Putting the “apology” in apologetics

Ever read something that almost instantly strikes you as strange?

I read an article today by Christianity Today (read it here) that claims that apologetic teaching (a field of study that aims to provide logical arguments in favor of Christianity) has come back en vogue for teenagers and youth ministry.

Now, I want to be clear. I personally enjoy good apologetic discussion. I like to use my brain in conjunction with my faith and wish more Christians would as well. I think logical reasons for trust in Christ can be useful in proper context and that student ministry curriculum should include some of these elements. However, this article raised all kinds of red flags and questions for me:

Are apologetics really the hot new trend for teenagers?

Are today’s students really lined up outside the door to hear William Lane Craig argue creationism and God’s existence against his nemesis, Christopher Hitchens?

Can mental arguments for religion inspire today’s students to live like Christ?

Does the religious “I-can-prove-I’m-right” candy of modernity really taste that sweet to the children of postmodernity?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

Almost every study available on this generation suggests that in fact the opposite is true; that apologetic classes are in fact not en vogue. And my personal experience with teenagers seems to agree. Even Christian studies by George Barna, David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, Thom Rainer, and others show time and again that young people today are turned off by logical arguments for faith alone.

That’s not to say that kids today don’t want to think about evidence for their faith. They do. They desire some rational answers to religion. However, they don’t perceive these discussions as having real value unless they are embodied in experiential Christ-like living. If you don’t live it, they don’t care whether it is intellectually believable.

The primary question that the majority of young people (both in the church and outside of it) are asking today is not, “Do I believe what you believe?”

The big question is: “Do I want to be like you?”

If I don’t like who you are as a person, if you’re not kind, generous, loving and accepting, then I’m not interested in what you believe. Because, clearly, neither are you.

In an environment where truth has become relative, apologetics has just become your spin on how you see truth. It matters, but not universally. It matters to me, but not necessarily to you. It’s important, but limited.

What does matter is your actual experience.

The question has moved from “is Jesus who He says he is?” to “do I really see Jesus living in you like you say He does.”

Some have called this an embodied apologetic; rational answers given credibility by how we actually live and treat others.

The questions of apologetics, then, aren’t unimportant to young people, it’s just that the answers are meaningless unless they have context of actual life transformation.

The famous quote: “No one ever converted to Christianity because they lost the argument,” is completely understood and valued by this generation. And actually, I think it is mostly admirable and honest.

With this well documented cultural mindset as a backdrop, I find it very hard to believe that arming students with arguments is or will be any time soon the new youth ministry fad.

With one exception…

One of the great problems with American Christianity today is it’s insistence on winning the so-called “culture wars”. There is a strong feeling in many church circles that the prevailing culture has lost it’s moral compass (which is mostly true) and that it is the church’s job to legislate, argue and demand a return to Judeo-Christian moral principles (which is mostly untrue).

This “Us vs. Them” mindset is being played out on our political stage on a daily basis. There are Red-States and Blue-States. Conservatives and Liberals. Bumper stickers and talking heads have replaced actual conversation. As of today, the President and House Republicans can’t even agree on what day he should give his “jobs speech”.

We are a very divided country and this culture war mindset is deeply entrenched in many of our churches.

And don’t think this doesn’t rub off on our children. There are, I believe, an increasing amount of children of culture-war soldiers that have been told they must know the arguments to “defend their faith & country” from demise.

It is these students (and perhaps more accurately their parents) that have started this niche trend toward apologetics. And while apologetics is a great field of study, I believe any resurgence in it’s popularity for students and youth group is born out of this more fear-based rhetoric then actual interest in youth culture more broadly. It is localized in the Christian subculture and certainly not a trend for young people generally.

I’m encouraged that this field of study is being included in youth ministry curriculum, but I pray that youth leaders across the country will have the wisdom not to cave into this small minded view of “my god is better than your god” spiritual war mongering. I pray we will not only teach students what we believe to be true about God, but that we’d spend even more time modeling how we actually live like Him.

If we don’t we’ll have a lot of churches full of answers with no one who wants to hear them.

And, we may end up doing a lot of apologizing for all our apologetics.

The Right to be a Jerk

 

NYT Article, 3/2/11

 

The Supreme Court ruled today that people have the right to be a jerk.  And sadly, it was the most consistent decision they could have made. (Read the article here)

The Westboro Baptist group has been picketing military funerals and spreading the message that God hates humanity for a long time.  And today, their right to be a jerk was protected.

Now, I detest the message and communication of this group of hate proponents, but as I read my paper today I was struck by the incredible patience and restraint our society has with such mean-spirited and hate-filled people.

And if the secular court has such tolerance for such un-tolerant people, I wonder if the mainstream church has fallen victim to over-hype when it worries about it’s own censorship in the postmodern future.

Fear. It drives a lot of church rhetoric these days.  I’m pretty sure it influences a good deal of church strategy as well.

And for what it’s worth, I think I understand it.  Culture has changed.  The Christian narrative is no longer the dominate influence that it once was in this country.  Space for other religious persuasions and even anti-religious perspectives have been created in the arena of our American culture like never before.  And while I personally don’t see this change as traumatic or bad, I can see where it causes some Christians concern.

Growing up my whole life in church and now having worked within the church for the past 10 years or so, I have seen this fear first hand.  Maybe you have too.

I lose count of the amount of times that I have heard statements from other pastors bemoaning the loss of influence of their religion and fearing what the future may hold.

There is fear that the church will lose it’s tax exempt status.  Fear that the church will one day be forced to perform gay marriage.  Fear that the church will be forced to preach universalism.  Fear that the culture is moving in such an “inclusive” direction that churches will lose their basic freedom of speech rights and be persecuted.  And that’s just the tip of the fear iceberg.

Well, I suppose all that could happen.  But, then I read stories like the one that I stumbled on in the New York Times today.

The Westboro Baptist group represents about the worst that church has to offer.  Not only to humanity as a whole, but specifically irritating to an “inclusive” society like our postmodern America.

