Walking Together in Unity

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the next three weeks I will reproduce those here in my blog. Here is the article for December 31, 2017, based on Ephesians 4.

We live in a divided world, and it seems increasingly to be so. Where once there might have been allowance for nuanced positions that do not fit neatly into an either/or—a “third way,” even—there now seems to be a “you’re either with us or against us” kind of mindset in western society.

“Unity,” in this us-versus-them world, means “absolute solidarity,” “total agreement,” or even “complete uniformity” of belief and practice, whether we are talking about religion or politics or social issues. This “unity” is achieved through acts of power: decisive leadership giving firm direction, backroom deals and deceitful manipulation if necessary, enforced agreement with established dogma, harsh public shaming if someone steps out of line.

 You’re either with us in all things—blessed “unity”—or you’re against us—accursed “other,” beyond the pale.

Ephesians 4:1-16 gives us a very different picture of unity. It is a unity grounded in the simple one-ness of God, yet with a diversity reflected in the complex three-ness of God’s redemptive work. There is one-and-only-one Spirit at work among us all, one-and-only-one Lord to whom we owe our allegiance, one-and-only-one God who is “above all and in all and through all”—therefore we must walk in this one-ness. Yet God the Father’s work is through the Lord Jesus and by the Holy Spirit, who gives manifold gifts to all—therefore we must walk in this many-ness.

This one-yet-many unity is a gift given to us: it already is, we just need to walk in it, to live it out, to “keep” or maintain it. And we maintain this unity of the Spirit “through the bond of peace”: not through power politics or strong-arm tactics, but through Christ-like humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance in love.

Leaders among us are not to lord it over those whom they lead; they are not “the deciders” or “the doers,” or even visionaries with great personal charisma. They are God’s gifts to us, whose sole task is to equip us to do works of service so that we might fully realize our calling to be Christ’s body in the world, continuing Jesus’ mission in the world: the unity of all things (1:9-10), including the reconciliation of all “others” (2:13-18).

What might happen in our world if we fully embraced this radical vision of unity in our churches, instead of the superficial “unity” our world promotes?

#MLK50

It was 50 years ago today that the “shot rang out in the Memphis sky,” and Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I learned about MLK, of course, but growing up in Canada I didn’t learn a lot. And coming of age in the early ’90s as a white Evangelical, what I did learn was that Martin Luther King was one of those “iffy” Christians, one of those “social justice” Christians who didn’t preach the true gospel and whose salvation status was uncertain.

My perspective has changed a great deal in the last 25 years, of course, and over the last 10 years I have deliberately engaged MLK’s writing and preaching, learning from his life and legacy. He was a flawed man, no question, but he was just as certainly one of the great lights of the twentieth century, even of all human history.

Martin Luther King, Jr., has appeared in my preaching several times over the past few years. Here are the times he also made it into my blogging. Rest in peace, MLK, until the coming of our Lord and the renewal of all things, and the dream is fully realized.

Adult Bible Study Online Supplements

I’ve not been blogging much here lately, but I have been writing short weekly pieces for MennoMedia’s online supplements to their adult Bible study curriculum. That began the first week of December and will go through February 2018.

UPDATE: These are now posted on my website. Links are updated to reflect this.

Christianity is Far More Radical than You (or I) Think

Not my family. But that food looks good.

I like having my family gathered together around the table, eating together, just being together. I like the puns that banter to and fro, the laughter and groans that ensue. I like the spontaneous singing that erupts, or the complex table rhythms that generate from one person’s tap-tap-tippety-tap. I like the conversations about life and learning and love.

I like having good food to eat, clean water to drink, fresh air to breathe, comfortable clothes to wear. I like having a spacious home, and I like most of the stuff in it: gizmos and gadgets that cook and bake and clean and entertain and inform and communicate. And books, lots of books.

I like being able to live my life relatively free of fear of violence or destitution. I like being able to meet with whomever I want, to do pretty much whatever we want, including worshiping the God we believe in in the way that we want. I like being able to think and speak freely without thinking someone might harm me or my family (well, I guess there were those two times).

In other words, I like my rights and freedoms. I like my safety and security. I like my comforts. And I’m pretty sure most of us white middle-class Christians in North America feel the same way.

But there’s a problem with this: it keeps us from truly hearing and living out the radical message of Jesus, the radical message of the gospel.

Here’s Jesus, giving the “altar call” of his gospel proclamation:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? (Mark 8:34-36)

This is no altar call like we might be used to. This is no “pray the Sinner’s Prayer and you’ll be saved,” no “read your Bible and go to church and you’ll get rid of those nasty habits”—but otherwise carry on with your lives, business (and pleasure) as usual.

Every Jew in Jesus’ day knew what it meant to “deny oneself.” They heard it every year in preparation for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. “Denying oneself” was equivalent to “fasting” and related to “Sabbath-keeping.” It meant voluntarily giving up your work and your food, giving up the basic necessities and comforts of life and the means by which those are attained, in devotion to God.

And every Jew—indeed, every conquered people in the Roman Empire—knew what it meant to “take up one’s cross.” They saw it with inhuman frequency outside the major cities on the edges of Empire. “Taking up one’s cross” meant carrying a cross-beam to the outskirts of the city, where one would then be suspended from that beam on a post or tree until one died. It meant condemnation and execution. It meant shameful, painful, and certain death.

