Friday, January 3, 2020

Blessed Are the Peacemakers, and the Families

Blessed Are the Peacemakers, George Bellows.
Recent events involving American Christianity have served as a somber reminder of the current state of the faith.

First came the editorial from the centrist Christianity Today, calling for Donald Trump to be removed from office. That piece brought howls of derision from the evangelical wing of American Christianity, along with ludicrous claims that CT, founded by the esteemed late Billy Graham, is a far-left journal. The reaction to the even-handed piece certainly said a lot more about the critics than it did about the magazine.

Then there was the regrettable church shooting in Texas, in which two people died before an armed parishioner killed the assailant. The church member who shot the gunman dead has been hailed as a hero and an example of why the Second Amendment is necessary for defending lives.

But the question has to be asked: Why are Christians defending a president who couldn't be any less Christ-like if he tried, and why are we making a hero out of a follower of the Prince of Peace who was packing heat in a church building?

On the first point, it's notable that CT, and many of its current critics, were both telling us during Bill Clinton's impeachment that character mattered in our elected leaders. CT has remained consistent in its criticisms, leaving its current detractors looking like crass political opportunists who cast their principles aside when a moral degenerate happens to be pushing a political agenda they approve of.

On the second point, I find it tragic that we have so much gun violence in America, that someone would come into a sacred place and start shooting people, and that Christians would be carrying lethal weapons in that same sacred place. You can argue that the quick reaction of the armed parishioner saved even more lives from being lost, but is this what Jesus called us to do in the face of conflict? To meet violence with violence?

Well, in fact, he said quite the opposite. He called on us to love our enemies, to do to others what we would want done to us, and to turn the other cheek to an assailant who has just struck us on the opposite cheek. "Blessed are the peacemakers," he reminds us in the Beatitudes. He saved a woman from being stoned to death even though she was eligible under the law to be killed. He didn't fight back when the Roman soldiers were beating him to a pulp. He didn't resist being nailed to the cross. He didn't ask his disciples to avenge his death. The only thing he did was to ask God to forgive those who put him to death. To the very end, he remained humble and merciful.

But Jesus said to sell your cloak and buy a sword!

Yes, he did, to fulfill the prophecy in Isaiah that he would be "counted among the transgressors" and arrested when in the presence of the soldiers. He never intended to go into battle with a sword. That's why he told the disciples that two swords were enough, when that never would have been sufficient for a fight. It's also why, when Peter actually used his sword to cut off the ear of the high priest's servant, Jesus healed the man and rebuked Peter. "Put your sword away," he said, "for all who live by the sword shall die by the sword."

But he said he came not to bring peace but a sword!

Yes, he did, but context matters. Again, he said this to fulfill prophecy that he would cause division among friends and family members. He wanted his followers to be all in behind him, not lukewarm. Accordingly, people would take sides for and against him. That was the meaning of the sword in this context. Likewise, when Jesus appears in the Book of Revelation with a sword protruding from his mouth, it's to be seen as his words laying waste to the nations of the earth.

But he whipped the moneychangers in the temple!

Actually, scripture only says that he fashioned a whip and drove the moneychangers out. It never says that he struck them with the whip. Only the Gospel of John mentions the whip, and only John and Mark make mention of Jesus' flipping over the tables. Matthew and Luke say only that he drove the moneychangers out.

The Gospels paint a consistent picture of a man who resisted violence and loved his enemies. The early church also understood this, in the days before Christianity allied with Constantine and empire. "Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer," St. Athanasius wrote. "The Christian does not even hurt his enemy," wrote Tertullian. "Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings," wrote Clement of Alexandria. Christians were even expected to renounce military service. Quakers and Anabaptists still hold this ancient view of Christian nonviolence today.

That all sounds great in theory, but when you have an active shooter, you need another gun, not prayers.

Gosh, now you sound just like all the atheists who mock the pointlessness of prayer.

The thing is, if your religious principles fall apart when the rubber hits the road, then your principles were pretty flimsy to begin with.

Well, Jesus wouldn't have just sat there and done nothing while innocent people were being mowed down!

You know what Jesus would have done? He would have placed himself between the gunman and his targets. Because that's how much Jesus loves us. If you really believe that Jesus is who he said he was, then you believe that he essentially took a bullet for all of us.

Now, how many of us would lay down our lives like that for those we love?

I don't know what I would have done in that situation, but I also acknowledge that Thou shalt not kill isn't just a bunch of hot air. Nonviolence and pacifism, after all, don't mean that you refrain from action in the face of evil. They simply mean that when confronted with violence, you find ways to counter the violence that doesn't result in death. In the case of the church shooting, the parishioner could have done any number of things besides taking the gunman out with a head shot. He could have been tasered, pepper-sprayed, shot in a place that would incapacitate but not kill him, tackled, had the gun wrested away from him.

