in his image.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are not natural born killers.

We’re created to bless those who curse us, and to love our enemies.

It’s in the family DNA.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we’re made in Christ’s image. We’re designed to lay down our lives rather than take life.

And so when we ask our fellow citizens, when we ask our children, to (potentially) take life, we’re asking for a far greater sacrifice than just their lives.

We’re asking them to sacrifice what it means for them to be made in God’s image; we’re asking them to sacrifice their Christ-like unwillingness to kill.

For us.

And that’s a sacrifice whose tragedy is only compounded when our soldiers return home from war and we expect them to allow us to applaud them at baseball games but not to tell us about we’ve asked them to do.

That our troops are willing to make such a sacrifice for us is what the Church calls grace- a gift not one of us deserves.

That we perpetuate a world that makes such a sacrifice necessary- when the message of the Cross is that it’s not– that’s what the Church calls sin.

But I still haven’t answered my original question:

How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has already won peace?

During the Crusades, wars in which the Church played no small part, when soldiers returned home from the Holy Land they would abstain from the sacrament of holy communion for a year or more.

Even during the Crusades there was an understanding that though the act of war may be necessary and justified, the actions of war nonetheless harm our humanity.

They do damage- not just to the enemy- but to the image of Christ within us.

And so before returning soldiers would receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament of communion, they would undergo the sacrament of reconciliation in order to restore the image of Christ within them.

The Crusades are seldom cited as a good example of anything, but, in this case, I believe they have something to teach us, particularly when it comes to thinking Christianly about Memorial Day.

Because the Crusaders- for all their other faults- understood that our God-given, Christ-like unwillingness to take life is the ultimate sacrifice of war.

But they also understood that that ultimate sacrifice is not ultimate.

As in, it’s not final.

It can be healed. Reconciled. Restored.

And, as Christians, that’s what we should remember when we remember those who’ve died in war.

Because, after all, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to an abstract ideal (like ‘Freedom’) nor by pointing to something finite and temporal (like a nation).

Nor do Christians even make sense of death by saying the dead are ‘in a better place now.’

No.

Christians make sense of death by pointing to the promise of Resurrection.

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Christians make sense of death by pointing to Resurrection promise that what God does with Jesus at Easter, God will one day do with each of us, with all who have died and with all of creation.

All will be raised. All will be redeemed. All will be restored.

Such that, on that Resurrection Day, scripture tells us ‘mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’

In other words, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day all the harm done to our humanity will be healed, even- especially- the damage done by the sacrifice of war.

You see, the process of restoration that the Crusaders practiced when they returned home- it was a snapshot of our larger Resurrection hope.

Because, of course, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to a faraway Heaven we’ll fly away to some glad morning.

No, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day, the last day, Heaven will come down to Earth. God will dwell with us. And all of creation will be restored.

All things will be made new. Not all new things will be made.

All things will be made new again.

That means the promise of Resurrection is not just that the sacrifice we’ve asked our soldiers to endure will be restored.

It also means that whatever measures they took in this life for justice or peace are not lost but will be taken up by God and used as building blocks for the City of God.

And so, really, the best way for Christians to observe Memorial Day is to do so the same way we celebrate every Sunday- in the mystery of faith:

Christ has died– making peace on his Cross.

Christ is Risen– to be a sign of the restoration God will bring to all of us.

Christ will come again– when the good we’ve done in this world will become a part of God’s New Creation.

christianIn response to my post on Obama, Pope Francis and the ‘War’ Against ISIS last week, a smart annoyingly faithful friend asked me to ante up and articulate what a Christian holy war would like against ISIS.

My go-to, gut reaction was to point to Christian de Cherge, a French Trappist monk who ministered in Algeria up until the mid-1990’s. The award-winning film, Of Gods and Men, tells the story of de Cherge’s abbey.

Despite growing danger posed by radical Islamists in Algeria, de Cherge and his fellow monks refused to abandon their ‘parish’ and return to France. Having committed themselves to their neighbors (mostly Muslim), they insisted that their fate would be joined with their neighbors’ fate.

In May 1996, the GIA, a radical Muslim faction active in Algeria, kidnapped seven of James’s fellow Trappists in the Atlas Mountains and threatened to hold them hostage until France released several of their own imprisoned compatriots. Several weeks passed, and still the French government refused. In the end, the GIA killed the monks by beheading them.

