Thursday, 5 May 2011

"Jesus tells you to buy a sword"

WWJS?  Who Would Jesus Shoot?!?
So, yesterdays blog post and comments earlier in the week on the death of Osama Bin Laden has meant some rather strange comment exchanges with some Americans around the area of taking up arms as a Christian.  Now, even before looking at the particular text that was being banded around, I just have to say that violence doesn't just seem to fit with Jesus.  Even when he went to the temple with his premeditated whip, his actions were against tables, not people.  Jesus teaches non-violence to his followers as citizens of a different Kingdom.  Jesus does not advocate any sort of 'Jihad'.

Now...the text that was thrown at me was Luke 22:36:
"He said to them, “But now, the one who  has a money bag must take it, and likewise a traveller’s bag too. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one."

A no doubt lovely (but gun toting) Christian woman claimed her right to respond to Jesus here and to defend herself by taking up arms.   I have to confess that I thought to myself "Hm....that verse escaped me....I must get myself to the gun shop."  NOT!  My natural instinct was that there must be something else going on here and there surely was.

As is always the case in the bible text, context is everything.  And that is surely the most dangerous out of context verses there is!  So, whats going on?  The disciples have emerged from the last supper and are about to make their way to the Garden of Gethsemane.  The disciples are already 'gung-ho' and ready to go to prison and to death with Jesus. ( v33)  Jesus starts taking the wind out of Peter's sails immediately, indicating that at this point in history, Peter is going to deny him. (v34).

Jesus then strikes up a conversation of contrasts.  He brings to their mind that they went out and returned rejoicing in their mission (Lk 10), even when the hadn't taken anything for the road.  Jesus brings in the symbolic contrast to that so signal that things were a-changing.  He tells them they'll need a cloak, a bag, and a few quid....oh, and swords.  (Lk 22v36) Jesus is saying to them its not going to be plain sailing, you'll need to make provision for yourselves and you're going to face opposition and persecution.  Its not going to be like before...this is the time boys!

So, ever the dumb-wits, the disciples lose the plot.  'Hey Jesus, look we've got these two swords.'  We are told that Jesus' response is 'it is enough.'  Enough for what?  Can two small daggers defend 12 men against soldiers?  No.  Did Jesus mean 'thats enough swords' or did he mean 'don't be stupid, conversation closed!'  Now, I believe both interpretations of that have something to say.  Firstly, its not hard to imagine Jesus rebuking his disciples for being a bit slow and missing the point.  But secondly, we have a reference to Isaiah 53:12.  It is prophesied that Jesus will be 'counted with the transgressors'.  Is Jesus not rebuking them here, but instead giving them the benefit of the doubt by saying that two daggers is enough for them to be arrested as a band of rebels by the authorities?  I'll leave you to decide.  However, in either case, we must hold the position that Jesus did not intend a battle in the Garden and he did not intend these swords to be used in defense because he knew his arrest must take place, but the disciples having them at that time sprung the prophecy into Jesus mind and allowed them to take them.

Moving in to the Garden, a crowd come to arrest Jesus and because Peter had misunderstood Jesus' reference to swords, he struck the high priest's servant with his sword, cutting off his right ear! But Jesus immediately heals the man and tells the disciples, 'No more of this!' (Luke 22:51). We get more information on this incident in Matthew 26:47-54. Notice verse 52:
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

Jesus said that He sent the disciples out 'as sheep among wolves' – this sounds potentially dangerous, so how should Christians handle this potential danger? By being 'as wise as serpents and harmless as doves.' See Matthew 10:16, NKJV. Being 'as harmless as a dove' rules out the possibility of Christians arming themselves – doves are a symbol of peace and the gentlest of birds - Jesus has not granted Christians the power or authority to take up weapons to defend themselves.  Those sent forth with the Gospel of Jesus Christ are not to arm themselves but – on the contrary – should display the attitude of 'turning the other cheek'.   An exploration of that idea is interesting too because it doesn't simply imply taking attack, but contains the notion of nonviolent resistence....discussion for another day.

I don't necessarily believe that means that goverments have no armies or have defense forces.  Romans 13 indicates that God has given the sword to 'authorities'.  Jesus has not granted Christians the power or authority to take up weapons to defend themselves.  This is the role of the state.  This is where I believe the Christendom mindset has corrupted our view of things with regards to what Jesus seems to teach.

Now, whether a state defending itself or others is the same as the things we see our 'UN' or 'NATO' nations doing today is another discussion for another day!

