Brian Zahnd is the co-founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a non-denominational Christian congregation in Saint Joseph, Missouri. Brian is known for his focus on embracing the deep and long history of the Church and wholeheartedly participating in God’s mission to redeem and restore His world. He is also the author of several books, including, A Farewell To Mars, Beauty Will Save the World, and Unconditional?: The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness. Today, as we in the US prepare to celebrate Independence Day, Brian talks to us about the conflation of flag and cross, Christianity’s long history of accommodating itself to the pressures of nationalism, and the transformative hope of local churches to overcome both of these distortions of the true message of Christ.
You’ve said that for many American Christians, the American Way and the Jesus Way are essentially the same way of being human. What do you mean by that?
Many American Christians would be hard pressed to identify five examples of how the Jesus way differs significantly from the American way. In the civil religion of America, the Jesus way and the American way have been conflated into the same mode of being human. In essence this means Christianity exists primarily to support the supreme idea of America. Put just so it sounds ludicrous, nevertheless it remains the tacit assumption of American civil religion. But authentic Christianity is a radical challenge to all other allegiances.
Christians confess that Jesus is Lord and thus “We the People” are not. Christians are far more committed to the Beatitudes than the Bill of Rights. Christians believe that only Jesus has a manifest destiny to rule the nations. Christians proclaim that “the last best hope of the world” is Jesus, not America. And that most American Christians would view these assertions as controversial reveals just how deeply the Jesus way has been subverted by the American way.
Since Constantine, Christianity has a long, sad history of accommodating itself to the pressures of nationalism. By baptizing the assumed cultural values of empire, Christianity is made convenient, and the cross is abandoned for the sword. This is the matrix of Christendom. We’ve seen this phenomenon in all the so-called Christian empires of the West—Rome, Byzantium, Russia, France, Spain, Portugal, Britain, Germany, America—and often with disastrous results. Instead of being a prophetic witness to the kingdom of Christ and challenging the arrogant assertions of economic and military superpowers, a compromised church perpetuates the shopworn myth that “God has raised up our nation.” But God has done no such thing. What God has raised up…is Jesus from the dead! And God has given Jesus dominion over the nations. The task of the church is to bear witness to this reality and embody the reign of Christ here and now.
But when nationalism subverts a radical commitment to the kingdom of Christ, the church is prone to salute the flag and turn a blind eye to sins like colonial conquest, imperial expansion, aggressive militarism, economic injustice, and racial oppression. When the church has pledged its loyalty to national self-interest, Jesus is no longer truly Lord. In civil religion, all allegiances are subordinate to the nation, which is why you see churches flying the American flag above the Christian flag. It’s a bit of unintended truth-telling on the church lawn. Jesus is still worshiped, but his role has been demoted to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs. The nation reigns supreme. This is how the American civil religion subverts the Jesus way.
I understand that you’ve lost quite a few congregants for preaching against war and the military, and for explaining that America does not equal the Church nor is the cross interchangeable with the flag. Why, then, do you continue to spread this message, and how has this impacted your understanding of your role as pastor?
My understanding of the pastor’s vocation is that I am to help form people in Christlikeness and lead a congregation into becoming an authentic expression of the kingdom of Jesus. My task is not to gain a crowd or amass an audience by simply baptizing the assumed cultural values and slapping a Jesus fish sticker on Americanism. But to pastor this way requires a certain amount of courage. To lead a church as a Christ-informed countercultural movement is a daring venture. I know this because it scares me all the time.
But I wouldn’t say I’ve preached against the military—in fact, I haven’t done that. I’ve been especially mindful to always show respect for soldiers. The Christ-informed prophetic critique of militarism and war is never directed at the young men and women who have enlisted in the military. They are often acting from noble motives. Unfortunately, the principalities and powers are skilled in manipulating noble aspirations for unholy purposes. This is why the church needs to be a prophetic voice that challenges the masters of war—or what President Dwight Eisenhower called the “military industrial complex.” What I’ve done in my sermons is to preach Jesus and help people come to see him as the Prince of Peace.
But it is true that contrasting the message of Jesus, and particularly his Sermon on the Mount, with an idolatrous allegiance to nationalism, militarism, violence, and war has cost me church members. This has been very painful. They’re not just “members, ” they’re my friends. But I have to be true to my conscience and the call of Christ. I didn’t go into the ministry to be a politician and pander for popularity—I went into the ministry to lead people in the Jesus way. Jesus’ call to discipleship involves carrying a cross. So there is always the possibility we will be rejected and vilified, or even crucified.
Your latest book, A Farewell to Mars, is about removing violence and power from our understanding of faith, and of realizing Jesus not just as Savior, but also as Prince of Peace. Yet you won’t call yourself a pacifist. Why?
