Deepak Chopra’s Peace is the Way: Bringing War and Violence to an End (New York: Harmony Books, 2005). Review by Brad Jersak.
What troubled me most about Deepak Chopra’s Peace is the Way is not that the author gives no pretence of being Christian. Nor was I surprised that his deep respect for Jesus of Nazareth did not extend to a high Christology that would acknowledge Jesus as the divine Son of God. I didn’t expect that of him. No, what really bothered me was that in spite of this, Chopra sounded much more like the Jesus of the Gospels than many purportedly Christian teachers.
It caused me to hit the pause button and ask, what is a Christian? Is a Christian someone who assents to the right doctrines about Jesus? Or is it someone who actually hears the gospel, speaks it, and then lives it out according to Jesus? Of course, this is a false dilemma. We must not pit doing against believing. A Christian is someone who both trusts and obeys Jesus Christ as proclaimed by the apostles, i.e., as the one and only Son, perfect in deity and in humanity, actually God and actually man.”1
And while Chopra would not likely agree to such theology, I found that certain aspects of his latest book represented Jesus’ teaching on faith, love, and peace better than I ever have. I was reminded of Jesus’ parable of the two sons in Matthew 21:28–31. An updated version might sound like this:
God had two children: a New Ager and an Evangelical. He went to the first and said, “Deepak,
I have sent my Son Jesus into the world with a message of salvation. Will you renounce all other gods, philosophies, and gurus, serving only Jesus of Nazareth, the Prince of Peace, as your God and Saviour?” Chopra answered, “I don’t think I can do that.” Later on, however, he began to preach and to pray and to act as Jesus did, proclaiming Jesus’ way of peace, love, and forgiveness as the solution to a lost world.
God made the same request of His Evangelical child, who replied, “Of course I will.” But, having been converted, baptized, and even ordained, that second child did not preach or pray or act as Jesus did. He proclaimed something quite different than the Christ of the gospels: militant crusades, just wars, and redemptive violence. Which of the two children did what God asked? The first? Yes, and I warn you lest the New Agers precede you into God’s kingdom.
As a Christian reviewer, I must resist the temptation to simply dissect Chopra’s work, contradicting him wherever I disagree or quoting Scripture wherever I think he is heretical. That would be pointless. Rather, I will simply reflect on two areas of his book where a light came on for me, two areas where I think, like Balaam, Deepak Chopra the “pagan prophet” may have a word of wisdom for us all.
I. Violence is the fruit of suffering
As someone committed to active non-violence (as opposed to simple pacifism), I am opposed to violence as a solution to either personal or political problems. It seems natural then that I should view violence as evil. I am also tempted to go the next step, to view violent people as evil. But Chopra challenges such thinking as unproductive for peacemakers. The following quote led to one of those “A-ha!” moments for me:
“The moral view of violence, labelling it as bad and wrong, has done little to end it. The alternative view is to release our judgments and see violence for what it is: a form of suffering. This is a difficult shift for many people. Not only are they in the habit of making knee-jerk judgments, but violent people cause harm, and therefore their suffering seems to deserve less sympathy. You hurt me, so why should I have compassion for you? The absence of love is absolutely the problem, and love is absolutely the solution. We don’t have to couch this truth in religious terms. We do not have to reach into another realm to locate the redeeming power of love that is available to us here and now (p. 225–226).”
Violence as a form of suffering? After a double take, I began to wrestle with this profound truth. When my children are violent with each other, I can either overpower this “evil” with more violence—a form of eye-for-an-eye justice that mirrors or even escalates the child’s violence—OR, I can assume that all behaviour is meaningful, that sibling violence indicates my boys are suffering something that requires creative, loving intervention rather than repeated punishment. The victims are not the only ones in need of my love. The perpetrators of the violence require it as well. This thought was radically enlarged in my mind as I thought about centuries of sibling violence between the children of Abraham. As is often the case, Bono of U2 says it best:
Lay it down
Lay down your guns
All you daughters of Zion
All your Abraham’s sons
I don’t know if I can take it
I’m not easy on my knees
It’s my heart that you’re breaking
We need some release, release, release
We need love and peace
Love and peace2
What if this vision came to be? What if some are already living the vision? I’ve been watching with growing wonder as foreign aid is building bridges between western Christians and radical Muslims in Indonesia since the 2004 tsunami. The violence between Christians and Muslims in that nation was evil in the same way that Saddam’s actions in Iraq were evil. But I dare say that the “love bombs” in South East Asia have far outperformed any smart bombs we dropped on what was once the Garden of Eden.
Further, as an oft-smug Canadian who is tempted to be contemptuous of the resurgence of American militarism, I was challenged by Chopra to re-think my assumptions, seeing the US, not merely as the latest evil empire, but as a nation still traumatized by grief and fear in the wake of 9/11. Again, even America’s violence is the manifestation of tremendous suffering.
