Friday, 6 April 2018

What does Luke reveal about himself in Luke-Acts?

It’s a fascinating thing to read people’s autobiographical revelations about themselves, and to find out what interesting times they have seen as eyewitnesses. That’s of special interest when it comes to the stories of eyewitnesses of the early church. In passing in his eyewitness account, New Testament author Luke gives us glimpses of his life. He makes appearances in the action in the Book of Acts (a history of the early church).
His name has always been associated with this book as its author as far back as anyone knows. Luke was sufficiently known in close-knit circles of co-religionists that people in those circles would know that he was a writer, and very likely some in these circles read his gospel. If scholars are right that literacy levels were low in Christian communities, Luke’s name would be in only a small pool or writers, and the risk of mis-identification would be low in his lifetime.
Anyway, here is a brief summary of what Luke reveals about himself (not intended to be comprehensive), with some of his own words to give a flavour of it.

About Luke, as revealed by Luke-Acts in Luke:1-4 and Acts 1:1; Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16

·         Luke was active in the middle of the first century AD, writing about events of that period.
·         He was educated (he could read and write Greek quite well).
·         He was part of circles that included literate co-religionists (e.g. Paul, and others who could write Paul’s letters when he dictated them, and others who could read them to churches). An impression of the type of group we might envisage is in 2 Timothy 4: “Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.”
·         Luke’s writing evidences personal knowledge of Old Testament scriptures.
·         He had read Mark’s Gospel and very possibly Matthew too.
·         He wrote a Gospel and Acts: “it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you”; He introduces his second book, Acts, this way: “In the first book… I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach…”
·         He was writing for someone called Theophilus, but for a wider circle too, given that his books were more widely circulated.
·         He personally regarded Mark (and Matthew if he read it) as authorised normative texts for the church, given that he uses and adapts so much of it, and refers to it as material sourced from eyewitnesses and servants of the word”.
·         He was a believer in Jesus, the main subject of his writing, and he was committed to supporting the church, his main subject in Acts.
·         He was fascinated by legal proceedings as a subject to write about in more detail than other things.

·         He was a trusted member of a travelling group of missionaries in the Jesus-movement.
·         He was widely travelled around Mediterranean regions, including Jerusalem and Rome: “at Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us warmly”; “And so we came to Rome”.
·         As part of the travelling group, he was known among close-knit circles of co-religionists in Philippi, Troas, Miletus, Tyre, Ptolemais, Caesarea, Sidon, Puteoli, as well as Jerusalem and Rome (see Acts 16-28).
·         Luke knew the apostle Paul personally, and also met James and other leaders of the Jerusalem church, the mother church of Christianity: “at Jerusalem… Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present”.
·         Luke knew other eyewitnesses of Jesus “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them [material for writing gospels] to us”
·         They evangelised women as well as men: “We sat down and began to speak to the women”.

·         His location is Troas, when Luke first reveals that he has joined up with the travelling missionaries (Acts 16:8-10).
·         Luke was a frequent traveller by sea with his fellow missionaries.
·         He was strong enough to get from shipwreck to shore by improvised means: “He [the centurion] ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely.
·         Places visited – as well as those listed above he passed through Samothrace, Assos, Mitylene, Chios, Samos, Rhodes, Patara, Myra, Malta, Syracuse, and Rhegium.
·         His location is Rome, when Luke ceases to reveal where he is present (Acts 28:16).

·         He was keen on church unity.
·         Luke, with the other missionaries, would seek Christian company on their travels, meeting up with both men and women. For example:
o   “We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days”
o   “we greeted the brothers and sisters“
o   “at Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us warmly”
o   “we found some brothers and sisters who invited us to spend a week with them”


He was willing to be part of the unusually class-defying socially-mixed world of Christian communities, from the wealthier circumstances of the house of a cloth dealer where a room could maybe pack in 120 people at a squeeze; to the not-wealthy densely populated urban setting of a third storey flat (the second floor to English readers) where a meeting could squeeze in maybe up to 40 people in a room so packed that people are sat on the window-sill.

