The Way of Enemy Love: Dismissing Jesus, A Critical Assessment, Pt. 7

In the past installments of this series of reviews, I have made an effort to tread the thin and delicate line of constructive criticism: on the one hand, I genuinely valued many of the things the book was trying to do, and wanted to affirm and advance them; on the other hand, I was genuinely concerned about points of confusion, unclarity, or just plain error, and wanted to draw attention to them when they were significant enough to have negative consequences.  In considering the ways of Weakness and Renunciation (chs. 2 and 3) I coordinated these two objectives by couching my reviews as calls for further clarification, and pointing out how the unclarity could in fact conspire to deprive Jones’s readers of exactly what they most needed—principles for practical action.  In considering the ways of Deliverance and of Sharing, on the other hand, my approach consisted more of attempting to ground a similar practical agenda (at least, so far as Jones’s practical agenda was discernible) in different, firmer theological soil, pointing out how failure to do so could render very good practices—works of mercy and of sharing—spiritually destructive.

In this chapter, I am afraid I shall have to take a blunter approach, although I hope that none will be offended.  In this chapter, the lack of clarity and equivocation is combined with so sweeping an attack on traditional Christian teaching that it is difficult to salvage anything constructive.  Taken alone, either of these might be frustrating, but might still leave us with a good deal to learn or at least converse with.  The real problem arises, as I sought to outline in Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 of this review, when these two tendencies are combined.  If you want to raise the stakes and condemn the mainstream of Christian practice and teaching for abandoning the way of Christ, this might be unfair or inappropriate, but if your terms are clear and your arguments incisive, you can at least prompt a fruitful debate and discussion.  On the other hand, if you write an ordinary work about theology or Christian living, and don’t define your terms all that well and lapse into occasional contradictions, readers might not gain that much from the book, but at least others may be encouraged to try and refine your arguments to more fruitful ends.  But if you raise the stakes—God vs. Mammon, the way of salvation vs. the way of destruction—and at the same time, indulge in constant equivocation, then the result can hardly be edifying.

PrintTo be sure, as a destructive takedown of contemporary American bloodlust and militarism, some of Jones’s polemics obliquely hit home; though for a somewhat clearer and more useful rendition of this, readers might simply skip to chapter 17, “American Mars.”  But aside from the general sense that many of us American Christians might be compromised by too permissive an embrace of the ways of war and violence, and that we might do well to take more seriously Christ’s blessing of “the peacemakers, it is,” readers are given very little which they can use, and quite a bit that they could readily abuse.

Don’t get me wrong.  None of this is to “dismiss Jesus” or the idea that we need to take a good, long, hard look at our attitudes toward violence.  Few Christians, perhaps, have given serious thought to what it means to love enemies (whether on the battlefield or in their personal lives), or wrestled earnestly with the ethics of war.  While I have, after much wrestling and questioning, settled fairly securely into just war camp, I have great respect for sincere and thoughtful pacifists, and have read with profit and appreciation the writings of Yoder and Hauerwas on this subject, as well as the just-war theories of Paul Ramsey and Oliver O’Donovan. Read More

A Primer on Christian Economics

I almost forgot to post this–part two of my “Christianity and Public Issues” talk (see Part 1 here).  

Economics is perhaps the greatest issue on the political radar, particularly in the past couple years.  How should we as Christians approach economics and political economy?  Well, let’s return again to the passage from Philippians 3.  Paul contrasts us, the citizens of heaven, with those “whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things”–those who pursue desires of self-gratification, who seek to glorify themselves by how much more they can amass than others, those whose focus and chief goal is material prosperity.  It is not hard to see that this is the way that most of the world lives today–not just individuals, but corporations and governments.  How do companies in our world measure their success?  By how many people’s lives are enriched by their efforts or by how wide their profit margins are?  How do most governments measure their success?  By how much they have promoted justice or by how much GDP growth they can create?  Materialism and selfishness are nothing new, of course, but today Christians must confront the danger of an ideology that argues that selfishness is actually the best way to help people.  The premise of modern capitalism is that as long as you let people pursue their self-interest and remove any barriers to their satisfaction of their material desires, then peace, prosperity, and freedom will grow for everyone.  Paul here and almost any book of Scripture could warn us against the danger of this mindset, could remind us of what a treacherous tool wealth is, how easily it shifts from being a means to a good end to being an end in itself, could remind us that no society can succeed which puts individual self-interest above regard for others.  

