Archive for the ‘Peacemaking’ Category

“We” Do Not Have Troops: An Open Letter to the Church in the U.S.

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Dear Pastors, Other Church Leaders, and All Fellow Christians in the U.S.,

It has been commonplace recently to hear requests for prayer and other forms of support for “our” troops. The problem is that “we” do not have any troops. By “we” I mean the Christian church. It is not my intent in this letter to convince anyone to become a pacifist. It is only my intent to make our speech appropriately Christian and accurate.

When we gather, we confess our faith in the one God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth: “We believe in one God….” When we gather, we confess that Christ came “for us and for our salvation,” which are not references to people of any particular nation, not even the nation in which we happen to live. When we gather, we confess our participation in a community that transcends space and time and nationality: “the communion of the saints….” When we gather, we do so, therefore, as one small, local part of a worldwide community called the church of Jesus Christ. We do not gather as Americans, even if we happen to be Americans. We gather as Christians.

Therefore, when we talk about “our” troops, we are being inaccurate. The troops do not belong to us, that is, to the Christian church, the communion of saints, the Christians gathered together in a particular church. The troops do not represent us; the troops do not fight for us; they are not on a mission from us; they are not our troops. They are someone else’s troops, even if some of them happen to come from our churches. They are, to be theologically correct and grammatically accurate, “their” troops. They go at someone else’s behest. They are someone else’s soldiers and missionaries. The church does not have troops except prayer warriors and mission workers and apologists and martyrs and common believers who bring every thought captive to Christ and who fight daily not against flesh and blood but against and principalities and powers. Those are our troops. Let’s pray for them, for us.

When we talk about “our” troops, we also make another mistake. Even if one believes that the church in the U.S. should pray for “the” troops, we should not use the word “our” because it is exclusive and therefore inaccurate in another way. How so? Many, if not most, churches in the U.S. have members or regular participants who are not Americans, but they are Christians. To pray for “our” troops, referring to U.S. troops, is impossible for these people. The invitation to prayer or support for “our” troops therefore creates a division in the church that ought not to exist.

The prayer of the church should always be a corporate prayer in which everyone can participate and to which everyone can say “Amen.” The mission of the church should always be a mission that all can support. Prayer for “our” troops and support for “our” troops do not fit this essential criterion of inclusion. We need to find something more appropriate that all in the church can support and pray for. Given all the needs in the world, that should not be too hard to do. The end of war, rather than support for it, would not be a bad place to start. (Even Andy Rooney of “60 Minutes” might agree [see his Nov. 8, 2009 comments].)

Speech about “our” troops is possible only for a church that has lost track of its fundamental and ultimate identity. It is the speech of civil religion, not of the international, transnational church of Jesus Christ. It is time to clean up our speech.

Your brother in Christ,

MJG

Israel, Palestine, and Water

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

Anyone who has been to “the Holy Land” or even been in a drought knows how important water is. Biblical images of life-giving streams take on richer theological and practical significance upon reflection on such experiences.

My friend and colleague Carole Burnett recently returned from another trip to Israel and Palestine. Today she has an eloquentt letter in the Washington Post responding to Monday’s op-ed piece by Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister of Israel, arguing that growth within Israel’s already-existing settlements should not be seen as problematic.

Carole claims that Israelis are diverting water that rightfully belongs to Palestinians, that Israelis are polluting Palestinian land, and that many Palestinians are not getting the safe water they need (and, I should add, that is a basic human right).

She concludes the letter as follows:

So let us hear no more about the alleged necessity of allowing the settler population to expand. Even if Israel begins to abide by its agreement to halt its confiscation of Palestinian land, its ever-encroaching appropriation of Palestinian resources must also be stopped if there is to be any hope for a viable Palestinian state and, thus, for the two-state solution that Mr. Olmert professes to support.

Paul and Violence?

