You cannot be Christian and support torture. I want to be utterly explicit on this point. There is no possibility of compromise. The support of torture is off the table for a Christian. I suppose you can be some version of a “patriot” and support the use of torture, but you cannot be any version of Christian and support torture. So choose one: A torture-endorsing patriot or a Jesus-following Christian. But don’t lie to yourself that you can be both. You cannot.
(Clearly you do not have to be a Christian to reject the barbarism of torture, you simply need to be a humane person. But to be a Christian absolutely requires you to reject the use of torture.)
I remember when Pew Research released their findings in 2009 revealing that six out of ten white evangelicals supported the use of torture on suspected terrorists. (Patton Dodd talks about that here.) The survey stunned me. I spoke about it from the pulpit in 2009 and have continued to do so. I said it then and I’m saying it again today: You cannot support the use of torture and claim to be a follower of Jesus.
Any thoughtful person, no matter their religion or non-religion, knows that you cannot support torturing people and still claim to be a follower of the one who commanded his disciples to love their enemies. The only way around this is to invent a false Jesus who supports the use of torture. (The Biblical term for this invented false Jesus is “antichrist.”)
Theologian, author, and blogger Derek Flood has a new book out — Disarming Scripture. His book has a provocative subtitle: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need To Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did. I’ve read it and gave it this endorsement:
“Jesus is the savior of everything — including the Bible! That’s what I kept thinking while reading this brilliant book. There have been a number of excellent books in recent years on how Christians should read the Bible, but Disarming Scripture is the very best. Derek has done us an immeasurable service in showing us how to read the Bible like Jesus did.”
That’s my two cents worth. More significantly, preeminent Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has given Disarming Scripture this endorsement:
“A perceptive and honest book about the vexed question of violence in the Bible. Taking with great seriousness the dynamism of the biblical tradition and the interpretive process, the distinctive contribution of Disarming Scripture is an exploration of the way in which the biblical text itself interprets texts of violence. This is a fine contribution to our common work.”
It was June 4, 2000. A beautiful Sunday afternoon in early summer. I was sitting on my front step reading Saint Augustine’s Confessions. At that time I hadn’t yet begun to explore the Church Fathers, that would come four years later. But I was reading classic literature. I had given up on the trite tomes of pop Christianity. I already knew what they said. In a desire to read something of worth I had returned to the treasures of classic literature that I had first learned to love in Mrs. Zaft’s high school literature class. I had read a fair number of the classics, but I had never read Confessions — the first, and perhaps greatest, spiritual autobiography in history. I had decided to read Augustine’s Confessions for basically the same reason that I read Milton’s Paradise Lost or Melville’s Moby Dick — because it was an established classic in the canon of Western literature. And it is a remarkable book. The whole autobiography is a 350-page prayer. The book begins with this prayer:
You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised: Great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable. Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being bearing his mortality with him, carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you resist the proud. Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.
“Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Those words resonated with me. Sure, I was a Christian. But I was also a man with a restless heart. A year earlier I had turned forty while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. Now I was beginning to think about the second half of life…and I was restless. I had plenty of success, but I was restless. I was still searching and the clock was ticking. I feared I was running out of time. As I read Confessions Augustine told me his story.
If you visit the Islamic world you quickly become acquainted with the adhan — the Muslim call to prayer. You may very well become acquainted with it at five o’clock in the morning! Five times a day, beginning before sunrise, you hear the cry of the muezzin from the minarets — Allahu Akbar. It’s a call to prayer. When I first began to travel in the Islamic world I reacted to the call to prayer with an irritation rooted in cultural disdain and religious triumphalism. I was annoyed by it. I didn’t want to hear it. But eventually I began to feel differently about it. To be honest, I was envious. Here was a culture with a public call to prayer.
In the secular, post-Christian West we have nothing like this. The best we can manage is to clandestinely bow our heads for ten seconds in a restaurant and hope no one notices. We don’t call people to prayer. Few Christians living outside of monasteries pray five times a day. We pray whenever we feel like it…and too much of the time we don’t feel like it. But in the Islamic world I found a religious culture that publicly calls people to prayer five times a day! I was envious of a society that holds to a religious tradition where prayer is taken seriously and is attended to in a prescribed manner. So when I heard the adhan I would wistfully think, I wish we had something like that. Then one day the pieces fell in place.
I was walking through the cobblestone streets of the Old City of Jerusalem on a Sunday morning when I began to hear the bells toll. Church bells. A cacophony of sacred sound centuries old. Orthodox bells, Catholic bells, Anglican bells, Lutheran bells. The enormous bells from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre seemed to belong to another age. It was a wonder I found strangely moving. That’s when it dawned on me — this is the Christian adhan. Church bells are the Christian call to prayer. (A practice predating the Muslim adhan by centuries.) Of course I knew this, but I had somehow forgotten it. I had forgotten the bells just as the post-Christian West has forgotten the bells.
