Paul’s non-violent Gospel is for all believers

Let me be upfront in this post – any believer who argues that Christians, in particular circumstances, are justified in engaging in war and violence is pushing against the overwhelming ethos of the New Testament and early Church History.

Rather than Christian non-violence being seen as a ‘minority report’ within much of later Western Church history, it should be the other way around – that there should be a default scepticism and ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ around Christian ‘just war’ theory because it is so manifestly out of step with Jesus, Paul and the rest of the NT.

This isn’t just an ‘ethical issue’ – non-violence is integral to the gospel, it should shape the lives, attitudes and words of all Christian disciples.

Below is a review of mine of a book making a convincing case along these lines for Paul. Jesus’ teaching to love enemies and of non-retaliation is not just some idealised unrealistic ethic that can be left safely with the ‘perfect man’ – it was embodied within Paul’s own experience and understanding of the gospel itself.

Have a read and see what you think – comments welcome

Jeremy Gabrielson: gabrielsonPaul’s Non-Violent Gospel: The Theological Politics of Peace in Paul’s Life and Letters (Pickwick Publications: Eugene OR, 2013. Pbk. pp.204. ISBN 978-1-62032-945-0)

This book represents the fruit of a PhD completed at the University of St Andrews under the supervision of Bruce Longenecker. Gabrielson’s theme is that non-violence for Paul was “not simply an ethical implication of the gospel, but is itself constitutive of the politics of the gospel.” (168)

By this he means that the gospel forms a counter-cultural political body that responds to evil and enmity not with violence or force but with good. The motive for such counter-intuitive enemy-love is not to avoid suffering. Rather, quoting Yoder, it “heralds to the cosmos that in God’s kingdom ‘the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history’.”(169)

A distinctive element of Gabrielson’s articulation of Christian non-violence is his focus on how Paul’s personal biography of violence informs his theology. In other words, Paul’s teaching of peace and non-retaliation are not merely generalised ethical principles drawn from his Jewish context (important though that is) but should be interpreted through the grid of the apostle’s dramatic experience of supporting and subsequently renouncing violence.

This thesis is unpacked in most detail in the longest chapter in the book, ‘Trajectories of Violence and Peace in Galatians’. The ‘pre-Christian’ Paul is a violent persecutor (1:13, 23) who tried to ‘destroy’ the fledgling messianic movement of Jesus-followers. Gabrielson is cautious about filling in the details of Paul’s account via the later writings of Luke; he argues that Paul’s own words (‘destroy’ and ‘persecute’) presuppose physical violence. Based on parallel examples in Philo, he suggests that Paul’s exceptional zeal could have been understood as a virtue whereby perceived transgression of the Torah would rightly have been violently punished. So, while there is no explicit mention in Paul of being involved in killing, his own language, the Jewish context and the documented experience of the first Christians of violent persecution all combine to support such a possibility.

This leads Gabrielson to propose that Paul’s experience of the risen Christ not only causes deep and profound shifts in his understanding of the law, faith and righteousness but also in his understanding of a peaceable life that pleases God. Gone is the notion of ‘righteous violence’. Instead, the humiliating and debasing horror of crucifixion is reimagined to a degree that the apostle can rejoice that he has been ‘crucified with Christ’ and his former self no longer lives (Gal. 2:19-20) now that he is a ‘slave’ (1:10) of Christ. Gabrielson concludes

“The violent Paul died when Christ was apocalypsed in him; now Christ-in-Paul shapes Paul’s life in the flesh in a cruciform existence.” (95)

This stance frames the author’s unpacking of Galatians’ rich understanding of the Christian life. New life in the Spirit will embrace and overcome suffering. It will be a life of love and giving; bearing burdens and enacting forgiveness. It leads to the paradox of Christian freedom, where freedom takes the form of voluntary ‘slavery’ of love and obedience to the risen Lord.

This new life leads to a new political order of ‘doing good’ to all, especially the household of God (6:9). Yet peaceableness does not mean that violence will not come one’s way. This is why Paul warns his communities that the violent world would probably do its violent worst – they should expect suffering and trouble.  But their response was to repay evil with good; to embody a politics of peace in the face of a politics of violence.