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Christian de Chergé, had had a strange premonition that he would soon die a violent death, and wrote a letter forgiving his future assassins, sealed it, and left it with his mother in France.

Opened only after his murder, it read: 

If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism that now seems to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to Algeria; and that they accept that the sole Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.

I would like, when the time comes, to have a space of clearness that would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down.

I could not desire such a death; it seems to me important to state this:

How could I rejoice if the Algerian people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder?

My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But they should know that…for this life lost, I give thanks to God.

In this “thank you,” which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, my last-minute friend who will not have known what you are doing…

I commend you to the God in whose face I see yours.

And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.

As de Cherge makes uncomfortably clear, our tendency to dismiss the commandment to love our enemies as ‘unrealistic’ can sometimes serve to mask our discomfort that Jesus’ command in fact entails a willingness to lose our life for love’s sake.

The belief, then, that the love of one’s enemy, which can only and necessarily be self-giving, is the only war for which there can be something rightly called ‘victory’ is, it turns out, more realistic than the fantasy that violence will not this time beget more violence.

Was8864155Like many of you I’ve been- in equal measure- transfixed and sickened by the horror ISIS/L has brought to TVs and computer screens all over the world.

Watching martyrdom in the moment all but sanctions an anything goes retaliation, which can be seen in many Democrats’ willingness to jettison their rather clear Constitutional obligation when it comes to declarations of war.

It’s exactly when we think an enemy deserves no love and no forgiveness, neither compassion nor quarter- that we should submit to Jesus’ command to ‘love our enemies.’

It’s exactly when we’re faced with an evil for which there is no justification and to which any violent response seems justified that we should recall how we are justified- made right with God- by the faith of Jesus Christ alone.

            The faith of the One who died rather than kill unjustly.

The minute we think we’re facing a ‘real world’ situation for which the words and witness of Jesus have no ‘practical’ application is the moment in which we should shed ourselves of the pretense and cease bothering to follow Jesus.

Jesus’ commands are not abstract teachings to which we look for the exceptions; they are teachings to be applied no where else if not to the ‘exceptions.’

While pols and pundits now debate the scope and nature of President Obama’s ‘war’ it may be helpful, I think, for Christians to remind themselves that- speaking Christianly:

action against ISIS cannot rightly be called ‘war.’

The Christian journal Sojourners this week posted an editorial entitled ‘War is Not the Answer’ which seems to me not only cliche but beside the point. Dangerously so, for to accept the use of the term ‘war’ all but forsakes the Christian field of view.

ISIS is a terror group, a criminal network, representing no state (their chosen moniker aside) or government and abiding no exact borders- certainly not massing at our borders.

According to the demands of Christian Just War Tradition, then, war against ISIS cannot be just.

Indeed it cannot be war.

According to the Christian Just War tradition, the just and appropriate response to something like ISIS cannot be narrated in the language of war but only in the language of policing.

ted-cruz-350.gifStopping them. Not, as Joe McCarthy Ted Cruz recently said to cheers, ‘wiping them out.’

This isn’t just semantics or language games, for truthful speech requires that if a war is not just- if it’s not even rightly called a ‘war’- then we must call it something else and how we speak of it will necessarily shape how we prosecute it.

I suppose it’s not surprising (being Catholic and all, where the Just War Tradition has remained robust and urgent) but Pope Francis recently framed the threat posed by ISIS and a potential response in clear Christian terms.

That is, unlike President Obama et al, Pope Francis spoke Christian:

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“Where there is an unjust aggression I can only say that it is legitimate to stop the unjust aggressor…

I underscore the verb ‘to stop. I am not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ but ‘stop him.’ The means by which he can be stopped must be evaluated.

Stopping the aggressor is the legitimate [goal].”

 

#notbugsplat

Jason Micheli —  April 9, 2014 — Leave a comment

jr_kpk_fullOnce the Roman Empire ‘became’ ‘Christian’ for all intents and purposes war became Christian too.

Whereas in the original centuries of the Church’s history conversion to discipleship required the renunciation of violence and participation in war, after Constantine established Christianity as the imperial religion theological justification reflection became required for the Church.

Credited to St. Augustine of Hippo, what developed over the centuries was a set of criteria for determining when it is appropriate for those in authority to go to war (just ad bellum) and what moral restraint should be shown in the waging of war (jus in bello)– what’s known today as the Just War Tradition.

