Peace, Victory, and the Gospel

A Reflection for Independence Day

Last July 4 weekend I came across the following church announcement:

“Our Verse of the Day is Psalm 33:12: Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance. Let’s thank God for our freedom today, and pray for the safety and success for the mission of our soldiers around the world as they bring justice to the terrorists so that we can be safe and free from tyranny, here on our country’s soil.”

Typical Independence Day language, but it started me thinking: Is this the kind of language we should be speaking in the church? Is our confidence for well-being based on our military might? What about the remaining words of the same psalm?:

No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him. . . . We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield (33:16-20).

I noticed that the church announcement and suggested prayer lacked an important word: peace.

Shouldn’t our prayers go out for peace rather than victory (which equals peace at the cost of more deaths)? Certainly we should pray for the safety of our soldiers, but what about prayers for Iraqi and Afghani civilians? Many more of them are dying every day. What is Jesus’ message to us in all this?

A Thin Line

Approximately 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 (see iraqbodycount.org). And experts agree that is a conservative estimate. One 2006 study showed the number of civilians dead at that time to already be between 400,000 and 600,000 (Lancet study, as covered in the New York Times).

Those are startling numbers. On Sept. 11, 2001, when nearly 3,000 civilians died in the United States, we appropriately reacted with outrage. But somehow our outrage subsides when the innocent dead are farther away both geographically and culturally.

Given such statistics, you wonder what makes terrorism so terrible and war so legitimate. In reality, the line between terrorism and war is a thin one, as Wendell Berry notes: “The National Security Strategy defines terrorism as ‘premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents.’ This is truly a distinct kind of violence, but to imply by the word ‘terrorism’ that this sort of terror is the work exclusively of ‘terrorists’ is misleading. The ‘legitimate’ warfare of technologically advanced nations likewise is premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents. The distinction between the intention to perpetrate violence against innocents, as in ‘terrorism,’ and the willingness to do so, as in ‘war,’ is not a source of comfort” (“A Citizen’s Response to the National Security Strategy of the United States”).

Jesus as an Iraqi?

I find it alarming to see many Christians so supportive of such revenge-motivated foreign policy. In our patriotic fervor, we seem to forget Jesus’ call for us to love our enemies, not destroy them with the largest and wealthiest army the world has ever known.

“But,” we say, “Jesus was just talking about interpersonal relationships, not national politics.” Was he? The world Jesus lived in was in some ways very different from our own, but in other ways he was on the other end of a very similar context. His Middle Eastern nation was occupied by the largest superpower in the world at that time. And that empire claimed to spread peace, freedom, civilization, and security. We like to imagine Jesus as an American wearing a “God Bless America” T-shirt. In fact, we’d do better to imagine him as an Iraqi.

Many in Jesus’ audience were eager for armed revolt against Rome. It was to them that Jesus said, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. . . . If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matt. 5:39, 41). Roman soldiers felt free to remind the occupied Jewish people who was in charge with a physical blow.  Roman law required people living under Roman rule to carry a soldier’s gear one mile if requested. Jesus addresses people involved in real conflicts with real governments and real soldiers, not simply interpersonal relationships.

Jesus’ entire life and ministry could be viewed as a contrast to what the world offers. In the end, about to face the might of Rome, Jesus told Pilate (Rome’s local representative), “My kingdom is not of this world; if it were, my servants would fight . . .” (John 18:36). He wasn’t saying that his kingdom is apolitical; rather, he was saying how his kingdom is political: “the essential difference is that in my kingdom, we do not fight to maintain the kingdom” (Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President, p. 110).

New Testament scholar Marcus Borg notes that Jesus’ words would have had an unmistakable meaning in the politically violent situation of first-century Palestine: “For a public figure to speak of loving one’s enemies in such a setting would unambiguously mean to disavow the path of violence and war” (Jesus: A New Vision, p. 139). The church for its first 300 years understood this and maintained a path of nonviolence. It was only when the church went from being a minority in the Roman Empire to the official religion of the empire under Constantine that it began to endorse warfare as sometimes legitimate—indeed, even necessary.