Gabrielson’s argument is well made and persuasive. A vast amount of scholarly attention has been, and continues to be, focused on Paul, righteousness and the law. This is perfectly understandable given the weight and breadth of the theological issues at stake. Those debates revolve around questions such as how exactly did the ‘new’ Paul differ from the ‘old’ Paul?; what was Paul ‘converted’ from?; what were the continuities and discontinuities in his understanding of the Torah? It is refreshing to see another, frequently overlooked, angle to these sorts of questions unpacked in this book – that of Paul’s shift from violence to non-violence.

Paul, Gabrielson argues, did not come to such a remarkable and counter-cultural position lightly. In an opening context-setting chapter on ‘The End of Violence in Matthew’, he argues that the Gospel makes plain, on multiple levels, that Jesus was remembered as the Messiah who, despite living in a culture steeped in violence, chose non-violent resistance – and that choice cost him his life.

Paul’s general commitment to non-violence is traced in a subsequent chapter on ‘The Memory of a Non-Violent Jesus in Paul’s Letters’. After careful analysis of Jesus Tradition in Paul, Gabrielson concludes that Paul, ‘like virtually every early Christian author’, included the most memorable and startling elements of Jesus’ teaching. Living peaceably in a violent world was one of the

“most salient features of the teaching and example of the historical Jesus … because it was this Jesus who was recognizable as staying true to the living voice of Apostolic testimony” (78).

A further chapter focuses on supporting evidence for this conclusion drawn from a study of 1 Thessalonians. The case made here is that as early as 50 CE Paul is exhorting Thessalonian Christians to imitate the peaceful response of non-violent perseverance to suffering earlier demonstrated by the Judean churches (1 Thes 2:14-16). If referring to the Judean church’s suffering under Paul’s own persecution in the early 30s CE, this locates Christian non-violence at the earliest possible stage of church history in a non-Pauline church. The implications are significant: the practice of Christian non-violence was demonstrably evident in every geopolitical context (Palestinian, Asian, Greek and Roman Christianity) and under different founding missionaries and leaders.

In other words, non-violence is intrinsic to the gospel of Jesus Christ – who pioneered the non-violent politics of the kingdom of God for his disciples to follow.

A significant hermeneutical question lurks in the background of Gabrielson’s analysis. Namely, is Paul’s biography of violence paradigmatic for all believers?

While not exploring contemporary implications in detail, Gabrielson believes it is. A life of non-violence is not just a personal ethical ‘choice’ for a Christian; it is an intrinsic part of belonging to the new age of the Spirit.

“The sway of the cosmos, the old-age modus operandi, led to Paul’s violence, but Paul’s new modus operandi, his new trajectory involves living into the new creation which has as its gravitational center the cross of Christ” (99-100).

At one point Gabrielson quotes approvingly from Michael Gorman’s excellent book, Inhabiting the Cruciform God (158-9) that

“If the conversion of Paul, grounded in the resurrection of Christ, is paradigmatic, it is paradigmatic in multiple ways, not least of which is his conversion from violence to non-violence.”

Such a conclusion is, of course, highly contested. The biblical and theological case for Christian non-violence has been well mapped out, as have Christian counter arguments. While this book does not offer anything radically new to those discussions, it does add a fresh, coherent and strong strand to the case for Christian non-violence.

There are some weaker points and omissions. It is not clear that Galatians 2:10 is Paul speaking autobiographically of his ‘old’ violent self. The link from righteous violence in Philo to righteous violence in Paul is possible, but theoretical. The conclusions drawn from 1 Thessalonians are implicit rather than explicit. It is surprising that there is no discussion of Romans 13 given its significance in how Paul’s relationship with violence has been interpreted historically.

But overall, if Gabrielson is right, and I believe he is, this work has profound implications for all Christians globally.

It also highlights how, such is the coherence and unified witness of Paul and the other writers of the New Testament, that a Christian argument for a just use of violence is almost inevitably forced to go beyond the biblical texts to try to find other grounds on which to base its case.

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When the guns went quiet

Had the privilege of preaching at MCC on Sunday. Since it was the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1 it seemed appropriate to think of Jesus’ teaching on loving your enemies (Luke 6:27-36).

end_of_the_warI finished the sermon with this picture and associated sound clip. The picture is of film onto which different microphones in the trenches were recording the sound intensity of enemy guns. Using triangulation, they could then pinpoint the location of those enemy guns.