While I would argue, along with many in the military, that the President’s program of drone warfare violates jus ad bellum, I think it’s a clearer case for how drone warfare exemplifies exactly the sort of violence  jus in bello is meant to avoid.

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The two traditional criteria for jus in bello are “discrimination” and “proportionality.”

War is moral, says the Christian tradition, only if civilians are never intentionally targeted.

Extreme care must be taken even to avoid “accidental” civilian deaths, what in contemporary parlance was once euphemistically called “collateral damage” but now in the age of drones called “bugsplat.”

Proportionality in this context points to the just war claim that even in a justified war fought discriminately, one should use only the level of force necessary only to achieve one’s legitimate objectives.  Restraint should be shown not just to civilians; even enemy soldiers are neighbors who must not be killed unnecessarily.

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Behind the jus in bello criteria then are two fundamental convictions rooted in the Christian faith:

1. Because war is a sin- even when it’s necessary and just- then it is better to die than to kill wrongly.

2. Because it’s better to suffer or die than to cause unjust suffering or death, any warfare that is executed invisibly or secretly is inherently immoral.

Citizens must know the sacrifice what we ask our fellow citizen soldiers to make in our name, and we must also know who is sacrificed in the name of justice, peace, security…you name it.

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Because we believe we’ve seen God in the face of Christ, Christians must always insist to see the faces of our enemies killed in war because, even there, God takes flesh.

Indeed any person who worships in the name of one who himself was an innocent victim of the State should feel solidarity with all innocent victims of violence.

I bring all this up because A) it’s almost Holy Week and B) I came across an art installation that is thoroughly Christian in sentiment if not conviction. It perfectly shows how prophetic art can be and Christians should be.

This is from the website:

In military slang, Predator drone operators often refer to kills as ‘bug splats’, since viewing the body through a grainy video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed.

To challenge this insensitivity as well as raise awareness of civilian casualties, an artist collective installed a massive portrait facing up in the heavily bombed Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa region of Pakistan, where drone attacks regularly occur. Now, when viewed by a drone camera, what an operator sees on his screen is not an anonymous dot on the landscape, but an innocent child victim’s face. 

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The installation is also designed to be captured by satellites in order to make it a permanent part of the landscape on online mapping sites.

The project is a collaboration of artists who made use of the French artist JR’s ‘Inside Out’ movement. Reprieve/Foundation for Fundamental Rights helped launch the effort which has been released with the hashtag #NotABugSplat

The child featured in the poster is nameless, but according to FFR, lost both her parents and two young siblings in a drone attack. 

The group of artists traveled inside KPK province and, with the assistance of highly enthusiastic locals, unrolled the poster amongst mud huts and farms. It is their hope that this will create empathy and introspection amongst drone operators, and will create dialogue amongst policy makers, eventually leading to decisions that will save innocent lives.

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Brian_-_September_30__2008Pope Francis has called for today to be a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria. Catholic or not, at a time when Christians are diffused over so many different communions and traditions, Pope Francis offers a helpful singular voice of faith, a Christ-like perspective that transcends national and cultural distinctions.

There’s absolutely no defensible Christian reason not to do exactly what Francis calls Christians to do. I’ve now been at my present congregation long enough that youth I once saw dressed awkwardly for their confirmation are now wearing uniforms. I don’t want to see them wearing flags, as palls. As for their parents, this is more than an academic, theological question for me.

Francis’ is the loudest Christian voice reflecting on the Church’s vocation in times of war.

Popular author, Rachel Held Evans, has this piece in which she also counsels prayer and fasting.

Mark Tooley, at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, has this one, in which he concedes more than counsels that Christians can pray for peace.

Meanwhile, Brian Zahnd, a pastor and author in Missouri, has this post, essentially urging Christians to be a prayer for the world.

The distinction is important.

While I can’t say I’m a fan of Rachel Held Evans, I do admire the openness with which she wrestles the Christianity of her upbringing. My lack of fandom probably owes only to the fact that, unlike her, I grew up neither Southern nor Evangelical. I’m also aware that minus Fleming Rutledge there’s a paucity of female theologians referenced on this blog so I feel badly that I’m being critical now.

Nonetheless…in her post, ‘When It’s Too Big,’ RHE commends prayer because the Syrian issue is too complex and the right ‘solution’ too elusive. Because it’s ambiguous what Christians should do, the least they can do is pray.

