We will fight for peace, but we will do no violence.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Jesus and the Church Triumphant by Greg Boyd

In my opinion, the most tragic event in history took place on October 28, 312AD, in ancient Rome. On this date the emperor Constantine defeated a rival to become sole ruler of the Roman Empire.

This would have been just another example of the sort of bloodletting that has typified human history were it not for one fact: Constantine attributed this victory to his new found deity, Jesus Christ. He allegedly received a vision just prior to the battle that promised him victory if his soldiers marched into it with the sign of Christ on their shields.

 It was the first time in history that the name of Jesus was associated with nationalistic violence. Having set this precedent, however, it would hardly be the last.

 While Jesus and the Gospel authors identified the quest for political and nationalistic power to be a temptation of Satan (Lk 4:7-7), Eusebius, Augustine and other Church leaders interpreted Constantine’s vision and the consolidation of power under him that his victory brought about to be from God.

A cornerstone of pagan religion throughout history has been the assumption that military victories are granted by the victor’s god. With this diabolic christening of Constantine’s vision, Christianity became, to a large degree, just another violence-prone pagan religion, and Jesus just another nationalistic warrior god. Whereas the New Testament makes it clear that the Church is called to be a community of humble peacemakers who follow the example of Jesus by sacrificially serving the world and loving their enemies, the Church now became “the Church Triumphant.” The Church that was called to look like a corporate Jesus – carrying the cross out of love for the world – now began to look like a corporate Caesar, carrying the sword to conquer the world “in Jesus name.”

The sovereign God of course continued to work through the Constantinian Church Triumphant, and the good that the Church has accomplished throughout history shouldn’t be minimized. Yet, because of this tragic Constantinian transformation, the Church Triumphant (for the most part) failed to bear witness to the self-sacrificial, enemy-loving, character of Jesus that lies at the heart of the Gospel.

While there have thankfully always been Jesus-followers who opted out of the Church Triumphant by refusing to pick up the sword, the Church as a whole has consistently shown itself to be all-too-willing to employ it. In the name of Jesus the Church has at various times carried out barbarically violent crusades against Muslims, Jews, heretics, witches, and even other Christians.

In the name of Jesus the Conquistadors conquered the Americas, slaughtering the natives whenever it was expedient to do so. And in the name of Jesus, Catholics, Protestants and the Orthodox Church frequently engaged in religious, political and nationalistically motivated torturing and killing, often against one other. This macabre bloodshed in Jesus name was significantly curbed throughout Europe with the signing of the “Peace of Westphalia” (1648), a series of politically motivated truces that were imposed by governmental rulers to put an end to the relentless Christian-on-Christian bloodletting that had been going on for centuries. But the violent legacy of the Church Triumphant nevertheless continued in other areas and in other ways.

We should discern this tragic legacy in the American revolution as well as the American civil war, for in both wars the warriors were Christians fighting “for God and country” under the banner of Jesus Christ. And we should discern this violent legacy today in the fact that the vast majority of professing Christians continue to support the use of violence when it’s in their personal or national self-interest to do so.

We should also discern this violent legacy in the fact that most professing Christians in the west, especially in America, continue to believe that the material wealth they enjoy is evidence of divine favor, despite the fact that it is in large part the result of violent exploitation in the past as well as the present. And we should discern this violent legacy in the fact that many American Christians continue to embrace the age-old pagan conviction that our soldiers fight “for God and country” and that our military victories are given us by God. 

When the late Jerry Falwell was asked on national Television several years ago what he believed America should do in response to the 9/11 attack, he responded with a calm smile, “we need to blow them [terrorists] all away in the name of the Lord.” He was simply expressing, and perpetuating, the violent legacy of the Church Triumphant.

What makes the legacy of violence in Jesus name demonically ironic is that Jesus – whom all Christians claim to follow – was utterly opposed to all violence!

To appreciate how radical Jesus’ stance on non-violence was, we need to remember that Jesus was a first century Jew. Jews were at this time under the rule of Rome, and they hated it. Most saw submission to pagan rulers as not only oppressive (which it was) but also as an assault on their faith. Since they worshipped the true God, they reasoned, heathens who worship idols shouldn’t rule them.

For this reason, most Jews of Jesus’ day were looking for God to vindicate them by liberating them from Roman rule and reinstating Israel as a sovereign nation. Accordingly, most were looking for a Messiah who would be used by God to accomplish this. Central to their concept of the Messiah was the assumption that he’d be a warrior king like David in the Old Testament. Most expected the Messiah to rise up in the power of God, lead a violent revolt against the Romans, and liberate Israel with the power of the sword.

Into this tense and violent-tending environment comes Jesus. Because of his supernatural power, many started to look to him as the Messiah, and he told his closest confidants that he was, in fact, the Messiah. But instead of talking and acting like a warrior king, Jesus repeatedly, and emphatically, taught his fellow Jews that they shouldn’t seek to violently overthrow their enemies. They should rather seek to love and serve them.

His message couldn’t have possibly been more radically counter-cultural. It’s what ultimately got him crucified. In one passage, for example, Jesus said, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other also” (Luke 6:27-29). And lest anyone missed the point, Jesus came back to it six verses later.

While everyone loves their friends, Jesus continued, the distinctive mark of all who follow him is that we are to love our enemies and do good to them (Luke 6:35-36).