And yet, the courts upheld their rights to speak… even though it is hate speech.

Now, I hope no church I’m ever a part of is known for what the Westboro group is known for today.  But if the secular courts are willing to protect the “freedom of speech” for such a hateful, anti-humanity, anti-Christian religious group like that, should we really be concerned about losing the same privilege of speech?

Maybe our Christian culture of protectionist fear is more unfounded than some think. Maybe allowing other people’s voices to be heard isn’t the same thing as a plan to eliminate ours.  Maybe the secular culture we love to criticize will in the end protect our right to speak even if they hate what we say or how we treat them.

Maybe it’s time we stop living in fear of how the culture wants to silence us and start engaging the culture, pointing out the beauty that exists in it and changing the ugly parts not with our whining, but with our community action and sacrifice.

If we do, we might just find our society listening and interested in what we have to say rather than just gritting their teeth and defending our right to say it.

Would Jesus Make You Buy Health Insurance?

“What is the Christian response to healthcare reform?”

Facebook & Twitter are great for those kind of trap questions, aren’t they?

An incredibly complex topic (does anyone really know all the ramifications of reforming or not reforming?) about a controversial American bill (does anyone really know everything that is in this thing?) and you’ve got 140-characters to concisely explain the Bible’s definitive view (does anyone really know what 1st century Jesus & his disciples would actually think about 21st century American healthcare?) on something you’re really not sure about.  Hahaha… classic.

And yet, I’ve found myself answering this and a bunch of similar questions online a lot this week.  Really, they are the questions I’ve been asking in my head too, struggling to formulate an opinion.  Questions like:

“What is the Christian view of healthcare reform?”

I’ve read literally dozens of articles and blogs in recent days seeking to answer this very question.  Some people say that when Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” that he had this type of idea in mind: a society that progresses and values those who have more giving to those who have less.  Jesus, they say, would be all for this type of bill.

Other people use the same quote from Jesus to explain that he meant uncoerced, self-sacrificial love, not compelled assistance of those around us.  Jesus, they say, was not discussing government intervention, but individual generosity.  Clearly, Jesus would be against this type of bill.

“What would Jesus say about healthcare reform?”

He’d love it!  He’d hate it!  He compels us to support it!  He demands we reject it!  The views out there are strong, compelling and fairly exhaustive.

I can literally scroll through the newsfeed on Facebook and place people into their camp.  I read status updates like:

“healthcare reform is a sign of the end times.”

“win for Jesus, as healthcare reform passes.”

“I’m moving to Canada…wait… ughhhh”

“should we rename Reagan International Airport after Obama or Pelosi?”

I mean, who needs a USAToday poll about what people think when I can just read it on Twitter?

Now, of course, everyone’s got an opinion.  I myself have an opinion.  But, it turns out that Jesus has the same opinion we do too.  Whether we are pro-reform bill or anti-reform bill, it appears that Jesus is too.  We quote Jesus and explain our correct theology and justify why Jesus is on our side and not on the other.  But the reality is, either Jesus has gone schizophrenic or we have.  And one way or the other, God has some serious mental illness in his family.

“What do YOU think about healthcare reform?”

Maybe that’s a better question.  I’m not trying to ride the fence here and take the easy way out.  I’m not gonna say I think both sides are right and try and appease everyone.  I definitely have an opinion on this topic (however ill-informed it may be).  But, let me just OWN it.  It’s my opinion.  I don’t know what Jesus thinks.  My politics aren’t necessarily Jesus’ politics.

I formulate opinions based off what I believe to be true about Jesus, but as with many things in life, I operate out of faith and in environments where I don’t see clearly.  I stumble through decisions and opinions, praying they reflect Jesus heart, but sometimes unsure; many times evolving and changing as I learn and grow.

“What does Nick think, right now, about healthcare reform?”

I’m in favor of this healthcare reform.  I think its good for a whole lot of reasons that many other people have at great length explained.  But, I’m not writing this to convince you to agree with me or to argue that Jesus does.  In fact, I’m hesitant to say what I really think for fear it will come across that way.  I’m only saying what I think to show I’m not neutral.  I have an opinion.

But, it’s MY opinion.  I don’t speak for Jesus when it comes to politics.  No one does.

Does Jesus have a strong opinion about healthcare reform? Maybe.  But, he hasn’t ever told it to me.  I have absolutely zero words from Jesus (in the Bible or audible discussion) addressing the specific topic of the American healthcare system in 2010.  Everything I think and endorse in this arena is at best my limited view of what I “think” Jesus would approve of, and I’m completely open to thinking that possibly Jesus doesn’t really care one way or the other.

“So, Jesus isn’t on either side?”

Actually, I think it is a bit more profound than that.  Jesus is on BOTH sides.

As I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed I see many good people that I call “friends” outside a computer screen who deeply love and try to follow Jesus.  And as I divide them into their pro and anti reform bill categories, it occurs to me that I don’t have the market on Jesus any more than they do.

My anti-reform bill friends are trying their best in their experiential framework of life to reflect Jesus in the same way that I am with my framework.  We both agree that Jesus says, “Love your neighbors as yourself,” we just have different conclusions about what that looks like in Seattle, Washington in 2010.

When I claim Jesus is on my side, I’m right.  But so are they.

Will we ever agree on American politics?  Probably not.  But maybe we don’t need too.  Maybe we just don’t need to make Jesus agree with us either.

What if Someone Tried to Kill Your Family?

Here is our final guest-blog of the “Jesus & Non-violence” series.  I’ll be following up with some concluding remarks in a few days.

Dr. Gregory Boyd

Dr. Gregory Boyd

I’m grateful for Dr. Gregory Boyd allowing me to post this excellent article on a topic that is often brought up in this discussion.  It relates to the worst-case scenario that few in our country face, but that of course we must answer, as many of our brothers and sisters face it on a daily basis.

“What happens if someone breaks into your house and tries to kill your family?  Would you protect them by any means necessary, even if it meant killing the intruder?”

