Give peace in our time, O Lord. Because there is none other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God.
Ever heard these words before? They come from the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer, but they resemble prayers found in the liturgies of most Christian traditions. The liturgical petition for peace would have been on the lips of folks in what might be the oldest continuous Christian congregation: The Church of The Nativity in Bethlehem, dedicated in 339. This means that for at least 1,675 years, in at least one place on this globe, someone has asked God to heal our violent world. Let's make the incredibly conservative supposition that they averaged only one prayer for peace per week.
The word used for "peace" obviously changed sounds, depending on the person making the request. It might have sounded like shlama, salām, or shalom, if there wasn't a Roman using pax or a Greek using eirēnē. Let's stick with the Semitic languages for the moment. The common consonants in each case are S-L-M. Those letters show up in the the city of Jerusalem, and the faith called Islam. Chew on that for a bit as you watch today's news, where some folks who adhere to Islam might cheer in response to a rocket attack on Jerusalem. In any case, if the alleged deity is wise enough to create the world, this same being is surely able to translate the petitions of the no less than 87,000 times when at least somebody spoke a prayer for S-L-M from within a church that, today, is an hour and a half bus ride south by bus south from in the capital of the the over-promised land. For fun, try asking Google Maps for driving directions: even the god of search engines can't sort this thing out!
Perhaps prayer doesn't work. Or maybe it takes too much work for it to work. Might we need another millennium and a half before these requests take? When should we just give up? After all, this prayer business seems pretty inefficient when it comes to the big stuff. Then again, it's nice to have peaceful and positive thoughts in our hearts and minds, right. So, do you ever pray just in case someone's out there listening?
You gave up on organized religion a while ago. You believe religion kills? That's understandable, given human history. After all, why should we turn to religion, when it has been used to justify a lot of this human cruelty we've endured since we started keeping records of human casualties, the tide schedules, and the price of milk? I might even go so far as to concede that religion does tend to kill.
So you're not into religion anymore. Depending on what you mean by this, I might agree. I don't want to sound like voice-over actor in the old Dove commercial, who explained that Dove is not soap, but is "a body bar with bath oil." But, I prefer not describe true Christianity as a religion. For one thing, I'm psychologically allergic to authoritarianism. I've had far too many run-ins with dictatorial nutters, charlatan gurus, and abusive clergy to try and defend a generic label like "religion."
But what is religion after all? It's not a very helpful word for our current context. It might work when we take demographic surveys or talk about components of culture. But I tend to agree with scholars like Jonathan Z. Smith and Stephen Prothero, who say it's inappropriate to assume there is a single essence to religion. "Religion" can be a term to describe several different spiritual, moral, ritual, philosophical, and cultural movements. For more on this topic, Dr. Korey Maas', treating Christianity as a philosophy might help clarify how the original Jesus movement differed from the rites of Greco-Roman cults.
While we're on the subject of world religions, isn't it a bummer that the Jains and Buddhists get dragged into this fracas? Did you know that some of them are agnostic just like you, and avoid making dogmatic claims about God? Some might even identify themselves as atheists. Those two traditions in particular have maintained their cool for a good while. Remember when two or three well-behaved kids in grade school had to lose their recess privileges because the rest of the class got too rowdy? That sort of thing is unfair. So let's not recreate that here. We can discuss our differences with them later, after we in the Abrahamic traditions get our collective acts together.
But if you want to call my tradition a religion still, that's fine. In any case, I'm real sorry about all these big mistakes we religious folks have made. Moreover, I'm sorry that some of us keep trying to make excuses for the violence that we've committed in the name of our Messiah instead of just repenting. I'm not apologizing to make you think I'm "one of the good ones." No, I mean that I'm sorry we have not been good at realizing the social reconciliation that Christianity is supposed to promote. I'm sorry about the resulting tragically violent and spiteful state of affairs in which we find ourselves. Sometimes, it causes me to stay awake at night, worrying that I might be just another brainless drone in an army of irrational, superstitious people who are a net loss to the moral universe. If my own people can't seem to take Jesus' call for love and peace seriously enough, and if some of my fellow Protestants might even be snickering right now that I sound like a sappy liberal hippy who is losing his commitment to the old-school faith, how can I even lift my head up and speak as a Christian without self loathing, shedding a tear, or busting out laughing.
