Are worldly political systems the hope of the world? How does the Way of the Cross and redemptive suffering transform our concepts of power, justice and ultimate victory? Join me in search of a more Jesus-shaped, cruciform justice to address our increasingly turbulent and politically toxic times. I wrote this 14 years ago (2004) and have never felt more strongly about the words below than I do today. -JB
How long, O LORD,
must I call for help before you listen,
before you save us from violence?
He came closer to the city,
and when he saw it, he wept over it, saying,
“If you only knew today what is needed for peace!
But now you cannot see it!
There is no place worldwide where Habakkuk’s cry is not heard; and Jesus’ tears still wet our cities’ streets today. The world’s pain and suffering cries out for justice and peace. Yet what does it look like when they finally prevail? And, more importantly, when and by what means will it actually come to pass?
So we stand under the shadow of the cross and ask with Jesus, “What is needed for peace?” These perennial questions have had many proposed solutions. Yet, in a world where injustice still reigns supreme, it appears all human attempts to establish a global kingdom of peace and foster universal prosperity have so far ultimately failed.
Christians have taken different sides on this issue. Some quarters of “Christendom” have allied themselves with the political powers and socio-economic systems of the day, attempting to Christianize the worldly systems and use them as God’s instrument for peace and justice. Others have separated themselves from society altogether, placing on it the stamp of divine condemnation, and are simply awaiting the rapture from this hopeless world.
Political and social activism is advocated by the former, while the latter focus solely on ‘soul-winning,’ shrugging off social involvement saying “it makes little sense rearranging the deck furniture on a sinking Titanic.” Both of these approaches fail on biblical grounds.
What then is the church’s appropriate response to the world’s injustice and suffering? And what ecclesial action (if any) is expected of us by God while we await the new creation — the kingdom “wherein justice dwells”?
Drawing significantly from the works of John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas and Jurgen Moltmann, and deeply influenced by the teaching of Gregory Boyd, this essay argues that the popular definitions of justice used in mainstream political and theological debate need to become more Jesus-shaped and our values more cruciform if the church is going to be faithful in its task of following the way of Jesus, i.e., the way of the cross, in the world today. (Note: This is the unique call of the church, not the world, unbelievers, secular governments, etc.)
A UNIVERSAL YEARNING
It seems hardly necessary to make an argument for the universally experienced suffering and injustice prevalent in the world. If pain really is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world”, as C. S. Lewis argued, then the message is deafeningly clear and God might consider turning the volume down a bit. When it comes to pain and suffering, the world is “all ears” as all creation “groans as in birth pangs” waiting eagerly to be released from its bondage to decay (Rom 8). There is a universal yearning to be rescued from this vale of tears. Lewis captures the nauseating aches of our common human plight:
“When I think of pain-of anxiety that gnaws like fire and loneliness that spreads out like a desert, and the heartbreaking routine of monotonous misery, or again of dull aches that blacken our whole landscape or sudden nauseating pains that knock a man’s heart out at one blow, of pains that seem already intolerable and then are suddenly increased, of infuriating scorpion-stinging pains that startle into maniacal movements a man who seemed half dead with his previous tortures—it “quite o’er crows my spirit.” If I knew any way of escape I would crawl through sewers to find it.”
And so we crawl and we crawl through our tunnels of pain, searching desperately for a glimmer of light in the distance. Every now and then a ray of light pierces the darkness, illuminating our passage just long enough to show how filthy and hopeless our predicament really is. Then, with the blink of an eye, the light is gone and we are left again on our hands and knees, groping aimlessly in the dark.
The Scriptures also bear vivid witness to the ugly reality of suffering. The language of lament fills the Psalter: “Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress” (Ps 102). The wise sages are nearly crushed by the apparent futility of life in a broken world:
“[Life] is useless, useless, said the Philosopher… You spend your life working, laboring, and what do you have to show for it? Generations come and generations go, but the world stays just the same…it is all useless. It is like chasing the wind.” (Ecc 1:2-4, 14).”