And “following Jesus”? It soon became clear what that meant, for not too long after Jesus said these words he himself “denied himself”—gave up his rights and privileges in devotion to God—and “took up his cross”—was executed in condemnation and shame and excruciating pain.

This is Jesus’ “altar call.” This is Jesus’ call for response to the gospel of God’s kingdom.

And it is gospel, it is “good news.” I know, it might not sound like it, not to our modern western ears. But Jesus says that if we do this—if we “lose our lives” in this way—we will in fact gain life. And if we don’t do this—if we instead seek to “preserve our lives,” our lives of comfort and security—we will in fact lose our lives in the end.

It’s a paradox, right at the heart of the gospel. Here’s how I understand this.

We naturally and rightly desire justice, peace, health, security, comfort—flourishing life—for ourselves and those close to us. But fulfilling those desires for ourselves often means impeding others from fulfilling those same basic human desires: our peace and security come at the expense of others’ welfare, our comfortable lives are made possible by others’ lives of hardship, and so on.

In our day, these “others” are often outside our immediate vision. They can even be on the other side of the world. Faceless. Nameless. Poor. Not-white. They suffer so that we might have all the comforts of home.

In the long run this system cannot be sustained. Whether on a personal level or a global scale, in the end the comfortable and well-fed will lose their lives of relative abundance. It’s inevitable. And then the scales will tip, the down will move up, the up will move down, and it starts all over again.

Into this never-ending cycle of inequity, even injustice and oppression, Jesus speaks these words: “Deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me. Only if you lose your life in this way will you save it.” It is only if we give up our privileges and comforts for the good of others, only if we let go of our claim to our own rights and freedoms for the good of all, that we can experience the true life God desires for us.

Lentz - Christ of MaryknollIn other words, if we truly want to experience permanent justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life as human individuals, as a human race, and as a planet, the only way forward is to follow the self-denying, self-giving way of love and peace as embodied in Jesus.

If we were to take Jesus’ call seriously, then, we would hold our possessions loosely, living simply. We might even sell all we have and give the money to the poor.

If we were to take Jesus’ call seriously, we would also hold our rights and privileges loosely, living free of expectation and entitlement. We might even stand up for the rights of others at great cost to ourselves.

If we were to take Jesus’ call seriously, we would seek out society’s cast-offs, those clinging to the bottom rung, and lift them up alongside us. We might even, if necessary, switch places with them.

If we were to take Jesus’ call seriously, we would forgive, forgive, and forgive again. We might even walk the extra mile and do good things for those who hate us, even our outright enemies.

I’ll be honest: I don’t think I can do this. We all—myself included—are pretty good at justifying our comfortable existence. And we all—myself included—are pretty well attached to our life of relative ease.

I like my coffee, my housecoat, my family gathered around, my home and clothes and food and drink and health and safety and security and freedom.

Yet Jesus’ gospel call always stands before me. It calls me perpetually to repentance, my self-justified selfishness laid bare. It summons me always, over and over again, to a better way, a better way to be human in the world. It beckons me onward to a life of devoted faith in God, selfless love for others, and enduring hope for justice and peace and abundant life for all.

Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing

I have been teaching the Bible and writing about Christian theology in various ways, in a variety of settings, for over twenty years now. This has mostly been a rewarding task. I love learning new things or discovering new ways of seeing things, and I love seeing the same light bulb turn on for others. But this has also, at times, proven to be disheartening, even tremendously discouraging.

So why is it that I keep teaching and preaching? Why do I keep blogging and writing? Well, beyond the basic fascination I have with the Bible and theology, deeper than the enjoyment I get from interacting with others about these things, there is simply this: our world—including we who are Christians—desperately needs the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I am convinced of this: the gospel is our only hope. Jesus offers us the only way to true life.

“Wait a minute, Michael. That sounds so exclusive, so fundamentalist even. I thought you were one of those progressives.”

Well, I don’t know what box I fit into, to be honest. I say a hearty “Amen!” to all the gospel texts—John 3:16, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” “There is no other name given under heaven by which we can be saved,” “The gospel is the power of God for salvation,” and more. Yet I’m convinced that many modern understandings of the gospel are in fact misunderstandings of the gospel.

While I would be delighted to have more and more people claiming to be followers of Jesus, I’m far more concerned about having more and more people actually following Jesus. While I would be thrilled to have crowds of people claiming the name of Jesus, I’m far more interested in seeing human beings—regardless of their religion—living out the way of Jesus. This is, in fact, the point of the Great Commission: not to make converts to a religion, but to make disciples of Jesus.

And when I hear key Bible words like “salvation” and “life,” I don’t hear these as “salvation from hell to heaven” or “living forever with God after death.” Yes, we have the promise of being “with the Lord” beyond death. But the biblical language of “salvation” is about rescue and restoration: rescuing us from all the ways we harm ourselves, others, and our world (our “sin,” in other words) and restoring us and all humanity and all creation to the way God originally intended things to be. This is why these words, “salvation” and “life,” are so often connected to other key words in the Bible: God’s “kingdom,” “new creation,” “justice,” “peace,” “liberation,” “reconciliation,” and more.

