Sunday, February 4, 2018

Deliverance: War & Revenge

Imagine a fierce protest taking place in Washington D.C. You have seen this scene many times before. Two sets of protestors: those “for” and those “against.” They are separated by two sets of barricades. There are armed officers standing between them, keeping the peace. They are lobbing insults back and forth across the chasm that separates them from each other. Each side is waving its signs. Each side is passionate about its position. On one side of the barricade the signs read:
  • “Make Love Not War”
  • “Give Peace a Chance”
  • “Drop Beats Not Bombs”
On the other side the signs read:
  • “Pacifists are Freedom’s Parasites”
  • “Give War a Chance”
  • “These Colors Don’t Run”
This protest, as you can see, centers on the issue of war. Here is the million-dollar question this morning: In this scene, where should the follower of Jesus stand?


The question I asked you a few moments ago is a tough one to answer. In the war protest scenario, where should the follower of Christ stand? I guess at one level the answer is easy, right? Jesus would call us to be on the side of peace. Jesus not only said what He did here in the Sermon on the Mount, but he also modeled peace. He transformed Peter (a zealot, assassin) into one who would later befriend a Roman centurion! When one of Jesus’ disciples cut off the ear of a Roman guard when Jesus was being arrested, Jesus stopped that fight before it could start! Few people would disagree with the premise that Jesus is on the side of peace. But the question I asked isn’t that easy to answer, is it?

Are there moments when war is justified—or, at least the best option? Centuries ago a man named Augustine (along with Ambrose, his principle teacher) developed something we call “Just War Theory.” This theory was developed in the context of an officially Christian Roman Empire. And the central question: “When should a Christian nation go to war?” The litmus test they developed has been used for centuries by governments across the world, including our own. Just War Theory makes the logical point that, in order to justify the killing that occurs in war, there must be a reason so important that it overrides the truth that killing people is wrong.

They developed eight rules:
  • The war must have a Just Cause. To stop the massacre of large numbers of people. To stop the systemic and long-term violation of basic human rights.
  • The war must be waged by a Just Authority. A single individual should not be able to declare war on his/her own whim. A process must be followed by a legitimate and good/just government. In our context, only Congress (a large body of people) can finally make the decision.
  • War must be the Last Resort. Everything else must have been tried. Negotiations, diplomacy, everything else!
  • The war must have a Just Intention. The goal of bringing peace. The goal of relieving suffering.
  • The war must have a Probability of Success. You should not go to war if there are long odds. You shouldn’t risk the lives of people if victory seems hopeless.
  • Those declaring war must consider the Proportionality of Cost. Is it worth it? War is costly—economically, physically, emotionally. Leaders should carefully weigh the costs before declaring a war.
  • There should be a Clear Announcement. “If the injustice does not stop by this date, we will attack.” Give people a chance to change. I remember as a high school student hearing the announcements leading up to the first Gulf War. President Bush clearly told the world: “If Iraq does not leave Kuwait by January 16, 1991, we’ll attack.” And when they did not leave Kuwait, we attacked.
  • Finally, the war must be fought by Just Means. Prisoners will be treated humanely. The rules of war will be followed. The goal is to stop the injustice or the suffering, not to brutalize the enemy.
Sorry for the brief history lesson there; this isn’t a class on Just War Theory. But I think this theory is important for us to at least hear, because it has been so influential in our world. This list was developed by Christian people who were trying to honor God’s mandate for peace in a world filled with violence. They read Jesus’ words here in the Sermon on the Mount. And they set these powerful words next to the realities of this world. And this was their answer: War as a last resort. War as a means to end suffering.

I’m not asking you to become an advocate for Just War theory. This is not “Scripture.” This is the attempt made by many Christians to reconcile Jesus’ call for peace in a world filled with violence.

But this voice has not been the only voice among Christians over the centuries.

For the first three centuries of the church, most (if not all) Christians were strict pacifists. In fact, we have a document from the late third century that suggests soldiers were not even allowed into the church! Throughout the history of the church, various Christian movements have maintained strict pacifism:
  • The Franciscans
  • The Anabaptists
  • The Quakers
  • The original Pentecostals
In recent decades the number of Christian pacifists has actually increased. Some attribute this increase to the resurgence of studies related to the Gospels & Jesus’ ministry (over against Pauline letters, for example). Others point to the increased destructiveness of war—the development of nuclear weapons, for example.