In fact, we might be better off living in ignorance than turning our minds to face the dire straits we are in. For as the Teacher says, “The wiser you are, the more worries you have; the more you know, the more it hurts” (Ecc 1:18). The prophets especially share our grimy sewer experience:
We hope for light to walk by, but there is only darkness, and we grope about like blind people. We stumble at noon, as if it were night, as if we were in the dark world of the dead. We are frightened and distressed. We long for God to save us from oppression and wrong, but nothing happens (Isa 59:9-11).
Still the prophets peer through the storm clouds of the present and forecast a brighter tomorrow when justice will at last “flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never goes dry” (Amos 5:4).
But this vision of a Prince of Peace remained only a fanciful dream and the Prince of Darkness continued to hold sway throughout the remainder of the OT period. But the flickering light of hope would not be completely snuffed out. The Light would shine at last.
LIGHT HAS DAWNED
The New Testament announces the arrival of The Light. Matthew raises the curtain on the next Act quoting Isaiah: “The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matt. 4:16). John shouts with his pen,“The Word became flesh and, full of grace and truth, lived among us. We saw his glory, the glory which he received as the Father’s only Son” (John 1:14).
The Kingdom of God was at hand and the blessings of the future Messianic Age were being tasted in advance by those traveling with the already present King. He was sent “to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people” (Luke 4:18-19). Yet “none of the rulers of this world” understood God’s plan and so they “crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8).
However, this was only the beginning of the story. As I will attempt to show, the world was turned upside down that Good Friday on Calvary. The values of the old world were crucified and the values of the new must be transformed — or more precisely they must be “cruciform”: the foolish are the wise, the last are first, the weak are the strong. Paradoxically, blessed now are the poor, the meek, the persecuted and all who hunger and thirst for justice (Matt 5).
The cross was not a humiliating defeat after all, but the triumph of God and his Servant on behalf of the world. As Paul declares, “He stripped all the spiritual tyrants in the universe of their sham authority at the Cross and marched them naked through the streets” (Col 2:15 MSG). The most powerful act in the history of the cosmos came through a pair of nail-pierced hands on a blood-stained cross. From that day forward nothing in the world would ever be the same.
Or would it?
BUSINESS AS USUAL IN THE ‘FIGHT’ FOR PEACE
Before exploring the world-altering event of the cross and a cruciformed concept of justice, we need to spend some time in what will be much more familiar territory for most of us. I speak of the marketplace of ideas where ‘the fight for freedom,’ the struggle for equal rights, the relationship between church and state, and so on, are all sold daily at discount price.
When I survey the wondrous crosscurrents of ‘justice talk’ in the media today, we find ourselves gripped and moved by the emotional pleas to ‘fight for our rights’, remembering that ‘Freedom is Never Free’ and ‘Peace has a Price.’ The focus of all of this bumper-sticker jargon is ultimately a shared longing for a just and peaceful world.
All political parties and religious faiths find common ground in the struggle for justice. Yet paths quickly diverge once considering the deeper questions of ‘Who’s justice?,’ ‘At whose expense?’, and ‘By what means?’ Scott Bader-Saye highlights this deeper complexity:
We suspect that calls for justice are, at least at times, simply arbitrary appeals to the self-interests of some over the self-interests of others…Does justice mean maximizing personal freedom? Or giving each person what they deserve? Or assuring equal distributions? Is it based on rights or results? Does justice require us to support impartial hiring and admissions practices or affirmative action? Is justice “equality of opportunity” or “equality of outcome”?
History has charted a path through these complex questions and has left tread marks deep in the soil of popular opinion. So deep are the tracks that anyone stepping outside of them is thought completely aloof or else just an idealistic dreamer. Let me attempt to trace this path and put into an intelligible framework the common vision for peace and justice.
