A farewell to Mars, book review.

Brian Zahnd’s book Farewell to Mars has many celebrity endorsements.  Many of the endorsers see something very novel and prophetic in the way that Zahnd understands the ministry of Christ.  However, arguments that Jesus taught peace are nothing new to me.  I grew up in one of the historic peace churches.  There is no shortage of books written about Jesus and peace, nor a shortage of apologetic literature for opposing the war or state sponsored injustice.  Zahnd’s book lacks the sophistication of books that draw from centuries of Anabaptist tradition, and/or the theological works of Catholics (and allied protestants) who honestly reflect on the implications of Just war theory and Catholic social teaching… books that I assume are largely unread by outside the schools of thought that produced them.

If I were to judge Zahnd’s book from this context, I would be unfair to the book.  While Farewell to Mars touches on both the apologetic and the theological, neither theology nor apologetics is the focus nor the strength of the book.  This book is a personal testimony;  it is a memoir of conversion from one theological paradigm to another.  What he once saw as sacred, he now sees as idolatry.

Zahnd starts as somebody who has fully bought into the American Christian worldview, which includes an ideas that the United States is somehow more special to God’s heart than other nations, and Americans are somehow more valuable to God than people of other nations.  He belonged to an American Christianity that assigns divine origin to American political theory, making our political documents such as the constitution double as religious texts.

The book tells the story of the conversion of a man who prays for the death of America’s enemies and preaches sermons that are an apologetic for American wars.  Somehow, Zahnd started to see Jesus in those people that he was part of dehumanizing, people his earlier sermons lowered from “image of God” to “enemy”.

If this book is prophetic, it is prophetic because a voice from “American” nationalistic Christianity is questioning the ethics of the nation.  Voices that always rejected the idea of ‘exceptionalism’, such as Catholics, and voices that tended to doubt the ethics of any government, such as Anabaptist are easy to ignore.  Zahnd does not manage to say anything new, nor does he manage to say any of it better than writers who were able to connect with centuries of tradition, whether Catholic or Anabaptist; but he manages to say it as somebody who’s heart and mind was changed.

I recommend this book as a light read, an honest memoir of a conversion experience, and as a call to consider the role of Christianity and its relationship to our government.  For those looking for an invitation to peace, and away from a religion that serves the state before Christ, this is a great book.  For those looking for apologetic literature that engages the critics of pacifism, this book will be a disappointment.

St Nicholas

I have always loved hagiography.  Often people hear the word, and they think of a sanitized account where the sainted person can do no wrong.  People think of politicians who are deified by their followers.  Real hagiography is different.  When we look at the lives of those who are remembered as saints, we see depressed people, angry people, and frightened people. Christian saints are all people who are deep in a faith that God offers salvation for our sin. Christian saints are people who confessed that they are sinners in need of salvation.

 nicholas and arius
Today is St. Nicholas day.  Out of all the stories that are told of St. Nicholas, my favorite is how he was kicked out of the council of Nicaea.  At this time, the bishop Nicholas of Myra would have been about 55.  When Nicholas started serving the church, the church was persecuted.  Under the emperor Diocletian, Nicholas was arrested, imprisoned and beaten, but his faith remained.  When many people died, Nicholas survived and was faithful.  Now that years passed, the Church was no longer persecuted, but in a favored position.  The emperor himself made this council possible.  Bishops from all over the world came together to talk about God, and most importantly answer the question: “What do we mean when we speak of the deity of Christ?”

Arius was a well spoken African priest who explained how Jesus was God’s creation, and how the deity of Christ was subordinate to the deity of the Father.  There were great metaphors, songs that people could sing, and obviously ways that this understanding of the Jesus story spoke to people in the area.  While Arius was explaining his position, St. Nicholas walked up to him and punched him in the face.

While there had never been a universal church council before, everybody there knew that a punch in the face was not an appropriate rebuttal.  Even before the church became respectable, bishops didn’t punch priests. Nicholas would have overstepped his authority if he even reprimanded Arius because Arius was not his responsibility.  Nicholas acted badly; he acted in a way that didn’t help anybody; he acted in a way that discredited anything he might say at the council.

