Tag Archives: Jesus

What to Do about Bad Guys

There’s been a lot of talk about gun control here in the States since the Sandy Hook massacre.  I know people on both sides of the debate and have seen some interesting points on both sides, but I have found one line of logic to be particularly troubling.  It’s best encapsulated in this little meme here:

Yes, I get it, thank you.  And I disagree.  But no, I’m not stupid.

The argument underlying this one is that the best solution to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.  The problem at Sandy Hook, see, was that nobody there was armed except the bad guy: Adam Lamza.  If the principal or a teacher had had a gun, too, then the bad guy would have been stopped sooner.  So we should give the good guys the guns so that evil is vanquished.  Peace, through superior firepower.

Incidentally, you can see this kind of logic in all kinds of other places, too.  For example, with American foreign policy in Syria.  What do we do when the bad guy (the Syrian dictator) is killing innocent civilians?  The answer: give the good guys guns so that they can vanquish the bad guy.

Do you get it?  Or are you stupid or something?  Any idiot can understand this logic.

(Then again, maybe that’s the problem.)

The nice thing about this line of reasoning is that it makes the world so simple.  See, since the dawn of time, mankind has been caught in an epic battle between good and evil.  Every man and woman must take a side.  Will they be good guys or bad guys?  Bad guys will always try to perpetrate evil on innocent people.  So the good guys must always work to imprison or kill the bad guys.  That’s the way it has been since the beginning.

See, here’s what you do to achieve peace.  It’s real simple:

  1. Figure out who the bad guys are.
  2. Find them, and either
  3. Kill them (always preferable) or (if you must) put them in jail.

Seriously, how many movies have you seen where this is the exact plot?

The question that this is answering is one that’s provoked every time we see the innocent dead: How do we respond to evil?

What’s frustrating about Sandy Hook for people using the Kill the Bad Guy approach is that the answer doesn’t make itself apparent.  The Bad Guy already killed himself, so we can’t kill him.  But, by God, we will make sure that we can kill the next one—and we will put a gun in the hands of every teacher in order to do so.

Can I suggest one tiny thing?  Kill the Bad Guy is certainly one response to evil.  But it is not a Christian response: that is, it is not one that makes sense inside a Christian worldview.

Certainly, we can agree that this is not the way Jesus responded to evil?  A brief quote from the man himself:

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also [ . . . ]

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

If the world’s response to evil is “Kill the Bad Guy”, Jesus’ response seems to be, “Love the Bad Guy”.

This response, of course, seems like foolishness to the Greeks.  Is evil to just be allowed to run wild?  Surely if the good guys do nothing, then evil prevails.

There’s lots to say, more than a blog can contain.  But let me suggest that within a pagan worldview (yeah, I said it: pagan), the answer to violence is always more violence.  Escalation is inevitable, because the Enemy must be taught a lesson.  But it seems that Jesus says that the answer to the death-dealing power of violence is the life-giving power of love.

It seems that the primary battle Jesus saw in situations such as this one was not “Good Versus Evil” but “Hatred Versus Love”.  And when we look at things through that same lens, everything changes.  Meeting hatred with hatred seems ludicrous.  Meeting death with death looks insane.  For you can not defeat violence with violence any more than you can drive out darkness with darkness.

Bringing it home, then: what is the Christian response to Sandy Hook?

There’s lots to say, but I’ll start here:

  1. Think of someone in your life who is mentally ill: autistic, schizophrenic, manic depressive, take your pick.
  2. Go find that person.
  3. Love them like you do your best friend.

The Politics of Jesus, Chapter 2: The Kingdom Coming

 

Suffering Servant, Messiah, King

In the previous chapter, we looked at the most common way of framing Christian social ethics—the “mainstream view”—and considered Yoder’s proposal of a radical alternative.  This alternative would be founded not on the demands and constrictions of reality, but in the words and example of Jesus himself.  For example:

I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

This principle of non-retaliationdo not even resist an evildoer!–seems, well, unrealistic.  So, we’re supposed to just let people hurt us?  Kill us?  The principle of uncompromising generosity seems equally unattainable.  Every beggar?  Everyone who asks?  Impossible!

