taking the words of Jesus seriously

The Chronicles of Narnia, the incredibly popular collection of books written by C. S. Lewis has sold over 100 million copies in 47 languages. The series, which was conceived by Lewis in 1939 and written from 1949 to 1954 was built on a foundation of Christian theology that supported using violence in extreme situations. During and after World War II the concept of great good defeating great evil was close to many people’s hearts because the allied forces had just defended the world against the threat of Nazi Germany. This same theology also underpinned the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis’ friend and colleague at Oxford University. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is full of epic battles where right prevails over wrong despite incredible odds. As the story goes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first book in the original Narnia series, four children from the Pevensie family have been evacuated to the English countryside in anticipation of attacks on London. While there they accidentally discover the wintry parallel world of Narnia and its evil ruler Jadis, the White Witch. The book contains a host of characters inspired by Greek and German mythology, as well as Celtic literature. Most central to the story is Aslan, the Great Lion, which according to Lewis is “an alternative version of Jesus as he might have appeared in an alternative reality”, and he drives that point home when Aslan willingly sacrifices himself and is subsequently resurrected. The children’s adventure in Narnia builds until a climactic moment when Aslan kills the evil witch, but this is where things shift dramatically from reality to alternate reality. The real Jesus would never do that, because it’s a way of being that’s completely inconsistent with what He taught, and how He lived His life.

This part of the story is sometimes interpreted as Jesus defeating Satan but to be true to the Bible, Jesus refused to be defeated by Satan’s schemes but He didn’t attack Satan. I have tremendous respect for Lewis’ brilliant mind, and I love the imagery he uses of Jesus being portrayed as Aslan but we all approach things with a bias, and perhaps in this story we get a glimpse of his. I remember sitting in a movie theatre watching The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and when Jadis was killed, applause broke out. There’s no denying that deep down we love to see the good guys defeat the bad guys, and if that requires using violence…so be it.

In many ways present day America has become the new Aslan – a powerful, benevolent world ruler that prides itself on its Christian values until things start to get a little out of control, and then it bares its teeth. Since the American Revolution the United States has been involved in more than twenty armed conflicts around the world. That’s about twice the number for Australia and three times the number for Canada. It sounds like a lot of warmongering until we take a look at Britain’s staggering 100 military interventions. But then again, Britain has a much longer history of sending in the troops, and a lot more practise at ruling the world than America has. The major difference between the US and other nations is that only in America has the military become an integral part of culture and religion. It’s becoming so extreme that prior to the Iraq war many Evangelical pastors abandoned Jesus’ peace teachings altogether by telling their congregations that redemptive violence and righteous aggression are good, and that going to war is actually a Godly thing to do.

Related: C.S. Lewis Should Be an Evangelical Reject Too! – by John Janzen

Greg Boyd tells a chilling story about attending a Fourth of July church service that included a video presentation that radically changed his perception of the state of the Church in America.

There’s patriotic music playing and a flag waving in the background. It showed a silhouette of three crosses, and four fighter jets came down over the crosses and split, with the flag waving in the background. And there were some people who stood up, they were ecstatic, and I started crying because I wondered how it is possible that we went from being a movement of people who follow the Messiah, who taught us to love our enemies, to a movement that celebrates fighter jets – that fuses Jesus’ death on the cross with killing machines. And that was I guess a wake up call for me about how serious this problem is among Evangelicals in America.”

This intertwining of our spiritual lives with our military is perhaps the most dangerous result of mixing church and state, and to quote Greg Boyd again, “Nothing clears a room faster than questioning the righteousness of our military”. Unfortunately, this revering of all things militaristic is in all likelihood  a by-product of the “Military-Industrial Complex” that US President Eisenhower warned of during his farewell address. In that speech he expressed his concerns about having a standing army blindly supported by the government, with politicians feeling compelled to hand out contracts to arms manufacturers for fear of losing votes from their constituents. He believed that if Americans weren’t vigilant about monitoring the relationship between government and arms manufacturers, the American people would lose all control of their military. The huge problem facing Americans now is that it’s no longer a question of whether Republicans or Democrats are in power. If America isn’t constantly at war, the entire economic system falls apart and no-one has the power to stop it – not even the President.

