Why We Christians Don’t Love Our Enemies

Ted Grimsrud

[Here is another excerpt from a sermon from some time ago—October 2005]

If there is one passage in the entire Bible that points to both the glory and the shame of Christianity, it is this famous statement by Jesus: “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:44-45). Here we have a direct statement of a profound ideal, a call to break the cycle of violence that so bedevils our world. And here we have as stark a reminder as we could imagine of just how far Christianity tends to have strayed from the will of its founder.

The cost of hating enemies

 “Love your enemies,” such an obvious statement of what our world needs. We see so clearly in our present day how hatred of enemies fuels war with simply incredible costs. In the name of stamping out “terrorists” our country spent billions upon billions to pour violence upon the nation of Iraq, diverted resources in a way that made the Gulf Coast more vulnerable to devastation from recent hurricanes, alienated people throughout the world, and sent hundreds upon hundreds of our soldiers to their death along with thousands upon thousands of Iraqis. This hatred fuels a spinning cycle, eye for an eye for an eye leading to more and more blindness.

Hatred of enemies fuels our nation’s prison-industrial complex. We send millions behind bars where they are all too often brutalized, infected with devastating diseases such as hepatitis, and permanently disenfranchised as stakeholders in civil society. As someone said, no matter how long a convicted criminal’s official sentence might be, it is invariably a “life sentence” in terms of the impact going to prison has on one’s life. In the name of “security,” we only increase the spiral of destruction and alienation.

In many other ways as well, hatred of enemies leads to unhappiness, brokenness, pain being visited upon pain—and the cycle of creating only more hatred. So, Jesus’ words cut like a warm knife through butter. He gets to the heart of things. We need to find ways to love instead of hate and to forgive instead of simply punish and to heal when there is brokenness, not simply retaliate. We also need the vision of God these verses give us. The One who models love for enemies and who offers generosity and genuine wholeness, who gives us hope, who empowers us to find another way from the spiral of death.

Jesus’ words seem so obvious. What could be more straightforward and more needed than Jesus’ incisive words? We need them now more than ever; they come to us straight and clear. If it were only that simple. If only Jesus’ words would set the agenda for Christians in our needy world today. If only being a Christian would mean ending hatred of enemies. But, it doesn’t work this way, sad to say. We Christians actually aren’t that good at loving our enemies. I struggle to understand why. Continue reading “Why We Christians Don’t Love Our Enemies”

Why Pacifism?

Ted Grimsrud—August 12, 2012

[I just came across this sermon from just over nine years ago. It says some things I still want to say. Shalom Mennonite Congregation—July 6, 2003]

As I thought about this sermon, my dad came to mind. Next month will be nineteen years since he died. I have happy memories of my dad. He was a loving father, somebody I was always proud to be associated with. But my dad was a warrior. In 1940, as a recent college grad and aspiring history teacher and coach, he decided to enlist in the Army. This was more than a year before Pearl Harbor. My dad certainly wasn’t a warmonger, but he felt a strong sense of loyalty to his country.

My dad spent four years fighting against the Japanese. He was wounded, contracted malaria, and saw his best friend (whose name was Ted) killed before his eyes. Now, I knew my dad as a gentle person. He never owned a gun—and we lived in a rural area where almost everyone did have guns—because, he said, he had seen enough guns for a lifetime.

Nonetheless, he always valued his wartime experience, though he rarely talked about it (he actually didn’t talk much about anything). One time he did speak of the war to me. I was 17 and facing the possibility of being drafted. My dad told me what a good experience he had in the Army and encouraged me to attend a military academy so I could go in as an officer instead of a flunky enlisted man. I wasn’t tempted, he didn’t push me, and we never talked about it again.

The interesting thing to me as I reflect on all this now is that my father grew up in a good Christian home. His father and one of his grandfathers were Lutheran pastors. Apparently, my father never saw a tension between being a warrior and being a Christian. I can’t imagine that I ever could have asked him about that, but I wish I had. But this is what I think. I think that my father never questioned the legitimacy of patriotism. He saw no conflict between following his government and following Jesus. I think it never occurred to him that God and Caesar might be competitors for his allegiance…. I wish it had. Continue reading “Why Pacifism?”

