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.”
C. John Cadoux. Early Christian Attitude to War, (Kindle Locations 1460-1469).
Today we will look specifically at how the church fathers responded to the violence inflicted upon them. This is important as it pertains to discussions on self-defense (which we will touch on next week) and the role of the martyrs in the plan of God for evangelism and bringing others into the kingdom. This post addresses what the world sees and feels when they see Christians refusing to use violence in any form, even in the face of great violence against themselves.
Martyrdom as a Display of the Cross
The sacrificial deaths of many of the early church fathers and church members stand as the ultimate display of pacifism in the ancient world. Martyrdom became the most effective tool in neutering the power of the sword of the empire. Long before persecution was systematized in January 250, Christians for two-hundred years had been choosing to lay down their lives (rather than fighting for them), dying for their faith (instead of killing for it) in various corners of the empire, and the influence of the martyrs cannot be understated.
It has always been so that, when the church suffers persecution, it grows faster and stronger than at times of peace. And while Roman’s believed that the persecution of the church would represent an unflattering advertisement to those looking to join Christianity, many who watched the Christians die ended up becoming Christians themselves. They marveled at those who would suffer such things and wondering what incredible power this faith must contain that people would ever die for it. Indeed, the courage to respond to violence with utter peace was something that Rome ultimately could not overcome in the war of ideology.
Public martyrdom is responsible for creating some of the greatest thinkers of the early church. Irenaeus of Lyons personally knew and was heavily influenced by the famous martyr, Polycarp, who had been ordained by the apostle John. He served the church during the persecution in what is now France, he spent the rest of his days defending the church against Gnosticism and Heresies, and he is believed to have been martyred near the turn of the third century.
Tertullian started as a well-educated and devout citizen of Rome but was converted to Christianity at the sight of their persecution. He was impressed with their courage and resolve as they were being thrown to lions and burnt alive in broad daylight. Long after his conversion, he is known to have written: “The more we are mown down by you, the more numerous we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”
Origen, one of the most influential figures in ancient Christianity, saw his father arrested and martyred when he was only 17 years old. He is known to have written a letter to his father, urging him to stand firm in the face of persecution, urging him not to forsake his faith and not to fear for the family he was leaving behind. As he grew, his greatest desire was to suffer the martyrdom that so many great church leaders endured, something that would ultimately escape him as he is known to have survived severe torture at the hands of the Romans for his faith. This torture left him broken, scarred, and unable to continue his work in his old age, but his courageous example of faithful and peaceful endurance of the evils of violent men was passed on to his pupils as well. Notably, during one particularly violent outbreak of persecution under emperor Decius, Dionysius of Alexandria, one of Origen’s pupils, actually survived persecution because of his peace and courage in the face of violence. The soldiers had been scouring the city for days searching for him, and they did not think of going to his house where they would have found him patiently and prayerfully awaiting his arrest and execution.
In AD 165, a debate ensued between Justin Martyr and a pagan philosopher called Crescens in which Crescens, having lost the debate, complained to the authorities that Justin was teaching a forbidden religion. Justin was swiftly arrested, and his trial was brief. He refused to make any sacrifices to the Roman gods before the courts, and together with six other Christians who also had been arrested for their faith, he was scourged and beheaded. He has been seen as an archetype of Christians in persecuted countries ever since, and the word martyr has been permanently transfixed to his name as a way of communicating to all other persecuted Christians that they are in good company.
And by far, the most exceptional example of peaceful Christ-like resistance is the life of Ignatius. Everything that we have of his, the information about his life and the writings of his hands, come to us from captivity while he was awaiting execution for his faith. He was arrested during the persecution of Antioch and was sent to Rome under the guard of ten soldiers. As they sailed west, he was frequently visited by other Christians whom he urged not to intervene with violence to free him. Instead, they are encouraged to let himself “be poured out as a libation to God while an altar is at hand.”
As Ignatius traveled, he wrote of how, through his mistreatment and his bonds, he had become more of a disciple than ever before, even praying that he might “benefit from the wild beasts prepared” for him. He knew that upon his death, the Christians would give him more of an ear than ever before, for the words of the martyr carry more weight than the words of regular men and women, and he knew that he must use this opportunity to edify and instruct the churches.