I’m likewise reticent to critique Tooley’s post because I don’t want to be excoriated on the IRD blog the same way Rachel herself was a time ago. Still, reading ‘Syrian War and Churches’ you’d conclude Tooley thought Christians were just foolish people except that he’s one himself.

‘Syrian War and Churches’ lauds the Archbishop of Cantebury’s support of Syrian intervention because it meets Just War criteria, which, in its lack of any defined, measurable goal, it most definitely does not.

Let’s never mind the inconvenient truth that Just War Theory has NEVER prevented Christians from engaging in war. That it hasn’t suggests Just War Theory is less about discerning how Christians should navigate their dual commitments to State and Church and is more about providing a logical pretense for doing what you were going to do anyway- whatever the State wants you.

The sweeping way Tooley dismisses non-violence as a legitimate form of Christian witness is a post for another day, as is the way in which his defense of Just War Theory is replete with the fingerprints of Consequentialism.

Like in RHE’s post, Tooley allows for the role of prayer but scolds that Christians should not keep their faith from being serious about the solutions that may or may not be necessary when it comes to war.

Though they’d never want to share the company, Tooley and RHE both share the assumption that its the calling of Christians to find the right solution and contribute towards it.

Clearer put, they assume its the job of Christians to make the world come out right.

Brian Zahnd, on the other hand, gets right what I think both Tooley and RHE get wrong.

To the charge, which echoes Tooley’s post, ‘We have to be realistic’ Zahnd writes:

Being “realistic” does not exempt us from faithfulness to Christ. If we tell ourselves that Jesus has called us to “change the world” then we quickly find ways to justify our violent means. But Jesus doesn’t call us to change the world — he calls us to be faithful to his ways of peace. If in our faithfulness to Jesus we happen to change the world, fine, but our first call is to remain faithful. Jesus calls us to love our enemies, not because this is an “effective tactic,” but because this is what God is like.

To the counter that sometimes violence is necessary, Zahnd replies:

If we think violence is a viable option you can be sure we will resort to it. If violence is on the table, imagination is out the window. First century Jerusalem could not imagine any other way than violent revolution against the Romans. Jesus could. Jesus not only imagined the alternative, he embodied it. On the cross. And he calls us to follow him. If we don’t know (or refuse to know) the things that make for peace, we march blindly toward another fiery Gehenna.

Zahnd’s internal monologue goes on:

“You’re not being practical.”

No, I am not.

“You’re being foolish.”

It depends on whose lens you’re looking through. I grant that there are ways of looking at what I’m saying as foolishness. But I also insist that to live Christlike in a Caesar-like world is to risk being called a fool or worse.

What Zahnd gets right that others miss is that Christians are not called to solve the world’s problems, to offer solutions as though with our worldly wisdom and worldly ways we can bring the Kingdom of God ourselves.

Rather, as Jesus said right before he ascended to the Father, we’re called to witness to the Kingdom.

That’s a very different proposition.

When Jesus leads his disciples up to the Mt of Olives in Matthew 25, they ask Jesus: When will temple be destroyed and what will be the sign of the coming age?

Rather then answer them directly, Jesus responds with a series of parables about what kind of people his People should be in order to anticipate the coming age.

And the setting for all of this is the Mt of Olives, the place where Jews believed God would begin to usher in the new age (Zechariah 14.1-5).

Jesus predicts destruction, he takes them up to this mountain that’s loaded with symbolism- so why wouldn’t the disciples ask: ‘What will be the sign?’

Because the setting is the place where Jews believed God would end this age, to read the parable that follows rightly you have to go all the way back to the very beginning of scripture, to God’s original design, and God’s promise for a New Creation.

The Hebrew word for that harmony is ‘shalom,’ a word the New Testament translates as ‘peace.’ But it’s not just a sentiment or a feeling of tranquility. It’s restoration. Throughout scripture God’s judgment is against those who work against shalom.

Shalom is not just an abstract theme of scripture; it takes tangible form in the Torah where God lays out Israel’s special charge to care for the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the sick, the poor- whether they’re on the inside of community or the outside of the community because, as Leviticus says, ‘they’re just like you’ (19).

Implied in the Jewish Law is the reality that the stranger and the widow and the orphan and the poor lack an advocate in this world. They are a sign of what’s broken in creation; therefore, God intervenes for them by calling Israel to labor with him in establishing God’s shalom.

This partnership between God and God’s People- this is how God puts creation back together again. This is what the Old Testament is about.