Still, regrettably, there is still another common response to war among other Christians. I call it the “Good Ole’ Boy” response. I remember the night of 9/11. I was preaching in Stamford. That night we had a prayer vigil on the town square. There was prayer. There were tears. There were songs. There was good, needed conversation. A few weeks later, a song hit the airwaves. Toby Keith, a country singer, released a song entitled “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.” This song was a different kind of response to 9/11. I want to read to you some lyrics from that song:
Hey Uncle Sam put your name at the top of his list
And the Statue of Liberty started shakin' her fist
And the eagle will fly man, it's gonna be hell
When you hear mother freedom start ringin' her bell
And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you
Brought to you courtesy of the red white and blue
Justice will be served and the battle will rage
This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage
And you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.
'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass
It's the American way
I hope you are more offended by the sentiment of that song than by the fact that I said that word in this room. The reality is, that song should offend us. The appropriate response to violence in our world is not revenge. It is not getting even. It is not flexing our muscles to prove how much better or stronger we are. And to the extent that Christians participate in that kind of response, we need to repent.

War and violence are horrific realities of our world. Followers of Jesus should grieve deeply over those realities. When I think of the complexities of war, I always think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A top-shelf Christian scholar and writer. He wrote a classic in 1937, The Cost of Discipleship, a commentary on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In one section of his book, he is reflecting on this specific portion of the sermon. In commenting upon Jesus’ mandate for peace, he writes:
There is no deed on earth so outrageous as to justify a different attitude. The worse the evil, the readier must the Christian be to suffer; he must let the evil person fall into Jesus' hands. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)
Bonhoeffer represents the difficulty with this topic! Because, the ironic conclusion to this story is, a few years later, Bonhoeffer joined a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was a German citizen. He saw before many others what was happening. Eventually, he came to believe that the only just thing to do was help to remove Hitler from power—even by force.

You know what, church? This question is really difficult. I know on many subjects I stand here and just tell you: This is what you should do. But this issue is so complex. This issue puts critical virtues like justice and peace at odds with each other. I will say this: War is awful. Followers of Jesus should pray for a world without war. I’m glad I’ll never have to make that call.

But we are not completely off the hook.

We often think of this passage only as it relates to a nation going to war. Actually, Jesus was speaking to only a few disciples. These words have significant implications for us as individuals.

We live in a nation built on the ideas of liberty and justice for all. We live in a nation filled with people who declare their rights. “If you infringe upon my rights, I have a right to make you pay for that!” Consider the backlog of cases in our civil court system! We do not like to be wronged! We, more often than not, demand our rights.

But Jesus is pretty clear here:
  • “Do not oppose those who want to hurt you.”
  • “If someone slaps you, let them slap you again.”
  • “If someone takes you to court, give them what they want and more.”
  • “If they make you run one mile, run two instead.”
  • “Give to those who ask you.”
  • “Do not refuse people who want to borrow something from you.”
Take war off the table for a moment. I could spend the rest of my life stumbling over this list of six commandments! If we really do mean to be genuine followers of Jesus, church, we need to follow these words. In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer spends some time talking about the passion of Jesus—that is, the crucifixion of Jesus. The fact that our story is built upon the story of Jesus who willingly died for the sake of others. Jesus set aside his “rights” for the sake of the world. Bonhoeffer writes:
How can we convince the world by our preaching of the passion when we shrink from that passion in our own lives? (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)
How indeed?

I said from the beginning that if we actually followed the words of Jesus in this sermon we would have to change. These words are not easy to follow. Discipleship is not an easy road. Discipleship does not mean we follow when it is easy, but when it gets tough we are off the hook. Discipleship does not mean we follow when Jesus’ teachings are acceptable in our culture, but when they force us to stand against friends, co-workers, and family we are released from obligation. Discipleship is uncomfortable. But when we live like true disciples of Jesus, church, we find deliverance. And, as we are delivered, we bring deliverance to our world.

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