The films were unearthed a while ago in the Imperial War Museum. The most dramatic one is of the 11th of November 1918, the day the guns went quiet. The film shifts from spikes of sound to the flat line of silence (above).

Clever people have reverse engineered the film to recreate the sound it first recorded. So, although there are no sound recordings of WW1, we can now hear the ending of the war and the first moments of peace after years of senseless slaughter.

Have a listen to the arrival of peace

The closing point I made in the sermon is that this is an image of Christian eschatological hope. Christians believe that one day the guns will go quiet for ever: no more war, no more mass shootings, no more violence, no more arms industry making billions from deaths of others. God’s kingdom will come, the Prince of Peace will rule, God will be ‘all in all’.

And in the here and now, it is the calling of those who belong to that King and his kingdom, to live lives of peace within this violent world. To lives that point to another kingdom to that of the world. A kingdom in which disciples refuse to take part in war, but follow the even harder calling of loving enemies.

Because this is what God is like – a God of kindness and mercy to the undeserving.

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (7) on non-violence and Yoder’s sins

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This excerpt is from Chapter Six, JUST WAR, PACIFISM, AND GENDER.

Hauerwas’ critique of Christian just war theory (eg Reinhold Niebhur) is a defining mark of his public persona – even if his work extends far beyond pacifism and just war. Brock elicits some very interesting responses in this chapter, not least on the actual details of what pacifism might look like in practice for a Christian.

But before we get there, what emerges is Hauerwas’ main concern – to attempt to get followers of a crucified Lord who rejected violence to at least have a major ethical and theological problem with going to war.

Christians belong to a different story to that of the modern nation-state. Theirs is a much older and deeper story; the story of God’s redemptive work in the world through his Son. They belong to his ‘peaceable kingdom’ which has arrived with the coming of the King. We live in the overlap of the ages as people of his kingdom and are called to humility, peacemaking, justice and love.

Hauerwas has tough words for American exceptionalism that has led to the hubris of multiple disastrous and unnecessary wars.

Well I think America hasn’t come to terms with being a genocidal nation, in relationship to Native Americans. We don’t tell that as a part of the story. I don’t think we’ve come to terms, still, with being a slave nation. Basically, we’re caught on the presumption that slavery has been defeated by the Civil War and by later developments that challenged segregation. Martin Luther King won. The radical implications of the fact that you are a slave nation and how to make that part of the story is just very difficult in America.  Often I say: if Americans had taken seriously that we were a slave nation, would we be in Iraq and Afghanistan now? The kind of humility that enables the historical acknowledgment that in turn funds a humble posture toward the contemporary world would give you a very different kind of foreign policy than we currently enact. (161)

And later on in a long and detailed discussion he explains his goal this way,

People oftentimes, as I’ve said earlier, ask “What about Hitler? Wouldn’t have you been a soldier in World War II?” I’m sure I would have been. It’s not like the position is saying, “You fought. You didn’t. The one that fought is wrong. The one that didn’t is right.” Those kinds of retrospective judgments do no one any good. The question is not, “Did someone, by being one of Caesar’s Legions become less Christian?” The question is, “What are we to do?” I’m just trying to help us recover why those that fought in Hitler’s Legions might have been better off if Christians had offered them a different life. I’m sure we could have! And what now, do we do, as Christians? I just want Christians to be able to say “no.” They probably won’t do it on just war grounds, but they should be a people who can maintain the kind of critical edge toward the nation- state that helps us keep the war- making potential of those states limited. (174)

I found this helpful. Christian pacifism is a minority pursuit historically. The predictable ‘What about Hitler?’ question is thrown out routinely as an obvious one-line defeater of the impracticability of non-violence. It blithely assumes that there are no other alternatives; it precludes critical analysis of nationalist narratives of war; it stunts the imagination of asking what does it mean to follow Jesus in a violent world; and it all too easily gives a ‘free pass’ to the inevitable unjust practices of war – since pretty well NO war ever matches up to the idealistic and impractical criteria of Christian Just War Theory.

What Hauerwas wants to see is real alternatives on the table for Christians – a bit like the story of Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge I guess.

Brian Brock pushes Hauerwas to spell out what he means in practice it means to be a Christian committed to non-violence. It means a basic unwillingness to kill.

BB I think it will be very helpful to continue to probe a little bit more around the edges of this position. For instance, could a Christian be a law enforcement officer if they had to train on the gun range, shooting at human-shaped targets?