If that all seems a little too scary, let me lighten things up a bit by telling you about my parents, Bernard and Isabella. The photo (above) was taken on their wedding day. They met after the war and were married in England in 1949. As you can tell from his uniform, my dad was in the military. When World War II broke out he was pursuing a degree in medicine at the University of Paris but he quit school to sign up as a pilot in the Royal Air Force. My mother also volunteered and became an RAF Teletype operator. At the beginning of the war my father and his brother Henry were both on the crew of a Lancaster bomber. My father was the pilot and my uncle was the navigator, but dad didn’t want to be responsible for the lives of six other crew members, so he transferred to a fighter plane squadron where if you messed up, you were the only one who died. Ironically, some time later my uncle’s bomber crashed into another plane over an airfield and everyone was killed. My mother saw it happen. In his new role as a fighter pilot my father flew Spitfires. They’re the planes made famous by the dogfights over London during the Blitz. Powered by Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 engines generating well over 1, 000 horsepower, Spitfires reached a top speed of about 400 mph and had 8 machine guns mounted on the wings. My memories of my father are of a quiet man whose hobbies included indoor gardening, tropical fish and oil painting, and I find it hard to imagine him flying any kind of airplane or shooting at anyone, but I guess going to war can make people do things that they would never normally do.

So, how has having two Christian parents in the military impacted this pacifist’s views on Christianity, family and war? Bruxy Cavey, the teaching pastor at The Meeting House expressed my feelings exactly during a sermon about peace he gave at his church where he said,

“Is it possible for a pacifist to honor a non-pacifist? I know it is. My father fought in World War II and he’s my hero for it. He fought according to his conscience and according to his best understanding of the teaching of Jesus at the time. We may have disagreed over whether it’s okay for a Christian to kill for a cause but at least he was willing to die for a cause, and that is admirable.”

Related: Daring to Call it Idolatry, Nationalism in Worship – by Craig M. Watts

It’s important to note here that World War II wasn’t fought between Christian allied forces and a bunch of German heathens. At that time there was arguably no more “Christian” country in the world than Germany, but their army was primarily made up of Catholics and Lutherans who subscribed to Just War Theory. If they’d paid any attention to Jesus’ teachings, Germany couldn’t have put an army together and Hitler never would have gotten off the ground.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks in following the teachings of Jesus is our tendency to do whatever we want, and to then convince ourselves that Jesus supports our agenda. This is especially true when it comes to His peace teachings. I’ve talked to church leaders who really want to speak the truth about peace but are afraid of repercussions from people in their congregations who are either in the military or related to someone in the military. There are a couple of things I’ve learned from thinking through this issue. The first is that we can love and respect people without agreeing with all of the choices they make. Many Christians do join the military, or support going to war, but I believe that there are much more Jesus-focused paths that we can take. The second is that none of us is perfect at following Jesus but we do need to be honest with ourselves about what He taught. He is the Prince of Peace and His teachings on this topic are incredibly clear, so if  for some reason we don’t want to follow Him in all situations, let’s just admit that and not pretend that He didn’t actually say what He said.

My prayer for all Christians is that we’d be brave enough to take Jesus seriously and to do what He asks us to do – live peacefully by loving our enemies, turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate us, but that will only be possible if we put our trust in God and know that Jesus’ way of peace isn’t intended to be a success strategy, it’s a love strategy. Or perhaps instead of allowing our culture to define “success” for us, we Christians need to redefine it as following Jesus well by loving all people.

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Stephen Jarnick was born in England and grew up in Toronto, Canada. He is the founder of the Peaceworks youth movement, and the producer of the Peaceworks online video series about “Peace & Jesus”. Stephen works for Mennonite Central Committee, Ontario. Follow on Twitter @peaceworkstv, on Facebook,  or visit the website.

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