Maybe laughter isn't the worst response. At the risk of letting you assume I'm trivializing the violence we'll address in a moment, I'd also like to apologize for the recent flurry of cinematic abominations that some call "Christian Movies." I think we often err not only in aesthetic ways, but also in terms of social responsibility. Maybe it would be easier if we Protestants had a sort of figurehead pope, whose only job were to throw out first pitches at baseball games, stick ceremonial spades into dirt before nonprofits construct new wings on their buildings, and release public apologies for cultural blunders like misguided Christian films.
Maybe this Protestant pope could apologize for a recent film called God is Not Dead [spoiler warning], in which an atheist philosophy professor informs all his students that if they don't admit that God is dead, they will fail his introduction to philosophy class. Oddly, he is never sued by the hundreds of students who come through his courses. Instead, he somehow manages to get greater than 99 percent of his class - comprised of students from the American South mind you - to forsake any religion in which they were raised. It turns out that the professor is not an actual atheist with intellectual objections to theism. He's really just a whiner, who's mad at God for letting his Christian mom die, despite the prof's youthful prayers. This revelation, along with an apologetic presentation by a Christian student, causes all the previously God-denying students to stand up one by one--like in Spartacus or the kids at the end of Malcolm X--and declare "God's not Dead." This prompts the professor to rethink his atheism. So, he walks over to a local arena, where a band called the Newsboys are headlining a Christian concert. Unfortunately, before he can get to the show, a hit-and-run driver clips him, and he lies dying on the pavement. Fortunately, the prof holds on to life long enough for a local pastor to invite the professor to make a decision to "invite Jesus into his heart as his Lord and Savior," which the professor does, just before his his last breath. This is all super nifty because, even though there is a corpse in the street, at least the dude isn't roasting in hell. This means we have have a happy ending, reminiscent of the time when Anakin Skywalker took off his black mask, dropped his "Darth Vader" moniker, and admitted Luke was right after all, leading all the Ewoks to dance around singing, "Yub Nub!"
So why would I hope a hypothetical Protestant pope would apologize for this movie? After all, it seems well-intentioned, despite its blatant marketing gimmicks. And there are a few decent philosophical points made in the course of the flick. First, it perpetuates a straw-man fallacy related to the nature of contemporary academic debate. That's just not how it happens. Second, it insults non-Christians by assuming they have no genuine intellectual objections, but only personal grudges against the Creator. Third, it imbibes too much American consumerism in its manipulation of evangelical markets, especially when the film encourages audience members to ignore the theater's request to refrain from using smart phones and text #godisnotdead to their entire contact list.
If some Christians object to my assessment of this film, I invite them to invite any of their non-Christian friends to let them know if this film succeeded in terms of aesthetics, pathos, or argumentation. If not, I wonder what the point of making it was. I wonder what you mean by a "good movie." Do you mean nothing more than, "one that my team made?" Do you mean, "one that my pastor and religious friends want me to promote in order to save souls?" That's all cool, but just be clear about what we're saying. Fourth and finally, it is problematic because the movie glosses over the pain and loss involved in the professor's corpse on a street, trumping normal human emotions by focussing on the idea that a particular ideology won. Great, he's at the pearly gates. I get it. But is that the kind of respect for life, pain, and death that we want to model for young viewers?
Are you annoyed that I've taken us so far off the topic of the global, religious violence? That's precisely my point. We Christians have become so sidetracked by bad theology and bad art that some of us are forgetting to address the momentous issues of our time. We must repent of this, and you are right to confront us on this matter when we fail.
Now, to be fair to my own camp, remarkably decent Christians have suffered, and continue to suffer, unspeakably brutal persecution around the world. Moreover, some of these martyrs have been pacifists. Also, in our defense, we've had duplicitous corporations and cynical political leaders constantly hijacking our logo for the sake of power and money. That happens to every movement. But that's no reason for everyday believers to indications of escalating violence in the name of their faith, even those who suffer the consequences are our enemies.
What signals of violence exist is the news these days?
- China printed a map of Japan with mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, rekindling bad blood between these nations.
- Israel is calling up 40,000 troops, in the wake of the murders of three Jewish teens, and the apparent retaliatory burning of a Palestinian teen.
- ISIS is taking over large portions of Syria and Iraq, demolishing Sufi, Shiite, Sufi, and Syrian Orthodox holy sites as they go.
- Sudan, after three years of bloodshed, is still locked in a cycle of ugly violence.
On top of all this, I hardly have the emotional stamina to to ponder what North Korea might try to do after the James Franco and Seth Rogan Film comes out, nor do I want to imagine what what the Russians might do with radar-evading nuclear weapons in 2021.