Friday, July 17th, 2009

In my new book on Paul, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, I have a chapter arguing against the idea that Paul had a violent personality and for Paul as peacemaker and practitioner of nonviolence—which, I argue, is rooted in Paul’s gospel and especially in the resurrection.

A sympathetic and astute reader of the book, Brad, posed some very interesting and important questions.

One particular question keeps coming to mind and I was wondering if you would mind giving me your thoughts on it. You do a really nice job of showing in a succinct and compelling way how the kenotic view of God (and its non-violent implications) does not necessarily conflict with eschatological wrath/judgment, but I am left wondering what exactly Paul might have thought about the images of God as “Divine Warrior” in the OT, especially as this image is used for the sanctioning of nationalistic war (e.g. Joshua and Judges). How do you think Paul would have related these two images of God, kenotic and Warrior? A somewhat related point is that, while Paul does seem to leave the Phinehas understanding of zeal aside in favor of the model of Abraham, Genesis seems to think that a climactic expression of Abraham’s faith was in his willingness to sacrifice his own son (the “Akedah”). Paul apparently is comfortable appropriating the Akedah as a prototype of Christ’s obedience, but how do you think he would have thought about this act of violence as an expression of faith?

[More specifically,] I’m wondering is what Paul would have thought when, so to speak, he picked up Judges and read it: given its Scriptural status I don’t think Paul would have thought that God as Warrior who authorized and even demanded nationalistic military engagement was “not the same” as the God of Jesus Christ (as, e.g. Marcion) or that God had previously acted contrary to his character. So the question I’m thinking through is how would Paul have put together his view of God as fundamentally kenotic with the prior revelations of God as a (nationalistic, militaristic) Warrior who leads his people in battle. Or to put it another way, if God now approaches his enemies in restorative love, it seems that Paul also would have been compelled to acknowledge that in previous times and perhaps also in the future at the eschaton, God had acted on the principle of retributive justice (so sapiential literature, the Deuteronomistic History, etc.) and through the mode of military conquest.

Some of my response to these questions follows:

1. It is clear that Paul (and perhaps also the Pauline tradition, if Ephesians is not by Paul) can occasionally use various forms of military language and images for both God’s and (especially) believers’ life and activity. This language comes from the Scriptures, other Jewish literature, and Roman military life, etc. (Nijay Gupta, finishing a PhD in NT at Durham University in England and now teaching at Ashland Seminary is beginning a study of the last of these three, and that should be interesting.) This Pauline language is fully denationalized and is “theologized,” specifically “apocalypticized”: it is used to describe the conflict between God and/or believers on the one hand, and evil powers, Satan, false gospels and ideologies, etc., on the other. In some sense, believers participate in the divine apocalyptic battle, as in other Jewish literature. But this battle is in no sense actual military combat or physical violence. Nor is this battle a form of “soft violence,” that is, non-lethal coercion. The battle is waged with such weapons as proclamation, prayer, persuastion, and suffering. The use of military imagery may be a bit off-putting to us who are sensitive to its abuse, but it in no way justifies the use of violence. In fact, God is the kenotic warrior! God’s means of initiating and waging the apocayptic battle is to send into the world weapons of righteousness that embody the divine character: the Son, the Spirit, the church.

2. Paul’s rejection of violence is firmly rooted in his gospel, so the question of the Akedah/Abraham’s sacrifice, to which Paul alludes in Romans 8, is also significant. The key to this problem is how Paul views Christ’s death (itself a form of violence, with or without the analogy to the Akedah). For Paul, Christ’s death is both the donation of the Son by the Father and the donation of the Son by the Son himself—a self-donation. It expresses both the love of the Father and the love of the Son. Because of this close and inseparable connection between Father and Son, the Father’s giving of the Son is ultimately an act of self-giving. The Father gives the Beloved, Son, the One who shares in the very divine status of God. Although, of course, Paul does not state this interaction in specifically Trinitarian terms, he does indicate the deep self-involvement of the Father in the giving of the Son by the use of the reflexive pronoun iin Rom 8:3 and the parallel adjective idiou in Rom 8:32—God’s own son. To put it in theological language that Miroslav Volf and others have used, Paul sees the atonement fundamentally as a two-party “transaction,” not a “three-party” transaction. That is, God in/through Christ (one party) lovingly reconciles the world (second party) through Christ’s incarnation and death, rather than God (one party) sending and punishing Christ (second party) in Christ’s death so that the world/believers (third party) do not have to die.