And if we read the Bible attentively, we will see that it is constantly insistent–from Genesis right up through Revelation–on decrying the injustices done to the poor and calling for us to be like God Himself in attending especially to the plight of the poor and weak and working to lift them out of their suffering.  Christians have plenty of reason to join with many people in today’s world in decrying the scandal that so many selfishly pursue their own riches without regard to the needs of others, that billions struggle in unthinkable poverty, while others amass far more than they could ever need or even use,  that massive corporations have grown to the point where they are more powerful than most nations and regularly distort information or bend laws to boost their profits still further. 


But what do we do about this?  If we take Augustine’s skepticism regarding the City of Man seriously, his warning that all the structures of this world are distorted by the selfish desires of sin, we will know better than to expect that any system or institution will provide the solution to these problems.  Both the right-wing trust in the all-powerful market and the left-wing trust in the all-powerful government are naive and idolatrous.  True economic justice requires hard work and focused dedication on the part of God’s people to aid those in need, practice righteousness in the marketplace, and fight for justice.   True justice can only be found through a community of people bent on worshipping God, and receiving from Him the strength to give themselves for others as Christ gave himself for them.   Ultimately, it is the Church, not the State or the market, that has the resources to overcome oppression and greed.  To say this, though, is not to endorse the kind of pietism that imagines that all we need to do is give people the right heart, to convert them, and then we’ll have economic justice; the shape of Jesus’s ministry should show us the Church has a lot more work to do than that.  

Augustine, however, should warn us against a triumphalism as well.  Against all triumphalism, Christians should remember that the City of God is never complete in this life, in this age, that it too continues to struggle with sin and selfishness, and so we too will constantly fail in our quest for justice and charity.  We cannot approach the world with a mindset of “We’ve got the answers, we’ve got the solutions–your plans can go to hell.”  

A Christian politics thus recognizes that although there’s no such thing as a truly just worldly institution, there are some institutions that are more just than others, and we ought to recognize and encourage them, instead of simply writing them all off as equally rotten.   Remember that in Augustine’s paradigm, the earthly city, seen in political structures like Rome, was sure always to miss the mark of justice, but that didn’t mean that it could never come close, or that we shouldn’t try to help it become less unjust.  Economics then is an area ripe for “selective collaboration.”  

While the Church does its work of preaching the Gospel, helping the poor, and encouraging charity, in the meantime, juster laws can restrain injustice and help motivate good deeds in those for whom the impulse of charity is weak.  We have in the Old Testament a wonderful model of how God sought to encourage economic justice for his people–not only through moral exhortation and a call to worship and imitation of God, but through legal structures that recognized how easily the weak can be further marginalized and the strong can continue to grow stronger at their expense, and that tried to guard against this tendency.  While we cannot and should not press for laws that mandate Christ-like charity, we can at least support policies that discourage outright un-charity, or which try to ameliorate its effects.  We can support policies that seek to restrain the power and influence of money over our culture and societies, mindful of Paul’s warning that the love of money is the root of all evil.  When economic policies are debated in our cities or our national assemblies, we must of course insist that the needs of the poor are remembered and are favored over and above the desires of the wealthy to grow wealthier.  We must speak out against the lying narrative which insists that if we just leave wealth alone and let it do its work of creating more wealth, then poverty will disappear–usually this just means that, at best, poverty will be hidden away in some place less visible, like southeast Asia.  


But we must be wary when we advocate better policies in the political sphere.  The Bible tends to be pretty skeptical when it comes to rulers and central governments.  “Put no confidence in princes,” the 20th Psalm warns us, and the story of the Old Testament tends to bear this out.  In 1 Sam. 8, when the people ask for a king, God warns them that he will become an oppressor, amassing wealth and power for himself.  It’s not long before Solomon does just this, and despite the positive work of several godly kings, on the whole the prophets of the Old Testament denounce the royal administration as being on the side of greedy landlords and usurers.  Whatever their faults, conservatives are right to be skeptical of central government’s ability to improve economic justice and curb the power of wealth; after all, such large concentrations of power are difficult to hold accountable and easy to corrupt, and so they tend to aid rather than restrain the ambitions of large corporations.  Moreover, large unwieldy nation-states generally tend to resort to crude tools like coercion, which we as Christians know is rarely calculated to advance peace and justice.

