“Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back in its place! For all who take hold of the sword will die by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot call on my Father, and that he would send me more than twelve legions of angels right now? How then would the scriptures that say it must happen this way be fulfilled?” -Matthew 26:52-54
In the wake of a tragedy such as what happened in Sutherland, Texas, there is always a back-and-forth between Christians calling for more “spiritual”, “Gospel-centered” approaches to the “root-problem” and Christians calling for more “practical”, “Kingdom-centered” approaches to the “actual-problem”, and a cloud preventing us from seeing what alone is capable of transforming our communities. I want to spell it out by way of offering some global perspective, pointing out what I believe is an illusion, and a call to take up our most effective weapon.
Some Global Perspective
Before hearing about the shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, yesterday, I was listening to an Egyptian Pastor who partners with my church speak to us about his experiences and perspective on Christianity in Egypt. As reported by Open Doors, in 2016
Egyptian Christians were among the top 5 countries with the highest incidents of violence against Christians, in addition to experiencing 21st highest degree of persecution in other forms. This trend was confirmed by the pastor (I’ll call him Pastor Sam), who told us sad but beautiful stories abut his perspective on the church across the Middle East.
One story was of the twin-suicide bombings on Palm Sunday of this year, where one suicide bomber killed 49 people in a church and another was prevented from killing anyone but the single guard who checked people at the entrance (having a guard is itself a sad but necessary precaution some Egyptian churches have made in the wake of repeated bombings). The man’s wife and children were subsequently interviewed on one of the most most famous Egyptian talk-shows, and she said:
“I’m not angry at the one who did this…I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you…We want to let our enemies know that we are praying for them, that they would come to know Jesus as well”. (clip)
This left the news anchor stunned, and to subsequently say “These people are made of a different substance”. Similar sentiments were shared by an Orthodox priest in a prayer service following the event, who told his church “They are in need, and because they are in need, we must pray for them” (clip).
This example is not an analogy of Sutherland Springs in important ways. To our knowledge, the shooter claimed no loyalty to any organized, or even disorganized, terrorist group or any group explicitly calling for violence against Christians. As terrorizing as the incident is, Christians in the US are not as whole under any realistic threat of violent extremism. Westerners in general are under such a threat, though on minimal this side of the Atlantic, whether they are Christian or not.
Still, there’s a contrast in attitude that I think is important. When someone in our room asked Pastor Sam if the unprecedented (in the modern era) number of conversions he had been witnessing in Egypt, Iran, and Syria “would make a difference”, Sam asked for clarification. He asked: “Do you mean politically?”, “Yes” the man replied. Sam said: “Why do you want to change the politics? I don’t know. That’s not my problem.” This is almost as stunning as the mother’s response to her husband’s death. It probably strikes many Christians in the US as naive, maybe the by-product of an exported, hyper-individual Christianity that ignores the social aspects of human life, or maybe the result of a group being consistently unable to express themselves politically, and giving up the attempt.
None of those interpretations will quite do, though there is a sad kernel of truth in the last one. The individualistic interpretation is myopic, assuming our own forms of how to effect social structures should show themselves in other places in the same, or at least somewhat recognizable, ways. Naivety is, obviously, naive, at least as being shot from the safety of an armchair in the US. The defeatist theory is perhaps even more incredible than either one of these. One only has to read the stories of outright defiance in the face of threatened or real violence to see that there is no shortage of Christians struggling for freedom of conscience and in civil disobedience to their home country’s politics. However, there is a kernel of truth to this last theory. Apart from explicitly pacifist communities of Christians around the world, many of those same groups under oppression might indeed use state-sanctioned violence, if given the opportunity.
Which brings me back to the states. We have, and regularly use, such an opportunity. In a world bubbling with never-ending violence the majority of leadership in the most wealthy, and (for the time being) most influential church in the world is still pitifully, woefully, I will say outright disgracefully weak on how to serve the Prince of Peace while honoring that title. The question of whether the Gospel of the kingdom of God calls us to unequivocally love our enemies and put down the sword, in every role of life we live, dies the death of a million qualifications.