So here’s what I mean when I say “the gospel is our only hope” and that “Jesus offers us the only way to true life”: if we truly want to experience permanent justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life as human individuals, as a human race, and as a planet—salvation, in other words—the only way forward is to follow the way of love and peace as embodied in Jesus.

Jesus’ “gospel of the kingdom” teaching can be summarized with the word “love”: we are to love God with every dimension of our being, and we are to love other persons as we love ourselves. These two loves are inseparable: our love for God is shown by our love for others. Jesus taught that loving others means giving ourselves for their good, even when this means sacrifice or suffering for us. He taught that those whom we are to love include not only persons who are like us, but also those who are different from us, even those who are opposed to us, who may even wish us harm.

Jesus’ gospel teaching on love included the way of peace. This way of peace is the difficult path of nonviolent resistance to sin and evil powers: resisting harmful attitudes, words, and actions both within ourselves individually and among us collectively, in order to effect positive change; but doing so in creative, nonviolent ways that seek restoration and reconciliation and not retribution, ways that may involve the voluntary suffering of oneself in order to bring about a greater good for all.

Jesus’ way of love and peace requires a devoted faith in God: freely committing ourselves to the God who is love, whatever may come. It also requires a resilient hope in God: persistently trusting in God to bring about good even, potentially, through our own suffering and death.

All this Jesus not only taught, he lived it out: forgiving sinners, welcoming outcasts, showing compassion, healing freely, standing up to oppressive powers-that-be, even enduring suffering and death because of sin and evil, ultimately experiencing true justice and peace and flourishing life through death, having been resurrected by God. Jesus taught the gospel, and he lived out the gospel—and so he modeled the gospel and planted the seed of the gospel in the world.

If we truly want to experience permanent justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life as human individuals, as a human race, and as a planet—true salvation—the only way forward is to follow this way of love and peace as embodied in Jesus: loving God through loving others, nonviolently resisting sin and evil both in ourselves and in the world, trusting in God to bring about good among us and in the world through this way of Jesus.

This is what I mean when I say that the gospel is our only hope. This is what I mean when I say that Jesus offers us the only way to true life.

And this is why I do not cease teaching and writing. This is what motivates me to keep on keeping on, even when I get discouraged, even in the face of opposition. Our world is filled with too much bigotry, cruelty, injustice, and oppression, for me to stop speaking the gospel. There are too many different being excluded, too many vulnerable being exploited, too many sick who are dying and poor who are trampled on for me to stop teaching the way of Jesus. There is too much guilt and shame and ignorance and fear for me to stop proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

menno-simonsAll you Mennonite history buffs will know that I’ve pilfered the title of this blog post from Menno Simons himself. He wrote a tract with this title, and some of the themes of my blog post are echoes of the original Menno Simons tract (other themes from his tract I’m happy to leave aside). Let me conclude with a couple of my favourite quotes from the very Menno in Mennonite:

True evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound. The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.

And then Simons’ concluding words:

Beloved sisters and brothers, do not deviate from the doctrine and life of Christ.

Amen, brother Menno. Amen.

What is “Pacifism”?

Pacifism is on the way out in some circles, even as it’s trending in others.

I’m certainly not the first or the only one to have noticed this. Many churches and individuals with historic or traditional ties to pacifism are shrugging off that label, while many others are trying pacifism on for size, and liking the fit very much.

A large part of what’s going on in all this is that “pacifism” means different things to different people.

For some it is associated almost entirely with “conscientious objection,” refusing to participate in military service or specifically combat roles. For many it is understood to be all about “nonresistance,” passively accepting harm done to you even if unjustly deserved. Most of the people that I’ve talked to who have rejected pacifism have understood it in one of these ways.

However, those who are newly embracing pacifism—the “new pacifists,” one might say—see these understandings of “pacifism” as far too narrow, and perhaps even missing the point. In fact, because of those common understandings of the term—along with connotations of “cowardice” and the like—many neo-Anabaptists and other “new pacifists” prefer not to use the word “pacifism” at all.

I’m one of those “new pacifists” or neo-Anabaptists. Sure, I grew up going to an evangelical Anabaptist church, but my thinking there was shaped more toward evangelicalism than Anabaptism. It was not until much later, when I began studying and teaching the New Testament in an academic context, that I found myself articulating an Anabaptist theology—including pacifism.

So what do I mean when I talk about “pacifism”? If it’s more than “conscientious objection,” if it’s not about “nonresistance,” if it’s got nothing to do with “cowardice,” what is it?

Here’s my attempt to encapsulate “pacifism” in a nutshell—more technically, this is a “theistic pacifism,” even a “Christian pacifism” shaped very much by my understanding of Jesus and the Christian gospel:

God’s goal for all things is a comprehensive peace: humans living in harmony with God, one another, and the rest of creation, together experiencing the flourishing life of God. God uses peaceful means to achieve that goal, and calls us to do the same: resisting evil nonviolently, including the sin within us, the sins against us, and the systemic or structural sin among us as human societies; seeking reconciliation with others across all divisions and despite all harms; and building relationships and social structures and systems that promote harmony and well-being and flourishing life for all people and all creation.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl

MLK and “The Things that Make for Peace”

On December 20, 2015, I preached a sermon at Morden Mennonite Church on “The Things that Make for Peace.” I’ve excerpted some of that sermon already in a previous post, but in honour of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the U.S. I’m posting another excerpt, my conclusion to that sermon.

