Thursday, August 9, 2012

"Neither Male nor Female": Kingdom Ethics and Queer Equality


The following is a product-in-progress of years of spiritual and intellectual wrestling, informed by many respectful conversations with the biblical text, the Spirit, and Others (by which I mean people different from me, by which I mean everyone). If you would like to join in the conversation, please do so respectfully, having met the following prerequisites: (a) reading the following carefully, critically, and respectfully in its fullness, (b) doing your own research, carefully and rigorously studying the biblical texts and their cultural contexts, (c) spending time in reflection, emptying yourself of all beliefs and prejudices and asking the Spirit to fill you with Truth, Grace, Love, and Humility, (d) rigorously reevaluating your stance, (e) rigorously reevaluating my stance, (f) finding common ground, and (g) finding respectful differences. Once these prerequisites are met, you are permitted to continue the conversation respectfully, by commenting on this post or on its Facebook link--or, if you would like to continue the conversation privately (which I have found is the best way to have such a conversation), by emailing me at brandonthomascall@gmail.com or by messaging me on Facebook. Thanks for your time. I believe with all my heart that the issue is important enough to merit it.

Disclaimer: The f-word is used, in its literal sense, carefully and intentionally three times in the following text. I recognize that it is a repulsive word. I do not use it for shock value, nor to offend, but merely because it is precisely what I mean.