So, let's stay positive. There's always something to worry about, and I'm not one of those religious folks who thinks we need to have a World War III before Jesus can return to create heaven on earth, or for the Twelfth Imam to come out of hiding and form an Islamic utopia. As a species, we've faced incredible violence and pulled through without witnessing the end of the world as we know it. I'd even wager that the odds of pulling through to a comfortable retirement age for the average teenager are better today than they were when communities faced the threat of the barbarians descending upon Rome, the Khans marching into Eastern Europe, or the period of stalemate during World War I. But that doesn't make the prospect of impending conflicts pleasant, nor does it justify allowing human beings to get crushed in the process.
I said that I'd explain why Jesus is the only answer to all this. I don't mean that everyone will get along when they finally convert to Christianity. I mean that there are really only three basic responses to our desire for vengeance.
1) We can take vengeance, in the name of our deity, or in the name of our own moral indignation.
2) We can retreat from the fray, dispassionately, as mystics or as secular hermits might do.
3) We can mirror the approach of Jesus, who, instead of vengeance, asked us to love our enemies, even when to do so hurts us or might even kill us.
The first is the way of militant ideologues ands violent religious sects. No thanks. The second path is the laudable but often socially ineffective way of solitary mystics and many expressions of Buddhism. Don't get me wrong: there are many active Buddhists who work for peace, and I find the Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism to have many interesting resonances with my Lutheranism. In general, Buddhism teaches that the main human problem is suffering, that desire causes suffering, and that by releasing desire, we will solve the problem of suffering. Given the frightening world outside, I must confess that this is not only psychologically attractive, but that those who follow this way, and yet return to the world in compassion, are far more admirable heroes than I could ever boast of being. Indeed, while some Buddhists withdraw from pain through sublime meditation, I might try to numb it with a decent scotch and a Netflix episode of Anthony Bordain's Parts Unknown. So who am I to judge here? But I side with the Japanese theologian Kazoh Kitamori who, in his Theology of Pain, suggests that the way of Jesus is one where a human runs to, not from pain, for the sake of the healing of the world. We don't release desire, we cultivate such a strong loving desire for reconciliation with our enemies, that we will love them even when they are unlovable. We will draw near to them in love even when they threaten to impale us. Other traditions might have their own form of this, but for Jesus, this ethic was central.
Let me explain. I have two sons. They are both well behaved on most days. But when they were younger, the older one did something emotionally hurtful to the younger. This prompted the younger one to punch the older one in his stomach. Now, I don't recommend what I did next for all parents; I knew where this would go, given my particular lads. When the older one asked me what I was going to do about it, I said that the older one could hit the younger in the arm as hard as he could. The younger said that if the older hit him, he would strike back. I said, "I know." Then the older one said that was unfair. I agreed, and said, you will then be allowed to hit your brother on the arm again, if you'd like. This conversation went round and round for a while. Finally, the older one asked, "How could this ever end if we both believe we've been wronged?" I said, "It won't, until one of you allows himself to get hurt but, out of brotherly love, decides not to retaliate, even though I said you could. It is in your practical best interest to set aside your right to violence. In other words, you can keep hitting each other for the next month. But what good is that?" Incidentally, if some bully were to attack at my boys and they socked the guy in the nose, I'd buy them an ice cream cone, not ground them. The Jesus ethic doesn't entail being weak or soft regarding self-defense.
This exercise was meant to help them understand the cyclical violence behind countless tales of bloodshed, from Beowulf to Boyz in the Hood. This tragic circle has been the state of things since prehistory, and it is part of the real news stories today about the streets of Chicago and the Holy Land.
Let's conclude by thinking about this last locale: the over-promised land. Imagine you are an 18 year old Israeli, who plans to, in the fall, go to college and study graphic design. Suppose, you've been saving up for a new computer part, and your mother and best friend travel to town to buy it. Then, imagine your mother and best friend are ripped to pieces before your eyes by a suicide bomber. You might have got up that morning as a sweet kid, prone to a peaceful and generous solution to the disputes with Palestinians. Now, you are filled with rage. You forget about graphic design and become a strong supporter of violent retaliation. Isn't this exactly what you'd want to support? And suppose this retaliation results in an Israeli volley into Palestinian territory that kills civilians.
