Or listen to Dr. Klager's lecture on SoundCloud here.
Or listen to Dr. Klager's lecture on SoundCloud here.
Ted Grimsrud recently wrote a response to my edited book, From Suffering to Solidarity: The Historical Seeds of Mennonite Interreligious, Interethnic, and International Peacebuilding, on his blog, 'Thinking Pacifism.' It was a mainly positive response at the outset, remarking that “the peace-focused writings make an excellent contribution” and ultimately recommending the book and concluding that “[t]he writing throughout is clear. The book gives a wide-ranging sense of the present application of Mennonite peace convictions and how this emerging field of peacebuilding has evoked many creative and life-enhancing responses by Mennonites and those influenced by them in ministering to a violent and often quite broken world.”
But after underscoring what was good about the book, his primary critique revolved around the book’s perceived omission of any attention to peace theology, asking, Have Mennonites moved past peace theology?
Now, I don’t want to write a response simply because I think someone’s critique is mistaken and it makes me look bad (although I’m human and this is probably part of the equation). And I don’t make a habit of responding to reviews, but the nature of Ted’s blog and this particular post as a “response” rather than a review suggests that this is an opening for a constructive and respectful conversation. In this sense, I want to write a response to correct some misconceptions, but also to ask for clarification on points I found confusing or potentially misleading. In this sense, as my book is only the beginning of my ongoing research on the uses of history in peacebuilding—especially how a historical infrastructure can help generate empathy—I want to know how I can improve in the future without uncritically meandering down a path that may not have been legitimately cut in the first place.
Click here to receive a sneak peek of From Suffering to Solidarity: The Historical Seeds of Mennonite Interreligious, Interethnic, and International Peacebuilding, edited by Andrew P. Klager. In addition to a promotional flyer, included in this excerpt are the Foreword written by Marc Gopin, Introduction by Andrew Klager, and the first chapter by John Derksen. (Used with Permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers): wipfandstock.com
Brad, I’m tracking with you on this unifying motif of “kingdom,” but I think—riffing off the “dominion of darkness” section in your article—that the pervasive darkness / Light motif throughout the Scriptures (esp. John) accompanies the presence of these two kingdoms too. I think you picked up on this when you cited John 2:8 — “the darkness is fading and the true light is already shining.” We see it also in the only two sources of light in the ancient world: the destructive properties of fire (as painful torment or as that which consumes the obstacles to eternal life) and the illuminating properties of the sun (as illuminator of our transgressions—or, ironically, our participation in darkness—or as illuminating truth).
I think this appears most starkly in the verse immediately preceding the verse you use to underscore the properties of the “dominion of darkness” in 1 Col., where in v.12, Paul writes on the Father, “who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light,” and then goes on to say (as you quote), “He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son…” (v.13). So, here, alongside the kingdom motif, we have the darkness / Light motif too.
Where else is the darkness / Light motif present alongside the kingdom motif? I’d want to do some more digging since I know there is a truckload of examples, but it could look a little like the following:
1.) Present external realities: political structures = light / darkness as the experience of the political realities as oppressors and oppressed during the plague of darkness in Egypt that was nevertheless experienced as light to the Hebrews; or the violence and insurrection of the zealots that incited the Roman army to destroy Jerusalem and the temple.
2.) Present inner reality: repentance = metanoia or transformation of our nous — “Repent (metanoeite), for the *kingdom* of heaven is at hand,” as embodied in Paul’s conversion through his encounter with the Unapproachable Light that both blinded him and revealed his participation in the dominion of darkness when Jesus remarked about him, “It is hard for you to kick against the spikes” (Acts 26:14). And as exhibited in Light as present judgment: “This is the judgment: Light has come into the world…” (Jn. 3:19).
3.) Future reality: our bodily resurrection / transfiguration = metamorphoomai, wherein Jesus’ own Transfiguration (Lk. 9:28ff.) was a response to and expression of his own statement that “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God” (Lk. 9:27), and during which “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Mt. 17:2), which was not a change into something he wasn’t before, but a revelation of what he already was and what we will be.
So, I think this motif of darkness / Light should operate alongside the two kingdoms as equally able to unify present political realities, inner ontological realities, and future realities (all of which can be summarized as eschatological), perhaps as the underlying cosmic reality.
Where the fire (a negative source) in James fits into this darkness / Light motif is a question to ponder further. And, given the political / kingdom motif, when James later says in this same passage, “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace” (Js. 3:18), I wonder how this fits in too. And, much like in the hierarchy of rungs on the Beatific Ladder, peacemaking (present political reality) requires purity of heart (present inner reality) to facilitate it genuinely, James also picks up on in this passage: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable…” (v.17).
People regularly ask me the question (often in an attempt to trick me without taking the time to find real answers to it first), “What should we do in the face of ISIS?” underpinned by the ubiquitous ostensibly silver-bullet question, "What should have we done in the face of the Nazis?" But this implies that our side is the good side and their side is evil; it perpetuates the “us” vs. “them” myth that not only fuels animosity and rivalry and dehumanizes the Other so that their lives—and therefore deaths—have less value, but it also forces us to choose one of only two options, however deplorable they both are, while distracting us from considering other legitimate options more seriously.