3. I struggle theologically with the freedom of God/constrained by his own character of love. But I am very leary of the hint of divine change (e.g. from OT to NT) or the perception of divine change (e.g. “progressive revelation”). Paul would absolutely say that the “God of the OT” is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul is not Marcion. So, how might Paul read those bloody narratives? I think he would read them, and did read them (as seen in his “apocalypticizing” or “spiritualizing” [I hate that term] of the divine warrior tradition), allegorically, as did Origen, though Origen did so with a different allegorical strategy. I am not trying to say that Paul and Origen were thoroughgoing hermeneutical brothers, only that violence drew them both to some form of allegorical interpretation.

4. On the practical side, it seems to me that Rom 13:1-7 does not sanction believers’ participation in anything that contradicts the explicit exhortations in the context (all of Rom 12 and 13). That passage is a very Jewish nod to established authority, but the sword it approves is not the sword of the soldier. My point is primarily that, given all the interpretations of Rom 13 out there, no interpretation can be valid that allows Christians to violate the explicit command, for instance, to love enemies. So even if one concludes that 13:1-7 says God installs governments to carry out violence when necessary, Rom 12 and Rom 13:8ff prohibit believers from doing so. Which means either one goes the path of Luther (bifurcating the individual into two roles) or one becomes Anabaptist theologically if not ecclesially). Facing this heremeneutical and existential dilemma, I choose the latter, or perhaps it chooses me.

This is NOT Independence Sunday

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

In some U.S. churches, at least some Methodist churches (and I suspect others), this Sunday’s bulletin will announce that Sunday, July 5, 2009 is Independence Sunday—perhaps along with something else (like the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost), or perhaps not.

But it is not Independence Sunday, because that liturgical day does not exist, or at least should not exist. “Independence Sunday” is an American invention, an example of American civil religion: the inappropriate Americanizing of Christianity and Christianizing (in some vague, superficial sense) of America.

The misnaming of the Sunday nearest July 4 is a theological mistake in at least three specific ways. First, it nationalizes a calendar (the liturgical or church calendar) and a day that belong to the entire Christian church. “The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost” or “The 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time” or simply “The Lord’s Day, July 5, 2009″ is theologically appropriate because each of these is inclusive, universal, catholic. But “Independence Sunday” is exclusive and parochial. When we come as Christians to worship God, even on the Fourth of July weekend, we come to celebrate our oneness with people from every nation, tribe, and race, and to recommit to a divine mission that includes all peoples. There may be appropriate ways for Christian individuals and churches to acknowledge their particularity as Americans or Iraquis or Koreans, but hijacking the Christian calendar and liturgy is not one of them.

Second, “Independence Sunday” robs not only the Christian church, but also, and far more importantly, the Lord of the church. It takes the focus of worship off the Triune God who liberated Israel in the Exodus and then came to rescue wayward humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, substituting—however subtly (or not!)—a national deity who is usually thought to have chosen America and poured special blessings on the American people as Americans. Sunday—every Sunday, no exceptions—is the Lord’s day, the day devoted to the adoration of Jesus as Lord and to communion with him. Centering on anything or anyone else negates the very reason for the gathering and transforms it into something else, something alien.