Now imagine you are a 13 year old who wakes up to learn that his father was killed by that attack, while delivering bags of dry concrete to a work site. You loved your dad, so now you're out for blood. You decide one day to take violent action against the Israelis. Given each of these situations, you can see that it would be easy as an Israeli youth to think of the Palestinians as violence-obsessed fiends; and you could easily imagine that, as a Palestinian youth, you would see the Israelis as evil oppressors who kept you from realizing your dreams, kept you contained behind walls, and killed your father. There's plenty of wrath to go around in this mental landscape I've painted, but no end in sight. There's not even a theoretical end in sight. There's only a radical end. That is the way of Jesus.
Most of us are familiar with Jesus' call to "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5), in the Sermon on the Mount. It's so familiar that it no longer unsettles us. Likewise, some of us have forgotten that Jesus, not Benjamin Franklin, spoke the maxim "those who live by the sword will die by the sword." (Luke 22:51) Dwell on that one for a while. He's right. Do you want to live? Then don't love violence. We might have the right, according to international law, to violent retribution. But it might just kill us too. Though some of my Lutheran friends will accuse me of confusing the spiritual and earthly kingdoms at this point, I believe that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is not speaking of spiritual edification or a way to salvation. He's talking about a virtue ethic, and one that all sorts of people might consider, just like some of my Christian friends practice Yoga without seeking a "third eye."
To heed Jesus' ethic here does not require joining me and believing he is the Son of God. I'm not even weighing in here on whether Jesus would advocate absolute pacifism. Indeed, I think the virtuous option for individuals and governments sometimes involves use of violent force to end evils like genocide, rape, enslavement, and invasion. But those activities ought to emerge from love of our enemies and a quest for peace, not a desire for retribution.
How much have you thought about whether God exists recently? For the next five minutes, it might surprise you to hear that I invite you to set aside that question. If you really want to talk about the existence of God, I'm an easy guy to contact and never turn down a good conversation, especially if you buy the beer or coffee. But if you can in fact set that question aside, let me ask you if the way of a guy named Jesus had an idea so crazy, that it just might work:
"But I say to you that hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you ... love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return..." (Luke 6:27, 28, 35)
He's not saying to let enemies trample you or other innocent neighbors. He's advocating a strategy of repaying evil with good. Can working toward the goal of improving the lives of enemies, rather than obliterating them, actually work? History suggests it can.
Objections will rise immediately after I mention the Marshall Plan, in which the United States invested billions of dollars in the economic recovery of European, including former enemies Germany and Japan. But it is an example of working for the good of an enemy, rather than trying to pulverize them. Set aside the complications involved; of course there was anti-communist motives and perceived economic advantage to this. I merely want to compare this with the failed approach of ham stringing Germany after World War I. One need not follow the peculiarities of the original policies to recognize that there are times when making friends is wiser than creating new enemies. In other words, whenever possible, it is to our advantage for our neighbors to prosper. When our enemies are backed against an economic or social wall, they have little to lose; when they are doing well we have a better chance of harmonious existence.
But there is something deeper to this. Almost all human societies have necessarily existed as honor cultures, and depended on families or tribes to avenge injustice. Few have had the elaborate justice and prison systems found in the contemporary American context. That means that most humans have relied on systems of private, retributive justice to combat crime. We find this in the "eye for an eye" approach of Hammurabi's Code. But what if we are staring, with one eye, across from an enemy who is also missing one eye? Must we continue until we are both blind? To be faithful to our families and friends, must we inherit tribal violence just as we inherit beloved holiday feasts? I hope not. We might have a natural or legal right to certain kinds of vengeance. But it is an amazingly powerful thing to lay such a right aside. It is good for the enemy. It is good for us. It is almost mystical when done right.
Admittedly, this seems impossible to implement without strings attached. For instance, we can see a forced version of this in Rwanda's post-genocide's Gacaca, or traditional court system. Survivors of the genocide, with whom I've met, have experienced legitimate dissatisfaction, and sometimes outrage, at its inability to deliver justice. But this is because one cannot force victims to forgive. No, that would instead be a perpetuation of their victimization. For those interested in ethnic reconciliation efforts, Cori Wielenga compares and reflects on the positive and negative aspects of reconciliation approaches in Rwanda and South Africa. We can't demand that others love their enemies. In some cases it is psychologically impossible to emotionally forgive those who have traumatized us. But if we can find our way to that place of reconciliation, it can bring profound joy.