Many of you will know that a month ago I went to a theological conference down in Atlanta. While I was there I went to Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church Martin Luther King grew up in, the church he served as pastor for part of his career.

MLK Light LoveAs I’ve been reflecting on these “things that make for peace” this week, I’ve been reminded of Martin Luther King and his struggle for racial justice in the U.S. during the 1950s and 60s. King developed several principles of nonviolent resistance—principles of peacemaking, in other words—that sound a whole lot like what I’ve just described from Luke’s Gospel. This is no coincidence, as King based these principles in large part on the life and teachings of Jesus.

First, Martin Luther King emphasized that peacemaking is not passive, and it’s not for cowards. To use King’s words, peacemaking “is not passive nonresistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.” This takes tremendous moral courage, because it means standing against evil on one side while facing ridicule on the other. This takes tremendous inner strength, because it means resisting violence and injustice without resorting to violence or injustice oneself.

Another of King’s principles of peacemaking: in his words, it is “directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil.” The goal is to defeat injustice, not unjust persons. The goal is to defeat fear and ignorance and hatred, not fearful or ignorant or hateful persons. The goal is to bring peace, what King called the “beloved community.”

Here’s the next of MLK’s principles: we must be willing to accept suffering without retaliation. How can we do this? King says “the answer is found in the realization that unearned suffering is redemptive.” The goal is to reduce or even eliminate unearned suffering for everyone; but sometimes, this requires that some people—or even just one person—needs to suffer unjustly before the eyes of the world in order to bring about that redemptive transformation.

Underlying these principles of peacemaking are two further principles, spiritual principles. In King’s words, this brand of nonviolent peacemaking “avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit.” There’s an important correlation between inner peace and outward peace: peace among us requires peace within us.

We need to know forgiveness ourselves in order to forgive others. We need to have empathy awoken within ourselves if we want to have compassion for others. We need to rid our hearts of hatred if we want to see the world rid of violence. We need peace in our own souls if we hope to have lasting peace in society.

And underlying all this is one final principle: the principle of faith. This peacemaking, King says, is “based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice.” In our active struggle for peace, a struggle that may require our own suffering, we must believe that “there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.”

You see, Martin Luther King realized something that many of us miss: God has already revealed his peace in Jesus. God has shown us “the things that make for peace.” God has laid out for all to see God’s “way of peace,” peace within us, peace among us.

The question is, will we walk in it? Will we “recognize the things that make for peace”? Will we follow Jesus in “the way of peace”? Or does Jesus weep over us as he wept over Jerusalem?

May God give us eyes to see the path of peace laid out for us in Jesus. And may God give us the faith, the hope, the love—the moral courage and selfless compassion—to trust in God’s way of peace and walk in Jesus’ way of love.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl

“The Things that Make for Peace”

“Peace? Sure, we have peace. Jesus brings us peace with God. But no more war? Not in this world!”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this sentiment. Not necessarily in those exact words, but the idea has been repeated so many times it’s become a truism.

“Yes, Jesus came to bring peace: peace with God and peace with each other. But while we can have peace with God now, which gives us peace in our hearts, and while we should strive for peace with each other, we need Jesus to come back before that ‘no more conflict, no more violence, no more war’ thing can become reality.”

Hogwash, I say.

Jesus has given us everything we need for peace now, peace in every way. Either we just don’t realize it, or we don’t really believe it.

At least, that’s how Luke describes things.

In the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel is the well-known Advent-y story of John the Baptist’s birth. His father, the priest Zechariah, had been struck dumb during Elizabeth’s pregnancy. But now that the child is born and named he bursts out in praise of God. In the middle of all the hubbub, Zechariah speaks this prophecy:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Zechariah’s prophecy is linking back to Isaiah 40, the “Comfort, comfort my people” passage. And that prophecy, Isaiah 40, is written for Israel in Exile, scattered among the nations, immersed in a world of violence and oppression and injustice and fear. A world, in other words, that needed peace.

So here’s what Isaiah promised, and what Zechariah repeats: Good news! Yahweh, the God of Israel, is coming! The Lord, the Most High, is coming, and we must get ready! His coming will be like the coming of the dawn for a dark and dying world! His coming will bring salvation from our most ominous enemies, forgiveness from our most devastating and destructive sins! He will guide us in the way of peace!

What a promise! Imagine if, in our world of darkness and death, our world of genocide and carpet bombs, our world of armed robberies and hate crimes, our own hearts soaked in fear and anxiety—imagine if those words were said to us today. Don’t worry! Someone is coming who will show you how to have peace—peace within you, peace among you!

This is the first of Luke’s peace prophecies—exactly what that world needed, exactly what our world needs.

Simonet - Jesus Weeps Over JerusalemBut jump ahead now to a second peace prophecy, this one in Luke 19. It’s the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. After years of intense ministry, Jesus is coming to his God-ordained end. And as he sees the city and its glorious temple, the jewel of his people, Jesus weeps. He weeps, and speaks this prophecy:

If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.

