Ted Grimsrud—January 29, 2017
“What would Jesus say?” is a common questions Christians ask when they are in the midst of discerning what they themselves should say or do. For it to be a helpful question, I think we do better to think in terms of Jesus’s general moral outlook more than looking for specific verses to apply directly to our time.
I’m not sure I would say that people of good will (not only professing Christians) must ask this question—but I think it would almost always serve us well. And, clearly, if we draw from Jesus’s general moral outlook, we retain a large measure of responsibility to think and reason and act for ourselves. Jesus’s moral outlook gives us guidance but it does not give us a direct blueprint.
Currently, in the United States, we are badly in need of careful moral discernment. We are badly in deed of a moral outlook that gives us a stable set of moral convictions that will resist our tendency to look for guidance that justifies our own actions or simply allows us to condemn our enemies because they are our enemies. That is, we are in need of moral guidance that demands that whatever criteria for morality we use apply equally to ourselves as they do to our opponents.
It is risky right now to appeal to Jesus because so many people in power present themselves as “Christians” while acting and speaking in ways that are very much in tension with the actual life and teaching of Jesus. So, to evoke Jesus makes one vulnerable to be dismissed as simply another pious-sounding hypocrite. At the same time, appealing to Jesus’s actual moral outlook might provide a basis for challenging the approaches of self-professing Christians. That is what I hope to do with this blog post.
I actually don’t care to speculate about what Jesus would directly say about the Russians. I am pretty confident that were he to confront any particular nation in the world today it would be the United States. His words to the United States would not be along the lines of “well done thou good and faithful servant”!
A more interesting question to me would be to rephrase the title of this post in a little less catchy direction: What do core convictions that we gain from the message of Jesus have to say to we Americans about how we think about Russia, and in particular the current raising of concerns in our country about possible Russian involvement in our recent election?
Let me suggest some ways Jesus’s message should speak to our thinking on these issues.
[In times when we have little power, our clarity about core convictions becomes even more important. It’s important to witness to those convictions and not get caught up in temptations to try to “make a difference” or “find a seat at the table” in ways that would undermine those convictions. In the long run, our core convictions likely will be linked with whatever possible solutions we might ultimately find. I find the story of the Velvet Revolution in Central Europe at the end of the Cold War to be especially pertinent. Leaders such as Adam Michnik and Vaclav Havel recognized that they could not overthrow the Communist dictatorship with force and that they dare not allow the dictatorship to set the moral terms for their lives. So they focused on “creating space to be human” more than trying to imagine overthrowing the government. This allowed them to remain consistent with their core convictions about healthy social life. Then, amazingly, the system imploded and the resisters were able to exercise profound influence in shaping what took the system’s place. Perhaps those in our setting who are committed to a moral outlook informed by Jesus’s message would be well served to learn from the Velvet Revolution about keeping a good perspective during the dark days ahead.]
(1) Keep central our commitment to the preciousness of all life
Several of the gospels report Jesus’s answer to the question of how might one gain eternal life. His famous words were quite clear—love God and love neighbor. And this “neighbor” you are to love is anyone in need, even including someone you might otherwise consider an enemy.
I think in this story, “eternal life” is a kind of code for “what is our most central responsibility if we are to be in harmony with God” or “what matters most if we are to be genuinely human.” That is, this is a question about what is to be of our essence if we are to be human the way we are meant to be.
And the answer is to love—and by “love” Jesus meant “care for,” “treat with respect,” “have compassion toward,” “accept as a fellow human being.” Another way to think about love is to think in terms of perceiving the object of our love as being precious, being of extraordinary value.
Jesus illustrated what he meant by “love of neighbor” with his powerful story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). One lesson from that story is that a “neighbor” is willing to take risks and expend energy, time, and even wealth to help someone else in need—even if that someone belongs to a social group that one perceives as being an enemy.
So, what might it mean for how we think about an issue such as the current rising anxiety in the United States about the perceived threat of Russia? This anxiety is leading to calls to increase hostile attitudes and practices, where the United States would threaten Russia and try to exert pressure. And these threats and pressure often would take the form of military activity.
