God’s People Reconciling (Part 3 of 4)

Here’s Ron Sider again, in his wonderfully stylish clothes. Must be time for Part Three. Yes, yes it is.

Just as a preface, this one’s the longest. I urge you to overcome your internet-driven impulse to click away after the second paragraph and instead compel yourself to see what this guy’s got to say. 🙂 It’s powerful.

2. Embrace The Biblical Vision Of Shalom

Acknowledging past temptations and misunderstandings is essential. But we dare not remain mired in our failures. Instead we can allow the fullness of the biblical vision of shalom to transform us into a reconciling people ready to challenge the madness of the late twentieth century.

The richness of the biblical vision of peace is conveyed in the Hebrew word “shalom”. Shalom means right relationships in every area — with God, with neighbor, and with the earth. Leviticus 26:3-6 describes the comprehensive shalom which God will give to those who walk in obedient relationship to God. The earth will yield rich harvests, wild animals will not ravage the countryside, and the sword will rest. Shalom means not only the absence of war but also a land flowing with milk and honey. It also includes just economic relationships with the neighbor. It means the fair division of land so that all families can earn their own way. It means the Jubilee and sabbatical release of debts so that great extremes of wealth and poverty do not develop among God’s people. The result of such justice, Isaiah says, is peace (32:16-17). And the psalmist reminds us that God desires that “justice and peace will kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10). If we try to separate justice and peace, we tear asunder what God has joined together.

Tragically, the people of Israel refused to walk in right relationship with God and neighbor. They ran after false gods, and they oppressed the poor. So God destroyed first Israel and then Judah. But the prophets looked beyond the tragedy of national destruction to a time when God’s Messiah, the Prince of Peace, would come to restore right relationships with God and neighbor. (e.g., Isaiah 9:2ff; 11:1ff).

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore (Isaiah 2:4). Jesus, Christians believe, was the long-expected Messiah. And just as the prophets had promised, shalom was at the heart of his messianic work and message. But Jesus’ approach to peacemaking was not to lapse into passive nonresistance; it was not to withdraw to isolated solitude; it was not to teach one ethic for the private sphere and another for public life. Jesus modeled an activist challenge to the status quo, summoning the entire Jewish people to accept his nonviolent messianic strategy instead of the Zealot’s militaristic methods.

Jesus’ approach was not one of passive nonresistance. If Jesus’ call not to resist one who is evil in Matthew 5:39 was a summons to pure nonresistance and the rejection of all forms of pressure and coercion, then Jesus regularly contradicted his own teaching. He unleashed a blistering attack on the Pharisees, denouncing them as blind guides, fools, hypocrites, and snakes — surely psychological coercion of a vigorous type as is even the most loving church discipline which Jesus prescribed (Matthew 18:15ff).

Nor was Jesus nonresistant when he cleansed the temple! He engaged in aggressive resistance against evil when he marched into the temple, drove the animals out with a whip, dumped the money tables upside down, and denounced the money changers as robbers. If Matthew 5:39 means that all forms of resistance to evil are forbidden, then Jesus disobeyed his own command. Jesus certainly did not kill the money changers. Indeed, I doubt that he even used his whip on them. But he certainly resisted their evil in a dramatic act of civil disobedience.

Or consider Jesus’ response when a soldier unjustly struck him on the cheek at his trial (John 18:19-24). Instead of turning the other cheek and meekly submitting to this injustice, he protested! “If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Apparently Jesus thought that protesting police brutality or engaging in civil disobedience in a nonviolent fashion was entirely consistent with his command not to resist the one who is evil.

Jesus would never have ended up on the cross if he had exemplified the isolationist pacifism of withdrawal. Nor would he have offended anyone if he had simply conformed to current values as we are often tempted to do when we abandon the pattern of isolation. Rejecting both isolation and accommodation, Jesus lived at the heart of his society challenging the status quo at every point where it was wrong.

Jesus upset men happy with the easy divorce laws that permitted them to dismiss their wives on almost any pretext. He defied the social patterns of his day that treated women as inferiors. Breaking social custom, he appeared publicly with women, taught them theology, and honored them with his first resurrection appearance.

Jesus angered political rulers, smugly satisfied with domination of their subjects with his call to servant leadership.

