Monday, November 9, 2009

Missions and the Peace Witness

This message was delivered at the annual
Idaho Christian Worker's Meeting, Indian Cove Church,
Hammett, Idaho, Sunday morning, April 26, 1987.

In the late 19th century the poet, Thomas Hardy, wrote the following words:

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay
And cracked the chancel window squares -
We thought it was the judgement day
And sat upright.
While drearisome arose the howl of wakened hound,
The mouse let fall the altar crumb,
The worm drew back into his mound.
The glebe cow drooled.
And God called. No!

"Its gunnery practice out at sea.
Just as before you went below
The world is as it used to be
All nations striving hard to make red war yet redder
Mad as hatters, they do no more for Jesus' sake
Than you, who are helpless in such matters;
That this is not the judgement hour
For some of them's a blessed thing
For if it were, they'd have to scour hell's floor
For so much threatening."

So down we lay again. "I wonder
Will the world ever saner be, " said one,
"That when he sent us under in our indifferent century"
And many a skeleton shook its head.
Again the guns disturbed the hour
Roaring their readiness to avenge.
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot and starlit Stonhenge.

(Adapted from Channel Firing, by Thomas Hardy)

The words of that poem are about 100 years old now, but they, along with the Bible and much of human history remind us that things haven't really changed much. People are born, they live for a short while, and then die, but sin lives on, sin that is often expressed in violence.

Words like "violence" and "force" are common words, but before I continue I'd like to tell you how I define those terms. Mennonites have probably throughout history used the word "force" more than "violence" when referring to peacemaking. I prefer the word "violence." I don't think "force " is always wrong. The word "force" is often used as a synonym of words like "persuasion" and "discipline." If I do a good job at my business I force my competitor to do a good job also, otherwise he would be forced out of business. That's not necessarily wrong. The word "force" has too broad a definition to define precisely what we mean when we're talking about sin that destroys peace. However the word "violence" needs to include, in its definition, more than what we usually comes to mind when we use it. Not just crime and war, but also refusing to listen to a friend or loved one when they need someone to talk to can be seen as an act of violence.

Two other words we need to examine are the words "peacemaking" and "pacifism." Mennonites have traditionally frowned on the word "pacifism," probably because of its activist connotations. Quakers are the pacifists. Mennonites prefer peacemaking or nonresistance. However the ways in which words are used, and their definitions change. When we have a president who calls missiles "peacekeepers;" when the United Nations has a "peacekeeping" force; and when branches of the military such as the Strategic Air Command claim that "peace is our profession," the boundaries of the definitions of words like "peace" and "peacemaking" are expanded and begin to include, within the definition, concepts the Bible does not include in its verses on peace and peacemaking.

So I prefer the word "pacifism." I believe the beatitude, "Blessed are the peacemakers..." can today be more accurately read as "Blessed are the pacifists for they shall be called the children of God." If you ask a soldier in the military if he's a peacemaker, he'll probably say "yes." If you ask him if he's a pacifist, you'll probably get a negative response. I wouldn't be surprised if our Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger sends out Christmas cards each year with the message
"Peace on Earth" on them to his friends and relatives, and yet he still wants billions more of our tax dollars for weapons which threaten to destroy that peace.

Obviously the peace the people in the military are talking about is a different kind of peace from that addressed in the Bible. Military peace is simply the absence of violent conflict regardless of how much injustice, fear, hatred, and anger is present. The Biblical concept of peace is Shalom which includes not only the absence of violence and war, but also the absence of those things which lead to war. Shalom is a broad concept which includes human welfare, health, and well-being in both spiritual and material aspects. Shalom has to do with right relationships between people and God. It has to do with justice, equality, and respect. A community on Earth in which Shalom flourishes is probably the best example of heaven we can find outside of the real thing. The word "peace" or "Shalom" is the best short definition and description of the gospel message. It is our mission as Christians to communicate that Shalom to the world.

The first step toward communicating the need for Christians to be pacifists as an essential part of our mission outreach, is to make sure that we believe it ourselves. Is pacifism optional for Christians? Probably all of us have heard Christians suggest that peacemaking is of secondary importance. However in the Bible we find overwhelming evidence that pacifism is expected to be a part of each Christian's life. Let's look at just a few of those Bible passages.

Matthew 5:44-45 says; "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you; in order that you may be sons (or daughters) of your father who is in heaven." The next couple verses remind us that... "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same." Their importance is emphasized by the fact that this message is repeated at least twice in the gospels. The same is true of the next verse. "For if you forgive men (or women) their sins you heavenly father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your sins." (Matt. 6:12, 14-15). This verse is very important in that it tells us that the forgiveness we receive from God for our sins is based on our willingness to forgive others.

At one time in his ministry Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered to the Jews..." Ephesians. 6: 12 says, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places." This verse tells us that Christians who approve of using military violence against other people have failed to identify the real enemy. There are many other passages that emphasize the centrality of pacifism to Christian faith, but I think these are enough to remind us that if we answer "yes" to the question - "Is pacifism optional for Christians" - we are also answering "yes" to the question - "Is it OK to disobey some of Jesus' most frequently repeated commandments?"

