[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.
Questioning governmental authority
I believe here we see one of the roots of pacifism. Pacifism does not have much of a chance unless we can imagine questioning governmental authority. At the same time my father was coming of age, in the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of young men in Great Britain and the United States signed what was called “the Oxford Pledge,” a vow never to take part in warfare. Memories of the horrors of World War I remained fresh, along with a sense that that war served no apparent purpose. So these thousands upon thousands of potential soldiers said never again.
Well, we know what became of that vow. Mars, the god of war, sounded his trumpet; and nearly all the Oxford Pledge signers came running. They believed their government—if fight we must, fight we will. There were a few, precious few, way less than 1% of draftees, who did say no. And for most of these, the basis was a sense of higher loyalty. The state was not ultimate. Their understanding of God’s will or maybe the expectations of their faith communities or maybe their sense of the sacredness of all life stood higher.
I have a feeling that most Christians may be shocked to realize that the story told in 1 Samuel 8 reflects a central biblical point of view from Genesis through Revelation. The elders of Israel want a king “to govern us,” they say, “like other nations” (1 Sam 4:5). Samuel retorts, yes that is what you will get. This is what the kings of other nations do: they take and they take. They build up armies and gather wealth and power for themselves—and Samuel was right, that’s what Israel’s kings did too. What does the Bible tell us about human governments? In a phrase, “don’t trust in them!” If a prerequisite for pacifism is distrust in human governments, we find that prerequisite in the Bible in spades.
Just a quick list of some of the highlights: Moses takes on the Egyptian king and leads the people to freedom, and God smashes the king’s horses and chariots in the Red Sea. The law code rejects the power politics of the empire and calls for a society without huge gaps between rich and poor and without an elite class of kings and generals. The prophets challenge kings time after time. They are God’s agents for justice in the world, not the kings. We see this in many stories, from Elijah to Daniel.
And then we get to Jesus. He insults King Herod, calling him an old fox. He describes the way people in power tend to work: “Those whom the Gentiles recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them” (Mark 10:42). And the state does act with tyranny in relation to Jesus himself, executing him on the cross. Peter and Paul both find themselves arrested several times. Legend has it that both shared Jesus’ form of execution as political criminals. They both asserted that they must obey God, not human authority. And finally, the New Testament ends with a powerful vision of state power run amok. John sees visions portraying Rome as a terrible Beast that persecutes, even murders, people of faith. The final vision John sees of Rome concludes, “All the people were deceived by your sorcery and in you was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slaughtered on earth” (Rev 18:23-24).
Clearing the ground for the love command
Of course, the critique of the state is not enough by itself to lead to pacifism. What it actually does, mainly, is clear the ground to allow us to hear Jesus’ central command, love God and neighbor—and to recognize this command as all-encompassing. Perhaps many Christians (including many Mennonites) would be surprised to realize that this love command, the basis for our pacifism (nothing matters as much as love for neighbor), is thoroughly grounded in the Old Testament.
We find a key passage in the Book of Leviticus. In the middle of Leviticus, we read the section called the “holiness code” that outlines Israel’s responsibilities as God’s people. At the heart of the holiness code, Leviticus 19 describes what holiness is about. Holiness here, perhaps surprisingly, turns out to have to do with sharing with others, with caring especially for vulnerable people such as widows, orphans, and new immigrants. This is all summarized in verse 18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” And this Lord is a God of love, as is made clear a bit earlier, at the foundational moment of law-giving, the handing down of the Ten Commandments. The commandments begin with a statement of what they are based on: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:2-3). That is, to link this statement with the holiness code, God says I am a God of delivering love, share that love with others – that is how you worship me alone.
So, when Jesus affirms the great commandment, stating that salvation follows from loving God and neighbor, he simply summarizes the message of the Old Testament—and, he lives it. This is the heart of our pacifism. We follow Jesus’ teaching that love is the commitment that trumps all other commitments. And we follow Jesus’ example—love trumped all other commitments in his own life. He turned away from wealth and power, refusing Satan’s temptations in the wilderness, and turned toward love. He turned away from the possibilities of violent revolution for the sake of overturning tyranny, and turned toward love. He turned away from protecting himself with force, and turned toward love.
The two foundations for pacifism
This is it in a nutshell. First, our pacifism rests on suspicion toward human governments insofar as they tend to call upon us to commit, or at least support, violence. And, second, our pacifism rests on the affirmation that a commitment to love each and every one of our neighbors trumps all other commitments.
Tragically, in the history of Christianity the Bible has been transformed by people in power to be an instrument for buttressing their power. And the concrete and clear message of Jesus’ life and teaching has been rendered secondary to abstract doctrinal formulations. Back in May 2003, several Mennonite church leaders issued a statement in the Mennonite Weekly Review with the title, “Christ, not peace, is Lord” (5/12/03, p.4). The statement is a bit oblique, but seemed clearly to criticize people who spoke strong words of opposition to the U.S. war on Iraq. As I read this statement closely, I was struck with the implicit separation it made between “Christ” and “peace,” as if we can have Christ without peace. I don’t think we can make such a separation if we take Jesus’ life and teaching as central.
I read a story illustrating this point in a book called Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963, written by Taylor Branch. One of Martin Luther King’s mentors was a preacher named Vernon Johns. In 1960, after nearly a decade of negotiations, white and black Baptist preachers in Baltimore met together to discuss the role of the church in a time of racial tensions. Vernon Johns was chosen to speak for the black preachers. First, the chosen white preacher spoke on the theme of Christian salvation, of being “washed in the blood of the Lamb.”
When the white man finished, Johns stood up, not even waiting to be introduced. “The thing that disappoints me about the Southern white church,” he said, “is that it spends all of its time dealing with Jesus after the cross, instead of dealing with Jesus before the cross.” He then turned to the white preacher. “You didn’t do a thing but preach about the death of Jesus,” he said. “If that were the heart of Christianity, all God had to do was drop him down on Friday, and let them kill him, and then yank him up again on Easter Sunday. That’s all you hear. You don’t hear much about his three years of teaching that true religion is revealed in the love of other human beings. People who say they love God and hate their fellow human beings are liars, and the truth is not in them. That is what offended the leaders of Jesus’ own established church as well as the colonial authorities from Rome.That is why they killed him.”
Well, needless to say, Vernon Johns offended a few people himself with these words. But he captured what I am trying to say this morning very well. It is Jesus’ teaching and Jesus modeling gritty, controversial, subversive, costly love for God and neighbor that got him killed—and, when God raised him from the dead, God showed anyone with eyes to see that Jesus, indeed, is the son of God.
This is why pacifism. We have been loved by God, and our identity as children of God rests most fundamentally in our choosing to live lovingly toward all others.