            What is the appropriate Christian response to gay rights? What does the Bible have to say about same-sex sexuality? If you like to get people riled up, these are likely some of your favorite questions. Everyone thinks they know the answer. Conservatives are understandably convinced that they are right; after all, the Bible obviously sounds a blanket condemnation against same-sex sexual behavior. There is no denying this--but we must acknowledge that there is an underlying, unspoken assumption in the conservative interpretation of these texts: the belief that the Bible is not only inspired and infallible, but universally so. From this view, if it was true in the ancient Near East or Rome, it must necessarily also be true today. This is poor theology; cultural context must always be taken into consideration. Sometimes the context will not greatly impact our understanding of the biblical text; often, it will. The two most obvious (and important) examples of the revolutionary nature of cultural context are women's inequality and slavery. The Bible--even Paul's writings in the New Testament--appears to condone these injustices. Yet a careful reading of the cultural context in which Paul writes shows that he is actually making the exact opposite case (more on this later)! Such is the power of cultural context: it can set the slaves free. Yet of course we must not be sloppy in our readings; we cannot use cultural context to make the Bible say whatever we want. But, on the other end, we must not ignore it; we must wrestle with its weightiness. The Bible was not written yesterday, in English, in the United States of America. If we want to understand what the Bible says to us today, on this or any issue, we must first set our whole hearts, souls, minds, and strengths to understanding what it said to its original audiences. Only then can we move forward, extracting the underlying principles and applying them to our current cultural situation. 1
            In our reading of the biblical texts on same-sex sexuality, we understandably (but wrongly) superimpose our modern understanding of the issue over the text. We approach the text thinking about "sexual orientations," wherein a person is exclusively attracted to the same or opposite sex. Yet the authors of the biblical text could not have this in mind, as "sexual orientation" is a modern psychological concept; the term "homosexual" was coined by German psychologist Karoly Kertbeny in 1868. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that we can or cannot generalize the biblical understanding of same-sex sexuality to our culture today--but first we have to understand what the biblical understanding is. To do this, we have to shed our modern concept of "sexual orientation" and attempt instead to understand ancient sexuality, especially sexuality as framed and experienced by the Greeks and Romans. To my knowledge, the best source of information on Graeco-Roman culture is the Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD); for this essay, I am referencing The Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World (ODCW), a compact version of the OCD published in 2007 (simply because it is the most up-to-date version I could find at a library in Tyler, Texas).
            Before we continue, please set any defensiveness aside. In the next two paragraphs, I am simply stating the facts of Graeco-Roman sexuality as classical historians currently understand them. They are neutral: no matter your viewpoint, it should be informed by these facts. Please go to your local library and check the facts yourself. Once we understand them as best we can, we can move forward with our interpretations thereof.
            In ancient Graeco-Roman culture--the context in which Paul writes--sexuality was not framed in terms of attraction towards one gender or the other. Sexuality was framed, instead, in terms of the active and passive roles--the penetrator and the penetrated, the dominator and the dominated, the (excuse my language, but the ugliness is precisely appropriate) fucker and the fucked. There were strict social rules to regulate this kind of sexuality. Roman men were permitted to penetrate women, boys, male foreigners, or male slaves--in short, anyone lower on the social scale than themselves. For a Roman man to penetrate his social equal would have been considered an act of violence; it would have degraded the undegraded. Roman sexuality, then, appears to be primarily a reinforcer of power differentials, of social inequality. As the ODCW says, "Phallic insertion was a sign of male precedence; it also expressed social domination and seniority" (p. 351).
            Roman culture was strictly patriarchal, its sexuality unequal, completely centered around the elite male and his pleasure in dominance. We can see this in the common practice of pederasty, where, while the men were considered to be driven by eros, the boys were (as we might expect) at best driven by philia (i.e., non-erotic love and respect). Men who were penetrated had to be careful not to display any enjoyment or they would be degraded even further, labeled derisively "as a kinaidos, a pathic, a catamite" (ODCW, p. 352). 2 Likewise, in Roman "heterosexual" relationships, "expressions of wives' love for husbands are common, less common the reverse. A strict double standard was enforced. Men had recourse to hetairai [i.e., courtesans] for love affairs and sophisticated entertainment, or to prostitutes for quick relief...female orgasm is acknowledged but largely ignored by the (male) sources...Roman sources illustrate a marked scale of pleasure for the agent and humiliation for the object...Receiving fellatio was esp. prized. Cunnilingus was most vile and degrading to the giver" (ODCW, p. 342). Roman sexuality, therefore, was designed for the male, the penetrator, the subject--the object, already socially degraded, was there to be, well, fucked. Our hard-fought-for modern conception of sexuality as being between two social equals, an expression of oneness and intimacy, would have been completely foreign to this culture. It would have opposed everything they believed, the very structure of their society. It would have been revolutionary, subversive, disturbing, infuriating.
            Yet it is precisely such an unthinkable equality for which Paul stands in his epistles. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus overturned all social inequality, dignifying the undignified. His Kingdom of Heaven, starkly opposed to the Roman Empire, allows only equality and unity. Paul states this most succinctly in Galatians 3:28 (TNIV): "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." We must attempt to listen to this with the ears of Roman citizens. Can we see how revolutionary it is? It overturns the very foundations of Roman society. Do we see its radical implications for Roman sexuality? If there are no foreigners...and no slaves...and no women...no objects, but only equal subjects...what does this do to the strict division between penetrator and penetrated, dominator and dominated? Sex in the Kingdom, then, is necessarily between equals--a previously unheard-of phenomenon. We are witnessing here the roots of gender and sexual equality--in, of all places, Paul's theology of sexuality! What has been considered to be conservative, restrictive, and even backwards is, when placed in its cultural context, profoundly progressive and liberating! Thus, in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, when Paul tells women, children, and slaves to submit, this--which can be so offensive to our modern American ears--would have been simply white noise to Roman citizens; it is precisely what they would expect him to say. But what they could not imagine him saying is precisely what he says next, making it reciprocal, taking a radical step towards equality. Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 5, it is white noise when Paul says, "The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband." But we are witnessing the birth of a cultural revolution when he says, "In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife." This is reiterated in Ephesians 5: "Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies." In a culture where sexual pleasure is reserved for the elite male, this is a truly revolutionary teaching. We see a new ethos being developed here, surely incomplete, surely culturally bound, but nonetheless a beginning: the ball of equality commencing its roll down through history, a movement that we are only today beginning to see come to fruition, a revolutionary movement born of Jesus' teachings--a movement of the Kingdom of Heaven.
            Yet here we must painfully acknowledge that the Church has historically been a two-faced creature. On one side, we have carefully paid heed to the second half of Paul's radical syllogisms and have moved forward towards equality and Love in the name of Christ. On the other side, we have heard only the first half of what Paul had to say, his statement of the Roman social norms, and have been misguided to think that this was the point. Thus, also in the name of Christ, the Church has tragically been a source of oppression, regression, inequality, and hate. But the good news is that Love will ultimately win out. Slavery has been abolished. (We must now turn our attention to the more insidious slavery, illegal but allowed, that is thriving in the underbelly of our culture.) Women's equality has been legislated. (We must now turn our attention to the inequality, illegal but allowed, that still persists in our corporations, institutions, and policies.) Ultimately, somehow, Love will win. Surely this will only be accomplished fully upon Christ's return; yet we, as citizens of the Kingdom even now, must work to embody Kingdom ethics in this tenuous, tenacious world of the already-but-not-yet.
            We must now listen carefully to what the biblical text has to say about same-sex sexuality, in light of the Graeco-Roman sexual norms it is addressing.  In 1 Corinthians 6:9, we witness Paul critiquing Roman culture in similar form to what we saw above. In his list of people that must put aside their ways in order to "inherit the kingdom of God," we hear first what the Roman citizen would expect: malakos, a Greek word which means literally "soft to the touch," in Roman culture referring to "catamites," a derogatory word for boys or men taking the passive sexual role. 3 No surprise here: these are the ones Roman culture would have already consider degraded, subordinate, less-than. But Paul surely would have surprised the ears of Roman citizens by immediately following this up with arsenokoites: a word Paul carefully coins by fusing two words together from the Septuagint translation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, meaning essentially "man-bedders," a euphemistic term for those taking the active role sexually. Here, Paul radically undermines what Roman men considered to be their sexual right: the degrading of men of lesser social status. He not only condemns the degraded, as expected, but also the degraders. 4 In opposition to Roman culture where the sexual act is degrading only to those in the passive role (women, boys, slaves, or foreigners), Paul states exactly the opposite: "Flee from sexual immorality (Gk. porneia). All other sins people commit are outside their bodies, but those who sin sexually sin against their own bodies." Those who degrade others are degraded themselves. This is a powerful, counter-cultural teaching. Likewise, in Romans 1, when Paul talks of men "inflamed with lust for one another" (Gk. allelon, "mutually"), committing "shameful acts with other men" and receiving "in themselves the due penalty for their error," the Roman citizen would surely be shocked by the blanket condemnation. Both? Both are degraded? Both are in the wrong? Here is where the biblical text stands in stark contrast to the sexualities of the cultures it critiques: it condemns the male elite with his degrading sexuality, revoking his right to humiliate and oppress. It announces a sexual revolution: sex between equals. And it protects this equality by limiting sexuality to married relationships. In the Kingdom, the male elites are brought down from their pedestals, no longer allowed to degrade, no longer allowed to participate in all of their extramarital sexuality (remember that women were already forbidden from extramarital relations in Roman culture). No more concubines, hetairai, prostitutes, boys, slaves, or foreigners. Only wives. Only committed, equalized love, modeled after the self-sacrificial love of Christ (Eph. 5). This is very good news for women in the Graeco-Roman culture. In this light, Paul's theology of sexuality--including same-sex sexuality--is profoundly liberating. It is profoundly ethical. It states that in the Kingdom of Heaven, there is to be no sexual degradation, no porneia (lit. "prostitution")--only deeply intimate, equalized, dignifying eros. 5
            Yet within this good news, we are also potentially faced with very bad news for sexual minorities, for Paul issues a blanket condemnation against same-sex sexuality--as he knows it. As he knows it. This is an essential distinction--one that is possibly but not necessarily the salvation of sexual minorities. It is a distinction with which we as citizens of the Kingdom must wrestle. We must remember that Paul knew only of a same-sex sexuality that was unjust and degrading, an elite male exercising his social dominance over another man by "reducing" him to the role of a female. But in the Kingdom of Heaven, remember, "there is neither male nor female." This radical social equality, the heritage of Jesus the Christ, has been rolling down through history. We are privileged beyond belief to live in a time where slavery is being abolished and women are being equalized. Jesus' dream is finally beginning to come true. We live in a time of such profound social equality that, for the first time in history, sexual minorities have been able to speak out, to tell their stories, a time where the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Ally--can the acronym get any longer or harder to pronounce?) community is finally given a voice. We as a culture are beginning to listen to intersexual individuals, to hear their story of what it means to have physical sexual characteristics of both genders. We are beginning to listen to transgendered individuals, to hear their story of what it means to have one's psychological gender in conflict with one's physical gender. We are beginning to listen to gay and lesbian individuals, to hear their story of what it means to be exclusively attracted to the same sex from puberty, with no choice in the matter. This is a tremendous honor and a tremendous responsibility. May we dignify these individuals who so bravely tell their stories by listening deeply to those stories and reckoning respectfully with them. It is arrogant and hurtful beyond belief for someone in the sexual majority to deny the testimony of these individuals, to tell them that what they are saying is false. Yet this is precisely what the Church has done and is doing. We have told gay people that they did choose to be attracted to the same sex. We have dictated to them what their experience has been, through our understanding of the biblical text--yet hopefully now we can see that the biblical text was not talking about people like this, that it could not have been, for people like this had no voice in the Graeco-Roman culture. Gays and lesbians are not trying to bring back the sexual degradation of Graeco-Roman culture. On the contrary, they are fighting for dignified, equalized monogamy--the Pauline sexual revolution! This faces the Church with a profound dilemma. For though the Bible issues a blanket condemnation of same-sex sexuality to its original audiences, it is silent on the topic of sexual minorities, as it is necessarily unaware of them, written thousands of years before these voiceless ones were given a voice. As the Church, then, we must wrestle with this silence and seek the good guidance of the Spirit.
            The Church is not new to such wrestling; it is as old as the Council at Jerusalem, where the Church wrestled with what aspects of their lifestyles the Gentiles would have to give up to enter the Church--the most important issue being whether males would have to alter their physical sexual characteristics through circumcision (Acts 15). They decided that "we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality (Gk. porneia, lit. "prostitution," sexual degradation), from the meat of strangled animals and from blood." They justified their decision by saying "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond" these necessary things. And "the people read it and were glad (Gk. chairo, "to rejoice exceedingly") for its encouraging message." We witness in this council an abundance of humility and grace, the apostles and elders carefully and care-fully walking the wobbly line between laying too great a burden on these people and remaining faithful to the law. We need just such a council today, informed by just such a grace and humility. For the message of the Council at Jerusalem is that sometimes, at critical moments in history, when proclaiming the gospel to a new Other, we need to ask the Spirit to help us understand the relevance of the law to our current cultural situation.
            Until the Church takes it upon itself to hold such a council 6, I will do my part by saying that it seems good to the Holy Spirit (as I understand him speaking to me) and to me for the Church to step forward in the Christian tradition of equality. Let us not make it too difficult for the sexual minorities that are turning to God, burdening them by denying them intimate, embodied eros and mutual sexual gratification. But let us exhort them to have nothing to do with porneia, with sexual degradation of any kind, but to treat each other with the utmost love, respect, and equality. 7 Let us call them into the great liberating and equalizing force that is marriage. 8
            Perhaps I am wrong, but if I am, I choose to err on the side of Grace, of Love, of Equality. If I err, I would have my error fully embody Kingdom ethics, fully embedded in the Way of Jesus: declaring dignity and equality for all minorities, even those the religious elite deem "sinners." 9 If I err, I will err trusting in God's unfathomable depths of Grace and Love.