First of all, I don’t like labels. Søren Kierkegaard was right when he said, “When you label me, you negate me.” Just call someone a pacifist, and you can dismiss them with a wave of your hand. Labels are often a way to avoid thinking. “Oh, he’s one of those.” Case closed. Mind closed. That being said, I have no problem with Christians who adopt the label of pacifist. If nothing else, they provide an alternative witness to that of the Christian militarist whose numbers are legion. But I actually don’t claim the label of pacifist for this reason: pacifism is an ethical or political position on violence. It’s a position one could adopt apart from Jesus Christ—as for example, the great writer and humanist Kurt Vonnegut did. But I am not an ethical pacifist. What I am is a Christian. And as a Christian, we can talk about how Christ informs humanity on the subject of war and violence.
In my spiritual journey I’ve come to understand that to live gently in a violent world is part of the counterculture of following Christ. This is not something I would ever have arrived at on my own. I am not by nature a gentle person. For most of my life, I viewed “heroic violence” with a kind of affection. In my youth I got in plenty of fights. I enjoyed violent movies. Cowboy justice held a romantic appeal. Until about ten years ago I supported nearly all (if not literally all) of America’s military ventures. As a pastor I prayed war prayers and preached war sermons. I’m certainly not a pacifist by nature. If my views on war and violence have changed—and they have—the blame falls squarely on Jesus! It’s not like I just woke up one day and said, “Hey, I think I’ll adopt a position of Christian nonviolence just for the fun of it. I bet that will be popular!” That’s not what happened. What happened was once the red, white, and blue varnish was removed from Jesus and I learned to read the gospels free of a star-spangled interpretation, I discovered that my Lord and Savior had a lot of things to say about peace that I had screened out. I was as surprised as anyone! But once you’ve seen the truth, you can’t unknow what you know and be true to yourself.
Pacifism can come across as some exotic idea that belongs, if at all, on the margins of Christian faith. Peace, on the other hand, is central to the message of Jesus. So I’m more interested in exploring the implications of Christ-informed peacemaking than wearing the badge of pacifist. Besides that, there is the unfortunate fact that pacifism sounds too much like, and is thus often confused with, “passivism.” Many people don’t know there is a difference between pacifism (peace-ism) and passivism (passive-ism). But there is nothing passive about following the path of Christian nonviolence. It’s a hard road that calls for courage and demands determination. So if today I’m trying to walk the narrow path of nonviolent peacemaking, it’s only because it’s where I find the footsteps of Jesus. It’s an uncrowded path, perhaps at times a lonely path. But it’s worth travelling because I keep catching glimpses of Jesus father up the road.
Is American militarism to blame for the existence of ISIS?
Probably. I’m no expert on Middle East politics (though neither are most American policy makers), so I cannot speak definitively. But from my layman’s point of view it seems that the lasting outcome of American military incursions in the Middle East has been to dangerously destabilize the region while increasing anti-Western sentiment. In any case, Jesus teaches us that the “quick fix” of violence only leads to more fiery Gehennas. Violence as problem solving is the highway to hell. The idea that we can eradicate evil by dropping bombs on it is the height of hubris and reveals a dangerous naïveté. It’s sad to think that the lasting legacy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq may be the near elimination of historic Christianity from many Arab countries.
Your last few books are your attempt to look at Christianity through three lenses: forgiveness, beauty, and peace. These are, of course, more than lenses through which to view a faith; they are ways to live a gospel life. What is your practical advice on how we can work to rebuild our social structures—currently built on vengeance, western modernity, and violence—with these ways of living?
I think this kind of practical work is best done (and perhaps can only be done) in the context of the local church. This means we need to start our rehabilitation with our churches. I support Christian activism, but until our churches become an embodiment of Christian forgiveness, beauty, and peace, I’m afraid our “change the world” rhetoric will be little more than shallow sloganeering. If we can’t make the church more Christlike, we will have little chance of making our broader social structures more Christlike. So I would like to ask churches to evaluate their work in terms of forgiveness, beauty, and peace. Perhaps we could ask ourselves these three questions:
Do we come across as a genuinely forgiving people?
Is the wider culture likely to recognize the beauty of Christ in our public witness?
In a hostile and violent world are we contributing to creative peacemaking?
If we cannot answer at least somewhat in the affirmative, we need to focus on restoring our witness by actually becoming a credible expression of Christ in the world. Our task is not so much to change the world, as it is to be that part of the world already changed by Christ. If we can become famous for forgiveness, attractive because we embody the beauty of Christ, and ambassadors of a peaceable kingdom, then we can be agents of redemptive change in the world.
I hold to a deep hope that the church in North America is beginning to move in a new direction—a direction of forgiveness, beauty, and peace. Hopefully we are beginning to turn away from a politicized and polarizing faith characterized by finger-pointing moralism, insipid kitsch, and bellicose warmongering. Over the next few decades it seems inevitable that the church in North America will become far less of a cultural assumption (and thus smaller). But this gives us an opportunity to become much more of a counterculture witness to the radical alternative of the Jesus way. I want to see the church seize this opportunity. Anyway, this is my hope and prayer.