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Matthew Tuininga October 24, 2012
What if the United States had responded to the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks after the example of the Amish, declaring forgiveness towards the 19 hijackers who took 3,000 lives on that terrible day and responding to their evil not with war but with love and financial support for their families? How would the world be different?
So asked the New Monasticism guru Shane Claiborne in a lecture to a jam-packed Glenn Memorial Auditorium at Emory University on October 23 (with 1,200 in attendance at the Candler School of Theology sponsored event, people had to be turned away). When asked whether he thought violence was ever justified Claiborne turned to the story of Jesus and Peter when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Peter picked up the sword. I believe Peter had a genuine desire to protect Jesus. And he had the best case for redemptive violence that there ever was in the world. He was trying to protect God's only Son, the Messiah.” But Jesus rebuked Peter and showed grace to the man who had come to arrest him. And the early Christians interpreted this story to mean that “when Jesus disarmed Peter he disarmed every one of us... For Christ we can die, but we cannot kill.”
Claiborne, whose father was a veteran of the Vietnam War, suggested that Christians who serve in the military find themselves to be intolerably torn between two masters. He said that he has received letters from soldiers wondering, “How can I follow Jesus who told me to love my enemies and simultaneously prepare to kill them.” One soldier told Claiborne, “Every time I pointed a gun and shot, I felt something in me die.” Claiborne suggested that this struggle in the souls of soldiers may help explain why the military's suicide rate is currently higher than its combat death rate.
But would pacifism actually make the world a better place? Would the unilateral disarmament of the United States actually lead to peace? Claiborne did not answer these questions other than to offer the quip that “It's not that we've tried the cross and it's failed. It's that we haven't tried the cross.” He admitted that many who take up the sword are well intentioned and even that their desire to annihilate evil reflects a desire that is at the heart of God. However Claiborne insisted that their actions need to be evaluated by one basic criterion: “Does it look like Jesus? Does it look like the cross?”
Claiborne acknowledged the presence of stories in the Old Testament in which God clearly approves of war and killing, and admitted that he had no explanation for them.
“I have a hard time understanding it... Sometimes it's hard to wrap your hands around that God who is so big and who says 'I am who I am.' And that's what I think Jesus is about. Jesus comes and shows us what God is like,” he said.
The neo-Anabaptist tied his critique of war to his insistence that the federal government needs to do more to improve education and alleviate poverty. That 48% of the federal budget goes towards military spending, he argued, illustrates the militaristic priorities of our society.
“Right now $20,000 every single second goes towards militarism... I'm not sure we can change all the other stuff until we talk about [that]... A country that continues to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social welfare is approaching a spiritual death,” Claiborne claimed.
But God has a different dream for the world, Claiborne suggested, and it's not the American dream. He didn't intend a society in which one American consumes the same as 500 Africans and in which 5% of the world's population consumes 40% of its wealth. “God didn't create a world where there is too many people for not enough stuff.”
Claiborne did not point out to his audience that what the federal government spends is hardly representative of what American society spends. If 48% of the federal budget goes towards military spending (much of which, of course, provides for veterans and their families) and the federal budget makes up 24% of America's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) then military spending represents only 11.5% of America's GDP. What happens with the rest? Most of it contributes to the creation of the very wealth that elevates people out of poverty or that prevents them from falling into it, not to mention the various public and private programs of social welfare.
The pacifist described wealth creation in America as if the world economy is a zero-sum game in which one’s gain is always another's loss. He did not interact with widespread evidence that economic prosperity has brought more people out of poverty around the world than any possible combination of social welfare programs, nor did his largely academic audience press him on the point.
To be sure, in many respects Claiborne's lecture was both thought-provoking and balanced. At his best moments he urged the crowd to hear his presentation as neither Democratic nor Republican. Twice he stressed his pro-life convictions, and while he criticized George W. Bush's rhetoric referring to American values as the “light of the world” he was equally critical of Barack Obama's reference to America as the “last best hope on earth.”
“I think one of the dangers in election year is to sort of think that politicians are going to solve all of the problems when often they just keep creating them.... And we have to insist that, 'No, we've found the last best hope on earth, we've found the light of the world, and it is not Barack Obama or Mitt Romney or America, it's Jesus, the Christ, the Savior of the World.'”
Yet too often Claiborne confused the calling of Christians to walk in the way of Jesus according to the Sermon on the Mount with the realities of life in a fallen world, a world in which the kingdom is not yet. Too often he spoke as if it is indeed possible to turn the politics of America or the world into the kingdom of God, forgetting that for Jesus that path led not to success in this world but to death on a cross.
In that sense, contrary to what Claiborne's provocative title suggests, Jesus never sought to be Caesar, nor did he question the obligation of Christians to participate in the civil order which has been established by God and equipped with the sword to carry out God's wrath on those who do evil (Romans 13). Claiborne's rhetoric may be well-intentioned, but in minimizing the blessings that American power and economic prosperity have brought to the world that rhetoric may itself do more harm than good.
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