The letters men like Ignatius come to us from the path of the cross, instead of the sword. They display the power of the cross of Christ in ways that can never be diminished. The victory of the sword of Roman persecutors was swift, but it was temporary, for the world would quickly see the truth that Christ himself has shown us that the cross is stronger because it ends in resurrection. Rather quickly, the writings of the martyrs rose to places of prominence and authority in the church. The church began to gather annually over the graves of the martyrs to venerate and admire their faith, and to ask for strength to follow their examples. This tradition continues until today in some parts of the world.
The word pacifism is often confused with the idea of pacifying or letting the enemy have what they want. However, the actual meaning is found in the root Latin word pax (peace), and it means peace-making. According to Commodianus (250), the call of the Christian is to “make thyself a peace-maker to all men.” In the Roman empire, where the pax-Romana meant peace at the tip of a sword, the church fathers knew that Jesus taught non-violent peace-making. The passage of scripture that comes up more than any other in the writings of the church fathers is Isaiah 2:4-5, which says:
“He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
The people of God were looking forward to a day when war, and training for war, would be a thing of the past. They believe that the age of the church was ushering in that day. They believed that they should now focus on planting and reaping, and on kingdom-building and worship, instead of war and survival. They believed that in Christ, God had indeed judged the nations and that it was now time to walk in the light of the Lord; that peace had finally come and was also still coming; that God’s realm was here already, though not yet fully present. Furthermore, they believed that, in this kingdom, there is no place for weapons of war.
C. John Cadoux. Early Christian Attitude to War, (Kindle Locations 1460-1469).
Jonathan Hill. History of Christian Thought, 22.
Tertullian, Apology, ch 50.
Jonathan Hill. History of Christian thought, 39.
Jonathan Hill, History of Christian Thought, 17
Robert Louis Wilken. The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity, 28.
READ PART 1: HERE
This week we are diving into the theological arguments of the Early Church Fathers regarding the use of weapons (the sword in their day, the gun in ours) and their use (or lack thereof) to the Christian in responding to evil.
Tertullian’s Argument from Gethsemane
The theological argument for the pacifism of the church fathers comes directly from scriptures, and Tertullian made much of the interactions of Christ with weapons of war in his day.
Matthew 26 records an incident in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus and his disciples were directly confronted by men with swords (1st-century form of law enforcement) seeking to arrest Jesus and have him tried on trumped-up charges. One of the disciples, in an attempt to defend Jesus using violence, draws his sword, and according to Luke, striking a soldier with it. Instead of commendation from Jesus for standing his ground in defense, he receives a rebuke and a command to put the sword away.
So why did Jesus tell them to bring a sword if they weren’t allowed to use it? Luke (22:36-38) informs the readers that the reason he carried the sword was to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 (that the Messiah would be seen as a violent insurrectionist), and so that he could teach them that the kingdom of God would not be established through the sword, but rather through the cross.
Tertullian, referring to this episode in Gethsemane, says: “But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.”
Skeptics will point out that chapter nineteen of Tertullian’s “On Idolatry” pertains explicitly to military service. However, Tertullian’s argument is not merely that a Christian cannot serve in the military because it is a rival master (although that argument is made there as well), but rather that a Christian cannot serve in the military because the Christian cannot bear the sword. The problem is not merely idolatry, but the use of violence against the image of God in others.
In Tertullian’s day, as well as our own, some choose to look past Christ to the Old Testament in order to justify the use of violence for modern Christians. We can see from his writings that some were arguing that, since Moses carried a rod, and since Aaron carried a buckle (to secure a weapon to his side), and since Joshua led a warring army, then it follows that the Christian might find it acceptable as one of Gods people to also engage in military service.
However, Tertullian will not allow Jesus to be silenced by the Old Testament. He points to Jesus, who heals the soldier that Peter struck with his sword and proclaims: “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” 
For Tertullian and the early church fathers, Jesus is the full expression of God, and he has revealed God to be completely and utterly non-violent; choosing to go to the cross rather than to wield the sword.
