21 June 2017

It's hard to believe in Jesus

As a once-naive adult convert to Christianity, I'm in a state of permanent frustration concerning functional atheism's hold on our family of faith. Brian Zahnd's A Farewell to Mars is the most effective tract against this state of affairs that I've encountered in decades.

The book has been around a couple of years, so you can find lots of reviews, and assessments of its importance to the future of evangelicalism. I won't duplicate all that good work. I just want to comment on his intersection with my own story.

My crucial encounter with Jesus in the pages of the Bible, 43 years ago, led to my decision that I could trust the One who said, "Love your enemies." As I sat on my bed reading the Sermon on the Mount, trying to process the effect that those few words were having on my whole mind and body at that moment, I realized that it really must be God. Only God could speak this command into my life with such heart-stopping authority. After seeing violence destroy my family and poison my nation, I had thought that my capacity to trust had been robbed from me, but that day it was restored.

What was strange to my 21-year-old self was how few others seemed to understand my excitement. As a student at the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies at Carleton University, I was immersed in the world of the Cold War, and I was aware of the empires and neocolonial structures on either side of that big divide. I was also aware of how my own family had been formed in the postwar chaos following World War II. On the one hand, war seemed like the ultimate absurdity; on the other hand, the world seemed to consider the ideals of nonviolence equally absurd, and its advocates (at their best) sweet but marginal eccentrics.

Given the way the world was set up, this conventional wisdom didn't seem surprising. But shouldn't Christians have an entirely and decisively different take? After all, Jesus was executed by the power brokers of his time and place, and then God turned everything upside down through the resurrection and Jesus's New Commandment.

As it turned out, Jesus truly is "the answer to all of God's promises" (2 Corinthians 1:20) and we are his Body active in the world to this very day. Is there systemic violence? Bondage? Slavery? Elitism? Corruption? Hopelessness? Through generations of prophets, recorded in the book we acknowledge as authoritative and trustworthy for salvation, God has promised to confront all of this, and has provided the world with the Body of Christ, us, to do the necessary confronting and reconciling. Us! Together, we have the necessary gifts and authority. Why are we so collectively passive, so ready to let those old assumptions of righteous violence go unchallenged?

In Brian Zahnd's book I find a healing reassurance that my discontent is not peculiar to me. It truly is incongruous that Christians are too often found either passively or actively supporting the old ways of empire and violence. "Love your enemies" is at the center of his book, but he also draws on Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, and other familiar voices in support of his brilliant and heartfelt polemic against Christian captivity. He gives us close readings of Old and New Testament passages that illustrate the complete disconnect between the new thing God has done in Christ and the old ways of tribe and empire.

If you too have found it impossible, as a believer, to reconcile your faith with the conventional wisdom that tells you to stop dreaming and get with the program, Brian Zahnd may well give you a wonderful shot of encouragement to keep the faith.

Portland, Oregon, is the headquarters of the Luis Palau evangelistic organization. I remember that, in the midst of the USA's military responses to the September 11 terror attacks, Luis Palau gave his approval of those responses. I was so disillusioned that someone of his stature in the world of Christian celebrities -- furthermore, someone who generally avoided politics -- did not distinguish between Christ and empire at that historic moment. Brian Zahnd is very candid in telling how he too, as a pastor, gave full-throated approval of military action in that early post-9/11 period. I found his book all the more powerful because of his candid retelling of how his heart changed.

A Farewell to Mars: teasers...
Isn't it time we abandoned our de facto agreement with Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, and their worn-out, death-dealing ideas? Isn't it time we took seriously the revolutionary, life-giving ideas of Jesus -- the one whom God raised from the dead and declared to be Lord by the power of an indestructible life? Isn't it time we were converted and became as children, having the capacity to imagine the radical otherness of the kingdom of God? ... At the very least, we ought to take a fresh look and evaluate with new eyes what Jesus of Nazareth actually taught about the dark foundations of human civilization and the alternative he offers in the kingdom of God. (from Chapter 1, "That Preacher of Peace.")

Far too many American Christians embrace a faulty, half-baked, doom-oriented, hyperviolent eschatology, popularized in Christian fiction (of all things!), that envisions God as saving parts of people for a nonspatial, nontemporal existence in a Platonic "heaven" while kicking his own good creation into the garbage can! Framed by this kind of world-despairing eschatology, evangelism comes to resemble something like trying to push people onto the last chopper out of Saigon. But this is an evangelism that bears no resemblance to the apostolic gospel proclaimed the book of Acts. Christianity's first apostles evangelized, not by trying to sign people up for an apocalyptic evacuation, but by announcing the arrival of a new word order. The apostles understood the kingdom of God as a new arrangement of human society where Jesus is the world's true King. (from Chapter 2, Repairing the World.)