Rather than simply being anti-war or anti-empire, (which only leads to resistance and further polarization, as Chopra points out) perhaps my imagination as a peacemaker needs to evolve to where I extend love not only to the victims of terrorists or imperial invaders but also to the terrorists and imperial troops themselves.
Justice seeks to move beyond being horrified at the darkness of the violent ones. It presumes to ask hard questions: “Why is it dark? Why are they violent? What suffering creates such horror?” Yet these very questions evoked derision from critics of Prime Minister Chrétien when he dared to raise them. Surely these questions deserve more table-space where religious and political think-tanks gather to strategize for peace.
II. God is revealed in stages
Christians who really take Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount seriously (Matthew 5–7) must eventually grapple with the frequently violent God represented in the Old Testament. When we come to the New Testament, we meet Christ, the Prince of Peace, presented as the perfect image of the true God, the final revelation of his Father’s will and character. To see Jesus is to see the true heart of God:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17)
So how do we account for the apparent discontinuity between the Christ of the Gospels, who taught us to love our enemies and lay down our swords, and this apparently nationalistic God called Yahweh, who can and does command genocide (defined as “the systematic and planned killing of an entire national, racial, political, or ethnic group3)?
This is no mere parlour game for theological armchair quarterbacks. For many, it constitutes a genuine crisis of faith. They rant at heaven with accusing fingers, “Why would a loving God order his people to go to war or commit genocide in the first place? How could God value the lives of one group of his creatures over another and still call himself just?” Far too many become atheists, not from unbelief, but out of revenge against a God they have come to hate.
That said, theologians have attempted to cope with this incongruity in a variety of ways:
1. Some minimize or justify the violence of Yahweh in the Old
Testament. He is the Almighty God who may kill and destroy at will and
may command his followers to do so as well. In every case, he appears
to have good reasons for exercising such wrath.
2. Some maximize the violence of Christ in the New Testament (using the wrath of Christ against the nations in John’s book of Revelation).
3. Some give up on reconciling the differences and cast off the Old Testament altogether.
4. Some give up on the inspiration of Scripture completely. They re-frame God as human creation and the Bible as a record of the evolution of Near Eastern religious thought.
5. Others believe that the Bible represents a progressive revelation whereby God gradually unveils more and more of His true self until we see Him clearly in Christ.
For the record, I have long believed in a form of this fifth model, but it still left me with questions: If God is progressively unveiled throughout Scripture, what are the veils he is removing? Where did they originate? And most relevant to this discussion, what effects did those veils have on our understanding of God? How did those effects impact the generation of Scripture?
Consider this: What if the Scriptures are an inspired record of both (a) how God’s people saw and described Him through the veils of their own social evolution, and (b) how God progressively removed those veils, finally tearing them away completely in Christ? Surprisingly, Chopra may offer a piece or two to this puzzle. He puts it this way:
“If your mind feels conflicted, or guilty, or schizoid, there is no other way to view God than through those lenses. If your mind is organized, coherent, and clear, there is no other way to view God than through those lenses. There are as many versions of God as there are people in the world. However, these can be simplified into seven stages that match the seven stages of consciousness. They are like glasses that give us a certain viewpoint of the world. As evolution proceeds, God changes. The level of consciousness that makes God a supporter of war and a source of fear shifts, to be replaced by a peaceful and loving God.” (153)
I can’t buy that at face value. I don’t believe that social evolution actually changes God (nor does Chopra in broader context). But if stage by stage, God removes veils that blind or distort our understanding of his true character, this leads me to two key questions: (a) Did the authors of Scripture also experience this progression? (I’d say, Of course!) (b) Is the authors’ experience of this progression evident in the text? (I.e. how does their veiled understanding of God show up in the text?)
Chopra suggests that God is revealed / understood in stages as civilization develops. In other words, the revelation of God that we have is a reflection of our own social evolution. I would suggest that the opposite is true: societies evolve because God continues to remove veils from our spiritual eyes to see who he really is. God initiates the cycle of healing revelation: We see God more clearly when he heals us. And we are healed when we see God more clearly.
Chopra offers seven stages to this dance of progressive revelation and social evolution, relating it to our attitude toward war and God:
Social Stage 1: Chaos, Conflict, and War
War is struggle born of fear.
God encourages the struggle and takes sides.
Social Stage 2: Law, Order, and Achievement
War is competition for lands, money, and power.
God is on the side of the winner.
Social Stage 3: Harmony, Nurturing, and Inwardness
War is a struggle to get peace.
God is the champion of peace.
Social Stage 4: Insight, Conscious Growth, and Witnessing
War is the work to make harmony out of differences.
God includes everything in harmony.