SH:     No.

BB:     So they couldn’t really be trained on guns?

SH:     They couldn’t really be trained on guns. They could be trained on certain kinds of physical response to people threatening violence that would look coercive. A kind of judo? I think that’s pretty interesting; that they learn to use the violence of the attacker against themselves. I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

BB:   And, as you suggest in that passage, a Christian who was a prison warden or a cop and was in a police force where they were trained for choke holds should quit?

SH:     Absolutely. That’s exactly right. No question.

BB:     That’s a pretty robust hermeneutic for thinking these things through. But you haven’t really laid it out in this type of detail before.  (178)

What do you think of these practical positions?

Towards the end of the chapter the conversation switches to discussion of the revelations that have emerged over the sexual misbehaviour of Hauerwas’s friend and theological mentor John Howard Yoder.

Brock asks a fascinating and disturbing question – how is it that people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Yoder, all deeply committed to peaceful revolution and justice for the disempowered, were all implicated in blatant unjust exploitation of women? They misused their power and prestige over the powerless by ‘cashing in their fame by taking sexual liberties with women.’

Hauerwas has been criticised for too quickly ‘closing the case’ on Yoder’s misdeeds, after a church disciplinary process and failing to acknowledge just how damaging his actions had been. Here, he admits he hadn’t appreciated the ‘violence’ done by Yoder and how that process had not been complete.

But it shows that men have been socialized in ways that are destructive for us and clearly are destructive for women. I myself think that I did not appropriately appreciate the damage that John was doing to women, in terms of my own involvement in that situation, which was clearly on the side. But I don’t think that the disciplinary process was as successful as I thought it had been. (184)

Hauerwas also comments that

SH: It’s called self-deception, isn’t it? I mean, who knows what kind of stories Martin Luther King was telling himself. Yoder had this stupid theory. Gandhi was a Hindu so in terms like this, who am I to speak? I don’t know how to account for them. (185)

I think some more could be said on how to account for King and Yoder’s hypocrisy, self-deception or double-standards as Christian men, but the conversation moves on.

There is a paradox here is there not? On the one hand Christians are called, and enabled, to live a new life, pleasing to God. A life of service, care for others, love, kindness, and covenant obedience to God within an accountable community. As Paul says, we are to ‘live a life worthy of the gospel’.  Sin is not to be accepted as inevitable.

Yet, on the other hand, Christians should also know better than anyone else, that the heart is deceitful and wicked. Leaders fail – rare is the leader who does not. As people of the cross we should know about the power and presence of sin. As pastors and pilgrims, we should also know people and all their frailties and contradictions.

So, we should be disappointed and surprised by the infidelities and failures of King and Yoder. But not shocked.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

PS there is also a long discussion on gender and sexuality, so I will do a second post on this chapter.

Fear, Nietzsche and Beauty: approaching 2017

Two things behind this post.

  1. 2016 was, in many ways, a brutal, ugly and unsettling sort of year.
  2. This pair of goldfinches visited our garden (I’ll come back to the goldfinches)

img_7518-2

2016 was especially unsettling for us in the West, I think, because it was also a year that saw rising threats to the future stability and security of our Western way of life.

In no particular order, some of these threats include (and I am sure you can add your own):