Our Common Pursuit. First, all social systems are set up on the grounds of seeking certain goods that will secure for us “the good life.” Injustice prevails to the extent that one prevents another from securing the good they seek. LeRon Shults describes how this pursuit leads inevitably to a state of what he calls “ethical anxiety.” According to Shults,
“Ethical anxiety arises as we attempt to determine which objects we should pursue… Persons are formed through their historical, dynamic grasping for goodness, and are miserable because of their separation from it.”
In American terms, the “good life” that we hold to be self-evident is the pursuit of and ability to secure for oneself life, liberty and happiness. Justice in this type of system is generally defined as “giving to each his due.” The critical idea driving this system is the independent spirit that believes individuals actually possess the capacity on their own to secure the good life for themselves, and once secured, that their perceived good will then bring them ultimate peace and happiness.
As I will attempt to show, the streak of humanism and self-interest built into this popular system—which is to a great degree ‘the American way’—sows the seeds of its own destruction—or at least its own limitations and ultimate impotence to secure a just and peaceful future for humankind.
PEACE, PROGRESS & PRAGMATISM
The Humanistic Spirit of Optimism. Based upon a linear concept of time, the past, present, and future of world history is thought to be moving forward in a straight line, being bumped along by the principle of cause and effect. This historical trajectory is accompanied by a strong strand of humanistic optimism and progressivistic rigor born during the Enlightenment. The good life is thought to be just around the corner and all we need to secure worldwide peace and prosperity is the next great political platform, a more effective social program, a better economic plan, etc.
Walter Russell Mead, one compelling interpreter of American foreign policy, offers one such human program. As James A. Gilchrist describes it:
Power, Terror, Peace, and War describes what Mead calls the “American project,” the grand strategic vision that, if not always cogently stated, appears to shape our nation’s agenda in the world. This project, “to protect our own domestic security while building a peaceful world order of democratic states linked by common values and sharing a common prosperity,” is deeply rooted in American history.
In this system, the struggle for justice—in this case, securing “our own domestic security and building a peaceful world order”—takes on a simplistic tone. In Yoder’s critique:
“Whether a give action is right or not seems to be inseparable from the question of what effects it will cause. Thus part if not all of social concern has to do with looking for the right “handle” by which one can “get a hold on” the course of history and move it in the right direction” (Yoder, The Politics of Jesus).
History’s graveyard of ideologies is full of many such dead ‘handles’ that have run their course and proved ultimately futile in this endeavor—e.g. Marxism, Feudalism, etc. Other ‘handles’, such as Mead’s “American Project,” are alive and well today, worshiped by millions daily at political and economic ‘temples’ worldwide (e.g. Wall Street, Washington D. C., United Nations, etc).
Somewhat disconcerting is the vast amount of confidence and power this philosophical system places in the hands of human agents to wisely and justly direct the course of history. If history teaches us one indisputable lesson it is that human beings have proved utterly incapable of securing a just society in a peaceable world by their own initiatives.
Utilitarianism as a Guiding Principle. Another key value of this system is the unquestioned utilitarian maxim that the “end justifies the means.” ‘Just War’ proponents argue that under certain circumstances violence is a moral means toward achieving a particular end—e.g., preventing the genocide of millions by violently overthrowing an evil regime, or military action against Hitler to put an end the Nazi nightmare, etc.
This line of thinking is well founded and rooted deeply within the Judea-Christian tradition—or at least according to its interpreters. All recognize that justice and universal shalom are essential characteristics of God’s intended world, and all present actions/circumstances to the contrary seem to be aberrations from God’s good will. Justice and peace, then, are held up with the highest esteem and placed at the pinnacle of human longing and striving.
Unfortunately, what happens when these two most deeply held values are tested on the war-torn roads of life, they quickly become polarized and placed into opposition with one another. Syndicated talk-show host and columnist, Dennis Prager, cites an ancient Jewish legend that says, “When God created the human being, there was a celestial battle between Justice and Peace. The angels told God that among human beings, these qualities would not be able to live together.” History seems to agree.