I think I caught a glimpse of truth out of the corner of my eye.
A ghost, a whisper, a suspicion, a subtle and subversive rumor.
So dangerous that every army would be commanded to march against it;
so beautiful that it would drive those who see it to madness
Does the whole of my kind suffer from mental and moral vertigo?
As Melville said of cabin boy Pip,
he saw the foot of God upon the treadle of the loom
and dared to speak it.
Henceforth his shipmates called him mad.
As Vladimir said when they came to bury Fyodor,
the spiritual leader must feel the falsehood prevailing in society;
the prophet must struggle against it, never tolerate it, never submit to it.
I think I caught a glimpse of truth out of the corner of my eye.
Have we been so blinded by the bright lights of advertisers’ lies
that the only true vision is peripheral vision?
In the age of constant commercialization and overblown hype
does truth shout with a whisper and stand out with subtlety?
I think I caught a glimpse of truth out of the corner of my eye.
It terrified me as I fell in love with it.
This explains everything.
This changes everything.
This challenges everything.
This threatens everything.
This transforms everything.
Dare I speak it?
This post first appeared at www.brianzahnd.com
Today is the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Saturday we will mourn Nagasaki. As we remember Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the quarter of a million casualties suffered, I would like to share a few words from A Farewell To Mars.
It’s easy to imagine that the world doesn’t really change — that it simply marches around the maypole of violence, trampling the victims into the mud same as it ever has. But as true as that may be, something has changed. We are post-something. If nothing else, we are post-1945 when the enlightenment dream of attainable utopia went up in smoke — literal smoke! — from the chimneys of Auschwitz and a mushroom cloud over Hiroshima.
After 1945 we lost our blind faith in the inevitability of human progress. A threshold was crossed, and something important changed when humanity gained possession of what previously only God possessed: the capacity for complete annihilation. In yielding to the temptation to harness the fundamental physics of the universe for the purpose of building city-destroying bombs, have we again heard the serpent whisper, “You will be like God”?
When Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, witnessed the first atomic detonation at Los Alamos on July 16, 1945, he recalled the words of Vishnu from the Bhagavad Gita…
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
When the monstrous mushroom cloud rose over the New Mexico desert, did the human race indeed become Death, the destroyer of worlds? It’s more than a legitimate question. We’ve now lived for over a generation with the most haunting post-Holocaust/Hiroshima uncertainty: Can humanity possess the capacity for self-destruction and not resort to it? The jury is still out. But this much is certain:If we think the ideas of Jesus about peace are irrelevant in the age of genocide and nuclear weapons, we have invented an utterly irrelevant Christianity!
(The artwork is Mushroom Cloud by Luciano Civettini.)
A few years ago I drafted a statement to explain the friendship and cooperation I have with Ahmed El-Sherif, an Arab Muslim scientist, and Samuel Nachum, an Israeli Jewish artist, as we work together for peace in Israel and Palestine. This seems like a good time to share it again.
For the Common Good
We are Jews, Christians and Muslims.
And we are friends.
We seek to follow our respective religions faithfully.
We do not believe all religions are the same.
We recognize the reality of our religious differences.
But we are friends.
We are devout in our faith and respectful of our friendship.
Our faith and friendship need not be mutually exclusive.
We recognize that we share common space — the common space of a shared planet.
For the sake of the common good we seek common ground.
We do not share a common faith, but we share a common humanity.
In our different religions we do not practice the same rituals or pray the same prayers.
But in our shared humanity we hold to a common dream: Shalom, Salaam, Peace.
We hold to the dream that our children may play in peace without fear of violence.
We pledge not to hate.
We pledge not to dehumanize others.
We pledge to do no harm in the name of God.
As individuals we do not compromise the truth claims of our respective religions—
But we will not use truth claims to fuel hate or justify violence.
We will practice our respective faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.
But we believe our faith can be practiced in the way of peace—
We believe our faith truly practiced need never be at odds with humanitarian ideals.
Our religions share a complex and intertwined history—
A history of interaction that has too often been tumultuous and bloody.
We believe there must be a better way and we seek that better way.
The way of peace.
We are Jews, Christians and Muslims.
And we are friends.
We seek common ground for the common good.
Shalom, Salaam, Peace.
P.S. I’ve been asked, Are you implying a concession to not evangelize in exchange for coexistence?
It’s been a bloody summer. In Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Nigeria, and the Ukraine.