·         Luke kept some Jewish observances and knew about the Jewish calendar:
o   “On the Sabbath we went… where we expected to find a place of prayer”
o   “by now it was after the Day of Atonement”
·         He also kept some Christian observances: “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread”.
·         He was keen on prayer: “on the beach we knelt to pray”.

·        As was normal writers of his times, Luke believed in the supernatural. He believed in receiving guidance from God: “we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
·         He presents himself as a witness to, or believer in, the supernatural:
o   “Paul had seen the vision”
o   “we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future”
o   “we… stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.”
o   “a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us… said, “The Holy Spirit says…”
o   “we came together to break bread… [the young man] fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!” Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate.

These are the things that Luke reveals most directly about himself. They go some way to telling us what kind of person he was, and what he saw in the early church. Enough has been said above to give a flavour of what Luke reveals autobiographically about himself.

Postscript: Luke is mentioned by name in these letters: Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; and Philemon 1:24 (setting aside for the moment discussion of who authored these). He may also be alluded to by 2 Corinthians 8:18 and 12:18.
He may also be in view as Lucius in Romans 16:21 (according to Origen’s reading of it). It is not known if this is the same person as Lucius of Cyrene who seems to appear in both Acts 11:19-20; 13:1.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

From Abraham and Sarah to French and Saunders: Comedy's Ethics

May I let you into a secret? I had a dream. I would be a stand-up comedian, clowning in the limelight, adored by audiences. Their laughter would ripple in waves down to the front row. Then, in front of real audiences, my eyes were opened and I was but a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.

I had no shame. I didn’t need the audience to laugh with me, so long as I could at least get them to laugh, even at me. That’ll do nicely. At one gig, my opening joke was met by a room of swelling silence. Quick as a flash in the pan, I quipped, “Okay it was a crap gag but you’ve got to start somewhere”. They loved it. Bolder again, I launched into my rehearsed routines. The laughter disappeared, as if in a puff of magic smoke, leaving me alone on stage.

I'd known the self-deprecating stuff went down well with audiences for some time. I had been in a double act where I loaded the script with self-mockery, only to see it being struck out when my comedy partner marked my drafts studiously. He said very seriously that if we invited people to think we’re rubbish, they would do. Who can you laugh at? What can you laugh at? The ethics of comedy start at home.

Laughter sets our sympathies on a roadmap. Laughter at those less fortunate than ourselves caused the great thinkers of old to spill much ink. Their questions abound. What do we think of someone who laughs at the tottering pensioner inching her paisley trolley to the corner shop? Is it safer to laugh at the drunk who can no longer remember how to act appropriately in front of a policeman? Who decides when it’s okay that something is seen to be funny? Are we embarrassed to laugh at those less fortunate? Why?

Embarrassment at our own laughter is nothing new. Take the father of the Jews, Abraham. Be careful who or what you laugh at, according to the Bible. God told Abraham that his elderly wife Sarah would bear a son, on hearing which “Abraham fell on his face and laughed”! She meanwhile said she didn’t laugh, and God more or less said, “Oh yes, you did!” God delivers the elderly couple a son like a punch-line. Abraham showed that he now knew better, choosing for the son a name that means “he laughs” (Isaac).

The art of humour is to direct laughter in fresh directions.

Life in some places, communist states for instance, while barely a laughing matter, does seem to produce some good jokes aimed at the powerful by the powerless, taking the ruling elite down a peg or two. Laughter is therapy for the powerless, especially when it’s forced underground. It is so potent that the powerful dread it. We all know this. Afraid of the bank manager? - consider him a fat man slipping on a banana skin. Laughter dictates that he won’t command the same fear anymore. Open your mouth to laugh and you’ll swallow a fresh perspective. Laughter is powerful, and derision difficult to recover from. The powerful worry about it, it impinges on their airbrushed image, their controlled PR machine, it upsets their propaganda and their pretensions. Money and power can’t inure them from its potency.