Therefore, an equally legitimate question is, “What should Germany in the 30s and 40s have done in the face of Allied powers” and “What should Middle Easterners do in the face of Western occupying forces?”
With respect to WWII, of those countries that eventually formed the Allied forces, Britain and France controlled 30% of the world through ruthless and predatory colonization, “taking over the world” in ways that Hitler could only dream of; the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, had Nazi sympathies as did much of Wall Street; anti-Semitism—with its medieval roots—was just as pernicious in Allied nations as it was in Germany, never mind that the extent of the Holocaust wasn’t yet known when Allied forces intervened; Germany was forced to contend with the completely unjust and retributive conditions of the post-WWI Treaty of Versailles; Allied forces senselessly firebombed Dresden after the war was all but won and incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the only uses of nuclear weaponry in world history; and one of the Allied nations—Soviet Russia under Joseph Stalin—was, if we go by numbers alone, at least 5 times more murderous than Nazi Germany. With this in mind, who is the “we” in the question, “What should have *we* done?” Why should we align ourselves with this “we,” especially if it looks like the above description?
The same is true of ISIS and other such radicalized groups. Given the much more destructive impact of Western involvement in the Middle East—too much to get into here in any great detail, but civilian deaths of approx. 170,000 in Iraq, 140,000 in Syria, 45,000 in Afghanistan, etc., etc.; billions in transnational corporate profit from blatantly exploitative economic incursions in oil-rich countries; taxpayer-funded billions in profits by munitions and armaments corporations in what Robert Reich has called (riffing off Eisenhower) the military-industrial-congressional complex; allied with some of the most notorious human rights violators (Saudi Arabia, esp.) who are also the biggest financiers of the same terrorism we apparently want eliminated—what should these impoverished Middle Easterners do in the face of *us*? And, perhaps more importantly, why—again—should we align ourselves with this “us” when the damage we’ve caused is near infinitely worse than what they have caused?
For my part, I don’t want to be a part of either “us” or “them”; I want to undermine this us vs. them framework by instead becoming an agent of peace in the midst of the chaos, support those courageous and creative peacebuilders from any and all “sides” who bypass this unholy dichotomy of “us” or “them” in which both choices are at least equally as evil—ours, empirically at least, much worse—all without a weapon in their hands.
So, when considering the Nazis or ISIS, the question of what “we” should do is completely nonsensical; this “we” has no more moral credibility than “them,” and the very question is structured in such a way that it forces us to choose failure.
I was recently invited to share thoughts and respond to questions about my book, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel, among a theologically mixed group of very perceptive readers.
Prior to the meeting, the facilitator gave me the consideration of a heads up about a question he was planning to ask. He wanted to me to address the problem of why Jesus’ parables sometimes seem to represent God in a rather un-Christlike light—especially as an infuriated and vengeful king who not only destroys, but even tortures those who do not respond to his invitation. Specifically, he asked me to look at the parable of the banquet as told in Matthew 22.
I was aware of the difficulties in that passage and thought to invite three colleagues to weigh in with their collective wisdom, rather than speaking on my own. Namely, Brian Zahnd, Derek Flood and Andrew Klager. I also received behind the scenes input from Pastor Jason Tripp, who I’ll reference later as well. The conversation that followed seemed well worth sharing, so the following represents excerpts from it.
We begin with the text:
Matthew 22 1Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying, 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. 3 And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come. 4 Again he sent out other slaves saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast.”’ 5 But they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business, 6 and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. 7 But the king was enraged, and he sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered together all they found, both evil and good; and the wedding hall was filled with dinner guests.
11 “But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw a man there who was not dressed in wedding clothes, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And the man was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
How Christians should perceive the early 4th-century Roman emperor, Constantine—his role and legacy, whether harmful or beneficial—is a vexing question, one that has admittedly caused for me, as an Orthodox Christian and historian of Christianity, much disillusionment.
Despite my Orthodoxy, speaking as a semi-Yoderian / Hauerwasian (though “recovering” to a large degree) who spends his life trying to be historically responsible and nuanced, we have to first remember that perfection isn’t the criterion of Sainthood; if this were the case, we’d have no Saints. While many Saints are recognized as such because they exhibited genuinely imitable piety and humility, often one of the faithful is recognized as a Saint simply because of one standout accomplishment or extraordinary act. All their faults and destructive behaviour—whether Constantine’s or another Saint’s—should be and certainly are acknowledged and condemned by the Orthodox Church despite their Sainthood. These acts ought not to be sanitized, trivialized, or euphemistically labeled as mere “flaws”: many of the acts that Constantine carried out in his own lifetime and the usurpation of the standards of the kingdom of God (poverty and peacemaking) in favour of the priorities of the state (wealth-building and security through violence) were horrific and have had downright destructive, seemingly irrevocable consequences.