And he terrified the economic establishment, summoning materialists like the rich young ruler to give away their wealth, denouncing those who oppressed widows, and calling the rich to loan to the poor even if they had no hope of repayment (Luke 6:30ff). Indeed, he considered concern for the poor so important that he warned that those who do not feed the hungry and clothe the naked will go to hell.

Jesus disturbed the status quo — but not for mere love of change. It was his commitment to shalom, to the right relationships promised in messianic prophecy, that make him a disturber of an unjust peace. He brought right relationships between men and women, between rich and poor by his radical challenge to the status quo.

Repeatedly in our history, the terror of persecution and the temptation of security have lured us to retreat to the safety of isolated solitude where our radical ideas threaten no one. But that was not Jesus’ way. He challenged his society so vigorously and so forcefully that the authorities had only two choices. They had to accept his call to repentance and change or they had to get rid of him. Do we have the courage to follow in his steps?

Jesus approach was activist and vigorous, but it was not violent. A costly self-giving love, even for enemies, was central to his message. He called his followers to abandon retaliation, even the accepted “eye for an eye” of the Mosaic legal system. He said that his followers would persist in costly love even for enemies, even if those enemies never reciprocated.

It is hardly surprising that Christians have been tempted to weaken Jesus’ call to costly self-sacrifice — whether by postponing its application to the millennium, labeling it an impossible ideal, or restricting its relevance to some personal private sphere. The last is perhaps the most widespread and the most tempting. Did Jesus merely mean that although the individual Christian in his personal role should respond nonviolently to enemies, that same person as public official may kill them?

In his historical context, Jesus came as the Messiah of Israel with a plan and an ethic for the entire Jewish people. He advocated love toward political enemies as his specific political response to centuries of violence. His radical nonviolence was a conscious alternative to the contemporary Zealots’ call for violent revolution to usher in the messianic kingdom. There is no hint that Jesus’ reason for objecting to the Zealots was that they were unauthorized individuals whose violent sword would have been legitimate if the Sanhedrin had only given the order. On the contrary, his point was that the Zealots’ whole approach to enemies, even unjust oppressive imperialists, was fundamentally wrong. The Zealots offered one political approach; Jesus offered another. But both appealed to the entire Jewish nation.

The many premonitions of national disaster in the Gospels indicate that Jesus realized that the only way to avoid destruction and attain messianic shalom was through a forthright rejection of the Zealots’ call to arms. In fact, Luke places the moving passage about Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem immediately after the triumphal entry — just after Jesus had disappointed popular hopes with his insistence on a peaceful messianic strategy. “And when he drew near and saw the city he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace!'” (Luke 19:4ff).

Zealot violence, Jesus knew, would lead to national destruction. It was an illusion to look for peace through violence. The way of the Suffering Servant was the only way to messianic shalom. Jesus’ invitation to the entire Jewish people was to believe that the messianic kingdom was already breaking into the present. Therefore, if they would accept God’s forgiveness and follow his Messiah, they could begin now to live according to the peaceful values of the messianic age. Understood in this historical setting, Jesus’ call to love enemies can hardly be limited to the personal sphere of private life.

Furthermore, the personal-public distinction also seems to go against the most natural, literal meaning of the text. There is no hint whatsoever in the text of such a distinction. In fact, Jesus’ words are full of references to public life. “Resist not evil” applies, Jesus says, when people take you to court (Matthew 5:40) and when foreign rulers legally demand forced labor (v. 41). Indeed, the basic norm Jesus transcends (an eye for an eye) was a fundamental principle of the Mosaic legal system. We can safely assume that members of the Sanhedrin and other officials heard Jesus words. The most natural conclusion is that Jesus intended his words to be normative not just in private but also in public life.

We have examined the horizontal shalom with the neighbor which Jesus brought. But Jesus also announced and accomplished a new peace with God. Constantly he proclaimed God’s astonishing forgiveness to all who repent. And then he obeyed the Father’s command to die as the atonement for God’s sinful enemies.