  • The devastation of Syria – but also within Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere – and its unimaginable associated human cost, have left many looking on feeling both helpless and angry. On top of this, the conflict has exposed the West’s impotence to oust Assad and has hugely bolstered Putin’s influence in the region.
  • The West continues to reap what was sown by Bush and Blair’s reckless and arrogant invasion of Iraq. Western hubris to imagine that Western democracy could be catalysed in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan has been shown to be just that.
  • Putin’s latest ‘victory’ in Aleppo is part of his agenda of regaining Russian self-respect and influence in the world. Annexing Crimea, partial invasion of Eastern Ukraine, new balances of power with Turkey, cyber-hacking the USA and ruthless crushing of dissent at home – are all part of Putin’s gangsterism and empire-building strategy demonstrating his contempt for the weak West.
  • European elites seem to have no coherent answer to either the refugee crisis or the very real chance of the break up of the Euro. Italy could enter a fiscal crisis in 2017. Risks to the viability of the Euro appear to be relentlessly rising despite continual firefighting by European policy makers. After years, it is pretty clear that there is neither the political cohesion or creativity to ‘re-imagine’ a different structure for Europe that can actually work.
  • That scepticism towards Europe as an idea is shared by more and more within Europe. Brexit might be only the first step.
  • Liberal Westerners are aghast at the potential ending (or at least a serious threats to) of the onward ‘civilising’ march of liberal secular democracy in Europe and the USA. Trump and Putin (and their mutual admiration society) pose the nightmare scenario of the rise of autocratic right-wing nationalism. I mean by this  a form of nationalism that goes back to a myth of ‘our origins’ and seeks to ‘recover’ who we ‘truly’ are while simultaneously finding scapegoats blame for the ‘decline of our once great nation’.
  • The nihilistic brutality of ISIS / Daesh and its sporadic, unpredictable and ruthless violence within European cities is designed not for military victory but to spread fear and catalyse division within the enemy. One desired outcome is to sow seeds of enmity and distrust within European multiculturalist pluralist societies that can grow into ugly plants of xenophobia, racism and exclusion – to undermine Europe from within.  So far, quite a lot of progress made on this front.

The fear and uncertainty felt by many in the West today is not because uncertainty, violence, mass immigration and nationalism are new but because they are hitting close to home.

These are some impressionistic descriptions – some may be more accurate than others. The real point is not the detail but a question:

What is a response for a disciple of Jesus to living in times of deep uncertainty?

Some possible responses:

  1. Be consumed by fear at threats to our ‘Western way of life.’

There is an incomparable richness with living in the West – the freedoms and opportunities that we take for granted are all around us. It is an astonishing privilege to live in a culture that has a democratic government (and only partially corrupt form of politics). Heck, even the trains nearly run on time some of the time. These freedoms should be supported and defended as that which gives maximum freedom to most people.

But, Christians should be well aware that these gifts are not guaranteed and are certainly not an indispensable part of being a follower of Jesus. A Christian’s source of identity, security and hope does not derive from living in an unheralded time (historically speaking) of prosperity, political stability and access to infinite information.

So we are not to be people of fear, but of hope. Our ‘salvation’ does not rest on the fortunes of liberal secular democracy. Christians in the West are, after all, called to be NOT good Westerners – whether Irish, American, British or German etc. They ARE called to be faithful disciples of Jesus their Lord.

2. Live by the sword

Up there with ‘love your enemies’, perhaps one of the most ignored teachings of Jesus is that “those who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Mt 26:52)

Christians are not to be uncritical supporters of the West or of their particular state. A role of the church (however unpopular) is to call the state to account before God – and take the consequences (ask John the Baptist).

It is the West’s arrogance and militarism that has helped create the disaster of the contemporary Middle East. Rather than respond the catastrophic mess with support for more violence, it is Christians who are called to be peacemakers; people of prayer; compassion; of reconciliation and mercy.

An illustration from the radio this morning: Lyse Doucet is a superb international correspondent for the BBC. She was talking of why she risked her life reporting from Aleppo. Her reply was unescapably moral: it was a privilege to see what was happening and tell the human story of suffering. She recalled her Catholic upbringing and that she had been taught to be ‘my brother’s keeper’. She was there to use her training and experience to help give a voice to those without a voice. Her actions are a fantastic model for Christians. Non-violence is not passive, it is courageous and bold on behalf of the weak and vulnerable. It speaks of risky love at cost to ourselves. It speaks of a radically different narrative to the men of war.

3.   Accept the fate of the world

nietzscheThe brilliant atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (with impressive moustache) talked of amor fati – love of fate. By this he meant that we should overcome our weakness of trying to seek salvation or moral perfection in this world. Rather we should grow up and say YES to all that exists; embrace all of life, both its miseries and joys. There is nothing else higher or better than life as it is.  It is Christian weakness and illusion to believe that there is – and Nietzsche hated such weakness. He believed in strength and power rather than perverse ideas of pity and compassion.

Nietzsche was absolutely right – if God is dead. For without God all we do face is a pitiless world where the will to power wins out and compassion is mere stupidity (sound familiar re a certain President elect?). Fatalism and power are the responses of faithlessness – quite consistent for an atheist but not exactly an option for a Christian.

4. Hope, compassion and beauty

Rather than 1-3, can I suggest that in a violent and uncertain world, Christians are to be people of hope, compassion and lovers of beauty.

