As we approach another Christmas season, it would be good to take stock of the basic teachings of Jesus and how they apply to the extreme political conflicts we are currently witnessing. Here are some of my thoughts on this subject from an article I had published on December 27, 2004.
Our Temptation: False Profits and the Evangelism of Hate
We live in fearful times characterized by wars, economic hardships, and environmental disasters of all kinds. It is no wonder that we aggressively seek answers to save us from these threats. We are being tempted at every turn to put our faith in what appear to be concrete solutions like the political system, modern technology, and our military. In our search for comfort and safety, these things hold out to us the promises of a good and safe life. Yet, repeatedly we find that these promises generate more problems and fall short of our expectations.
This brings to my mind the temptation of Jesus in the desert. I wonder if our temptations today are any different than what Jesus faced? As I think about it, the only difference I can see is that when Jesus was tempted, He did the right thing. He rejected Satan and said, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve” (Matthew 4:10). As a teenager, I always imagined that if the devil suddenly appeared before me, no matter how terrified I was, I would be able to say “no” to him and turn immediately to God. But unlike my fantasies and unlike Jesus in the desert, the devil never seems to show up in my life in full dress to confront me with such direct questions.
Later in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus went on to challenge His disciples (and us) with these words, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his own soul?” (Matthew 16: 26). These are exactly the questions we should be asking ourselves each day: do we sell our souls so that we can gain the promises of the kingdom of man or do we stand true to our faith in God? We can’t have it both ways.
If you should decide against selling your soul and instead choose to follow Jesus, what must you do? A good starting point is to read the Gospels for yourself. What does Jesus say about how to live? There is no complex mumbo-jumbo here — Jesus was very clear about what God wants of us: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22: 37-40).
You would think that these two commandments would be easy enough to hear and understand. But this is not the case. “For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them” (Matthew 13: 15).
Instead of being transformed and healed by His teachings, we stay our course. We resist His crazy new ways and do what we have always done since the beginnings of human history. We should not be surprised that so little healing and peace come from our old ways.
The power of the kingdom of man booms loud in our ears. The Gospels are drowned out by the rantings of false prophets who betray every word that Jesus spoke and every commandment given by God. Liberals and conservatives alike proclaim their divisive messages in chain letter e-mails, in hate radio, in entertainment news, in the new Christian fiction, and on their Web sites. One example of this disturbing trend is the immensely popular Left Behind series of novels which portrays Jesus in the Second Coming as the Destroyer. This series celebrates the suffering and hideous deaths of billions of people at the end of the world. These and similar fantasies exalt in horrific blood sacrifice that brings in their version of a vengeful God’s kingdom.
The evangelism of hate is consistent with the myriad of ways that we betray His teachings in our daily lives. God entrusted us with the most beautiful and perfect paradise. We have used all of the powers at our command to make the world over in our image, just as we have tried to make God over in our image, destroying whatever fails to please and profit us. God gives us the precious gift of life, but in every hour of every day, people all over the planet use their powers to destroy human life. Every day we give our children and our money over to the governments, that they may wage whatever wars they choose. Every day we give our money and our rights over to corporations that exploit the poor and ravage the planet. These are not the ways of people who renounce man’s kingdom so that they may follow their hearts in service to God. These are not acts that affirm life.
Idolatry of Sacred Violence
In our times of temptation, we have turned away from God. We have traded our faith in God for the riches and power of the kingdom of man. And we have embraced an unshakable faith in sacred violence.
When violence is justified by religion it is called sacred or redemptive violence. Sacred violence is nothing new. It is a primitive practice in which we avoid responsibility by blaming others. It is scapegoating on a grand scale. It begins with the act of judging others. Those whom we blame become the scapegoat. We are promised that if we slaughter the scapegoat, we will be saved from evil. We are promised that the annihilation of the few will save the many. We are promised that this will please God. We get so caught up in our mission to destroy evil that we forget Jesus’s warning that we “judge not” (Matthew 7:1). We endow this violence with sacredness to give it legitimacy and to silence those who would point out that these promises are false.
Sacred violence uses religion to target those who are different. We witnessed this first hand when the men who carried out the 9-11 attacks claimed they were serving God. To most of us, this was incomprehensible. The men on these planes believed that God would welcome them into heaven for their faithfulness. They were blind to the insanity and evilness of their mission.
Christians also have perpetrated sacred violence. Two historical examples of this are the Salem witch trials and Ku Klux Klan lynchings. In both cases, Christian-sounding words and Bible quotes were used to convince communities to kill people who were labeled as evil. From our perspective today, we can look back on these killings and see them for what they were: shameful, insane acts of scapegoating.