God’s attitude toward sinful enemies revealed at the cross is the foundation of nonviolence. Let us never ground our pacifism in sentimental imitation of the gentle Nazarene or in romantic notions of heroic martyrdom. Our commitment to nonviolence is rooted in the heart of historic Christian faith. It is grounded in the incarnation of the eternal Son of God and in his substitutionary atonement at the cross.

Jesus said that God’s way of dealing with enemies was to persist in loving them. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Why? “So that you may be sons and daughters of your Creator in heaven.” In fact, Jesus went even further. Jesus said that God’s way of dealing with enemies was to take their evil upon himself. The crucified criminal hanging limp on the middle cross is the eternal Word who in the beginning was with God and indeed was God, but for our sake became flesh and dwelt among us. Only when we grasp that that is who the crucified one was, do we begin to fathom the depth of Jesus’ teaching that God’s way of dealing with enemies is the way of suffering love. By powerful parable and dramatic demonstration, Jesus had taught that God forgives sinners again and again. Then he died on the cross to accomplish that reconciliation. The cross is the most powerful statement about God’s way of dealing with enemies. Jesus made it very clear that he intended to die and that he understood that death as a ransom for others.

That the cross is the ultimate demonstration that God deals with enemies through suffering love receives its clearest theological expression in St. Paul. Listen to Romans 5:8-10: “God shows love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. . . While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of God’s Son.” Jesus’ vicarious death for sinners is the foundation of, and the deepest expression of, Jesus command to love our enemies. We are enemies of God in a double sense. For one thing because sinful persons are hostile to God and for another because the just, holy Creator cannot tolerate sin. For those who know the law, failure to obey it results in a divine curse. But Christ redeemed us from that curse by becoming a curse for us. Jesus’ blood on the cross was an expiation for us sinful enemies of God. He who knew no sin was made sin for you and me.

Jesus vicarious death for sinful enemies of God is the foundation of our commitment to nonviolence. The incarnate one knew that God was loving and merciful even toward sinful enemies. That’s why he associated with sinners, forgave their sins, and completed his mission by dying for them on the cross. And it was precisely the same understanding of God that prompted him to command his followers to love their enemies. We as God’s children are to imitate the loving characteristics of our heavenly God who rains mercifully on the just and the unjust. That’s why we should love our enemies. The vicarious cross of Christ is the fullest expression of the character of God. At the cross God suffered for sinners in the person of the incarnate Son. We will never understand all the mystery there. But it’s precisely because the one hanging limp on the middle cross was the word who became flesh that we know two interrelated things. First, that a just God mercifully accepts us sinful enemies just as we are. And second, that God wants us to go and treat our enemies exactly the same way. What a fantastic fulfillment of the messianic promise of shalom. Jesus did bring right relationships — both with God and with neighbor. In fact, he created a new community of shalom, a reconciled and reconciling people. As Ephesians 2 shows, peace with God through the cross demolishes hostile divisions among all those who stand together under God’s unmerited forgiveness. Women and slaves became persons. Jews accepted Gentiles. Rich and poor shared their economic abundance. So visibly different was this new community of shalom that onlookers could only exclaim: “Behold how they love one another”. Their common life validated their gospel of peace.

And so it must always be. Only if people see a reconciled people in our homes and our congregations will they be able to hear our invitation to forsake the way of retaliation and violence. If I am not allowing the Holy Spirit to heal the brokenness in my relationship with my spouse, I have little right to speak to my president about international reconciliation. If our Mennonite and Brethren in Christ congregations are not becoming truly reconciled communities, it is a tragic hypocrisy for us to try to tell secular governments how to overcome international hostility. It is a farce for the church to try to legislate what our congregations will not live.

On the other hand, living models impact history. Even small groups of people practicing what they preach, laying down their lives for what they believe, influence society all out of proportion to their numbers. I believe the Lord of history wants to use the small family of Anabaptists scattered across the globe to help shape history in the next two decades.

p.s. Of all the points Sider attempts to make here, I think his ihighlighting of Jesus non-violence as NOT passivity and standing by in the face of evil is the most striking. Many people when confronted with a tough situation think they can react only either/or…Jesus refused to buy into this false dichotomy and instead showed a tremendous capability to respond to various situations with various responses. All, it should be noted, revealed his overarching commitment to non-violence as an example to his followers.

“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” -john 18:36

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