A Unique People in the World
It is a fundamental understanding of the ancient church in the first two centuries that the Christian community is to be sanctified, set apart from the ways of the world. Paul, speaking directly to the church in Rome, did not diminish the importance of the uniqueness of the Christian life. In Romans 12, Paul explicitly instructs both Jewish and Gentile Christians gathering there to “not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is.”
Paul is expectant that the follower of Jesus will live a life that is remarkably different from the Roman culture that they are immersed in every day. For Paul, this uniqueness of life comes from the revelation of Christ, whose response to sin and violence leveled against himself on the cross was a willingness to forgive and restore.
Like Paul, Justin Martyr reflected on the words and the revelation of Christ. He describes the church as:
“we who hated and slew one another, and because of customs would not share a common hearth with those who were not of our tribe, now, after the appearance of Christ, have become sociable, and pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who hate unjustly, in order that they, living according to the good suggestions of Christ, may share our hope of obtaining the same from the God who is Master of all.”
Justin considers the rejection of violence and the ability to forgive and pray for enemies as one of the marks of God’s people; it is a part of our unique identity in the world.
Elsewhere Justin references the prophecy of Isaiah and says that Christians have “changed the instruments of war, the swords into plows and the spears into farming implements, and we cultivate piety, righteousness, love for men, faith, (and) the hope which is from the Father Himself through the Crucified One.” The implication here is that the church is a kingdom without weapons of war, for the church does not see war as a tool of any use to the world that they are working towards.
The fundamental answers that the church has to offer the world in response to evil is not the same answer that the kingdoms of earth are offering. If the church’s answer to evil is war, bloodshed, and violence, then our king is not unique, and our kingdom is just as “of this world” as any other. The church fathers understood that the power of the church to bring restoration to the world was rooted in its other-worldly answers. The strange dichotomy of the gospel is that victory comes through defeat, that life comes through death, and that peace comes through the cross, and not the sword.
We will look at how the sacrificial deaths of many of the early church fathers and church members stand as the ultimate display of pacifism in the ancient world, and indeed became the most effective tool in neutering the power of the sword of the empire.
 Tertullian, On Idolatry,XIX.
 Justin, Apologia I, XIV. 3.
 Cadoux, Cecil John. 2015. The Early Christian Attitude to War: A Contribution to the History of Christian Ethics. Kindle Location 1954.
The Same Way, or a New Way?
The response to evil in the world is something that the church claims to possess above all other claims. The church claims that the cross of Christ is the answer to those prone to violence, those quick to use the threat of physical violence to coerce, and to those who would attempt to bring peace at the tip end of a sword (or the barrel of a gun). Throughout human history, that answer has been to fight fire with fire; to use violence to try and end violence. Moreover, though the use of ‘redemptive violence’ (a term first coined by American biblical scholar, theologian, and activist, Walter Wink) has grown to epic proportions over the last century as an answer to evil, violence in the 20thcentury has not been diminished. In fact, the 20th century was the most violent in human history. Despite the best efforts of good people, war and violence have never ceased for even a single day.
This series of posts will seek aim to clarify the position of the early church to present its answer to violence and war in the world, along with its response to those who would wield it. In this first post, I will look at the attitude of Christians towards the military, the next post will be an exploration of the church Father’s theology of Pacifism. In subsequent posts, I will outline the unique mindset of the Christians in the world that led them to reject the ways of the world, and in my final post, I will speak to the modern church about regaining this uniqueness and aligning herself once again with the power of the cross, and not the sword.
Military Service and the Church
Perhaps the most significant difference between the modern church and the church of the first and second-century has to do with their collective attitude towards military service, something that most American Christians naturally assume is an acceptable and even encouraged vocation for a follower of Jesus. Readers of first and second-century Christian writings are often surprised to find that there was no conversation about the merits of armed forces. In fact, it was assumed that being a follower of Jesus and being a soldier is incompatible.
From the end of the New Testament period to the about A.D. 170-80, there is no evidence whatsoever of Christians serving in the military.In the writings of the early church fathers, military abstention seems to be taken for granted. What is clear is that, outside of the biblical account of Cornelius (Acts 10:1-8) and the jailor baptized by Paul (Acts 16:33), there is not a single reference to or record of a Christian serving in the military before 170 CE.
