We Must Be Prepared to Die by the Thousands

 

You can thank Google for this. I can’t even tell you what I was searching for. I’m sure it was something related to recent events in the news. Nonetheless, this is what I found. I’ve long been familiar with Ron Sider through his work with ESA and his seminal book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, which was instrumental when I first read it so many years ago in helping me learn not only that God has a special concern for the poor, but that if I want to follow Jesus well and closely, I should too. What I was less familiar with was his work and advocacy in regard to peacemaking and that it was the talk he gave below (which I also linked to above) that spurred the formation of Christian Peacemaker Teams, whom I likewise have the utmost respect for.

One of the most remarkable, and heartbreaking, things about this speech is that Sider gave it over 30 years ago, but it’s as if it could have been written today. Some of the threats to peace may have changed, but the instability of the world order feels just as fragile these days and the likelihood of global conflict, even nuclear conflict, feels just as ominously possible. Indeed, it was a mere four days ago that the “Doomsday Clock” moved closer to, well, doomsday than it has not in 30 years but in 64.

Against this perilous backdrop, Sider reminds us not only that Jesus was a peacemaker, but that we are to be agents of God’s shalom too. Remember that the Biblical vision of “Shalom” is not one of mere peace. Instead, Sider reminds 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.” But this dynamic works both ways. We can not achieve true peace without justice; nor can we achieve true justice violently. Our current political leaders could take a lesson from this, but I don’t think they will. As Sider says in reference to Jesus’ command “not to resist the one who is evil:” “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.” Again, Sider wrote this 30 years ago. Sadly, police brutality still commands front page headlines, and nonviolent civil disobedience remains a potent tool in the (nonviolent) arsenal of those who would resist evil, and may be even more necessary in the days to come.

So often those who object to peacemaking as a viable strategy for resisting violence, oppression, and injustice raise hypothetical scenarios in which there are only two options (much as is the case with our polarized secular politics these days, but I digress). Brian Zahnd speaks of this in his important work, A Farewell to Mars. Likewise, Sider reminds us that:

The most famous advocate of our time, Mahatma Gandhi, once said that if the only two choices are to kill or to stand quietly by doing nothing while the weak are oppressed and killed, then, of course, we must kill. I agree. But there is always a third option. We can always prayerfully and nonviolently place ourselves between the weak and the oppressor.

Notice what Sider did? He agrees with Gandhi in suggesting that if the only choice were to kill or stand idly by while others are killed, then we must kill. Just as surely, though, those are not the only two choices. Another way, a third option (of perhaps many others) is to stand between the oppressor and the oppressed. This reminds me of a recent sermon Michael Binder of Mill City Church preached about how Jesus confronted others. He speculates that Jesus may have placed himself directly between the woman caught in adultery and those who would stone her when he challenged them to throw the first stone if they were without sin, so that if they did so, he would be directly in the line of fire. Indeed, as I keep learning, what we would-be Jesus followers these days lack perhaps more than anything else is a good “Christian” imagination. We can’t resign ourselves to accepting the choices the domination system gives us. We can’t accept the boxes or categories we keep getting placed in. More often than not, Jesus calls us down a different path.

There are many, many more gems to be mined below that I could go on about, but I want to let Sider speak for himself, after I highlight one final thing. Sider says:

We must take up our cross and follow Jesus to Golgotha. We must be prepared to die by the thousands. Those who have believed in peace through the sword have not hesitated to die. Proudly, courageously, they gave their lives. Again and again, they sacrificed bright futures to the tragic illusion that one more righteous crusade would bring peace in their time. For their loved ones, for justice, and for peace, they have laid down their lives by the millions. Why do we pacifists think that our way — Jesus’ way — to peace will be less costly?

That bears repeating: We must be prepared to die by the thousands. How can we who would make peace nonviolently be less courageous than those who think they can do so violently? This is a hard teaching, but no less of a true one than that which caused so many would-be Jesus followers to leave his side in Scripture. In that passage from John, Jesus foreshadows his own willingness to stand in the path of violence for our sake as he tells his followers that his very flesh is the bread of life which alone can sustain and fully satisfy us. This is a hard teaching, indeed, but we can be no less courageous than our leader, Lord, and master, Jesus.

I leave you with Sider’s speech. It was a clarion call three decades ago, and remains one today:

The following is a speech presented by Ron Sider to those gathered at the Mennonite World Conference in Strasbourg, France in the summer of 1984. His call to active peacemaking sparked study groups in Anabaptist churches all over North America and ultimately gave rise to the formation of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in 1986.

God’s People Reconciling

Over our past 450 years of martyrdom, migration and missionary proclamation, the God of shalom has been preparing us Anabaptists for a late twentieth-century rendezvous with history. The next twenty years will be the most dangerous — and perhaps the most vicious and violent — in human history. If we are ready to embrace the cross, God’s reconciling people will profoundly impact the course of world history.

Violent economic structures annually maim and murder the poor by the millions. Idolatrous nationalism, religious bigotry, racial prejudice, and economic selfishness turn people against people in terrifying orgies of violence in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Southern Africa, and Latin America. The competing self-righteous ideologies of the United States and the Soviet Union trample arrogantly on the people’s dreams for justice and freedom in Central America and Afghanistan, the Philippines and Poland. Always, behind every regional conflict which kills thousands or millions, lurks the growing possibility of a nuclear exchange between the superpowers which would kill hundreds of millions. We teeter on the brink of nuclear holocaust.

Our 450 years of commitment to Jesus’ love for enemies finds its kairos in these two terrifying decades. This could be our finest hour. Never has the world needed our message more. Never has it been more open. Now is the time to risk everything for our belief that Jesus is the way to peace. If we still believe it, now is the time to live what we have spoken.

To rise to this challenge of history, we need to do three things: 1)we need to reject the ways we have misunderstood or weakened Jesus’ call to be peacemakers; 2) we need to embrace the full biblical understanding of shalom; 3) and we need to prepare to die by the thousands.