Worst-case scenario, to be sure.  Not a question any of us hopes to have to answer in a way other than theoretical.  And though I’m not sure any of us knows how we would truly act in such a stressful and difficult circumstance, Dr. Boyd gives us glimpse into how we might uphold Jesus’ Kingdom value of “non-violence” even in a Kobayashi Maru.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

The New Testament commands us never to “repay evil with evil” but instead to “overcome evil with good” (Rom.12:17; cf. I Thess 5:15; I Pet 3:9).

Jesus said, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”(Mt 5:39).

He also said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk 6:27-28).

loveyourenemy-1The teaching seems pretty straightforward, yet this very straightforwardness presents us with a dilemma.

On the one hand, we who confess Jesus as Lord don’t want to say that Jesus and other New Testament authors are simply off their rockers in telling us not to resist evildoers, to repay evil with good, to love our enemies and to do pray for and bless people who mistreat us. If our confession of faith means anything, we have to take this teaching very seriously.

On the other hand, we have to frankly admit that it’s very hard to take this teaching seriously when it comes to extreme situations like having to protect ourselves and our family from an intruder. Not only would most of us resist an evildoer in this situation, killing him if necessary, but most of us would see it as immoral if we didn’t use violence to resist such an evildoer. How can refusing to protect your family by any means be considered moral? Isn’t it more loving, and thus more ethical, to protect your family at all costs?

How do we resolve this dilemma? It helps somewhat to remember that the word Jesus uses for “resist” (antistenai) doesn’t imply passively allowing something to take place. It rather connotes resisting a forceful action with a similar forceful action. Jesus is thus forbidding responding to violent action with similar violent action. He’s teaching us not to take on the violence of the one who is acting violently toward us. He’s teaching us to respond to evil in a way that is consistent with loving them. But he’s not by any means saying do nothing.

Still, the teaching is problematic, for most of us would instinctively use, and feel justified using, violence to protect our family from an intruder if necessary.

taken_galleryposterThe most common way people resolve this dilemma is by convincing ourselves that the “enemies” Jesus was referring to are not our enemies – e.g. people who attack our family (or our nation, or our standard of living, etc…. ). Jesus must have been referring to “other kinds” of enemies, less serious enemies, or something of the sort. We tell ourselves that when violence is justified – as in “just war” ethics – Jesus’ teachings do not apply. This approach allows us to feel justified, if not positively “Christian,” killing intruders and bombing people who threaten our nation — so long as we are nice to our occasionally grumpy neighbors. Unfortunately, this common-sensical interpretation makes complete nonsense of Jesus’ teaching.

The whole point of Jesus’ teaching is to tell disciples that their attitude toward “enemies” should be radically different from others. “If you do good to those who do good to you,” Jesus added, “what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (Lk 6:32). Everybody instinctively hates those who hate them and believes they are justified killing people who might kill them or their loved ones. In contrast to this, Jesus is saying: “Be radically different.”

This is why Jesus (and Paul) didn’t qualify the “enemies” or “evildoers” he taught us to love and not violently oppose. Jesus didn’t say, “Love your enemies until they threaten you; until it seems justified to resort to violence; or until it seems impractical to do so.” Enemies are enemies precisely because they threaten us on some level, and it always feels justified and practically expedient to resist them, if not harm them if necessary. Jesus simply said, “love your enemies” and “don’t resist evildoers” – and note, some of the people he was speaking to would before long confront “enemies” who would feed them and their families to lions for amusement.

The teaching could not be more radical and as kingdom people we have to take it seriously. At the same time, what do we do with the fact that most of us know we would not take it seriously, let alone obey it, in extreme situations like our family coming under attack?

"The Politics of Jesus"  by John Yoder

"The Politics of Jesus" by John Yoder

As with all of Jesus’ teachings, it’s important to place this teaching in the broader context of Jesus’ kingdom ministry. Jesus’ teachings aren’t a set of pacifistic laws people are to merely obey, however unnatural and immoral they seem. Rather, his teachings are descriptions of what life in the domain in which God is king looks like and prescriptions for how we are to cultivate this alternative form of living. In other words, Jesus isn’t saying: “As much as you want to resist an evildoer and kill your enemy, and as unnatural and immoral as it seems, act loving toward him.” He’s rather saying: “Cultivate the kind of life where loving your enemy becomes natural for you.” He’s not merely saying, “Act different from others”; he’s saying, “Be different from others.” This is simply what it means to cultivate a life that looks like Jesus, dying on a cross for the people who crucified him.

How does this insight help address our dilemma? A person who lived with the “normal” tit-for-tat kingdom-of-the-world mindset would instinctively resort to violence to protect himself and his family. Loving his attacker and doing good to him would be the farthest thing from his mind. As with the Jerusalem that Jesus wept over, the “things that make for peace” would be “hidden from [his] “eyes.” (Lk 19:41-42). Indeed, from this kingdom-of-the-world perspective, Jesus’ teaching seems positively absurd.

But how might a person who cultivated a non-violent, kingdom-of-God mindset and lifestyle on a daily basis respond differently to an attacker? How might a person who consistently lived in Christ-like love (Eph 5:1-2) operate in this situation?

For one thing, such a person would have cultivated the kind of character and wisdom that wouldn’t automatically default to self-protective violence. Because he would genuinely love his enemy, he would have the desire to look for, and the wisdom to see, any non-violent alternative to stopping his family’s attacker if one was available. He would want to do “good” to his attacker. This wouldn’t be a matter of him trying to obey an irrational rule that said, “look for an alternative in extreme situations.” In extreme situations, no one is thinking about obeying rules! Rather, it would be in the Christ-like nature of this person to see non-violent alternatives if they were present. This person’s moment-by-moment discipleship in love would have given him a Christ-like wisdom that a person whose mind was conformed to the pattern of the tit-for-tat world would not have (Rom. 12:2). Perhaps he’d see that pleading with, startling, or distracting the attacker would be enough to save himself and his family. Perhaps he’d discern a way to allow his family to escape harm by placing himself in harm’s way.

themythofachristiannationNot only this, but this person’s day-by-day surrender to God would have cultivated a sensitivity to God’s Spirit that would enable him to discern God’s leading in the moment, something the “normal” kingdom-of-the-world person would be oblivious to. This Christ-like person might be divinely led to say something or do something that would disarm the attacker emotionally, spiritually, or even physically.