On the one hand, those who place highest value on justice are willing to use violence (sacrificing peaceful non-violence) when it is threatened to safeguard it or reestablish it. On the other hand, those who place highest value on peace and non-violence are reluctant to go to war—even for just causes. As indispensable as justice and peace are to a world of suffering and injustice, are these the highest goods worth striving for or dedicating our lives to?
BRINGING GOD INTO THE MIX
As indispensable as justice and peace are to a world of suffering and injustice, are these the highest goods worth striving for or dedicating our lives to? A biblically minded Christian must answer ‘No.’ For those who find their lives within the redemptive narrative of the creator and redeemer God of Israel, there is still a higher good to strive after. Justice and peace find their home in the heart, mind and purposes of the all-powerful, all-wise, all-good Creator God. Justice and peace must be sought and experienced within the context of a still more significant covenant relationship with God.
In fact, as Walter Burghardt argues, “the biblical idea of justice can be described as fidelity to the demands of a relationship. Justice was a whole web of relationships that stemmed from Israel’s covenant with God.” Lasting peace (shalom), as well, is found only as one’s world is brought into harmony (i.e., shalom) with God’s creative design and redemptive purposes found in Christ (Rom 5:1; John 14:27; Col 3:15).
In other words, the truly good life is found not in securing our own rights, our own goods, or our own securities by our own finite power; but rather is found as we find ourselves in loving fellowship with a community of people whose ultimate good is found in a trusting covenant relationship with the God whose infinite power and wisdom are guiding history toward his desired ends—his just and peaceful ends.
BETWEEN ‘THE ROCK’ AND A SANDY PLACE
The New Testament teaches that any Christian social ethic attempting to address the world’s problems with faithfulness and obedience to Christ ought to be “built on the rock” of Christ’s teachings (Matt 7:24). Yet this is the very lesson that many well-meaning Christians have failed to learn.
Many have instead fashioned their moral programs and social ethics upon the shifting sands of human wisdom; and each time the rains of injustice and suffering “poured down, the rivers flooded over, the wind blew hard against that house, and it fell” (Matt 7:27). The world’s wisdom proves over and over again to be foolishness in eyes of the crucified God. As the scripture says, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and set aside the understanding of the scholars” (1 Cor 1:19).
Many of us therefore live somewhat awkwardly with one foot on ‘the rock’ of Christ’s cross-shaped teachings and the other in the sinking sands of social pragmatism and human diplomacy. On the one hand, we tirelessly chase after our own perceived goods, using our own human power, and ultimately coming into conflict with others in their own pursuit of the same goods.
On the other hand, we give lip service to God and convince ourselves that He is in control even though we are pushing all the buttons. In actuality, we have designed the machine, chosen the tasks to be performed and at the last minute we ask God to sponsor our creation, provide the fuel to run it, and give it a supernatural nudge to get it moving. But is this even the project God has called us to be busy about?
In the struggle for justice and peace, I refer to the entire Constantinian legacy of those who, like Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority Party, or many well-intended Christian conservatives, have chosen to ally themselves with the political powers and instruments of the world with hopes of establishing a just and moral world.
Jerry Falwell’s goal of calling apathetic Christians back to moral living rooted in biblical principles is to be commended. However, his conviction that America is somehow endowed with a special calling (much like Israel’s) to usher in God’s peaceful and just reign by means of Christianizing its political structures is to be criticized and ultimately rejected upon further inspection. He mistakenly opts for humanly powered, worldly means to achieve an eternal end that can only be divinely manifested. For instance, if America is going to stand for God’s justice, then, according to Falwell,
“We [Christians? The Government? Both?] must, from the highest office in the land right down to the shoeshine boy in the airport, have a return to biblical basics. If the congress of the United States will take its stand on that which is right and wrong, and if our President, our judiciary system, and our state and local leaders will take their stand on holy living, we can turn this country around.”
Falwell recognized that God is ultimately the one who brings blessings or curses to a nation, and he rightly holds free human agents largely responsible for which future comes. Still he unfortunately insists that the human efforts to secure justice, morality, peaceful existence—i.e., the good life—can be accomplished by tweaking and manipulating already established human power structures—government leaders, the judiciary system, and so on. But as Cal Thomas puts it,
“Jesus emptied himself of power that was rightfully his. We try to fill ourselves with power that belongs to the world and seek to usher in the kingdom not of this world by using tools that are of this world.”