Jesus’ Call To Be Peacemakers

First, the misunderstandings. Too often we fall into an isolationist pacifism which silently ignores or perhaps profits from injustice and war as long as our boys don’t have to fight. Provided conscientious objector status protects our purity and safety, our neighbors need not fear that we will raise troubling questions about the injustice their armies reinforce or the civilians they maim and kill. The most famous advocate of our time, Mahatma Gandhi, once said that if the only two choices are to kill or to stand quietly by doing nothing while the weak are oppressed and killed, then, of course, we must kill. I agree.

But there is always a third option. We can always prayerfully and nonviolently place ourselves between the weak and the oppressor. Do we have the courage to move from the back lines of isolationist pacifism to the front lines of nonviolent peacemaking?

Sometimes we justify our silence with the notion that pacifism is a special vocation for us peculiar Anabaptists. It is not for other Christians. But this approach will not work. In fact, it is probably the last stop before total abandonment of our historic peace witness. If pacifism is not God’s will for all Christians, then it is not God’s will for any. On the other hand, if the one who taught us to love our enemies is the eternal Son who became flesh in the carpenter who died and rose and now reigns as Lord of the universe, then the peaceful way of nonviolence is for all who believe and obey him. Do we have the courage to summon the entire church to forsake the way of violence?

Sometimes we weaken and confuse our peace witness with an Anabaptist version of Martin Luther’s two- kingdom doctrine. Luther said that in the spiritual kingdom, God rules by love. Therefore in our private lives as Christians, we dare never act violently. But in the secular kingdom, God rules by the sword. Therefore, the same person in the role of executioner or soldier rightly kills. I was talking recently with one of our Anabaptist church leaders for whim I have the deepest respect. He said that he was a pacifist and believed it would be wrong for him to go to war. But he quickly added that the government is supposed to have armies. The United States, he added, had unfortunately fallen behind the Soviet Union and therefore President Reagan’s nuclear build-up was necessary and correct. I suspect he and many other American Mennonites and Brethren in Christ have endorsed the current arms race at the ballot box.

If we want wars to be fought, then we ought to have the moral integrity to fight them ourselves. To vote for other people’s sons and daughters to march off to death while ours safely register as conscientious objectors is the worst form of confused hypocrisy. If, on the other hand, we believe that Jesus’ nonviolent cross is the way to peace, then we need to implore everyone to stop seeking security in ever more lethal weapons. Jesus wept over Jerusalem’s coming destruction because it did not recognize his way of peace. Do we have the courage to warn the governments of the world that the ever upward spiral of violence will lead to annihilation?

Finally, the affluent are regularly tempted to separate peace from justice. We affluent Anabaptists, in North America and Western Europe, can do that by focusing all our energies on saving our own skins from nuclear holocaust and neglecting the fact that injustice now kills millions every year. We can also do it by denouncing revolutionary violence without condemning and correcting the injustice that causes that violence. In Central America today, fifty percent of the children die before the age of five because of starvation, malnutrition, and related diseases. At the same time, vast acres of the best land in Central America grow export crops for North Americans and Western Europeans. Unjust economic structures today murder millions of poor people. Our call to reject violence, whether it comes from affluent churches in industrialized countries or middle-class congregations in Third World nations, will have integrity only if we are willing to engage in costly action to correct injustice. Thank God for the courageous youth that MCC has sent to stand with the poor. But that is only a fraction of what we could have done. The majority of our people continue to slip slowly into numbing, unconcerned affluence. Do we have the courage as a united reconciling people to show the poor of the earth our peace witness is not a subtle support for an unjust status quo, but rather a commitment to risk danger and death so that justice and peace may embrace?

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.

Die By The Thousands

But to do that, we must not only abandon mistaken ideas and embrace the full biblical conception of shalom. One more thing is needed. We must take up our cross and follow Jesus to Golgotha. We must be prepared to die by the thousands.

Those who have believed in peace through the sword have not hesitated to die. Proudly, courageously, they gave their lives. Again and again, they sacrificed bright futures to the tragic illusion that one more righteous crusade would bring peace in their time. For their loved ones, for justice, and for peace, they have laid down their lives by the millions.

Why do we pacifists think that our way — Jesus’ way — to peace will be less costly? Unless we Mennonites and Brethren in Christ are ready to start to die by the thousands in dramatic vigorous new exploits for peace and justice, we should sadly confess that we really never meant what we said. We did, of course, in earlier times. In previous centuries, we died for our convictions. But today we have grown soft and comfortable. We cling to our affluence and our respectability.

Unless comfortable North American and European Mennonites and Brethren in Christ are prepared to risk injury and death in nonviolent opposition to the injustice our societies foster and assist in Central America, the Philippines, and South Africa, we dare never whisper another word about pacifism to our sisters and brothers in those desperate lands. Unless we are ready to die developing new nonviolent attempts to reduce international conflict, we should confess that we never really meant the cross was an alternative to the sword. Unless the majority of our people in nuclear nations are ready as congregations to risk social disapproval and government harassment in a clear ringing call to live without nuclear weapons, we should sadly acknowledge that we have betrayed our peacemaking heritage. Making peace is as costly as waging war. Unless we are prepared to pay the cost of peacemaking, we have no right to claim the label or preach the message.

Our world is at an impasse. The way of violence has led us to the brink of global annihilation. Desperately, our contemporaries look for alternatives. But they will never find Jesus’ way to peace credible unless those of us who have proudly preached it are willing to die for it.

Last spring I attended a large evangelical conference on the nuclear question. I shared my Anabaptist convictions and called for Christian nonviolent peacekeeping forces to move into areas of conflict such as the Nicaragua-Honduras border. A former chief of the U.S. Air Force who was there told me that he was ready to join in that kind of alternative. As we talked I realized he was so terrified by the current impasse of nuclear terror that he was ready to explore every nonviolent alternative for resolving international conflict.

A number of us Mennonites are part of the Witness for Peace which now has a small nonviolent task force permanently located on the Nicaragua-Honduras border. To be sure, those few dozen Christians can offer only symbolic opposition to the weapons of war that flow both ways across that border. But think of what a few thousand could do! What would happen if the

Christian church stationed as many praying Christians as the U.S. government has sent armed guerrillas across that troubled border?