I personally know Orthodox monks who would not consider Constantine a Saint, which is our prerogative too; often we place too much emphasis on what’s “official,” the propriety of public designations within Orthodoxy that gloss over the very real and horrific—even if historically contextual—actions that Constantine (as with other Saints) sanctioned in his own lifetime. Orthodox Christians love to rail against Arius—oddly reciting with glee that St. Nicholas of Myra punched him in the ear at the Council of Nicea (an act he was ashamed of and for which he later asked forgiveness despite our whimsical celebration of it)—but somehow our veneration of Constantine isn’t tempered by the fact that he was baptized on his deathbed (!) by Eusebius of Nicomedia—the bishop who read the opening statement of the Nicene Council in defense of Arius and one of only two bishops present to possibly refuse to sign the final Creed. What this says about the orthodoxy of Constantine—during whose reign Arianism wasn’t entirely abandoned and whose son, Constantius II, embraced Arianism—will likely never be adequately resolved.
Even still, it is essential that we adopt a historical maturity and sensitivity to the age, a sincere ability to put ourselves in certain past situations, to truly “enter into” history—apart from today’s technology, “20/20” hindsight (at least to us, while a future generation will no doubt condemn us with their 20/20 hindsight, and so it goes…), modern cultural and moral sensitivities, convenience of the information age, the fact that we have the luxury of volumes exposing the life of Constantine that we don’t have of some today whom we still nevertheless respect—by acknowledging what it was like for Christians before Constantine and after Constantine. When all Christian bishops can gather in one place for the first time after centuries of brutal persecution to labour on behalf of theological uniformity, and they kiss each other’s wounds where ears were sliced off and limbs were severed, the one responsible for such a dramatic reversal might reasonably elicit our gratitude and acknowledgement; to do otherwise, stems—in my view—from a subconscious (i.e., often unintentional) privileged elitism. There were too many positive changes that went along with this shift to get into here, but suffice it to say, he is “Equal-to-the-Apostles” not because of his piety (which was lacking, to say the least) but because of his major role in the Christianization of large swaths of humanity (i.e., much like the vocation of an Apostle—despite their own faults too, even the denial of Christ, in-fighting, etc.). Nothing more, nothing less.
But the bottom line is this: whether one condemns or adores (or is non-committal toward) Constantine usually depends on the target of one’s attention; if we look for the speck in others’ eyes, we will fail to recognize that Constantine’s plank is my plank. As we pray before ingesting the Holy Gifts, “…You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.” If I truly believe this, I should reasonably expect someone to write a book called, “Defending Andrew.” My criticisms of Constantine in the paragraphs above reflect what I also need to repent of and change; I have been angry with my brother as well, an internal impulse without which murder would not be possible, as Christ teaches us (Mt. 5:21–22). As I’ve said many times before, Constantine didn’t just live 1,700 years ago; I am Constantine too.
I first met Jim Forest -- author of Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment (Orbis, 2014) -- about five years ago when he made the trek from Holland to the south coast of British Columbia to, among other speaking gigs, give an intimate talk on St. Ephrem's Lenten Prayer at my small Orthodox parish then meeting in a converted barn. While giving him a ride from the church to the place he was staying that night, our conversation veered into Eastern Orthodoxy's somewhat underestimated inclusive embrace despite its miscalculated reputation of cold exclusivism -- even if falling victim to this unfortunate reputation at times. From this initial encounter, I was instantly impressed by the judicious and calm manner in which Jim reflected on, in this case, a somewhat thorny ecclesiological issue that reflects the need for more peacemakers to engender ecumenical hospitality.
The inspiring talk he gave at an Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference I organized in Abbotsford, BC in the summer of 2012 only reaffirmed his stoic humility. And the open arms of Orthodoxy that we had discussed a couple years earlier was echoed by Jim's hospitality when he opened his cozy and welcoming home in the historic heart of Alkmaar, Holland to my friend and I while en route to Egypt for a research project on interreligious peacebuilding between Muslims and Coptic Christians. Over the years, I have witnessed -- even if mostly from a distance -- and come to admire Jim's ability to speak calmly, though no less confidently, in hostile arenas and on contentious issues. This is the avoidance of making enemies when speaking on the topic of loving our enemies -- however demanding and imperfect such attempts may be for anyone dipping their toe in such vexed exchanges and themes.
Like Jim Forest himself, Loving Our Enemies exudes gentle wisdom. Ever the engaging and vivid storyteller, Forest weaves together profound anecdotes and quote-worthy insights to ennoble the cessation of enmity and cultivation of reconciliation in this latest offering. For my money, the chapter "Holy Disobedience" is worth the price of admission alone. The book avoids highfalutin jargon and the reader won't get bogged down by esoteric theological terminology, making this a very accessible and fluid read befitting a lay audience -- which a book on this perennially sidelined topic should be. Much deserved, Loving Our Enemies is also the Gold Medal winner in the theology category of the 2015 Illumination Book Awards.