Then, in the New, God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ to model shalom for us. Until God brings forth the New Heaven and the New Earth he calls the believing community to embody in every aspect of their lives the shalom that is made flesh in Jesus Christ.

The works of mercy listed in Jesus’ parable- they’re not just a simple list of good deeds.

It’s a summary of what God’s shalom looks like.

This parable isn’t a superficial reminder to do good to others. It’s a description of Israel’s vocation, a vocation taken on by and made flesh in Jesus Christ.

This parable is Jesus’ final teaching moment before his passion begins. It’s the equivalent of the end of John’s Gospel where Jesus breathes on his disciples and says: ‘My shalom I give you.’

The point is not that we will be judged according to our good deeds per se.

The point is that we will be judged by the extent to which we embody Christ’s life.

The point is not that our faith or beliefs in Jesus have nothing to do with how we will be judged.

The point is we will be judged by the extent to which our faith in Christ has allowed us to conform our lives to witness to his way of life- which is the life God desired for all of us before Sin entered the world.

Ask yourself: who is it that welcomes the stranger, loves their enemy, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, brings good news to the prisoner?

This is a description of Jesus’ life.

The sheep in Matthew 25 are saved not because of their good deeds.

The sheep are saved because they’ve dared to witness to the life that redeems the world.

The sign of the new age that the disciples were asking about?

The sign of that new age are a people bold enough to embody the life of Christ. That’s why Jesus tells this story.

When we say that Jesus is the only way to the Father, we don’t just mean our belief in Jesus is the only way to the Father.

We also mean Jesus’ way of life is the only way we get to the Father’s love.

Scripture doesn’t teach that after we welcome them the stranger will cease being strange to us or that our differences are insignificant.

Scripture doesn’t teach that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies.

Scripture doesn’t teach that by visiting the prisoner we’ll convince the prisoner to swear off crime.

Scripture doesn’t teach that in feeding the hungry the hungry will show appreciation to us or that in caring for the needy we won’t find the needy a burden to us.

The Christian life isn’t being ‘realistic’ as the world defines it, and it’s not about solutions to creation’s problems.

It’s about witness to a different reality; it’s about a witness that anticipates and ever so slightly contributes towards the New Creation.

In a world of violence and injustice and poverty and loneliness Jesus has called us to be a people who welcome strangers and love enemies and refuse the sword and bring good news to prisoners, feed and cloth the poor and care for those who have no one.

An alternative.

Not a solution.

And so Zahnd and Francis are absolutely, urgently right. Prayer isn’t what you do when the realistic solutions are elusive and its not what you do after you’ve gone about realistically solving the world’s problems.

If God raised Jesus from the dead, the prayer of an alternative community is the most realistic thing there can be.

 

Unknown-1With military action against Syria increasingly looking like a foregone conclusion, I’ve heard lots of chatter on NPR and elsewhere about the separation of powers and what authority the constitution does and does not afford the President when it comes to war- concerns that must have been in hibernation during the previous administration.

When it comes to Syria, I’ve heard liberals making liberal political arguments and I’ve heard conservatives making conservative political arguments. What I haven’t heard much of is Christians making Christian arguments.

While I’ve have substantive problems with the Christian Just War tradition and have been open about being a closet Mennonite; nonetheless, Just War theory remains arguably the most dominant Christian tradition with respect to war.  For that reason, perhaps it’s helpful to outline its parameters and then you can discern how intervention against Syria fits the bill.

Below is a synopsis I wrote with Dr Barry Penn Hollar:

Just War theory was “borrowed” from the Roman Stoic tradition by Christian theologians, like Augustine and Aquinas, who gave it a distinctly Christian orientation. The development of this tradition reflects the changing context of Christian faith and witness.

By the fourth century, the Christian expectation of Jesus’ imminent return had waned. The church was no longer a persecuted minority in a hostile Roman empire. Indeed, soon after the emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, Christianity became the official religion of the empire and, at least nominally, Christian religion enjoyed majority status.

In such a context, it may have been inevitable that Christians came to recognize military participation as a legitimate expression of discipleship.

Now that the instruments of earthly authority were in their hands (rather than dripping with their blood!), they inevitably asked about the appropriate use of those instruments in the service of order and justice.

Not surprisingly, they came to feel a sense of responsibility that was not theirs before and to question whether prayer was an adequate Christian contribution to the welfare of the empire as they had believed earlier.