Christian hope rests not in politics or nationalism but on the victory of God won in Christ. In him we have the certainty of resurrection life, forgiveness of sin, new life in the Spirit, a mission give our lives to, a God to love and a church and world to serve. We are to be people who believe in, are shaped by and share good news – whatever the world is doing around us.

That good news includes Paul’s command to ‘remember the poor’ and to live a kingdom life that is ‘good news to the poor’. God’s people, like OT Israel are to reflect God’s heart for those cast aside by the power structures and politics of the world:

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Deut. 10:18-19

As recipients of God’s grace and compassion, we are to share grace and compassion generously with those in need like refugees fleeing from unimaginable violence.

Finally, back to those goldfinches. I like bird watching and think goldfinches are particularly pretty. Now some people I know don’t like birds at all and I think Starlings are frankly evil. So my point is not about birds per se, but beauty.

There is something captivating and transcendent about beauty – maybe for you it is a landscape, a sunset, a person, a poem, a tree, a painting, a crashing wave on a beach or a crafted piece of clothing?

Beauty reminds us that this life, this world, is full of goodness, made by a loving creator. It is to be treasured, savoured, enjoyed and looked after. Since God’s ultimate agenda is renewal and healing of this broken and violent world, Christians are to be life-affirming and world-affirming.

Part of being people of hope is to pause and give thanks for the beauty we see every day. Part of being people of hope is to create beauty with our hands and with our words.

Hope, compassion, beauty: these, I suggest, rather than fear, violence and fatalism, form a Christian framework for approaching 2017.

Christians and the Arms Industry

Last month the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Belfast hosted Alan and Elaine Storkey to give their annual Sir Fred Catherwood Lecture. It was entitled ‘Ain’t Going to Study War No More ..’

The lecture can be listened to here.

One major theme of Storkey’s lecture is how arms do not ‘follow’ wars, but wars follow the production and selling of arms.

In other words, the arms trade has a vested interest in the incredibly lucrative business of selling arms. It also has a vested interest in promoting narratives that tell us that we need arms to defend and protect our Western freedoms. They also need, and have, mutually beneficial relationships with Western politicians who give the companies contracts worth billions that simultaneously help Western economies grow.

Storky also talks about the endemic corruption of this system with arms companies engaged in blatant bribery of potential clients – that Tony Blair (for example) knew about and closed down investigations ‘in the national interest’.

The money at stake also means that attempts at disarmament will, and have for many decades, met a wall of resistance from political power brokers and the arms trade.

The West, of which you and I are a part, has therefore a huge ethical and moral responsibility for the proliferation of war around the world.

If this is so, what then is a response for Christians who owe their primary loyalty to a crucified Messiah and not the state they happen to live in?

The lecture is largely drawn from a book by Alan Storkey called War or Peace? The long failure of Western Arms.

A discussion board hosted by the centre is here with a post by Rev Norman Hamilton, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. It in he says,

It is striking, and deeply disturbing, that our daily diet of the horrors of war on the news has not energised any substantial discussion amongst Christian people in the UK (or indeed the Western world) about war – even though huge attention has been given this year to remembering World War 1 and the Battle of the Somme. Is that because war is not quite yet on our doorstep, even thought its tentacles have brought death and fear to Nice, Rouen and Brussels this year, after the outrage in Paris in 2015? Is it because we know that jobs and economic prosperity come to us from the making of war and armaments, and that we don’t want unemployment to rise? Is it because we really do believe that a ‘war on terrorism’ war is necessary and justified to try to rid our world of such evil? Is it because we believe that national defence matters a great deal, and so we must encourage our government to take whatever steps are needed to protect us? Is it because we have committed so few of our armed forces to that conflict (unlike our role in Afghanistan)? Or is it because we haven’t thought much about it as Christian people, and find it all too easy to keep it that way.

What do you think? What are some reasons why Christians are so slow to talk about war?