1 This is Exegesis 101. If you don't agree with it, please find a college course on theology and take it. Stat. Then come back and finish reading.^
2 This would not be exactly analogous to someone being called a "faggot" in our culture, but the offensiveness is similar.^
3 For Greek word meanings, I am using the Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. ^
4 Paul continues to say, "And this is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." In our time and culture, this verse has been misused in support of "ex-gay" therapy, or reparative therapy--a process of attempting to change a patient's sexual orientation. Perhaps we can now see the misunderstanding upon which this is based: Paul is addressing all elite Roman males, surely predominantly "heterosexuals" (in our modern, psychological understanding), telling them to quit sexually degrading men who are lower on the social scale than them. In this light, Paul's statement makes perfect sense. Research (and the testimony of thousands of gays and lesbians) has shown that reparative therapy is ineffective and can cause incredible psychological distress to patients. Exodus International, once the leading proponent of reparative therapy, is now distancing itself from the practice, acknowledging that sexual orientation is inherent and unchangable. Click here for a NY Times article on the changes Exodus International is undergoing.^
5 We also see in the biblical text a disapproval of ritual sex in fertility cults--same-sex, opposite-sex, or bestial. In fact, Paul traces the roots of all same-sex sexuality to such pagan rituals in Romans 1:22-27--an inference that would have been utterly logical in his time and culture, despite how hollow it rings to the modern queer ear. This disapproval is also obviously deeply ethical: what is more sexually unjust than living beings being reduced to sexual slaves in the name of spirituality?^
6 To be fair, some denominations already have. I suppose the dream of a united Church is by now thoroughly irrational.^
7 If we consider the act of gay sex itself to be degrading to a man, we are simply illustrating that we ourselves are still enslaved to the prejudices of the patriarchal Graeco-Roman sexual culture. What's that humorous quote? "Homophobia: the fear that gay men will treat you the way you treat women."^
8 As a gay Christian man who is deeply committed to his wife (if that sounds like a series of ludicrous contradictions to you, you've gotta hear my story), I say this not for my own convenience or sexual pleasure, but out of a deep understanding of what it means to be a sexual minority--and, more specifically, to be gay (i.e., exclusively attracted to the same sex from puberty with no choice in the matter). If you are straight, you also need to be informed by such an understanding, but the only way for you to begin to understand is to ask and listen. To then deny the unified testimony of gays and lesbians is, as I have said, shockingly arrogant. You would be just as justified to tell the opposite gender what it feels like to be that gender, denying their own description.^
9 For example, it was common for the Jewish religious elite to condemn those with physical deformities, disabilities, and diseases as "sinners." The law allowed for these individuals to be condemned under "the sins of their fathers." Jesus strictly opposed this, saying of a man born blind, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned" (John 9:3). The ethic here is that people should not be blamed or denied dignity and social/religious equality for "nonconformities" that are outside of their control. I am confident that we can generalize this ethic to same-sex sexual orientations, for gays and lesbians have no choice in their attractions. Whether it can be generalized to same-sex sexual behaviors is obviously much stickier and must be wrestled with as suggested above.^

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

There is Hope

Though the research is my own, the following is, of course, inspired and informed by Rob Bell's Love Wins.


“Enough of this terror! We deserve to know light and grow evermore lighter and lighter!” I struggle to think of a matter more contentious and emotional than Hell. We are controlled, pushed, pulled, dragged through life by the fear of an eternal torment for us and our loved ones. I drive around town and see billboards declaring that Judgment Day is May 21, 2011—and I am terrified! I regress and start to wonder if God will send me to hell…for not believing in hell…but this is insanity! A God who would do this is nothing but the ultimate tyrant, and if he does exist, I could not love him, could not stroke his ego, could not encourage his narcissism. If he were to send me to hell, I would go willingly and let it be my eternal act of civil disobedience. But I cannot believe in such a God. I believe in a God who is better than that, a God of unthinkable love who is in the process of reconciling all things to himself—even the Hitlers and Stalins and Osama bin Ladens of this world. I believe in a hope that is bigger than hell.

To start off with, let’s be clear: there is no clear reference to “Hell” in the Bible. The Old Testament refers only to “Sheol;” the New Testament to “Hades.” Both describe the realm of the dead, where all people, both holy and unholy go. (The word "Hell" itself is the same, a pre-Christian Old English word (hel) for the realm of the dead.) During the intertestamental period, this belief was nuanced so that there were two areas within the one realm of the dead: “Abraham’s bosom” where the good reclined in Abraham’s lap at a forever-feast, and a place of fire where the evil went, with a chasm or river separating the two. In Greek mythology, this river could be crossed by the boatman Charon; in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the chasm is impassable. Regardless, this is absolutely not a “heaven” or “hell,” but only one single realm of the dead, Hades, which we must remember will itself, along with death, be cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14, more on that later). Yes: this realm of the dead is an enemy of God’s plan, and it must be destroyed.

Other than Sheol and Hades, the only other word translated “hell” in the Bible is Gehenna (Gk. geenna)—or the Valley of Hinnom, a valley outside Jerusalem, notorious in the Old Testament: a fact of which Jesus was necessarily conscious. This is the place where the Israelites sacrificed their children to the god Moloch (whether this was a sacrifice involving death or only of passing the child through fire in a purification rite is a matter of much debate; 2 Kings 23:10, 2 Chr. 28:3, 33:6, Jer. 7:31-2, Jer. 19). This is the only thing that Jesus could have in mind when he so negatively refers to the valley. The idea that the Valley of Hinnom was Jerusalem’s city dump where fire burned continuously to consume rubbish and corpses is almost certainly false, as there is no archaeological or literary evidence of this up until the 12th century, when a Jewish rabbi hypothesized that this might be the case! Therefore, when Jesus is talking about Gehenna, he is almost certainly referencing the judgment prophesied to take place in the Valley of Hinnom in Jeremiah 7:30-34 and 19, where all of Israel’s evil will be laid bare and turned against herself—where her enemies will come against her, she will eat her own sons and daughters, and her dead will be more than the earth can hold so that they will be piled up until the place can only be referred to as the Valley of Slaughter. Perhaps Judas was the first person to know this sorrow of Gehenna, as he killed himself in the Potter’s Field, likely in the Valley of Hinnom (cf. Jer. 19:1), his own evil deeds having destroyed him.

Knowing all this, we’re left having to interpret what Jesus meant, as Gehenna is obviously a metaphor—not a factual statement about hell. No matter what you believe about hell, you necessarily must have interpreted that belief from a metaphor for which there are likely other plausible interpretations. When I consider the traditional interpretation of Hell, the reality of the Valley of Hinnom seems to expose its blatant absurdity. Is Gehenna the place where God sacrifices his own children in the fire—though he was, of course, vehemently opposed to the human practice of child sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom? Impossible! On the other hand, if the Moloch ritual was actually a purification rite, this would make better sense of Jesus’ references to Gehenna (especially in light of other supposed “Hell” references to follow). Detestable though it was, that pagan purification ritual was a symbol of God’s coming true purification by fire.

Speaking of purification by fire, let’s consider the lake of fire and our abominably bad English translations of the Bible. It makes me furious how our translation of the Bible is informed by our preconceived dogmas instead of vice versa (e.g., Gk. lestes being translated as “thief,” though “insurrectionist” is almost certainly the correct translation in many cases). Take Revelation 20:10: “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” The Lake of Fire is also apparently the destination of death, Hades, and those whose names are not written in the Book of Life (Rev. 20:13-15). As translated, this verse is a death blow to any conception of “hell” as a temporary purification, a small part of God’s grand plan of reconciling all things to himself. But then, by golly, I look up the words for “tormented” and “brimstone,” and I am danger of exploding from simultaneous joy and fury. The word for “tormented” is bansanizo, the primary meaning of which is “to test (metals) by the touchstone, which is a black siliceous stone used to test the purity of gold or silver by the colour of the streak produced on it by rubbing it with either metal” (www.studylight.org). So—will they be “tormented” for ever and ever? Or will they be tested for ever and ever—and when they are finally pure, retrieved and restored and reconciled with rejoicing? I want to scream because the answer is so obvious. But what will be the means of their purification? First, fire, which scripturally is often a metaphor for refinement and purification (especially when connected with the last days, cf. Malachi 3:2, “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.”), and second, brimstone. But wait—what is brimstone? The Greek word is theion, meaning "divine incense, because burning brimstone was regarded as having power to purify, and to ward off disease” (www.studylight.org). Is there any doubt left?