Jesus is speaking of the future destruction of Jerusalem, which happened within a generation of his prediction. The Roman armies indeed set up ramparts around Jerusalem and laid siege to the city. The citizens of Jerusalem were indeed crushed to the ground, they and their children within them. The city and its glorious temple were indeed pulled down, stone by stone by massive stone.

And why did that happen? According to Jesus here in Luke, because the people “did not recognize the time of their visitation from God.” They did not recognize “the things that make for peace.”

Luke is linking Jesus’ prophecy here to Zechariah’s prophecy back in chapter one. There, God is coming, God’s visitation is near. Here, God’s visitation has happened, but they’ve missed it. There, God in his coming would “guide their feet into the way of peace.” Here, God has come, but they have missed “the things that make for peace”—and so they would find themselves on the wrong side of a bloody, destructive war.

These two passages—one looking ahead to Jesus’ ministry, the other looking back at it—suggest that the “way of peace,” the “things that make for peace,” have in fact already been revealed during Jesus’ earthly ministry. According to Luke, then, if we want to know the “things that make for peace,” if we want to know God’s “way of peace” for the world, we need to look back at all those peace-making things Jesus has already done.

Here’s just a few of these “lessons in the way of peace” Luke’s Jesus has taught.

Luke 3: Jesus is baptized by John, anointed by the Spirit and appointed by God. He is God’s Son, the Messiah, the King who will bring in God’s kingdom, but he is also the well-pleasing Servant of Isaiah, who will bring about God’s purposes through suffering and death. The lesson? The way of peace is a path of self-giving, maybe even suffering.

Luke 4: Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, three times. He says no to satisfying his own needs through his power. He says no to keeping himself safe because of his special status. He says no to ruling over the world if it means venerating evil. The lesson? The way of peace requires us to resist the temptation to bring about even good things through raw power or evil means, or by putting our own provision and protection ahead of others.

Luke 5-6: Jesus heals any who are sick, laying hands on them, touching them in compassion in spite of any regulations about clean and unclean, in spite of any laws about Sabbath and holy days. The lesson? The way of peace is a way of compassion, choosing compassion over fear, choosing compassion over rules, choosing compassion regardless of what society thinks.

Tissot - Jesus TeachingLuke 6: Jesus pronounces both blessings and woes, and it’s absolutely the opposite of what we expect: the poor, the hungry, the weeping, are the blessed ones, while the rich, the full, the laughing, are warned with woe. And then Jesus keeps the surprises coming: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Give to everyone who asks. Do not judge, but instead forgive. In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.” The lesson? The way of peace requires us to embrace the other, even the completely opposite other, with generous love.

Luke 11: Jesus teaches his followers to pray. “Father, you are holy. May your rule be established on earth. Provide for all of us, all our daily needs. Forgive all of us, all our sins, as we forgive each other. Protect all of us, from every evil.” The lesson? The way of peace means recognizing that we’re all in this together, one humanity under God, and basic provision and security and mercy for one requires provision and security and mercy for all.

Luke 12: Jesus teaches his followers to trust, and not to fear. “Don’t put your trust in riches, things that spoil and fade! Don’t be afraid of those who can kill the body but not touch the soul! Don’t worry about what you will eat or what you will wear! Trust in God, who watches over even the smallest sparrow and clothes even the simplest flower.” The lesson? The way of peace is a path of faith, patiently trusting in God for all things and through all things.

These, and more, are Jesus’ lessons in the “way of peace.” Show compassion. Be generous. Reject violence and fear. Don’t judge others. Forgive them. Remember, we’re all in this together. In all things, trust in God.

In Luke’s Gospel these “things that make for peace” are repeated over and over, in many different ways. Deny yourself and take up your cross, daily. Love others like a good Samaritan. Joyfully embrace repentant sinners like a father of a prodigal son returned. Attend to those on the lowest rungs of society: the poor man outside your gates, the children sitting along the edges. Trust in God for the long haul, like a farmer patiently waiting for that little mustard seed to grow, like a baker patiently waiting for that yeast to do its work.

Simple things, but so hard to put into practice moment by moment and day by day. They go against the grain of our “fight or flight” instincts. They run counter to our inclination to fear, to judge, to lash out, to look out for number one. Yet these are the “things that make for peace,” these are God’s “way of peace,” peace within us, and peace among us.

Jesus has already brought everything we need for peace, in every way. And yet here we are, two thousand years later, still fighting wars and telling rumours of wars, still engaged in global conflicts and petty catfights, still resorting to physical and psychological and verbal and emotional violence against one another.

Will we learn “the things that make for peace”? Will we learn God’s “way of peace” through Jesus?

Or does Jesus weep over us as he wept over Jerusalem, because we too refuse to recognize the time of God’s visitation two thousand years ago, bringing God’s way of peace?

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite Church on December 20, 2015. For more from this sermon see my follow-up post, “MLK and ‘The Things that Make for Peace.'” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl

Jesus Was a Peacenik After All

This past weekend I hosted my seminar on Jesus in history called, “Was Jesus Married? …and other awkward questions.” (The answer to that one, by the way, was, “Almost certainly not—though it is not historically impossible, and shouldn’t be theologically problematic.” Can you say, “can of worms”?)