What’s particularly astonishing is that Jesus made loving our enemies the condition for being considered a child of God. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus taught: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45-46, emphasis added). What Jesus is teaching us is that, just as the Father sends rain indiscriminately, his followers are to love indiscriminately -- all people, at all times, no “ifs,” “ands” or “buts.” And we must love like this so that we may be children of the Father! To refuse to love like this, in other words, disqualifies one from being considered a child of God.

How Constantine and Church leaders like Augustine could ever associate the name of this peace-loving Messiah with violence is an utter mystery. One is tempted to appeal to the deceptive power of the devil to explain it.

A little earlier in Matthew Jesus told his followers, “Do no resist an evildoer” (Mt 5:39). Now, the Greek word translated “resist” (antistenai) doesn’t suggest followers of Jesus are to simply sit back and let evil take over. The word rather connotes resisting a forceful action with a similar forceful action. Jesus is thus forbidding his followers to respond to violent action with a similar violent action. But he’s not saying, “Do nothing.”

 Paul made this same point when he instructed Christians to never “repay evil with evil” and to never “take revenge. ” Instead, we are to “overcome evil with good” (Romans.12: 17, 19. See also I Thessalonians 5:15 and I Peter 3:9).

We aren’t to do nothing: we’re to love. If our enemy is hungry, we’re to feed them. And if they’re thirsty, we’re to given them something to drink (Romans 12:20).

This is how we’re to respond to enemies according to Jesus and his earliest followers. This is good for us, because it keeps us from sinking to the level of our enemies. And its good for our enemies, for it opens up the possibility that they’ll see the wrong they’re doing and turn from it. And while it may be costly, it’s ultimately good for the world. For this is the only way of responding to evil that actually prevents propagating it further.

It’s important to notice that Jesus never qualified the “enemies” or “evil doers” we’re supposed to love. Jesus didn’t say, “Love your enemies until they threaten you or your nation; until it seems justified to resort to violence; until they threaten the supremacy of your religion; or until it seems impractical to do so.” Enemies are enemies precisely because they threaten us on some level, and it always seems justified and practically expedient to resist them, if not harm them if necessary. Jesus simply said, “Love your enemies” and “don’t resist evildoers.”

It’s important to also remember that some of the people Jesus was saying this to would before long confront enemies who would feed them and their families to lions for amusement! (The first persecution of Christians broke out under Nero in 64 AD). Jesus wasn’t just talking about being nice to our grumpy neighbors! He was instructing us to love all enemies, regardless of why they’re our enemies, and regardless of how bad an enemy they are.

But Jesus didn’t simply teach about non-violence. He practiced it. When he was being unjustly arrested, his disciple Peter pulled out a sword in self-defense and swung it at one of the hostile guards, cutting of his ear. If ever there was an incident in which “Just War Theory” would conclude that the use of violence was “justified,” this would be it. Yet Jesus rebuked Peter, telling him to put his sword away, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52). The history of the human race is largely a bloody merry-go-round of people thinking their use of violence was “justified” and that the world would get fixed if only we who are moral could eradicate the “evil-doers” – if only we could “blow them up in the name of the Lord.” The assumption is a demonic delusion. The use of violence has always, and will always, eventually lead to more violence. Kill your enemy today and you recruit his children and grandchildren to be your enemy for generations to come. Jesus is trying to show us a way of finally getting off this mindless, bloody merry-go-round and live a different way.

After telling Peter to put away his sword, Jesus proceeded to illustrate the different, non-violent, mindset he wants his followers to cultivate by healing the ear of the aggressor that Peter had just severed (Lk 22:51). The Jesus-way of responding to enemies and of transforming the world, we see, is not through violent force, but by doing good to those who oppose us.

Jesus obviously is recommending a radically different way of doing life. This is why he told Pilate that his “kingdom” was “not from this world.” If his kingdom were a “normal” earthly kingdom, Jesus said, his followers would of course fight the way soldiers in all “normal” earthly kingdoms fight (John 18:36). But the movement Jesus came to establish -- a movement he called “the kingdom of God” -- was not at all “normal” in this respect. For the distinctive mark of the people aligned with his movement was that they would refuse to fight to further their causes. Instead, they would love, bless, serve and heal their enemies.

The way of Jesus is the way of self-sacrificial love, not coercive force. This is why Jesus allowed himself to be crucified when he could have more easily called on thousands of warring angels to fight on his behalf (Matthew 26:53). He died as an expression of love for all people – including Pilate, the hostile guard, and everyone else who was crucifying him. He died to reconcile us to the peace-loving God and free us from our addiction to violence. He voluntarily gave his life because he knew that what the world needed was not one more futile attempt at fixing it with violence. What the world rather needed was someone who would give his life to transform the world through self-sacrificial love.

And Jesus tells all of us to follow his example. In a world characterized by cyclical violence, we are to lay down our swords and love, bless and pray for our enemies. It may seem impractical if not outright insane. Jesus said it would. But I’m convinced he was right in believing that the hope of the world lies in people opting to live this way, rather than the more typical way of the violent warrior.

The tribe that follows Jesus will someday reign as “the Church Triumphant.” But as we are told in the Book of Revelation, the way we triumphant is not by using force, but by “following the lamb” (Rev. 14:4), offering ourselves up in love toward others, just as he did.

-Greg Boyd, author of "The Myth of a Christian Nation".

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