The story continues that Nicholas had everything marking him as clergy taken away from him.  He was locked up for the duration of the council as punishment for his unprofessional behavior.  Nicholas was restored when the council ended, but his misbehavior took away his opportunity to be part of defining what the church would be now that it was no longer persecuted.

When I think about this, I wonder what must have been going through his mind.  I imagine Nicholas remembering what life was like 30 years earlier, suffering with others during the persecution under the emperor Diocletian.  I imagine Nicholas remembering dear friends who were killed by Roman soldiers.

One of the advantages of Arianism was that it was agreeable to the Empire. Arius could be understood in a way that supported imperial power, both Jesus and the emperor are Godlike.  Both have a tangible divinity to them even though this divinity is not the same thing as being God.  It is most likely that Constantine favored Arius but, he asked the church to decide for itself.

Nicholas experienced the empire and soldiers as enemies. Soldiers tried to beat his faith right out of him. For Nicholas, any advantage to the empire would be no advantage at all.  I imagine the anger that boiled up in him.  I imagine the man thinking “if this is true, if Jesus was not really God, I took a beating for nothing.  All those deaths are for nothing.” Whatever he was thinking, it was personal.  Nicholas acted with passion but without wisdom.

I love these stories because these are the stories that make the saints real to me.  I see St. Nicholas as somebody for whom faith was his life.  The passion Nicholas felt when he punched Arius was lived out when he saw prisoners treated unjustly and when he saw the needs of the poor and of those who traveled.  The generosity of Nicholas is legendary but I believe the stories of an unreasonably generous man because I know he was unreasonable enough to punch the guy he disagreed with in a business meeting.

Matthew 1: Advent for Joseph

Reading: Matthew 1

The story of Jesus opens up at at time that the Jewish people were looking for salvation. After they returned from the Babylonian captivity, they returned to a land that was occupied first by the Persians, then by the Greeks, and at this point by the Romans. While there were brief periods of hope, the truth is that Judah was not able to re-establish itself. The independence won from the Greeks was lost to the Romans, and there was no illusion about who pulled Herod’s strings.

While Herod had the support of Rome, there was some dissatisfaction with his claim to the Judean throne. Herod was not from the line of David, he had no claim to the historic throne at Jerusalem. Not only that, but Herod was not of the line of the Maccabeean priest-kings who held the throne before him. Herod not only was not of lines that traditionally had power, but Herod was not of any of the tribes of Israel. Herod ruled over a people with whom he shared a believe in God, but not a common ancestry. Herod’s reputation for cruelty brought out complaints that he was a foreign ruler.

Matthew starts with a genealogy. This genealogy gives the line from Abraham to David, making somebody who’s connection with Israel and Judah had been there from the very start. Following David, the line goes through the Royal line of David, listing every king of Judah, the pretenders in Exile, and Zerubbabel the man who almost re-established David’s kingdom when Persia allowed the resettlement of Judah. Joseph had the bloodline claims that Herod lacked. Those who were waiting for a Messiah to be anointed King of the Jews had somebody who had a great narrative to say that he was the man.

The heading is: “The genealogy is Jesus”, but, until we get past the name list, we don’t realize the most important thing about this list: Jesus is not part of this genealogy. Where Joseph came from only matters if Jesus were the son of Joseph. In verse 18, we see that Jesus was not the messiah that was expected. He does not have this great claim to David’s throne. He is not born the man to overthrow Herod and Rome, instead he is legally a bastard. Politically, Jesus has fewer claims to Judah’s throne than Herod.

The repeated teaching of the gospel is here, right in this story. We want a king — Jesus does not come as a King but as God with us. We want somebody who will overthrow Rome, and rule in God’s name, but when God comes, Jesus humbles himself and lives and dies under Rome’s rule. Our Messiah does not save us from Rome — our Messiah saves us from, in the words of verse 21 “our sins”. As much as we think we will find salvation in a government — what we most need saved from is ourselves.

This is the genealogy of Jesus: Jesus was not the son of Joseph therefore Jesus was not a pretender to David’s throne. While Jesus has no claim to David’s throne, Jesus has a much higher claim than one king out of many. Mary was found pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Joseph was told this, by God’s messenger in a dream. Joseph could look back at his ancestors and see that he was of royal blood, but Jesus was the son of God.

