The Peace-makers: War, violence, and the response of the Church Fathers. Part 4

This will be the final installment of this series, and indeed the shortest post of them all. If you have stuck with me thus far, thank you! If not, stop reading now, and go to part 1, then read part 2, and part 3 before going any further.

Today we will end with some tangible thoughts on how I think these ideas and facts intersect with modern Western Christianity. I will offer some critique for the modern church that, though it might sound a bit harsh, is said out of a love for her and her mission in this world.

The Slow Fade Into Worldliness

In the pre-Constantinian age, the voices of Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Justin, and Hippolytus spoke in unison, condemning the use of violence and military service in the kingdom of God. The idea of taking up the sword to defend the church was never in the minds of the early Christians, for they knew that the most potent weapon they wielded against the empire was their peace, their pacifism. It was not until the time of Constantine that the lines between the empires of earth and the kingdom of God began to blur. It was when Christians inherited the power to command earthly armies that Christians began to meld these two worlds together, and rather quickly, the cross itself, the antithesis of the sword, began to be emblazoned on weapons of war, shields, and helmets. As Christianity merged with Emperor Constantine’s rule and began to receive the benefits of power, it also began to shift its views of the use of violence. Eventually, pure pacifism would give way to a ‘just war’ mindset. The change a slow and gradual one, but once the cross and the sword had been united, Christians would not be able to regain the courage to separate them again until this very day.

Critiquing the Modern Church

It seems that most of the world has always understood that Jesus taught non-violence; most, that is, except for Christians. For many in the modern evangelical church, the answer to violence in the world today is more violence, and the gun has replaced the sword. The now infamous words of the President of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, (a self-proclaimed Christian) are forever seared in our collective minds: “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun!”. And the majority of white Evangelical Christians in American seem to agree with this sentiment.

In American Christianity, the firearm seems to have risen to occupy an almost sacred position. The government-sanctioned right to “keep and bear arms,” as the 2ndamendment words it, “shall not be infringed,” and in some Christian circles, these government-given rights are spoken of as “God-given” rights. This divine infused language is not necessarily absent from the very words of the American constitution itself, which argues the “self-evident” truth that all people are “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,” such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These ideas presumably necessitate the use of personal and deadly force against all those who would threaten those ideals. Like Rome, American ideals are upheld by the sword; by violence. And this scenario has once again put the church in a precarious situation.

Many American Evangelicals are so immersed in the American philosophy of life that it never occurs to them to seek the counsel of the church fathers or the writings of the Apostles to ascertain biblical instruction as to what Jesus Christ reveals about Gods will for his children. Much like in Tertullian’s day, some still point to the Old Testament violence as evidence that the people of God are free to use violence to purge the earth of those who would threaten them and our land. “If you don’t agree with what Jesus believes about violence,” they might say, “you can always use the Bible to try and find a loophole;  you could point out the violence of 1 Samuel 15:3 to ‘Go and attack them with the sword and destroy all they have. Do not spare them, but kill men, women, children, and babies;’” And as Tertullian pointed out, that it is what some Christians will do. However, when we use the bible to silence Jesus in this way, we are using an account of the actions of an unfinished people (Israel) to silence the complete revelation of God in the world: Jesus. This is the same Jesus who said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting” (Jn 18:36).

The readiness of the modern church to prepare for war, to use violence, and to join in with the military operations of earthly empires is particularly troubling in light of the faith of the early church. The insinuation is that the martyr has no place in the 21st-century church; that the martyr is simply a fool without a gun whose life has been cut short for lack of firearms training. There seems to be no place in the modern church for the one who utterly refuses to kill, the one who believes that there are things far worse than death (like destroying the imago Dei in another). But if there is no “blood of the martyrs,” as Tertullian would call it, then how will the world see the power of the cross to truly save?

The Christian, according to Tertullian, is the “son of peace.” She/he is the one who has traded the ways of the world for the ways of Christ, trading the sword for the cross.  If the kingdom of God is to be present in the world, the bride of Christ must once again discover the cross’s power, for it is the power of God unto salvation.