We believe in Jesus theologically, religiously, spiritually, sentimentally ... but not politically. We believe Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, but we don't really believe he was a competent political theologian. If we were tasked with framing a political theology drawn only from Jesus's words, what would it look like? Why? Because when it comes to political models for running the world, we find it hard to believe in Jesus. (Chapter 4, It's Hard to Believe in Jesus.)

The road of nonviolent peacemaking is not an easy road, it's not a popular road, and it's certainly not a road for cowards. The road of "God is on our side, and he shall surely smite our enemies" is a wide road. A lot of parades have gone down that road. It doesn't take much courage to travel that road; just fall in step and follow the crowd. A marching band is usually playing. But it's also the road that leads to burned villages, bombed cities, and solemn processions of flag-draped coffins. Until the self-professed followers of Jesus are willing to forsake the wide road for the narrow way, the popular sentiment for the unpopular conviction, the easy assumptions for the hard alternatives -- Jesus will continue to weep while his disciples shout hosanna. (Chapter 6, The Things that Make for Peace.)

Before we appeal to Hitler as the ultimate argument against Christian nonviolence, we first have to ask how Hitler was able to amass a following of Christians in the first place. (Chapter 7, Clouds, Christ, and Kingdom Come.)

What lessons and priorities might Friends take from Brian Zahnd's message? There's theoretically great congruity between what he says and what we Quakers believe.

We do know what it's like to be treated as admirable eccentrics, nice but marginal. We also have our own ways to avoid implementing the implications of our faith:
  • drawing on the vast resources of Friends piety to satisfy our emotional and intellectual needs while avoiding the surrender and self-abandonment of full conversion
  • making it hard for seekers and newcomers to access our community (folkways, in-group language) so we can keep feeling both modest and special
  • marginalizing Jesus by making him a figurehead or metaphor (some liberals) or a tribal chieftain in charge of our camp (some evangelicals) instead of seeing him at the very center of our meetings
  • trivializing our peace testimony by leaching out its cross-shaped spiritual power in favor of "the cult of middle-class pacifism"
  • weakening our fellowship with doctrinal controversies and bibliolatry (often with the stern language of pseudo-heroism), undermining each other rather than conducting our conflicts based on a prior commitment to each other's well-being.
Happily, none of these flaws are fatal; they can all be addressed. Let's do it, let's be a laboratory of love for the whole Christian world and beyond.

How Katherine Tanner's theology bridges doctrine and social action.

The saga of North Seattle Friends Church.

The ascendancy of the phony Russian propaganda expert. And It's the Russians wot done it!

Svetlana Alexievich and the "collective Putin." (May be behind paywall.)

Britain and the U.S. once ran the world. Now they're all at sea.

Finally! Back to some blues dessert...


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much Johan, I will pour over this some more and probably get the book. It brings me back to one of my favorite advocates of non-violence, Walter Wink.

Very grateful to connect with you thru this blog. I'm not hooked into blogs and this looks like one I want to know.

I also read your archived piece about Gordon Browne and that was wonderful. He was an important mentor to me even tho I didn't know him very well.

Blessings, Sheila Garrett

Since I don't understand a lot of tech language you may not even get this. The only thing I could choose that would work is anon but I put my name, too.

Johan Maurer said...

Hello, Sheila! As you can see, your thoughtful message did get posted on the blog. Thank you for persisting.

Unknown said...

Good food for thought!

Daniel Wilcox said...

Thanks for posting this about another peace-seeking Jesus leader:-)

However, isn't it very ironic that, AGAIN, over 82% of Evangelical Christians (white) voted for Trumpism, which includes an increase in nuclear weapons, militarism, etc.?

And they continue to support him, especially leaders such as Franklin Graham and James Dobson, etc.

Back during the Vietnam War, I thought it very weird (and so depressing and conflicting causing no end of struggle for me)
ALL of the Christians I knew and read ALL thought war was God's will,
one girl I met at Youth for Christ, who it turned out was Mennonite (I didn't know anything about that then).
And later I met Quakers.

But what a tiny minority in a sea of Christian warriors:-(

I stopped being a soon-to-be Christian warrior and applied for Conscientious Objector status.

BUT in every generation, most Christians are often the most pro-war of anyone.

Very disconcerting.