In 1980s Britain a new wave of comedians voiced the ethical concerns of their generation. The ‘alternative’ comedy agenda in the UK, purporting to be a non-sexist and non-racist brand, went off in search of new targets, everything from the children’s books of Enid Blyton to the Thatcher government, even aiming at its own audience when no jokes were to be found elsewhere. Comedians who were deemed sexist (Benny Hill) or racist (Bernard Manning) found that television didn’t want them any more.

In time the new wave of comics found themselves heckled by the ethical thinkers whose aspirations they had previously embodied. No-one judged Britain’s top female duo, French and Saunders, so harshly as feminists. The feminists took as betrayal the sight of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders lampooning women in the day of oppression. The more po-faced that the complaining feminists appeared, the less fashionable they seemed to become in the day of fun. Laughter brought the news with a potent clarity that some feminists seemed taken aback by.

Though the ethical fervour of 1980s comedy dimmed, it changed the comedy landscape, making way for different attitudes and targets, and even paved the way for the Dawn French comedy “The Vicar of Dibley” to publicise the Make Poverty History campaign in quite a serious way.

But we still find it easy to laugh at much the same things as we ever did. We know this because the ancient Greeks left their mark on the comedy landscape. The Greek philosophers were fascinated by the power of laughter. Aristotle famously observed that man is the only animal that laughs. Tickle a giraffe, or play a practical joke on a camel, if confirmation be needed.

The Greek philosophers, like the feminists, became quite worried about public laughter. It presents problems for anyone trying to construct an ideal civilisation.

When the populace was laughing instead of taking its leaders seriously the philosophers fretted. Instead of joining in the laughter, they got more serious. They, like the feminists, sought to legislate the problem by asserting moral authority. They recognised the problem that high spirits and mockery are a potent combination, as unwelcome to them as it is unwelcome to the teacher in the classroom.

Plato had a Platonic relationship with laughter - so far and no further. He was all for refined wit. It had a place in his ideal civilisation. The raucous laughter of the unschooled masses on the other hand did not. He considered unrestrained laughter an enemy of the state, as it could so easily undermine political correctness.

So the Greeks began to strip the object of study, laughter, down to its basic components and then to build it up again to new heights. What is laughter? What is it for? And ought we really to do something about it?

Aristotle took Plato’s ideas and colonised the ancient Greek theatre with them. Theatre up till then had been a happy place for the masses. Lots of crowd participation, lots of noise, frankly rude humour, and laughter at many a target. A bit like pantomime. The afflicted were often the butt of the joke. How the philosophers winced. Aristotle moved in. His influence matured humour into the art of rhetoric. Carefully scripted comedy was performed from a raised stage while the masses were expected to sit quietly and listen to the clever jokes. Nicomachean Ethics anyone?

The invective of much comedy shocked Aristotle. Comedy should not cause real pain to its targets, he taught. The butt of the joke should be able to enjoy it too, taught Plutarch. By all means ridicule faults and failings but don’t go beyond good taste. A bald man with a bent nose was in their sights for ridicule, a blind or deaf person was not. Consider what promotes civil unity, the philosophers insisted. Political correctness to you and me.

We have our own pretensions. Is civilisation itself a tottering statue at which laughter chips away? Is that a clue why we are embarrassed to be caught laughing at the vulnerable?

The classical dichotomy of the safe and the subversive was made concrete by two Latin writers, Horatius and Juvenal. Horatius wrote humorous Odes that suggested he saw the world as a benign but ridiculously funny place, a bit like a Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special. For Juvenal on the other hand, imperial Rome was a bitter experience to be torn apart by his comic teeth, to such a degree that you wonder if he didn’t enjoy life every much, a bit like the late chain-smoking Bill Hicks.

To this day, that classical split broadly persists in comedy. Which is more ethical? Sharp-edged satire that shows up the status quo as a down-and-out dressed in filthy rags? Or light entertainment that peace-loving citizens do not find disturbing? The unbalanced prophet or the well-mannered wit?

Ironically, in the wake of Aristotle, neither style won in the Greek theatres. Perhaps it was a case of ‘a plague on both your houses’. Ribald, carnival-like fun returned to town. Forget institutionalised ethics, pantomime was back. A new breed, the Mimes, had their finger on the comic pulse. The auteurs of their day, they burst onto the stage with a mission to entertain. Just what the philosophers dreaded.