The answer, I would suggest, is not laissez-faire, is not no government, but is a different kind of government.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the law of the Old Testament, most of the laws of economic justice seem to be the responsibility not of the king or of a state bureaucracy, but of local communities, governments on a more human scale, in which citizens take a great deal of responsibility for what happens in their communities and decisions about justice and injustice are made by people who actually know something about the plaintiffs and the defendants.  If the Church is to provide a model of a juster, truer kind of community, then perhaps we should seek political communities that are likewise organized on a manageable scale, which depend more on face-to-face relationships and not on bureaucracies or abstract legal ties.  Such political communities, it would seem, would not need so often to result to cruder tools of coercion but would be more able to negotiate conflicts via genuine dialogue and reconciliation, an approach the Church is also called to model for the world.  

Of course, it goes without saying that in our globalized world, with corporations like Wal-Mart that employ over 2 million people (just for perspective, that’s more people than you could meet if you met one new person every minute of every day for four years) in dozens of countries, not everything can be as local as it once was.  We’d be courting disaster if we tried to shrink our governments down to the local level while leaving massive multinational corporations just as they are.  As Christians, we need to also cultivate a more local, personal economics.  Most things we buy and sell are still made and sold by human beings, not just machines, and we have a responsibility toward human beings we meet and interact with.  We need to think about how to show Christ’s love to people in everything we do, which includes shopping for groceries or selling mortgages–and how can we do that if we don’t even know the name of the person we are buying from or selling to?  

I’d like to conclude by driving this point home with a theme that has become common in recent theology and ethics: the Eucharist is the model of true community.  In the Eucharist, God shares his life with us and we share it with one another.  Isn’t it fascinating that what unites us as one body in the Church is not abstract membership in some organization, is not being listed on the membership rolls of a denomination or the fact that we send in a check for our tithe every month, but is an actual face-to-face gathering and eating together?  In the Eucharist, we pass the bread and the wine to one another and we pass the peace to one another, speaking one another’s names.  This exchange binds us together, and through it we resolve conflict and renew our determination to live together and serve one another.  What would the world be like if we could make more of our lives that way?  The answers to this question are not simple or easy, but it’s a question I think we should ask ourselves every day.

Religious Freedom in the New Israel

In a discussion regarding the 9/11 Mosque madness, my friend Alex recently challenged me on my advocacy of relative religious freedom within a hypothetical Christian nation, arguing that this stance was incompatible with the Old Testament witness.  His challenge was, “You seem to have developed a sharp, revolutionary dichotomy between the economy of the covenants. I am baffled that you have arrived at such and would like to know how you make it work.”  He asked me to blog about it here, so I will try and make a stab at it.   

(Since I haven’t had all that much time to spend on this, this is painted in rather broad brush-strokes, rather than being argued through careful exegesis.  I’m interested to see where you (Alex) disagree with this picture, and then we can argue those points in a nitty-gritty, my-verses-versus-your-verses way. 

First, I think a little historical perspective is in order.  It has been fairly standard for Christian theology, particularly when it comes to political theology, to draw a pretty sharp distinction between the economies of Israel and of the Church.  Although this is a dramatic oversimplification, I think it would be fair to say that only during the Carolingian period and in certain sectors of the Reformed tradition from around 1540 to 1790 was it normal to see Israel’s political experience as significantly normative for a Christian nation.  So if in fact I have “developed a sharp, revolutionary dichotomy between the economy of the covenants” on these issues, that hardly makes me an odd innovator.  

Also, at face value, it seems that there are some pretty dramatic shifts between the two covenants, spelled out quite clearly and forcefully by Paul and other New Testament writers.  The key difference for our purposes concerns the nature and identity of the people of God.  What was Old Testament Israel?  It is a theonomist fantasy to imagine that it consisted of an Israelite “state” and an Israelite “church.”  Of course, there were certain distinctions between civil and religious institutions and authorities, but Israel as the people of God, as a religious community, was inseparable from Israel as a political body, a nation with certain lands, certain loyalties, certain markers of national citizenship.  It was not so much that civil authorities were charged with the task of punishing “religious” sins, but that idolatry was a threat to the nation, a tear in the social fabric of Israel, and hence had to be punished, had to be rooted out, by the king, if need be.   