Thus, as the Christian and Latin poet, Commodianus, declared, the Christian must “make thyself a peace-maker to all men.”[1]

 

[1]C. John Cadoux. Early Christian Attitude to War, (Kindle Locations 1460-1469).

Heaping Burning Coals on Their Heads

Today I want to look at a strange verse in Romans. It goes like this:

Romans 12:19-21

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thristy, give them somethign to drink; for by doing this your wil heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

These verses were very peculiar to me in my youth. A strange mixture of emotions. Both call to love enemies and also an affirmation that we do indeed hate our enemies and have a desire for them to suffer. There even seems to be a moment of gleeful and narrow-eyed satisfaction as your enemy is overcome by anger at the very thought of you doing something nice for them!

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I have heard this passage become a method of revenge instead of a path towards reconciliation. I’ve even used it as such in my early pastoral years. There should be satisfaction when the two warring parties are brought together, but this passage seems to encourage bringing the other to a point of burning rage. A victory in the public relations realm. They come off looking bad, and you come off looking like a hero, rising above their petty sinfulness.

The Christian, then, can walk away with everything: both the piety that comes with righteousness and the smug comfort of revenge. But deep inside we know that this can’t be Christlike. What kind of God would take pleasure in the shaming and seething bitterness that others might carry for us?

It seems to be promoting exactly what modern psychology warns against being driven by, “I’ll show them” instead of “I’ll make things right with them.” The former being an unhealthy pattern of behavior that leads ultimately to failure, and the latter being healthy and life-giving.

One piece that we are missing in our interpretation of this passage is the simple picture that a first-century reader might have in their minds as they read about “heaping burning coals” atop the heads of their enemies.

So where do we begin to interpret this passage? Simple, we always start by trying to understand the mindset of the writer before we do any actual interpreting at all!

Paul is quoting a Proverbs possibly written a thousand years before the time in which he lived. It is found in Proverbs 25:21-22

21 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
22 In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the Lord will reward you. 

This was a time when Israel was likely still carrying with them the imagery of Egypt, from where they came. After generations of slavery, the symbols and patterns of Egyptian temple worship worked their way into the language, the worship rituals, and the spiritual writings of the people of Israel. And some of these ideas stuck with them all the way into the time of the New Testament.

The picture of “burning coals atop the head” actually finds its origins in the ancient Egyptian repentance ritual (J.D.G. Dunn, 1998). In those days in Egypt, someone who wanted to make amends with someone else would carry coals of fire in a dish on their head as evidence of genuine repentance. It was the emotional act of someone who wanted to be forgiven for the wrong they had committed.

In this scenario, the person with the coals on their head is not angry, they are not bitter or envious or you, and they are certainly not wallowing in shame.

This text is meant to be taken in a positive sense, not a negative one. Any idea that the other should be shamed falls out of line with the love and grace of the previous paragraph that is firmly rooted in Jesus teachings in the sermon on the mount.

This passage is a call to love and to genuinely seek the flourishing of those who would desire to harm us. The love that flows from the heart of God is the only thing that can genuinely seep into their hardened shell and bring them to a place of repentance. It is a proclamation of hope for all those who simply cannot find peace with another. Paul is saying “it can be done, commit yourself to love and hold out hope that one day they will come walking towards you in a public act of repentance, seeking your forgiveness and embracing you as a friend!”

Loving and serving your enemy is not some psychological form of revenge. It is not meant to piously raise you up above them in order to “win.” These types of interpretations allow the hate within us to remain and even to grow.

The point of humbling ourselves to meet the needs of our neighbor is to bring them to a place of softening and eventually repentance. The desire of Christ is always reconciliation. Paul understood it as an expression of outgoing love seeking only good for the enemy, and this is how we should see it as well.

You Can’t Go Back

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You Can’t Go Back.