This is the myth that underlies our violence against the Other—our so-called “enemies”:
One of the motivations of violence against the Other is portraying oneself—or “our side”—as completely “good” and one’s enemies—or “their side”—as completely “evil.” We do it all the time—as individuals, as cultures, as races, as religions, as nations. This dual portrayal gives “our side” the permission to kill, incarcerate, torture, and oppress since our actions will automatically be deemed righteous, commendable, and sensible, as we are the “good” guys and therefore any actions we take—however objectively deplorable—are automatically considered “good.” And our enemies can be killed, eliminated, incarcerate, oppressed, and tortured as inanimate objects to be eliminated in the implementation of our ideologies and interests because they have no good in them and are therefore completely evil and thus worthy and deserving of their death, torture, incarceration, and oppression. Since there is nothing good in them (i.e., our completely evil “enemies”), no good will be destroyed when our enemies are killed, tortured, or otherwise oppressed.
The antidote to this crude, unthinking, facile, and toxic bifurcation is the prerequisite transfiguration for loving our enemies and building peace intuitively and (super)naturally. The resolution is therefore ontological rather than a forced and contrived imitation—good or bad. And part of what this transfiguration looks like is recognizing the good in our enemies and the evil in ourselves—that, as the gulag surviver, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, remarked, the dividing line between good and evil doesn’t run between separate human beings or identity groups, but down the middle of every human heart; this requires stillness (hesychesis) and attentiveness (nepsis) to the vices and passions in ourselves and a commensurate life of repentance, all of which induces our transfiguration—the partaking of the divine nature (2 Pt. 1:4), the same “stuff” as the Prince of Peace—that capacitates us for treating the Other in the same way that the Transfigured One treated the Other—i.e., the prostitutes, the Samaritans, the publicans, the Roman occupiers.
A desire for retribution is the response to our perception of complete evil in the Other; a desire for restoration is the response to our recognition of at least some good in all human beings—“the true light, which enlightens everyone” (Jn. 1:9)—that can still yet be unearthed, prioritized, and cultivated.
Andrew P. Klager
THE PURPOSE OF THE present volume is to introduce readers to a compassionate eschatology from the vantage point of various theological attitudes and traditions. What follows, then, is an outline of the eschatological themes that comprise an Orthodox Christian perspective.
As we navigate through an Orthodox conception of the hope endowed to all creation when Christ “trampled down death by death,” and which is assimilated by the Church through ascetic struggle, participation in the liturgical theodrama, and veneration of icons that depict and embody the Eschaton, the sentiment that “compassion” is a worthy foil through which to apprehend an Orthodox eschatology is justified.
With the conviction that a dialogue on the validity of a compassionate eschatology should depend not only on the outcome of theological conjecture and syllogism, but must also include a historical precedent, especially from the Church fathers, to circumscribe and frame this dialogue, the present essay will also appeal frequently to St. Gregory of Nyssa’s celebrated philosophical and ascetic treatise, De vita Moysis,1 as a highly apposite patristic voice to guide our investigation.
It has become whimsically aphoristic for Orthodox Christians to answer theological inquiries, and especially the more difficult ones, with, “It is ultimately a mystery!” But, this is true of its eschatology perhaps more than for any other theological issue. While the ecclesial schisms that have characterized much of Christianity’s history over matters of Christology, Triadology, and the like are at least comprehensible on a primal level, it is utterly unfathomable the many more recent schisms that have compounded as a result of squabbles over events that have not yet even occurred!2 An Orthodox articulation of eschatology is therefore unique in its reticence, refusing to speculate beyond the creedal affirmation that Christ “is coming in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end,” which motivates his Bride to “look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
1. For all English references, I will be using Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, translated by Ferguson and Mahlerbe (hereafter simply Vit. Moys.). Since this essay is appearing in a book whose audience is concerned more with Christian eschatology than with Gregory of Nyssa himself, all references to the original Greek will not be to the usual Gregorii Nysseni Opera, on which the English translation is based, but will instead be to the much more accessible: Migne, Patrologiae Graeca (hereafter PG).
2. See Ware, Orthodox Way, 133f.
Fr. Thomas Hopko’s famous 55 maxims contain four that I’ve particularly clung to over the years: “We don’t judge anyone for anything”; “Don’t try to convince anyone of anything”; “Give advice to others only when asked or obligated to do so,” and “Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.” Needless to say, I fail at all of them all of the time (and am right now). The following, however, is a reflection on these maxims for when I discover myself embroiled in exchanges that show the potential to turn heated real quickly.
I've noticed the habit among some Christians to justify their unkind words and scathing condemnation of others by pointing to a favourite verse—Matthew 3:7, when Jesus calls the approaching Pharisees and Sadducees a "brood of vipers." It is, however, not enough to point to Jesus as our example in such a wholesale manner; the more responsible thing to do is instead isolate what he commanded us to obey as the subjects of his yet unfulfilled prayer in John 17—that "as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us"—and therein acknowledge that there's an imbalance in authority to speak so confidently. In this sense, Jesus didn’t tell us to imitate his brashness and confident criticisms when confronting untruth. Truth is not written or spoken, but embodied and ontological. To this end, Jesus has only commanded us to take up the cross upon which he was also enthroned.