Hippolytus, one of the most important theologians of the second and third centuries, wrote a manual to help guide the church body in his day. In that document entitled The Apostolic Tradition, he states that “a military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath. If he refuses, he shall be rejected. If someone is a military governor… he shall cease, or he shall be rejected. The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God.”With that last sentence, Hippolytus is direct and clear in his statement that there is no place in the life of a member of the church for military service.
There are presumably several reasons for this, including the pagan insignia that soldiers were required to wear, and perhaps most of all, the early church would point to the fact that military service required an oath of allegiance made to both the emperor and the gods or the emperor as a god. However, the baptized Christian has been reborn into the service of Christ and Christ alone; they have a single allegiance, and therefore any allegiances given to others are incompatible with the Christian faith as the early Christians understood it. Indeed, they would have rejected any ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ to any earthly state or nation. Those pledges would fall under the category of idolatry.
Another reason for the rejection of military service amongst the early church would be the matter of the shedding of blood. The Roman military was brutally violent, often making a public display of torturing and killing dissenters. One incident during the reign of Diocletian describes a Roman Proconsul traveling through the city of Tebessia in Numidia (Algeria) on a mission to recruit soldiers. He came upon a twenty-one-year-old Christian man named Maximilian and demanded that he serve in the third Augustan legion. The young man refused, citing the fact that his Christian faith forbids him to wear the seal around his neck because the seal of Christ had marked him. He was summarily executed as a warning to all passersby.
Besides Hippolytus and Justin Martyr, we also have the words of a protagonist writing against the practice of the Christians to refuse military service. Celsus, a pagan and a critic of Christianity, lashes out against the Christian community for their refusal to serve the empire. His words make it evident that he is well aware of the Christian position, and he argues that “if all men were to do the same as you, there would be nothing to prevent the king from being left behind in utter solitude and desertion, and the forces of the empire would fall into the hands of the wildest and most lawless barbarians.”He argues that Christianity is a threat to the empire because Roman peace is upheld by the sword, which means that if Christianity spreads, there will be no more swords to uphold the empire at all!
This was not the first time that the Christian ethic of refraining from military service caused problems in the empire. Justin Martyr, in his The First Apology, writing to try and ease the fear of emperor Antoninus Pius, argued that Christians are no threat to the empire because our king is not an earthly and human one. Rather, it is a kingdom that cannot be seen, and which has been already inaugurated, only to be revealed when Christ returns. He quotes the Prophet Isaiah’s words about how his followers “will beat their swords into plowshares” and how they “will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore,”all intended to stave any fears of a violent Christian uprising. He says: “We who once murdered each other indeed no longer wage war against our enemies; moreover, so as not to bear false witness before our interrogators, we cheerfully die confessing Christ.”
Here, in chapter 39 chapter of Justin’s letter, he has set the tone for how the early Christians would exist in the world amongst other kings and kingdoms. The mere attempt to live a normal life in the Roman empire was often disrupted with challenges loyalty to Caesar over Christ. Christians might find themselves unable to buy, sell, or trade in the agora marketplace, a right which was often accessible only after offering incense to Caesar as a god. They would find it impossible to serve in seats of parliament, which required incantations and offerings to other kings and deities.
The propensity of the Romans towards the use of violence was not just limited to military culture, but the broader roman culture also. It was entirely normal to witness extreme acts of violence almost daily in the roman world; gladiators engaging in “blood sport;” men and women alike, fighting in the arena by torchlight in the evenings,and public executions were regular evening events, but these things offended the sensibilities of the Christians, keeping them away. Furthermore, Christianity, not being an officially recognized religion in the empire, was generally looked upon as a bizarre fringe group and a strange thing to be a part of. They were called anti–social for not taking part in attendance of the violent gladiator games; they were called atheists for not worshiping the local deities,and they were called cannibals because of the way they spoke about taking part in the eucharist. All of these things made them a threat to the empire, both culturally and politically.
It is clear then that, while the church was divided amongst many theological issues, there was unity amongst Christians about abstaining from military service. The first recorded instance of a member of the church serving the empire in this way comes to us around 173, listed amongst the ranks of the Thundering Legionunder Marcus Aurelius. From that day forward, the number of Christians amongst their ranks and other areas of government began to grow.