Kill the bad guys and there will be peace is the tired refrain.
All sides say it. Ad infinitum.
(I didn’t even mention the bloody streets of America, to which we have grown so numb.)
But I am where I always hope to be this time of year: In the mountains that I love.
When I hike above treeline onto the great expanse of the high tundra my soul finds room for expansion. I’m no longer hemmed in by the din from the reactive ideologues. I find time and space to pray and think.
And as I pray and think, I know this…
Creation is good. Very good. It bears witness to its Creator, who is good too.
In our primitive dread we imagine a god who is petulant and hard to please, vindictive and retributive, capricious and cruel. But these are only petty projections born of our own fear.
The mystics (and maybe the mountaineers) know better.
When I can clear my head, I know better. High on the tundra between Longs Peak and the Never Summer Mountains I know the greatest of all truth: God is Love.
Why did God say, Let there be?
God spoke because he is Love.
Infinite love seeking finite compression.
Eternal love seeking temporal expression.
Like the other Gospel writers John recounts the story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes to feed five thousand. But John adds this unique postscript:
“When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (John 6:15)
The crowd’s response to this “table in the wilderness” was an impulse to make Jesus king…but Jesus declined. Why? Jesus is king, he came to be king, king is what Messiah means. So why does Jesus slip away from the crowd when they want to make him king? The issue is force.
The crowd wanted to “take him by force and make him king.” At the center of the crowd’s concept of kingship was violent force. They wanted to force Jesus to be their forceful king so he could lead their forces in an uprising of violent force against the Romans. This was antithetical to the kind of king Jesus came to be. Caesar is a crucifying king who reigns by force. Christ is the crucified king who reigns without force. Christ’s kingdom is built upon co-suffering love, not violent force.
The crowd that wanted to force Jesus to be king was operating from the dominant paradigm of scarcity. This is the paradigm that possessed Cain to kill Abel, and it lies at the dark heart of human civilization. We are scripted to believe that reality is zero-based and that we live in a closed system.
This paradigm of scarcity and insufficiency is the philosophy that undergirds our structures of systemic sin. We fear there won’t be enough land, water, food, oil, money, labor to go around, so we build evil structures of sinful force to guarantee “us” “ours.” We call it security. We call it defense. We call it freedom. What we don’t call it is what it is…fear. Driven by our fear of scarcity we create an organized, large-scale, slow-motion version of anarchy. A mob on a looting rampage is called anarchy. One nation looting another is called glorious conquest — but it’s just looting on a grand scale. Kings are tasked with looting our enemies on our behalf.
Lately I’ve been giving a lot of interviews on my new book A Farewell To Mars. It’s a semi-autobiographical confession of how I moved from being an enthusiastic supporter of war American style to proclaiming the peaceable kingdom of Christ. Since I’ve marched among the ranks of sincere war-endorsers for most of my life, I’m sympathetic with well-meaning Christians who believe in the way of Mars. I try to tell the story of my conversion honestly and gracefully. I level criticism, not at soldiers, but at myself. My aim is to take the reader on a journey where Jesus and war are examined in the light of an unencumbered reading of Scripture.
But in a twelve minute radio interview there is little time for narrative and nuance. Instead, the interviewer usually leaps to what they consider “the heart of the matter.” In every interview I’ve been asked this question: “What would you do if Hitler invaded your house?” Well, it’s not exactly that question, but in every interview these two questions have come up: What about Hitler? What would you do if someone invaded your home? Hitler and home invasion. These are the two arguments that allegedly make the Jesus way of peace impossible. So let me address them. I’ll begin with Hitler.
When I claim that waging war is incompatible with following Jesus, the knee-jerk objection is always this: “What about Hitler?” The problem with the “Hitler objection” is that we have stepped into the middle of the story. It’s 1940 and we’re asking, “what are we going to do about Hitler?” As legitimate as that question is, we need to back up and ask this question first: How is it that Christians could wage war at Hitler’s behest? How did the land of Luther and the Reformation become the land of Nazis and the Holocaust? Hitler is as much a problem for Christian Just War theorists as for Christians who oppose war altogether. After all, Hitler waged his blitzkriegs with baptized soldiers sportingGott mit uns on their belt buckles. How did this happen? How was Hitler able to convince Christian soldiers to kill other Christians in Poland, France, and Russia? Hasn’t something gone tragically wrong with the church when Christians can be persuaded to kill other Christians in the name of ideology and nationalism? The enduring catastrophe of Constantine subverting the kingdom of God was that the politics of Jesus were set aside for the interests of empire. This eventually led to the shame of the crusades where Christians killed under the banner of the cross, and then to the horror of the two world wars where European Christians slaughtered one another by the millions.