St. Peter didn’t write, “For to this you have been called, because Christ was also unkind to everyone and exhibited a confidence that only God Incarnate could pull off, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps,” but instead remarked, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pt. 2:21). The Beatific Ladder celebrates poverty of spirit, meekness, mercy, purity of heart, and peacemaking because Jesus knew that our own frailty, confusion, and immaturity requires this of others and ourselves.
When Jesus said, “You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one” (Jn. 8:15), he was underscoring that we are all limited by the same finite constraints that confuse our judgment, and that he alone is unique in possessing a judgment that emanates from perfect oneness with the Father—judgment as divine Light (Jn. 3:17–19). This is a confidence that we should not trick ourselves into thinking we can have. When Jesus said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Mt. 7:1), he was trying to warn us that our judgment of others will only kick-start a cycle of judgment, that his divine Light will expose this cycle of judgment that we initiated and are trapped within (Jn.3:19–21), that we need to look at ourselves only and our own need for repentance, as we are all in the same boat—not one above another—but that Jesus’ perfect humility and kenotic co-suffering love means that he is unique in his ability to step outside this boat and walk on the water in which I know I will sink.
Jesus is God and I am not. We are all in the same boat, but hell is a solitary place where I alone reside.
"And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (Jn. 3:19–21).
So, Christ's judgment is overtly identified as divine Light. This is why Orthodoxy doesn't hold to a dualistic view of the afterlife, wherein we are sent to one of two physical locations—heaven or hell. Instead, heaven or hell is our subjective experience at our posthumous encounter with Christ (or divine Light, à la the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor), who is—of course—immutable. If God is immutable, he cannot change from divine love in an anthropomorphized manner (i.e., as we understand it through familiar social analogies in our finite state). Fr. Thomas Hopko puts it this way:
"[I]t is precisely the presence of God’s mercy and love which cause the torment of the wicked. God does not punish; he forgives. . . . In a word, God has mercy on all, whether all like it or not. If we like it, it is paradise; if we do not, it is hell. Every knee will bend before the Lord. Everything will be subject to Him. God in Christ will indeed be 'all and in all,' with boundless mercy and unconditional pardon. But not all will rejoice in God’s gift of forgiveness, and that choice will be judgment, the self-inflicted source of their sorrow and pain" (Foreword in Sergei Bulgakov, 'The Orthodox Church,' xiii).
So, understanding the judgment of Christ as Light (which is what he himself identifies it as) is key here. For example, St. Gregory of Nyssa (c.335–395) explains this subjective phenomenon from the plague of darkness in Exodus, even while the Hebrews still experienced this darkness as Light:
"It was not some constraining power from above that caused the one to be found in darkness and the other in light, but we men have in ourselves, in our own nature and by our own choice, the causes of light or darkness, since we place ourselves in whichever sphere we wish to be” ('The Life of Moses,' 2.80).
So, God does not change nor have shifting mood swings and is therefore categorically not actively meting out his wrath as we popularly and anthropomorphically understand it. Instead, he is immutably divine love, mercy, and forgiveness, and the experience of wrath is one of self-condemnation and incompatibility with divine Light, much like when Christ, in his compassion, said to Paul on the road to Damascus, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads [spikes]" (Acts 26:14). The act of persecuting Jesus therefore has the experience of "wrath" built into it, but it is self-inflicted since God is immutably love—the divine Light.
To answer my title right off the bat, I don’t really know. This piece won’t solve anything, but I think I’m in good company in this regard. The following might, however, help us change the way we think to avoid making the situation worse and perhaps move in a more positive direction.
I was originally going to write a piece on why I don’t post stories about persecuted Christians on social media, but I’ve decided that it would be inappropriate to do so given the real-life horrors in northern Iraq. If I couldn’t read my piece to the parents of a raped and beheaded child, I shouldn’t be writing it. “Holier-than-thou” pieces are stupid anyway.
Christians are asking what we should do in the face of such barbaric violence as that which ISIS has meted out against the Yazidis, Shi’a Muslims, Assyrian Christians, Kurds, and those Sunni Muslims whom they regard as kuffār (unbelievers) because they have entered a state of jahiliyya (the reemergence of the ignorance that preceded Islam, this time due to Western influence).
Now, I realize that I’m writing this from an elitist position in a peaceful society far removed from the brutality that has drenched the sands of northern Iraq in innocent blood. I get that. If you believe that I shouldn’t be writing about this situation because my relative comfort will inevitably render the following unrealistic and trite, I’ll understand. It’s not easy to keep emotions in check, to think straight while helplessly viewing images of unspeakable brutality through brimming eyes. I don’t think that anything I write below is easy to do. It certainly isn’t easy for me.
