The Gospel of peace…
As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Ephesians 6:15
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… Matthew 5:43
Kimberly Kindy wrote a piece that appeared in the Sunday News yesterday. The piece entitled, “Stormy weather,” comments on the recent political theater in which Sen. John McCain accepted, then rejected, the endorsements of evangelical Christian leaders Rod Parsley and John Hagee. This blogpost is not an attempt to analyze the motives or potential effectiveness of McCain’s decision. Rather, I want to reflect on some of the comments made by Parsley and consider the underlying theology they represent. I also will dig for other expressions of the righteous empire theology within evangelical Christianity. Exhibit A–a personal anecdote. Exhibit B–Left Behind series.
Parsley is the pastor of a 12,000-member congregation in Columbus, Ohio. At a recent service he punched the air and called Islam a “false religion” that God has told America to destroy. Referring to America, he said:
We were built for battle! We were created for conflict! We get OFF on warfare!
Interesting. Using the Christian narrative to justify shock and awe. Amazing. Which Gospel?
Ken Sensenig was with us at SMC yesterday sharing the amazing story of Amish forgiveness in the aftermath of the Nickle Mines school shooting in September of 2006. Ken recounted that just as the initial act was inconceivable to the world beyond serene Lancaster county, so too was the response of the Amish toward the perpetrator. The response of the Amish to extend forgiveness rather than lash out from their pain demanding retribution was incomprehensible to the outside world.
The witness of forgiveness rather than angry retribution has so piqued the curiosity of the outside world, that many have come to Lancaster county to discover what is informing and shaping this unconventional response. Those who come to visit ask incredulously, “How is it possible to forgive in this way?” This kind of question is raised by both Christians and non-Christians alike. And the Amish respond with similar incredulity to Christians who cannot fathom this kind of behavior in response to violence. “Is there something wrong with our response?” they ask. “Something inconsistent with Scripture?”
And so a powerful witness goes forth from the quiet in the land. A witness that seeks to uncover the way of Jesus who teaches about enemy love and incarnates this kind of love from the cross, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
I am struck by the stark contrast between the Amish understanding of the Gospel and the one proclaimed by Rod Parsley. Parsley is not alone in his theology which presumes America is the righteous instrument of divine justice against the infidel Islamic world. This reading of the Gospel in which the Kingdom of God is aligned with the interests of righteous empire is one that points to holy war and a bloody conflict in the name of Jesus. It is sometimes difficult to tell where America ends and the Kingdom of God begins from this theological perspective.
And this theological view has seeped into the evangelical consciousness in ways that now threaten to make visible a way of living that is foreign to the way of Jesus. It is the kind of thinking that looks at the Amish response with disbelief. The Gospel that is preached reflects an unquestioned support to the interests of empire. The Gospel is heard from the inflammatory preaching of Parsley, but it also raises its head in more subtle ways that appear benign.
I received an email from a relative (a sincere Christian) a few months ago. It was one of those emails where someone forwards something to you for a laugh. Here’s how the joke went:
An Amish farmer, walking through his field, notices a man kneeling down and drinking from his farm pond.
The Amish farmer shouts: “Trink das Wasser nicht. Die Kuehe haben dahin geschissen.” (Which means: Don’t drink the water, the cows have shit in it.)
The kneeling man shouts back: “I’m a Muslim, I don’t understand you. I speak Arabic and English. If you can’t speak in the sacred tongue of Islam, speak in English.”
The Amish farmer says: “Use two hands, you’ll get more.”
Without going into the details of the email exchange that ensued, let me just say that I think that a Christian sending this joke represents the same misunderstanding of the Gospel of peace that we hear in Parsley’s preaching. It is just more subtle. Seemingly more benign. The fruit of this Gospel is just as complicit with the holy war narrative as Parsley’s rhetoric.
My Christian relative perceived this as a harmless, innocent joke. I had a very different reaction. Why was I not amused? Why was the joke troubling to me? It has to do with the hidden underlying narrative that feeds into the joke. Let me explain. 1.) The caricature of the Muslim paints him as one who encroaches on someones land to take what is not his. When confronted he is rude and demeaning to the Amish. 2.) The response of the Amish (totally inconsistent with the kind of response revealed at Nickle Mines) is to essential say, “Go to hell.” What Amish person would respond like this? Of course in the structure of the joke, this is the unexpected twist. The punch line. 3.) The underlying presumption is that anyone would read the joke and find it funny, because of course one more dead Muslim is a good thing. It is the kind of thinking not disimilar to that found in this bumper sticker.
So we send this type of joke on without questioning the way the narrative is framed that sees this joke as funny. Yet we see that the witness of Nickle Mines seems to have uncovered a deeper reality that transcends the ways of thinking revealed in Parsley’s preaching. Their is something that looks like a deeper reality of love. The words from Parsley’s pulpit call for violent retribution. The actions of the Amish point to a deeper reality rooted in grace, love and transformation.
Is it any surprise that one hears the Gospel of righteous empire in an American pulpit? Is it any surprise when we see broad-based acceptance of the eschatology represented in the popular fiction of the Left Behind series. A series that has had significant influence on the way many evangelicals read the newspaper and understand the role of the United States in terms of the apocalyptic portions of Scripture. Loren Johns, professor at AMBS, provides a helpful critique of the series. Here is one of his conclusions.
At the end of the day, this series is ultimately a rejection of the good news of Jesus Christ. I say this because it rejects the way of the cross and Jesus’ call to obedient discipleship and a new way of life. It celebrates the human will to power, putting Evangelical Christians in the heroic role of God’s Green Berets. In this story, premillennialist dispensationalism meets American survivalism. This is a story about so-called Christian men who never really grew up, who still love to play with toys and dominate others, and whose passions are still largely unredeemed. Love of enemies is treated as a misguided strategy associated not with the gospel, but with the Antichrist. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have the right to offer any kind of interpretation of Christianity and of the end times that they wish. Ultimately, it is not their interpretation of the end times that troubles me so much as their interpretation of Christianity. It is devoid of any real theology, or substantial Christology, or any ethics that are recognizably Christian. This is a vision of unredeemed Christianity.
You can read the rest of this review of the Left Behind series here. I have not been able to force myself to read any of the Left Behind series, but based on this review, it sounds like they present the same gospel that Parsley is preaching. God save us from this dangerous narrative! God help us reject the sword of empire. God help us embrace the cross, the way of forgiveness.
How beautiful are the feet of the Amish families who are proclaiming with their very actions the gospel of peace.
Lord, help us to see where we have embraced a false gospel. Where we have re-made Jesus into the likeness of our own warrior heros in the mythic narrative of redemptive violence. Lord, help us to uncover the reality of Jesus–the way of redemptive love, forgiveness and reconciliation. AMEN.