What would happen if we in the Christian church developed a new nonviolent peacekeeping force of 100,000 persons ready to move into violent conflicts and stand peacefully between warring parties in Central America, Northern Ireland, Poland, Southern Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan? Frequently we would get killed by the thousands. But everyone assumes that for the sake of peace it is moral and just for soldiers to get killed by the hundreds of thousands, even millions. Do we not have as much courage and faith as soldiers?

Again and again, I believe, praying, Spirit-filled, nonviolent peacekeeping forces would by God’s special grace, be able to end the violence and nurture justice. Again and again, we would discover that love for enemies is not utopian madness or destructive masochism but rather God’s alternative to the centuries of escalating violence that now threatens the entire planet. But the cross — death by the thousands by those who believe Jesus — is the only way to convince our violent world of the truth of Christ’s alternative.

I want to plead with the Mennonites. Brethren in Christ, and others in the Historic Peace Churches to take the lead in the search for new nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution. We could decide to spend 25 million dollars in the next three years developing a sophisticated, highly trained nonviolent peacekeeping force. The most sophisticated expertise in

diplomacy, history, international politics, and logistics would be essential. So would a radical dependence on the Holy Spirit. Such a peacekeeping task force of committed Christians would immerse every action in intercessory prayer. There would be prayer chains in all our congregations as a few thousand of our best youth walked into the face of death, inviting all parties to end the violence and work together for justice.

If as a body we started such a program, we could invite the rest of the Christian church to join us. In fact, as the Witness for Peace shows, other have already begun. If we are not careful, God will raise up others to live out the heritage we have feared to apply to the problems of our day. Together the Christian church could afford to train and deploy 100,000 persons in a new nonviolent peacekeeping force. The result would not be utopia, or even the abolition of war. But it might tug our trembling planet back from the abyss.

I have one final plea. I know we live in a vicious, violent world. I know it takes more than winning smiles and moral advice to enable sinners to love their enemies. Sinners will never be able to fully follow Jesus’ ethic. But they ought to. That they do not is the measure of their sinful rebellion. But regenerated Spirit-filled Christians can follow Jesus. Our only hope is a mighty peace revival that converts sinners and revives the church.

In the next decades, I believe we will see disaster and devastation on a scale never before realized in human history, unless God surprises our unbelieving world with a mighty worldwide peace revival. Therefore, my final plea is that we fall on our knees in intercessory prayer pleading with God for a global peace revival. At the worst of times in the past, God has broken into human history in mighty revivals that led to social movements that changed history. The Wesleyan revival in the eighteenth century resulted in Wilberforce’s great crusade against slavery that changed the British Empire. The same could happen in the next few decades. Pray that God revives millions of lukewarm Christians. Pray that God draws millions of non-Christians into a personal living relationship with the risen Lord. Pray that millions and millions of people in all the continents of our small planet come to see that Jesus is the way to peace and peace is the way of Jesus. Pray that with our eyes fixed on the crucified one, the church will dare to pay the cost of being God’s reconciling people in a broken world.

Today is the hour of decision. The long upward spiral of violence and counter violence today approaches its catastrophic culmination. Either the world repents and changes or it self-destructs.

For centuries we Anabaptists have believed there is a different way, a better way. Our world needs that alternative. Now. But the world will be able to listen to our words only if large numbers of us live out the words we speak. Our best sons and daughters, our leaders, and all our people must be ready to die. The cross comes before the resurrection.

There is finally only one question: Do we believe Jesus enough to pay the price of following him? Do you? Do I?

Ain’t Gonna Study War No More

I’m actually working on a couple of posts right now, and this wasn’t going to be one of them, but when I came across this version of Down By the Riverside courtesy of Circle of Hope Daily Prayer: Water today, I couldn’t help but share it. It’s a soothing salve for the days we live in. I hope it speaks to you as it does to me.

Let Love Lead the Way and Your Feelings Will Follow

The hard truth to the right above, showing just how rich I alone am among the world’s billions of people (not counting Kirsten’s salary too), comes from the ever helpful Global Rich List.

So Kirsten and I are blessed and grateful to have been asked to share a little this weekend on the Mill City Church winter get-away about​ how we’re working to overcome barriers to following Jesus. This is a preview of what I plan to share:

Kirsten and I were blessed to get some great marriage training (courtesy of Dr. Gwen White of Circle of Hope) as we started our married life 20 years ago at the ages of 20 and 21, respectively. That training was essential in laying the foundation that our marriage is still built on today, and part of it involved some education literally about how our bodies work, how they conspire to get us to fall in love, mate, and so carry on the species. Many of you may know this, but all those euphoric feelings, the butterflies in your stomach, your inability to take your eyes off each other, like so many things, those are the product of chemical changes in your brain, and the hard truth is that those chemicals, and the feelings you associate with them, don’t last. When you’re falling in love the feelings are so powerful though that it’s easy to act in loving, selfless, and sacrificial ways toward the one you’re in love with. Significantly, it’s easy to think those feelings will always be there and therefore to let them be the engine of your relationship. As I’ve said, though, the feelings don’t last; the chemicals wear off, and then what do you do? It’s crucial to remember those feelings aren’t love; they’re a biological tool God gave us to help us carry on the species. Real love, true and long lasting love, the kind that lasts longer than courtship, is a choice; it’s something you do, a decision you have to make every single day. If you’re lucky enough to get married, the “yes” you say to your spouse on your wedding day is certainly the first, but just as certainly not the last time you’ll ever have to say “yes” in that way. Every day you must wake up and choose your spouse again and again and again, Lord willing for as long as you both shall live. If, by God’s grace, you’re able to keep making that choice, to keep saying “yes” to your spouse in that way, you’ll discover something much deeper, more profound, and more transformative than simple feelings.  You’ll find that choosing your spouse each and every day, choosing to act in loving ways toward your spouse even when you may not feel like it, is a wellspring that can sustain a relationship for a lifetime. If you lead with love (which again, is a choice), your feelings will follow. If you try it the other way around, all bets are off. Another way of putting this is the old adage, “you can act yourself into a new way of feeling much quicker than you can feel yourself into a new way of acting.”

