I have so far in this series highlighted the inadequacies of two of the key aspects of the popular human system of social ethics: (1) that human beings have the ability to wisely and justly direct the course of history, and (2) that humanly created structures, powers, and programs are able means to bring lasting justice and peace. I have also indicated the limited power of retributive justice and have invited us to consider God’s restorative, reconciliatory justice wrought on the cross. Now I want to address the popular utilitarian principle that guides so many efforts for establishing justice and peace. Does the end justify the means?
In a cruciform world, the answer is ‘No.’ First, the justice and peace we seek must be divided into two distinct classes. On the one hand there is temporal justice and peace, meaning the absence of war and short-lived prosperity that humans can to some extend secure for themselves by human governance. This is usually as far as theorists go in their thinking. But Christians—and all who dare to dream big—long for the eternal kind of justice and absolute shalom that ends the entire cycle violence, eliminating with it all conditions that lead to violence. Absolute shalom and eternal justice can only come from the creative and restorative work of the merciful God, i.e., a New Creation.
Second, this does not leave the Christian in some state of uselessness, passivity or despair. The church believes that God has already acted decisively on behalf of the world in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ to overthrow the unjust systems of the world—the ‘principalities and powers.’ The War of the lamb has already been fought and “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev 7:10). Christians are already tasting the fruits of the Coming Age in the present, and are called to manifest the ethics of God’s Kingdom (e.g., Sermon on the Mount) to the kingdoms of darkness that surround (Phil 2:15).
Third, if “might is not right” then and “those who live by the sword shall also die by the sword” (Matt 26:52), then how is peace and justice to prevail? How does Good vanquish Evil? How does weakness overpower strength? We at last turn to John Howard Yoder who helps draw our attention to the true means of victory:
“The triumph of the right is assured not by the might that comes to the aid of the right, which is of course the justification of the use of violence and other kinds of power in every human conflict. The triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, nor because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys. The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection” (Politics of Jesus, 232).
Should we be surprised to discover that God after all is not restricted to fighting the battle by the world’s rules and with human powers? Paul makes this fact quite explicit:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedience to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-6).
One act of God’s love is powerful enough to swallow a million acts of human evil. One act of self-giving love did break the stronghold keeping a world in bondage to selfish pride. And we are called into this radically counter cultural ethic: “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:44-45). According to Hauerwas, this implies that
“the first social ethical task of the church is to be the church—the servant community. Such a claim may well sound self-serving until we remember that what makes the church the church is its faithful manifestation of the peaceable kingdom in the world. As such the church does not have a social ethic; the church is a social ethic” (Peaceable Kingdom, 99).
In this scheme, the means overshadow the end. For the end is already secure in God’s hands, but the church is called to faithfully enact in our peaceful and just fellowship the way of Jesus that swallowed up death and conquered the world’s powers. Such a task calls for faithfulness over and above effectiveness by the world’s standards:
“This vision of ultimate good being determined by faithfulness and not by results is the point where we moderns get off. We confuse the kind of “triumph of the good,” whose sole guarantee is the resurrection and the promise of the eternal glory of the Lamb, with an immediately accessible triumph which can be manipulated, just past the next social action campaign, by getting hold of society as a whole at the top” (Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 238).
By now we can put such false human self-confidence to rest. For our future is not conditioned by the strengths, desires, and hopes of the ‘old self.’ We are in Christ, the second Adam, and are taught “to be made new in the attitude of [our] minds” and to “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:22-24). Our present trials are borne for us by the Crucified One and our future is preserved for us by the Resurrected One.
CONCLUSION: NOT BY POWER BUT PARTICIPATION
How does this vision help our friend who is still groping in the dark sewers of pain and misery?
The Christian response to suffering is not always the most appealing one. We want the quick and easy fix. We want results more than a firm resolve. Yet, we are called to “take up our crosses and follow” the Crucified King. The way of the cross is not all glamour and glory; but it is the only way to ultimate glory. For we are aptly warned, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Therefore, “Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet 4:12-14).
So let the sewer waters rise and the sewer rats bite, for “even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, LORD, for you are with me” (Ps 23:4). For the healing balm on the bite of the world’s sorrows is the merciful kiss of the Crucified Lover. Douglas John Hall is then right: “Not through power but through participation.” I close with an invitation to ponder his words:
“The theology of Bethlehem and Golgotha—that is, of the enfleshment and the cross-bearing of the divine Word—directs us from the lonely and morbid contemplation of our own real suffering to the suffering of God in solidarity with us. Because God is “with us,” our suffering, though abysmally real, is given both a new perspective and a new meaning—and the prospect of transformation. Not through power but through participation; not through might but through self-emptying, “weak” love is the burden of human suffering engaged by the God of this faith tradition. Engaged is, I think, the right word. It implies that God meets, takes on, takes into God’s own being, the burden of our suffering, not by a show of force which could destroy the sinner with the sin, but by assuming a solidary responsibility for the contradictory and confused admixture that is our life” (God & Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross, 113).
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives… Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid… For I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
(John 14:27; Matt 28:20)
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF CITED SOURCES
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Gilchrist, James A. “Using American Power.” A book review of Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America’s Grand Strategy in a World at Risk by Russell Mead. Christian Century 121:20 (October 5, 2004): 42.
Hall, Douglas John. God & Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986.
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BIBLIOGRAPHY OF SOURCES CONSULTED
Boff, Leonardo. Way of the Cross—Way of Justice. Translated by John Drury. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1980.
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______. The Christian Witness to the State. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1964.
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