It is at this point where I want to enter the debate and suggest an alternative approach to seeking justice and peace in the midst of suffering and violence. The church’s response to suffering and its struggle for justice must take more seriously the world-altering, value-flipping event of the cross. The church’s approach struggle for justice and peace must be cruciform if it is to be truly Christian.
THE CRITIQUE OF THE CROSS
Jurgen Moltmann is the foremost proponent for approaching the world’s suffering through the lenses of the cross. For Moltmann, “Christian theology must look at the question of Christ’s suffering before looking at the suffering of the world. It can only form a critical theology of its contemporary environment only in as far as it has experienced the critique of the cross.” So what does the cross have to say?
For the message about Christ’s death on the cross is nonsense to those who are being lost; but for us who are being saved it is God’s power… So then, where does that leave the wise? or the scholars? or the skillful debaters of this world? God has shown that this world’s wisdom is foolishness! For God in his wisdom made it impossible for people to know him by means of their own wisdom. Instead, by means of the so-called “foolish” message we preach, God decided to save those who believe. Jews want miracles for proof, and Greeks look for wisdom. As for us, we proclaim the crucified Christ, a message that is offensive to the Jews and nonsense to the Gentiles; but for those whom God has called, both Jews and Gentiles, this message is Christ, who is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For what seems to be God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and what seems to be God’s weakness is stronger than human strength… God purposely chose what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise, and he chose what the world considers weak in order to shame the powerful. He chose what the world looks down on and despises and thinks is nothing, in order to destroy what the world thinks is important (1 Cor 1:18, 20-25, 27-29).
So Jesus called them all together to him and said, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the heathen have power over them, and the leaders have complete authority. This, however, is not the way it is among you. If one of you wants to be great, you must be the servant of the rest; and if one of you wants to be first, you must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people” (Mark 10:42-45).
As these passages illustrate, the cross of Christ transforms all worldly definitions of wisdom, power and justice. Power by coercion is itself overpowered by self-sacrificial servanthood. Justice by way of ‘the sword’ perpetuates the violent cycle that God’s shalom desires to vanquish. The cross of Christ, on the other hand, leaves people “hammering their swords into plowshares…for they will learn war no more” (Isaiah 2:4). Golgotha demands that we seriously reconsider our concepts of justice and especially our means of achieving it. Douglas John Hall clarifies the need:
“The theology of the cross…does not altogether eschew the idea of power and such related terms as triumph, victory, or conquest. But it does eschew—and radically so—the models of power, triumph, victory, and conquest which Christian doctrine has all to consistently employed in its endeavor to interpret the meaning of the work of God in Jesus as the Christ. The theology of the cross does not intend simply to discard the metaphor of power, but it does want to transform it; for it is an adequate way of speaking about the redemptive work of God only if it is conformed to the image of God revealed in the crucified One” (God & Human Suffering, 1986, p. 105).
Like an elephant in the room, the Cross has stood in our midst, casting its giant shadow over all of the world’s feeble attempts to build a just and peaceful society. Yet for two thousand years we have tried to ignore its strange presence, perhaps because its counter-intuitive message still seems quite foolish to our all-too-worldly minds. Let us turn our eyes once again toward the ‘Old Rugged Cross’ and see if we cannot make some more sense of God’s foolish wisdom.
GETTING BEYOND RETRIBUTION
The Cross calls us to a justice that moves us beyond the law of retribution: “An eye for an eye.” As Moltmann observes, “If evil is recompensed with evil, then the one evil is always oriented on the other evil, because only in that way is it justified.”
While scoffed at by many, there is a lot of truth to the ole saying that “an eye for an eye eventually leaves everyone blind.” The law of retribution has served—and continues to serve—an important role in the legislating sinful people amidst a fallen world. Yet it was never designed to eliminate injustice, only to legislate it.