But one of those other “awkward questions” was this one: “Was Jesus actually a violent revolutionary (and not a peacenik)?” As I conceded in the seminar, a good prima facie case can be made for Jesus’ revolutionary tendencies.

Those tendencies were undeniably “in the air” in Jesus’ day. There was a proud history of zeal for Torah among Jews of Jesus’ day, including for some a willingness to do violence against foreigners and even fellow Jews in order to uphold “righteousness” according to the Law of Moses. There was also a “zealot” movement that developed against Rome that had roots going back to Galilee in the early first century A.D., right where and when Jesus grew up.

And then there’s what Jesus himself said and did. Jesus proclaimed the imminent kingdom of God, a reality commonly understood as a political kingdom that could well require military effort to bring about. Jesus said things one could interpret as promoting violence, things about bringing and buying swords. Jesus entered Jerusalem in messianic procession and caused a disturbance in the Temple. And to top it all off, Jesus was crucified by Rome, probably for treason.

So, at first blush, the idea of Jesus as a wannabe revolutionary can seem pretty compelling. However, it collapses under the cumulative weight of a host of sayings and deeds of Jesus.

Jesus’ ethical teachings, such as in Matthew 5-7, and his mission teachings, like those in Matthew 10, are among the best attested teachings of Jesus we have. We find many of them in both Matthew and Luke in slightly different versions, we see them reflected in Paul’s writings before the Gospels were even written (e.g. Romans 12-13; 1 Corinthians 9), and we hear them in other early Christian writings of the first century (e.g. James 5, Didache 1).

Tissot - Lord's PrayerIt’s in these teachings that we find Jesus’ strongest words of peace and non-violence. “Love your neighbour,” “love your enemies,” “do not hate your brother,” “turn the other cheek,” “bless those who persecute you,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” and more are found in his ethical teachings, all connected to the “kingdom of God” which we are to pray for and to seek first. Among his mission teachings are calls for Jesus’ followers to proclaim God’s kingdom and heal the sick, giving freely and living simply. If they are rejected they are not to retaliate but simply to “shake the dust off their feet” and move on, leaving the rejecters to God’s judgment.

Other teachings of Jesus may be less widely attested in earliest Christianity, but fit snugly within these basic contours. Jesus’ kingdom parables, for example, repeatedly emphasize the idea that God’s kingdom does not come about suddenly—by force, you might say—but is planted in the world and grows quietly and slowly until its fruition. Or, for instance, Jesus’ controversies with religious leaders include the famous “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s”—a recognition of human authorities in this age, yet a declaration that God holds our ultimate and total allegiance. And running through the Synoptic Gospels is a recurring focus on the “least,” the “last,” and the “lost” as who God’s kingdom is for, as those who inhabit God’s kingdom—not the powerful or mighty but the meek and the humble, not the violent and coercive but the gentle and those who serve.

All told, the whole thrust of Jesus’ teaching is that God’s kingdom—God’s universal reign of justice and peace—is being established on earth, brought about through his, and his followers’, self-giving, suffering love for the other. This involves both love for God and for other people, including love for those marginalized among us and for those deemed to be hostile to us.

Jesus’ actions were fully in line with these teachings. One of the regular activities of Jesus widely acknowledged among historians is his practice of “communal meals.” These he viewed as symbolic of God’s kingdom, and the guest lists included repentant sinners, the socially marginalized, and other outsiders—the “least,” the “last,” and the “lost” who inherit God’s kingdom. Likewise, Jesus’ healings—he was certainly acknowledged as a healer, even if his opponents questioned the source and legitimacy of his healings—were also seen as signs of God’s kingdom, and focused on things like mercy over strict Sabbath observance, compassion over ritual purity, and inclusion of the marginalized in God’s kingdom.

Then there’s Jesus’ suffering and death. At least some early Christians viewed Jesus’ death as the crucial event for establishing God’s kingdom on earth (e.g. Mark). Certainly the manner of Jesus’ suffering and death reflected the teachings he had given—he walked the talk. He “turned the other cheek,” standing up to the powers that be and refusing to retaliate, thus exposing their violence and injustice for the evil that it was. He gave himself for the good of others, even through extreme suffering. He modeled the love he commanded.

The overwhelming portrayal of Jesus in our earliest and most extensive sources is that of one who proclaimed and lived out a counter-cultural kingdom of God—one not characterized by violence, but by non-violence, even active peacemaking.

What do we do, then, with the few anomalies, those sayings and actions of Jesus that don’t seem to fit the mould? Well, let’s take a closer look.

The “I have not come to bring peace but a sword” saying (Matt 10:34-36) is part of Jesus’ mission teaching, instructions for his disciples as they preach the gospel and heal the sick. “Sword” here is used figuratively to describe the turmoil that will result from Jesus’ kingdom message and way of life. His point—evident from the surrounding context of this statement—is simply that his kingdom message and actions will provoke resistance from the world, so his followers should be prepared for this and persevere through it.

