"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

“…and cry to her that her warfare is ended…”

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I am sometimes left with the impression that some Christians believe if we can just get things right here on earth, there will be no need for Christ to ride in on that white horse, judging the redeemed and the evil doer. This is a philosophy born more of modern western liberalism than anything of God.

We are told repeatedly by Christ that the end-times world is a nasty and brutish place to live. We are told that we will be dragged into the public square and beaten for our belief.  There is in this thought some idea that proper living will lead us to sin-free living, in spite of knowing Paul’s words: that he consistently doesn’t do the things he knows he should do.  All of our attempts to bootstrap ourselves into holiness are fated to fail – and we’re forced to constantly turn again to Christ for healing.

I’ve been reading a theology text this week by Miroslav Volf, a Croatian theologian, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. 

Volf proposes something I’ve preached about a number of times – that our labelling of the ‘other’ to protect ourselves is the greatest sin, being the sin of exclusion. This reflects the church trend of division, where portions of the church cut themselves off to form a body that believes the same. They exclude the ‘other’, because of the fear that the other will contaminate their purity. That theme should sound familiar to any student of the Old Testament and the New Testament, for that was the basis for much of Israel’s dealings with foreign nations, and that was the bondage that Christ came to break. After the coming of Christ there is no more ‘other’, but only the call to love.

Yet we persist in thinking that if we can only surround ourselves with the right people, we will finally have a glimpse of the holiness we know exists.  The call of Christ has never been to comfortable community, but rather to community where we are challenged, angered, frustrated and annoyed.  I recall one of the bits of advice given by Screwtape, that the fastest way to get a new believer out of church was to have him look around at his companions in the pews and realize he would not otherwise chose to spend time with that group.

The reason I participate actively in a Christian community is not because they all think the same way I do, but rather because we’ve been called together to seek God through that community, imperfect as it might be.

I was particularly interested in Volf’s discussion on violence and peace in the final chapter. He proposes that without a clear understanding of the Christ of Revelation (riding on that white horse, judging in blood), there is no way that violence can be deterred in the present. Jesus of the cross must be married with the Christ of Revelation. This is a powerful counter to the textual critics who attempt to reduce Revelation to a vague metaphor in an attempt to square the loving Jesus of the Gospels with the image in Revelation. Volf states clearly that understanding the depth of the coming judgement is the only way a Christian can understand the command to non-violence in the present.

This presents a problem to certain lines of theological reasoning, that chose to emphasize the love of Jesus over all other aspects.  Unitary interpretations are something I find singularly unhelpful, as they destroy nuance in the question for simplicity.  Volf’s assertion is that without the bloody judging of evil doers described in Revelation, there can be no loving acceptance in the Gospels.

Stated another way (my interpretation), if free will is to have any meaning at all, then human beings must be able to chose to reject salvation and forgiveness and to accept (knowingly or unknowingly) damnation.

I’m challenged to think that the most horrific killer or dictator in history might, with a death-bed conversion and sincere repentance, obtain eternal salvation…but that is what I read in Scripture.  It’s equally challenging (particularly to an always-polite Canadian) to think that some will not receive that grace, but that is also what I read in Scripture.

This is a topic I wrestle with constantly, as I attempt to understand my calling into the profession of arms in the context of my Christian faith. Volf says some very interesting things in that chapter, that I’ll summarize below with some choice quotations.

288: Strangely enough, the executor of the cosmic terror that destroys the world and recreates it according to its own will is the Lamb.  But then, it is a strange Lamb that we encounter in Revelation — “a lamb with horns that roars like a lion” (101), “a carnivorous lamb” (102).  Never mind that it looks “slain.”  It only wears the mask of a victim to hid the hangman’s face so as to free the hangman’s hand. (referring to work by Deleuze, 1980)

295: What about the Rider on the white horse who seems to deploy violence without any thought of embracing the enemy?

296: These are people who trust in the infectious power of nonviolence: sooner or later it will be crowned with success.  In this belief, however, one can smell a bit too much of the sweet aroma of a suburban ideology, entertained often by people who are neither courageous nor honest enough to reflect on the implications of terror taking place right in the middle of their living rooms!  The road of nonviolence in the world of violence often leads to suffering: one can sometimes break the cycle of violence only at the price of one’s life, as the example of Jesus demonstrates.  If history is any guide, the prospects are good that nonviolence will fail to dislodge violence.

297: Underlying the theology of judgement in the Apocalypse is the assumption that nothing is potent enough to change those who insist on remaining beasts and false prophets.  Certainly, most of us are not beasts, thought the beast can all-too-easily be awakened in us; most of us are not false prophets, thought we so easily fall prey to the charms of propaganda.  We should not, however, shy away from the unpleasant and deeply tragic possibility that there might be human beings, created in the image of God, who, through the practice of evil, have immunized themselves from all attempts at their redemption.  Ensnared by the chaos of violence which generates its own legitimizing “reason” and “goodness,” they have become untouchable for the lure of God’s truth and goodness. ..This is where God’s anger comes in.

298 (asking the question why reasoning or reproach should not be God’s response):  Because the evildoers “are corrupt” and “they do abominable deeds” (Psalm 14 v. 1); they have “gone astray,” the are “perverse” (v. 3).  God will judge, not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves; if evildoers experience God’s terror, it will not be because they have done evil, but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah.

299 (7): The result of God’s judgment thus conceived fits well with our desire for the final triumph of God’s love, but we should keep in mind that nothing could guarantee the achievement of this result without divine “violence.”  … Though those who have been touched by God’s love ought to hope for a universal nonrefusal, if they are not blind to the human condition they will be hesitant to count on it.  Hence the possibility of the final condemnation.

302: The certainty of God’s just judgment at the end of history is the presupposition for the renunciation of violence in the middle of it.  The divine system of judgment is not the flip side of the human reign of terror, but a necessary correlate of human nonviolence.  Since the search for truth and the practice of justice cannot be given up, the only way in which nonviolence and forgiveness will be possible in a world of violence is through displacement or transference of the violence, not through its complete relinquishment.

304: My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West.  To the person who is included to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered).  Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit.  The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence.  The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect non-coercive love.  Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge.  In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die.  And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

306: It may be that consistent non-retaliation and nonviolence will be impossible in the world of violence.  Tyrants may need to be taken down from their thrones and the madmen stopped from sowing desolation.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s decision to take part in an attempt to assassinate Hitler is a well-known and persuasive example of such thinking.  It may also be that measures which involve preparation for the use of violent means will have to be taken to prevent tyrants and madmen from ascending to power in the first place or to keep the plethora of ordinary kinds of perpetrators that walk our streets from ding their violent work.  It may be that in a world suffused with violence the issue is not simple “violence versus peace” but rather “what forms of violence could be tolerated to overcome a social ‘peace’ that coercively maintained itself through the condoned violence of injustice” (Suchocki 1995, 117).  But if one decides to put on soldier’s gear instead of carrying one’s cross, one should not seek legitimization in the religion that worships the crucified Messiah.  For there, the blessing is given not to the violent but to the meek (Matthew 5:5).


Written by sameo416

December 11, 2014 at 2:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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