Of course—because of all of the references in the New Testament to “eternal punishment” or variants thereof. The word for “eternal” in these verses is aionos, the adjective form of aion, which means either "age" or "a period of time stretching beyond the horizon." Therefore, aionos could also mean either "of a certain (defined) age" or "of an age without known beginning or end." Some translations have aionos as "of the Ages" (i.e., the fire of the Ages, the judgment of the Ages, the life of the Ages). Another possible translation, citing the former meaning of aion, is “age-lasting.” Aionos, then, can be either quantitative or qualitative. It is also interesting to note that the Hebrew word for “forever” is olam (LXX, aionos), which more than half of the time could not possibly mean eternity. For example, Jonah was in the belly of the whale forever (olam, LXX aionos)—that is, three days!

When one looks at how aionos is used in the New Testament, something surprising comes up. While it is used to modify “life” 49 times (i.e., “eternal life” or “life of the Ages”), it is used to modify forms of death at a minimum of four times and a maximum of eight. It seems that the writers of the Bible were either much more comfortable with or much more focused on the life that stretches beyond the horizon than the death that does so. Let’s turn to those verses involving “everlasting death” now. To start with, Matthew 18:18 and 25:41 both talk about "everlasting fire" (aionos pyr, “the fire of the Ages”). Of course, we must here remember that, scripturally, fire is primarily a refining element, and interpret scripture in light of scripture, remembering Revelation 20. Next, Matthew 25:46 has the phrase translated "everlasting punishment" (aionos kolasis). Kolasis here is actually a horticultural term for pruning (www.studylight.com)! The metaphor here, then, is that people will be pared down, their evilness cut away so that their goodness can thrive and flourish! Furthermore, 2 Thessalonians 1:9 has "everlasting destruction" (aionos olethros). Olethros indeed indicates destruction, but a “destruction required for and preceding renewal” (www.wikipedia.org, alas. For a more reliable explanation, see 1 Cor. 5:5)! These are the four concrete references to “everlasting deaths.” More ambiguous in their reference to a hellish sort of place are Mark 3:29 with "eternal sin" or "judgment" (aionos krisis) and Hebrew 6:2 with "eternal judgment" (aionos krima). But does "judgment" always have to be negative? Or can you have pleasant judgments? Those who are absolved of guilt are judged just as surely as those who are condemned, so we can hardly definitively decide what type of judgment is being referred to here—or what the sentence would be if condemned. The last two references are in the ever-so-strange book of Jude. First, in Jude 1:6, fallen angels are held in "everlasting chains" (aionos desmos). The funny thing is that they will apparently be let out of these "everlasting" chains on the day of judgment! Second is Jude 1:7, where Sodom and Gomorrah are an example of those who will undergo "eternal fire" (aionos pyr). But they have apparently already experienced the "everlasting fire"—in historical time! In retrospect then, we have the Greek words geenna, bansanizo, theion, pyr, kolasis, olethros, krisis, krima, and desmos—all of which, properly translated, create a theology of a hell that purifies and refines so that one might be reconciled and restored, that prunes and pares so that one might thrive and flourish!

And this is good news, right? This makes sense, doesn’t it? It jives with our scriptural conception of God as a God of never-stopping, never-ending, never-giving up, inexorable, inescapable, inevitable, unrelenting, unstoppable, unalterable, unconditional Love, don’t you think? Wouldn’t we rather believe that God is a God who will never even think about giving up and relinquishing his beloved to an eternal hell? But, worse, we have turned God into a God who actively torments evildoers infinitely for their finite crimes. Why are we so resistant to the hope that God will, indeed, reconcile all things to himself, as he said he would (Col. 1:20)? Why do we refuse to believe in a God that gracious, to listen to story that fantastic, to acknowledge a news that good? The door is open: we are free to flee the politics of fear, the theology of coercion and manipulation, out into the bright, wide open spirituality of grace and mercy and justice and love. We are told again and again of the wide scope of God’s plan, of “the renewal of all things” (Mt. 19:28), that “all people will see God’s salvation” (Lk. 3:6), that “all received grace in place of grace already given” (Jn. 1:16), that Jesus “will draw all people to [him]self” (Jn. 12:32), that “all are justified freely by his grace” (Rom. 3:24), that God plans “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph. 1:10) and to “reconcile to himself all things” (Col. 1:20). When Jesus is compared to Adam, we are told that, “just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” (Rom. 5:18) and that, “for as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). Can you hear creation singing out this truth: that God “will have all men to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4)? This is God’s will, and I pray with God, “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and trust that it will—instead of assuming otherwise.

Now, of course, this is not universalism. This isn’t the idea that God will just willy-nilly, loosey-goosey let any old person into the Kingdom of Heaven. If he did, it would not be heaven; it would be hell. There must necessarily be judgment, and those who are unjust and wicked must necessarily not be let into God’s kingdom until they are purified and refined, painful though that process might be. God is good enough to make sure that happens. No, it is not universalism, but it is the faith and hope that God wasn’t lying when he said that his kingdom’s “gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there” (Rev. 21:25)! People are free to come and go. There is still choice—as there always and forever must be with love. And one day—one day, “all people will see God’s salvation” (Col. 1:20). This is our gospel. This is our hope.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Rare Prayer...

...instigated by Isaiah 61
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the LORD
for the display of his splendor.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.


Oh Abba, how you gather in the marginalized and the wilderness dwellers, the disinherited and the disenchanted, how you bring us in close and wrap us up in your chest and call us your heart. How your Love envelops and enlivens us, pouring into us like a mother’s breast milk. How you heal our broken legs and broken hearts and set us free to go and live and be and do. We are enchanted with you. You are our inheritance. How strange that you have chosen us to rebuild that which has been broken, to restore and renew. But how apt, for we are those who have been broken by the broken things of this world; we have felt its cracks all around and through us. We know this brokenness more than we know our own hearts. And you are teaching us to be Rebuilders, Renewers, Restorers. You are taking us back to the soul of your creation, to the Garden of Eden, and we are bringing everyone we know. Abba, Abba, Abba, we are so weak and we forget and we hurt and we are numb and hardened and vulnerable and aching. But you—you are the Revealer of Mysteries. Open our eyes to this Mystery. May it be our one holy Myth.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Gospel Truths

So this is the gospel: that people are uniquely good and redeemable, whether enemy or friend, gay or straight, male or female, Afghani or American, Democrat or Republican, capitalist or communist, homeless or billionaire, and that the Spirit is in the business of reconciling all of us (and all of creation) to each other and to the Spirit-self. That there is an alternate Way of living—an abundant Way of peace, justice, love, grace, generosity, community, respect, simplicity, humility, and joy—that has been alongside us all the time, an alternative to our violence and oppression and manipulation and hatred and arrogance and greed and lust—and that this “alternative universe” is now crashing into ours through the work of Jesus, his Spirit, and the followers of his Way, heaven colliding with earth, the Spirit’s one Will overcoming our many, duplicitous wills. That the Spirit is a practitioner of restorative and not retributive justice, perceiving both the justice and injustice within all of us and transforming all of us into innocent children and just citizens of his Kingdom, by flood or by flame. Yes, yes, yes, the Spirit is reconciling all things to the Spirit-self! All things, all people, all nations, all creatures, every tree and flower and blade of grass! That the Spirit is a Spirit of endless Love, that he adores us, is enchanted by us, that he pursues us like a Wild Lover and soothes us as a Wizened Guardian (all wisdom and wrinkles and wizardry). That all people (all things, in fact) are worthy of love, respect, joy, and adoration, that all people are a unique and irreplaceable Imago Dei; we are a scattered, dazzling jigsaw puzzle of which the Spirit is vigilantly and affectionately gathering in the pieces and putting them flawlessly together. When we overlook our sister or brother, when we treat her or him with contempt or disinterest, we are missing a unique and divine opportunity: to sneak a peek into the very face of YHWH. And this: that we have an essential and irreplaceable part to play, that we are agents, ambassadors, activists, messengers, students of the Kingdom of Heaven. We are the Roman messenger-runners sent directly into the field of battle to declare a ceasefire. “Peace be with you!” we scream and wince and pray they don’t shoot. We are activists using civil disobedience in the long, infamous line of Elijah, Elisha, Moses, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Samuel, Esther, Nathan, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Daniel, Jesus, Stephen, Peter, Paul, Silas, and John. We are actively dismantling the broken structures of this civilization and building new ones, restoring, rebuilding, renewing. We are actively working to be agents of restorative justice and reconciliation in our relationships and our communities. We are actively becoming conscious of social, cultural, and political issues at the relational, neighborhood, city, state, national, and international level—and we are becoming agents of peace, justice, grace, and love within these issues. Spirit-through-Us is bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth bit by bit by bit. We are the Spirit’s great and only plan of Redemption and Reconciliation, as we always have been. And this, this is the soul of the gospel: that the Spirit is reconciling all things to each other and to the Spirit-self, through us.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"Breaking the Bow and the Battle": The Biblical and Historical Case for Christian Peacemaking