Now, it is difficult to imagine that American foreign policy would be governed by Jesus’s teachings (though I think it would be a good idea to imagine such policy being influenced by points from what Jesus taught—because his words usually reflected a profound measure of common sense). But there is no reason why people who do admire Jesus would not have their attitudes shaped by his teaching and practice. It could be that one would seek to find ways to apply lessons learned from Jesus to American policy making. And it could be that one would simply say I oppose certain policies and will do what I can to resist them based on what I have learned from Jesus.
Some obvious ideas emerge from thinking about Jesus’s message about the preciousness of life. For one thing, our current nuclear-weapons-centered strategy of dealing with tensions with other nations (especially Russia) needs to be rejected. There is simply no possible launching of nuclear weapons that would not be an indefensible and egregious violation of morality. It would simply be wrong, an act of pure evil, that has no justification.
Any discussion of the US relationship with Russia that addresses how to deal with tensions, with possible offenses the Russians may have done, must always have in mind the nuclear hair-trigger we currently live under. So, in our current circumstances, any attempt to increase the tensions between these countries is reckless, even if unconsciously so. Sadly, the complaints since November’s presidential election about Russian interference fit as terribly reckless, especially given the lack of clear evidence of such interference.
Certainly, offenses do happen. It is imaginable that Russia did try to interfere. If that is the case, the US should indeed challenge that interference. But in light of the nuclear threat (not to mention simple respect for the Russians as human beings), the concerns should be approached carefully, cautiously, and with the intent of achieving come kind of mutually acceptable resolution. The feeling one gets from those raising these concerns about possible Russian interference is not a hope for mutually acceptable resolution so much as a heightening of distance between the two nations, intimidation, and even heightened polarization.
Maybe more closely in keeping with Jesus’s moral outlook, we may also invoke Jesus’s challenge to the human tendency to “other” one’s opponents. As in the years of the Cold War, with this current anxiety we are getting a lot of name-calling, moral separating, focus on differences and the less-than-human elements of the opponent. Such alienating rhetoric both diminishes our side morally and exacerbates already existing tensions making future conflict more likely.
(2) Sustain a critical stance toward the rulers of the world’s great powers
Given Jesus’s relationship with and attitude toward political and religious leaders and their institutions, it is deeply ironic and even devastating that so many Christians teach and practice a profound sense of subservience to the great nations and empires of the world—most immediately, in our case, the United States of America.
From the opening verses in the gospels as they tell of Jesus’s life, we read of tensions and criticisms of the power elite. King Herod, in power at the behest of the Roman Empire, sought to kill Jesus and did kill many young children in his fear for his maintenance of power. The story of Herod, in Matthew’s gospel, alone should be sufficient to help us see the need for a critical stance.
Jesus certainly challenged the hegemony of the religious leaders (who also exercised political power in that culture) throughout his ministry. And in the end, of course, the threat first voiced by Herod of the empire ending Jesus’s life is fulfilled when the Roman governor Pontius Pilate oversees Jesus’s execution by the Empire as a political criminal.
Jesus’s explained the situation to his followers when he told them that the rulers of the great powers are tyrants over their people—and that Jesus’s followers should be the opposite (Mark 10), servants rather than tyrants. The Christian tradition has not recognized this statement for what it was, a nutshell statement of a political philosophy that is meant to be embodied in present life.
Again, we maybe cannot imagine that this nation could be led by servant-leaders rather than tyrants. But that doesn’t mean that we should not call our leaders to move in that direction. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t reject tyrannical tendencies whenever they arise and resist them however we might. And it certainly is the case that we should learn from Jesus a critical sensibility (and, again, his teaching about this is commonsense that should be understandable for everyone of good will).
One application of this critical stance in our current circumstance is a strong sense of doubt about the vague, unsubstantiated charges leveled by the American “intelligence community” about Russian interference in our election. Again, it may be that the Russians did interfere. But we don’t know that yet.
What has seemed especially problematic has been the way so many “liberals,” including many of my Mennonite friends, have accepted with little question the likelihood that our “intelligence community” would be telling us the truth when it asserts Russian intervention in the election without clear evidence to support the assertion. That, say, the CIA has lied to the American people over and over again is not proof that it is lying now. However, the history of the CIA should be enough for any independently minded person to be highly skeptical about its current claims (on this history, see Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes)—especially when those claims transparently serve the CIA’s own institutional interests (as in an intensified Cold War).