This isn't a question of gun control. Our society tends to want simple answers to complex problems, and rather than do the hard work of understanding why so many people are angry, hateful, and despondent enough to carry out mass shootings, we think we can fix the problem with "just a few more" gun laws. And so we never get to the root of the problem and never address the behavior that gives rise to the violent action in the first place.

Guns are not the problem -- but for Christians, they're also not the answer. Carrying a weapon comes from a place of fear. I ought to know, because when we lived in Seattle, I eventually bought some pepper spray and a taser to add to the family survival bag. My wife had had some close encounters with violent and mentally unstable people when she worked in Seattle, and I thought it would be best for the family to have some kind of weapon at hand in case of a violent conflict. And why did I make that decision? Out of fear for my and my family's well-being. Fear. I'd never entertained the idea of owning a weapon of any kind, yet there I was.

But should followers of Christ do such things? We're told that perfect love casts out all fear. If we say it's unrealistic or naive to engage with the world in such a manner today, then again we're left to ask whether we really do follow and trust in Christ. For Jesus asked, point blank, "Why do you call me Lord and not do as I say?" Either we trust in his way of nonviolent enemy-love or we don't. And in a country that immerses itself in the idolatry of nationalism, that wraps the cross in a flag, that spends a quarter-trillion dollars annually to wage war on the rest of the world but claims there's no money for universal healthcare, and that's bombing Iraq and assassinating Iranians as I write this, it seems as if we're a Christian people in name only.

And so once again, I'm left to ponder why I hang in there -- why I continue to call myself a Christian when Christianity has become so tainted by those who call themselves followers of Christ. And I suppose my answer, as usual, is that I have yet to find so perfect and convincing of an ethical treatise as Jesus laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus isn't the problem. It's his followers.

And I think in some sense that in siding with the church, I'm also siding with Western civilization. Because the church built our civilization, and it's painfully obvious that our society is crumbling into madness as our shared Christian values begin to wane in the face of postmodern narcissism that lets every person become his own god, redefining himself in his own image as he sees fit.

To that end, I was very happy to hear an excellent homily from the priest at our church on the Feast of the Holy Family. The readings included Paul's infamous decree for wives to be submissive to their husbands, and I wondered how the priest was going to rescue that one from the flaming Dumpster. To his credit, he spoke lovingly of the importance of honoring the different roles, including the different strengths, of both sexes. In a country where almost a quarter of our kids live in single-parent homes, the highest rate in the world, it's obvious that something has gone wrong with the family unit, and our kids suffer for it. My wife and I always felt one of us should be able to stay home when we had a child, and my work has allowed me to do that for our daughter. Now we're both home with her, hopefully for a long time.

But sadly, a lot of people don't have that option in our late-capitalist society that keeps people working to the bone at multiple jobs just to scrape by. I feel fortunate that we've avoided that fate so far.

Our priest used to be married, so he knows a thing or two about married life, and the compromises you need to undertake to make the marriage work, not to mention the complementary roles that mother and father take in raising their kids. To that end, our priest noted that the liberties our society has taken with relationships and the roles of the sexes has not been to the benefit of the family or the culture. Men need to be men and women need to be women, he said, and you can read quite a bit into that statement, especially when we have an aggressive minority of people trying to forcefully redefine what male and female even mean. Always love others, for certain, but don't throw your common sense out the window in the process.

He also spoke of the importance of not pumping the garbage that passes for entertainment into our houses, as that also has a degrading effect on people and families. I think we have a fairly good handle on that in our house, as we don't watch TV, and I've long been appalled at what people -- again, even self-proclaimed Christians -- extol as good entertainment. When we praise the most graphic and vulgar actions as enjoyable things to talk about around the water cooler, again, can we be surprised at the state our society is in?

But as much as I despair for our society, I sure am glad we have people like our priest standing up for family, faith, and goodness. I don't know his views on guns, and given that he's ex-Marine, I probably don't want to know. But I doubt he'll ever make favorable comments about our current administration. Catholics aren't evangelicals, and although we have our Trump-loving rad-trads, I would like to think that most of us are at least dimly aware of Catholic social teaching -- including workers' rights, the preferential option for the poor, the opposition to capital punishment, and the need to care for God's creation -- and realize that our national leaders aren't even close to living up to the ideals that the church wants us, as followers of Christ, to strive toward.

May we do better, as Christians and Americans, before it's too late.

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