Social Stage 5: Creativity, Discovery, and Innovation
War is in the inspired effort to reach beyond limitation to create a new world.
God is the progenitor of all new worlds.
Social Stage 6: Vision, Compassion, and Love
War is the last vestige of good versus evil.
God is a vision of heaven regained.
Social Stage 7: Unity, Being, and Eternity
War is nonexistent.
God lives in every moment of being.
Leaping off Chopra, I would like to propose an analogy for critique (first suggested to me by a theologian-friend). Scripture is an alloy of divine revelation and human interpretation—a necessary blend of God’s story (the gold) and human history (the iron). The result is a usable canon that the faith community can “put on” (receive authoritatively) as one dons a 10-karat wedding band. The biblical picture of God does indeed comprise our own social imperfections and misunderstandings (our iron) alongside God’s simultaneous, continual, and dynamic refinement of our knowledge of him. Finally, he sends Christ, the perfect image of God’s true nature (including his attitude toward war and violence).
Returning to “veil” language, Scripture unabashedly testifies to one
true God and his beloved children. It tells the story from within the
story of how our eyes were veiled from a pure vision of God by the
world, the flesh, and the devil. And it plays out how God, through his
holy prophets, progressively tore through those shades until
ultimately, we find the Father of Love standing unveiled in Christ. To
those who were still entrenched in an earlier, imperfect vision, Jesus
came with a purified revelation of God. As Walter
Wink says elsewhere,
“The way out [is] to develop an interpretive theory that judges even Scripture in the light of the revelation in Jesus. What Jesus gives us is a critique of domination in all its forms, a critique that can be can be turned on the Bible itself. The Bible thus contains the principles of its own correction. We are freed from bibliolatry, the worship of the Bible. It is restored to its proper place as witness to the Word of God. And that word is a Person, not a book.”4
Practically speaking, this means embracing a more radical Christological hermeneutic, recognizing Jesus’ claim that the entire Bible points toward his revelation of God and must now be read through his words and actions. David once said, “The words of the LORD are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times.” (Psalm 12:6). I would suggest that Christ’s revelation (his person and teaching) is the seventh (signifying perfection) “firing” through which the whole of Scripture must finally pass to be proven flawless. Any revelation of God that cannot pass through the furnace of Christ’s gospel no longer holds normative authority over us, though it stands as a testimony to the glory of that gospel.
This is the essence of Jesus’ “You have heard it has been said”
sayings. For example, in the case of the divorce certificates (Mark
10), Moses treated the law as a command and reflection of God’s will.
Christ clarifies, saying, “No, this was not a reflection of God’s intentions. It was a concession to the people’s iron hearts. This is not what God planned or wanted.” So even this “Thus says the Lord” from Moses reflects the spiritual imperfection of the people as much as it reveals God’s will or character. But then Christ speaks his Word—the gold—revising and upgrading our understanding of His will and His ways.
I perceive an echo of Christ in Chopra where he applies this evolution of theology to God’s attitude to war and violence. Right at the core of Jesus teaching, we hear, “You have heard that it has been said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’: But I say to you, love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you.” This is God’s heart seen with unveiled eyes and confirmed powerfully at the Cross—the very God of the Torah who spoke through the veils that Moses endured, “I am gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness.”
Yes, we have heard the Old Testament commands that commission human armies to carry out ethnic cleansing, and it sounds as if these commands issue straight from the mouth of the Almighty King of Love and Prince of Peace. Yes, we have read the texts where the God who is slow to anger and rich in love loses His temper and lashes out with fatal fury. Yes, we have heard the renewed call in our day to “holy war” from fundamentalist war hawks in the name of competing gods. But in Peace is the Way, Chopra reminded me that it’s time again to hear the true Christ proclaim, “Yes, but I say unto you.”
Contemplative Christians like Thomas Merton share some of Chopra’s concerns, but ground such concerns in a deeper and more demanding theological perspective. We do need to realize, though, that the New Age “stuff” exists, in part, because some wings of the church have forsaken both the contemplative dimension of the gospel and their commitment to the Beatitudes (on peacemaking). A Christology that proclaims who Jesus is, while neglecting his central message, has forgotten its roots. Chopra, and those who heed and hear him, come as pagan prophets calling us to return to those roots.
1 Council of Chalcedon, 451 AD. (http://aibi.gospelcom.net/aibi/creeds.htm).
2 “Love and peace or else,” How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,2004.
3 http://www.refugeecamp.org/learnmore/glossary.htm Cf. for example 1 Samuel 15:1-3:
Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD . This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”
4 Walter Wink (ed.), Homosexuality and Christian Faith (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999), p. 47.
Brad Jersak (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an author and teacher who serves in leadership at Fresh Wind Church. He has just released his new book, Fear No Evil: Breaking free from the culture of fear (available at www.freshwindpress.com ).