Jesus on the Playground

For International Day of Peace at the public Montessori school my son attends, we had a peace parade this morning. Black, white, and brown kids followed a peace dove puppet down the street to a public park and sang songs about peace on earth. They bowed to one another, in Asian fashion, and pledged to recognize the force for peace in one another. It was a heart warming site on a beautiful fall morning.

I watched much of this from the swing set where Leah and I stood pushing Nora, beside a mom who just happened to have walked her daughter to the park. A young, African-American woman, she noted the language of the peace pledge and said it sounded like what she remembered from church growing up, only without the God language. “I mean, I don’t mean to get religious or anything,” she said, “but I think that stuff is true.”

Indeed. But on International Peace Day, it’s hard for us in the West today to see how any of that stuff connects to Jesus and his church. On the play ground this morning, a post-Christian neighbor helped me to see that the biggest obstacle the church faces may be our history of resisting Christ’s peace.

We have too easily trusted the power of violence over the power of God. Because we have, it’s hard for someone to see how Jesus is behind, in, and throughout International Peace Day or any effort towards peace on earth and good will toward people, for that matter.

Part of repentance is learning to tell the truth about who we really are.

When Christians gained considerable worldly power, first in the Roman Empire and subsequently in other kingdoms and nation-states, Jesus’ peculiar way of nonviolent love seemed less realistic and, to a growing number of believers, irresponsible. How can any authority both establish the rule of law and turn the other cheek? What decent person who had the power to stop a Hitler would not kill a tyrant to save a whole people? Still, as necessary as violence seemed to many Christians, the conviction that Jesus inaugurated a new era in human history has always meant that Christians have a problem with war. In order to name when war is unjust, and thus not permissible for any Christian, the church developed criteria for a “just war.”

In considerations of the Christian tradition on war and peace, just war is often presented as the majority position over and against the minority stance of pacifism or Christian nonviolence. Such a presentation of church history, however, does not recognize the fact that just war teaching always limited violence to adult men in police or military units. This actually excluded the vast majority of Christians from the use of violence, simply by virtue of their being women, children, clergy, monastics, or everyday citizens not engaged in a just war or police action. What is more, it was assumed for most of the church’s history that participation in acts of violence—even acts deemed ‘just’—was a concession to the ways of the world that no doubt led Christians to sin. The church made provision for repentance and reconciliation—not celebration—when soldiers came home from battle. Even when war seems inevitable, our hope is not in military victory but in the reconciliation of all things through Jesus Christ.

When God’s people hold onto the hope of reconciliation through the peculiar way of the cross, we interrupt the assumptions of a culture of violence. But the truth is that all of us—not just soldiers and police officers—are well practiced in the use of worldly power. Those of us who come from positions of privilege in society lean on the silent power of money and social norms, trusting in systems of control that have favored people who speak our language or share our skin color. At the same time, people who live with their backs against the wall resort to subversive acts of violence, carving out a space for survival by manipulating the fears those who seem to be ‘in control.’ We can see these dynamics at work in local and international political negotiations. And, if we pay attention, we can see the same habits worked out between husbands and wives, parents and children, bosses and co-workers, pastors and congregations.

In the world that is passing away, violence rules. But in the new world that has already begun, Jesus shows us a better way.

In the midst of a ‘war on terror,’ when soldiers are often celebrated as heroes in churches, it can be difficult for anyone—especially American Christians—to remember why we would rather die than kill. But to forget the peculiar witness of Jesus and the martyrs is to forget the ‘new thing’ that the New Testament celebrates as the unique sign of Christ’s resurrection power.

Because Christ is risen from the dead, a people exists that does not live by the power of violence. The church calls those who chose to die rather than kill ‘martyrs’ because they show us the power of Christ’s nonviolent love. We remember these saints as a way of reminding ourselves that no power deserves our allegiance more than the One who raised Jesus from the dead. No way is more trustworthy than the way of nonviolent love.

  • Otro Tierra

    Thank you for this. I hear plenty of Roman Imperialism and Constantine from U.S. evangelicals, but Jesus is curiously missing. Allegiance to Jesus must be prioritized over love of Caesar and Constantine.

  • SamB

    Thanks Jonathan. I don’t comment here but I read all your posts, and I am grateful for them. Just want you to know that.

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Grateful for you, Sam. Blessings, jwh

  • Matthew

    Thanks Jonathan. Oh how I have struggled with this topic as I come from a relatively conservative evangelical background since becoming a believer about 16 years ago. In my circles, any talk of worldly peace and non-violence is seen either as weakness, liberality, or simply poor exegesis — i.e. Christ speaks of spiritual peace, not worldly peace and the way of the world characterized by violence and chaos is in tune with what Jesus preached regarding the end times. Nevertheless, I have become struck by other Christians in different circles who profess much of what you are saying regarding non-violence and peace. They seem to take literally the dictates of the Sermon on the Mount and also the overall character of Jesus — a character that seems to reveal a sense of justice and peace. Although I cannot say for certain — theologically speaking — what worldview is more correct, I can say that it seems (or feels) more right that a Christian lean towards a posture of peace and justice rather them embrace a culture of violence. I think we sometimes become trapped by theological paradigms — even those of a dispensational flavor that state some of the teachings of Jesus Christ are not even for the church age — i.e. the Sermon on the Mount. It´s no wonder given such dictates that some believers are not encouraged or empowered to even take part in a peace parade — much less live a life that is indicative of non-violence and peace. Oh how I struggle …

  • Matthew

    Well … I was just talking to my wife about this topic, and as such I was empowered to post again. Our discussion centered around Jesus´earthly ministy and what Jesus was focusing on. My wife seems to think that Jesus was more concerned with the regeneration of “one soul at a time” rather than attempting to bring a world peace that may or may not have political ramifications for everyone in society. I guess the question is — just how much should the Christian be involved with the political/peace process and how much with the act of brining souls into the Kindgom via repentance and forgiveness? Is it a case of both/and rather than either/or?

  • Samuel PG

    Thank you for another great post. As a hopeful church-planter/pastor, I have been thinking lately about what it might look like to intentionally reach out to veterans (amidst reaching out to many other groups) and have been circling around the idea of welcoming them with a firm acknowledgment that they have been living in a system of violence that they must break from and repent of, even if they have served with the best of intentions. It seems to me that many of the problems of PTSD might be dealt with through such repentance. Do you know of any good resources of how a church might do this? I already know that such an approach will meet anger from most American Christians, and some help would be nice.

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Check out Centurions Guild and Veterans for Peace–both organizations that share this spirit.

  • Samuel post

    Jonathan, I think you nailed it, the conflict between living a life emulating that of the Christ and his teachings while a citizen of empire with it’s conflicting demands of loyalty and patriotism to country and ruling powers. As Christian, we may succumb to the pull of our secular allegiances and engage in war/violent force, but they should be viewed as such lapses in our obligation to the divine (sin) and repentance and redemption should be sought, not glorification honor for our breach.