In a world of Nobel peace prize winning wartime presidents and a flood of faddish peace sign t-shirts likely made in sweatshops, it almost seems ridiculous to bring up the subject of peace. I mean, I’m wearing a peace t-shirt right now (bought fair trade and made of organic cotton, thankyouverymuch) that makes me feel like a cross between a walking advertisement, an oxymoron, and a hippie wannabe. What good is talk of peace in a world this far gone, a world of genocide and nuclear stockpiles, a disconnected, globalized world nearly devoid of the possibility of community justice- and peacemaking? What good is talk of peace in a “free” country where activists are jailed for nonviolent protests, where Homeland Security has hefty files on dangerously gentle men like Shane Claiborne? And what good is a biblical discussion of peace when the Church has not had a consistent, across-the-board peace testimony for 1800 years? Who can bear the terrible load of shalom-making under a Messiah expected immediately who has tarried for two millennia? At what point do we ditch discipleship and shun our Savior, turn our backs on his teachings, and half-heartedly live in a hollow shell of the Wholeness Kingdom which was meant to be our inheritance? Historically, it began to take place before 200 AD, when, faced with heretical sects, frustrated expectations, and cruel persecution, the Church began to compromise kingdom values in the name of Power and Security. Orthodox dogma was laid out, ecclesiastical power was consolidated, and the Jesus-followers became incarnations of the very power structures which their Messiah came to overthrow. By 313 AD, the Church had degraded (or upgraded, depending on who you ask) to the point where the Roman Empire, crucifier of Christ and persecutor of Christians, could tolerate “Christianity,” and Emperor Constantine could accept the religion as his own. With this, the wild kingdom of the Lion of Judah, the Prince of Peace, was thoroughly civilized and militarized. Little has changed in 1700 years of Church history, in millennia of spirituality characterized more often by violence and oppression than peace and justice, by monoculture and intolerance than diversity and acceptance. (Do we wonder why Christ tarries? What husband longs to return home to an unfaithful wife?) The originally anti-imperialistic Christianity has, since Constantine, been the religion of empire and colonialization. The originally nonviolent Christianity has been the religion of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Native American genocide (North and South American, by two entirely different Christian empires), the Witch Hunts, the Holocaust, and every war in U.S. history.


Now all of this would not bother me so much if there were a hint of scriptural or historical ambiguity that the Way of Christ is the Way of Nonviolence, the way of dying for your enemies instead of killing them. The more that I read and study this, however, the more I am floored by the weight of the case for Christian nonviolence. I wonder, how have we missed this? How have our eyes glazed over so much of our Scriptures? Why have our shepherds led us so astray, transformed us into wolves? And how do wolves consumed by the ethics of vengeance and bloodlust transform back into sheep? And so I write this in the hope that we simply do not know “what would bring [us] peace,” as Jesus lamented (Lk. 19:41), that we are unaware that we as Christians are “called to peace” (Col. 3:15, 1 Cor. 7:15, 1 Pet. 3:8-12). I write in the hope that knowledge would lead us back into our calling and into transformation.


We must first expand our understanding of what shalom is. For too long, I read the Bible and interpreted every use of the word “peace” as a merely internal sense of comfort and well-being. This is borderline (if not blatant) blasphemy, the theology of a wealthy and insulated Church who has never known the longing for holistic justice and well-being that the beaten and oppressed Hebrews craved, that all of their Scriptures yearned towards. Inherent in the word shalom is wholeness. Shalom is a holistic peace that must start at the smallest level and trickle upward. True shalom is made up of (1) peace between humanity and God, (2) peace within oneself, (3) peace within one’s society, and (4) peace between one’s society and other societies. Here we run face first into the genius of Jesus as peacemaker: he did not attempt to “make peace” on a societal level first (as he was expected to do), which would have required massive violence and bloodshed; instead, he made peace at the most basic level, between humanity and God, and shalom [should have] seeped outward from there, steeping into one’s soul and through one’s relationships into society and, eventually, to all societies, the Kingdom of God finally realized. If we delve deeper into the word shalom, to its active form, salem (to make peace), we come to an important understanding. Inherent in the word salem is the concept of atonement. For shalom to be made, there must be restitution; there must be payment. This is why Christ’s sacrifice was so essential, why there could be no peace in the Old Testament. Jesus of Nazareth sacrificed his body as the fulfillment of all sacrifices to make restitution between God and man, to “reconcile to himself all things” (Col. 1:19). Thus the movement of peace begins, spreading ever outward.


To understand Jesus as Messiah, we must understand what it would mean to a Hebrew for Jesus to qualify as Messiah. Hebrews did not look first for an internal salvation from their Messiah; no, he was to bring a concretely new social reality, the Kingdom of God, in which there would be no oppression or strife. They yearned to be literally saved from a very real and ongoing oppression. Central to this Messianic vision—essential to it—is that the Messiah would bring shalom. This is reiterated over and over. Both Isaiah and Micah proclaim it: “For the law will go forth from Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And He will judge between the nations, and will render decisions for many peoples; and they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war” (Is. 2:3-4, cf. Mic. 4:3). And again, Isaiah declares,

Every warrior's boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this (9:5-7).

And again: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (53:5). And again: “All your sons will be taught by the LORD, and great will be your children's peace” (54:13). And again: “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (55:12). And again: “I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will guide him and restore comfort to him, creating praise on the lips of the mourners in Israel. Peace, peace, to those far and near," says the LORD. "And I will heal them"” (57:18-20, cf. Eph. 2:17). And yet again: “For this is what the LORD says: "I will extend peace to her [Jerusalem] like a river, and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream; you will nurse and be carried on her arm and dandled on her knees” (66:12).


Micah reminds us, “And he [The Messiah] will be their peace” (5:5). Paul doesn’t allow us to miss that Jesus is this Messiah, saying in his letter to the Ephesians, “For He Himself is our peace” (2:14). Hosea makes the nonviolent nature of this Messiah clear: "But I will have compassion on the house of Judah and deliver them by the LORD their God, and will not deliver them by bow, sword, battle, horses or horsemen" (1:7). And then, he makes it even clearer: "In that day I will also make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the sky, and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword and war from the land, and will make them lie down in safety” (2:18). For the doubter who remains, Zechariah joyously proclaims,

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem; and the bow of war will be cut off, and He will speak peace to the nations; and His dominion will be from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth (9:9-10).

In case we were to miss it, the author of Matthew reminds us that Jesus definitively fulfilled this prophecy during his anticlimactic “triumphal” entry (21:4-5). Can there be any doubt that, if Jesus is Messiah, he came to bring shalom, that war has been abolished for his people, that we are saved from the lie of redemptive violence? The prophets would be outraged by our denial of Christ as peacemaker. They proclaimed it again and again and again, to deaf ears then and now. But they would face us with a simple choice: Either Jesus of Nazareth was a false Messiah, or the Kingdom of Peace has even now begun to break in upon the world.


