6:04 AM Much is being written in the blogosphere these days about American exceptionalism, voting, military service, the pledge of allegiance, etc. The discussion reminds me of another conversation that took place between the 16th century Anabaptists and their Reformed forebears. (History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.) Perhaps I should tell you where I stand.
Claiming God’s special blessing for our nation (or race, or class, or group) is nothing but hubris. We co-opt God for our political agenda whenever it suits us. As Lincoln put it in his Second Inaugural:
Neither party [North or South] expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained…. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other….
Radical Christianity pursues a different path. Rather than trying to get God to be on our side, it tries to be on God’s side. This means, among other things, putting God’s purposes ahead of our own group or nation’s self-interest. This is the original NT message called the Gospel. It is a practical vision that creates a people who transfer their human identities from national loyalties to a new identity as the global people of God. Their mission is both to proclaim and live the kingdom of God, in contrast to the selfish kingdoms of this world. This “new nation” of Christ-followers does more than preach the Gospel. It lives it. Wherever you see Christians welcoming Muslims into their community and befriending them for the sake of the Gospel, wherever you see pro-life churches going beyond mere words of protest and actively supporting pregnant women financially so that they can carry their children to birth, wherever you see believers offering hope where nobody else does – there you will see kingdom of God in practice.
In his book, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, David Kuo, former deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, reveals how the Republicans in the Bush administration sought the votes of evangelicals but had no real interest in leading a new Great Awakening. “This [is the] message that has been sent out to Christians for a long time now: that Jesus came primarily for a political agenda, and recently primarily a right-wing political agenda – as if this culture war is a war for God. And it’s not a war for God, it’s a war for politics. And that’s a huge difference,” said Kuo in an interview on 60 Minutes. His point? Mixing evangelical faith and Washington politics-as-usual is antithetical to the Gospel.
Herein lies one of the greatest challenges of modern American evangelicalism. Today God and conservatism have practically merged into one. The “wonder-working power” of politics now drives a large segment of the Christian right. But sin is our trouble, not liberalism in government. To treat cancer by temporary measures is to endanger the victim still worse. David Kuo will probably be considered a neurotic pessimist by his cheery fellow-preachers, but he is right and they are wrong, even if he learned his lesson the hard way. Modern political machinations – whether by the right wing or the left wing of evangelicalism – are nothing more than fads that work up mere optimism and positive thinking. Whenever government tries to make men good without being righteous – something the devil would love more than anything in this fallen world – the professing church becomes cluttered with hosts of superficial saints who never sell out to Christ.
Anyone who reads the New Testament will see that Jesus refused to identify Himself with any of the politico-religious parties of His day, whether they were called Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, or Zealots. Likewise, Christians today must maintain an ultimate commitment to Christ and eschew loyalty to a political party – any political party. It is indeed a decadent citizenry that rejects sound doctrine and heaps to itself politicians to tickle its itching ears. Yet who will deny that this is happening? Mr. Kuo is undoubtedly aware of the risks he is taking in airing his criticisms. When Alexander Solzhenitsyn delivered the 1978 commencement speech at Harvard, one newspaper said, “Prophets are not popular. They are uncomfortable people; they make poor house guests. Not only are they not honored in their own countries but sometimes not even in their own times. The greatest of them have been labeled as arrogant, self-righteous, presumptuous, unpatriotic.” Mr. Kuo’s experience is a reminder of how easy it is for well-meaning Christians to substitute political activism for genuine compassion. As long as good people try to remedy conditions with temporary palliatives there will be a need for prophets like David Kuo. That’s because lostness – not liberalism, not libertarianism, not “compassionate conservatism” – is our problem. We are sinners, blind, even lepers, and to try to make people religious without making them righteous only makes them harder to reach with what they need most.
If there is to be today a new politics of faith based on the cross of Christ, it will have to meet critically these issues. This means for me personally that it is not enough to question the just war tradition or to condemn the Constantinian compromise in the abstract. Nor is it enough to rail against the Christ-washed militarism being offered in His name by our politicians. Nor can I merely exegete Jesus’ mandate in the Sermon on the Mount disinterestedly. The only responsible Christian ethic is for me to become an active participant in service and sacrifice for the sake of the Prince of Peace. I must discover what it means to rid myself completely of the baggage of self-will and to plunge into the tranquil sea of God’s will where alone I will find joy. There are countless situations in my life in which I must decide to put the interests of others above my own life-interests. The power of nonviolence is an important step on the downward path of Jesus, but only if I deliberately chose such a path can “peace on earth” begin to be realized. At the very least, this means for me:
- rejecting the mindset of Western imperialism
- refusing to support the notion that Christian missions benefits from the spread of empire
- preaching the cross instead of the protection of the sword
- placing love of enemy at the heart of the Gospel rather than at its periphery
- affirming an allegiance to Christ that transcends national boundaries or roles
- bearing witness of sacrificial service in the name of Christ
- helping to move peace toward the center of the church’s witness in the world
- teaching about the alternative model provided by the historic peace churches
- living a life of radical discipleship
- being willing to suffer in the spirit of the cross and to undergo a literal baptism unto death if need be
- focusing on the cross as the center of my faith and life
- manifesting the firstfruits of the kingdom of peace in mutual aid and love with the community of faith
- repudiating any coercion or manipulation of faith by the state
- praying constantly that God would move to ameliorate the hatred and pride that provide the occasion for war
- struggling to perfect my life by the Holy Spirit in the confidence that the Lord is at work
- being nonconformist yet involved in attempts at reconciliation worldwide
- preaching the Gospel persuasively and powerfully in deed as well as in word
- maintaining warm Christian fellowship with all who sincerely follow the guidance of conscience with regard to military service, including those who feel obliged to render such service
In the end, while I cannot say that I am currently a peace church pacifist, this is irrelevant since pacifism, unlike the just war tradition, is not as much a dogma to be believed as a lifestyle to be practiced. The work of a genuine peacemaker must be to call civil governments to account and to help limit the violence when conflict is actually in progress. At the very least there is never any reason to glorify revolution or war or to utter blatantly warmongering statements such as were made by candidate John McCain in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. The downward path of Jesus to which the Gospel calls us requires both peacefulness and peacemaking, and the history of the church shows our urgent need to be reminded of these twin emphases again and again in view of the church’s compliance with violence.