by Berry Friesen
As human beings, do we respond with most vigor and authenticity to love, forgiveness and compassion? Or to threats, coercion and violence?
I have just completed a year of intensive Bible study as part of a project to write (along with John K. Stoner) a popular biblical commentary. The Bible includes a variety of perspectives on this question of human nature, but on balance suggests we are divided–split in two–at our very core.
On the one hand, the witness of Jesus, the Torah, and prophets such as Micah and Isaiah assumes we want shalom and have the capacity to live in the way that brings shalom into reality on Earth. On the other hand, the witness of Second Temple priests and other prophets assumes our selfishness and envy is overpowering and inevitably leads us to employ threats, coercion and violence to get our way. According to this second view, Earth will be saved only through an apocalyptic intervention by God.
The Apostle Paul reflected both views by insisting we are by nature slaves. What sort of slave we become depends on which master we follow. It is not a flattering view of human nature, but neither is it bleak. It is not only darkness we want, but also light. And we have the capacity to walk into the light.
Of course, with Paul’s view of human nature comes responsibility. Each of us has choices to make. It follows that as a church, we must equip people to make those choices.
How does this play out within the context of the emergence of the Islamic State? It is a mighty stimulus, propelled into our hearts and minds by the horrific images on our screens, wrenching reports of religious persecution, and the solemn words of our political and military leaders. Most Americans have responded with fear and calls for renewed military violence.
It is easy to critique this response. For starters, there is the hypocrisy of hyping the beheadings of a few Westerners after ignoring for the past three years many worse atrocities committed by rebel forces supported by Western governments. Then there is the implausibility of an Islamic State emerging unexpectedly in a place where the U.S. and so many of its allies are actively engaged in arms sales, covert operations, the recruitment and training of mercenaries, surveillance and the collection of intelligence.
Yet the way Americans have responded to all of this is authentic nonetheless. War is continually promoted by the media as a powerful moral narrative of good resisting evil. The Islamic State is just one of many “threats” that can be taken off the shelf and amplified for public consumption at the appropriate time to keep the system operating. A part of human nature finds all of this reasonable, full of meaning, and even right.
The church’s effort to call forth the other side of human nature seems puny by comparison.
As we read the New Testament, we are given the opportunity to see how the early church—living in an empire and war culture similar to ours—worked at this and succeeded on a large scale. Of course, its focus was Jesus—his life, death and resurrection—and the work of the Spirit in our lives. But how did it carry out that focus? This is where the contemporary church needs so much help.
First, starting with Pentecost and the visible “signs and wonders” that occurred on and after that day, Jesus followers maintained a visible public presence that gave voice to an alternative vison for society. Their message was religious in the sense that it was rooted in God, but it also was political in the sense that it called people to another way of running the world.
Second, the leaders of the early church debunked the empire’s narrative as false and deceptive. We see this in Colossians, where Paul referred to the empire as “the power of darkness”, in 1 Corinthians, where he said “the rulers of this age were doomed to perish” and 1 Thessalonians where he said the empire’s fabled “peace and security” would end in “sudden destruction.” The author of 2 Thessalonians said that deception was a hallmark of “the lawless one. “ Revelation identifies the empire as this lawless one and the entire book elaborates on this theme. This debunking interfered with the effectiveness of propaganda in eliciting an authentic and willing human response.
Third, the church’s public presence included suffering. Herod Agrippa put James to the sword, and other imperial officials hung Peter and Andrew on crosses and cut off Paul’s head. Many were martyred, many imprisoned. When combined with the story of Jesus and how the empire executed him, these events created a story-line powerful enough to compete with the empire’s moral narrative.
Contemporary congregations typically exhibit none of this because they are convinced Jesus proclaimed a religious message and a metaphysical salvation. This abandonment of the church’s public mission leaves people ill-equipped to counter the empire’s propaganda.
To be clear, this essay is not a call for churches to lobby Washington or organize a take-over of the government. It is a reminder that the calling of the church is to articulate and embody an alternative to empire’s way of approaching life and organizing the world. Jesus is lord, Caesar is not. That was the public proclamation of the early church and the sign of Jesus’ triumph. It again must be ours.