Nearly 80 percent of this country’s population identifies itself as Christian. But I’m uncertain what that means these days. It’s becoming so easy to slap on the label that its meaning is getting lost. Perhaps Dietrich Bonhoeffer was right when he worried that the church was steadily drowning the gospel in safe, pious humbug.
That gospel is crystal clear that Christians are not to return evil for evil. We are to work mightily in the world for justice, but we are never to use violence and coercion, the world’s methods of choice.
The tools Jesus commands us to take up are love, patience, nonviolent resistance and a willingness to suffer for the sake of others. These are non-negotiable. If we rationalize them away, how can the salt retain its savor? If the church refuses to live the Sermon on the Mount, what distinguishes her from the world?
Yet today young Christians willingly serve in the armed forces and take up the murderous weapons of war. Older, stay-at-home Christians plaster their vehicles with belligerently pro-war “Power of Pride” stickers and insist that war against terrorism is godly.
Christian politicians allocate more and more funds for warmaking. Clergy even use their pulpits to defend slaughtering instead of loving and praying for those who consider themselves our enemies. Christian nonviolence is mocked as cowardly and irresponsible. Loyalty to Christ takes second place to patriotism. Michio Ohno, a Mennonite pastor, recalls asking one of his seminary professors why early Christians had been persecuted so much, but modern Christians aren’t. “Because we’re not truly Christian,” the professor sadly replied.
The truth of this observation ought to leave us breathless. But the American church is so far gone in her slide away from the heart of the gospel that the possibility, much less the desirability, of being radically at odds with the reigning culture doesn’t seem to register. Sin, whether corporate or individual, is always insouciant.
Given the tens of millions of self-identified Christians in this country, think of the incredible work for the Kingdom we could do if we took the gospel we claim to honor seriously. Ron Sider proposed in 1984 that Christians live out their commitment to the Prince of Peace by getting themselves en masse to war-torn areas and putting their bodies between the opposing armies.
But with few exceptions, we don’t. Instead, we piously talk about the unfortunate necessity to resort to arms in the protection of the innocent, and send our young men and women off to do the killing and the dying. And so the myth of sanctified violence is reinforced, and our hands are bloodied.
Episcopalians should reflect prayerfully on the scandal that only a tiny handful of Christian denominations are designated “peace churches” and that our denomination is not one of them. During the past season of Lent, when we stripped down in order to grow more open to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, we listened especially to the words of the Sermon on the Mount and prayed that we find the courage to begin living them. Let us forget the world’s incessant clamor about the need to be stronger, bigger and more powerful so that we may heed the natural inclination of our hearts to follow our Lord’s path of loving service and sacrifice.
Resources for discerning a commitment to gospel peacemaking are plentiful, even though too often exiled to the fringes. For Episcopalians, the 65-year-old Episcopal Peace Fellowship (http://http://epfnational.org/) is a good place to start. The Center on Conscience and War (http://www.nisbco.org/) offers information and counseling on conscientious objection. Every Church a Peace Church () helps congregations learn how to become communities of peacemaking.
To respond to this column, writeto Episcopal Life or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. We welcome your own commentary.
-- Kerry Walters, a candidate for holy orders, is co-editor of Episcopal Peace Witness, the quarterly newspaper of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship. His latest book is Merciful Meekness: Becoming a Spiritually Integrated Person (Paulist).