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.