For example, I heard of a case in which a godly woman was about to be sexually assaulted. Just as she was being pinned to the ground with a knife to her throat, she out of nowhere said to her attacker, “Your mother forgives you.” She had no conscious idea where the statement came from. What she didn’t know was that her attacker’s violent aggression toward women was rooted in a heinous thing he had done as a teenager to his now deceased mother. The statement shocked the man and quickly reduced him to a sobbing little boy.

The woman seized the opportunity to make an escape and call the police who quickly apprehended the man in the park where the attack took place. He was still there, sobbing. The man later credited the woman’s inspired statement with being instrumental in his eventual decision to turn his life over to Christ. The point is that, in any given situation, God may see possibilities for non-violent solutions we cannot see and a person who has learned to “live by the Spirit” is open to being led by God in these directions (Gal. 5:16, 18).

Not only this, but a person who has cultivated a kingdom-of-God outlook on life would have developed the capacity to assess this situation from an eternal perspective. Having made Jesus her example on a moment-by-moment basis, she would know — not just as a “rule,” but as a heart felt reality — the truth that living in love is more important than life itself. Her values would not be exhaustively defined by temporal expediency. Moreover, she would have cultivated a trust in God that would free her from defining “winning” and “losing” in terms of temporal outcomes. She would have confidence in the resurrection. As such, she would be free from the “preserve my interests at all costs” mindset of the world.

love-your-enemiesOf course, it’s possible that, despite a person’s loving wisdom and openness to God, a man whose family was attacked might see no way to save himself and his family except to harm the attacker, or even to take his life. What would such a person do in this case? I think it is clear from Jesus’ teachings, life and especially his death that Jesus would choose non-violence. So, it seems to me that a person who was totally conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, who had thoroughly cultivated a kingdom mind and heart, would do the same.

At the same time, I have to frankly confess that I’m not sure this is what I’d do in this situation. Indeed, I have to honestly admit that, like most people, I don’t yet quite see how it would be moral to do what I believe Jesus would do. Yet, I have to assume that my disagreement with Jesus is due to my not having sufficiently cultivated a kingdom heart and mind. If I felt I had to harm or take the life of another to prevent what clearly seemed to be a greater evil, I could not feel righteous or even justified about it. Like Bonhoeffer who, despite his pacifism, plotted to assassinate Hitler, I could only plead for God’s mercy.

What we must never do, however, is acquiesce to our present, non-kingdom, spiritual condition by rationalizing away Jesus’ clear kingdom prescriptions. We must rather strive every moment of our life to cultivate the kind of mind and heart that increasingly sees the rightness and beauty of Jesus’ teachings and thus that would naturally respond to an extreme, threatening situation in a loving, non-violent manner.

Further Reading

Boyd, G. The Myth of a Christian Nation (Zondervan, 2007)

Brimlow, R. What About Hitler? (Brazos, 2006)

Yoder, J. What Would You Do? (Herald, rev. ed. 1992).

Did God Send Tornado to Warn Church about Gays?

We’ve only got a little bit more to go in our discussion of non-violence, though really the conversation could continue for quite a while.  I’ve got another guest-blog on the way and some concluding remarks of my own.  I appreciate your willingness to stay with this topic through the dog-days of summer.  Hopefully you’ve found something here that is helpful or interesting.

ELCAToday, though, I just got home from vacation and read an interesting news story and then blog and thought it was worth mentioning if you aren’t aware of it.   The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) was discussing this last week the role of homosexual congregants in church and leadership at their convention in Minnesota.  Coinciding with this conference, a few tornadoes appeared in the area causing damage to parts of the city.

tornado-mn-8-25-06As commentary to these two events, John Piper (who I’m not a huge fan of for a whole list of theological reasons) wrote a blog entry proclaiming it as the divine judgment of God.  It is as irresponsible and backward a commentary as you can imagine, but you need to read it for context.

You can read his blog HERE.

Now, while I have read multiple other blogs from a wide variety of writers addressing Mr. Piper’s thoughts, our last guest-blogger, Dr. Gregory Boyd, wrote an excellent response.  In fact, he sums up my own feelings on the events so well, I’d like to direct you to his blog.  If you aren’t already a reader of his blog, you will want to add it to your favorites.

You can read Greg’s blog response HERE.

Anyway, check out the story and the blogs.  Very interesting conversation.  And incidentally, it is vaguely related to our non-violence discussion, though it deals with more the idea of whether God Himself uses “physical violence” to achieve His own means rather than our mandate to use it or not.

We’ll finish the rest of our non-violence discussion over the next few days.   Have a great end of the summer!

Should Christians Participate in “Just War”?

Welcome back.  Hopefully all of you local Seattle dwellers survived the massive heat-wave this week.  Now that it has cooled off a bit, we’ll get back to our discussion on “Jesus & Non-violence”.

Today, I want to welcome another guest blogger.  His name is Dr. Gregory Boyd.

DSC_0133

Dr. Gregory Boyd

Greg Boyd received his Ph. D. from Princeton Theological Seminary (1988), his M.Div. from Yale Divinity School (1982) and his B.A. from the University of Minnesota (1979).

He was a professor of theology for 16 years at Bethel University (St. Paul, MN) and he is the founder and senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church, an evangelical mega-church in St. Paul, MN.  (for full bio, click here)

Greg is also the author of numerous books, my favorite of which are:

“The Myth of a Christian Nation”

“The Myth of a Christian Religion”

“Satan & the Problem of Evil”

“Letter from a Skeptic”

Dr. Boyd is one of my favorite “thinkers” and writers and though I have mentioned his books on this blog before, I cannot stress enough how highly I recommend the books listed above.   Boyd gives incredible “legs” and voice to this and many other conversations from a well-respected and scholarly perspective.