In response to tragedies such as Sutherland we have, on the one hand, those of us focused on “the root problem” of the human heart, where the violence permeating all of the animal kingdom is acknowledged to be in every one of us. Yet, in this group we are often prone to justifying, in extremely paradoxical ways, violence against certain people, like the soldiers of an enemy army, or the person armed and ready to kill us. In such cases we do not take much time to think about whether in this case our heart’s are just displaying the same evil clothed in elaborate justifications. On the other hand, we have those of us focused on “the actual problem” of social structures that fuel violence, such racism fueling police brutality, or NRA influence over gun laws, both clearly revealing American idols. Yet, in this group we are often prone to justifying, in extremely paradoxical ways, the most powerful social structure for fueling violence in all of human history, the state. Of course, in both groups we easily see these flaws of the other, and conveniently excuse our own exceptions with the wave of our “let’s be realistic” hand.
The truth is that we fall under the illusion that there are good uses of violence, or good ways of threatening it. We fear applying the commands of our Prince to enemies when other authorities, apart from our Prince, tell us we should not. “Those people, you are justified in not loving” or “To love them means to coerce (or kill) them” says our country, or our politics. What’s missing from our response to this tragedy, and our response to this global-moment, is what turned me, a little less than five years ago now, into a full-fledged anabaptist.
Peace is Calling
Nothing I’ve said here is directly addressed to the victims in Sutherland Springs. It would be monstrous to blithely press victims of such a tragedy from a distance. I am concerned with pastors, leaders, theologians that reject a full applications of Christ’s command to love our enemies, a command followed perfectly by Christ himself. I am concerned about this because this will happen again, and not only in the US. In some places Christians will continue to find themselves in the tempting position of outright retaliation for outright violence against them. In country’s where the church is growing to a “critical mass”, such as in Latin America, Christians are already finding themselves in the tempting position of suddenly being able to take-up state-sanctioned violence. So, what is the call? Looking back at that small excerpt from Matthew 26 above, we should recall some simple, over-arching, theological facts. In that passage, Jesus refrains from using power that was:
1) easily accessible (the rhetorical question about the “legion of angels”)
2) sanctioned by the highest authority possible, God (since he is God)
3) called for by any measure of justice (since he was, more than anyone, innocent), and
4) in self-defense (despite Jesus’ desire to fulfill prophecy, it would be self-defense to prevent your own death by definition).
This undermines nearly every instinct-for, or theory-of, justified violence. But it does not only undermine our instincts, it calls us into more beautiful ones.
The reason Jesus refrains, he hints, is to fulfill the scriptures about his death, to take up his cross. Christians have been taught that through Jesus, because of his death on the cross and resurrection, we are given the ultimate hope for the cosmos (1 Cor. 15). Yet, we were also called to take up our own cross, to lose our own life if we want to find true life, and follow Jesus (Mt. 16:21-28). We were also given the promise that we will overcome the greatest enemy of humanity by the blood of Jesus shed on that cross, and by the word of our testimony; a testimony we leave by not holding onto our lives, so much so that we do not even shrink from death (Rev. 12). We are, in other words, called to follow the example of Christ: go to the cross for the joy of promised resurrection.
By not practicing, teaching, and seeking the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to actually love like this in concrete situations, we fail the church. We will miss opportunities to put on display the full beauty, power, and radically transforming love of God in Christ Jesus. This is not, nor has it ever been, a peripheral issue. When that love is put into practice, as seen in that one small window of the Egyptian church, the very perpetrators of violence are transformed. The cost is high however. It is a call to disarm ourselves from the preferred method of violence, whether outright on our hip or concealed in our politics.
What can stop the outpouring of violence against Christians in the Middle East? God’s love in Christ. What can stop the occurrence, even here, of violence against each-other in a fit of rage, or skin, or politics, or religion? God’s love in Christ. What are we to do? Follow our prince, shed our excuses and qualifications of his commands, and fight the only war that has ever mattered with the only weapon that never fails.