I’m trying to listen to echoes these days — the return of earlier sounds. I need to hear the distant echoes of an earlier Christianity. I am beginning to understand how important it is to maintain an ongoing conversation with the Christians who have lived before us. We must resist the tyranny of the present. If we ignore the echoes of the past we doom ourselves to an unrecognized ignorance. It’s only because of our connection with our technological past that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every generation. Likewise, if we maintain a connection with our theological past we don’t have to reformulate the essential creeds every generation. When I encounter people obviously confused about the nature of the Trinity, I think, don’t you know we settled this in 325? Of course, they may very well not know! Or if they do know, they don’t care. They have no respect for the past. To them it’s just old — and old means obsolete. Which is, of course, a ridiculous notion peculiar to the modern era.
One of the problems with contemporary revivalism is its egocentric obsession with the present and its woeful ignorance of the past. For too much of my life my idea of church history went something like this: The church started off great with Pentecost, jumped the tracks a couple of centuries later, got back on track with the Reformation, and really took off with Azusa street. The arrogance is appalling. It’s why most modern revivalist movements seem to follow this implicit dictum: Re-found the church and prepare for Armageddon.Contemporary revivalist movements always seem convinced that they’re the first generation to recover “apostolic purity” and the last generation before the return of the Lord. They misappropriate 1 Peter 2:9 as they brashly claim “we are the chosen generation.” Without a clear memory of church history we become the Alpha and Omega in our imagined self-importance. Christian amnesiacs could benefit from some echoes — the echoes of Athanasius and Aquinas, Irenaeus and Erasmus, Clement and Kierkegaard. The Holy Spirit has never abandoned the church. Every generation had those who heard and spoke what the Spirit said to the church. We should pay attention to their echoes.
I hear the echoes of my earlier sisters and brothers as I muse upon their time-tested wisdom. In an age of pragmatism where the mystics are muted, the echoes of the ancient Christian mystics are good for my soul — mystics like Julian of Norwich and John of the Cross. John talks to me about the dark night of the soul, while Julian shares her revelations of divine love. They tell me secrets — secrets I may never have discovered on my own. John says, “it is love alone that unites the soul with God,” while Julian whispers, “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” I need to hear those echoes.
The church in Western Europe and North America is struggling with deep disappointment. We are disappointed with the failure of the Christendom project. The grand attempt to produce a continent of Christian civilization through the apparatus of the state is either dead or dying. It appears that secularism has already won in Europe and will win in North America. So we either deny it (more easily done in America), or we angrily blame scapegoats (those we claim have “compromised the gospel”), or we simply trudge along, a bit sad about it all.
The church in the post-Christendom world is walking the Emmaus Road. Confused and disappointed. Just like those two disciples on the first Easter. (see Luke 24:13-35) The original Emmaus Road disciples had misread everything. Their disappointment was a result of their wrong expectations. They expected a conventional king after the model of the Pharaohs and Caesars. They expected Jesus to be a war-waging Messiah like King David or Judah Maccabeus. What they ended up with was a “failed” Messiah — a Messiah executed by the Romans. The movement in which they had invested all their hope had failed. So they walked the Emmaus Road with soul-crushing disappointment. This is when Jesus came and walked with them “in another form.” (Mark 16:12)
When Jesus in the guise of a wayfaring stranger remarked upon their evident sadness, the disciples told how they had hoped that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited Messiah, the one who would redeem Israel. But that was all over. Their hopes had been dashed when their would-be Messiah was condemned by the priests and crucified by the Romans. Their movement had failed and disappointment had settled in.
Jesus is not a conductor handing out tickets to a paradise beyond the stars. Jesus is the carpenter who repairs, renovates, and restores God’s good world. Far too many American Christians embrace a faulty, half-baked, doom-oriented, hyperviolent eschatology, popularized in Christian fiction (of all things!) that envisions God as saving parts of people for a nonspatial, nontemporal existence in a Platonic “heaven” while kicking his own good creation into the garbage can! Framed by this kind of world-despairing eschatology, evangelism comes to resemble something like trying to push people onto the last chopper out of Saigon.
Our looming Armageddons are always a possibility but never an inevitability. Armageddon is only inevitable if we listen to the propaganda that comes croaking from the dragons, beasts, and false prophets of nationalism, empire, and war. (See Revelation16:13–16.) Jesus wept over Jerusalem because their fate could have been avoided. If they had believed in Jesus as the messianic Prince of Peace instead of a messianic Lord of War, Jerusalem could have actually become the City of Peace. Instead, they chose the path that led to a hellish nightmare of siege, famine, cannibalism, destruction, and death.