I asked Dr. Boyd to contribute to this discussion on non-violence and he gave me permission to share this essay that he wrote regarding the question: “Does following Jesus rule out serving in the military if a war is just?”

———————————————————————————————————————————

Jesus and Military People

Some soldiers responded to the preaching of John the Baptist by asking him what they should do.  John gave them some ethical instruction, but, interestingly enough, he didn’t tell them to leave the army (Lk 3:12-13).  So too, Jesus praised the faith of a Centurion and healed his servant while not saying a word about the Centurion’s occupation (Mt 8:5-13; Lk 7:1-10).

Christian-Air-Force-eAnother Centurion acknowledged Christ as the Son of God at the cross (Mk 15:39) without any negative comment being made about his military involvement. And the first Gentile to receive the Good News of the Gospel was a centurion described as a God-fearing man (Acts 10:22, 34-35).  Clearly none of these texts endorse military involvement.  But just as clearly, they don’t condemn it.  For these and other reasons, most American Christians accept that the New Testament does not forbid serving in the military.

While I respect that people will have differing convictions about this, I must confess that I myself find it impossible to reconcile Jesus’ teaching (and the teaching of the whole New Testament) concerning our call to love our enemies and never return evil with evil with the choice to serve (or not resist being drafted) in the armed forces in a capacity that might require killing someone.

The above cited texts show that the Gospel can reach people who serve in the military.  They also reveal that John the Baptist, Jesus and the earliest Christians gave military personal “space,” as it were, to work out the implications of their faith vis-à-vis their military service.  But I don’t see that they warrant making military service, as a matter of principle, an exception to the New Testament’s teaching that kingdom people are to never return evil with evil.

What About “Just Wars”?

The traditional response to the tension between the New Testament’s teaching and taking up arms to defend one’s country is to argue that fighting in the military is permissible if one’s military is fighting a “just war.”  As time honored as this traditional position is, I’m not at all convinced it is adequate.

For one thing, why should kingdom people assume that considerations of whether violence is “justified” or not have any relevance to whether a kingdom person engages in violence?  Jesus is our Lord, not a human-constructed notion of justice.  And neither Jesus nor any other New Testament author ever qualified their prohibitions on the use of violence.  As George Zabelka remarked, the just war theory is “something that Christ never taught or even hinted at.” (1) We are not to resist evildoers or return evil with evil – period.  We are to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, bless those who persecute us, pray for themythofachristiannationpeople who mistreat us and return evil with good – period.  On what grounds can someone insert into this clear, unqualified teaching the massive exception clause – “unless violence is ‘justified’”?

Many have argued that such grounds are found in Romans 13.  Since Paul in this passage grants that the authority of government ultimately comes from God and that God uses it to punish wrongdoers (Rom. 13:1-5), it seems permissible for Christians to participate in this violent activity, they argue, at least when the Christian is sure it is “just.”  The argument is strained on several accounts, however.

First, while Paul encourages Christians to be subject to whatever sword-wielding authorities they find themselves under, nothing in this passage suggests the Christians should participate in the government’s sword wielding activity.

Second, Romans 13 must be read as a continuation of Romans 12 in which Paul tells disciples to (among other things) “bless those who persecute you”( vs. 14); “do not repay anyone evil for evil” (vs. 17); and especially “never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (vs. 19).  Leaving vengeance to God, we are to instead feed our enemies when they are hungry and give them water when they are thirsty (vs. 20).  Instead of being “overcome by evil,” we are to “overcome evil with good” (vs. 21).

Now, in the next several verses, Paul specifies that sword-wielding authorities are one means by which God executes vengeance (13:4).  Since this is the very same vengeance disciples were just forbidden to exercise (12:19, ekdikeo) it seems to follow, as Yoder argues, that the “vengeance” that is recognized as being within providential control when exercised by government is the same “vengeance” that Christians are told not to exercise. (2)

In other words, we may acknowledge that in certain circumstances authorities carry out a good function in wielding the sword against wrongdoers, but that doesn’t mean people who are committed to following Jesus should participate in it.  Rather, it seems we are to leave such matters to God, who uses sword-wielding authorities to carry out his will in society.

How do we know when a war “just”?

Thirdly, even if one concludes that a follower of Jesus may participate in violence if it is “just,” we have to wonder how a kingdom person could confidently determine whether a war is “just” or not.  Few battles have been fought in which both sides didn’t believe their violence was “justified.”  The reality is that the criteria one uses to determine what is and is not “just” is largely a function of where one is born and how one is raised. How much confidence should a kingdom of God citizen place in that?

can-we-talkFor example, unlike most other people groups throughout history and yet today, modern Americans tend to view personal and political freedom as an important criteria to help determine whether a war is “just” or not.  We kill and die for our freedom and the freedom of others.  But why should a kingdom person think killing for this reason is a legitimate exception to the New Testament’s command to love and bless enemies?  Can they be certain God holds this opinion?

Of course it seems obvious to most Americans that killing to defend and promote freedom is justified, but fundamental aspects of one’s culture always seem obviously right to people embedded in the culture.  This criterion certainly hasn’t been obvious to most people throughout history, including most Christians throughout history.  And it’s “obviously” wrong to many non-Americans — including Christians — around the globe today.  Even more importantly, it certainly isn’t obvious in Scripture.  In this light, kingdom people in all countries need to seriously examine the extent to which the ideal that leads them to think a war is or is not “just” is the result of their own cultural conditioning.