Still, many would insist that, while it is true that the prophets did proclaim these things, and while it is true that Jesus is Messiah, the era of peace cannot begin until his Second Coming, when he comes back in war and delivers the world from evildoers and definitively establishes his kingdom. (But does this not contradict Hosea 1:7?) While there is some degree of truth in this, the New Testament and the testimony of the Early Christians do not let us off that easily. Even before Christ’s birth, it is proclaimed that Christ is peacemaker. When Zechariah, father of John the Baptizer, regains his ability to speak, he proclaims that his son would lead his people to the Messiah, “to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Lk. 1:79). Just in case we weren’t listening, God fills the skies with angels a few verses later who sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men!” (Lk. 2:14). (If we are paying attention, we may remember Isaiah 52:7, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, "Your God reigns!"”) When Jesus himself breaks onto the scene, one of his first recorded statements is, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). The Greek word for peacemaker here is eirenopoios, meaning “peacemaker, one who restores peace and reconciliation between persons and even nations” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible). It is an active peacemaking, not a passive one. The only other place this word is used in the biblical text is in Colossians 1:19-20: “For God was pleased to have his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” This, the sacrificial enemy-love of Jesus, is our example for peacemaking, for reconciliation. Jesus expands upon this in his Sermon on the Mount, teaching,

You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:38-48).

Dare we believe that when Jesus insists that we love our enemies, he actually means it? Can we be honest enough with ourselves to realize that it is impossible to simultaneously love and kill someone?


If we dig deeper into this teaching, as Walter Wink does in his book, The Powers that Be, we will realize that it is even more subversive and revolutionary than it first appears. While the text of this Scripture assuredly prescribes a revolutionary (in)subordination that voluntarily and with extraordinary love gives up all, even one’s own well-being, for the sake of an enemy, there is also a subtext here that is only coherent in light of Hebrew culture. First of all, in order to strike someone on the right cheek, a Hebrew would have had to use the back of the right hand because the left hand was considered unclean in Hebrew culture and was not used (except for the unmentionables). Therefore, what is described here must, in this culture, be a backhand strike of humiliation, from a superior to his inferior. To turn one’s left cheek, then, would require two things: first, it would require your abuser to look you in the eye and recognize your humanity; second, it would require your abuser to now slap you with the palm of his hand, thus considering you an equal. The question is, Will your abuser take his denial of you so far that he will deny himself? Again, Jesus says, if someone exploits you economically, taking your tunic (the outer robe in Jewish culture), you should give them your cloak (the inner robe) also. The Jewish listener would realize that this would leave you standing naked before your abuser. To the postmodern ear, this is embarrassing, but embarrassing for the one who is naked. In Jewish culture, however, the shame of nudity laid on the viewer—in this case, the exploiter. Again, will your abuser take his humiliation of you so far that he will humiliate himself? And finally, Jesus says, if someone asks you to walk with him one mile, go with him two! While this sounds obscure and strange to our postmodern ears, this would not be an uncommon situation for Jesus’ listeners. Roman soldiers would often conscript civilians (Gk. pagani) to walk with them and carry their baggage—but Roman law required that the soldier have the civilian go only one mile with him, no more. To allow the civilian to walk with him two miles, as Jesus suggests, would be an infraction of Roman code. The question remains: Will your abuser take his conscription of you so far that he would convict himself? Are we surprised that Jesus is so subversive? Have we been paying attention?


“As [Jesus] approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you’" (Lk.19:41). Jesus has taught his people the way of peace, but they have rejected it, and they welcome him into the city as a violent revolutionary, come to overthrow the kingdom of this earth and institute the long-awaited kingdom of heaven. He has taught them; now he will show them. Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death is almost unbelievably thick with peacemaking. In the garden, Jesus sweats blood as he prays, “Let this cup pass from me,” the cup of death, of nonviolent submission to the powers—but we have not fully considered what it would have looked like for the cup to actually pass from him, what alternative possibility there could be with the powers already coming in mass to arrest him even as he prayed. John Howard Yoder, in The Politics of Jesus, suggests that it could only look like what Jesus himself suggests, a violent revolution: “"Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:53). (Have we forgotten that this was a very real possibility, that it was, in fact, exactly what the Jews were expecting? What radical implications does it have, then, that God does not choose to redeem his people in this way?) When Peter strikes Malchus’ ear off, Jesus rebukes him, saying "Put the sword into the sheath; the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?" (Jn. 18:11), and then, “All those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Mt. 26:52). With this, Jesus points out the fatal flaw of the ethic of redemptive violence: violence can only ever lead to more violence, hate to more hate. Only love can give birth to love. And then Jesus does what none of us could have imagined to do: he heals his enemy’s wounds. This is the ethic of the Christ: to heal our enemies instead of destroying them. This is the essence of the Gospel, of our very salvation as enemies of God. On the cross, Jesus makes this abundantly clear, proclaiming forgiveness for his murderers even as they taunt and torture him. Then, as he dies, he says something extraordinary, something we have heard but not listened to: “It is finished.” We must now return to the verb salem. Under the Strong’s Concordance, the definition is “to be finished, be completed, be at peace . . . to repay, make restitution, fulfill . . . to make peace.” When Jesus cries, “It is finished,” it is a victory cry, the essence of which is, “Peace is made.” This, then, helps us to understand why, after his resurrection, Jesus greets people ecstatically in a completely new way, saying something he did not say at any other time during his life as recorded in the Gospels (even though it was the standard Jewish greeting!): “Peace be with you!” (Lk. 24:26, Jn. 20:19, 20:21, 20:26). The Messiah has accomplished peace, paid the price for it—and he is ecstatic! “Peace be with you,” he says, again and again. “It is now mine to give, yours to live.”


And yet still the question remains: these are nice ideals—peace and enemy-love and all—but were they ever actually lived out by the Church? To answer this, we have to look at Acts, the Epistles, and the historical record. We see quickly, if our eyes are open, that peace was central to the beliefs and practice of the early Church. God is referred to as the “God of peace” just short of ten times in the biblical text, and only one of these is in the Old Testament (Jud. 6:24, Rom. 15:33, Rom. 16:20, 1 Cor. 14:33, 2 Cor. 13:11, Phil. 4:9, 1 Thess. 5:23, 2 Thess. 3:16, Heb. 13:20-21). Likewise, the gospel is referred to as “the gospel of peace” four times (Is. 52:7, Nahum 1:15, Acts 10:36, Eph. 6:15). (Interestingly, one of these is in Peter’s conversation with a converting centurion—often upheld of an example of how a soldier could simultaneously be a Christian [something we’ll look into further later] because Peter did not, in the text, instruct him that he must leave his profession or cease killing. The obvious answer to this is that the gospel is the gospel of peace. Peace is so central that its implications are obvious for those who are aware, as the readers of Acts would have been since they, as we will soon see, were actively living this gospel of peace out and had standards set in place for converted soldiers.) Four times may not seem like a lot, but elsewhere the gospel is similarly “hyphenated” only twice (besides “gospel of Christ,” “of God,” or “of the kingdom”): once as the “gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24) and once as “the gospel of your salvation” (Eph. 1:13).


To make the centrality of shalom even more clear, we are told in the New Testament that we as a Church are “called to peace” no less than three times (Col. 3:15, 1 Cor. 7:15, 1 Pet. 3:8-12). Likewise, Paul and the other writers of the New Testament set the issue of peace at the forefront, beginning each of their letters with Jesus’ ecstatic post-resurrection statement, saying “Grace and peace to you.” This statement is itself a beautiful example of peacemaking and reconciliation, as “Peace to you” was the standard Jewish greeting, and “Grace to you,” the standard Greek greeting. Paul melds these two together, testifying to the oneness of the new humanity. Paul also echoes Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount peace teaching in Romans 12, calling the Church to the nonconformity of nonviolent enemy-love. (This would, of course, suggest that Paul, if no one else, considered Jesus to have really been serious about loving one’s enemies. See 1 Peter 3:8-12 for another writer who apparently thought this). Paul says that actively loving one’s enemy would be like “heap[ing] burning coals on his head” (Rom. 12:20), a verse that is notoriously misunderstood, some saying that you are torturing your enemies by loving them and others that you are giving them a warm, fuzzy feeling. Likely, what the writer of Proverbs (whom Paul is quoting here) is referring to is an Egyptian expiation ritual in which a guilty person carries a basin of burning coals on his head as a sign of repentance (Zondervan TNIV Study Bible, 2006). Beautifully, what is being suggested (and lived out in the early Church) is that this boundary-less love that reaches even to enemies may bring these once-enemies to repentance, embracing them in the hold and fold of love.