It's been a few days since we remembered Jesus' Crucifixion and celebrated his resurrection. I doubt if there's another event on the Christian calendar which reminds me more of the need for Christians to be pacifists. In order to say that someone has to die for his sins, we first have to forget that Christ died for the sins of all the people who will ever live. When we insist on others dying, as we do when we support a war, we are trivializing the sacrifice that God made when he send his son to die on Calvary. In the resurrection we are reminded that sin has been defeated. Righteousness is the winner. Life has triumphed over death. God has been victorious over the evil one, once and for all. When we look to military forces for solutions to our problems we abandon the resurrected Saviour and trust in the sin that hung him on the cross.

I've heard Vernard Eller compare Satan since the crucifixion and resurrection to a chicken that's just had its head chopped off. There's a lot of activity which gives the illusion that life is present. But the chicken is dead and no one can save him. Satan has been defeated and it's only a matter of time until all of his activity ceases. When we look to state-sponsored violence for security instead of looking to the shalom of God's kingdom we are trusting in that defeated , terminal, decapitated chicken, Satan, while ignoring and rejecting the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection. When we disengage ourselves and our resources from supporting military violence we offer new life to our brothers and sisters around the world and new life is what the resurrection is all about.

Mark 16:15 tells us to go throughout the world and preach the gospel to all mankind. Although we may disagree and debate about which is the best way to follow that instruction, there is no question that the word "gospel" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "Godspel" which means "good tidings" or "good news." The word in the original Greek as found in the New Testament is
"euaggelion" from which, through the Latin word "evangelium," comes the words evangel, evangelism, evangelical, and their other derivatives. In our evangelistic efforts the gospel that we communicate to a sinful world must be "good news." We cannot introduce people to the salvation story of Jesus Christ and still retain the option of using military or any other kind of violence against people. That, obviously, isn't good news and if it isn't good news, it isn't the gospel.

Sin has a two-fold effect. It makes us sinners and it makes us sinned against. As sinners we victimize others and are also victimized by others. It's a vicious cycle. To truly save us God must save us from sin, and from the effects of sin. He does just that. We see examples in the Old Testament when he rescued the Israelites from Egypt and in the New Testament when Jesus Christ met the needs of people by healing the sick. Many pastors and especially those on radio and TV, including all of the better-known ones, teach what I would call a half-gospel, a watered down message of Christianity. They present a picture or image of a weakened or crippled God and Jesus. They claim that God is great enough to save us from our sins, but not great enough to save us from our enemies. So we have to have a vast military force prepared to commit unlimited violence against our enemies in order to accomplish what God is not capable of doing.

Their message is partly true and partly false which is sure to deceived more people than a completely false message. However as long as they put their stamp of approval on the use of military power we can see by looking at those who are the victims of that military power that the news they're receiving is not good news, so it can't be the gospel. Since the word "evangel" is the Greek equivalent of "good news" they cannot be accurately labeled evangelistic. Their support of the military damages relationships so their message is not a Shalom message, which means that it's not biblical. What they have is a very effective prescription for deception. Are those people the false prophets Paul is writing about in 2 Timothy 3:1-5 which says; "In the last days there will be men...having a form of religion, but denying the power thereof." They believe God's power is not sufficient to save us from the Communists, terrorists, or other national enemies , so we need a military force to do that job. They believe the blood shed on Calvary was adequate to cover their sins, but not enough to cover the sins of our enemies, so we need to be prepared to shed their blood ourselves, and to do it with our military forces.

One thing Christians can do to enhance their peace witness is to live consistent lives. Much criticism is directed toward Christians and the church because of what the world accurately sees as a double standard. When we oppose abortion and support capital punishment we make a mockery of our faith and standards sine identical reasoning is used to support both. In both abortion and capital punishment the intended victims becomes victims only because they lack a credible past performance. When non-Christians see Christians support one and oppose the other they cannot help but laugh at such a blatant double standard.

Perhaps the most prevalent theme throughout the Bible is the assumption that people can and should be given the opportunity to change. From Genesis to Revelations everything God does to break down the barriers caused by sin is based on that assumption. His calling Abraham, leading Israel to the Promised Land, the work of various prophets in the Old Testament, the message given to those who wrote the various books of the Bible, the birth of Jesus, his ministry as well as his crucifixion and resurrection, the preaching of the Apostles, and the missionary work of Paul. Nothing on that list would have had any value if people could not change, or if they should not have the opportunity to change. The use of military violence and the execution of criminals take away opportunities to change and can only be done in complete defiance of everything the Bible stands for.

It may be a little late for the characters in Hardy's poem, but all around us we see and come in contact with people who still have an opportunity to change. Life is short, fragile, and very precious. Let's not cheapen and endanger human lives by placing our support behind ideas, actions, or behind institutions such as the military that take away the opportunities people have to change. Let's place more prayer and patience behind our peace witness and remember as we go through life that the gospel without Shalom is as lifeless as an ocean without water.

Leonard Nolt

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