What developed over the centuries was a set of criteria for determining when it is appropriate for those in authority to go to war (just ad bellum) and what moral restraint should be shown in the waging of war (jus in bello).

The starting point for thinking about when it is appropriate to go to war was the idea of legitimate authority.

Only those with authority (from God?) for public order could wage war. Private violence, or violence in the service of individual interests continued to be condemned, but war as instrument of those charged with responsibility for public order and justice was recognized as morally appropriate.

Prior to the democratic revolutions and the development of democratic ideas about legitimacy, there was a strong presupposition of individual obedience to the authorities.

The authorities decided when war was just; individual citizens obeyed.  Matters are complicated somewhat by modern ideas about governmental authority arising from the consent of the governed.

In a democratic society, broad public support for war is not just a practical matter; since the legitimacy of the government depends on the consent of the governed, some would argue that war without broad public support is not waged with legitimate authority.

The just war tradition insisted that war could only be waged for a “just cause” and not simply to protect and promote the interests of some party or even of the nation as a whole.

Surely, war cannot be waged for the purpose of building or expanding an empire.  In the words of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops “force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic rights of whole populations.”

As well, the tradition insists that a nation can only wage war with a “right intention,” that is, motivated by the just cause and with the goal of achieving a just peace.

War fought out of hatred for the enemy and when expressed justifying causes are merely a mask for ulterior interests and motives is ruled out.

A legitimate authority with a just cause and right intentions must engage in further moral reflection before going to war.

It must be certain that war is a “last resort.”

Put differently, if there are other means (diplomatic pressure, boycotts, embargos, etc.) for defending the just cause and achieving a just and stable peace that could reasonably be expected to work, they should be tried before going to war.

We must also ask whether there is a “reasonable chance of success.”

It is not right to go to war—that is, to pursue a policy that inevitably involves death and destruction—if one has little or no chance of winning the war and, more important, achieving the just peace one seeks.

Finally, one must ask the question of “proportionality.”

Even if we win, will we have done more harm than good.

These final three critieria all involve great wisdom and prudence. They are not matters about which one can have mathematical certainty; they are matters of moral wisdom about which well-meaning people will disagree. This is especially true of proportionality.

Imagine one has a just cause (saving the citizens of Dafur, for example) and the military might necessary to defeat the forces promoting the evil injustices that appropriately cause moral outrage.  “Proportionality” suggests that it might still be wrong to go to war because the harm one would have to inflict to achieve the cause outweighs the good one could do.

The just war tradition also places moral limits on war.

Its two traditional criteria are “discrimination” and “proportionality” (with a slightly different meaning than before).

War is moral, says the Christian just warrior, only if civilians are never intentionally targeted.

Extreme care must be taken even to avoid “accidental” civilian deaths, what in contemporary parlance is euphemistically called “collateral damage.”  (Remember, hidden behind that phrase are the dead bodies of children, women, and old men killed “accidently,” but dead nonetheless!)

Proportionality in this context points to the just war claim that even in a justified war fought discriminately, one should use only the level of force necessary to achieve one’s legitimate objectives.

Even enemy soldiers are neighbors who must not be killed unnecessarily.

 

09battle-pic-articleLargeThis rant cum historical excursion has been brought to you by the article I read today in the NY Times, The Holy Grail of Battle Re-enactments. 

Being in church work, I’ve gone paint-balling a few times.

Truth be told, I’m not a half-bad paint-baller. I’m not much of a strategist and I’ve got subpar aim but that’s ameliorated by my base desire to win and my rather high threshold for a hot pain that comes in the form hickey marks.

I never considered joining the military but paintballing confirms the USA lost out on an at least one gutsy commando.

On one hand at least, paint-balling with church folk is instructive.

It gives you a brief, if pretend, glimpse into which members of your flock just might be willing to lay their lives down for another.

It shows you which church people need only a momentary whiff of the chum of victory to go bat-ass crazy on an erstwhile friend.

And it reveals- or confirms- which of your would be Jesus followers are actually cheaters in Flanders’ clothes.

We’ve actually had to kick adult chaperones out of the game for cheating against children.

And shooting said children (sometimes their own children) after the whistle.

At close range.

In the face.

Or close to the border of their huevos.

(I know adults are constantly trying to recover their youth, and while the fountain of youth remains elusive, I do know paintballing is where adult men go to recover their juvenile adolescence.)