Perhaps I'm wrongheaded or idealistic. Perhaps, while nice in principle, the ethic of Jesus has no chance of practical implementation. Perhaps it is only possible when we are motivated by the idea that Jesus was in fact God and will set things straight in the afterlife. Maybe one needs a religious conversion before one can adopt the Jesus ethic. But I invite agnostic readers to give the Jesus ethic a try. Be smart about it; don't tolerate abuse or patterns of victimization. Be an empowered forgiver. Remember: to forgive implies judgment. Sometimes, to forgive even enrages others who refuse to admit their violation. So be it! If loving enemies enhances your personal life, perhaps it will motivate you and other fellow humans to put our mental and emotional efforts toward reconciliation rather than annihilation. We do this by following Jesus by taking the sins of the word upon ourselves. Don't think the plight of American first nations people has anything to do with you? Make it your problem. You didn't personally create impoverished communities in Honduras? Act as if their problems are your problems. If it makes you happier, ignore the language of liberal white guilt you find so obnoxious when it comes to these topics. But does progressive political rhetoric bother you so much that you need to respond by closing off your heart to those in need?
Now, for those who do pray, how would we expect the deity to intervene? Through a big hand reaching through a cloud, or through the power to move the mountains of hatred and vengeance? My tradition of Lutheranism emphasizes the latter concept. We believe God works in the world through means, especially through his "faithful masks," or people interested in following the way of Jesus, even when it seems absurd or impractical. That means its time to get to business, friends.
My church's prayer book includes the following words: "Defeat the plans of all those who would stir up violence and strife, destroy the weapons of those who delight in war and bloodshed, and, according to Your will, end all conflicts in the world. Teach us to examine our hearts that we may recognize our own inclination toward envy, malice, hatred, and enmity." (Lutheran Service Book, 314) If you can't pray this to a personal God, please try thinking it with your friends, in your secular context. While you do that, I'll encourage my believing friends to take this call to reconciliation seriously. Hopefully, we'll meet somewhere on the road to reconciliation, stop over for a pint, and swap stories about peacemaking.
Thank you again for your patience. Thank you also for your forgiveness of any ways in which I may have offended you, whether in ethical or in literary ways.
Since this post was addressed to agnostics, I held back the following three theological quotations, from three followers of Jesus. They have informed the way I've attempted to process what I read in the news this week. They also articulate what I envision when I pray for peace:
"[Christians should] put off the form of their own righteousness and put on the form of those others: praying for their persecutors, blessing those who curse, doing good to evil-doers, prepared to pay the penalty and make satisfaction for their very enemies .... Everyone should “put on” his neighbor and so conduct himself toward him as if he himself were in the other’s place. From Christ the good things have flowed and are flowing into us. He has so “put on” us and acted for us as if he had been what we are. ... I intercede for the sins of my neighbor which I take upon myself and so labor and serve in them as if they were my own." (Basic Theological Writings, 164)
“Renunciation of its claims to “purity” leads the church back to its solidarity with the sinful world. Through courageous acknowledgement of its being world, the church is perfectly free from the world to become Christian. … Face to face with outcasts, it is as free as the nobility. It has its place not only with the poor but also with the pious, and also with the Godless.” [GS V. 271]
"Usually, we think that unbelievers, unlike believers, stand in the "order of darkness," and we imagine that God does not love them as tenderly as he loves believers; but this position cannot be sustained. An ethic which requires us to love unbelievers in the same way that we love believers must develop into a theology that places unbelievers and and believers in the same 'order of light.' ... Sinners who never should be loved are betrayers of this love. Sin therefore presupposes intense love. When intense love is betrayed, anger becomes intense. Mediated by sin, the immediate love of God becomes the wrath of God. Yet the pain of God is the tidings that God still loves the sinner who has lost all claim to be loved. ... Therefore, the viewpoint which interprets love in the gospel as being only for objects worthy of love would reverse the whole gospel back to the law. ... When our fellow becomes an "enemy" who betrays our love, and we continue to love him still more deeply, then pain is born in us. In an ethic without pain we love our fellow only as long as he is worthy of our love; then, when he is no longer worthy, we drop him and forget him. There is no constancy in such a love. ... Love of the unlovable, when we are absolutely consistent in it, displays the power to transform the unlovable into the lovable. This is sanctification." [Theology of the Pain of God, 89-94].
Thanks are due to Dr. Tom Philips, a former colleague who has traveled regularly with students to the Holy Land. The concept of this post was inspired by some comments he made a decade ago about a film called Divine Intervention(2002). I would have thanked him at the start, but I didn't want to imply that any of the silly or incorrect things I said in this post were his fault. The clip he was talking about is embedded below and entitled "Palestinian Superhero."