As Mary and Joseph wait for advent, they know a secret that is hidden from the world; they knew a secret that even Jesus’ disciples missed: Jesus did not come to be king of the Jews, but to be Emanuel, God with us.

Peace: Part 7: Pastoral concerns

In the church setting, peace is largely about setting safe boundaries. Churches are communities of people of faith. The people are sharing their faith with one another, and seeking a place to help themselves and one another live out this faith. Faith is very important to us: Faith helps us to shape our ethical views. Faith helps us to set our priorities. Corporate faith helps build an identity with a community.

Unfortunately, where there are groups of people, there are opinions about what direction the group should take. Where there are resources such as money, there are opinions on the best way to spend that money. Where there is a public voice — there are various opinions of what that voice should say. Where there are a variety of opinions, there will be politics. Unfortunately, politics can disturb the peace of the community.

Even more unfortunate is that people often bring politics with them. While it is true that our priorities and our ethical views affect our views of national and local politics. While this is good, too often, people want to use the church community as their mouthpiece. Unfortunately, this results in people getting passionate about urgent matters that, while urgent, are not important to the faith community.

Christianity is not dependent upon politics. The church grew when the state was hostile to the church. When we embrace the urgency of the political system, we risk being distracted from the things that are important. Even more importantly, we often forget that the gospel is for all people, and not only for those people who have the same political views we do. We cannot afford to put faith in princes before our faith in God.

I’ve experienced some of the disquiet caused by division through politics. I was on staff during a split that was largely motivated by issues which were political hot topics of the time. In conversations with people on both sides of the split, I heard narratives about other people — stories that cast them in the worst possible light, and attempted to imply things which in most cases were not true. People on different sides could not even always decide what the issues were, the only thing they knew was there was disagreement, and something had to be done about it.

What I learned is that peace requires listening and conversation. Even more, peace requires a safe place. One of the acts of war is to dehumanize, or at least villianize the other. The major role of a shepherd is not to enlarge the flock, or to build up a property. The major role of a shepherd is to keep the flock safe from harm. In the case of the church, it is important to maintain a safe space where it is possible to worship God and share faith. These things break down when the peace of the community breaks down.

Peace Part 6: My culture and peace

My culture has a mixed relationship with peace. People in the United States are militant, or pacifist, or somewhere in between. There are stories that glorify violence as the solution — and there are stories that villainize forceful acts that are legally justifiable. If a person speaks out against (a) war, that person will be called a traitor, and if a person defends the use of (reasonable) force by law enforcement, the person will be called a fascist. Our current culture is polarized, and impolite. Whatever view a person takes, that person likely feels under attack.

It is clear that the culture is strongly competitive — many people feel like they are fighting for their voices to be heard, for a better position in society, or just for the resources necessary to survive. We may oppose physical violence, but our culture has little interest in respecting others. Even people who practice peace often attack with cruel words.

We live in a society that does not see God’s image. We see ethnicity, voter blocks, socioeconomic groups, and political parties. We know who are allies are, and we know who our enemies are, but we forget that God created all of humanity in God’s own image. It is too easy to attack the political and intellectual opponent, even to the point of attempting to destroy reputations. Even people who fight for peace have difficulty living up to the call of peacemaking.

But, for all of the backstabbing, hateful speech, and personal attacks everybody I know values kindness and loyalty. Everybody I know wants to have friends in their life who will not “throw them under the bus” — and, there is a certain bit of shame when a person does act out in these ways. For all the cultural push to fight, there is also a dynamic that wants to stop fighting.

I live in a culture where it is possible to surround myself with like minded people, and it is also possible to make friends with a large diversity of people. I live in a culture where I am allowed to make peace with my neighbors, but conflict is also allowed, as long as it does not disruptive or measurably damaging. The challenge is to find ways of living peaceably even though not everybody values peace.

Peace Part 5: Peace and Quakerism.

Quakers are likely best known for embracing the peace testimony.  My Theological response was my own, but it has much in common with Robert Barclay’s response in his Apology.  The language that Friends have used in expressing their official opposition to war has been strong, both historically and currently.  Yearly meetings throughout the world have their official statements against all wars, and many yearly meetings write minutes condemning current wars. Meetings ranging from theologically liberal to fundamentalist offer ‘counter-recruitment’ advice, recommending against military life.  There can be no doubt of the official position.