Assessing this is no easy matter.  It helps to be mindful of the fact that the person you may end up killing in war probably believes, as strongly as you, that they are also fighting for a “just” cause.  It also helps to consider the possibility that they are disciples of Jesus just like you, perhaps even mistakenly thinking their cause is a function of their discipleship just as some American soldiers believe.  You have to believe that all of their thinking is merely the result of their cultural conditioning — for you obviously believe they’re wrong to the point of being willing to kill them — while also being convinced that your own thinking is not the result of cultural conditioning.  Can you be absolutely sure of this?  Your fidelity to the kingdom of God, your life and the lives of others are on the line.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, we grant that political freedom is a just cause worth killing and dying for.  This doesn’t yet settle the matter for a kingdom person contemplating enlisting in war (or not resisting being drafted into war), for one has to further appreciate that there are many other variables alongside the central criterion of justice that affect whether or not a particular war is “just.”

Do you know – can you know – the myriad of personal, social, political and historical factors that have led to any particular conflict and that bear upon whether or not it is “justified?”

Misc+209For example, do you truly understand all the reasons your enemy gives for going to war against your nation, and are you certain they are altogether illegitimate?  Are you certain your government has sought out all possible non-violent means of resolving the conflict before deciding to take up arms?  Are you certain the information you’ve been given about a war is complete, accurate and objective?  Do you know the real motivation of the leaders who will be commanding you to kill or be killed for “the cause” (as opposed to what the national propaganda may have communicated)?  Are you certain that the ultimate motivation isn’t financial or political gain for certain people in high places?  Are you certain that the war isn’t in part motivated by personal grievances and/or isn’t being done simply to support or advance the already extravagant lifestyle of most Americans?

Given what we know about the corrupting influence of demonic powers in all nations, and given what we know about how the American government (like all other governments) has at times mislead the public about what was “really” going on in the past (e.g. the Vietnam war), these questions must be wrestled with seriously.

Yet, even these questions do not resolve the issue for a kingdom person, for a kingdom person must know not only that a war is “justified” but that each and every particular battle they fight, and the loss of each and every life they may snuff out, is justified.  However “justified” a war may be, commanders often make poor decisions about particular battles they engage in that are not “just” and that gratuitously waste innocent lives.  While militaries sometimes take actions against officers who have their troops engage in unnecessary violence, the possibility (and even inevitability) of such unjust activity is typically considered “acceptable risk” so long as the overall war is “just.”  But on what grounds should a person who places loyalty to Jesus over their commander accept this reasoning?

myth of a christian religion

"Myth of a Christian Religion"

The fact that a war was “justified” means nothing to the innocent lives that are wasted, and the question is: How can a kingdom person be certain in each instance that they are not participating in the unnecessary and unjust shedding of innocent blood?  It’s questionable enough that a follower of Jesus would kill their national enemy rather than bless them simply because it’s in the interest of their nation for them to do so.  But what are we to think of the possibility that a follower of Jesus would kill someone who is not an enemy simply because someone higher in rank told them to?

The tragic reality is that most people contemplating entering the armed forces (or contemplating not refusing the draft), whether they be American or (say) Iraqi, North Korean or Chinese, don’t seriously ask these sorts of questions.  Out of their cultural conditioning, most simply assume their authorities are trustworthy, that their cause is “justified,” and that each person they are told to kill is a justified killing.  They unquestioningly believe the propaganda and obey the commands they’re given.

Throughout history, soldiers have for the most part been the unquestioning pawns of ambitious, egotistical rulers and obedient executors of their superior’s commands.  They were hired assassins who killed because someone told them to and their cultural conditioning made it “obvious” to them that it was a good and noble thing to do.  So it has been for ages, and so it will be so long as people and nations operate out of their own self-interest.

The Kingdom Alternative

But there is an alternative to this ceaseless, bloody, merry-go-round: it is the kingdom of God.  To belong to this kingdom is to crucify the fleshly desire to live out of self-interest and tribal interest and to thus crucify the fallen impulse to protect these interests through violence.  To belong to this revolutionary kingdom is to purge your heart of “all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice” (Eph 4:31)—however “justified” and understandable these sentiments might be.

To belong to this counter-kingdom is to “live in love, as Christ loved you and gave his life for you” (Eph 5:1-2). It is to live the life of Jesus Christ, the life that manifests the truth that it is better to serve than to be served, and better to die than to kill.  It is, therefore, to opt out of the kingdom-of-the-world war machine and manifest a radically different, beautiful, loving way of life.  To refuse to kill for patriotic reasons is to show “we actually take our identity in Christ more seriously than our identity with the empire, the nation-state, or the ethnic terror cell whence we come,” as Lee Camp says.

Hence, while I respect the sincerity and courage of Christians who may disagree with me and feel it their duty to defend their country with violence, I myself honestly see no way to condone a Christian’s decision to kill on behalf of any country.

—————————————————————————————————–

Endnotes

(1) G. Zebelka, “I Was Told It Was Necessary,” [Interview] Sojourners, 9/8/80, p.14.

(2) J. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2nd ed. 1994 [1972]), 198. See also Hays, Moral Vision, 320-31.

Further Reading

Beller, K. H. Chase, Great Peacemakers (LTS 2008)

Brimlow, R. What About Hitler? (Brazos, 2006)

Eller, V. War & Peace (Wipf & Stock, 2003 [1981])

Roth, J. Choosing Against War (GoodBooks, 2002)

Trocme, A. Jesus and the NonViolent Revolution (Wipf & Stock, 2003 [1973])

Trznya, T. Blessed are the Pacifists (Herald, 2006)

What About Romans 13?

Welcome back!  I know it has been a while since my last entry.  The summer months get kinda hectic for a youth pastor.  However, we are going to jump right back into our discussion on “Jesus & Non-violence” today with another guest blog.

(If you are just joining us, please consider getting caught up on our conversation through the links to the right.)

Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne

Today, I am excited to introduce someone to you that many of you know or have heard of already.  His name is Shane Claiborne.  He has written several well known books:

“The Irresistible Revolution”

“Jesus for President”.

I would highly recommend both of these books.  Shane has quickly become one of my favorite authors on this topic and I think you will appreciate his insights as well.