It is ironic that the next chapter, which before 1560 (in the absence of chapter and verse divisions) would have been read in the same breath and as a logical extension of this chapter, is often used as an apology for Christian involvement in war:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. (Rom. 13:1-5).

We must remember two things to put these verses in context. First, it is not the Christian who is using violence, but those in government. From the testimony of the early Church, it is blatantly clear that Christians (up into the mid-second century) did not find holding political or military office compatible with their faith (see Eberhard Arnold’s The Early Christians in Their Own Words). It is ludicrous to read Romans 12’s exhortation to enemy-love and then claim that Romans 13 prescribes exactly the opposite. Second, we must note in just what cultural context the Roman church is told to submit to the government. Romans was written around 57 AD, during the reign of Nero, one of the chief persecutors of Christians (and, ostensibly, the murderer of Paul himself). Paul is not insisting that the Roman church submit to some “free and just,” idealistic government like we like to think of the United States. It would be more apt to imagine someone writing this under the reign of Hitler. Now things begin to get uncomfortable. “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing”—if you uprise violently, which is precisely the tendency a violently persecuted people would (and did) have, be afraid, for Caesar holds the sword—and not just to look pretty. Things get frightening when Paul notes that, “He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” The lesson is clear but uncomfortable: God can use violence and other evils for his purposes, but that does not give us, as his Church, permission to use them—especially not when we have been given exceptionally clear instructions to the contrary only a few verses earlier.


The gospel of peace, in its concrete social reality, is nowhere made clearer than in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision’ (that done in the body by the hands of men)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace (cf. Mic. 5:5), who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near (cf. Is. 57:19). For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit (2:11-20).

It really could not be said any more clearly or beautifully than that. God’s central purpose through Jesus, Paul says, was to create a new humanity, to make peace by tearing down all social and cultural boundaries, and then to reconcile this new humanity to himself. This is a mystery deeper than we have even begun to comprehend. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). There are no longer any foreigners for the body of Christ. Iraqis, Afghanis, Iranians, Palestinians, North Koreans, South Americans—these are all now our brothers and sisters. Dare we commit fratricide?


For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5). For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. Nowhere has Christian nonviolence been stated more clearly or concisely than here. We do not wage war as the world does. We do not. But we rush to the next verses, saying, “Yes, we fight a spiritual war!” while ignoring the blatant statement that we do not wage actual, physical war. As Christians, we do not. It is that clear. Yet this sits uneasily in us, with our deeply ingrained myth of redemptive violence. Indeed, this battle of myths was raging even then, as evidenced by how Paul immediately precedes these verses by saying, “I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be toward some people who think that we live by the standards of this world” (10:2). We do not live by the standards of this world, and what Paul is speaking concretely about here is the standard of redemptive violence. For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. No, we see deeper than this into the reality of evil and see that people are never our enemies; people are victims, whether the oppressors or the oppressed. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). It is interesting (and confusing, and apparently contradictory) that the word for authorities here is the same word (Gk. exousia) that is used for authorities in Romans 13. While we submit in the revolutionary (in)subordination of Christ to these authorities, we recognize that there is a spiritual, political, and ideological power behind them that must be resisted, struggled against at all costs. This is our battle, the battle of myths. In it, we must be held together by “the belt of truth,” our heart must be protected by “the breastplate of dikaiosyne” (of justice or righteousness), our feet must be ready and prepared to cross any boundary in the name of “the gospel of peace,” we must protect our communities with the “shield of faith,” our minds with “the helmet of salvation,” and we must fight with “the sword of the Spirit . . . the word of God” (Eph. 6:14-18). Perhaps this is where we as Christians have become so confused. In rejecting violence, we are not to reject action. Pacifism is not passivity; it is passion, courage, and strength re-directed to the true enemy. And so the early Christians co-opted military language to describe their very real spiritual and ideological battle—to the point where their word for non-Christians or “pagans” was the same as the Greek word for civilians or non-soldiers: pagani. To be a Christian is, in a very real way, to be a soldier—but a new type of soldier, one redeemed from the lie of redemptive violence: a nonviolent soldier of peace. (Check out Christian Peacemaker Teams for the best example I know of modern Christian warfare.)


If you still do not believe me (or Paul, or Peter, or Jesus for that matter) that we as Christians are “called to peace,” the final proof that I can offer you is the compelling testimony of the extrabiblical fathers of the early Church. Here, it is made exceedingly clear that the early Christians considered the prophecies of the Old Testament to have come true, that Jesus was truly the Messiah of Isaiah, Zechariah, Micah, and Hosea. So Justin Martyr, our earliest Christian apologist, could say in his First Apology,

When, however, the prophetic Spirit speaks as proclaimer of the future, he says: ‘The law shall go out from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem, and he shall judge among the nations and rebuke many people. They shall turn their swords into plowshares and their spears into sickles; nation shall not lift up sword against nation any longer, and they shall study war no more.’ You can be convinced that this has really happened now, for twelve men, illiterate and unskilled in speaking, went out from Jerusalem into the world. Through the power of God they revealed to the whole of humankind that they were sent by Christ to proclaim the word of God to everyone. Now we who once murdered one another not only refrain from all hatred of our enemies, but more than that, in order to avoid lying or deceiving our examining judges, we meet death cheerfully for confessing to Christ.

Again, in his Dialogue with Trypho, he says,

We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder, and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools. Now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness to men, faith, and the expectation of the future given to us by the Father himself through the crucified one . . . We do not give up our confession though we be executed by the sword, though we be crucified, thrown to wild beasts, put in chains, and exposed to fire and every other kind of torture. Everyone knows this. On the contrary, the more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever-increasing numbers become believers and God-fearing people through the name of Jesus.

But Justin was not insane. Surrounded by the blood of his brothers and sisters, he understood that the reign of shalom had not yet fully come—that though he, as a Christian, was called to peace, to live as a city on a hill, as an example of peacemaking to the world, he was reliant upon the Second Coming of the Messiah for ultimate salvation and shalom. (This is part of the reason why, after 200 years, Christians began to abandon peacemaking in hordes. If Christ was not returning quickly, how could they bear the burden of all this bloodshed—and all in the name of peace?) In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin strikes the balance between reliance and responsibility, saying, “Shall [Christ] not then, at his future appearance, which will take place in radiant glory, destroy completely all his enemies and all those who in their sins have turned their backs on him! How he will then reward his own with all the things they expected and lead them to peace!” It is only this hope that makes Christian longsuffering possible, empowering martyrs then and now.


Or have we forgotten that the martyrs are the ultimate nonviolent soldiers of peace, their blood “the seed of the church”? Unlike any other empire in history, the Kingdom (Gk. basilea, the same word used for the Roman Empire) of God spread peaceably, and it spread like wildfire, and the only blood that was spilt in its name was given up voluntarily from the veins of its very citizens. The martyrs consider Jesus’ death to be not only the means of the salvation of their souls, but a very real example of social peacemaking which they must follow at all costs. When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” the martyrs do not understand this as the psycho-spiritual babble that modern Christianity has somehow made it out to be. They understand the cross as what it was: the Roman means of execution for social revolutionaries. They understand that their alternative lifestyles, their citizenship in the upside-down Kingdom of Heaven, will inevitably jolt and jar the kingdoms of this earth and could very well lead them to a death of nonviolent enemy-love—not merely an unfortunate consequence, mind you, but the fulfillment of all their beliefs and practice. When I have suggested in the past that Jesus’ death serves as our example for nonviolent enemy-love, I have often been told that “Jesus’ death had a purpose [to save our immaterial souls, presumably]; ours wouldn’t.” Here is where the shallowness of our modern North American Christian faith becomes most clear. Under this logic, the martyrs’ death had (and has) no purpose. I can hardly think of a statement that would be more offensive to these men and women who voluntarily give up their lives in the name and example of the crucified Messiah, like Him eschewing the very real and attractive possibility of violent uprising, like Him taking over the world with only one weapon: boundary-less love. “The divine banner and the human banner do not go together, nor the standard of Christ and the standard of the Devil. Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: the Lord has abolished the sword” (Tertullian, On Idolatry).


