Self-Defense, War and Jesus for President

This summer, as I always do, I've been using "The Big Picture" of Judeo-Christianity to help students understand what the whole story of the Bible really says about this or that.

One confusing topic for the students is the appropriateness of using physical force to fight evil - whether in war or in personal protection or in the defense of others.

So what does the Bible really say about God's plan for the history and future of mankind? Is violence ruled out?

How is it that in the Old Testament God repeatedly commanded Israel to use violence against the pagan nations, yet Jesus commanded his followers to "love their enemies"? And then, what are we to make of God's obvious use of force in Revelation, where in the future he defeats all enemies forcefully and subdues all the kingdoms of the earth?

With all that in mind I thought I'd resurrect a book review I wrote last year. Maybe this'll help shed some light on this interesting subject!


I apologize in advance for the length of this article, but I got cranked up on this one.

I recently read Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, and I'll review it here.

Right off the bat, I can't resist mentioning the weird layout of this thing. I considered not bringing it up - as I imagined doing so to be unsophisticated.

But there's no way around it - the page layout and typesetting is just plain CRAZY. It's really hard to read, with different fonts, odd colors, scissor-cut text inserts, scribbles and all manner of visual junk strewn through the pages.

Here's the table of contents, and you should know that the rest of the book is "organized" similarly.

It's quite a challenge just to read one page of this thing, let alone all of it. Of course, all of this is quite intentional on the part of the authors. This style of communication is part and parcel of the deconstructionist/postmodern position which they are promoting. So I understand what they're up to.

And honestly I think they've achieved what they set out to do - namely, to create a jarring, neck-snapping portrayal of a new way to live Christian. Here's a quote from page 17 that sums up the authors' intent.

"This book is a project in renewing the imagination of the church in the United States and of those who would seek to know Jesus. We are seeing more and more that the church has fallen in love with the state and that this love affair is killing the church's imagination . . . Too often the patriotic values of pride and strength triumph over the spiritual virtues of humility, gentleness, and sacrificial love."
It's statements like this that gave me a lot to like about Jesus for President.

The basic message of Claiborne and Haw is that the church has become wedded to capitalism, to consumerism, to the "American Empire" and to warmongering - as well as several other unsavory bedfellows. They plead for a return to the simple life of Jesus via more relational living, green environmental practices and weaning away from consumerism.

These and other proposals challenged me in quite healthy ways to think differently.

I also greatly appreciated the authors' retelling of the overarching Biblical narrative as an intentional basis for their proposals.

As those of you who hang with me regularly know - I have devoted myself wholeheartedly over the last several years to a hermeneutic I call the "teleological perspective" of Christianity. The teleological perspective is primarily a historical and Biblical theology as opposed to a systematic one.

When interpreting scripture, the teleological perspective places huge value on historical context and on what the words would have meant in the ears, minds and hearts of the original recipients.

Great weight is given to the obvious telos or designed-in goal of the entire story as read from front to back. Far, far less value is placed on systematic theological interpretive methods, Reformation interpretations and the pop-theology of today.

I've written quite a bit here on the topic if you're interested in understanding more.

So then, the authors of Jesus for President make a teleological guy like me happy when they tell the story of creation, covenant, exile and new creation and then attempt to use it as the basis for their arguments. They did a good job telling (most of) the Judeo-Christian story - even if I did get a cranium-cracking headache after staring for hours at the weird page layouts.

I do have a problem with the book, though, and it's significant for me. I believe Claiborne and Haw fall on their faces because they miss an important piece of the aforementioned interpretive framework.

They make a big mistake that I believe sets them and their devotees on a trajectory which I just cannot follow.

The particular statement is made overtly several times in the book, and then it becomes a foundation for their broader proposals to reject the concept of human government (!), to undo capitalism, to be generally anti-establishment and most of all, to never, never, ever lift your hand against an attacker in any vigorous or violent manner.

Here's one instance of the mistake from a quote on page 222:
"...when Christ disarmed Peter he disarmed all Christians."
The authors are of course referring to John 18:10, where Peter cut off the ear of the high priest's slave in defense of Jesus against his captors.

Here's the rub. When Messiah told Peter to put away his sword - may I tell you that Jesus DID NOT tell me to put away mine.

It's just that simple. Jesus was not talking to you or me. He was talking to Peter in the context of the fulfillment of his messianic mission.