Third, the language of “Independence Sunday” misleads both Christians and non-Christians into thinking that one’s true identity and freedom are given to them by one’s nation state. It will not suffice to say something like “We celebrate our freedom as Americans but also, and more importantly, our freedom from sin because of Jesus.” Why is this insufficient? Because comparing the two trivializes the latter, the one that really matters. Why do these words not make “Independence Day” language in church appropriate? Because the use of “we” in “we celebrate” erroneously suggests that there is something as significant, or almost as significant, about the assembled group’s identity as Americans as there is about its identity as Christians.

The custom of singing songs and offering prayers about peace, justice and similar topics on the Sunday nearest July 4 may be a good thing—if they are appropriately interpreted by the pastor in non-nationalistic and non-militaristic ways. In my experience this is seldom done. (But at least it’s better than blatant nationalism.) A church can do this without either misnaming the Sunday or misfocusing the worship service.

I have not said anything about the use of American flags in church, on “Independence Sunday” or any other time, but for all the reasons noted above, the position I would argue is probably obvious.

At Christmas time I posted that Christmas is not Jesus’ birthday, but this other liturgical error may be far more harmful, at least for Americans. So… Happy Fifth to all! Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, that is.

PS For ideas about celebrating Independence Day (the national holiday), see what Shane Claiborne and others have to say.

The Nonviolent Missio Dei

Friday, June 26th, 2009

A number of people, not least John Howard Yoder and Richard Hays, have made the case that the NT does not give support to Christian participation in violence but, rather, leads us to practice nonviolence. Glen Stassen and others argue rightly that hearing the NT as a call to nonviolence alone is insufficient, and that we must also practice just peacemaking.

I am not disputing either of these claims and would in fact support them. Without going back and looking at each of their writings in detail, I would also add that each also says, implicitly or explicitly, that the mission or story of God is in fact a mission/story of nonviolent action centered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If we think, then, of participating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—that is, of participating in the story and mission of God—as the goal of human existence and the meaning of salvation, then nonviolence is not a matter to discuss or debate as one of so many possible topics in Christian ethics. Rather, it is at the very heart of what it means to be Christian, to be saved, to be a disciple.

Over at Getting Free, T has a brief but excellent post about this very topic: “The Cross and the Plot-line of our Time.” He says:

If this is a Story that we’re in, then the plot of how good beats evil in this world must be central to it. From what I can tell from the New Testament, generous love for people who are (currently) agents of evil (even to the point of giving one’s blood or money in love) is the central strategy of God in this plot line.

If T is right, and I think he is “spot on,” then the way Tom Wright and others tell the story of God in five acts (creation through recreation/redemption) needs to be more carefully articulated with an emphasis on God’s nonviolent, nonretaliatiory enemy love that is the central act of the story.

I wonder if Rev. Pagano and friends (see previous post) have thought about this? What’s the story of God they believe in and tell week in and week out?

T (and I) welcome responses there or here.

It’s Bring-Your-Gun-to-Church Day!

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

Maybe you’ve seen this: one of my students passed along this article about an Assemblies of God church in Louisville that is sponsoring a bring-your-firearms-to-church event (not a worship service… or is it?). An excerpt follows:

[Rev. Ken] Pagano [the pastor] is a former Marine and currently a volunteer chaplain for the Louisville Metro Police Department (where he does not carry a weapon). Taking a break from a shift at the indoor gun range where he works one day a week, Pagano tells TIME that he’s an avid sport shooter and a proponent of responsible gun ownership. Despite criticism for co-mingling guns and religion, he stands by his view that Christians are called on to be prepared to defend themselves and their families. “Pacifism is optional for Christians,” says Pagano. “It’s not a requirement.”

(“Pacifism” is not really the issue here, Rev. Pagano.)

Fortunately:

Some locals opposed to Pagano have planned an alternative rally, “Bring Your Peaceful Heart … Leave Your Gun at Home,” which is scheduled to coincide with the New Bethel [Rev. Pagano's church] event.

Bible and Peacemaking

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

If this subject is of interest to any of you (as I hope it is to all), take a look at Michael Westmoreland-White’s blog, Levellers, from earlier this month.


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