So, what are we supposed do?
There’s been a lot of online chatter about Michael Gungor’s recent admission that he doesn’t believe that everything in the Bible—particularly the OT—should be read literally. Here’s my two cents. I don’t claim that this is in any way original or mind-blowing, but it’s important to keep in mind nonetheless. The following is therefore meant as a neatly packaged response to the oft-repeated fear-based chorus lines that Christian fundamentalists have been singing in the face of this ostensible hermeneutical threat.
What I’ve noticed time and again is the accusation that refusing to read everything in the Bible in a literal way marks the beginning of a slippery slope toward denying the central tenets of Christianity: the virgin birth, Christ’s death and resurrection, etc. And this is what makes Gungor’s admission so threatening to them. It may seem like a minor, esoteric anomaly within the confines of the Evangelical world, but to the fundamentalist gatekeepers, admissions like Gungor’s call into question the authority of each and every word between the leather-bound, monogramed covers of their Bibles that many of them have abruptly enthroned at the right hand of the Father in a coup d’état to replace the One who preached the Sermon on the Mount, taught love of enemies, and absorbed our violence instead of fighting back. It’s a big deal to them.
History is important. And I don't think it's just my bias as a historian that compels me to affirm this. The past -- history -- is, however, little more than a collection of memories, of myths and stories. Everything is in the past. Everything. And yet, oddly enough, all we really have is the present, while our actions today are motivated by our recollection of the many yesterdays behind us. These memories, stories, and myths matter. We need to learn about them.
I'm frequently asked for my opinion on the crisis in Gaza and am asked a lot of questions about the mind-boggling escalation of violence in the past couple weeks. And although I probably shouldn't, I also read the cacophony of infuriating public comments at the bottom of news reports on the ongoing violence, many of which are woefully ignorant of the historical backdrop to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generally and the recent Israeli bombing and ground incursion in Gaza by extension. Except they don't know that it's by extension. And that's the problem.
The past, present, and future converge in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict like no other on earth -- the past, because of the history that animates this conflict; the future, because of the predictive apocalyptic impulses especially in conservative Evangelical Christianity that myopically affirms and emboldens Israel's every move; and the present, because the decisions and actions today rest on both trajectories simultaneously.
French anthropological philosopher and originator of the Mimetic Theory, René Girard, wrote the following in his book, Battling to the End (2009):
I was privileged enough to chat with Stanley Hauerwas on how our theology impacts our perception of the Other, our political allegiances, and our desired response to our enemies. Nearly every article on Hauerwas mentions that TIME magazine designated him "America's Best Theologian" in 2001, so I guess I'll do the same here. He was also interviewed by Oprah. As the author of a veritable library and known as one of the world's foremost postliberal theologians, he was educated at Yale in a time when George Lindbeck and H. Richard Niebuhr graced its halls. Now the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, Hauerwas is proud of his heritage as a bricklayer's son and frequently makes correlations between his upbringing in the trades and the theological craft. He hates pretention and dislikes when Christians act nice as a way of flaunting their ostensible superiority. But Hauerwas is probably best known for his outspoken pacifism and censure of American Evangelical Christianity's individualism, emphasis on rationalism or "right belief" -- by both fundamentalist and liberal theologians -- and uncritical subsumption of neoliberal impulses and militaristic state priorities.
Hauerwas had a major influence on my theological development. Along with the writings of John Howard Yoder -- Hauerwas' colleague and close friend from their days together at Notre Dame -- I devoured anything he wrote especially during my later undergraduate years, Resident Aliens begin the most formative for me. His works gave me something in the theological realm to be excited about for the first time. I owe a lot to Hauerwas for this major shift and my trajectory since.
Zahnd, Brian. A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor's Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace. New York: David C. Cook, 2014. ISBN: 978-0781411189
Rarely do books on such timely topics combine the right mix of incisiveness, accessibility, and brilliant analysis in a single literary package, but Brian Zahnd has achieved this elusive synthesis in his most recent offering, A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor's Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace. On the heels of the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings on D-Day, Zahnd has given us a remarkable overview of Jesus' peaceable kingdom as an alternative to the nationalism, patriotism, and militarism that define the political ethos of his own American homeland, even if it exists to a lesser degree in other countries around the world as well. "What Jesus called evil," Zahnd observes, "are the very things our cultures and societies have honored in countless myths, memorials, and anthems."
Poetic and perceptive, insightful and courageous, it's as though nearly every sentence is a tweet-worthy aphorism with the power to generate life-changing (or at least life-reexamining) cognitive dissonance among his many readers: "We sequester Jesus to a stained-glass quarantine and appropriate a trillion dollars for the war machine," Zahnd laments. Pervading the pages of this thin yet rigorous volume is a careful deconstruction of one of the most ingrained impulses in societies built on the soul-destroying munitions that rouse endless warfare: gratitude toward "our side" -- which is mistakenly equated with "God's side" -- for killing other human beings in order to preserve our so-called "freedom" (read "comfortable, affluent lifestyle"). As Zahnd remarks, "Freedom becomes a euphemism for vanquishing (instead of loving) enemies; truth finds its ultimate form in the will to power (expressed in the willingness to kill). This is a long way from the ideas of peace, love, and forgiveness set forth by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount." Indeed, "If we carefully examine how we use the word freedom," Zahnd challenges us, "it becomes apparent that we use it to sanction our perceived right to pursue happiness in a self-interested fashion."
