taking the words of Jesus seriously


Early Christians were confusing. They were pacifists living in the Roman world, a world which saw violence and death as constant positive reminders of the struggle of life over death. When Roman life became too comfortable, they invented the gladiatorial games, where they could watch the abject suffering of life and feel revitalized.

Early Christians, on the contrary, seemed all too delighted to be carted off to martyrdom, to the point that the later Roman emperor, Julian, called Christianity a death cult. For early Christians, it was clear: Jesus preached pacifism. “Resist not evil” (Matthew 5:39). “To live is Christ, but to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Early Christians lived in the world, but were not of the world.

Then along came Constantine. He dreamed one night in 312 that Jesus would help him in battle. But even for Constantine, pacifism was part of the package. While the empire became Christian, Constantine was not baptised until on his deathbed. Even the leader of one of history’s most warlike people understood: Jesus = Peace.

We need to recognize that Constantine’s conversion brought a massive shift to our faith. From then on, Christianity became fused with power, with politics, with hierarchy. Roman grandees became bishops, legionnaires became the first “Christian soldiers”. Follow that trend through the Middle Ages, and the fusing of Christianity with feudal violence, and you get the Crusades. Centuries later, fuse it with Imperialism, and you get the White Man’s Burden, all forms of “Conquest for Jesus.”

We are very good at making Christianity not only in the world, but also of it.

But what would you do if your family was attacked?

Early Christians may have simply answered, “Offer to die in their place.” In 2006, this is what happened when a gunman entered an Amish school and started shooting. Children offered to die in the place of younger children. How foreign that seemed to so many of us. How not of this world.

But if we don’t resist evil, won’t evil win?

The dire scenario usually carted out is the Nazis. The Nazis would have won. They would have conquered, and we’d be living under a brutal dictatorship, where life is cheap, and Christians are persecuted.

Sounds a lot like the Roman Empire.

If you don’t like the Nazis, you can substitute the Islamic State.

But we should overthrow tyrants, shouldn’t we?

“Whose head do you see on this coin? Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:16-17). When the Bible tells us to obey earthly authorities, we have to remember that it was all written in the context of the Roman Empire, during times when practicing Christianity was often a crime. We are not told to resist dictators. We are told exactly the opposite.

If that strikes you as odd, or even offensive, consider why. Is it because of your concerns relating to the Kingdom of God, or relating to this world?

But if we don’t resist evil, won’t evil win?

What if our worldly answer to this question, to resist, actually creates evil in us? What if the result is not just the defeat of the Nazis, but the bombing of Dresden and Hamburg, Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What if the price is to make us more like them, to be conformed to this world?

It may seem odd, even totally counter-intuitive, but following the words of Jesus should be hard. If it is a ticket to earthly dominance, to preservation of the status quo, we have to ask, “Is this really the gospel?”

When we look at the world and see violence, we must not mirror it. The face of pacifism should not resemble the world. We should reflect back love. When they drop a bomb, we build a school. When they kidnap, we set captives free. When they try to frighten us, we bring encouragement.

Pacifism does not mean doing nothing. It means waging peace. If it means the downfall of a nation, then I need to ask which master I am serving. Because I cannot serve my nation and my God.

Be in the world, not of the world. Christianity is hard. It’s supposed to be.


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