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

On Not Voting

One of the great things of this last year has been the opportunity to take journeys of exploration down avenues that, for various reasons, I hadn't yet fully travelled.  Much of my 'theology' and even 'ideology' has been evolving significantly over the last 3 years, some of the things are only now coming to clarity...or at least to some recognisablly clearer landing points before further exploration!

One of those areas is the area of political involvement.  As an officer in The Salvation Army, I had always taken the view of remaining politically neural in public a) because the Salvation Army is politically neutral and b) I was a full-time 'ambassador' for all things Salvation Army in any locale I was in.  Whilst having strongly held political views privately which I expressed in concrete terms through membership of a political party, I was happy for them to be private (apart from the odd Scottish Nationalist 'Alba gu brath!' now and again - they do slip out!)

A combination of theological reflection and observation of the political life of the United Kingdom has led me to the place where I am keen to explore a 'third way' when it comes to political engagement.  I don't believe that Christians should be silent in the world, I believe we have a strong biblical mandate for engagement, particularly when it comes to advocacy for the poor and marignalised.  Also, I believe we have much to contribute on many issues.  So, for me just getting involved by voting and lobbying and the opposite of non-engagement are not satisfactory.  Before suggesting what a 'third way' might look like, here are the reasons I which are discouraging me from taking part in the electoral system:

Why I am chosing not to vote or continue party membership:
        1)  we have a nation that seems to have an interventionist foreign policy.  We jump into almost every conflict in alleged 'just war' situations or even when the legal grounds are decidedly dodgy.  I believe for many reasons that the theology of just war is problematic (even Augustine who proposed it had to uncomfortably dice around problematic New Testament texts). Our government  is explicitly charged with the duty of maintaining the military and preserving national interests through the use of violence if necessary or expedient. If I, as a follower of Jesus, could not conscientiously serve in that role, then how can I in good conscience cast my support for someone else to do that in my place? I could never order a war or kill a man and I don't want anyone doing it for me. 

       2) I have come to believe very definitely in the separation of church and state and welcome wholeheartedly the demise of 'Christendom' as a political, economical, geographical and spiritual idea.   I believe that the vision of the Kingdom of God is by and large always contrary to the vision of nation states, no matter how supposedly 'Christian' or how many Lord Bishops you have in the House of Lords. In our day and age, I cannot imagine that we will have a government that will be consistantly concerned with the vision and concerns of Jesus for our world.  Even when a party has one good 'Kingdom' commitment, there are several other commitments which seem contrary.  I cannot in good conscience be party to decisions through the medium of voting.

    3)  Voting itself seems to me to be the least effective political action as a Christian.  It happens rarely and very few of the manifesto agendas, if appealing at all, ever see light of day.   Not voting, of course, doesn't mean that you naturally wipe your hands clean of the decisions of those who are in power, but it does mean you aren't party to them.  Rather, it accentuates my reponsibility as a Christian to speak out as a distinct, prophetic voice either in my locale or in conjunction with other non-partisan initiatvies (such as Stop the Traffik).  
 
    4) our position in this world is as citizens of another Kingdom...sojourners, journeyers, pilgrims...turasaiches.  This is difficult for me, but I want my citizenship to be more about that Kingdom than any other place.  I want to be able to freely make my responses in the light of that instead of living out of my 'Labour' agenda or my 'Scottish Nationalist' agenda.   I am coming to see those things as contrary to the Kingdom of God, even when some of the ideals of those parties are close to Kingdom values. 

Now, no doubt there are questions that can be asked of all that....and I have my own questions about those statements that I'm still working through.  So, if I rule out conventional voting and party political engagement and if I rule out the idea of total disengagement, what is the 'third way'?  There are probably other people who have thought this out well and more thoroughly, but here are my ideas.

What might a 'third way' look like?

   1) I imagine it will continue to include advocacy for the poor, marginalised  and disenfranchised both through practical support of them and in speaking with them to those who exercise power over them and help keep them marginalised.

  2) I imagine it will include active participation in non-violent protestation, letter writing and lobbying on Kingdom concerns (such as religious freedom for all, non-violent intervention, pro-peacemaking, nuclear disarmament, and a list of other things).

I can understand that many will not agree with my conclusions.  I don't necessarily need you too...we live in a democracy after all!  But for now, I'm trying to figure out the best way to be 'in the world but not of it' and to act within the limits of my conscience for the sake of justice, peace, righteousness and the other values of the Kingdom. 

Would be interested to hear your thoughts...any points made would help me explore nuances of my current thinking.