Pacifism Put to the Test

There is a statue which stands in a garden at United Nations headquarters in New York City which bears the following words from Isaiah 2:4:

“He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore;”

Those words are also inscribed on the UN building itself, and I knew about that inscription and even saw it first-hand many years ago on a travel seminar to New York.  What surprised me when I googled it today is that the statue was given to the UN by the Soviet Union in 1959!  Yes, that “Evil Empire” quoting words from Hebrew Scripture which also appear in Micah 4:3.

I was reminded of that prophetic vision of God’s reign when readings from the prophet Micah appeared in the devotional that I’ve been using to start my day the last few weeks.  (“Gift and Task” by Walter Brueggmann). When that Scripture intersected this week with the news of a foiled American terrorist plot to attack several state governments and kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer it shook me to the core and is causing deep soul searching for me.  This kind of evil would bother me no matter where it occurred, but this plot is even more real for me because at least some of these evil deeds were hatched in a meeting just 10 miles from my home in Dublin, Ohio. 

To add to my fears I am also currently in the middle of Ron Chernow’s exhaustive biography of Ulysses Grant.  The pathos and sheer horror of every detail of the Civil War is more graphic information than I want to know.  I never expected that I would imagine such a conflict could possibly happen again in the USA.  Civil Wars in my lifetime are all in other faraway places, not in the state next door!  And yet here we are in the most precarious time for our democracy since Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. 

I pray to God we find a way to dial back the hate and vitriol and have a peaceful transfer of power whenever this election is decided, but I am not optimistic.  And that has led me to ask myself some really hard questions about what I would do if the violence over our government escalates.

I believe that is a question all of us need to ponder.  First responders, soldiers, pilots, and athletes all train their minds and bodies in advance of a crisis or critical moment.  They do that so they are prepared and can react quickly from a planned response and not just react when there is no time to weigh options. 

This is one of those WWJD questions, and as usual the answer is not easy. But this we know: 1. Jesus made it very clear his kingdom was not of this world or its violence:   “Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  (John 18:36)

 2.  Jesus was a pacifist.  The citations in Scripture for that point are far too many to mention; so here are just a few:  “Love your enemies (Matthew 5:43-48),” “turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-40),” “put away your sword for those who live by the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52),” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Luke 6:31).”  Even the anonymous prophet called Deutero Isaiah, writing to Israel in exile, understood the peaceful nature of God’s anointed one.  The very first of what we call his Suffering Servant Songs says:

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.  He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.  He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth;” (Isaiah 42:1-4)

One of my long-time friends stimulated my thought about all of this today.  This friend and colleague has been one of the bravest and most articulate advocates for social justice I have known in my 50 plus years of ministry, a true inspiration.  Today he told me that current events have about driven him to question his belief in pacifism.  He assured me he would not go there, but his comment got me to thinking about who my greatest heroes are; and immediately Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King came to the top of that list.  Other than being martyred for their beliefs the other thing those three giants share is a commitment to pacifism.  They stood firm for non-violence no matter what, and when push came to shove they didn’t push or shove but simply lived out their core values in spite of unbearable suffering and sacrifice.  They rejected violence in all its forms, even in the face of death because they knew violence only begets more violence, and someone has to break the cycle of retaliation or human history will continue to spiral downward into oblivion.

I doubt that I have that kind of courage or faith, but I know it is the high ideal Jesus calls me to.  The Christian Gospel is no Cheap Grace escape from reality.  There is a cost to discipleship.  Mark 8:34-35 says, “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  That’s not just a metaphor today; it’s becoming a real existential possibility.   

So my friends please pray without ceasing for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit to redeem this dreadful moment in our history.  But also pray hard and long about what it means to be a Christ follower in a worst case scenario.  We need to be prepared to live faithfully no matter what happens in the next few weeks and months, and only the source of all being can empower us to do so. 

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