Next time you are leafing through the TV guide for something to make you laugh, it might strike you that the debates of old are being played out today in the schedules, the safe and the subversive thoughtfully vying for place, only to lose out to the carnival of pantomime. Anyone for Big Brother?

This article was first published in

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Notes on Christian pacifism

This is a momentary departure from my usual blogging. Instead of writing about early church studies, I’m making a brief foray into a subject that greatly interests me – Christian pacifism. A few notes about history still have a place here, but obviously the subject matter also requires discussion of ethical questions with a Christian perspective. I don’t expect all Christians to agree with me here. But I hope this merits a hearing.
A few introductory words on ‘shalom-making’
Jesus had an interest in the things that make for peace at many levels; it is reported that he saw Jerusalem in danger, predicted its violent destruction by its enemies, and addressed the city, as if it were a person: ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace ...’ (Luke 20:42) This essay is a study in political reconciliation at the level of societies.
In Christ, in his mission which is currently put into effect in the ongoing inauguration of his eschatological kingdom,[1] we find the nature of peace-making. This is not something passive – it is ‘shalom-making’, as this essay calls it.[2]
In the first place, Christ rejects ‘both violence and passivity’.[3] He is ‘the bearer of a new possibility of human, social, and therefore political relationships.’[4] What kind of agenda might shalom-making have?
An agenda of the things that make for liberation, justice and peace.[5] But liberation from what? What does justice look like? What kind of peace? This short study cannot cover everything that people will have in mind. Of course, the first thing to say that as Christians, the gospel in the first place liberates ourselves from sin, and in so doing it is part of a process of liberating a fallen world from sin. This understanding underpins everything else we have to say. There is a temptation to put all the blame for the world somewhere else – to blame one particular economic system, or to blame ‘inequality’, and there may well be something to say about each of these things. But the Christian adds little value unless we start from thankfulness for God’s saving act in Jesus in liberating us from our own individual sin. Otherwise, we are a bit like someone with a plank in our own eye, telling the world to remove a speck from its own. We can’t put the world to rights by modelling fallen-ness, but we can make a start by modelling repentance from sin, and working out the values of the age to some.
Shalom-making must have some kind of vision of what this world is meant to be at its best, and some sense of how Christ is bringing his kingdom in. In this, I am going to strive to be unashamedly biblical. Perhaps this is something of a truism, but when Jesus returns, he will have the same understanding of the Bible that he had when he left. The Old Testament of course was his Bible, and the New Testament goes with it as evidence of the fullness of Christ’s revelation of the beauty, grace, truth and justice of God. Things that were wrong in the Old Testament don’t become right. But the way that God deals with sin, imperfection, unholiness and injustice does change from the Old Testament to the New Testament. How fallen-ness is dealt with in Jesus changes the way that we should see the world’s redemption from sin.
The church belongs at the forefront of shalom-making,[6] because it must model the kingdom age, as all things are being reconciled in Christ (Eph 1:10). There is something of the classic ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ to this problem. As ‘kingdom’ signifies the ingressing reign of God now, not a place far away,[7] nor entirely in the eschatological future,[8] there should be current experience of its restorative power, presenting more substance than a cessation of violence,[9] presenting a model of reconciliation, one that is characteristic of unity in Christ. A unity across ethnicity, status and gender is characteristic of this: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26-28).[10]
Hence, using the term ‘shalom-making’ signals more than the term ‘peace-making’ and that is why I use it here.
This essay explores a biblical basis for political peace-making and visits historic interventions that illustrate how the prayer for the kingdom to come can be realised, demonstrating possibilities of its ‘already’ which foreshadow its ‘not yet’. I will bear in mind that Christian have Christ-like self-limitations, lines that we don’t cross; and are also facing opposition from formidable forces presents challenges and opportunities in shalom-making.
Let’s look at some biblical sources for the kinds of principles that Christians should be holding to.