Yet these are the ethics of the Kingdom Come.  And as we shall see, Jesus was every bit as tempted towards a different, more realistic kind of Kingdom as we are today.  Yoder goes through a whole litany of stories from the gospel of Luke to demonstrate this; I’ll summarize only two of them.

Luke 4:1-13: The Temptation in the Wilderness


Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”,  and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’

Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

The devil, of course, is the tempter–this is a story of temptation.  But temptation to what?  A closer look at the episode reveals the answer.

It is important to note that this episode is immediately preceded by the story of Jesus’ baptism, in which a voice from heaven (presumably, God the Father’s) declares:

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

This language, Yoder notes, is not about abstract trinitarian arguments, but about kingship.  In the Old Testament, divine sonship is a way of describing the King of Israel, the heir of the Davidic line.  Take, for example, Psalm 2:

I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.

It is no surprise, then, that the Devil uses this title—the Son of God—against Jesus only a few verses later.  If you are the Son of God, he says, prove it!  The people expect their Messiah to be a conqueror (see the bold final verse above), a king, a revolutionary!  Give them what they want!

Jesus’ confrontation with Satan, then, is about the nature of Jesus’ kingship.  The three temptations are to economic, political, and religious rule respectively, yet at every turn, Jesus’ rejects these options.  His kingdom will be like no other.

Luke 22:35-53: The Garden of Gethsemane


He said to them, ‘When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘No, not a thing.’ He said to them, ‘But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.’ They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough.

He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed,‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.

While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?’ When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, ‘Lord, should we strike with the sword?’ Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘No more of this! And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!

There are lots of perplexing things about this passage, and I actually had to call my friend Ben and talk it over with him before I felt I had a good grasp of it.  From what I can tell (this is my interpretation, not Yoder’s, but I’ll make a related point), Jesus here is intentionally deceiving both his disciples and “the crowd” that comes to arrest him.  He allows them to believe that he is a violent revolutionary (“bandit” is a most unfortunate translation), a Messiah after the traditional fashion, come to liberate the Jews from their foreign oppressor, the Romans.  That’s why he tells the disciples to procure two swords—so that they think that the revolution is about to begin, and so that he, in effect, frames himself as a threat.

In Jesus’ prayer in the garden, Yoder discerns something more than just a prayer for strength in his time of trial, however.  He asks a deeper question: with what other option, exactly, is Jesus struggling?  In Yoder’s eyes, this is Jesus’ last chance to attempt a violent overthrow of the Roman regime:

Jesus was drawn, at this very last moment of temptation, to think once again of the messianic violence with which he had been tempted since the beginning.  Now finally is the time for holy war.

Did Jesus really imagine that he could take on the Jewish and Roman authorities with a handful of followers, popular support, and a couple of swords?  Yoder looks to the parallel passage in Matthew 26 for help.  When one of his disciples tries to start a fight, Jesus cries, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?

The obvious answer to this rhetorical question—“Do you think that I cannot—?”—is “Yes.”  Jesus can in fact, appeal to his Father for help, and (as Jesus says repeatedly) whatever he asks for, he can assume will be given.  Yet Jesus intentionally chooses the way of the cross instead.  It is not an unfortunate accident that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, died, and was buried.  It is entirely on purpose, by Jesus’ own choice.

The Cross and the Kingdom Come

Isenheim Altarpiece, Grunewald, 16th century

Recall that one of the primary theses that Yoder is arguing against is that Jesus’ ministry was apolitical–that it did not constitute a threat to the established political order.  Jesus’ crucifixion was, by this understanding, a tragic miscommunication, a misunderstanding.  The Romans thought that Jesus was a threat to their rulership over the region, but he wasn’t.  His teachings were about “spiritual”, not political matters, and addressed primarily to the individual, and not to society as a whole.