The great tragedy of the Christian era is that we continue to rely upon sacred violence. We have made violence into a false god that we worship unceasingly. We refuse to believe that anything less than possession of the mightiest weapons will protect us and enable us to purge the forces of evil from the planet. Our faith in violence blinds us so that we fail to see the One who is God over all. The idolatry that is sacred violence leaves the real Jesus behind. Worship of sacred violence blinds us to the great lesson of history that every group that approves the use of violence in their mission to rid the world of evil becomes a greater evil. When will we learn that redemption from evil comes not from violence and blood sacrifice but from being transformed by the healing power of God?
How is it that people of faith, including the people of Salem, the Ku Klux Klan, and yes, even the 9-11 attackers, promoted violence as ordained by God? Could it be that Jesus was right when he repeated Isaiah’s warning that “this people honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (KJV, Mark: 7: 6-7)? How close are our hearts to what Jesus teaches? Do we know the difference between the doctrines that Jesus teaches and the commandments of men? Do we know how our hateful talk breeds violence? Do we know what suffering comes to others from the endless violence done in our name, and falsely in the name of Jesus?
How do we discern the word of God from the rantings of false prophets who drive us toward acts of sacred violence? Again, the answer is in the Gospels where Jesus warns us to “beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7 :15-16).
What are the fruits of a society that worships sacred violence? Where do we look to find the fruits? By what measure do we evaluate them? Do we look to our great material wealth and powerful weaponry for evidence of our right living? Or do we follow the standard Jesus suggested would be used in the final judgment: “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25: 41). If so, then we must look in the eyes of the poor and the victims of war for the measure of our lives.
The New Gospel Way
In the Gospels, Jesus challenges us to leave behind the old tradition of sacred violence that taught people to love their neighbors but hate their enemies. He came to replace the old ways with a new, higher law, which requires us to love both our neighbors and our enemies. To the old ways of thinking, His teachings are crazy. But when you read the Gospels, it is clear that Jesus wants to turn our lives upside down and shake us free from man’s domination over our souls. For this he was killed. Ever since, the powers of the kingdom of man have been relentless in their attempts to put an end to His teachings. Today, His teachings are ridiculed as being impractical and foolish in the face of harsh realities of present-day evils. Yet, Jesus was born, lived, and died in very harsh times. So, which teachings are really crazy? Should we persist in the craziness of sacred violence? Or should we put our faith in Jesus and His Gospel of peace?
The Gospels tell of many times when Jesus could have destroyed non-believers or evil-doers, but He did not. There were many times when He made it clear that all people are our neighbors, even the Samaritans who were in conflict with the Jews. For example, the Gospel of Luke (KJV, 9: 54-56) reports that Jesus was turned away from a Samaritan village. “And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of [You don’t know what your hearts are like (New Living Translation)]. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.”
But, like His disciples, we fail to hear His commands that “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” and “thou shalt not kill.” We have closed our eyes and ears and hearts to His teachings, preferring instead to trust our lives to corporate greed and high-tech weapons of mass destruction. Who can warn us that we are on the wrong path? Who will warn us of the injuries we do to God’s children everywhere? Who will rebuke us for not knowing our own hearts?
Does your heart tell you that Jesus wants us to destroy life? In your heart of hearts, do you believe that Jesus would approve of military action that rains fire down from the sky on villages full of people? Do you really believe He would excuse the carnage because we were doing it for just cause or to liberate the villagers? Would the Jesus of the Gospels approve of the hateful words we spew out about those with different religious or political beliefs? Would Jesus approve of the countless acts of violence our military and secret police conduct each and every day in our names?
There are many hard questions like these that we must hold ourselves accountable to answer. But perhaps, those that matter the most are these: How will we come to know and serve the One who is God over all? How will we come to know our own hearts? How do we tell the difference between the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of men?
To honestly hold ourselves accountable to these questions will require much from us, including giving up some old ways and taking on some new ways. We can begin by turning away from the ranting. We can turn off entertainment news and hate radio. We can put down the novels that glorify sacred violence. We can get off the government and corporate band wagons that promote wars and the destruction of God’s planet. We can stop justifying violence. We can pick up a New Testament and read for ourselves what Jesus taught in the Gospels. We can open our hearts to His light. We can use our best efforts to practice His teachings in our daily lives. We can welcome Jesus into our hearts and let Him turn our lives upside down. We can show those around us how our lives are being healed through Jesus, the Prince of Peace. And we will all be better for it.
© Copyright, 2004 and 2017 by John Arnaldi. All rights reserved. Please feel free to distribute this article for educational purposes, provided you charge no fee for it and make no changes in it. This copyright notice must be included on all copies.