This morning I tried. I really did. I knocked on the door of the first place on this earth that I can remember being. At the end of a peaceful cul-de-sac, across the street from a park. The house felt smaller than I remember but I guess when you are ten years old everything seems huge. A young woman in her early twenties answered the door. I think she might have been high, either that or I woke her up. Either way, it is probably annoying to be interrupted in either of those situations.
“I’m sorry to bother you”, I said. “I grew up in this house and just wanted to take a couple pictures and didn’t want anyone to look outside and get creeped out”. She stared blankly. “Yeah, do your thing”, she replied. I backed away and turned to walk back out the the street, on my way I pointed at a huge tree in the middle of the yard, “my family planted that tree” I said over my shoulder as I glanced back at her. She looked at the tree, then back at me, then shut the door.
I took a few moments in the driveway to take it all in. The fire hydrant that used to be the base for my G.I. Joes. The grass spaces between ours and the neighbors driveway that I was so proud of jumping over on roller skates without falling. The basketball hoop that my dad and grandfather had erected that used to stand right at the edge of the driveway (now missing, but an obvious patch where it was taken down).
Somehow I expected it to seem much more magical than it actually was when I stood there. I mean, I haven’t stood here in 25 years. But here I was. And I remember everything. A flood of memories. I stand there for a couple more minutes and think to myself “So this is it, huh? Hmmm, wheres the magic?”.
I walk across the street to the park where I used to play little league games. Past the playground where I learned to be brave and climb. The field where I have memories that are as clear as day of my dad chasing me across the grass while I ran full speed with the football under my arm. Again, wheres the magic? A million more memories flooded my brain with every bench and hill and baseball backstop. But it wasn’t magical. It was just a park.
I learned today what I think everyone comes to learn in their adult years. It’s not the place. Its the people.
It was my childhood home, but my brothers weren’t there to pull me on my skateboard behind their bikes. My mom wasn’t there to yell “good job T!” everytime I climbed higher. My dad wasn’t there to cook burgers on the grill. Family, that is what made it magical. It isn’t the house, the field, the playground, or the yard. It was love. It was the human beings that shared it with me. Yes, the magic is gone away from this place, but it has not gone from my life, or even this world. It has gone to New York, and Indonesia, and Tampa. It has gone everywhere where the people who made it joyous have gone.
Many of you have fond memories of your life. The places, the people, the experiences. You might even have the urge to try and return. I want you to know that even if you did manage to return to the location, the house, or the city, the magic is not there.
The fondness that your soul has for certain memories and periods in your life will often times disguise itself as an affinity for a place or a time. Sometimes when we look back, we make the same mistakes that we so often make when we think about the future: we think fondly about a house we will buy, or a place we will live, or a thing we will do, and we think our pleasure will be there. It will not.
The truth is that the fondness that your soul has is for other souls. Family, friends, community, and God. We were created this way. The connections that we form is where the actual magic and joy deep within our souls resides.
My job is not to go back and try and enjoy those times again, it is to bring those times into the present. To do everything in my power to ensure that my children feel these same experiences. When I am old I want to hear them talk fondly about all of the amazing memories that they have with their father, mother, sister and brother, grandpa and grandma. I want them to, one day, go back to their childhood home (that they live in at this very moment) and to realize the full truth that what made this place great was not the toys or the basketball hoop or the parks, it was their Father and their Mother and the fact that we took every opportunity to enjoy their youth alongside of them.
Your job, parents, is not to give them a great childhood, it is first and foremost to enjoy them. To reflect back to them their joy and their pain and their laughter and their imagination. And to make sure that they understand that this is what God does for us. It started with the first man and woman, Gods first son and daughter, whom he dwelled with and enjoyed. And then he taught them to be fruitful and multiply that love and communion and enjoyment generation after generation for thousands and thousands of generations until this very day.
It is in the intrinsic things that life is found. Pour yourselves out for your children, your neighbors, and the world around you, and you will find true joyous life. You were created for this. Created by a God who does this for you every day.
You cannot go back. It wasn’t the time. It wasn’t the place. It wasn’t the activities.

It was love.

So may you look back and move forward, remembering and resurrecting Gods love. For generations to come.

P.S. – Its time to turn off your screen and be present. Starting now.

Fake Sunglasses are Bad for Your Soul.

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There has been much written and learned in the last decade about “wholeness”. The movement towards “whole” foods is gaining ground so quickly that the fast food industry, as well as companies like Monsanto that genetically modify natures seeds, are beginning to suffer. People are beginning to believe that things should be “one”. One thing. A seed should be seed, naturally and without modification. Meat should be meat, not a mixture of things that look like meat.