What is needed is a fresh creative act of God. The Cross and Resurrection inaugurated the in-breaking of God’s inverted kingdom and with it a radically different law: the law of grace and reconciliation. This law manifests itself in the hearts of believers as they are embraced by the grace and forgiveness of God—“we love because he first loved us.” According to Bader-Saye:
“For Christians, then, reconciliation names that central concern that unites all justice issues. The classical definition of justice as “giving to each his due” simply fails as a Christian formulation…We worship a God who does not count our trespasses against us, who gives us not what is due to us but rather what is good for us, and this, not as entitlement, but as grace. And so we understand that whatever else we say about justice it must serve this central good, this central goal, of the reconciliation of all things. For Christians, then, all justice must be restorative justice” (“Violence, Reconciliation, and the Justice of God,” Crosscurrents (Winter 2003): 539).
The law of grace and forgiveness and the call for restorative justice is the particular calling of the church. The systems of the world do not understand it nor can they without the empowerment of the Spirit. They are still called to wield the sword (Rom 13:1-7). Let it be clearly stated that we, however, are searching here specifically for an appropriate Christian response to the world’s injustice.
This is not a critique of or prescription for how to approach worldly politics. Or, to put it more provocatively, Jesus would not last very long in the White House. He himself admitted, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
The first task then is for the church to be a unique sign to the world that there is another way to be human, a new way to live life together. We have an alternative to the self-centered system of striving and competing with one another for goods that cannot fulfill our deepest longings. The only law we have is the law to love one another. “Whoever does this has obeyed the Law” (Rom 13:8). The Uppsala Assembly refers to the church’s task of being a “sign of the future unity of mankind”:
“The church is called to be a visible sign of the presence of Christ, who is both hidden and revealed to faith, reconciled and healing human alienation in the worshipping community. The church’s calling to be such a sign includes struggle and conflict for the sake of the just inter-dependence of mankind.”
Paul understood the church’s communal responsibility to be a visible symbol of God’s reconciling love and forgiveness:
“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ… We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that I him we might become the dikiaosu;nh (justice/righteousness) of God” (2 Cor 5:17-21).
God has already poured out the new wine of the coming Messianic Banquet onto a dry and thirsty world, and new wineskins are needed to preserve it while we await the completion of the new heavens and earth. The church is called to become the new container for a new social ethic, the showcase of God’s dikaiosune, his restorative justice and forgiveness.
We are the community where “eucharistic fellowship” invites others into a way of life not bent on securing one’s own existence at the expense of others. The church is set free from what Hauerwas describes as the “fevered search to gain security through deception, coercion and violence” (Community of Character, 51). For Christians ought to know who is really directing the course of history.
If Christians really believe God is wisely guiding the future of His world, and they accept the peculiar cross-shaped way He is going about it, then they can rest peacefully even while working diligently to faithfully bear witness to their crucified Lord. This involves learning to live ‘out of control’.
LIVING OUT OF CONTROL
As we mentioned earlier, the humanistic optimism that drives the prominent secular theories of government acts as if human beings control the course of history. This is a responsibility too large for any human being and inevitably stirs up within them an overbearing anxiety, fear and despair.
Many have therefore painted themselves into a Darwinian corner and have no choice but to live out the unfortunate implications of the theory: the strongest survive by exposing of the weak. And the ruthless cycle repeats itself.
Stanley Hauerwas points to Babel as the culmination of such human self-intending. At Babel “our forbearers used their creative gifts to live as if they need not acknowledge that their existence depends of gifts” (Community of Character, 49). God’s scattering and confusing of their languages was meant to be a gift, according to Hauerwas.
“For by being so divided, by having to face the otherness created by separateness of language and place, people were given the resources necessary to recognize their status as creatures” (49).