Given this inseparability of religious and political, it seems clear to me that if the Church is the New Israel, then the Church is the new political and religious body; the shift of the covenants is not one in which a Christian Church replaces the Israelite “church” and a Christian state replaces the Israelite state; rather, the Church is a complete upgrade package.  Nowhere in the New Testament do I find a hint that the Church only partially replaces Israel (this would be a dispensationalist notion).  If the Church then is not merely a new religious body, but also a new political body, does this mean the Church imposes political order in the same legal, coercive way that Israel did?  Hardly.  Because Jesus didn’t just come to change the names of the players, but to change the rules of the game.  This much seems fairly obvious and straightforward, and in my mind throws the burden of proof on any who want to suggest that religious coercion of the Old Testament type continues.  But let’s try to explore a couple reasons in particular why it does not.


First, Christ comes as the judge judged in our place, the judgment to end all judgment.  The cross is God’s verdict of justice against all his enemies, and strangely, it is a verdict that falls not upon them, but upon Himself.  Judgment has been rendered upon mankind, and it is a judgment, shockingly, of mercy.  All who will not receive this mercy will at the last receive a final judgment of destruction, the only possibility left after they have rejected God’s penultimate verdict of mercy.  Now, this earth-shaking event–the entrance of the Judge himself onto the stage of human history, and pronouncement of a verdict of judgment that fell on Himself, would seem to have a dramatic effect on human judgment.  Before Christ, Yahweh was judge, and as judge, he pronounced a guilty verdict on those who remained in rebellion against Him.  His people were called upon to carry out this verdict from time to time, executing the most egregious rebels, particularly those who led His people astray into idolatry.  Now what about now that Christ has come?  The verdict he has rendered is a verdict of mercy, a verdict we are to preach and to carry out in all the world.  Of course, this verdict carries with it the promise that those who reject it will be subject to everlasting destruction, but this final verdict is in the hands of Christ alone, at the end of history.  We are not to preempt it, though we may warn of it.  In the meantime, we are to announce the verdict of mercy, and not only that, but we are to imitate it, like Christ interceding for the world and taking its sins upon ourselves.  All this seems to me to decisively overturn any idea that we are to carry out decisive temporal judgment against idolaters; to do this would be to preempt Christ’s eternal judgment.


Second, Christ comes as the sacrifice to end all sacrifice.  This may seem irrelevant to political matters, but I’m increasingly convinced that it’s not.  We have become accustomed to sharply distinguishing between civil, moral, and ceremonial laws in the Old Covenant, and making all kinds of neat categorical distinctions about which ones carry over into the New Covenant and how, but it seems clear to me that it’s not that simple in the Old Covenant.  Take the death penalty, for instance: it seems to be more a matter of purging the land of the defilement that has come upon it, than a matter of retributive justice as we would conceive it; it is more a cultic act than a civil act.  We see the same thing with the conquest of the land and the elimination of peoples who are to be “devoted to destruction.”  The evil of paganism defiles the land and the people of God must cleanse it.  All sins must be atoned for, usually by the sacrifice of an animal, sometimes by the sacrifice of the guilty.  Achan is punished not for a straightforwardly civil offense, but as a matter of purging the camp of the defilement that his sin brings.  Before Christ, idolatry could not be permitted in Israel because it polluted the land, and this pollution had to be cleansed by sacrifice; the idolators had to be devoted to the Lord, devoured in His presence.  

But Christ comes as the ultimate sacrifice to end sacrifice, the sacrifice whose power to make clean and whole never wears out.  Before Christ, uncleanness was infectious, and holiness had to be aggressively guarded against the profane and unclean.  If God’s holy presence was to remain with his people, all uncleanness had to be constantly purged by sacrifice.  But no more.  Christ’s sacrifice tears the veil of the temple and signifies a reversal–now holiness is contagious, and uncleanness is under assault.  We do not have to fear the defilement of idols anymore, since we can now see their powerlessness.  We do not need to atone for such defilement by sacrifice, or to devote the defilers to destruction, because Christ has already allowed himself to be devoted to destruction, that he might make the foulest clean.  

What does this mean for us?  It means that if a Muslim wants to build a mosque in the land, we do not freak out and try to cleanse our land of its defilement, but rather rest in the confidence that, if we continue to dedicate ourselves to holiness, it is that holiness and not the mosque’s defilement that shall prove contagious.  God’s offering up of Himself as a sacrifice for the evildoers means we no longer need to offer up the evildoers as a sacrifice to God.