Tertullian confirms, in 197, in his Apology, the presence of Christians in the senate, the forum, and the military;and though he does not explicitly condemn the acts in this particular writing (which was intended to argue that Christians are good citizens and pose no threat to Rome), he also does not offer his support to these supposed members of the church serving earthly kings in this way. In fact, a rebuke of voluntary enlistment written by Tertullian just 15 years laterwill confirm his disapproval of the practice.
The growth of Christian presence in the military in the third century is also confirmed by the presence of two soldiers in Cyprian, apparently martyred during the persecution of Decius in 250, and a record of Galerius’s attempts to weed out the Christians from amongst his ranks.When the persecution broke wide, the Christians in the military were the first to suffer as a number of them are recorded as being executed.
But it is the Christian east which seems to have stood firm for a great deal longer. We have evidence that the Christians were far more inclined to reject taking up the sword in defense of the empire. One piece of that evidence is Origen’s rebuke of Celsus in 248, where he states plainly that where he comes from, “we do not fight under the emperor… although he require it.”
We will look at what Tertullian has to say about the episode with the sword in the garden of Gethsemane, and explore what it means for the church that Jesus commanded Peter to put away his sword.
Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace:a Historical Survey and Critical Reevaluation, 67.
John Howard Yoder. Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, 53.
Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition, ch16.
Jonathan Hill, The First Thousand Years, 77.
Origen, Contra Celsum, VIII, 68-69.
Justin Martyr, Apologia I, 39.
Burge, Gary M. A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion, 72.
Jonathan Hill, The History of Christian Thought,16.
Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Towards War and Peace,68.
Adolf Harnack, Militia Christi.117-121.
Tertullian, De Corona Militis, XI.
Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Towards War and Peace, 68.
Origen,Contra Celsum, VIII, 73.
Euangelion. It is a simple word that means “good news”. It was, from the mouths of Jesus and his band of disciples, a message of hope. That God, through Jesus, is fixing everything that is broken and setting all things to rights again. Not through the power of earthly might, but by the cross.
In the 1960’s a group of prominent former fundamentalists resurrected a term (evangelicalism) that had been used to describe a movement in 19th century Great Britain that was centered around reforming an increasingly hopeless society by the simple act of teaching them what Jesus taught. Jesus message of reconciliation, grace, mercy, love and salvation coming through Jesus own life being poured out for us took root in the hearts of people and was instrumental in the healing of society in that nation. It was believed that the good news of Jesus could do the same here.
In the last 2 days I have received emails from family, friends, acquaintances, church members, and other pastors linking to videos of politicians, pastors, and various leaders, all evangelicals, and their message is the same: “Do not bring the refugees fleeing the middle east into our nation and our states”.
In the last several decades evangelicalisms message has shifted from “good news for a hurting world” ever steadily towards “news”. And the news is not good.
The “news” is that we no longer believe that God is in control, we believe that we are.
We no longer believe in Jesus when he said:
“Do not be afraid”.
We no longer believe Peter when he said:
“the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment…”.
We now believe that when Jesus said:
“he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor”
he meant “the righteous poor from our own country”.
We now believe that when Jesus said:
“He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…”
He really didn’t mean all captives, and he didn’t mean all who are oppressed.
And we think that when Jesus said:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”
that none of it applies to us.
I hear Christians say “But they hate us”, which is exactly why Jesus said:
“for [the Most High] is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
The fact is that we are in danger of turning away tens of thousands of people who are actually homeless, actually starving, actually sick, literally outcasts, very very poor, extremely persecuted, utterly rejected and totally unwelcome in, not just their own country, but in almost every country in which they have sought asylum. Surely the people who, for decades, have claimed that we are a Christian nation built upon Christian values can remember what Jesus said about the poor, the immigrant, the starving, the naked the hungry and the persecuted. Surely the same evangelicals that spent millions of dollars to legislate morality understand the immoral act of locking the doors on these people when we have so much and they only have each other! Surely we understand the demand that our scriptures lay upon us to take in these people, to love them, to welcome them into our communities and our shelters.
Do we not understand the significance of God using the cross to bring salvation to a world that believed that it could only be done by the sword? Do we really think that our walls and our guns can save the world this time? If that is so, then evangelicals have traded their crosses back in for swords.