When something that we take into our body is “one” thing, studies have found that our body can use all of it, and not just some of it. Our bodies are able to heal faster, to repair damage that has been present for years, even decades. We also know that when something is “whole” we are not being deceived. We know what it is. We know that someone is not trying to trick us.

In the same way that whole food has positive effects on our bodies, much work has also been done to explore what happens to our mental and spiritual health when we do not practice a posture of “wholeness”.

Both Duke and Harvard University have done studies on the impact of what they call “Fake Adornments” on our ethics. The study was quite simple, but effective. A sampling of 500 women were given expensive Chloe sunglasses and 50% of them were told that the sunglasses were fakes, cheap knockoffs. The women were then asked to complete several complex mathematical equations that could never be realistically completed in the time allotted for them to be completed. They were told that they would be paid money for each math equation that they completed correctly. The payment, however, was based on the honor system. In other words, no one would be checking their work.

The study found that about 70% of those who believed that they were wearing fake sunglasses lied and stole money from the researchers by saying that they had completed the impossible equations correctly.

In other studies they also found that women who believed they were wearing knockoff sunglasses judged others more harshly than those who knew they were wearing the real deal. They were also more cynical, and viewed others in a much more negative way.

It turns out that when we fake it in life, when we pretend that we are something that we are not, it actually effects us at a deeply spiritual and moral level. We fake it to make ourselves feel better, more glamorous, more attractive, wealthier, cooler, more intellectual… but then we begin to feel like a phony and we become more cynical, more deceptive, and this negativity pushes outwards and begins to affect how we look at the world around us. We begin to think that everyone is lying and deceiving, but it is really just us. 

Christians often times talk about “Integrity”. Integrity comes from the word “integer”, which means one. It is a whole number. When we have integrity, it means that we are the same person, one person, all of the time. It is someone who is whole. They are not like the modified food, claiming to be one ingredient, but really made up of several different hidden things. The person who has integrity is one personOne ingredient. They are who they appear to be, and they are not trying to deceive you.

The soul desperately wants to be one person. Its desire is for the mind, body, and soul to be the same person. Most of us are not one person. And our souls know it.

We are married, but have eyes for other people, or another life.
We are poor, but weighted down with debt in order to appear wealthy.
We are doubting and skeptical, but pretend that we fully understand and believe.
We are addicts, but we pretend that we have it all under control.
We are one person, but we are two people.

The soul will not stand idly by and let you be two people. It wants a center. It will move you towards whatever person that you are nurturing. If you are nurturing your lustful thoughts, you soul will push you that direction. It will push you towards being a whole person, meaning an adulterer. You will eventually find yourself at the point where all you are lacking is a proper opportunity to fulfill the desires of your heart.

Oscar Wilde experienced this. he writes:

“I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace.”

Peter wrote to the church on the run from Nero and he urged them not to let their guard down, not even against the little things. He knew that the little things actually have a pretty profound impact in the person that you are becoming. he says in 1 Peter 2:11:

“Beloved, I urge you … to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”

The passions of the flesh.
Riches and images of success.
Fame and accolades.
Convincing people that we are something that we are not.
Fake sunglasses, fake prayers, fake chastity, fake you and fake me. THAT is what is warring against our souls.

We want to be one person to them, and yet be another to ourselves. We are feeding our souls spiritual fast food. It is not what it appears to be. It is bad for us, and we can feel it. It will kill our souls.

It is out of this double-mindedness that God gave us the church. The community of confession. Where we come, we sing, we worship, we listen, we hear, we repent, and we take communion. We ask the gospel to touch the innermost parts of us that we have kept hidden from it’s view.

We bring our fakeness and sin into the light and we say “Here it is. Here is my stuff. My lies and phoniness”. And we confess it, and we lay it down.

Strive for integrity. Become one person. Be whole. Even if that one whole person is not yet as good as he/she should be, he/she can still be whole by being honest. And that is the first step to your soul finding healing and growth.