When we consider depictions of divine behaviour in the Old and New testaments, quoting a string of verses to support our favoured portrayal of God typically reveals more about the person who enlists these passages than it does about what the Bible actually says. We can all engage in cafeteria hermeneutics—choosing only those verses that appeal to our theological taste buds—but this is missing the forest for the trees. What’s absent, then, is a cohesive interpretive framework for providing at least a bit of consistency.
And yet, neatly packaged solutions to the inconsistency of divine behaviour in the two testaments fail to enter the struggle and remain there if need be. Why, for example, does God seem to authorize genocide (1 Sam. 15), while also preaching peace, love, mercy, and 70x7-fold forgiveness (Mt. 5)? What is the take-away here, and what are we called to imitate and obey? When we ponder Old Testament prescripts through a Christlike lens, is it ever a happy occasion to smash a baby’s head against the rocks (Ps. 137:9)? Do any of us stone fortunetellers (Lev. 20:27) or think that God has an evil spirit (1 Sam. 18:10)? Was it that “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel” (1 Chr. 21:1) or was “the anger of the LORD … kindled against Israel, [so that] he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah’” (2 Sam. 24:1)? If I’m in a tussle with someone and my wife tries to defend me by grabbing my opponent’s nether regions, should I cut off her hand (Dt. 25:11-12)? Or, am I supposed to gradually learn how to love my enemies, pray for those who persecute me, bless those who curse me, forgive my transgressors 70x7-fold, and refuse to fight back—even heal those who are harmed by others who come to my defense—when I face suffering and the prospect of death, all without a weapon in my hands (Mt. 5:43-48)? None of this is meant to discount Scripture or disrespect it, but it does reveal the need for a more consistent hermeneutical framework to make sense of it.
I used to believe, “It’s not about religion, it’s about relationship.” Yet, we are told in the New Testament, of course, that there is a good and bad type of religion:
“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:19-27).
So, simply hearing (and, presumably, accepting—or cognitively assenting to—what we hear) without doing is not practicing “religion that is pure and undefiled before God.” The doing part is participating in the kingdom of God here and now by caring for orphans and widows (i.e., the marginalized and oppressed, or “the least of these”), but the prerequisite for this doing is being “slow to anger,” ridding “yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness,” and keeping “oneself unstained by the world.” This points to the capacitation for the doing, or the requisite transfiguration that intuitively enables one to participate in the kingdom of God by loving one’s enemies, caring for the oppressed, and giving a voice to the voiceless. We cannot, however, do this difficult “work” on our own, in a sort of stale, imitative style that fights against our fallen nature and resulting passions; we need to instead be gradually transfigured so that such “religion that is pure and undefiled before God” unfolds naturally and intuitively rather than forced and contrived.
“Religion” that aids this capacitation through transfiguration is pure and requires more than the so-called “freedom” to act apart from so-called “man-made rituals.” In my more Evangelical days, I had no categories for understanding the rhythms of liturgy and daily memorials, rituals, processions, etc. and didn’t respect or trust the 2,000 years of wisdom and experience that produced them, and therefore didn’t see any reason to follow them. Lumping these rhythms in with “bad religion” is to not give them a chance, is to expect the worst of them without legitimately understanding them and without giving them the benefit of the doubt. The “me-and-Jesus” routine is ultimately a manifestation of modern Western individualism to which Evangelicalism has fallen prey and envisages human beings as souls encased in flesh, where the flesh is simply utilitarian (or worse), like a jeep for getting around (or getting in the way).
We are all interconnected corporeal and spiritual beings, the spirit and body both declared “good” by God. In this sense, in a postlapsarian world, we cannot expect that the “freedom” to hear without doing or the freedom to maintain a “me-and-Jesus” relationship will restore the image of God unilaterally or just because we really, really want it. We need to do something to participate in the kingdom of God (as James says above), but we already saw that there’s a problem: How can we be transfigured—or restore the image of God in cooperation with divine grace—to capacitate ourselves for this doing?