Biblical Ambiguity

Some will say that we can support war because in the Bible it is sometimes even sanctioned by God. John Dominic Crossan addresses this ambiguity: “The ambiguity of divine power suffuses the Christian Bible in both its Testaments and therefore presses this question for us Christians: how do we reconcile the ambiguity of our Bible’s violent and/or nonviolent God? The Bible forces us to witness the struggles of these two transcendental visions within its own pages and to ask ourselves as Christians how we decide between them. My answer is that we are bound to whichever of these visions was incarnated by and in the historical Jesus. It is not the violent but the nonviolent God who is revealed to Christian faith in Jesus of Nazareth and announced to Christian faith by Paul of Tarsus. That is how we Christians decide between a violent and nonviolent God in the Bible: Christ is the norm of the Bible, the criterion of the New Testament, the incarnation of the Gospel” (God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, pp. 94-95).

Are we to blame for not taking Jesus at his word? Marcus Borg notes that it is understandable that the church has largely denied the political thrust of Jesus’ words: “Through time the church became enculturated, and it is very difficult for an enculturated religion to stand in tension with culture. For the church to have said that following Jesus meant nonviolence would have made the church into a counterculture. Only occasionally has it been willing to be so since the time of Jesus and his earliest followers” (Jesus: A New Vision, p. 139).

Perhaps it is time for a countercultural church and message to re-emerge. In this day of multibillion-dollar war budgets, may we remember that the Bible from its very beginning calls us to bless the world, rather than rid the world of evil. The latter is God’s business, as Paul reminds us in Romans 12: “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary . . . do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vv. 19-21).

In that light, may the words of this old hymn guide us forward:
“Lead on, O King eternal, till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
and holiness shall whisper the sweet amen of peace.
For not with swords’ loud clashing or roll of stirring drums-
[but] with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”

________
This article originally appeared in The Banner entitled Reflections for Independence Day.

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5 thoughts on “Peace, Victory, and the Gospel

  1. Dear Bryan:

    Thank you for your excellent article “promoting peace rather than victory.” I could not have agreed with you more. Two years ago I was preaching on Ephesians 2:14 “He is himself our peace…” I said that the slogan with which we went to war against Afghanistan “America strikes back” was not a Christian slogan. I quoted Romans 12 “Vengeance is mine… and a man stood up and interrupt my preaching saying, “I can’t stand to hear this any more,” and he walked out. I heard afterwards that
    he was a retired military officer in Afghanistan.

    I am almost a complete pacifist, but I have tried hard to defend the “just war theory” and have been very vocal in saying that the war in Iraq does not meet the criteria. WW 2 does. Do you have an opinion on that?

    Blessings,

    Don Griffioen

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  2. The Myth of Redemptive Violence

    I highly appreciated Mark Hamstra’s response to my article, Reflection for Independence Day. I appreciated it in terms of both tone and content. Hamstra obviously is highly invested in the topic, and his reaction to something that questions the heart of his occupation could have been volatile or reactive. I sensed neither. Rather, a tone of calm, mature reasoning permeated his thoughts, and for that level of calm discussion about such a difficult topic, I am grateful.

    I sense that an important conversation has started here, and I would hope it continues for many of us. In that light, several of Hamstra’s points require further consideration. In response to my article, which relied primarily on Scriptural references and context; he relied primarily on the argument of history. This is not surprising, as we tend to think that Jesus’ descriptions of human behavior and his vision of the kingdom of God represent an unattainable utopia or a future that will only occur once the kingdom comes in its fullness. Yet such a position fails to account for the equally valid call to “love our enemies” and to be the presence of the kingdom even now that Jesus so clearly articulates.

    The “test of history” argument, concerning a hypothetical South Korean woman, assumes a false premise – that because violence on occasion has led to positive results it was the only course of action that could have led to those results. Perhaps another route could have led to even more positive results (and with a lot less bloodshed and tragedy). Also implicit here is a second assumption: that the ends justify the means. A position yet worth considering is whether we should avoid violence even if it were known to be the only way to achieve some apparently good result.

    Wars have happened quite often in history – and their effects are many and varied. It is difficult to say years later: “Look at all the good it did or how great they have it in X country because of Y conflict”. It’s never that simple. The fact of the matter is that we give far more coverage in the media and textbooks to wars than to nonviolent efforts in history, probably because wars are more dramatic. (Also, when wars are portrayed in our history as consistently successful and useful solutions to political problems, we tend not to consider alternatives to war, and we continue to fund the military industry, among other things).
    Perhaps we shouldn’t speak to this South Korean woman about nonviolence, not because we don’t want to spoil her enjoyment of the hard-won efforts of war, but because she may regret all the relatives who died pursuing a path of violence, and realize that perhaps there could have been another way. Indeed, in God’s kingdom it seems there should have been another way.

