The news operates in cycles. Sometimes the big story is about a cruise ship that lost power and caused Americans to “suffer” at sea for a few days (tell that to the kid in Africa with a bloated belly). Other times the stories engage in the next impending political crisis that will ruin everything in America if it is not resolved. But then, every once in a while, stories emerge that make us come together for a time, like the tragedy at Newtown.
Another story, not nearly as emotionally loaded at this point, but that nonetheless captures our imagination concerns nuclear war. North Korea’s, Kim Jong Un, continues to make boisterous claims about warring on the United States and our national allies. In one sense, this is the type of story that the media loves because it guarantees that listeners will go out of their way to tune in.
Whether or not this story is being blown out of proportion by the media, the thought of missiles or nukes being pointed toward the West coast causes us to reflect on the question: What if? Our fears in the nineties versus our fears today escalate more quickly in this post 9-11 world. We are not invincible. The old myth of “progress” deconstructed as the twin towers crumbled before our very eyes. Nothing is outside of the realm of possibility. Our small piece of reality might be bombed to hell at any moment and there is nothing that we could do about it. Existence is unstable.
Although we realize that our way of life is both unsustainable and insecure, we often choose to cling to the hope that either “God’s will is God’s will” or that the U.S. military is stronger than North Korea’s military.
If we want to gloss over this issue, perhaps the bumper-sticker approach to life is the key. One way to remain hopeful is to ignore the reality of our daily instability by trusting in sloganeering:
“Ignorance is bliss”
“In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned” (which is often connected with the belief that if America is about to be destroyed, God will rescue the church from such doom via holy evacuation)
“Jesus is all we need”
“It’s all part of God’s sovereign plan”
“Let go and let God”
“Bomb ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out” (okay, this last one is too much of a stretch)
Of course we also might place our hope in the sophisticated United States military. I certainly did for most of my life. During the debates about reducing our debts and balancing our national budget, isn’t it interesting how the idea of reducing spending to the U.S. military is quickly taken off the table by both sides of the aisle? Ironically, a significant portion of the national debt can be attributed to excessive militarism. Our default settings as a culture tells us that the Armed Forces need our taxes so that they can preserve our way of life. “Peace through strength” is good for us all, or so many believe.
In church of our youth, we glorified the Armed Forces and took deep pride whenever the flag salute was proclaimed. These things served as liturgy for even my non-liturgical low-church evangelical roots. If you don’t believe me, just attend the average church with an AWANA program for kids. Each week they pledge their allegiance to the flag. All of this reminds us that we often put our hope in bombs, the very thing that causes our instability. Church ministries often reinforce this idea. Our bombs are bigger and more sophisticated than their bombs so we don’t have much to fear… Besides God will guide our guided missiles toward evildoers ‘over-there.’
My experience is that Christians are really good at appealing to sloganeering to bring about a false sense that things are “fine.” When these slogans stop working, many church going folks appeal to God’s country – America – as being safe as long as our military is strong. Sometimes slogans and theistic militarism combine creatively, like one bumper sticker I saw recently: “God bless our troops… Especially our snipers.” Too often, the Christian hope is co-opted by the hope of Caesar (more about that in a moment).
During the time of Jesus, tensions for those living in Israel continued to escalate. Since the days of the Babylonian Exile and subsequent return, Israel hadn’t returned to its former glory. Moments looked positive for a brief time, but the next invading empire soon overshadowed these hopes.
By the time of Jesus, the Greco-Roman Empire had conquered his homeland. Julius Caesar and the Senate installed Herod as king. It would take Herod three years to finally gain all control over the still hostile Jews, but he would in due course keep a firm rule over the whole region. He eventually became one of Augustus’ favorite military leaders, and was admired by the new emperor because of his immense development program.
Not only did Herod expand the Temple in Jerusalem to be more grandiose and stylistically Hellenistic-Roman, but he also imposed a sacrifice that the priests would give on behalf of Rome and the emperor. Additionally, Herod had whole cities named to give reverence to Caesar as well as imperial temples and fortresses to reinforce Roman control. The great building campaigns were not possible without taxing the peoples of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea greatly; leaving the majority of Jesus’ contemporaries in poverty.
As you can easily imagine, various sects rose up amongst the Jews who chose a particular posture as a response: compromised to gain favor with the Romans (Sadducees), blamed subjugation on the “sinful” common people (Pharisees), or secretly plotted violent revolution (Zealots). Jesus enters the scene and criticizes all of these groups. Ultimately, Jesus declares the Temple system (which had sold out to the elite and made a pretty penny for Rome) as void.