As corporeal fallen beings we need similarly physical “rituals” or liturgical rhythms of which we are constantly mindful to cultivate the virtues of humility, compassion, patience, self-control, love, gratitude, obedience, self-denial, etc. So, for example, if we take becoming “slow to anger” from the pericope in James above, we can’t simply try really hard in the depths of our soul to control ourselves, since anger (and all vices) manifests itself through physical contact with the physical world around us and in our own physical expressions of anger. So, the “ritual” of fasting, for example, is an ascetic discipline that—through attentiveness to what I should avoid eating and the resulting self-control—transfers into the “real world” as attentiveness to our own vices/temptations and therefore results in greater self-control; it is a practice drill for the real world, but one that truly transfigures and cultivates the virtues. Again, as corporeal beings, we innately react to and are transfigured by the sight of beauty entering our physical eyes (icons, architecture, symbolism, vestments, lit candles, etc.), the smell of pleasant odors entering our noses (incense, the wood of the iconostasis, beeswax candles, etc.), the sounds of sacred melodies entering our ears (hymns, chanting, bells, etc.), the tactile sensation of various textures on our bodies (kissing icons, touching the vestments of the priest as he passes by with the Eucharistic Gifts, prostrating with your forehead to the ground, the heat of the candle’s flame, etc.), and the taste of appetizing flavours on our tongues (the Eucharist, feasts, breaking the fast, etc.).
All of this combined may look like worthless “religion” to some, but to those of us who enter into it daily (which can’t be explained, but only experienced over time), it is the physical liturgical rhythm that acts on our corporeal selves and senses to catalyze, animate, and give shape to our transfiguration and cultivation of virtues. We may fail at entering meaningfully into the rhythms, keeping the fast exactly (or at all), keeping a prayer rule, etc., but we also fail at life, at having compassion on the marginalized, the poor, the oppressed; the two go hand-in-hand and we try knowing we will fail, though—with God’s grace—we sometimes grow incrementally.
To have the “freedom” to do “whatever I want” (and I’m hyperbolizing here, but mean it more as the rejection of so-called “constraining” rituals or disciplines in favour of a “me-and-Jesus” or “me-and-my-Bible” individualism) breeds the vices that reflect this doing “whatever I want.” To prostrate in prayer every day for years and years, however, instills humility; to wait until the end of a 7-week long fast period has ended to eat that burger you’ve been craving instills patience; to bow and ask forgiveness from a 4-year-old kid on Forgiveness Sunday instills compassion; to pray the prayer of the publican, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” thousands and thousands of times in one’s life and to recite every Sunday immediately before receiving the body and blood of Christ, “I believe and I confess that you are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first,” is likewise to instill humility and commensurate compassion, love, and peace—internal and external; to know that I will carry the body and blood of Christ in myself as the Theotokos bore God in her womb without being consumed encourages my cooperation with divine grace through participation in these disciplines that trigger the transfiguration that will allow me to also bear God in myself without being consumed.
As members of an individualistic society, I think we are more prone to—even revel in—shunning “obligations” and “disciplines” (and heaven forbid we bring up the dreaded word, “obedience”!), even the liturgical rhythms that are shared by and therefore profoundly connect the many faithful across the globe. The more negative definition of “religion” that’s become fashionable among low church or free church folks is likely related to moralism, appeasing a wrathful deity, and obligations that immediately condemn us if we don’t follow through in every detail; this is indeed a false religion. But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water, especially since the ancient forms of Christianity were here first before it became popular among Evangelicals—while completely separate from and with no categories to understand or esteem this liturgical world—to emphasize a “me-and-Jesus” relationship. Instead, we need to resuscitate the word “religion” so that it aligns with the scriptural model of pure religion that James endorses.
The seemingly irreconcilable portrayal of divine violence and retribution in the Old Testament vis-à-vis Jesus’ commandment to love one’s enemies and example of suffering in the New Testament presents a perennial challenge. This is a complex and multi-layered issue, the various proposed resolutions for which hold serious implications, including the way our perception of God often becomes a justification for our own behaviour—either abusive, brutal and violent or compassionate, gentle and nonviolent. The following, therefore, does not claim to be a comprehensive settlement to placate all sides of the ongoing debate, nor does it present a “silver bullet” solution. Instead, I’ll outline a couple considerations from an Eastern Orthodox perspective that I hope will be helpful to the many who struggle to reconcile the ostensibly divergent portrayals of God in the Holy Scriptures. Perhaps more importantly, however, I’ll propose a realignment of our priorities that will hopefully help us transcend the many arguments on all sides regarding this issue or other theological issues like it.
First, it’s important to realize that God is revealing himself incrementally throughout the Old Testament, especially from Abraham forward. God cannot and did not inculcate his fullness instantaneously (perhaps a more modern Western binary and forensic understanding of salvation leads to this miscalculation), but he instead had to work with and gradually mold a Mesopotamian polytheistic polygamist tribal leader from Ur who implemented a well defined Semitic tribal legal code that was familiar to his kinsfolk. This is what God had to work with from the beginning, and so the Old Testament is important as a narrative of God revealing himself piecemeal, culminating in his full revelation at the incarnation as the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) in whom “whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise” (Jn. 5:19). Those who hastily accuse proponents of a more ‘Christ-like God’ of neo-Marcionism or nonchalantly throwing out the entire Old Testament might do well to affirm the gradual nature of “narrative” and acknowledge the constraints of breaking into time and space.