(3) Be wary of tendencies to identify too closely with any particular nation-state
Jesus’s general approach toward politics was to see the faith community as itself a political entity that carries on the promises of God apart from affiliation with any national entity. He understood the covenant with Abraham to be a call for God’s people to bless all the families of the earth.
Christianity emerged as a strand of Judaism that refused to make an idol of the Temple or to affiliate with the Roman Empire—as the Sadducees and other religious leaders did. As a consequence, many early Christians found themselves severely persecuted both by the religious establishment and then by the Empire.
When Christianity allowed itself to be shaped by an affiliation with the Roman Empire after the time of Constantine, the politics of Jesus ceased to be operative for the majority of Christian groups. However, Jesus’s sense of distance from all particular nation-states remains very relevant for Christians today; it remains central to any moral outlook shaped by Jesus’s message.
That Donald Trump, in his inaugural address, made such a strong emphasis on “America first” is enough to help us recognize that his resistance to the rush to reinstate the Cold War is not borne out of internationalism or even humanitarianism. He may doing something good, but for the wrong reasons.
Nonetheless, I think we should be sharply critical of Democrats and liberals for their scapegoating of Russia as a major factor in the Democratic electoral collapse. Such criticism should not push us toward a less critical perspective in relation to Trump and his administration. Trump’s call for a new, even more xenophobic stance toward the world’s peoples in the name of nationalism is profoundly dangerous.
We are in a very dangerous place right now in the United States—both Trump and his mainstream Democratic Party opposition seem locked into an “America first” attitude that should be an anathema for people who place the wellbeing of all human beings above loyalty to any particular nation-state. One big danger is that in looking for whatever means possible to discredit Trump, liberals, progressives, and other people of good will may too quickly jump on the scapegoat Russia bandwagon and only strengthen America’s militaristic spiral.
Even the progressive icon Elizabeth Warren spoke glowingly of the Secretary of Defense candidate “Mad Dog” Mattis, militarist par excellence and likely war criminal due to his leadership of the destruction of Falluja during the Iraq War. In a New Yorker article on Mattis’s confirmation hearing, the writer refers to when “Warren asked Mattis if he would advocate forcefully to the President about the need to take seriously the threat that Russia poses. Mattis said that he would.”
(4) Resolve to resist domination wherever it arises
One of the main lessons Jesus emphasized over and over was that peacemakers must seek to break the spiral of violence when there is wrongdoing, not add to it with retaliation. Violence can not possibly heal the damage done by violence.
Again, such teaching is only commonsense. The study of American foreign policy that I engaged in when I wrote my book, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy, convinced me that over and over again our nation has undermined its own wellbeing when it has engaged in its endless litany of militarized interventions around the world.
Probably more than anything, these interventions have been the fruit of an American quest for domination as the world’s top superpower. Ironically, as we see especially in the totally unnecessary and unjust wars on Vietnam and Iraq, as prime examples, the quest for domination led to a great diminishment of US stature, security, and wellbeing.
Trump obviously is very much a domination-seeking leader. However, opposition to his rule that does not explicitly repudiate this fruitless quest for American power-over in our fragile and mutually-dependent world will not actually move us out of the spiral of death we are currently locked in.
What Jesus would have to say about the Russians, I think, is think of them as our brothers and sisters, too. Refuse the impetus to scapegoat and exacerbate tensions as a means of undermining the obviously disastrous presidency we are only getting started with. The worthy goal of ridding the nation of Trump’s leadership will not lead to actual wholeness if it links itself to expanded militarism and a renewed Cold War.
This time of fear and trauma is also a time of opportunity. May we see our current moment as a chance to not only resist the Trump nightmare but also to resist the American imperial, oligarchical, neo-liberal nightmare that too many Democrats are also complicit in. We may not need Jesus to tell us that breaking free from these nightmares requires steadfast commitments to peace as the way of bringing about change—but his teaching surely does help those of us who share such commitments.