In case you haven’t noticed, millennials no longer trust evangelicals. Time after time the hypocrisies in our message have ensnared us and repelled them. For the most part, they have been rather gracious to us in all of our glaring faults, our conflicting messages, and the way that we have cozied up to the empire. But this will pull, whatever fragments of wool are left, away from their eyes. They will finally see what american Christianity has become: “Anti-Christ”.
If I may channel the ancient prophets for a moment, I would argue, as strongly as I can, that the fate of evangelicalism and the fate of the Syrian refugees are bound together. We will never recover from the decision to turn them away. Our sins will light up the sky. Our heartlessness will be our downfall. The lampstand will be removed and we will be sent into the exile of irrelevance until we are either replaced or until we are repentant and Jesus once again sits on His throne in the heart of the evangelical movement.
But if we have compassion, if we open our eyes to the opportunity that is laid out before us, to be the arms and eyes and hands and feet of our risen Lord, if we die to our old ways and repent, then resurrection awaits. These people need Jesus, and never before has the church had this kind of opportunity. Instead of going to them, they are coming to us!
If we respond in love it will be as Isaiah 11:16 describes Gods people coming back to Him: “There will be a highway for the remnant of his people that is left from Assyria, as there was for Israel when they came up from Egypt.” Isaiah is saying that every obstacle will be removed, and Gods people will come running to the temple to worship.
Is it risky? Is it a little scary? Is it a little dangerous? Of course, love is always risky, a little scary, and dangerous. No one knows this more than Jesus Himself, who’s love for you sent Him to the cross. But remember his words, over and over: “Do not be afraid.”
Every so often I receive an email written out of anger, hurt, or any one of the various emotions that cause people to lash out against others. Sometimes these emails are specifically written to inflict pain and shut down communication, while other times they are written to elicit a specific response from me. I’ve only ever been a pastor, so I’m not sure what other people endure, but I’m fairly certain that this can’t possibly be the only profession that invites these kinds of letters. I imagine that many of you receive them from time to time.
Today I want to address this seemingly new phenomenon of human beings launching virtual cannonballs from the comfort of their couch and pajamas. I imagine that the rise in this type of behavior is due in part to the easy access that we have to the people we are upset with. It used to be that when you had a grievance you would either set up a meeting and prepare your thoughts to be delivered face to face. You were forced to look into the eyes of the other person. Where your body language spoke far more than your words ever could. Where there is a sense of respect and decorum. That type of scenario is exactly what many people fear, and, until recent history, this is what has kept them and their emotional outbursts in check.
But in this day and age we can inject ourselves, our anger, our unhealth, and our spiritual darkness directly into the souls of the person who has become the object of our ire during their family dinner, their prayer time, or the busiest parts of their day, through email. And for the bitter minded, this is far too big of a temptation to pass up.
So what do we do? How do we respond? How do we interact with ungraciousness? Well, I can only tell you what I have learned over the years (through both my failures and successes) about how to respond to this type of behavior. So here are some simple rules that I follow. Rules that have helped me turn many of these interactions into helpful dialogue instead of heated and destructive breakdowns in relationship. So here we go.
Rule #1: Wait 48 hours before responding.
I make a general habit of trying to treat the majority of digital correspondence as if it were not digital at all, but tangible. Like a handwritten note that I received via old fashioned snail mail. Putting some chronological distance between the initial emotions, and the response.
This does 2 things:
1) It gives them time to think about the repercussions of their actions.
It takes time for information to be processed. They probably haven’t taken that time. They acted out of anger, combined with unfetered access to you. A couple of days of letting their thoughts settle will do them (and you) some good. Often times I will receive a follow up email a day later that will try and soften their previous letter, and sometimes even a request to meet in person… which is the best possible scenario. Regret and shame weigh heavy on people. It can drive them to the realization that they are in a dark place and need to draw near to people, not push them away. Time to think and to let the spirit of God do his work can soften the heart.
2) It gives you time to think about your response.
Your first instinct is to defend and fire back. You, no doubt, know about some easy jabs that you could throw at them: pointing out their struggles with some sin that you know about, stupid things that they have done, all of the misinformation that they have gathered. This is not only unhelpful, it throws more heat on the fire.