Biblical foundations: the beatitudes
In the beatitudes, Jesus expounds upon his blessing upon peace-makers, and he does this in terms of forsaking murderous anger and settling disputes, with an onus on the party at fault to take the initiative (Matt 5:9, 21-26). That is easily connected to, but distinct from, his blessing on the merciful. Note the different emphasis here. He expounds being merciful in terms of turning the other cheek and loving enemies, with an onus on the victim to stem the exchange of aggression and return love (5:7, 38-48).[11]
So in peace-making the onus is on the party at fault to forsake murderous instincts and settle disputes, but Jesus also puts an onus on the victim to stem the exchange of aggression and return love. The model is here to avoid cycles of violence.
Therefore, while being merciful is characterised by the persecuted church’s non-retaliation as a church, peace-making goes wider. It complements the church’s model or mercy with things being made right in relationships.[12]
Biblical foundations: shalom-making and Jubilee
The Bible has more to say to help us be principled about shalom-making.
Shalom is good news for the poor, not least in material well-being and justice. For the prophets, shalom ‘defines how things should be... there could be no shalom if things were not as they ought to be.’[13] It challenges structures: it would not do, say, to benefit from unfair trade with no sense of a need for redress:[14] ‘Sin affects the structures of the world, and we oppose sin in all its manifestations, including our own complicity in what is wrong.’[15] Shalom-making cannot obviate ‘dismantling the structures of oppression’ in the present.[16]
Jesus’ reading of Isaiah 61 indicates an immediate expectation of fairer structures in society, proclaiming the fulfilment of the shalom-making Jubilee.[17] This invokes the ‘radical socio-economic programme’ which involves prisoner release and the ‘redistribution of wealth and assets’ (Luke 4:17-21).[18] It meant ‘everyone returned to their own plot of land and houses and were able again to sit under their vines and fig-trees in shalom.’[19] Realising this kingdom, Jesus’ followers practiced a Jubilee lifestyle:[20] ‘the primary social structure through which the gospel works to change other structures is that of the Christian community.’[21] Significantly, Jesus omits from his reading Isaiah’s verses on vengeance and promotes reconciling love for Israel’s enemies, indicating a Jubilee for friend and foe.[22]
Biblical foundations: Proverbs and justice
We are not yet finished with what the Bible has to say to help us with shalom-making. In a book that starts with “In the beginning God…”, how could we be?
Proverbs helps shape a shalom framework, including: advocacy on behalf of the oppressed (31:8-9); charity (19:17); and direct action (24:11-12).[23] There is a nuanced position to be had: while a ‘passer-by’ who meddles in others’ quarrels is frowned upon (26:17), so-called neutrality or abstention of third parties in the face of injustice could not be condoned as it conveniences the strong in the oppression of the weak (21:13; see also Isa 58:6, 59:15-16). There are many times therefore where Christians in good conscience will stand up to the power of the state, and challenge the direction it is taking society, be it in advocacy, charity or some kind of peaceful direct action.
In light of these verses, Christians are bound to wonder what is on God’s heart when faced with realities such as that, in Great Britain today, abortion is the chosen end for a million pregnancies every five years. A million. Or 200,000 a year if you prefer. Other examples could be cited.
The political dimension
Politics is not to be narrowly construed as the prerogative of political parties but encompasses public governance.[24] In the fact of God’s reign, the gospel is unavoidably political,[25] and signifies a clash of kingdoms.[26] A Christian critique of “Caesar’s” management of God’s world will happen wittingly or unwittingly. What I mean by that is this. Simply living by the values of the beatitudes is not politically neutral, especially with its good favour towards enemies and the poor. Simply running a church foodbank is unavoidably raising the question of why the poor have no food. Heralding a Jubilee kingdom that is good news for the poor implies that something else has been bad news for them, and an act of redress is implicitly a challenge to that. It can provoke hostility from the powers critiqued, if it points to another regime.[27] Those powers may be many and various, from commerce-led debt spirals that illustrate the powerful encouraging irresponsible lending and borrowing; or for all kinds of reasons individuals being trapped in lives that impoverish themselves; and all the way up to government policies that neglect justice for the vulnerable. Liberation can act at all these levels.
