Pacifism or Christology?
We’ve had several good discussions here lately which were triggered by Who Is My Enemy?: Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam–and Themselves, by Lee C. Camp. Those conversations, though, left me thinking we had paid insufficient attention to the core issues underneath Christian pacifism debates, and perhaps not just in these conversations, but in evangelicalism in general.
What I mean is, before we can talk intelligently and fruitfully about Christian ‘just war theory’ or ‘pacifism’ or even Christian involvement in military or police work, which are clearly not the focus issues of the New Testament’s witness, I think we need to look more deeply at our Christology and the central doctrines that Christ himself gives us, in word and deed, and look for whether there is anything in these core doctrines that speak to these secondary issues, or at least shape our thinking about them and what is at stake with such things. Such a discussion will, by definition, have us treading upon some of the most powerful teachings and themes of the entire New Testament witness.
What do you think? Has Western Christianity intentionally or unintentionally changed the cross from a virus to a “once-and-never-repeated” phenomenon? Do you see God’s intent with the cross as being more isolated to Jesus or viral—the intended symbol of king and people alike? How central is our cross-bearing to being Christ’s follower or representing him accurately and powerfully in the world? Is the cross-bearing to be a 24-7 pursuit or only when we do evangelism, as some have suggested? Is the cross more like the Mona Lisa, or the first Seed of a new kind of human in the world?
Specifically, I’m thinking we’ll give one post each to Cross (Christ’s and ours), to Resurrection (his and ours), to Love (his and ours), to Incarnation/Character (his and ours), to Story/Strategy (his and ours), and maybe one to Kingdom (his and ours). In all of this we will be asking what it means to be a disciple of this most unique King, and a citizen and ambassador of this most unique kingdom. For those of us who are persuaded by Scot’s thesis in The King Jesus Gospel, and I am one, this will be an exercise in seeking to allow the story of Christ—as the gospel—to shape us more than anything else.
The first place I see some disjointedness in western Christianity when these issues arise is Christ’s Cross. Too often in “pacifism” discussions, I hear something like this: “Jesus played a unique and never-to-be-repeated role as the sacrifice for sin, and no one, including his followers are going to die a substitutionary death for anyone else’s sins.” There’s some obvious truth there, but let me begin by making this bold statement: that statement includes far more error than truth.
The central error stems from this: Christ never talked much (at all) about how different his cross was from his followers’ crosses. He just said—repeatedly—that he was going to die on a cross (and rise again) and that anyone who was going to be his disciple needed to get ready to do the same. If our emphasis on the cross has become distinguishing his path and vocation from ours, then our emphasis has become the opposite of Christ’s. Jesus himself repeatedly made sacrificial death of self not just a side note to following him, but central. When Jesus finally started predicting his own crucifixion, he quickly made it clear he wasn’t the only one destined for a cross. Anyone, he said, who wanted to be his disciple also had to pick up his own cross, and follow. Anyone who wanted to save his life, he said, would lose it, but anyone who lost it for his sake would find it. (Interestingly, this is one of the very few texts in all four gospels). Unless a seed dies, he said, it remains unfruitful and alone. But if it dies, it produces several more seeds. Don’t be afraid of those who can kill the body, he said. If the world hates me, it will hate you too, he said. If it persecutes me, it will do the same to you. No one could be his disciple, he said, without giving up all he had. No disciple could love anything or anyone, not even his own life, more than Christ and still be his disciple. All must be trusted and subordinated to Christ. Count the cost he said, and the cost is all. Again and again, and in a variety of ways, Jesus made it clear not only that his vocation required a cross, but so did the vocation of being his disciple.
The apostle Paul tells us to make our attitude the same as Christ’s, who humbled himself to accept death on a cross. Paul said he himself desired to be made like Christ “in his death.” Paul said he himself had died, and he no longer lived, but Christ lived through him. He was dead to this world and it to him. He had counted everything as loss. He told churches they were also dead to the world, but alive to God. Paul said we had not just been called to live for Christ, but also to suffer for him. The references are really too many to name. Paul clearly tied following Christ to embracing a cross. When lawsuits broke out in Corinth, he announced the church’s complete defeat and ended with this startling pair of questions that expose Paul’s cruciformity: “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?”
Attempts to separate disciple and cross are not just going against the entire NT’s own clear trajectory and core teaching of being Christ’s disciple, they misunderstand and, specifically, minimize the power of cross-bearing that Jesus sought to unleash among his nation of followers, who would be the light of the world as he was. All the teachings of serving others, of the last being first, of being different than the Pharisees or the Gentiles, of being like little children—all of these find their foundation and cutting edge at the cross, as the vocation of the people who would be like Jesus. If we were going to make a more accurate statement (compared to the one I began to critique above), it might be this: “Jesus was the first King to finally pave the Way forward in this world, and it was through his cross. His clear plan is that just as he gave himself up for the world—for sinners!—as a fragrant and pleasing sacrifice to God, he would be the first of many brothers to live and die (and rise) that way.”
Our next post in this series will be focused on Resurrection.