Some points come to mind for me:

  • A failure for Christians to have a prophetic critical distance from their own’s national narrative.  Too easily we believe the myths that armaments and violence will make us ‘safe’. Too easily we swallow the assumptions that war is a necessary and even good thing that is regrettable but ‘justified’ – despite pretty well no war meeting the abstract criteria for Just War theory. This all leads to passivity and acceptance of the status quo.
  • How we read the Bible: if Christians globally refused by default to engage in war how profoundly this would challenge the assumed ‘naturalness’ of war and the acceptability of the arms trade. Yet this is not the case – despite the New Testaments crystal clear teaching that followers of Jesus are to be people of peace, reconciliation and non-violence. For various reasons, we jump through all sort of hermeneutical hoops to avoid the teaching and example of our Lord, and the teaching and example of Paul and the rest of the early Christians movement. We have been co-opted into the Constantinian story of religion in partnership with the state rather than resisting the temptation to take up the sword in the name of the state.
  • A fatalism / passivity that this is the way the world is? Storkey ended with a call to action and also a confidence in the gospel that God’s ways actually work. Is war – with all its senseless brutality and death actually practical in solving anything? Just ask the residents of Aleppo. Is peacemaking and action towards dismantling the West’s military industrial complex somehow more impractical than warmaking?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

St Stephen’s Day and the Christian paradox of powerlessness

The last few months haven’t been conducive to much blogging. And how enjoyable to have a restful and quiet day today this St Stephen’s Day.

And, in case this is the last post of 2014, warm greetings to everyone who has passed through here in 2014 and very best wishes for 2015!

Growing up in the North, the 26th was always ‘Boxing Day’ – I never really knew why. As a boy I always vaguely associated it with the sport of boxing but, confusingly, boxing never seemed to be on TV. Apparently (well, according to Wikipedia anyway) it has to do with a Victorian custom of giving a ‘Christmas box’ to tradesmen and servants.

Which also helps to explain why a British custom like ‘Boxing Day’ is never mentioned in the Republic of Ireland. In the ‘South’, it is always St Stephen’s Day – and a far better name too.

At first glance, locating the day of the first Christian martyr the day after the birth of the Messiah appears to be a rather crude mistake. Birth, joy, fulfilled promise, and hope one day followed by mercilessness, violence and execution the next?

Yet, whoever it was who got to choose St Stephen’s Day was inspired. For this day is an immediate reminder of how, while the Word has become flesh, the world into which the Word entered remains (until its final restoration) a broken, hostile, political and violent place.

Incarnation was followed by the weeping of mothers in Bethlehem for their slaughtered children. The birth of the Christ-child led to Mary and Joseph fleeing for their lives.

Deeply woven into the essence of the Christian faith is the ‘paradox of powerlessness’ – how God’s purposes are worked out in weakness, suffering and non-violence.

The Christmas story itself is full of such paradox. Jesus’ life and ministry is full of such paradox. And the cross is the place where that paradox climaxes in the violent death of God’s Son, Israel’s promised glorious liberator.

And the witness and lives of disciples of Jesus ever after are also to display that paradox.

Rembrandt, The Stoning of Stephen
Rembrandt, The Stoning of Stephen

As a follower of a crucified Messiah, Stephen deeply understood that paradox. He knew that the purposes of God will encounter violent opposition. He knew that a powerful experience of God’s Spirit was more likely to lead to death and persecution than to comfort, ease and peace. He knew that a deeply Christian response to injustice, violence and persecution was not to take up the sword in response, but, like his Lord, to pray for those who were about to take his life.

So self-evident is this paradox of powerlessness in the life and teaching of Jesus, in the life of Stephen, in the life and teaching of Paul and the rest of the NT writers, that it remains remarkable to me how many Christians, when they have a choice, routinely disregard the path of peace and non-violence for one of power, war and force.

Here’s a quote from a fine book I’m reviewing by Jeremy Gabrielson, Paul’s Non-Violent Gospel: the theological politics of peace in Paul’s life and letters:

non-violence in its many expressions is not merely an ethical implication of the gospel, but is itself constitutive of the politics of the gospel … This gospel challenges the status quo of the (Roman) political order but not in a directly subversive way. Rather, it creates an alternative political body that seeks to overcome evil and enmity not by subduing it (as Romans and their opponents would have it), but by reciprocating good for evil. Such a strategy does not promise to be effective, not does it promise to achieve desirable results by gentler means. Rather, Christian obedience to the command of Jesus to turn the other cheek and to love the enemy heralds to the cosmos that in God’s kingdom “the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history”.

It is as if the paradox of powerlessness is, when push comes to shove, seen as unreal, idealistic, naive and impractical in the ‘real world’.

