How Should We Then Live As Peaceable Christians?

A Virtual Round Table Discussion with Ryan Hemmer, Jason Rodenbeck and Frank Dugan III.

I need not tell you this is the day Americans elect their president and a host of other offices. We will be told this is the day the people rule. That sounds like a good idea, but you need to remember that there was a democratic moment in the Gospels, and the people asked for Barabbas.” Stanley Hauerwas (speaking at Duke Divinity School on election day)

Paul:  I am writing this on Wednesday after the election results came in early this morning. This political season has not only brought out the division in the country but a division among Christians.  The approach of Ryan, Jason, and Frank represent three notions of how to negotiate this breach.  Ryan suggests that we not succumb to the cycle of seeking short-term solutions to long-term problems but asks, as Christians, what practical political action we are to take.  Jason describes his personal response to the situation and concludes that the solution is only in rightly understanding the cross of Christ. Frank agrees with Jason but suggests we may be expecting too much of the principalities and powers to ask them to follow the Sermon on the Mount.

Ryan Hemmer: The insidious thing about Lonergan’s notion of “general bias” is not just that a culture opts for inadequate, short-term solutions for its complex, long-term problems; it’s not that the short-term solutions simply fail to solve the long-term problems; it’s that they exacerbate them. The panic incited by this scaling sense of crisis only further drives us to seek even more inadequate, short-term solutions out of fear. This cycle repeats over and over, leading to deeper and deeper decline. And few things can interrupt this civilizational momentum.

Those of us who direct our daily calories toward the development and elaboration of theory need to remind ourselves that we too can internalize this same sense of crisis and respond by pursuing the short-term, the inadequate, and the commonsensical. We can triage our culture and determine that our long-term projects are self-indulgent, decadent, or at least have to be put on hold in order to face the short-term crisis squarely.

We have to resist that impulse. We cannot take flight from understanding simply because the social surd makes us afraid. Don’t set your theoretical work aside. Don’t organize your efforts around fear. Be “big enough to be at home in the old and the new, painstaking enough to work out one by one the transitions to be made, strong enough to refuse half measures and insist on complete solutions even though it has to wait.”

As we do so, we also need to learn from others how to coordinate this patience with concrete practical action and attention: everyday expressions of care for our neighbors, organized acts of political virtue, and the radical self-decentering that comes through prayer to the one whose gift of love alone can transform the willingness of our hardened hearts.

Paul: much-needed reminder and goal at this time!

Ryan: I’m quite serious about the “need to learn from others” part. I genuinely need instruction on what to do and how to do it in the realm of practical political action. (I thought Jason’s piece went some way toward an answer.)

Jason: As a Christian (and by “Christian” I mean someone who understands the gospel as a radical kingdom of people following Jesus on the way of the cross) I was at once mystified and unsurprised by the results of this year’s election.  I am a Christian who finds participation in the power-system of this world’s political structures inherently anti-Christian; and so, I have refrained from voting for many years (to the bewilderment and disgust of my “conservative” family).  If Jesus’ kingdom is one which rejects the pursuit of power and the wielding of power through violence, then Jesus’ people ought to as well, in my opinion.  Besides that, since coming to the conclusions I have about Christianity, I have yet to find a single politician who would support the policies I could really get behind, namely: dismantling the military (peace), blanket debt forgiveness (forgiveness), open borders (mercy), free health care (compassion), feeding those who hurt us (enemy-love), etc.  

This morning we woke up my step-son early.  I volunteered to do this because I did not want to leave my wife alone to manage his reaction.  See, my step-son is autistic.  He has a disability.  And he is sensitive to the fact that people make fun of people with disabilities.  They hurt them.  Noah has a strong sense of justice for people who are traditionally treated poorly.  He saw in Trump (rightly, I believe) a maniacal bully incapable of empathy for anyone who suffers.  He found him disturbing.  Today we had to tell him, “It seems like most people are ok with that, they want that kind of person in charge.”  I’m sorry, Noah.  I feel like you do about it.  

All of that said.  Today at work a friend of mine who tends to have more “conservative” ideas about these things started a conversation with me.  I had intended not to get involved in conversations about it today, but I gave in.  I’m afraid to say, I am certain my body language and tone was more reflective of my disgust than I had wanted it to be.  The conversation, however, was civil.  No raised voices or insults (a large credit to him, I’d add).  

And it occurred to me as we talked just how very different my assumptions are about the way the world works and about the Kingdom of God.  He was actually able to present a very calm reason for why he thinks this was the best possible result.  And, from his perspective, I can see why he feels that way.  He doesn’t share my assumptions about violence or about the other.  Instead, he shares the assumption of the world: that violence is inevitable and it is better to kill the other than die yourself.  His assumptions were perfectly reasonable from a position which is different from mine.  

It made me realize (yet again) that for me to share my thoughts on this means going to the beginning of what I think is wrong with the world and the solution I think the Gospel presents for it.  Not that Jesus died to satisfy an angry God who needs to punish you for offending him.  But, instead, that Jesus died to reinstate a Kingdom of people willing to respond to violence with peace.  

That a man like Trump can become president is not, in fact, surprising.  It just proves what we already knew: that we live in a very broken world, a violent world, a retributive world.  It proves that we live in a world shaped by fear and hatred.  It proves that we live in a world of people who continue to think that responding to violence with violence is, someday, going to finally start working and who think that it is the cross which is naïve.  It proves that we live in a world in which the poor and the oppressed will remain poor and oppressed because it is profitable that they remain so.  It proves that progressivism and democracy, education and technology, despite all of the claims we’ve heard for two centuries, are false messiahs.  It proves that even those who think of themselves as “saved by Jesus” are confused about what it means and have bought into a Jesus who looks like them rather than trying to shape themselves to look like Jesus.

Most of all, I think it proves that we live in a world that the apostle Paul told us about, a world in which some people think the cross of Christ is stupid and some just stumble over it altogether.  In his case, it was the Jews who stumbled over it and the Gentiles who rejected it as foolish.  In our case, it is those who claim to be “saved” who reject it and the secular world which dismisses it out of hand.

My friend…was actually kind to me about my opinions about the election.  He said, “I really value your thoughts because they’re different from the norm.”  And he even conceded a few points I made to him.  After he left my office, I felt convicted.  I sent him an email saying, “Hey, I apologize for coming off a little too cynically.  I probably showed a less attractive side of myself.  Let’s go get a beer together soon.”  To which he replied, “No worries.  I appreciate that you’re willing to open up and have dialogue.  How about Friday?”

Time to get on the cross, I suppose.  Time to remember Paul’s statement: “They think it’s foolish and a stumbling block.  But for those of us who are being saved: we know it as the way God fixes things.”  If the cross is his method for peace, should we be so surprised at a new Caesar?

Frank: I don’t think we can expect, nor should we waste too much effort on, the baptism of a system that can never successfully apply the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. Whenever we demand the full ethic of Jesus to be applied to the nation, we are generally inviting fruitless anger and argumentation from those who rightly point out that the world doesn’t work that way.

The disunity resulting from the human solution to sin and death (Babel) is exclusively repaired in the outpouring of the Spirit. While we can and should on occasion give wise counsel to the principalities and powers of the world, the most practical political action is to demonstrate the cross in each of our circumstances (or when needed, place ourselves in those circumstances). It is unreasonable to demand those outside the cross to carry it, especially when we often fail to carry it while demanding that the nation state do it for us. If all men are to be drawn to the cross, we had better be putting a few on display ourselves. Perhaps it’s one of those things that just has to be witnessed to open the possibility of understanding and, hopefully, imitation.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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