    Hamstra also said we must clarify the division between church and nation. Rightly so. Yet in doing so, we must not forget that the US is seen around the world, and especially in the Middle East, as primarily a Christian nation. Actions taken by the US often reflect on how people perceive Christianity (whether it should or not is a different issue).

    To say that ‘nations fight wars, churches do not’ is true at one level (at this particular point in history – a relatively recent development); but again, what are churches but communities of people and what are nations but a larger community of people, many of whom belong to churches and identify themselves as Christians. If it is wrong for individuals to mistreat other individuals, or a group to mistreat another group, it’s not suddenly OK because we’re doing it here in another context. If it is wrong, it is wrong.

    Hamstra himself said that the church is organic and transcends all boundaries – if so, it ought to infiltrate every area of our lives, and we should not be able to separate one area and suddenly legitimize behavior we would otherwise acknowledge as morally forbidden and even reprehensible. The military is made up in large part of people who identify as followers of Jesus, who would all agree that his teachings set the moral standard for Christians. It is problematic to then assume that because of a certain job or societal role they are now somehow exempted from these moral standards.

    The example of the centurion in Hamstra’s was not very helpful, and probably misused. It was a story of Jesus’ compassion on an individual, and showed his willingness to care for those whom other Jews in that context might have despised or disassociated from. There is no conversation other than the centurion asking for help from Jesus and Jesus commending his faith. Not a word is said about anything else. To say that in this story Jesus did not advocate non-violence is a complete argument from silence. The interaction between Jesus and this man is not in a context of battle or even a discussion of the man’s occupation, or what he should do to follow Jesus – none of that is there. I could equally use that text and say that Jesus then told the man to leave his life of military service to follow the path of peace.

    When we have actual words of Jesus disavowing the use of the sword and saying, ‘My kingdom is not of this world otherwise my servants would fight’ and ‘Those who live by the sword die by the sword’; when we see him weeping over Jerusalem because he knew they would refuse to follow the path of peace – we have a much stronger case to say that Jesus had a perfect opportunity to push a nonviolent agenda, and did.

    Add to that the reality that the church for its first three hundred years did not advocate war and most Christians who were in the Roman (or any other) army would leave it as a matter of principle because of their faith, you have to think that they, being closer in time and culture and context to Jesus, might know a thing or two about following him that we’ve lost over the years. (For more background on this, see Robert Wilkins’ The Christians as the Romans Saw Them).

    Hamstra admits that it is not good when the church “takes on the identity and mission of the nation”, yet that is exactly what many of our churches do. He acts surprised and claims most churches don’t do this – yet it is incredibly widespread as the example that prompted my article in the first place showed. (This is also reinforced vigorously in our culture by talk radio, cable news, and various religio-political groups).

    If we want to really make a difference in the world, and live as Jesus did, it is time we transcend our church walls and get out on the front lines of hostilities between nations where walking the path of nonviolence is the true sacrifice that might one day lead to real and lasting change, finally ending the seemingly out of control cycle of violence we are currently trapped in.

    AUTHOR
    Rev. Bryan Berghoef is the pastor of Watershed Church in Traverse City, MI

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  3. Here is a response from a Captain in the US Army to my article about Peace, Victory, and the Gospel. His response was printed in the September issue of the Banner.

    Following this I will also post my response to his response, which the Banner has decided not to print.

    A Note from Afghanistan
    by Mark Hamstra

    While I agree with Rev. Berghoef’s appropriate frustration over the July 4 church announcement calling for victory with no mention of peace (“Reflection for Independence Day,” June 2009), I do not agree with his call for nonviolence.

    I write from Afghanistan, where I am serving a 12-month deployment—training, advising, and fighting alongside the Afghan National Army as they promote peace through security in this war-torn land. Like Berghoef, I, too, have read and been thoroughly challenged by authors Shaine Claiborne and Chris Haw—by their courage and passion for the gospel of Christ lived out.

    However, I believe the nonviolence movement is an overreaction to the religious conservative right. Yes, it’s frustrating that the church has not been the voice of our Savior’s call for peace and justice. Yes, it’s frustrating that our identity as “church” is often more loyal to our citizenship in earthly nations than to the kingdom of heaven. But let’s not miss out on becoming an empowered community that can rise above those barriers.