Remember, they weren’t thinking clearly when they wrote the letter and, at this moment, neither are you. Let things settle, abandon the scene of the accident and return when the adrenaline has worn off. You will find that you can easily look at things differently, and only then will you be able to respond with your integrity intact.
Rule #2: Do not defend yourself.
Let me quote a passage from my favorite book, “Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster:
The tongue is our most powerful weapon of manipulation. A frantic stream of words flows from us because we are in a constant process of adjusting our public image. We fear so deeply what we think other people see in us that we talk in order to straighten out their understanding. If I have done some wrong thing (or even some right thing that I think you may misunderstand) and discover that you know about it, I will be very tempted to help you understand my action! Silence is one of the deepest Disciplines of the Spirit simply because it puts the stopper on all self-justification.
Silence is a spiritual discipline, and spiritual disciplines are there to bear fruit in our lives. One of the ways that we can practice silence is to remain silent when our reputation and motives are under attack. The fruit of silence is freedom. Freedom to let God justify us.
If there are personal attacks, things specifically written to demean your character or bring pain and insult to your soul, say nothing of those. If they are true, then you have some internal spiritual work to do that has nothing to do with them. If they are untrue, then be at peace. Be silent. Rest. Your integrity is intact, and now you can enjoy watching God be your defender.
Rule #3: No negativity!
Diamonds and emails are forever. I have said things that have come back a decade later and sucker-punched me right in the kisser. Those negative and emotional words will live forever in someone else’s inbox. They will never be deleted. I know this because I have kept every awful email that I have ever received. I use them as a reminder to either set up boundaries in the future, or for when I find out later that there was sin that the sender was hiding that has come to light, and now I can read it through the lens of their pain and guilt. It is a reminder that most of the time they don’t hate you, they hate that you have reminded them of themselves… and they can’t stand themselves. That email, sent out of a sinful place, now becomes a warning sign for your future interactions with them. If you see them going down that same path again, you now know what to look for and how to help them confess, repent, and cope.
Sending negativity through email is akin to sending your kryptonite out into enemy territory. It will be forwarded to others, and your problems will only increase as more and more people see a side of you that you wish would disappear.
If you must respond through email, do so with positivity and encouragement. Express your desire for reconciliation and grace. Be hopeful with them that you can find common ground. Apologize if necessary. Tell them the spirit with which you are writing, and ask them to read it in that tone.
Rule #4: Look for substance.
Print that nasty email out, and get a sharpie. Black out (redact!) all of the personal attacks and insults. Things that are unfounded and assumptions that are not grounded in actual reality. What are you left with? Is there a legitimate concern? Address it. Address it with dignity and grace and a desire to find a remedy. The entire email probably could have been boiled down to that one point, so pretend that it was and focus all of your efforts towards meeting that need.
Those are the rules that I have for myself, perhaps they can help guide you when someone is firing arrows in a fit of emotion.
Above all, remember. There is no reward in winning the argument. There is no joy in destroying another person. There are no spoils of war that will make you happy. Our God does not delight in the destruction of relationships. He is not proud of you for winning the argument, having a great comeback, or laying waste to those who attack you. He loves them as much as he loves you.
They might not ever fully enter into relationship with you again, and if the relationship was abusive then it is best to set up boundaries to protect yourself and the ones you love. I’ve had to let many relational seasons come to an end, and its okay. Seasons come and go, and sometimes unhealthy influences need to be removed from your life. But God is not willing that any should perish, and our desires should mirror His. Our desire should be exactly what God desires: “that all should come to repentance”. This is not only about eterna relationship with God, it is also about our relationships with each other here and now.
When the dust settles you will be left either standing side-by-side with them again, or standing alone. But then you will have to answer to God for your own responses, your own motives, and the current state of your soul. Will you still be at peace then?
I leave you with the words of Paul, who had far more attacks leveled at him then you or I ever will, and still had the purity of heart to write this in Romans 12:17-19:
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.…
Every single Sunday morning I ask countless people the american greeting question: “Hey, how are things?”. And ninety nine point nine percent of the time I receive an answer similar to “Man, things are so busy!”. Everyone is so busy. When you look into the eyes of other people you can see the glazed over look of a life that is filled with wall to wall obstacles, appointments and meetings. So many hurdles to wade through from the moment the feet hit the floor until the head finally hits the pillow in exhaustion. Yet we talk about how busy we are with our chests pushed out, as if we were waiting for the medal of american respect to be pinned to our chests because, yes… we are so very busy.