Peace-making faces a great challenge in this clash of kingdoms, in which the rule of Christ is contested.[28] The ‘whole world’ (here taken to reference structures and systems) ‘is under the control of the evil one’ (1 John 5:19). But this scripture is not meant to be a white flag of surrender. The ‘world’ inhibits shalom-making, but not so easily where the reign of Christ is breaking in upon the ‘world’.
Let’s go in a direction of particular interest to this study. Since all power in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus (Matt 28:18, Heb 2:8), the nation state is subordinated to him, and it is not for it to overwhelm the people with its power.[29] If his kingdom is ‘the authority of God achieving God’s will on earth as it is in heaven by the release of power through his people’,[30] then the church is God’s vehicle for inaugurating it, in part fulfilment of Jesus’ kingdom prayer. It is therefore necessary to have Christian peace-makers who know a methodology consistent with Christ’s kingdom, forsaking ‘worldly-wise’ tactics in the contesting of kingdoms: manipulation, coercion, duplicity.[31] This self-limitation needs to be firmly understood by practitioners, since contrasting voices that also work for peace unfortunately advocate coercive tactics that have more to do with ‘the control of the evil one’ than the ethos of the beatitudes.[32]
Although there are many areas in the present world that need shalom, this study will now look at struggles of past centuries, because they can tell us a lot.
Three positions that purport to Christian peace
Post-reformation, there has not been unanimity on methods and scope for realising Christian peace, but a missiological evolution has occurred. Three broad positions that lay claim to Christian peace emerge: isolation from the world, non-violent intervention in the world, and violent intervention.
There are many positive things to say about the Anabaptists. But with a pessimistic isolationist worldview, some sixteenth century Anabaptists ordered only their own religious community;[33] and some isolationists may even tolerate collapse in the external social order[34], awaiting the eschatological solution when Christ returns.[35] As such these isolanist attitudes fall outside the scope of this study in political reconciliation.[36] Jesus engaged vocally with political forces of his day.[37] Not least, he tackled teachings that were contrary to the spirit of Jubilee.[38] He could hardly be seeking for his followers to do less.[39] A role of conscience, in holding governments to account to deal with people and issues justly, rather than one of silence or acquiescence to injustice, falls to the church. With positive interventions that eschew violence, Christians have advanced political reconciliation. Historic interventions include: offering public critique against military conscription;[40] promoting ‘the desirability of international peace’ and ‘the establishment of an embryo league of nations to maintain peace’;[41] using public authority to make neighbourly peace between the state and its enemies, as Penn promoted between Quakers and Indians in Pennsylvania; [42]  non-violent direct action and civil disobedience, for example against race discrimination;[43] campaigning for non-violent alternatives to war, and mediation for conflict resolution;[44] campaigns against colonialism and warnings against the dangers of clashing imperialisms and capitalism;[45] development of thought on restructuring society,[46] as a conscience within society;[47] and working for social and racial reconciliation, notably by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the guidance of Archbishop Tutu, a non-violent liberationist, which propelled reconciliation work to the forefront of world politics,[48] prompting suggestions of an analogous process in an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.[49]
A missiological evolution has occurred, such that, in the example of Quakers, conscientious objection has taken onboard ‘politicization’, with efforts to discover and remove causes of international and social conflict.[50] In aspiring to shalom-making, foundations of justice must be built, and this cannot be realised on the individual level alone, but by challenging those who foster unjust structures, for the transformation of the system and its operators,[51] advising governments of their accountability before God,[52] and the requirement on them for justice.[53]
Finally, notwithstanding the view that peace won through violence 'has little to do with the peace Jesus offers’,[54] there are Christians who would take up the sword with government to protect one’s neighbour from aggressors; while others will go further with the sword to remove the tyrant.[55] It would, however, be difficult to presume to know when a tyrant is bad enough to be disqualified.[56] I assent to the view that the conduct of followers of Jesus excludes the extremes of isolationism and violence (Matt 5:38-48); and tactical non-violent acts can contribute to shalom, valid tools for political reconciliation.[57] This is not, however, to prescribe to states that they must always be non-violent, as God’s prerogative in how he uses states to repress evil may sometimes differ from that.
