Does the gospel of Messiah Jesus lose its power when separated from a visible community committed to nonviolence?
That thought came to me in the midst of a feverish day off work as I read a small book borrowed from my congregation’s library. How Christians Made Peace with War, written by John Driver and published by Herald Press in 1988, describes the change in the church’s teaching on participation in the military during the first 3-plus centuries of its existence.
This is a familiar story for many of us. Yet something Driver wrote jumped out at me with unusual clarity and impact:
“The (traditional) Jews charged that if nothing had changed in the world, the Messiah could not have come according to Isaiah 2:4. And since the world is still filled with war, Jesus of Nazareth cannot have been the Messiah. (Early) church leaders responded to the charges of their critics, admitting that the world indeed brims with violence. They also agreed that the coming of the Messiah would indeed change the world.
“On the other hand, they rejected the idea that redemption would come at the end of the world. They also refused to believe that because salvation takes place invisibly, the world need not be changed. Christians adopted such ideas . . . . later when nonviolence was no longer the expected character of the church.
“The early church leaders, therefor, answered that the Messiah had already come and that the world had in fact changed. It had been transformed in the people of the Messiah who live according to the law of Christ. There was no longer any violence in the messianic people, the church. They had become ‘children of peace’. In the church, the making of war was being unlearned.
“The prophetic vision was being fulfilled in the church. According to these early church leaders, nonviolence was an authentic part of the missionary witness of the church. Because these early Christians rejected war, their concern to bring others into the Christian community was believable.”
The question posed by those first skeptics – “How has the world changed?” – echoes through the centuries. Traditional Jews are asking it still, as are many of us who are not Jews. The church’s answer – that an invisible salvation has transformed our hearts and a future salvation will transform this world – is with time becoming less and less convincing. Unless combined with the visible practice of nonviolence by a believing community, a witness to Messiah Jesus is not credible. Indeed, it will be highly suspect as merely another imperial ideology whereby people with power attempt to dominate and control the lives of others.
Absorbing this progression of thought is a powerful antidote to hackneyed debates within the church between peace enthusiasts and mission enthusiasts, between inclusivists and exclusivists. It tells us that our refusal to bear the sword is an integral part of our claim that Jesus is the Messiah. Indeed, if that is our conviction, then we will never again pit evangelism and peace against each other.
The missionary power of embodied peace is spoken of most eloquently by the prophet Isaiah:
“The mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised above the hills. All the nations shall stream to it; many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; 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.”
And what of men and women who make war in the uniforms of the U.S. military? The great majority of them self-identify as Christian and some are members of our congregations. If we make indivisible the link between nonviolence and our faith in Messiah Jesus, won’t we only drive them away?
Some we would, but others are looking for authenticity on the part of the church. They more than most have experienced the deception, brutality and dehumanization that are frequently part of military life. Most of all, they do not want the church to whitewash it with piety and praise.
So let us begin, here in 2013, with a renewed commitment to witness to our Lord. Let us declare again – and again – that because the Messiah has come, we have laid down our weapons. Let us be a sign to the world that it indeed has changed. And let us invite all who have put their faith in Messiah Jesus to do the same.
Berry Friesen (January 16, 2013)