There is a rather strong streak of individualism among Friends.  Even when there is consensus to oppose all wars and discourage military service, military enlistment among Friends is fairly common.  American Friends have fought  in every war, and with the exception of the revolutionary war, returning soldiers were welcomed back into their meetings.

This confusing relationship with peace goes back to the founding days of the Society of Friends.  many of the first generation of Friends fought in the English civil war.  William Edmondson, for example, brought Quakerism to Ireland while serving in the military.  If things had gone differently, Quakerism might have supported the Lord Protector and forces against the monarchy.  If Quakerism had supported a party, Quakerism might have died with Oliver Cromwell.

While many Quakers fought in Cromwell’s army, George Fox refused when offered a commission as an officer.  This choice preferred prison over an endorsement of one side in the civil war.  Quakers were quickly seen as a danger, and the Quakers serving in Cromwell’s army were kicked out without pay, and often imprisoned.

In 1660, the commonwealth fell and the monarchy was restored.  Quakers made a declaration of opposing all wars, thus denying opposition to the new monarch and simultaneously refusing military loyalty.  The Quakers would soon find themselves with both people who fought under Oliver Cromwell, and others who were involved in making way for the restoration of the monarchy.  Resisting war might be an ideal — but in this case it is also a pragmatic decision.   If Quakers were seen as enemies of the monarchy, they would be punished for their politics.

One thing that the peace churches (Friends, Brethren, Mennonites) share is that the call for peace was made in times that these religious groups were facing violence.  There was both the refusal to take part in the wars which Robert Barclay characterizes as Christians killing Christians, and from the time that Quakers publicly declared the opposition to all wars, there was an acceptance of the state sponsored violence against Quakers that would come for the next 30 years. (The Toleration act was passed in May of 1689.)

Today the testimony against war seems easy.  There is no risk of suffering when a meeting writes a minute.  There are no hard choices to make if one does not choose to enlist in the military.  The easier it is, the quainter it appears.  Nobody remembers that when Quakers (and other peace churches) chose to deny violence, it was a pragmatic decision made by people who faced violence and threats on a daily basis.

Peace part 4: Theological response

Christians and Jews both teach that when God created humanity, God created man and women in God’s image. New Testament teaching goes on to say that the one who hates his brother cannot love God. (I John 4:20) The reason given for this is that Humanity is created in God’s image. Symbolically, whatever we do to our fellow humans is something that we are doing to God.

Humans are very aware of the use of symbols to carry out anger, even anger for things that happened hundreds of years in the past. Every November many British communities make images of a 17th century terrorist named Guy Fawkes and burn this effigy. Popular culture reminds of folk magic such as voodoo dolls and poppets, which are figures in a rough human form which people do the violence they wish upon another person in hope that the evil will come. In American news, people debate the appropriateness of such acts as hanging the President in effigy. What is not debated is that none of these acts are acts of good will; they are symbolic acts of violence.

Symbolically, the way we act towards other human beings is the way we act toward God. Religious people find it offensive when their religious symbols are desecrated. Patriotic people find it offensive when national symbols such as the national flag is desecrated, unceremoniously burned, or even displayed improperly. If we truly believe that Humanity is the image of God in the same way that we believe the cross is a symbol of Christ, or the flag is the symbol of the nation, we should find it offensive whenever our fellow human is desecrated, destroyed, or put on shameful display. We should recognize that this is symbolic violence against God.

The call for peace is a call to recognize this high view of Humanity. When we talk about the complexity of exceptions such as what do we do to protect people from other people, there are many debates filled with complex issues. The problem with talk of war and enemies is that the value of the human beings rarely comes into the discussion. We undervalue the people we send to fight and die; we undervalue civilians; we undervalue the enemy soldiers who’s motivations for fighting most often has little to do with the positions of their government.

We call for peace, because war is a massive desecration of God’s image. Whatever the benefits, the symbolic cost is too great. War calls on entire nations to dehumanize the other. It calls on nations to forget that God created humanity in God’s image. War makes us forget what we are, and blaspheme God in the process.