Rembrandt Christ on the CrossWhat about “Those who do not have a sword should sell their cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:35-38)? Jesus has just alluded to his previous mission teaching, but now intensifies it: this is, once again, a warning about coming resistance to Jesus’ kingdom way. That Luke understands the particular statement as figurative is evident from the way the narrative continues. First, Jesus responds to the disciples that two swords is “enough”—rather ludicrous if Jesus was speaking literally about arming themselves either for rebellion or for defense. And second, when the disciples ask about literally using the sword to fight the mob and one of them cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Jesus responds with “No more of this!,” heals the man’s ear, and says, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a lēstēs (brigand, revolutionary)?” (In other words, “I’m not a lēstēs, people.”) Matthew’s account gets at the gist of Jesus’ real feelings about this, stripped of all irony: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (26:52).

Then there’s the “temple cleansing,” as it is often called. Yes, Jesus does exhibit violence here, something that should caution us against an unrealistic ideal of non-violence. But it’s important to temper that concession with a few other thoughts.

First, none of the Gospels indicate that Jesus committed physical violence against human persons—only John describes the “whip,” and he states this was used to “drive out” the animals. Second, scholarly consensus is that Jesus’ temple action was symbolic and prophetic, like the symbolic-prophetic actions of Ezekiel, for example. Jesus was not realistically going to stop the temple sales of animals with a one-man temple tantrum, but he could symbolically highlight the problems he saw and prophetically pronounce God’s judgment. And third, this action was motivated by a desire for justice and inclusion in the face of injustice and exclusion. Poor Jews, especially non-Judeans who had traveled from around the Empire, relied upon the animals sold in the temple courts for their sacrifices. The temple merchants, it seems, were taking advantage of their situation, keeping the temple from being a “house of prayer for all nations.”

In sum, then, Jesus’ kingdom teaching was overwhelmingly non-violent and constructive in orientation, Jesus’ kingdom actions were overwhelmingly non-violent and restorative in nature, and these realities need to govern how seemingly contradictory realities are understood.

It’s important to note that none of this makes Jesus into a modern pacifist. You don’t hear any prohibition of military service from Jesus even when interacting with Roman soldiers—in this he followed the example of John the Baptist (we Mennonites need to pause and reflect on this more). He doesn’t organize his followers toward collective acts of protest or resistance against the powers that be or their acts of violence. He doesn’t develop a program of restorative justice in contrast to the retributive models of justice around him. He doesn’t establish hospitals or schools in war torn areas in order to build a peaceful society.

Nevertheless, Jesus was a thoroughgoing peacenik—and his teachings and example provide the building blocks for a robust, active Christian pacifism that includes all these things, and more.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

“Turn the Other Cheek” ≠ “Be a Doormat”

This past Sunday I taught our adult Sunday Study class. As always, it turned into a wide-ranging discussion only remotely connected to the topic, in which we noted and immediately solved all the world’s problems. (Just kidding, of course. It took us at least 45 minutes to solve them all.)

Turn Other CheekOne of the things that came up along the way was Jesus’ famous “turn the other cheek” command. It was suggested that maybe this and other commands like it are for an ideal, future “kingdom of God” and aren’t expected to work in the real world right now. Or, maybe these sorts of commands are simply for our individual relationships and not for our wider social relationships.

“Turn the other cheek.” Yep, it’s a hard one. It seems utterly unrealistic, unworkable in the real world of playground bullies or abusive spouses or oppressive regimes or violent extremists.

Here’s the text from Matthew’s Gospel:

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; 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. (Matt 5:38-41)

This is immediately followed by another seemingly impossible command:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor 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…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:43-48)

What do we do with these commands? Is it true that they’re just for our individual relationships, or maybe that they’re simply for some time down the road, when God’s eternal kingdom comes to fruition?

To the idea that these commands are not intended for the real world right now, we have to say an unequivocal “No.” At least, that’s not the way Matthew sees them. The Sermon on the Mount concludes with Jesus’ emphatic declaration that he expects his followers to “hear these words of mine and act on them” (Matt 7:24-29), and the Gospel as a whole concludes with Jesus’ call for his followers to make disciples who will “obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:18-20). Everything. Even the hard bits.

But there’s something else from these teachings themselves that suggests these are not simply for some ideal “heavenly kingdom”: in that ideal kingdom there would be no need for these commands, because no one would strike you on the cheek to begin with. In fact, these commands of Jesus only make sense at the place where the kingdom of God collides with the kingdoms of this world. These commands only make sense in a world where there are oppressive enemies and violent retribution—clashing with a new world in which there are no enemies and there is no vengeance.

How would Jesus’ first disciples have heard these words? Who were their “enemies” who struck their cheeks or made them give up their cloaks or forced them to walk a mile? Probably, as time passed, there were several “enemies” who could be named. But for those first Jesus-followers the “enemies” that would have immediately come to mind were the Romans.

The Romans. Seen by many (by no means all) first-century Jews as godless oppressors, Gentile dogs trampling on God’s holy people all over God’s holy turf. And the immediate, flesh-and-blood symbol of this imperial oppression? The Roman soldier, with the power to knock heads and commandeer cloaks and force burden-bearing marches.