    Let me use Korea as an example to explain my point. If you visit the Korean peninsula, please don’t talk to an 80-year-old South Korean woman about nonviolence. While that woman knows firsthand the absolute tyranny and horror of warfare, she also knows that the sacrifices of a generation of Koreans, Americans, and their allies, fighting an incredibly violent war, brought peace to her nation.

    When you witness how people in North Korea continue to suffer while people in South Korea thrive, you cannot help but be grateful for the nations that sacrificed violently in the cause of Korean freedom.

    My point here is that the plea for national nonviolence does not stand up to the test of history. Yes, there are countless examples of misused violence, but there are too many examples of violence used to obtain peace and justice for us to justify abandonment of the national use of violent force.

    On the other hand, does the church in North Korea still exist and, in some cases, flourish? Yes, it does. And to the south, have many been infected with the greed of capitalism? Yes, without a doubt. But the church is bigger than communism. The church is bigger than democracy. It’s bigger than human freedoms. It’s countercultural. It’s organic. It transcends national borders. The church doesn’t need democracy. The church is the church, and a nation is a nation. Nations fight wars. Churches do not.

    Yes, Romans 12 says, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. . . .” The church should not be about taking revenge, but maybe there is a time for a nation to do so. The error would be when the church takes on the identity and the mission of the nation, as did the church Berghoef mentions in the beginning of his article.

    In Matthew 8, when Jesus healed the servant of a Roman army commander, he had a perfect opportunity to push a nonviolent agenda, but he didn’t. He lauded the centurion’s humility and faith. I think that’s pretty significant. Perhaps Jesus needed that centurion, someone who could live out the message of Christ on the thin line of war and terrorism. Someone who could walk amid the fog, confusion, and horror of war with wisdom, while leading his soldiers to do the same.

    It’s time for the church to be bigger than the community that wants victory more than peace, but it’s also time for the church to be bigger than nonviolence and pacifism. It’s time to be a church that calls its people to vocations that engage the world in which we live.

    AUTHOR
    Mark Hamstra
    Mark Hamstra is a captain in the U.S. Army, currently stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He grew up in the CRC in the Chicago area.

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  4. Here were some letters to the editor following my article:

    Promoting Peace
    It was good to read Rev. Bryan Berghoef’s “Reflection for Independence Day” (June 2009). Berghoef raises important questions about our patriotic observances and how our casual acceptance of war and violence in the campaign against terror are contrary to Christ’s teachings.

    There is, of course, a place for a moderate defense of life and property, but we have gone far beyond that into a Rome-like international posture of power and dominance.

    We have “nationalized” our Christianity and forgotten (or ignored) Jesus’ teachings on love and peace and a kingdom that “is not of this world.” That nationalism has co-opted our faith so that we no longer detect the fundamental difference between the two.

    —George De Vries Jr.
    Orange City, Iowa

    I had been wondering these years, Where are the prophets in the CRC?
    Thank you.
    —Jake Prins
    Grand Rapids, Mich.

    I was incredibly surprised and dismayed that The Banner would print such a skewed line of thinking. Rev. Berghoef asks, “Is our confidence for well-being based on our military might?” No, it is not, which is why we pray to God for the safety of our soldiers and for men and women of any country who are killed as bystanders to war.

    “Shouldn’t our prayers go out for peace rather than victory (which equals peace at the cost of more deaths)?” Yes and no. Peace can sometimes be achieved only through victory. Ask those who suffered slavery but were freed through the Civil War. Ask those who suffered under Hitler but were liberated by soldiers with weapons. Do we pray for peace? Yes, but we also sometimes must pray for victory.

    —Rose Frasier
    Grand Rapids, Mich.

    Iraq is no longer a front-page story. I believe that it is important for the us to remember that currently there are more than 2 million Iraqi refugees and displaced persons. Among them is a high percentage of Iraqi Christians. Before the 2003 American invasion, Iraq had between 800,000 to 1 million Christians. The invasion has been a disaster for the Iraqi Christian church. For a long time now, I have encouraged the Christian Reformed Church to at least offer a cup of cold water to the displaced Iraqi civilians, which includes a good percentage of Iraqi Christians. It is the least that we can do, and it is what Jesus would have us do.

    —Neal Bierling
    Ada, Mich.

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