I asked Shane to help address a question that many of you have asked from the beginning of this conversation, which is “what about Romans 13?”  He agreed to participate in our blogalogue and submitted this article that I believe he wrote in tandem with his co-writer for “Jesus for President”, Chris Haw.

Thank you, Shane and Chris, for sharing your thoughts with us here!

Oh, and make sure to read the “footnotes” on this one… especially #3!

_________________________________________________________________________________

The popularly misquoted Romans 13 is surrounded by exhortations to not conform to the patterns of the world, love one’s enemies, and overcome evil with good. The passage in 1 Peter 2: 13ff on submitting to authority is woven into a larger tapestry about Christians living as aliens and strangers to the ways of the world. So before we hastily jump to the conclusion that these passages support Christian war or violence, we must understand what they actually say and their placement in overarching New Testament themes.

Because of space limitations, we’ll address only Romans 13.  So, let’s start by reading Paul.

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.

But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
(Romans 13:1–7)

Some talking points about this text. (1)

1.  To study any text with an appropriate sympathy, one must give it the benefit of the doubt before judging it.

"The Irresistible Revolution"

"The Irresistible Revolution"

One must allow the text to be “innocent until proven guilty.” This means we must assume that the author (in this case, Paul) is intelligent enough not to contradict himself or herself.  If there is coherence in Paul’s thought, then we can use his clear passages to illuminate passages that are harder to understand.  Granting this, we can assume that Paul’s point in Romans 13 harmonizes with the rest of his politics.  Without this initial sympathy, we might fail to understand a text.  The critical eye, squinting with distrust, cannot see clearly.

And it’s a disservice to an author to reconcile apparent contradictions in different texts by “balancing” them, concluding, for example, that “Christians need both a violent side and a peaceful side.”  Others simply write off Romans 13 as either a later compromise in Paul’s originally radical politics, or another author’s later addition to a largely nonconformist epistle.  But what if, instead of having two contradicting points, Paul had a single point?

Let’s assume that nowhere in Romans 13:1–7 is Paul saying anything that contradicts what he says at the end of the previous chapter:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. … Live in harmony with one another. … Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’  says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
(Romans 12:14–21)

2.  Note that the text says God orders “all authority.”

As we asked before, what would this text sound like to a German Christian under Hitler’s rule or an Iraqi Christian under Saddam’s rule?  It is easy to blindly use this text to support some militaristic adventure of Constantine or the United States and assume its divine sanction, but this overlooks the fact that “all” must include all authorities: Nero, Domitian, Pilate, Mao Tse-tung, Saddam Hussein, Hitler’s Third Reich, and so on.

World_Greatest_Dictators_by_vherandAlso, there is no place in the text where these authorities, under the right conditions, are considered divinely inspired (therefore worthy of obedience) or, not meeting some criteria, are considered divinely condemned (therefore worthy of disobedience).  The text does not give ordination only to democratically elected governments, but includes dictators!

When certain governmental standards (which have been imported into this text from elsewhere) are not met, some Christians like to introduce an exception: “We must obey God rather than men.”  But this phrase was intended not to provide an exception to the rule but serve as a clue to the overarching politics of the people of God: they always obey God rather than men, and they always subordinate to all authorities.

That God establishes all authority does not mean that God approves of all authorities.  The point is rather that God is to be considered greater than, not equal to, all the powers of this world.  Even the best democracy in the world isn’t worthy of allegiance, for God is sovereign even over it.

trinity-college-library-dub

"God ordered authorities, like a librarian orders books..."

“Established” here means that God orders the powers, as a librarian orders books but doesn’t necessarily approve of their content.  After all, Paul speaks of a government that “rewards the just,” but he also has extensive experience with persecution under its rule, and John of Patmos later refers to the powers (in Revelation 13) as the great whore.

That God “ordered” pagan Assyria to chastise Israel (Isaiah 10) is similar to Paul’s point.  Isaiah made no hint that God approved Assyria or the violence it used, but Israel was to trust that, in their suffering, they were not outside of God’s sovereignty.

Jesus echoed this belief when he declared to Pilate, “You would have no power if it were not given to you from above,” while obviously acknowledging Pilate’s abuse of this power.

Or remember back to when Israel demanded a king despite God’s warnings of what kings would do to them, and “in God’s anger God gave them a king.”

And now we ask God to save us from ourselves and our kings and presidents.

3.  Because Paul gives no conditions for a disciple to be subordinate to the authorities, we see he is talking about something deeper than disobedience or obedience.

Paul, in fact, did not use the word obey (which would imply the sense of bending one’s will). He used the word subordinate, which means that you simply consider yourself under their order.  This word is not about patriotism, pledging allegiance, or any affection for the powers.  Paul isn’t trying to convince unpatriotic Christians to pledge better allegiance.   Rather, Paul’s problem is the opposite: he must convince Christians, who are not conforming to the patterns of this world, not to overthrow the government! (2)

"Jesus for President"

"Jesus for President"

Paul is helping disciples understand the futility of such endeavors, encouraging them to keep on the path described in Romans 12 (and all of Jesus’ life and teaching), and not fly off into a new and hopeless project of vying for power. As Paul makes clear in chapters 9 through 11, Gentiles need to see themselves not as participants in the political dramas of upheavals and revolutions but as part of the set-apart people of God which were begun through Abraham and Sarah.

Subordination is not simply a helpful spiritual caveat to remind the Christian to stay humble.  It’s a necessary safeguard against violence and power.  It’s difficult to find a time in history when the revolutionary, through violence and coercion, doesn’t become a new oppressor.  Jesus knew this was the case in his people’s recent history with the Maccabeans.  Thus Jesus rejected the Zealots’ goal to “take the power back” from Herod or Pilate.  Paul too is rejecting the Zealots’ impulse and opting for revolutionary subordination.  As with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the only thing that should be done with the ring of power is dissolve it in the fire, not put it in the hands of “a pious man.”