Instead of accepting this gift, people “used their separateness as a club, hoping to force all peoples to speak their tribe’s language. Thus, at Babel war was born…” Herein lies the heart of the problem: “Violence derives from the self-deceptive story that we are in control—that we are our own creators—and that only we can bestow meaning on our lives, since there is no one else to do so” (Hauerwas, The Peacable Kingdom, 94).
Yet as I have argued, the Cross dropped the curtain on this violent Act of history and raised it up again on the third day, bringing this tragic drama to a gloriously new and strikingly triumphant new Act:
“Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed…Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise” (Rev 5:5,12)!
The Good News is that the throne is occupied and the conquering Lamb is moving history towards beautiful new day—“See, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5). As Gerard Loughlin concludes, “It is against this background—of the world writing itself—that the church continues to tell the story of God’s Christ…In Christ the world is affirmed, freed from the need to write itself, loved simply as that which is written” (Telling God’s Story: Bible, Church and Narrative Theology, 32-33).
In the meantime, the church must embrace this cruciform reality, realizing that proper “Christian social ethics can only be done from the perspective of those who do not seek to control national or world history but who are content to live ‘out of control’”(Hauerwas, Community, 51).
One question still lingers: By what means was/will this just world ultimately be achieved?
THE WAR OF THE LAMB
I have so far 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. Do the ends 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 solidarity 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
Note: My footnotes did not transfer from my original word document to the blog, so I apologize for the lack of specific citations. If you want to know a specific reference, contact me directly and I can provide it. Thanks.
Bader-Saye, Scott. “Violence, Reconciliation, and the Justice of God.” Crosscurrents. Winter 2003: 536-542.
Burghardt, Walter J. “Justice in God’s Own Book.” Living Pulpit (Jan-Mar 1993): 4-5.
Carey, George L. “God, Goodness and Justice.” Living Pulpit (Jan-Mar 1993): 6-7.
Falwell, Jerry. Listen, America! Garden City, NY: Double Day, 1980.
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.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Community of Character. London: Notre Dame Press, 1981.
Hauerwas, Stanley. The Peacable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics. London: Notre Dame Press, 1983.
Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. Nashville: Broad & Holman, 1996.
Loughlin, Gerard. Telling God’s Story: Bible, Church and Narrative Theology. New York: Cambridge, 1996.
Moltmann, Jurgen. “The Crucified God: A Trinitarian Theology of the Cross.” Interpretation 26:3 (2004): 278-299.
Moltmann, Jurgen. Creating a Just Future: The Politics of Peace and the Ethics of Creation in a Threatened World. Translated by John Bowden. London: SCM Press, 1989.
Prager, Dennis. “The Jury Chose Peace Over Justice.” Los Angeles Times (Oct 20, 1993).
Raiser, Konrad. “Ecumenical Discussion of Ethics and Ecclesiology.” Ecumenical Review 48 (Jan 1996) 3-10.
Shults, F. LeRon and Steven J. Sandage. The Faces of Forgiveness. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003.
Shults, F. LeRon. Reforming Theological Anthropology: After the Philosophical Turn to Relationality. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
Thomas, Cal and Ed Dobson. Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can’t Save America. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.
Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus: Behold the Man! Our Victorious Lamb. 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF SOURCES CONSULTED
Boff, Leonardo. Way of the Cross—Way of Justice. Translated by John Drury. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1980.
Hauerwas, Stanley and Willimon, William H. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989.
Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.
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Moltmann, Jurgen. The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.
______. Following Jesus Christ In The World Today: Responsibility For The World And Christian Discipleship. Occasional Papers No. 4. Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1983.
______. Religion, Revolution and the Future. Translated by M. Douglas Meeks. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969.
Stassen, Glen Harold. Authentic Transformation : A New Vision of Christ and Culture. Edited by Glen H. Stassen, D.M. Yeager, and John Howard Yoder. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.
Tesfai, Yacob. The Scandal of a Crucified World: Perspectives on the Cross and Suffering. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994.
Yoder, John Howard. The Royal Priesthood : Essays Ecclesiological. Edited by Michael G. Cartwright. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
______. The Christian Witness to the State. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1964.
______. The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.