More on salvation: Responding to responses (Part 2)

Ted Grimsrud

Here are some more thoughts as I reflect on the numerous responses to my two recent posts on salvation, “The Bible’s salvation story” and “A message to President Obama about salvation.” The first part of my responding to the responses is here.

Covenant and atonement

Ryan Harker, drawing on N.T. Wright’s early book, The New Testament and the People of God, asks about my sense of how the biblical emphasis on covenant might fit in this discussion. I actually haven’t read this book of Wright’s. It’s the first of what has now been three immense and crucial volumes on New Testament theology, the second being on the historical Jesus and the third on the resurrection. Those latter two were both important resources for my book, and from them I think I have a fairly good sense of what Ryan is asking about.

I really like Wright’s work a great deal, but I am not quite sure I would follow him all the way on his thoughts about the covenant—at least in the way Ryan seems to use them. My difference may be subtle, but still quite important. Indeed, I do think God makes a covenant (or commitment) to Israel that involves demands for Israel’s faithful response to God’s mercy that created them as a people and gave them the vocation to bless all the families of the earth. Torah is the central embodiment of the meaning of this covenant. And there are big problems that arise when the Israelites violate the covenant and turn toward idols and empires and injustice.

However, I don’t think ultimately that the story indicates that God is so offended and alienated by these violations that God then requires a human being (even if God-in-the-flesh) to die as a means of taking upon himself the consequences of the failure. Ryan suggests that God’s “nonviolence” towards God’s people leads God to create this alternative possibility, where the punishment falls on God-in-the-flesh instead of God’s people. This is an attractive idea in some ways, but I think it leaves us with the same problems that other versions of satisfaction atonement do. That is, God remains punitive and we project onto God a retaliatory disposition that must response to sin with punitive consequences.

Certainly, the story does give us instances where God seems to respond the way Ryan suggests, but the overall story makes clear, I believe, that God never requires punishment as a prerequisite for mercy. The mercy is always free and unearned. The role of the covenant (which is closely related to the role of Torah according to Jesus and Paul) is to be an asset in helping people who accept God’s mercy to live faithfully and is best seen in the call to love the neighbor. This was the case throughout the story and does not change with Jesus and the New Testament. As always, the problems arise when people of God get things backwards—be it with sacrifices, Torah, and the land or with the sacraments and doctrines. All these elements of the covenant are meant to serve human beings not human beings serve them.

This is to day, that God’s nonviolence toward God’s people (and the world)—that Ryan, like me, affirms—means that God simply forgives the covenant unfaithfulness and then pulls out all stops to help the people understand and live in response to this forgiveness. It doesn’t mean that God must create some mechanism to punish that would leave God’s people unscathed. It’s mercy all the way down. Continue reading “More on salvation: Responding to responses (Part 2)”

More on salvation: Responding to responses (Part 1)

Ted Grimsrud

I appreciate the numerous responses to my two recent posts on salvation, “The Bible’s salvation story” and “A message to President Obama about salvation.” It has taken longer than I would have hoped, but I want to reflect further on the issues raised by these responses. [Here is part 2 of these reflections.]

Why did Jesus “have to” die?

I appreciate “Tommy’s” affirmative comments about the “Bible’s salvation story” post. He raises a good question. In light of my suggesting that the core content of the salvation story is established at the very beginning and remains in effect throughout (i.e., salvation through God’s mercy in a way that does not require humans offering sacrifices to satisfy God’s requirements), then why does Jesus seem to say that he “had” to die? Thus, “the death obviously holds some significance.”

I strongly affirm that Jesus’ death “holds some significance.” In fact, in my forthcoming book, I devote five long chapters to the significance of Jesus’ death. The issue is what is this significance. I would ask what “had to” means. And, even more, why did he “have to” die? This all comes back, then, to the basic issue—did God need Jesus’ death in order to make salvation possible in a way that it wasn’t otherwise? Did Jesus “have to” die in order to make salvation possible on God’s side—or did Jesus “have to” die in order to make God’s already present (and fully sufficient) mercy sufficiently visible to encourage of response on the human side?