If this ever becomes confusing, one need simply look at the example of Jesus’ death at the hands of the powers to understand subordination.  The way Jesus interacted with the temple courts and with Pilate displays a subordinate yet revolutionary heart.  Jesus never obeyed their whims and wishes—indeed, his wild action in the temple precipitated his arrest—and yet he also nonviolently subordinated to arrest. (3) He understood the powers as fallen but lovingly navigated through their hands, speaking truth that their power had blinded them to.

To overcome evil, he would not resist it but suffered and absorbed it.

4.   The text does not sanction the Christian to take up arms or even try to become the one who “governs by the sword.”

Many warrior Christians like to refer to the “just war tradition.”  And apparently Romans 13 is at the heart of this theory’s constitution.  As you read through the text, you’ll notice there is no place where sanction is given to the Christian to take up arms or even try to become the one who “governs by the sword.”  Indeed, the Christian identity is upheld in this text, as it was a chapter before, as radically distinct from the powers.

For Paul, the powers and the state are clearly a “they,” because he pledges allegiance to another Lord.  Much just-war reflection fails not only in its logic and application but also in its preconception: their “we” is not the church but the state.  In response to the question, “What should we have done in World War II?” we must ask, “Who is we?”

faith-and-politicsIf you are a Christian and your citizenship is in Jesus’ kingdom, reflection begins not with the powers but with the church.  The church should not have religiously supported, fought for, and obeyed Hitler.  The church should have been enacting the teachings of Jesus.  The church should have been taking in Jews and others who were hunted.  In many instances the church was doing these things, but this is not the history we learn.  Each of these instances, as in the case of Schindler or in our Celestin story or with the midwives in Egypt, are acts of holy subversion and disobedience. We are blessed to learn the lessons of history through the small, faithful ones in the Church (instead of through gigantic military history).

Not only does Romans 13 make no mention of Christians and the sword, it also doesn’t talk about the state and war.  When the text refers to the sword (v. 4, machiara: “short dagger”), the Greek word used refers not to war but to the symbol of local policing—it is the sword Roman officers would carry while accompanying tax-collectors.  There are many Greek words that refer to war, but machiara is not one of them.

But if we must talk about the state and war, “just war” is the most identifiable tradition in the church.  If Christians actually held to this theory, they would never go off to war.  Just-war theory isn’t a “justify any war” theory.  It defines a just war by stringent criteria and was intended to criticize governments, minimize violence, and define several reasons wars were wrong.  It should not be used to encourage Christians to abandon Jesus’ teachings.

5.  Only when the state resists evil and rewards good can the state be considered God’s servant.

The conditional word “attending” (also “give their full” v. 6, proskarterountes) helps us read the verse to say “they are servants of God insofar as they busy themselves with governing (resisting evil and rewarding good).”  When this condition is met, it’s not as if the Christian would join in resisting evil—no, they are still called to overcome evil as agents of the gospel, not agents of wrath.  And as we said before, if this condition is not met, it’s not as if Christians are justified in overthrowing the government either! (4)

In a similar way, the fact that the prophets speak of what a good king should do doesn’t change the fact that kings were not part of God’s original plan but a breaking of God’s heart (1 Samuel 8).  The condition is simply to define for the Christian a broad conception of what the state is doing, which is not what the Christian is doing. (5) The act of resisting evil is what Paul and Jesus explicitly prohibited for Christians (Romans 12; Matthew 5).

carew6It may be argued that this reading of Romans 13 leaves the dirty work of violence to the state while Christians keep their hands clean. Paul, indeed, understands that the powers play a role.  (Paul had been protected from riot violence by this pagan government.  Doubtlessly he was grateful for this, but he also seemed to be indifferent to this protection when he declared, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”)  The powers’ role is simply part of the old order that is passing away and crumbling.

It’s as if an old castle, deteriorating and full of holes in the walls from war, is being rebuilt.  The powers, partly responsible for creating the cycles of war, protect the castle from further bombing and set up scaffolds and girders to keep the building from crumbling on everyone’s heads.  They mitigate the mess they haven’t yet become convinced to stop making.  Meanwhile, those committed (the church) to the renewed castle make peace between the warriors who destroyed the castle, redesign its architecture, rework the plumbing, and so on.  But if the reworkers resort to constructing gun turrets on the walls, they simply assure the tightening of the cycle that destroyed everything.

This analogy, like any, falls short.  But the picture is that the old order plays a role, but it’s a limited and largely negative role.  Rather than trying to save a sinking ship, Christians are to be helping people get into lifeboats.  To the extent that people play a part in the old order of violence and power, they prolong and maintain it.

Put simply, “the most effective way to contribute to the preservation of society in the old aeon is to live in the new.” (6)

————————————————————-

footnotes:

(1)   It would be hard to cite all of the places where John Yoder has influenced these short observations. His remarks in The Politics of Jesus (especially the chapter “Let Every Soul Be Subject”) have thoroughly influenced our understanding. Readers would do well to go beyond our sketch and read his work and the works from which he draws.

(2)  A few years before this epistle Priscilla and Aquila had been expelled from Rome in connection with a tax revolt, and a new revolt was brewing under Nero. Paul’s point is that the insurrectionist motives behind this are missing the gospel’s methods of revolution. (See Klaus Wengst, The Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 82.

(3)  “The conscientious objector who refuses to do what a government demands, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him or her to death, is being subordinate even though not obeying” (John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994], 209).

(4)  “The conception of a ‘state properly so called,’ in the name of which one would reject and seek to overthrow the state which exists empirically, is totally absent in the passage. In the social context of the Jewish Christians in Rome, the whole point of the passage was to take out of their minds any concept of rebellion against or even emotional rejection of this corrupt pagan government” (Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 200).

(5)  “Christians are told (12:19) to never exercise vengeance but to leave it to God and to wrath. Then the authorities are recognized (13:14) as executing the particular function which the Christian was to leave to God … the function exercised by the government is not the function exercised by the Christians” (Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 198).

(6)  John Howard Yoder, The Original Revolution (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2003), 83.