 
I say all of this because when I was a young person I was in love with Jesus. My parents were “Christian,” but my “Christian” mother abused me and my “Christian” father enabled her abuse even while trying to bear the brunt of as much of it as he could. I always say therefore that as a very young person I was “able to depend on God in the absence of dependable parents.” I grew up in the Assemblies of God, which if you don’t know is a Pentecostal denomination; and the church of my youth was a large suburban mega-church that I have so many questions about now. They had a great worship experience, though, and I learned to immerse myself in it, to lose myself in the feeling of being loved by God in ways that my parents never could or would. That dependence on God coupled with the amazing love of one particular family from school and that of my youngest but much older half-sister sustained me through that very difficult childhood. My courtship with Jesus lasted until I turned 20 and went to inner-city Philly one summer to do a mission experience in which for about two months I was part of a team with 8 other college students with whom I lived in a SW Philly church building, where we ran a day camp, sunday school, and youth group for the neighborhood kids. I always say that during that summer “I was able to build a bridge between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there, in the world.” I could talk for hours about the things I did and saw that summer and how it changed me, but what I later found is that the proverbial “bridge” I built between my suffering and the world’s could be traveled in both directions. Sometimes my encounter with the suffering other, which, according to Scripture, is really an encounter with Jesus, sometimes that encounter can take me right back into my own personal suffering in potentially debilitating ways. I think this is why Henri Nouwen offers us the notion of a “wounded healer.” It’s why Jesus gets associated with the “suffering servant” we read about in Isaiah 53.
 
What all of this meant for me, though, is that after that summer in Philly, upon my return to the serene, beautiful small “Christian” college campus on the north shore of Boston where I was again surrounded by relatively “rich” white “Christian” college kids like myself, I was confronted really for the first time with a question that I could not answer and which my relationship with Jesus up to that point gave me no help with. Put simply, I kept wondering how in the world I could possibly justify being there in that serene environment while kids were dying on the streets of Philadelphia. Writ large, I wonder right this second how I can possibly justify being here while, according to UNICEF, 22,000 children will die today due to poverty. Meanwhile struggle not to eat my feelings and get fat, or as is the case right now, to lose all the fat I’ve gained recently. I wonder what all this says about me, and I wonder what it says about Jesus. If I have access to so much food that I can store the excess on my bones in terribly unhealthy ways while 22,000 kids will die today because they can’t get enough or the right kind of food, does that mean God loves me more than them? Yes, this situation is certainly a product of the color of my skin and the time and place I was born into, but isn’t God still in charge? Sure, all this is happening on my watch, but it’s also happening on his. When will he do something? Why won’t he just fix it all?
 
The quintessential struggle of my adult life in terms of my faith, the biggest barrier that keeps me from following Jesus like I want to, is doubt, and I’ve usually framed this doubt as having to do with the why of faith, with all the problematic passages in the Bible that can be real barriers themselves when Jesus isn’t the lens through which we read the whole thing. I also often talk about my doubt as having to with all the inappropriate questions we keep asking the Bible and expecting it to answer that usually result from a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Bible is for. I talk about my doubt, too, as having to do with my lack of trust, to be really, really honest, in all of you. I look at some “Christians,” especially the ones who usually get talked about in the news, and shake my head as I wonder again how in the world we can both have Jesus as our leader. One way I’ve been able to keep making an effort to try to follow Jesus is by understanding that doing so is less about what I believe about Jesus; it’s less about my ability to give intellectual assent to a series of propositions about the faith, and is instead more about whether I simply believe Jesus. If discipleship, which is the charge we were given in the Great Commission, is really about following Jesus, about putting one foot in front of the other along the path he leads us down just like the first disciples did, then it can’t really happen in a classroom. It’s easy to say a prayer and follow some rules, including rules about what to believe. It’s hard to put your faith in a living being who wants to have a real relationship with you in the day to day. So what I’m realizing is that my doubt has had less to do with all the big questions about Jesus and more to do with Jesus himself. I haven’t just been doubting “Christianity” after all; I’ve been doubting Christ. My courtship with Jesus has long been over. I’m not quite so enamored anymore.
 
Yet I know that God is love, that we were made in and for love, and that the possibility of right, loving relationships with God, one another, and God’s good world is the good news that is worth proclaiming. So just like in my marriage, I’m working now to keep leading with that love, trusting that the feelings will follow. I’m working not just to believe in propositions about Jesus; I’m working to believe Jesus. I’m working to trust that he loves those 22,000 kids that will die today just as much as he loves me and my own two kids. We often hear it said in this community that “generosity isn’t something God wants from you; it’s something God wants for you.” There’s a powerful truth in that simple phrase. If we were really made in and for love, and love is something you do, then we were made for this. We were made to lay down our lives each and every day not just for our friends but for our neighbors near and far, especially those who are suffering. I’m working, then, to trust that inasmuch as we are the church, as we are the body of Christ and the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, then we are the ones we seek. We are a big part of the answer to our prayers. Jesus answers the suffering of the world by sending the world his church, by sending you and I to feed those starving kids, to love them as much as we love our own, for they belong to Jesus and therefore they belong to us. Kids in NE Mpls. aren’t starving like kids in Africa, to be sure, but as you all well know many of them go hungry, especially on the weekend, but not this weekend. Thankfully this weekend some of them are a little less hungry because of you, because of our efforts through The Sheridan Story. That work has made it a little easier for me to trust you, for I look at you and I see people who must be following the same leader I’m trying to follow, Jesus, and that, in turn, makes it a little easier for me to follow too. For that, I thank you.

