Takeaway: Very few take Jesus seriously when he about having a different type of kingdom.
As American Christians have started looking again at their eschatology (view of the end times) and moving away from dispensationalism, more Christians are starting to see that the implications of their eschatology affect many areas of their Christian life.
For instance, a number of Christians have adopted a more nuanced position on ecological issues after rejecting the traditional Dispensational idea that the physical earth was simply waiting to be destroyed as punishment for the sins of the world. So if the earth was not condemned, then God’s command to be stewards of the earth in Genesis might still be a present command.
Brian Zahnd began re-evaluating his support of war (after originally supporting the first Gulf war and then the wars after 9/11) in response to a new look at Jesus’ words in the Gospels. Repeatedly throughout the book, in one way or another, Zahnd asks, “What if Jesus really meant what he said.”
For Christians that really try to take scripture seriously, this is a deeply disturbing question. It is hard not to think that Zahnd has a real point if you have heard just a few sermons from the Sermon on the Mount. We tend to spiritualize the Sermon on the Mount, not put it into practice.
The alternative view is more practical, “of course we can’t actually live out the Sermon on the Mount, it is impossible.” However, through the book Zahnd is asking why it is that we think that in other areas of scripture, we should take the actual words literally, but not with these ones.
The problem is this: when we separate Jesus from his ideas for an alternative social structure, we inevitably succumb to the temptation to harness Jesus to our ideas—thus conferring upon our human political ideas an assumed divine endorsement. With little awareness of what we are doing, we find ourselves in collusion with the principalities and powers to keep the world in lockstep with the ancient choreography of violence, war, and death. We do this mostly unconsciously, but we do it. I’ve done it. And the result is that we reduce Jesus to being the Savior who guarantees our reservation in heaven while using him to endorse our own ideas about how to run the world. This feeds into a nationalized narrative of the gospel and leads to a state-owned Jesus. Thus, our understanding of Christ has mutated from Roman Jesus to Byzantine Jesus to German Jesus to American Jesus, etc. Conscripting Jesus to a nationalistic agenda creates a grotesque caricature of Christ that the church must reject—now more than ever! Understanding Jesus as the Prince of Peace who transcends idolatrous nationalism and overcomes the archaic ways of war is an imperative the church must at last begin to take seriously.
This is not just about national policy, Zahnd says it has to also be about how we interact with individuals. And both our harm and protection of individuals needs to be understood on a deeper level. So Zahnd discusses the role of the scapegoat.
“Here’s how scapegoating happens at the adolescent playground level. Boys at play (and girls in their own way) generate a lot of competition…The awareness of competition creates a certain amount of tension and anxiety among the children, but the playground crowd knows what to do with it. A scapegoat is chosen. Usually someone who is different, weaker, or less able to retaliate. Maybe the overweight kid, the weak kid, the “sissy” kid, the kid without friends. This unfortunate child becomes the target, the victim, the sacrifice, the scapegoat. The selected scapegoat is mocked, ridiculed, and picked on. He’s chosen for this abuse because the crowd has unconsciously agreed that he will be the target of their anxiety. He is innocent, but he becomes the sacrifice…the members of the gang are relieved that “it’s not me being picked on, because it’s him – the fat kid, the skinny kid, the weak kid, the ugly kid, the new kid, the different kid. The playground is now safe…except for the scapegoat.” (italics mine)
The fact that some suffer for the sins of others seems to be part of the human condition. Luck, place of birth, in-born abilities all seem to play a pretty large role in whether we are able to be care for ourself, care for others, be in need, a scapegoat, a protector, a bully.
Glancing at other reviews on Amazon, this seems to be a book that many people are disturbed by. It is convicting without a lot of direction. There are not three steps to solve the problem of violence and oppression. There are all kinds of potential objections, “what about Hitler, what about a home invader, what about…” For the most part Zahnd just ignores those types of questions. Other books do deal with those questions, but this book is more about pricking the conscious than about providing the answers.
There is no easy way to live as someone that objects to violence. Zahnd doesn’t like the term pacifist, although I think he probably just needs to accept it. His objection is that a pacifist is someone that have agreed to a political solution to non-violence, but Jesus’ solution is not political. I think that is both a strength and weakness of the book. Because Zahnd is right, Jesus’ kingdom is now (and eschatology is important here, if you do not believe that Jesus’ kingdom is now, but only a future kingdom, then there is no way to accept his position of non-violence that is directed by a belief in Jesus’ words.)
Zahnd also does not deal with a number of scriptural objections to his position, such as Old Testament war (although reading between the lines he probably subscribes to a variation the Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic that is spelled out well in William Webb’s Corporal Punishment in the Bible.) He also does not deal with Jesus’ “I come not to bring peace but a sword” (Matt 10:34) or “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36) or several of the other texts that seem to promote some type of violence, or at least indicate something other than the absolute rejection of violence.
Where Zahnd is strongest is his rejection of a nationalized American Christianity. In Zahnd’s eyes there is no such thing as a nationalized Christianity, and it is pretty hard to argue with him on that point. But I think the alternative objection, that the implication of radical non-violence seems to be a radical withdrawal from public life, is one that he should have at least touched on.
This is a book that I think is worth reading even if you think you will reject the overall argument. There are ways to value non-violent alternatives much more highly than we do, even if you reject complete non-violence. And I think a movement toward more non-violence is still a step in the right direction.
Note: According to other reviews, Preston Yancey’s Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence more directly engages some of the arguments against non-violence. I picked that up earlier and plan on reading it relatively soon.
A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook, Audiobook is discounted to $3.99 with purchase of Kindle Book
- Scot McKnight – Sermon on the Mount [Feature Review] (Englewood Review of Books)
- Beauty Will Save the World: Rediscovering the allure and mystery of Christianity by Brian Zahnd (Bookwi.se Review)
- Dallas Willard – Divine Conspiracy Continued [Review] (Englewood Review of Books)
- Offsite Review: Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence by Preston Yancey (Theological Graffi’s Review)
- Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Case for Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts by William Webb (Bookwi.se Review)