The refusal to embrace the paradox of powerlessness is, I suggest, the greatest and most destructive temptation for the church, and for each individual Christian. For, at heart, it is a matter of faith and trust – in whom or what do we trust? In the foolishness of God and the power of his cross or in our own ability to protect ourselves and enforce our will on others?

The failure of Christendom through which we in the West are now navigating – where the [Western] church was in a position of authority and power for centuries to shape culture and impose its will – lies in its disconnect with the witness of people like Stephen (and ultimately his Lord).

I don’t think it is any co-incidence that the church is growing and vibrant and expanding globally in the very places where Christians experience and embrace the paradox of powerlessness; places where they are poor, excluded, persecuted and marginalised.

Yes of course these are not good things in themselves. Yes, we should work and pray against such injustice and violence. Like Pope Francis, we should speak out for and seek to help those enduring terrible suffering.

But we should also pray for God’s Spirit to empower believers to endure suffering in the name of Christ. That in their very powerlessness that the power of the gospel would be made manifest. That in their love for enemies, the love of God would triumph over evil.

And what we pray for others, we need also to pray in faith for ourselves this St Stephen’s Day.

Musings on Pacifism 2

pacifismChristian pacifism, as the name tends to suggest, begins with Jesus.

The argument goes something like this (and feel welcome to add / correct / expand, these are just blog musings written while watching the latest Scandinavian drama, Arne Dahl and nothing seems to be happening)

Violence ultimately is imposing your will on another through physical force. Violence in the name of Empire or nation is compelling another community to do the same. Where god is used to legitimate and justify the use of that power, it becomes idolatry.

Jesus rejected the violent power-narratives of Roman Empire and also eschewed the route of religious Jewish violence to ‘liberate’ Israel in the name of YHWH. His was a very different path to the bloody one trodden by the Maccabees earlier and the Zealots later. His mission is that of the servant-king, whose kingdom is of a different form to the kingdoms of the world. Rather than use force to advance his mission, he submits to ‘unjust justice’ and illegitimate violence. He is the innocent one, who gives up endless power to win the victory over the powers; over evil; over violence and death by self-giving love.

Disciples in his kingdom are to be busy peacemaking, exercising humility, being self-giving, repenting, loving their hated neighbours and their oppressing enemies. Paul is such a disciple. He embraces suffering, persecution, imprisonment, character assassination and eventual martyrdom for his Lord. He gives up his rights for the sake of the gospel. He never turns to force to advance his mission. He persuades, argues, reasons, serves, teaches, pastors and writes of grace, forgiveness, faith, hope and love. His identity is in Christ, all other identities are relativised – whether his Jewish pedigree or his Roman citizenship.

He models the way of the cross, as his saviour had done – as all Christians are called to do. It is not for nothing that Christians are to remember the Lord’s death as often as they meet. They are to be people of the ‘crucified God’.

The work of the Spirit also rejects ‘the will to power’. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control fulfil the Law and are characteristic of life within the kingdom of God. This fruit is incompatible with force, compulsion, intimidation, threat, control and fear – all ‘fruits’ of violence and war.

Eschatological hope forms the basis of Christian ethics. Christian hope is of a new creation of God’s shalom. Christians are to be agents of the ‘kingdom come’ here on earth. That vision compels them to be peacemakers not war-makers; to reject the use of arms in favour of sacrificial costly love; to forgive rather than fight.

Historically, it is deeply compelling to me that in the first 2-3 centuries of the Christian church, believers refused to take up arms for Empire; soldiering was seen as a sin, utterly at odds with following the Messiah executed by that Empire. The greatest tragedy of church history in my opinion is the later church’s complicity with power, and the ruthless use of force to support and reinforce that power.

Christian pacifism is also coupled with (I would argue) a deeply realistic Christian scepticism about sinful human capacity for self-deception and the mis-use of power. What ‘just war’ does not end up multiplying unjust violence and who decides what is just or not? (one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter etc)  What war cannot be presented as ‘just’ (even if it manifestly isn’t) if the ‘will to war’ is there? (Blair and Bush on Iraq – enough said).

OK, even if you are not persuaded by how this sort of thinking about Christian faith, pacifism and war can actually work ‘in the real world’, why is it that the overwhelming ‘weight’ of Christian non-violence in the life and teaching of Jesus, the Lord and head of the church, has historically been marginalised within the history of western Christianity?