My Measly Voice


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My freshman year college roommate wrote me an email on the eve of yesterday’s inauguration that clocked in at just under 4,000 words. The basic gist of his argument in all those words seems to be that:
  • I’ve changed. I’m not the same person he knew in college, for about a year (we were only roommates for freshman year). He goes to reasonable lengths to try to express his appreciation for the fact that my journey has been very different from his and he says he knows that my experiences (which again have been very different from his) have shaped me.
  • Echoing one of Circle of Hope’s proverbs, I like to say that “Jesus is the lens through which I read the Bible.” My old roommate suggests, however, that it isn’t really Jesus through which I see the Bible. Rather, as far as he can tell in regard to me, “socialist liberalism” is the lens through which I see everything, including Jesus and the Bible. He says: “Socialist liberalism seems to be THE lens with which you see the Bible, Jesus’ teachings, the mission of the church, the only hope for USAmericans (my term), and the only morally justifiable way to accomplish economic and racial reconciliation.”
  • He goes on to suggest that when I write about my own story and struggles, he “applauds my courage and candor” and “there is not a hint of self-righteousness; only humility.” When, however, I:

“label conservative Christians as ‘fundagelicals’, rail against well-intention(ed) Jesus followers who disagree with socialist liberal political positions and mock them for completely missing the point of the gospel message, label every Trump supporter as racist, publicly shame any Christian who proudly supports Israel because you read an ALJazeera article,  devote a majority of a blog to try to see how you can survive thanksgiving with Trump-supporting in-laws, tweet and retweet 50 times  everyday with cynicism, hatred, and intolerance of those who disagree with your worldview, and see yourself as…someone who proudly resists a government that hasn’t had a chance yet…and to do all of that using very selective, theologically liberal biblical hermeneutics to make your case and claim the moral authority and high ground while at the same time subliminally (usually not directly) shaming every evangelical Christian…………… it says an awful lot more about the dangerous place you are in instead of the morally indefensible place you claim the ‘other team’ is living in.”

He wasn’t done, though. He adds that again from his perspective I “…can often come across as a self-righteous, hate-filled, borderline agnostic, ideologue who sits in judgment of conservatives, moderates, black and red-letter bible Christians (as opposed to only red-letter ones), meat-eaters, and anyone who is not willing to admit their white guilt and give reparations to every minority in our country….even though it’s not our country hence your USAmericans monicker.”

  • He then suggests “as a friend” that I “leave the militant socialist liberal Christianity stuff out of your social media life” and that I:

“flip the script to inspiration devoid of antagonization. I know it’s difficult to do that in this new administration but trust me, there is a better way to speak truth to power. The easy way is to keep reading alt left propaganda, get yourself all worked up, retweet 150,000 quotes and articles a day, resist the oppression of whatever it is that upsets you, carry around your white guilt as you live in suburbia, and spend your days miserable reading alt left books from progressive-only bookstores, written by left-wing authors. That’s actually the easy thing to do. The hard way to bring real change I believe is by inspiring a generation of people to the true gospel; the life, teachings, death, resurrection, red letters, and black letters of Jesus.” He says that I should inspire people “…by giving as much credence to the world of politics as Jesus did…not much. The Kingdom was all about speaking truth to power on a different level. Let the Essenes and Barabbas deal with trying to take down the oppression of Rome. Jesus’ speaking truth to power looked so different from Brian Zahnd…’s worldview.”

  • He adds that Obamacare was “doomed to fail” because, basically as I understand what my old roommate was saying, it tried to force people to care about one another. It tries to legislate morality. Finally, he concludes that “…rooting out all imperialistic Christendom from the world isn’t the solution in my opinion. The solution is changing the empire from within Christendom itself; one heart at a time. I believe that to be the hard way, but the more effective way. Politics is a failed system; for the left and the right; for both Christian conservatives and Christian progressives. There’s a better way.” Incidentally, I don’t think he’s plugging Paul Ryan’s economic plan with that last “better way” bit.
  • At the end he says he looks forward to seeing more of my family and sports related posts and posts about my faith community, and hopes that he’ll also see me “inspire the echo chamber” with something they “haven’t heard before or retweeted already,” with the gospel.

Phew! That’s a lot to digest, and I don’t even know where to begin to respond. What I don’t want to do is get into an online argument. I’ve been in more than my fair share of those, and they never, ever end well, but on a couple of occasions they have ended relationships. So, although it’s as tempting as the sweets I’ve been consuming much too frequently of late, I will do my best to resist the urge to defend myself, to take his points one by one and show from my perspective why he’s misunderstood me (there’s probably a lot of that) or why I believe whatever position I’ve taken or acted on is one that is as consistent as I can muster with my stated desire to follow Jesus. Some of what he said above is (needlessly) incendiary, whether he meant it to be or not. Nevertheless, I believe in his own way that he means well. So I’ll assume the best and instead of defending myself, what I will do is simply state, as clearly and briefly and in as straightforward fashion as I can, what I believe and why I do what I do. I think I’ve done this before, but lest there be any confusion, here goes:

Despite lots of very compelling reasons not to, I still want, and am trying, to follow Jesus. I know several smart, loving people who have tried to do the same and concluded that they cannot. As I keep saying, their stories aren’t over; so who knows what will happen with them in “the end?” I bring them up because I can relate to them and I respect their reasons. If you want to know more about this, I’ve written about it extensively of late. Just read my last several posts. For my part, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” I want to do this; no, I am compelled to do this, because somehow I still believe that as much as I may try (and fail) to hold on to Jesus, I believe deep down that Jesus is still holding on to me. Among the “prosperity gospel” preachers Trump gathered to pray for him as he was inaugurated yesterday, one of the other religious leaders (I don’t remember which one) prayed that Trump, in office, would “be his best self.” That’s one of the few sentiments from yesterday’s proceedings that I can support. I believe, and it has been my experience, that only as I try to closely follow Jesus am I ever truly my best self. It as at the foot of the cross, that great playing field leveler, that I see myself as I truly am (broken but healed), and more importantly, see those around me and around the world for who they truly are (God’s beloved children whom I am to love whether I consider them friends, neighbors, or even enemies). So I am trying, still, to follow Jesus, now well over the threshold of my fourth decade. In many ways that is no small feat these days. I’m not proud; I am grateful. I know, however, that I may not be following Jesus very well.