A relative of mine works for a ministry where there are weekly meetings that he has secretly dubbed “busy time”. One by one each person at the table takes their turn spinning tales of busy-ness. Each one greater than the last until they all can smile and affirm together that, yes, they are the busiest people they know.
On the other hand I have far too many conversations after Sunday worship gatherings that are filled with statements like “I just don’t feel close to God” or “I don’t have time to read and study, to meditate and exercise and grow”.
We always seem to have time for everyone else’s needs, but never for our own. We have time to help everyone else build what they want to build, but never time to build ourselves into what we want and need to become.
I have a small phrase that I want to give you. I think it will be a gift to you. And I think this little phrase can change your life. Are you ready? Here we go:
Your calendar is not about what you need to get done, it is about the kind of person that you want to be.
Your calendar should represent the you of your dreams. When I hear the laments of people who are unhappy with who they are right now, the state of their spiritual lives, the mass of chaos that has become their soul, I don’t need to wonder what their calendar for the last 6 months looked like. I already know.
They have been pouring themselves out. For everyone. For friends and family and bosses and co-workers, and even for God. The color coded blocks that pepper their ical like shotgun blasts represent a thousand little pieces of their heart and soul that they are giving away to others. Sometimes out of love, sometimes out of obligation, and sometimes out of fear.
And the blank spaces in their calendar represent the times that, if nothing else comes up, just might be times when they can refill their souls that have been running on fumes for months, if not years. When did it become okay, and even a badge of honor, to wear exhaustion around necks? When did it become acceptable to give the reigns of your life over to the tyranny of the whims of other people?
I made a decision at some point over the last couple of years to stop the madness. And it all started with a question:
What kind of person do you want to be in six months?
And let me follow that up with another question:
Does your calendar represent a movement towards becoming that person?
If not, you need to delete it and start over.
You see, your life shouldn’t be found in the blank spaces. Your personal growth and health should be first and foremost laid out in the boldest colors. And they should be locked in and immoveable.
Open your calendar today and ask yourself a couple of questions:
Do you want a better prayer life? Yes? Then show me exactly where on your calendar you have designated time for prayer, for reading books on prayer, for praying with others.
Do you want to have a deeper understanding of theology and spirituality? Show me where on your calendar you have designated times for reading, for meeting with your pastor or elders, or for taking classes on those particular subjects.
Do you want to have a better marriage? A deeper and more active sex life? A more intimate relationship with your spouse? So when were you planning on pursuing them? If you are just waiting for things to happen, you are forgetting that you are already struggling to find time for yourself and your God… weren’t those things just supposed to “happen” as well?
How about rest? Is vacation an afterthought? Are you putting money away every week in order to go to the mountains or the ocean and fill yourself up? Or are you just hoping that you will stumble into some extra days off and then struggle to stressfully scrape up some cash to do so? You don’t really believe that you will come back filled up when you stressed over money the entire time, do you?
Six months from now you will be someone else. And it’s your choice who that person will be.
If you don’t tell your time how it will be spent, then other people will. I promise you. Do you know why? Because you have no reason to say no. Your calendar is wide open, and your achilles heal is exposed. But your defense mechanism is the simple phrase: “I’m sorry, my calendar is booked at that time”.
One thing that I have noticed is that no one ever questions the calendar. If you tell them “I will be playing candyland with my daughter”, they will become irritated at your lack of commitment to whatever it is that they deem important. BUT, if your reply is “The Calendar is booked” then there is no questions. The calendar is gospel to them, because they are busy, and busyness is honorable. Candyland is not.
So may your calendar reflect your sanctification. Your movement towards a life that reflects Jesus. The desires of your heart to live a meaningful life. To learn, to love, to grow, and to build a life that is filled with grace and peace.
Your calendar is not a reflection of what you need to get done. It is a well lit path towards kind of person that you will become. So fill ‘er up.