So religiopaintballing is not with out its edifying uses- I forgot to mention its ability to make an ordinary pastor look, if not cool, legit.

Nevertheless, on each occasion I left the ‘arena’ feeling infected with a low-grade moral confusion about this vicar of Christ’s participation in and de facto affirmation of faux bloodletting.

Each time and every time I’ve left feeling that paintballing is not a little like pretending to beat your wife or kick your dog. For a small fee and ammunition cost.

“Put your sword away!”
-Jesus addressing Peter in the Garden of Gethsamane

The conundrum:

If violence is counter to the way of Christ then does paintballing mock the One who would have us turn the other cheek?

Or, if Christ would have us put away the sword does pulling out an air-powered paint gun that cannot kill constitute an acceptable alternative?

Almost like Guerrilla Theater?

I’ve always felt a similar but more urgent strand of this moral quandary when it comes to war reenactments.

It’s one thing to usurp God’s sovereignty and ignore Christ’s cross (the sacrifice to end all sacrifices- Hebrews) to participate in the taking of human life when society deems it necessary, just and a last resort. But it strikes me as odd to reenact- with glee and outlandish seriousness- battles our forebears likely wished they didn’t have to fight.

civil_war_soldiers-union_confederateThis winter I even attended a parade for Stonewall Jackson’s birthday so my son could get first rate material for his report on the Confederate hero.

Confederate flags, uniforms, tearful tributes, drums and period authentic artillery were everywhere. When asked, on my iPhone camera, about Stonewall Jackson a costumed reenacter began:

‘Well, you’ve got to remember Stonewall Jackson loved the blacks…’

Like the elder Dr. Jones to Indy when they sneak about in Berlin in The Last Crusade, I said to Alexander: ‘We’re in the belly of the beast, son.’ BerlinRally

Celebrating our forebears’ selfless sacrifice is one thing.

To celebrate by simulation the very they thing regretted having to do is another. I’ve met plenty of folks who participate in reenactments (I’m from southern Richmond after all) and I can say with a modicum of authority that war reenactments have all the moral seriousness of my boys’ playing with their plastic, bloodless, lifeless GI Joe figures.

 

On the other hand, the men and women I’ve known who’ve actually served in a real, honest to goodness war are nothing if not morally serious about what we ask of and from them. We ask them not just to give their lives potentially but to sacrifice their God-given reluctance to kill. For us.

“Pilate deserves our sympathies, not because he was a good though tragically misunderstood man, but because we are not much better. We may believe in Jesus, but we do not believe in his ideas, at least not his ideas about violence, truth and justice.”

-Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace

Across the spectrum of history, Christians have nearly always held war to fall somewhere between ‘always an evil’ (Christian Pacifism) and ‘sometimes a necessary and tragic evil in which we do not glory‘ (Christian Just War Perspective).

I know, everyone likes to cite the Crusades as though that’s the eternal, definitive manifestation of Christian praxis.

It’s interesting how the Crusades get blamed on the evil institution that is the Church when every other war in history would suggest political and economic concerns agitated the Crusades…and Christians went- or were taken- along for the ride.

Speaking of the Crusades:

It’s not the golden egg of an argument people assume because even after having battled the infidels, Christian soldiers were required to do penance when they returned home. After all, even if it was a ‘holy‘ war, by taking another’s life they’d still committed sin.

The NY Times, The Holy Grail of Battle Re-enactments. details the experience, motives and COST (!!!!) behind the peopled participating in the holy grail of war reenactments. This battle simulates, down to loose teeth and concussions, the warfare of Medieval Europe, a time to which I’m sure we’d all like to return. Not.

I’ve gone paintballing enough to know that most of these folks are probably like the hardcore wannabes who show up to paint ball with their own custom weapons, bedecked in expensive gear, and armed with a nickname inspired by Deerhunter. The same guys who don’t realize Deerhunter is meant to be a tragic, critique of the war, movie. images

AKA: Guys without girlfriends.

And sadly, we all know that most fallen soldiers did have girlfriends. Or more.

Here’s the article:

Inside Craig Ivey’s travel bag are objects reminiscent of the Middle Ages.

He has a steel, rounded shield; a five-sided, wooden shield; a red, white and blue surcoat; a protective vest; a wraparound helmet, pockmarked with dents; steel pads to hide his forearms, knees, legs and hands; and a blunt-edged sword designed to inflict pain but not cut. His collection cost about $4,000.