Even so, there are some basics about following Jesus that have become non-negotiable. I’m glad for this too. Among my “non-negotiables” is a willingness to be certain of very little. This willingness has been crucial to my ongoing relationship with Jesus. I used to be certain about various things that I thought were necessary for faith, like my former certainty that the Bible was inerrant, for example (it’s not). I used to be certain that Jesus was, as I’ve long now said, “a white Anglo-Saxon U.S. male protestant that shopped at the mall, lived in the ‘burbs, and spent his day pursing the American dream” just like most other people I used to know. Little of that, it turns out, is true. I used to be certain that following Jesus was “as American as apple pie” and that doing so, therefore, meant that following Jesus went hand-in-hand with being a “good (white) American,” that doing so meant being patriotic in the U.S. flag next to the “Christian” flag in houses of worship kind of way. According to this way of thinking that I used to be certain was the “correct” way, following Jesus was about following the rules of “checklist Christianity” (again, this is well-trod ground for me on this blog). Included in those rules were a whole bunch of “do’s and don’ts:”

  • Do read your Bible and pray every day and “go to church” every Sunday
  • Do be “polite” or “nice” (even while engaging in not-nice acts, like supporting an unrepentant sinner whose first actions in office reveal an unloving, unjust agenda; gone from the White House website, for example, are pages championing civil rights efforts and efforts on behalf of the environment- which is itself a civil rights issue– and the Trump DOJ has asked for a delay in pending litigation that would have defended disenfranchised voters of color in TX)
  •  Don’t use bad language or (for some) smoke or drink or even dance (my still favorite Baptist joke is that sex is bad because it might lead to dancing)
  • Speaking of sex, don’t engage in any other than male-female sex inside of marriage. I’m not pronouncing a judgment here, by the way; I believe that sex outside of marriage is sinful because it destroys the right relationships we were made for. There’s a lot more to be said about this, but I’m off point. Right now I’m just recounting all the “rules” I grew up with that I used to be certain about.

This list of rules could go on and on. My point is that the rules were the focus of the kind of “Christianity” I grew up with, and they extended to belief, which is to say that some of the rules dealt with lending intellectual assent to a series of propositions about God and the Bible. Anyway, if you could “check off” all the rules, you were “in;” you were a “good Christian.” Over time, however, and largely through my own experience, I’ve come to understand that this way of trying to follow Jesus is no way at all, because it’s not really about following Jesus at all. It’s about following the rules; it’s about imposing a new “law,” when in fact Jesus came to put an end to the law. It’s why I now say that “rules are for relationship.” Read Mark 2. It’s literally all about Jesus and his followers breaking all kinds of rules (ones in the Bible, no less) in order to show that they are a means to an end, not the end. Thus, the rules point us in the direction of right relationship, but they’re a poor substitute for it. And that’s just the thing, too many would be Jesus followers I know are willing to substitute the rules for Jesus. That is what I would contend is the “easy way.” The hard way is basing one’s faith on a relationship with a living God who is always on the move, always to be found on the margins, loving and including those that we so often do not. As Pierce Pettis sang, “I can’t go with you and stay where I’m at.” As All Sons and Daughters sing:

 I could just sit
I could just sit and wait for all Your goodness
Hope to feel Your presence
And I could just stay
I could just stay right where I am and hope to feel You
Hope to feel something again

And I could hold on
I could hold on to who I am and never let You
Change me from the inside
And I could be safe
I could be safe here in Your arms and never leave home
Never let these walls down

But You have called me higher
You have called me deeper
And I’ll go where You will lead me Lord
You have called me higher
You have called me deeper
And I’ll go where You lead me Lord
Where You lead me
Where You lead me Lord

My point obviously is that most of those things I used to be so sure of I simply am not sure of any longer. As always, here I am reminded of “my” teacher and mentor (not personally of course) Frederick Buechner, who says:

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Lately I’ve had a few more bad days than not, but I remain sure that “he who does not love remains in death,” and that “Jesus is the Word made flesh who dwells among us, full of grace and truth.” I’m resolved to know these truths and “little else,” for fully living in response to them would take a lifetime. Again as All Sons and Daughters sing:

Lord I find You in the seeking
Lord I find You in the doubt
And to know You is to love You
And to know so little else
I need You
Oh how I need You (x3)

Or, as Paul put it: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Living in love with a living God who is always calling me higher and deeper, more fully into my best self, more fully into right relationship with God and with my neighbors, friends, and enemies near and far- and with God’s good earth- means showing up for racial justice and engaging in action and awareness in regard to it; it means speaking truth to power whether it is that of Barack Obama or Donald Trump or Wall Street or Caesar. Declaring that Jesus is Lord means saying that Caesar (or Obama or Trump) is not. Living that out is messy and hard, but necessary, and very political in fact. As usual, Rod White said it better than I could:

“OK. I voted. To paraphrase Paul on both his prophetic and practical sides: In Christ there is no Republican or Democrat; Jesus is Lord. In the voting booth I voted to bring as much justice as I could with my measly vote. Now back to the everyday transformative work we do…with joy.”

In fact, his whole post about the election as a “whitelash” is instructive. I encourage you to read it. Again, for my part, if acting in the voting booth and in my social media posts to bring as much justice as I can with my measly vote and my measly voice makes me look like a “self-righteous, hate-filled, borderline agnostic, ideologue who sits in judgment of conservatives, moderates, black and red-letter bible Christians (as opposed to only red-letter ones), meat-eaters, and anyone who is not willing to admit their white guilt and give reparations to every minority in our country….even though it’s not our country,” then so be it. Lord willing, my more “liberal” and “left-ish” friends will find me equally offensive. If I follow Jesus well and closely enough, what will come through most clearly is love for neighbors near and far and friends and enemies alike. To the extent that my online presence does not make that clear, I repent and beg forgiveness.