But why, counters Yoder, would Jesus not work to protect everyone against this mistaken conception of his ministry?  Why would he come riding in on a donkey, then, or go out of his way to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah?  All of the biblical evidence we have suggests that even if Jesus never presented himself as an insurrectionary, as the leader of an armed revolt against the powers-that-be, he did present himself as a Messiah-figure who would overturn the established political order.  There was certainly some ambiguity or confusion as to what his methods for doing so might be.  But:

Both Jewish and Roman authorities were defending themselves against a real threat.  That the threat was not one of an armed, violent revolt, and that it nonetheless bothered them to the point of their resorting to illegal procedures to counter it, is a proof of the political relevance of nonviolent tactics, not a proof that Pilate and Caiaphas were exceptionally dull or dishonorable men.

The problem with the Jewish leaders, the Roman authorities, and even the disciples was not that they misinterpreted Jesus to be a political figure, when he wasn’t.  It was that they failed to understand the nature of God’s Kingdom which Jesus came to inaugurate.  Yoder, again:

Their fault is that [ . . . ] they were failing to see that the suffering of the Messiah is the inauguration of the kingdom. “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”  “Glory” here cannot mean the ascension, which has not been recounted yet, and in fact is not clearly described in Luke’s gospel at all.  Might it not mean then [ . . . ] that the cross itself is seen as fulfilling the kingdom promise?  Here at the cross is the man who loves his enemies, the man whose righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees, who being rich became poor, who gives his robe to those who took his cloak, who prays for those who despitefully use him.  The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come.

Jesus’ choice of the cross, then, is the proper culmination of a way of life, a way of kingship, even, that we too, as his disciples, are called to share.

Reflection

So, what does this look like on the ground?  That’s what I’m itching to understand better.  I think Yoder has me convinced as far as his work with Scripture and such goes, but so far his work has mainly been negative or destructive: he’s clearing the ground of traditional, mistaken ideas in order to lay the foundations for something new.  The cross, it seems, is the foundation of the Christian life for Yoder.  What else can we say?  What are the implications of that?  I’m hoping that in the next few chapters, Yoder will begin to spell some of that out.

And a couple more questions, while I’m at it.  So far, there has been little to no discussion of the Resurrection or the Ascension.  Yoder’s work centers on the Cross, which makes sense and has a certain kind of appeal to it.  But what does the Resurrection mean for all of this: that after Jesus suffered, He was raised from the dead and glorified by God the Father?  I’m looking for a way to plug Yoder’s work with the Crucifixion into the larger narrative of the Christian story: one that stretches from Genesis to Revelation.

 


The Politics of Jesus, Chapter 1: The Possibility of a Messianic Ethic

Cartoon credit: Signe Wilkinson, Philadelphia Daily News

For all our talk about the separation of church and state, religion and politics go notoriously hand-in-hand in these United States of America.  During the last presidential election cycle, religion was a major issue for no less than three of the candidates in the primaries: Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister who demonstrated particular savvy with evangelicals, Mitt Romney, a member of what was, not too long ago, a little-known cult out of Utah, and, most famously, Barack Obama, whose close friendship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright sparked a storm of controversy.  Remember this?

We talk about God a lot in American politics.  But we don’t talk about Jesus much.

Why?

This seems like an obvious and pertinent question to me, and perhaps to many of you, too.  But Yoder is writing long before evangelicals like Shane Claiborne, for example, started insisting that we deal with this problem.  The Politics of Jesus is a groundbreaking work, simply for stating that Jesus has anything to say at all.

Now, thanks to Yoder, many would Jesus’ relevance for granted.  But before him, many theologians had distanced Jesus from contemporary ethics so far that to even bring him up in conversation might have seemed bizarre.  These theologians put forward and popularized what Yoder calls “mainstream ethics”, which most Americans probably still would agree with today.  Mainstream types cite multiple reasons that Jesus’ words shouldn’t be a factor in contemporary politics.  I’ll cite a few here:

  1. Eschatological.  Jesus assumed that the “end times” (the eschaton) would come relatively soon, and that society as he and his contemporaries knew it would soon come to an abrupt end.  His entire ethical system—of rejecting wealth, of non-retaliation, of radical generosity–was dependent on this assumption. But the end times didn’t come. Jesus was wrong. We need an ethic that can sustain societal structures, rather than one that assumes their imminent collapse.
  2. Sociological.  Jesus lived out his days in a rural, agrarian society where it was indeed possible to know and love each person that you encountered, like the Good Samaritan.  But the modern world is urbanized and industrialized, and it simply isn’t possible to create this kind of world anymore.  Should we really put every homeless person we encounter up for the night, or be expected to give generously to everyone who needs it?  There are too many people in the world, and not enough time in the day!
  3. Political.  Jesus and his early followers, in brief, weren’t in charge of anything.  They were a small minority group living under Roman occupation.  But since Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christians have found themselves not only a majority, but a ruling majority.  Problems of government and war and administration are now pertinent in a way that Jesus never considered, and this carries with it certain kinds of responsibilities that Jesus simply didn’t address.
  4. Theological.  Jesus didn’t come to start a revolution or inspire social change; he came in humility as a sacrifice of atonement.  Ultimately, it’s what Jesus did in the Crucifixion (and maybe the Resurrection) that matters, and not what he said or did beforehand.

Now, you and I, perhaps, can see the holes in some of these arguments right off the bat.  But these are the reasons mainstream ethicists (and Christian ones, at that!) say that Jesus is no starting point for the great ethical questions.

For mainstream folks, ethics begins not with the words of Jesus, but with a long, hard analysis of the realistic options given by the world around us.

Whether this ethic of natural law be encountered in the reformation form [ . . . ] or in the older catholic forms where “nature” is known in other ways, the structure of the argument is the same: it is by studying the realities around us, not by hearing a proclamation from God, that we discern the right.

Kind of a strange logic, isn’t it?  I mean, if you believe in the Incarnation—that is, if you believe that Jesus is God in the flesh—then you’d think that every word from the Word’s mouth would be held specially close to the Christian’s heart.  But, for whatever reason, it often isn’t.  We often forget.

With this in mind, Yoder sets out to do two things.  First, he wants to show that the life and ministry of Jesus is relevant to Christian social ethics.  Second, he will argue that Jesus’ ethical vision is not merely relevant, but, in fact, normative for all Christians, everywhere, at every time.

 

"Love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you."

That’s a tall order.  Should the Christian response to 9/11 have been “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you”?  Should American Christians offer hospitality and love to terrorists in their midst?  What about “do not resist an evildoer”?  Should we let those who would murder us do what they want?

How is such an ethic even achievable at all?


The Politics of Jesus: An Introduction

Guys, I’m starting this new thing which is pretty dorky, but I think you might like it.  I’m going to start blogging through gnarly theology books.  For two reasons.

  1. It’s a great way for me to keep reading and thinking deeply while making sure to digest carefully what a read.  The best way to make sure you understand something it to try to explain it to someone else.
  2. It’s a great way for you to be in-the-know on some of the big theological debates going on right now.  I’m convinced, personally, that theology matters, and I want to be someone who can aptly articulate it for other people who, perhaps, don’t have the time or energy to read on their own.

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is politics.  I mean, as a Christian, should I vote when I know that the person I voted for will probably launch covert attacks to kill people overseas?  If I should vote, whom should I vote for?  If I shouldn’t, what should I do instead?  Should I support any wars?  Should I care for the poor with my ballot, or with my money, or with my hands, or all three?


My older cover is better

So.  In pursuit of answers to these kinds of questions, the book I’ve selected is John Howard Yoder‘s The Politics of Jesus.  Yoder is a devout Mennonite theologian, and this is the work he’s best-known for, so I’m excited to get started.

Here’s the blurb from the back:

The teachings and ministry of Jesus, the author of this new study of Christian social ethics believes, represent a coherent and relevant approach to the fundamental issues of Christian behavior in the world [ . . . ] The effect of the study is to support a specific kind of Christian pacifism and a theologically coherent radical attitude toward society; but its primary concern is to proclaim the full relevance of the incarnation for the social faithfulness of Jesus’ disciples—today as well as during New Testament times.”

What?  You mean Jesus meant for his followers to, um, follow his teachings? Well, we’ll see, Yoder.  We’ll see indeed.