Jesus and non-violence

When pastor Rob presented to me the opportunity to write a series of blog articles on the duty of Christians to be politically engaged, I jumped at the chance.  But there was no way that either of us could have known in that moment that his request for me to address the subject of war and peace would come on the heels of yet another war breaking out into our world.  My hope is that, as I share in the coming weeks, these reflections will spur us on to deeper engagement and more fervent prayer for our nation and world and help us to better understand how our faith speaks even to the world of 2023.

In contrast to what some of us may have ingested in our Sunday School classes as children, Jesus did not come proclaiming a purely spiritual message of inner salvation and therapeutic release.  Sadly, if you listen to some preachers and modern Christian leaders today, you might conclude that Jesus entered our world and died on the cross so that we no longer need to be weighed down by a sense of inner guilt or that we might somehow use his teachings to break through to our “best life now,” as the popular megachurch pastor Joel Osteen declares.  Certainly, we do believe that the guilt and power of sin has been defeated through the triumphant work of Christ, but Jesus came to do much more than just get our souls into heaven; he announced that the kingdom of God is at hand!  And a kingdom, as I’m sure we all know, is a social and political reality.  To attempt to strip away all the “politics” out of the life and teachings of Jesus might make for a more comfortable gospel, but it certainly wouldn’t represent the Jesus revealed in our gospels.

When I was a child, my siblings and I were taught that it was very important that we “ask Jesus into our hearts.”  My little sister Rachel, being a young three-year-old literalist, once decided that she must have two hearts.  “One is for Jesus,” she explained, “and the other is for all the blood and stuff.”  Later I would come to appreciate this pietistic Methodist teaching handed down to me through my mother, for Jesus is indeed the “lover of my soul,” to use Charles Wesley’s phrase.  Yet thinking of our relationship to Christ as purely an inner, spiritual reality offers only half of the picture. The kingdom of Christ also includes our social relationships with one another, our connection to this good earth that we inhabit, and even our relationship to mundane matters like what food we eat, how we spend our money, who we vote for, what car we drive, and how we interact with our neighbors (both online and “IRL).  To sum up, Jesus is lord of both our inner hearts, but also our outer social lives.

Central to the political teachings of Jesus is the practice of non-violence.  “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you,” . . .  “if your enemy strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also,” . . .  “put away your sword for those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”  Statements such as these ought to unsettle us, perhaps even anger us.  “That’s easy for you to say, Jesus!” we might be tempted to think, as we picture Jesus sitting in a pastoral countryside, “but in the real world we have real problems.  Those terrorists who killed all those innocent Israelis aren’t simply going to lay down their weapons!  How dare you suggest that we just throw up our hands and let evil people have their way with us!”  On and on our objections go, as though Jesus didn’t inhabit the same world we do. As one who is a registered conscientious objector to war and a self-proclaimed pacifist, it never ceases to amaze me how visceral people’s reactions can be to the very idea of non-violence. 

But pacifism does not mean passivism.  Put another way, a commitment to the peaceable ways of Jesus does not necessarily mean indifference to injustice or simply throwing ourselves down on the ground to become the doormat of the world.  Far from it!  As Shane Claiborne has written, “Peacemaking doesn’t mean passivity.  It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice.  It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.” 

Jesus does not allow us to play the games of demonization that so many participate in currently.  He does not give us the option of referring to other humans in terms that are sub-human.  Scandalous as it may seem to us, Jesus died not only for those who loved him and called him “Lord,” but also for the Roman guards who nailed him to that tree.  For that reason, we who follow Jesus should pray not only for Israel (and we should pray for Israel), but we must also pray for the Palestinians.  We must pray not only for the Ukrainians, but also for the Russians.  We must pray for both Republicans and Democrats.  In a world that seeks to divide between the good and the evil ones, our first lesson in the politics of the kingdom is to pray for the salvation of the whole world, excluding no one, trusting in God to act as judge for only God can make judgments perfectly.