In fact, look at the broader context. In Luke 22:36-38, just before his betrayal Jesus tells his disciples to buy swords:
"And He said to them, "But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one. For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, 'AND HE WAS NUMBERED WITH TRANSGRESSORS'; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment. They said, 'Lord, look, here are two swords.' And He said to them, 'It is enough.'"
Are you going to go and buy a sword now that you see Jesus telling his disciples to do so?

And then after Peter cut off the ear, look at the emphasis of Jesus' statement in Matthew 26:52-56 (bold is of course mine):
"Then Jesus said to him, 'Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels? How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?'

At that time Jesus said to the crowds, 'Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me as you would against a robber? Every day I used to sit in the temple teaching and you did not seize Me. But all this has taken place to fulfill the Scriptures of the prophets.' Then all the disciples left Him and fled."
The emphasis of Jesus' argument is not some "timeless truth" of non-violent resistance. The emphasis is on Jesus' fulfillment of the inauguration of his messianic kingdom.

Friends, the Bible is not a book of disconnected anecdotes, or "timeless truths" meant to be jerked out of their historical and eschatological context in order to fulfill your utopian vision (or a warmongering one, for that matter!).

Jesus came to fill the role of the Jewish Messiah. He is totally unique. God broke the mold after Jesus was born. I am not Messiah, you are not Messiah.

We follow Messiah into his kingdom - yes. We seek to live now, as much as we can, as if we were in that eschatological kingdom that is coming, the one envisioned by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the rest. The one John details in the last few chapters of his Revelation.

Yes, yes, yes - I write about it all the time around here. Living now from the perspective of our kingdom-future.

But you see, while Claiborne and Haw were telling the Judeo-Christian story - they didn't explain a key component of the story which I call "Kingdom Now and Kingdom Not Yet".

They left out most all of the "Not Yet" part of the kingdom story. The part that says the earth is still broken, it's still in exile - if you will. The earth is still waiting for the consummation of the kingdom. How can I tell this is the case?

Real simple - Death still exists. Murderous, rampant, ugly Death. Death is alive and well on planet earth.

And it's used every second somewhere around the world to subdue the weak of mind and the weak of body. Murder, rape, war, disease, poverty, lack and loss - the kingdom just isn't here yet in its fullness.

And while we Jesus-Followers are commanded to alleviate as much of that garbage as we can - we simply never can fix it all ourselves. THAT'S WHAT MESSIAH'S SECOND COMING IS GONNA DO.

So we live in a broken world between the fledgling Kingdom Now and the fully-consummated Kingdom Not Yet.

And that means we need a more thoughtful and more nuanced response to evil in order to live in such a situation - something better than "just let evil run rampant - don't you dare lift a finger to stop it." That's a naive notion from hip but simple minds that live in the affluent Western world.

For goodness sake, Jesus for President was published using modern machinery in a capitalist liberal democracy called the United States of America. That alone should tell us that our authors are indeed biting the hand that feeds them.

In fact, go try and get a book published living in a situation like the Kurds did in Iraq - where a nutcase dictator is gassing you to death. Try to be all hip and cool and anti-establishment while the Gestapo's hauling you off to Auschwitz to make a lampshade from your skin.

YES, we must "if possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men." (Romans 12:18)

YES, we must "pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord." (Hebrews 12:14)

OF COURSE, we know that "blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." (Matthew 5:9)

Truth is - I'm sick of death, of war and of all the horrors of this present age. That's why I pray "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven". And I do my best in every situation to love God and love people.

But honestly, is it really loving the women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to just sew up their bellies and backsides after they've been brutally and repeatedly raped with sticks and swords, and then send them back out for more military-sponsored torture? I think Claiborne and Haw would say "yep".

I of course disagree. Just so you know, I send money to help those sewing-machine doctors in Rwanda and neighboring states to do their jobs. But I'm also willing to discuss a more comprehensive answer that may indeed involve force.

So, while I will pursue peace with all men, I'm not not going to beat my swords into plowshares just yet. I'll wait until Messiah comes and gives us all new bodies driven by a different force, the force of the Spirit. Paul calls that body soma pneumatikon, and man - what a day that will be! Peace on earth, baby.

Of course, you'll note there in Revelation that Messiah uses - dare I say it - a war to consummate his judgment and resurrection. Oh nevermind - I'll stop now. :)

Seriously though, I offer many thanks to Claiborne and Haw for writing an extremely provocative work that is a worthwhile read for all Christians.


Fighting for Narnia said...

I have to say that I thought that you did not like the book at first, then it seemed that you quickly had a change of mind, then once more you changed back. I understand your observations. But do you really suggest the read?