Yet what of soldiers? Do they (and we) not have a responsibility to the governments, to uphold social order? This is a topic that the early Church struggled with, and out of their struggle was borne a set of standards for converted soldiers. It was acknowledged that some professions would have to be abandoned upon conversion: prostitutes, gladiators, pagan priests, enchanters. Concerning soldiers, Hippolytus, bishop of Rome, important theologian, and martyr, says,

A military constable must be forbidden to kill. If he is commanded to kill in the course of his duty, he must not take this upon himself, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected. A proconsul or a civic magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword, shall give it up or be rejected. Anyone taking part in baptismal instruction, or anyone already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.

If someone is a soldier before being baptized, he may remain in his profession (after all, the sentence for desertion is death), but he must not, under any circumstance or order, kill. (Because of this, the history of the early Church is full of stories of soldiers who were martyred because they refused to kill.) However, if someone has already been baptized, he may not, under any circumstance, become a soldier—or (ouch) “he has despised God.” Likewise, in response to Celsus’ (Greek philosopher and opponent of Christianity), statement that, “If everyone were to act the same as you [Christians], the national government would soon be left utterly deserted and without any help, and affairs on earth would soon pass into the hands of the most savage and wretched barbarians.” Origen—scholar, theologian, and tortured Christian—replies, “Celsus next exhorts us to help the Emperor and be his fellow soldiers. To this we reply, ‘You cannot demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests.’ We do not go forth as soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this, but we do fight for him by forming our own army, an army of faith through our prayers to God.” Similarly, early Christian writer and theologian Tatian declares in his Address to the Greeks, “I refuse offices connected with military command . . . I despise death.” Even Constantine, responsible for so much of the militarization of the Church, noted a conflict between his professed faith and military service, “grant[ing] former soldiers ‘freedom and peace’ if they chose to profess their religion rather than maintain their military rank” (Eberhard Arnold, The Early Christians in Their Own Words).


These testimonies, this leadership of the early Church, also found its way into the concrete practice of the “common” Christian. In an extensive study of Christian grave markers, not one Christian soldier was found before 173 AD. After this time (for reasons we have already briefly explored), the numbers slowly and steadily increased (Jean Michel Hornus, It Is Not Lawful for Me to Fight). Without a doubt, the early Church believed that they were “called to peace,” that the Messianic prophecies had “already but not yet” been fulfilled, that Jesus’ example of peacemaking was the hope of a world stuck in the vicious cycle of violence. As Ignatius, apostle, bishop, and martyr, proclaims in his Letter to the Ephesians, “There is nothing better than the peace by which all warfare waged by heavenly and earthly powers is abolished.”


Of course, there are still questions, barriers to our acceptance of our calling (which I cannot resist attempting to answer, even after 18 pages). What of the incredible violence of the Old Testament? (Have we missed that Israel’s most significant victories were won without them spilling a single drop of blood, as they allowed God to fight their battles for them? Likewise, have we missed that Israel was forbidden from military development, from stockpiling chariots and horses (Ps. 20:7, Is. 31:1)? And—this is the most important point—shalom by definition is impossible without atonement, impossible before the sacrificial death of Jesus, impossible in the Old Testament.) What about the statement in Ecclesiastes that “there is . . . a time to kill and a time to heal . . . a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace” (3:3)? (Is it ever good to hate? Is it ever good to kill? Are these verses saying that any of these things are morally acceptable—or are they merely pointing out that they all have their times? I think Derek Webb hits it on the head here when he sings, “There’s a time for peace, and there is a time for war, a time to forgive and a time to settle the score, a time for babies to lose their lives, a time for hunger and genocide—and this too shall be made right.”)


Why doesn’t John the Baptizer instruct the soldiers to cease killing in Luke 3:14? (While he does not specifically instruct them not to kill, John does talk about violence in his reply, something which does not come across in the notoriously poor NIV translation. The word for “extort money” is diaseio, literally “a violent shaking motion”—think “giving them the shakedown”—translated in the KJV as “do violence.” The word for “accuse . . . falsely” is sykophanteo, or “to accuse falsely, oppress; to cheat, extort” (Strongs Exhaustive Concordance). What the NIV horrifically fails in expressly is that John is precisely addressing the soldiers’ violence and oppression; he is simply addressing the intersection between the abstract concepts of violence and oppression and the concrete reality of daily Palestinian life—what John and other Palestinian peasants were experiencing as citizens of an occupied country.)


What about when Jesus says, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34)? (Does this contradict all of Christ’s teachings on peace, the very example that he lived out? Or is it a statement of the fact that his coming will inevitably bring division (cf. Lk. 12:51)? As it has, especially for those whose blood was spilt when they took his call to peacemaking seriously. Christ’s first coming did not bring ultimate peace, as had been hoped, but it did empower his people to be peacemakers, to bring peace bit by bit. His Kingdom is, remember, “already but not yet.”) Or when he tells his disciples to sell their clothes to buy a sword in Luke 22:36? (It is funny that the disciples already have not one, but two swords, which they excitedly point out to Jesus. Haven’t they been paying any attention to his teachings? Are they still awaiting the Messiah’s violent uprising? In response, Jesus says “That is enough.” Note that this could be taken as, “That’s plenty,” which is a ludicrous statement considering how many swords they would actually need for either defense or an uprising, or “That’s enough!” voicing Jesus’ frustration that his disciples have, once again, missed the point, failed the test. Two more things bear mentioning. First, it is specifically noted that Jesus asked them to get swords so that he would be “numbered with the transgressors,” fulfilling prophecy; there was no violent intent (Lk. 22:37). Also, remember that when Peter uses the sword that Jesus instructed him to have, Jesus rebukes him and then heals Peter’s victim! Is it any wonder the disciples were confused?)


Finally, what of Revelation, where it says of Jesus in his return that “with justice he judges and makes war” (Rev. 19:11)? (Of course, this is consistent with both the Old Testament ethic of allowing God to fight Israel’s battles and the New Testament ethic of Christian noninvolvement with violence. Only Yahweh can truly war justly—only the One who sees into the hearts of men. In Genesis 18:33, we see God’s standard of just war: “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy [Sodom and Gomorrah].” And let’s not forget that He allowed the righteous family that remained to escape. Also, it bears mentioning that Jesus’ “double-edged sword,” with which he wages war, is held, not in his hand, but in his mouth (Rev. 1:16)! “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The Second Coming scene in the Left Behind series is ludicrous, but apt: Jesus opens his mouth to speak, and his enemies explode into gouts of blood. Jesus’ weapon in war is the same as our own, as expressed in Ephesians 6: words.) And there are more questions, which could be bickered over all day long (who are we kidding—they could be bickered over until Jesus returns with a heavy sigh), but I am convinced that the case for Christian peacemaking is even stronger than I have made it. There are more verses on peace and war than I could have possibly tapped into, even in this ridiculously long paper. I feel as though I have said too much—but not nearly enough. I only hope that what I have said has been enough to awaken the hearts and imaginations of those who read to the possibilities of peace, to the necessity and centrality of peacemaking to the Christian faith. I want to say more, to beg you to join the ranks of this army whose sole weapon is love and whose lives are not our own, but I will stop, and simply ask you to carry on this journey “with fear and trembling,” to struggle with peace and follow Christ as far as he would lead you.

Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For, "Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it” (1 Pet. 3:8-12).

May we pursue the possibilities of peace together, as one.