Ivey, a fitness trainer in Atlanta, will use all 60 pounds of the equipment Thursday at an outdoor arena in Aigues-Mortes, in the south of France. He will compete in his first Battle of the Nations, a modern-day, medieval-like combat involving national teams of fighters.

“Everybody thinks I’m a little crazy,” Ivey said, without refuting the perception.

Ivey, 34, is among an estimated 500 participants from 22 countries entered in the four-day event.

Full-contact armored fighting events grew out of participation in historical re-enactments, which are largely theatrical and tame. More common re-enactment fighting involves wooden weapons in the United States. The Battle of the Nations, in its fourth year, is the first international full-contact competition of this scale that uses steel armor — a heightened risk factor that has attracted a certain breed of fighters. It has been won by Russia every year.

Many fighters are intrigued by a time when differences were settled by sword fights to the death.

“I’ve always been interested in history and war,” Ivey said. “To be able to get my mind around what it was like back then, I look at it from this perspective: If I lose the fight, that would be me dying out there.”

The Battle of the Nations consists of four fighting formats: 1 on 1; 5 on 5; 21 on 21; and all against all, in which some opposing squads join forces. Winners of each match are decided by which side has the last fighter, or fighters, standing. A combatant bows out when three body parts, which include the feet, are touching the ground. Matches involving fewer fighters are usually over within a couple minutes, while the all-versus-all match can last up to 10 minutes.

Elements of the competition have been borrowed from other sports. The referee, called the knight marshal, issues soccer-style yellow and red cards for rule infractions. Fighters are assigned positions similar to those in American football, like center, guard and flanker.

Jaye Brooks, 47, executive officer of the United States team, described the game strategy partly as keeping adversaries from getting behind a team’s players, similar to hockey and soccer.

Brooks, a senior project manager in Nashua, N.H., recruited a team of 50 fighters, including himself and his son Catlin, 25, for the event. Last year, Brooks said, participants needed to meet only two qualifications to make the squad: paying for a trip to Poland and “having the guts to do this.”

The United States finished fourth of 14 teams in its international debut last year, and 18 of the 29 members from that team returned. The average age of this year’s American players is 37. And while no woman has competed for the United States squad, Brooks said, a women’s division is being considered.

Ivey’s motivation to compete is similar to that of others who are willing to fight, with an understanding that injuries are possible. He described his mind-set as being like that of a soldier.

“If you get hurt, you get hurt,” he said.

A military background is common for the participants. At least a quarter of this year’s United States fighters have served in the military, Brooks said.

Not everyone, including friends and family members, appreciates such enthusiasm for this niche style of martial arts.

“They think I’m a little bizarre,” said Brooks, whose sports background includes football. “But if everyone was the same, the world would be an awfully boring place.”

Brooks’s teammate Bryan Cannata, 42, an information technology specialist in Augusta, Ga., regards armored combat fighting as a natural extension of his interest in the medieval period.

“It’s not something I want to do,” Cannata said. “It’s something I have to do.”

There are rules to the game, but not ones that are restrictive enough to eliminate serious injuries.

Unlike in traditional sports, equipment is inspected to ensure it conforms to a period in history that the particular competition is commemorating, based on historic findings and evidence.

Weapons must be blunted. Stabbing or thrusting, which Brooks defined as repeatedly delivering excess force to the same point of contact, is not allowed. Fighters can hit any region in the “kill zone,” which excludes the feet, back of knees, groin, back of neck and base of skull. Vertical strikes to the spine and horizontal strikes to the back of the neck are forbidden.

Injuries have included dislodged teeth and broken or severed fingers. In the United States, the athletes also undergo baseline testing to check for the possibility of concussions.

This year’s United States team will be accompanied by a support staff of 50 members, including a physician, a psychologist specialized in head trauma, cooks, armorers, knight marshals, squires and a masseuse.

But injury precautions and preventive measures can only do so much. Cannata, who has a background in fencing and martial arts, said, “The potential for life-altering injury is very serious.”

Brooks, who has torn knee muscles competing, will take any punishment that comes with recreating a period in history.

“This is the perfect sport for someone who wishes to participate in one of the roughest sports on earth, has a love of armor and weapons and Western martial arts, and a desire to be as close to being a knight of old as is possible in this modern age,” he said. “Most of us doing this sport dreamt as children of being a knight one day. Who knew we could make that dream a reality?”