Mike Aleckson said...

I do - I really do. Because I'm not sure how any of us in our cush little suburban lives will ever be forced to deal with this issue - the ugliness of raw evil - without forcing ourselves to.

So I suggest my friends read this book, but as you can tell - I don't agree at all with the authors' ultimate conclusions! I recommend lots of books that I don't ultimately agree with - I've just gotta be careful to say so in my recommendation. Thanks Caleb!

Caroline said...

Just a thought...

Mike Aleckson said...

Thanks a million, Caroline, for the link to Greg's article.

Here's a quote from near the end:

"I’ll leave you with this teaser thought: Is it possible that some divinely inspired material is not supposed to reveal to us what God is like but what he is not like? Is it possible that some material is inspired precisely because God wants us to follow Jesus’ example and repudiate it?"

Basically Greg is suggesting that God was deceitful - that he allowed pretty much the entirety of the Old Testament to be written falsely about him.

Brian McLaren has based a huge chunk of his theology on the same idea - that the God of the Old Testament really never existed. I reviewed his latest book on the subject in this post:

These guys are trying to force a particular agenda onto the canvas of the Bible. They believe so strongly in pacifism that they are willing to obliterate the Old Testament and most of the book of Revelation in order to support their position.

I understand why Greg and Brian suggest these mental gyrations. I understand why so many people are confused by the force used in the Old Testament, the peaceful approach of Jesus in his first appearance, and the force predicted for Jesus's second appearance (Rev. 19, for example).

They simply do not understand that the Bible only makes sense when viewed as a single, connected story, from Genesis to Revelation, inspired by a single coherent mind, the Mind of God.

They have not grappled with the idea that God is not schizophrenic - that he does not have multiple personality disorder.

(to be continued...)

Mike Aleckson said...


Now I know this is a hard thing to understand. We are conditioned to "zoom in" on a particular passage, or a favorite verse, or a pet saying. We have been taught to treat the Bible like a book of disconnected anecdotes - much like a box of fortune cookies.

"Confucius says: Don't eat yellow snow."

Now that's a "timeless truth" for sure! I cannot imagine a time in history (past, present or future) when I'd want to eat yellow snow. Why? Because snow is only yellow for one reason(!), and I'm not wanting to eat that stuff anytime or anywhere.

But if God is not arbitrary - if he has a plan that he's working out in the universe - if he is omnipotent - if he "does not change" as Malachi 3 tells us - then we simply have to think harder than Boyd, McLaren and the rest are thinking.

We can't just remove the story of God's dealings with Israel, and his promises through the prophets during the Exile and Daniel's visions and all the rest. We can't just arbitrarily redefine the vision John gave us in Revelation.

Rather, we must try to see each of these pieces like acts in a single play - a play written by a single coherent Mind, with a single goal (telos) for all of

In that play, there are many acts - each bringing about God's purpose required for the particular time and place. Each act building towards a foreordained conclusion (the Kingdom of God come to Earth) displayed in the last few chapters of Revelation.

When we begin to allow the shape of the whole play to affect our interpretation of the individual acts - we come up with a worldview that will much more faithfully represent the whole Bible and not just an anecdote here and a saying there.

We must read the Bible, from front to back, recognizing and resisting our inborn tendencies to insert meaning into the text from our preconceptions.

When we do our best to read it this way, we won't arbitrarily erase those parts we find offensive or difficult. We won't twist the text to fit either our utopian or our warmongering desires.

We'll just let it say what it said to the people to whom it was written and then our hope for our futures and the future of the whole world will be radically changed. That hope for the future will consequently shape our actions in the present - bringing in bits and pieces the Kingdom that Jesus will ultimately consummate when he returns.

Thanks again, Caroline, for the response!

Lou & Ruth said...

If it is true what Christ said about God being a God of the living, perhaps one might consider that God would want those that love Him to live and those that hate Him to be destroyed. I find it difficult to read the Bible and come to any other conclusion. Our designed in survival instincts did not come from the devil, they came from our Creator. A young David confronted Goliath, and Christ drove the commercial interests out of his Father's house of prayer with a scourge. Slings and scourges qualify as weapons, and if you don't thinks so, have a skilled person try one out on you.......scratch that, bad idea......I say choose to live and worship the only true God. The disciples needed swords, not to protect them from the wild animals but humans that would try to harm them, thereby stopping them from fulfilling their commission (long spears were much better for wild animal defense in that time). After reading the 'priestly prayer' in John, I am not sure Christ was certain the swords would be enough......

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