Repairing the world. Healing wastelands. Laboring to make a dying world livable again. This is the vision of the apostles and prophets. This is the prophetic paradigm the people of God are to coordinate their theology and lives with. We are not to be macabre Christians lusting for destruction and rejoicing at the latest rumor of war. It’s high time that a morbid fascination with a supposed unalterable script of God–sanctioned–end-time–hyperviolence be once and for all left behind.
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A Farewell To Mars (Excerpt from ch. 8)
Isaiah, in his prophetic poems, frames the Messianic hope like this: A Prince of Peace will establish a new kind of government, a government characterized by ever-increasing peace. Weapons of war will be transformed into instruments of agriculture. Swords turned into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. Tanks turned into tractors, missile silos into grain silos. The study of war abandoned for learning the ways of the Lord. The cynic will laugh (for lack of imagination), but this is Isaiah’s vision. At last the nations will find their way out of the darkness of endless war into the light of God’s enduring peace. This is Isaiah’s hope. (see Isaiah 2:1-4; 9:1-7)
Christians take Isaiah’s hope and make a daring claim: Jesus is that Prince of Peace. Jesus is the one who makes Isaiah’s dreams come true. From the day of Pentecost to the present, this is what Christians have claimed. We claim it every Christmas. But then a doom-obsessed dispensationalist performs an eschatological sleight of hand and takes the hope away from us. On one hand, they admit that Jesus is the Prince of Peace who has come, but on the other hand, they say his peace is not for now … it’s only for when Jesus comes back again. Bait and switch. Yes, swords are to become plowshares … but not today. For now plowshares become swords; in our day, it’s war, war, war! They abuse Jesus’s prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century by always applying it to the latest contemporary geopolitical events. They replace the hope of peace with an anticipation of war! They find a way to make war a hopeful sign. Think about that for a moment! And here is the worst irony: It was precisely because Jerusalem failed to recognize Jesus as Isaiah’s Prince of Peace right there and then that Jerusalem rushed headlong into the war that ended with its own destruction!
The cross is shock therapy for a world addicted to solving its problems through violence. The cross shocks us into the devastating realization that our system of violence murdered God! The things hidden from the foundation of the world have now been revealed. The cross shames our ancient foundation of violence. The cross strips naked the principalities and powers. The cross tears down the façade of glory that we use to hide the bodies of slain victims.
In the light of the cross, we are to realize that if what we have built on Cain’s foundation is capable of murdering the Son of God and the whole edifice needs to come down. In the light of the cross, our war anthems lose their luster. But this throws us into a crisis. What other alternatives are there? How else are we to arrange the world? The alternative is what Jesus is offering us when he told us that the kingdom of God is at hand. God’s way of arranging the world around love and forgiveness is within reach. If we only dare to reach out for it, we can have it. But we are so afraid. We’re not sure we can risk it. It’s so hard for us to let go of the sword and take the hand of the Crucified One. It’s so hard for us to really believe in Jesus.
I was halfway to ninety, midway through life, and I’d reached a full-blown crisis. Call it a garden variety mid-life crisis if you want, but it was something more than that. You might say it was a theological crisis, though that makes it sound too cerebral. The unease I felt came from a deeper place than a mental file labeled “theology.” My life was like that U2 song stuck on repeat — I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. I was wrestling with an uneasy feeling that the kind of Christianity I had built my life around was somehow deficient. Not wrong, but lacking. It seemed watery and weak. In my most honest moments I couldn’t help but notice that the Christianity I knew seemed to lack the kind of robust authenticity that made Jesus so fascinating. And I’d always been utterly fascinated by Jesus. Jesus wasn’t in question, but Christianity American style was.
I became a committed Christian during the Jesus Movement. I was the high school “Jesus freak” and by the tender age of twenty-two I had founded a church — as ridiculous as that sounds now! After a prolonged slow start I eventually enjoyed what most would call a “successful ministry.” At one point during the 1990’s our church was dubbed “one of the twenty fastest growing churches in America.” I was a success. Ta-da!
But by 2003, now in my mid-forties, I had become, what shall I say?…bored, restless, discontent. From a certain perspective things couldn’t have been better. I had a large church with a large staff supported by a large budget worshiping in a large complex. I was large and in charge! I had made it to the big time. But I had become increasingly dissatisfied. I was weary of the tired clichés of bumper-sticker evangelicalism. I was disenchanted by a paper-thin Christianity propped up by cheap certitude. The politicized faith of the Religious Right was driving me crazy. I was yearning for something deeper, richer, fuller. Let me say it this way —I was in Cana and the wine had run out. I needed Jesus to perform a miracle.