I am uncomfortable with the deterministic connotations of using “had to” in this discussion. However, I would be comfortable saying that Jesus’ death was inevitable given the way he undermined the Domination System of empire, temple, and legalistic cultural boundary maintenance. Because the Powers are so set on opposing agents of the true God, such an agent who embodied God’s will for humanity as thoroughly as Jesus did “had to” die should the Powers not be overthrown. The power of the true God, though, was that this death (that was intended to defeat the will of the true God) actually boomeranged on the Powers. Not only did Jesus not stay dead, but his resurrection underscores how the Powers are hostile toward the true God, and it thus undermines the potential of the Powers to hold sway.

The tragedy is that Jesus’ death came to be misinterpreted. Instead of being seen as a denial of the idea that God is retributive it came to be interpreted in a way that makes God so retributive that God’s will to punish leads to God endorsing the necessity of Jesus’ death for the establishment of salvation.

One can reject the idea of understanding Jesus’ death in terms of satisfaction atonement and still affirm that this death was significant for salvation. Not as something that enables God to forgive but as something that underscores that God’s forgiveness is our starting point and that we need to see and turn away from the Powers that usurp God and keep us from trusting in God as merciful. Continue reading “More on salvation: Responding to responses (Part 1)”

A message to President Obama about salvation

Ted Grimsrud

[A friend of mine, in response to yesterday’s post, asked me to imagine trying to summarize my ideas about salvation so that they could be presented, say, to President Obama in 90 seconds. Recognizing that the President is a Christian, I will assume a certain level of common understanding and common commitments—such as belief in God, respect for the Bible, and acceptance that ultimately we as human beings are accountable to God and not free simply to operate in an autonomous way.]

God is a God of justice, and the universe operates according to this justice. However, contrary to many conceptions of justice, the biblical picture of God’s justice presents it in terms of healing and reconciliation, not punishment and retribution (or even strict fairness). God’s justice seeks to heal and restore people and relationships that have been broken.

From the beginning of the Bible, God works to bring healing in face of brokenness. Humanity’s biggest problem has been not trusting in God’s healing justice (which is an expression of God’s love, not in tension with it). Rather, humanity has tended to trust in sources of meaning and security other than God—that is, in idols.

Tragically, trusting in idols rather than in God exacerbates the problems of brokenness and alienation. The worst idols, according to the Bible, tend to be human kingdoms with their power politics, religious institutions, and cultural boundary markers. Like most idols, these human structures are part of created reality and can play a life-enhancing role when they are kept in perspective and do not usurp God. Continue reading “A message to President Obama about salvation”

The Bible’s Salvation Story

Ted Grimsrud

[I just completed and sent to the publisher a book manuscript with the working title, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness. Hopefully it will be out by next summer. Here’s an except from the conclusion.]

For many Christians, the “biblical view” of salvation centers on Jesus’ death. The doctrine of salvation (“soteriology”) is defined in terms of how Jesus’ death makes salvation possible. It is linked closely with the atonement, which is commonly defined as “how Christ accomplished our justification (i.e., being found just or righteous before God) through his sacrifice on the cross” (Stephen Long, “Justification and atonement,” in The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology, 79).

I believe that the Bible’s portrayal of salvation actually does not focus on Jesus’ death as the basis for reconciliation of humanity with God. Not all accounts of salvation that place Jesus’ death as central explicitly argue in favor of retributive justice as part the divine economy that must be satisfied by a sacrifice such as Jesus’ death. However, I suspect that any view of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice necessary for salvation at least implicitly accepts retributive justice as an element of the process of providing for salvation.

Salvation and restorative (not retributive) justice

I have made a case: (1) to see that salvation in the Bible is not centered on Jesus’ death as a necessary pre-requisite for salvation to be made available, and (2) to see that the dynamics of justice that undergird salvation in the Bible are best understood as restorative and not retributive. In a nutshell, I argue that the biblical story of salvation portrays God as reaching out to human beings with mercy. The God of the Bible responds to human brokenness, violence, and sinfulness with healing love. In telling the salvation story in this way, the Bible refutes the logic of retribution.

If salvation stems from a holy and pure God being governed by the need to destroy sin and impurity unless God’s righteous anger is dealt with, then the logic of retribution may be validated. However, if salvation according to the Bible instead may be most accurately understood as contrary to the logic of retribution, governed by God’s simple healing mercy—unearned by human repayment, unconditional except for human acceptance of it—one of the main bases for affirming the logic of retribution will be refuted. Continue reading “The Bible’s Salvation Story”