Cognitive Dissonance in Trump’s America: Action and Awareness May Be Necessary if Beauty Will Still Save the World

On the eve of MLK, Jr. Day, Trump targeted legendary civil rights icon John Lewis for his latest Twitter rant after Lewis, in an interview, questioned the legitimacy of Trump's election for all the very public reasons that do, in fact, call it into question. Trump, of course, made it personal, saying Lewis' district was "crime infested" and that Lewis himself was "all talk, no action." The facts beg to differ.
On the eve of MLK, Jr. Day, Trump targeted legendary civil rights icon John Lewis for his latest Twitter rant after Lewis, in an interview, questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s election for all the very public reasons that do, in fact, call it into question. Trump, of course, made it personal, saying Lewis’ district was “crime infested” and that Lewis himself was “all talk, no action.” The facts beg to differ.

I started this post a few days ago, when I was feeling very upset about the news of the day and was trying to get to the root of why. I mean it’s not as if I didn’t know that any of this would happen. Nothing that’s happening right now in national politics- from Trump’s terrible Cabinet picks to his circus of a “press conference” the other day, complete with the steady stream of lies in person, on Twitter, and from his surrogates- none of this is a surprise. Maybe it’s the stark relief of President Obama’s farewell address vs. what happened in Trump Tower during his “press conference.” Obama showed, one last time, how one could at least give the appearance of rising to the dignity of the office and spoke with amazing eloquence, humility, and inspiration. He almost made me want to be hopeful again, despite the striking dissonance of his words with the actual reality of our situation.

Speaking of dissonance, I think this is a big part of what has me most troubled right now. I’m experiencing cognitive dissonance, and I don’t know how to resolve or how to relieve the tension it creates. In the Wikipedia entry for “doublethink” (more on that later), it states that cognitive dissonance is that “…in which contradictory beliefs cause conflict in one’s mind.” F. Scott Fitzgerald is quoted as saying, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Perhaps wrongly, I think of this as the ability to hold a paradox, to engage in sound reasoning from true premises that nonetheless results in “a self-contradictory or a logically unacceptable conclusion” according to Wikipedia, which adds: “A paradox involves contradictory yet interrelated elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time.” Paradox is central to Christian faith. Christians hold that Jesus was both “fully human” and “fully divine,” at the same time. Life in Christ, especially these days, is a constant paradox since we hold that the kingdom of God is “already” here (and where Jesus is King, love, justice, and peace are the rule, and poverty and racism could not exist); yet daily we are confronted with evidence that God’s kingdom is “not yet” remotely close to being fully realized in this way.

I am not mentally conflicted about the paradoxes I hold in regard to faith, as there is a mystery involved, and hopefully a little maturity, that helps to dissipate any tension that the apparently conflicting beliefs or ideas I have in regard to Jesus might cause. I understand that the kingdom of God is “already” upon us because of Jesus, but clearly “not yet” fully realized, in part because I know that God has chosen to work through us, flawed and broken as we are, yet in the process of being healed and restored and made whole even as that healing and restoration and wholeness is brought to the whole world. I believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine because I trust him, however imperfectly, and the mystery of the incarnation, of “God with us,” is a beauty I believe will and is saving the world, to borrow a phrase from Brian Zahnd.

Cognitive dissonance, however, as I’m using the phrase, is distinct from paradox in that it cannot be sustained over time. It causes mental conflict and tension that must be resolved in some way. I described above the distinction I’m making between cognitive dissonance and paradox, how tension that might develop in an attempt to hold simultaneously two apparently contradictory beliefs is sometimes able to be sustained over time through belief and trust in Jesus and an appreciation for the mystery that is often a part of the way God works. Sometimes, however, describing something as a paradox just won’t do. It seems to me that paradoxes must in some way be balanced or supported by some other overriding or underlying belief or idea. The paradox of Jesus being both “fully human” and “fully divine” is sustainable over time because it helps inform the idea of “God with us,” that the transcendent God who once seemed so far away would come close, would be immanent, would make himself small and vulnerable in order to join us where we are and end our self-imposed separation from him. The paradox of the kingdom of God being “already” upon us but “not yet” fully realized helps us understand why hate and injustice persist, for now, and is a powerfully motivating force for informing how we can respond to such evils with God’s love, justice, and shalom.

Sometimes, though, would be paradoxes are not at all balanced or are not supported by a larger underlying truth, and thus the resultant cognitive dissonance creates tension that must be resolved, often I suppose through abandoning one of the beliefs or ideas that one previously held to be true. I suspect this is why they’re so stressful, as it is always hard to realize that something you thought was true simply is not. Here are some of the contradictory beliefs/ideas I’ve been struggling with in regard to the election:

  • On the one hand, “Christians” follow Jesus; Jesus is their leader. Most “white Evangelicals,” who at least think of themselves as being “Christian,” voted for Trump and say that their faith informs their vote. However, on the other hand:
    • Trump is a Biblically illiterate, narcissistic, serial misogynist who brags about sexual assault, lies incessantly, and demonstrably loves money- and himself- above all else.
  • Again, on the one hand, especially for “white Evangelicals,” a conversion experience, often involving saying the “sinner’s prayer” in which one confesses one’s sin(s) and asks Jesus to forgive them is the entry point to the faith and the highlight of it. For “white Evangelicals,” this is arguably what makes one a “Christian” or not. Most “white Evangelicals” voted for Trump and say that their faith informs their vote. However, on the other hand:
    • Trump has stated that he’s never done anything for which he might need forgiveness, despite:
      • routinely using, abusing, and objectifying women as evidenced by bragging about sexual assault whether he engaged in it or not (and odds are, he did) and being married three times and famously carrying on an affair with the woman who would be his second wife
      • beginning his career in real estate by being sued for discriminatory housing practices toward racial minorities
      • routinely cheating his workers and contractors out of earned wages
      • daily, incessantly, lying to further his self-aggrandizing agenda or engaging in petulant rants about people or institutions he thinks- rightly or wrongly- have slighted him
      • …and the list could go on and on and on. The point is, this man doesn’t believe he’s ever done anything he should ask forgiveness for, an assertion which stands the test of time despite his forced faux-contrition during the campaign only after being publicly caught in just one of his most egregious offenses.
  • Again, on the one hand, and at the risk of conflating Republicans and “white Evangelicals,” most of them I know or encounter online and in the media seem to hate, with a special vitriol, President Obama. However, on the other hand:
    • Obama is an avowed Christian and can describe- and has- his own conversion experience. Obama made it through eight years at the pinnacle of U.S. power with a scandal free administration and an intact nuclear family. He’s conducted himself in office with dignity and grace. He’s (mostly) pursued policies that are at least defensible from the standpoint of someone trying to follow Jesus. It is evident in Scripture that God has a special concern for the poor, that Jesus-followers have a duty to care for the sick, the imprisoned, etc. Obamacare, for all its faults, is a move in that direction; it’s an attempt to better care for the sick. Moreover, instead of pursuing universal healthcare from the start, which I and many others wish he would have, in an effort to compromise with his political opponents from the very beginning he took a Republican idea- Romneycare- and tried to roll it out for the nation. Instead of appreciating this and working with him, Republicans famously vowed to oppose absolutely everything he did whether he pursued things they might otherwise have agreed with or not, and so they did. Their incessant efforts to foil, block, undermine, and obstruct his every effort has much to do with the extent to which Obamacare is currently “failing” (and whether or not it’s “failing” is a debatable point, this year’s dramatic price hikes notwithstanding). For example, if the Medicare expansion that was supposed to occur in all 50 states had actually occurred, more people would be covered and the entire system would be more stable, and cheaper. Taking another issue, Obama did not go nearly far enough, or even do very much, to tackle actual poverty in the U.S. or around the world. However, his efforts to better the lives of “middle class” USAmericans at least mitigated and slowed the typical Republican efforts to pursue preferential policies not for the poor but for the ultra-rich. This was good while it lasted. All that said, Obama obviously is not perfect and his administration has been far from it. He has not been nearly as transparent in office as he said he would be. He has not closed Gitmo, though again Republican obstruction has a lot to do with this. His escalation of the use of drones to kill alleged terrorists has resulted in many, many civilian deaths and has helped to perpetuate a climate of fear and distrust that can only contribute to the perception in some parts of the world that the U.S. is “the great Satan.” He pledged, though, to wind down the wars he inherited as President and his use of drones was a strategic attempt to keep that promise while simultaneously continuing the metaphorical “war on terror.” He believed that the use of drones rather than “boots on the ground” would result in decreased loss of life than would have happened otherwise. The point again is that his policies are at least defensible from the standpoint of someone trying to follow Jesus, and his personal conduct has been above reproach. Yet many, many, “white Evangelicals” seem to absolutely despise him and would rather have someone like Trump in office. This is a fact which defies explanation. It defies sense or decency and certainly runs counter to the notion that those “Christians” who voted Trump in did so with their values foremost in mind.
    • It’s the vitriol that really gets me and gives away the underlying motivations. It’s hard to believe that racism is not an issue. I know white folks at whom that charge is leveled object, but racism is not (or is not merely) an attitude. That’s prejudice. Racism is a system by which “white” people benefit from unearned privilege and people of color suffer from unearned discrimination. In the anti-racism training I had many, many years ago, I was taught that “racism=prejudice+power.” That’s debatable, obviously. What’s not debatable is that there is a dramatic power differential between people of color and those who self-identify as white. What’s not debatable is that most systems and institutions in this country are set up to perpetuate that power differential. Therefore, the fact that “we the people” elected Obama twice is not evidence that racism is not an issue or that we live in a “post-racial” society. Obama is instead a charismatic, likely once-in-a-generation exception that proves the rule. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said: “If I have to jump six feet to get the same thing that you have to jump two feet for ― that’s how racism works. To be president, [Obama] had to be scholarly, intelligent, president of the Harvard Law Review, the product of some of our greatest educational institutions, capable of talking to two different worlds … Donald Trump had to be rich and white. That was it. That’s the difference.”

I know that there are many otherwise well-meaning “white” people who want to follow Jesus and think they are even while they voted to put Donald Trump, of all people, in charge of the U.S.’ housing policy (which systematically disadvantages people of color) and fiscal and financial policy (which systematically disadvantages people of color) and justice system (which systematically disadvantages and incarcerates in grossly disproportionate ways people of color) and immigration policy (which systematically disadvantages people of color from other parts of the world who usually have it much worse off even than people of color here in the U.S.), all of which is to say nothing of the U.S. military machine (which systematically is used in ways that oppress and disadvantage people of color around the world). I know some who might read this might dispute my interpretation of the facts I’ve alluded to, if not the facts themselves. I’m glad to be shown if/when I’m wrong. I don’t think the basic thrust of my argument is, and daily I am convicted by the Holy Spirit in a way that tells me I’m on to something.

I suppose all this is why I am grateful for Mill City Church‘s now forming “Action and Awareness” Missional Community that is focused on action and awareness concerning racial justice. If cognitive dissonance is the result of the presence of conflicting ideas that cannot be resolved or sustained over time, the only recourse is to surrender one of those beliefs or ideas in order to resolve the tension. Soon Trump will be president of the U.S. It seems likely that people will suffer and experience more oppression as a result, especially people of color. If I can not believe that supporting Trump and working to enact his policies is consistent with following Jesus, I must take action to the extent that I’m able. I must act to confront and resist the oppressors and to stand in the gap with the oppressed. I am hopeful the Action and Awareness Missional Community will be a vehicle for this.

Likewise, awareness is crucial too. Just the other day the A&A Missional Community learned a little about implicit bias. I know I have a lot to learn about my own biases and the many ways I support and perpetuate racism in this country without even realizing it simply because I’m an educated “white” male. I spoke too above about “doublethink.” Wikipedia says “Doublethink is notable due to a lack of cognitive dissonance — thus the person is completely unaware of any conflict or contradiction.” Perhaps all those otherwise well-meaning would be Jesus followers that voted for Trump simply somehow aren’t aware that their vote for him and support of his policies are inconsistent with following Jesus, that supporting Trump and having Jesus as your leader are, in some very notable ways, antithetical. Where that’s the case, I’m hoping the awareness that the A&A Missional Community will work to promote will be part of the answer. Lord, let it be so.