In Mark 13 Jesus claims that the Temple will be destroyed within one generation of his hearers (nope, this passage is not primarily about the “End Times). The center of their universe – Jerusalem – and the center of the city – the Temple – would all be demolished. The initial conversation between Jesus and his disciples makes this clear:
As Jesus left the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, look! What awesome stones and buildings!”
Jesus responded, “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”
Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives across from the temple. Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ”Tell us, when will these things happen? What sign will show that all these things are about to come to an end?” (Mark 13.1-4, CEB).
Jesus then goes on to explain that the worst catastrophe imaginable will take place within “this generation.” The rest of Mark 13, and parallels, expresses that the whole City will be proverbially “blown to smithereens.”
For those who lived in Jerusalem during the first century, hope was elusive. After the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, tensions in Israel continued to escalate. Three options for responding to this situation (to put it simply) revealed the “signs of the times.” First, the people could embrace their overlord Caesar and his “good news” to be the “savior” of all the peoples of the earth by bringing peace, justice, and hope to all under the banner of “Pax Romana” (Peace of Rome). That may sound familiar if you replace emperor worship with the co-opting ideals of “God bless America.” The second option was to take up arms and put hope in the nationalistic god of Israel and fight the Romans for their freedom. Finally, a third option, take Jesus’ words seriously about the coming doom of the City (along with the fact that he proclaimed an alternative peaceable Kingdom).
The Romans did eventually destroy the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus’ words as they are recorded in Mark’s gospel actually came to fulfillment approximately 40 years after they would have been spoken. Ancient historian, Flavius Josephus provided a thorough account of the events leading up to the Jewish war and the eventual destruction of the Temple and city of Jerusalem. The Jewish Zealots mobilized to revolt and killed a Roman garrison. This led Emperor Nero to commission Vespasian and his son Titus, to end the uprising that had taken place with the rebels. This would not be an easy task. From 66 until 70 AD, war would ensue. For four years, the city of Jerusalem and the surrounding area, was plagued by a war that the Zealots considered to be religious in nature.
Jerusalem was completely under Roman control by September 7, 70 AD. Not only were the Romans successful, but they laid the city bare, destroying both the city and its Temple. Where did this leave the compromisers? They were likely shown mercy. Where did this leave the Zealots? Murdered and buried outside of the City, probably burned up in a place Jesus referred to as “Gehenna.”
And as for the Christians, well, let’s assume that they took Jesus’ prophetic words seriously. They were the only group that truly knew hope in this scenario. This hope, the hope of an eventual resurrection and the “renewal of all things,” fueled them to love their neighbors in spite the instability. They put their hope, neither in Jewish nationalism nor in allegiance to Caesar; their hope was in a Kingdom that transcends borders, even those of Jerusalem. By this time, of course, the people of God included non-Jews from throughout the known world as well, so they all had to discern how to live out the Kingdom hope in their own contexts.
The Instability of Hope: Living the Already/Not Yet Way of Jesus
We followers of Jesus in the empire of America have a choice. We can put our trust in empty sloganeering. We can trust in the horses and chariots of the military. Or, we can place our lives in the midst of reality, the unstable yet sure hope we have in Christ Jesus.
Just as the Jews (and early Christians) experienced instability in the conditions created by the Romans during Jesus’ ministry (and the 40-ish years after), we see signs of the times in news headlines every day. North Korea might just bomb the hell out of us one day, but the question we must ask is: In what shall we hope in the midst of instability? Perhaps a basic starting point is to simply take Jesus’ teaching on worry to heart, that we should not worry about tomorrow for today has enough troubles of its own.
In the midst of an unstable global political climate, perhaps there is more we can do. Many people are talking about the “what ifs” of North Korea, so what if we saw this as an opportunity to embody hope for people in the midst of instability?
Christians have a hope that started on the first Easter morning when Jesus walked out of a tomb and that ends in the renewed heavens and earth. Living between the resurrection and the New Creation has always involved dynamic tension in the midst of instability. Hope and instability go together at any time or place in history, be it 70 AD, 1776, or 2013. This is the nature of the already/not yet Kingdom of God.
If it is not North Korea, another threat will always loom its ugly head as long as the powers of evil are running the show. Yet in the midst of this all, unstable times are a gift that reminds us that ultimately King Jesus is in charge of this moment of historical chaos and in every moment leading to his return. We remind our world of this every time we choose to live as though God’s renewed world, our ultimate hope, has already begun. We don’t rely on cheap slogans. Our hope isn’t in the largest military in the world. Our hope isn’t that North Korea will be overthrown. No, our hope is that the world isn’t always going to be like this. The stability of New Creation will come, and in fact, it is already here.
For the historical facts see my two papers:
KCNA via Reuters