Suddenly Jesus’ commands here take on new meaning. “Turn the other cheek”? “Love your enemies”? This isn’t for some idealized future, nor is it just for our everyday relationships. This is about a clash of empires, a collision of kingdoms, two worlds coming head-to-head—and affecting all our real-world right-now relationships, from individuals to families to communities to societies to nation-states.

Think about this: if someone in a position of power over you “strikes you on the right cheek,” what are your options?

One option is to fight back, to strike them on the cheek, to go all “eye for eye” on them—but they have all that raw power behind them, and this is only going to get ugly fast. Violence, even “justified violence,” always, inevitably, begets violence—on you, on them, on innocent others.

A second option is to back away in abject submission, to be a “doormat.” This is what people typically think Jesus means here—just take your licks and accept your lot in life. But just as Jesus does not say, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, strike them back,” so also Jesus does not say, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, bow down to them in subjection.”

No, Jesus commands a third way, a way that is neither the “return evil with evil” way nor the “passively submit to evil” way. Jesus commands his followers to stand up with dignity, look the oppressor in the eye, and challenge them to expose their injustice and inhumanity by inflicting another gratuitous blow.

In other words, Jesus advocates what Walter Wink calls “defiant vulnerability,” or what Tom Yoder Neufeld perhaps better calls “creative non-violent resistance”: “creative” because giving the extra garment or walking the extra mile are outside the normal rules of enemy engagement (Killing Enmity, 25). Glen Stassen and David Gushee go even further, saying Jesus’ commands here are “transforming initiatives”: they “take a nonviolent initiative that confronts injustice and initiates the possibility of reconciliation” (Kingdom Ethics, 139).

Creative, transforming, non-violent resistance. Just like all those in recent history who, inspired to various degrees by Jesus’ life and teachings, initiated some of the most momentous changes ever seen toward more just societies: Mahatma Gandhi in British colonial India; Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Jim Crow-era southern United States; Lech Wałęsa and Karol Józef Wojtyła (later Pope John Paul II) in Soviet Communist Poland; post-imprisonment Nelson Mandela under South Africa’s Apartheid.

It’s counter-intuitive, for sure. But contrary to popular opinion, “redemptive violence” is a myth while “turn the other cheek”—rightly understood—actually works.

It’s important to get this right. This is not a command to an abused wife that she should just stay with her husband and submissively accept the blows, whether physical or otherwise. This is not a command to terrorized Iraqi Christians that they should just accept what’s happening to them as God’s will. This is not a command to the boy being bullied after school that he should just take the black eye and slink away in fear. These kinds of things are most emphatically not what Jesus is saying here.

Rembrandt Christ on the CrossIt’s helpful to look to Jesus’ own example. It is clear in Matthew’s Gospel that the many things Jesus commands his followers to do in the Sermon on the Mount, he demonstrates for them as he goes to the cross. Turn the other cheek? Check. Love your enemies? Check. Pray for your persecutors? Check.

But here’s the thing: Jesus does not do these things for himself, but for others. For all the “poor in spirit” who are in “mourning,” for the “meek” who “hunger and thirst for justice” (Matt 5:3-6), Jesus steps into their place as “merciful peacemaker,” “persecuted for justice’s sake” (Matt 5:7-11).

Jesus becomes the champion of the oppressed, taking the blow aimed at them, standing up for them with dignity, looking the oppressor in the eye and exposing their injustice and inhumanity with every gratuitous blow—and this becomes the spark for true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life.

This is what the bullied child, the abused spouse, the oppressed people, need. They need a champion. And not a champion who will strike back blow for blow, and just make the problem worse. They need a champion who will stand up to their oppressor on their behalf, who will expose the oppressor’s injustice and inhumanity and initiate the process toward justice and peace and new life, whatever the cost.

So how do we “turn the other cheek”? Not by being a “doormat,” passively submitting to violence or oppression or abuse over and over again, spiraling downward until all involved are de-humanized and eventually destroyed.

We “turn the other cheek” with creative, transforming, non-violent resistance in the footsteps of Jesus—which means imagining and enacting ways to expose evil and injustice which maintain our dignity, which do not demonize our “enemies” but instead show compassion toward them, and which open the door to possibilities of reconciliation and a better future.

We “turn the other cheek” with creative, transforming, non-violent resistance in the footsteps of Jesus—on our own behalf if there is no one else to take up our cause, and certainly on behalf of others who are beaten down and need a champion.

None of this makes Jesus’ commands to “Turn the other cheek” and “Love your enemies” any easier. If anything it makes them harder—because it commits us to not just speak of justice, not just pray for justice, but to actually step out and work for justice.

Maybe I should go back to solving the world’s problems with my Sunday school class. This “walking in the way of Jesus” thing is way too convicting, way too challenging, way too hard. Kind of like walking on a really narrow way

A special note for abused spouses and children… Please hear this clearly: You are under no obligation to remain with your abusive partner or parent. “Turn the other cheek” does not mean that, neither does “Wives, submit to your husbands” or “Children, respect your parents,” and if someone tells you otherwise they are wrong. Contact an organization like Genesis House that can provide advice and shelter for you and initiate the process of healing for you and any others involved. I know this is easy to say and hard to do, and if you are unable to take this step then I pray you will know God’s sufficient grace through your suffering and God’s power through your weakness—and that you will again consider taking this step if the abuse continues.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.