Nationalism and international peace-making
Nationalism sits uneasily with the church,[58] and many Christians resist calls upon themselves to display it.[59] Jesus did not take up the national flag to rout the Romans from Israel, which would have fostered ethnocentrism.[60] His intended church cannot be divided along racial or political boundaries. Albeit a nation purports to be ‘Christian’,[61] his followers belong to the new creation, with his non-nationalistic reign over it,[62] testimony to the reconciliatory nature of his kingdom.[63] His successful assimilation of a radical nationalist and a collaborative tax-collector in his core group is illustrative.
However, the leap from non-nationalistic shalom to international peace-making is complex. The risks increase with, not least, the numbers of aggressive participants, and ‘a peace strategy of any type will be constrained by the willingness of the conflicting parties to play their part.’[64] The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, is ‘a clash of two national movements’ with many fraught questions in any settlement process.[65]
Anti-war protesting
The sixteenth century Swiss Brethren held that, with their non-involvement, and ‘outside the perfection of Christ’, the magistrate’s sword could be used by God to punish the wicked and protect the good in wider society.[66] A corresponding principle may apply in international justice: God may use governments’ proclivity for violence, to wage war against evil.[67] That is, God is to a degree ordering these governments, albeit not instituting them.[68] Non-violence is not necessarily a divine instruction to governments, but to disciples (Rom 13), and Christians need to exercise caution if presuming to know that God does not intend such and such a military conflict to take place; they should not claim anti-war protests in general as divinely sanctioned ministry; any arguments for such protests stand on other grounds, probably shared with others who are not Christians; on such grounds, it is legitimate to query the governance of warmongers, and ask them what preferable alternatives have been explored.[69]
In contrast to the above, the third century theologian Origen describes Christians taking sides in war, not physically, but through prayer (not just for overcoming physical powers in war, but also in spiritual warfare overcoming non-corporeal powers as causes of wars)[70] on the basis that a judgement has been made that “Caesar’s” campaign is justified.[71] However, the difficulty in claiming divine legitimacy for a war is illustrated in self-proclaimed Christians on both sides doing so.[72] Jesus, in taking on the spiritual powers behind Rome’s power and wealth, sought followers who turn from their agendas to his, risking ‘political danger’.[73] Prayer can be in unity across borders, for good of friends and foes, for the defeat of evil and the making of societies of shalom. We can view Paul’s desire for prayer for governments in this light (1 Tim 2:1-2). The problems of taking sides in prayer or otherwise may sometimes be more difficult, sometimes less so.
Peace-making in the ‘already’ and ‘not yet’
Christians must be aware of the causes of conflict explored in James’ perspective on peace-making. James 3:13-4:10 asks the direct question of what causes wars. His analysis ‘links envy and social unrest’, a consequence of finding identity in outdoing others in property,[74] in fear of insufficiency of resource to go around. His answer, in light of divine provision, is to ‘sow peace’. Albeit, according to Jesus, there is not always good soil to sow into, and there will be birds of the air that steal what is sown, the faithful will continue to sow seeds generously.[75] James visualises liberating people not only from oppression, but from inculcation into the values which oppress them.[76] This is the personal transformation that makes peace-makers.
This is the ‘not-yet’ era in which the church can model reconciling alternatives of the age to come:[77] ‘The non-violent messianic community penetrates the social order in its own fashion.’[78] It is the work of an activist God in Jesus,[79] who shares in the suffering of the world.[80] His cross disempowers spiritual powers that stand behind oppressive structures, such as the money-god identified as “mammon”, with Jesus’ cross doing this in preparation for his church to minister.[81] This church’s ministry here needs to be clear in minds. It is not a call to replace violence with other forms of manipulation or bullying, but to be a transforming witness to it, following his sacrificial example.[82]
A hypothetical question rears its head here. In a state where the vast majority of the populace are disciples of Jesus, how should their government, mainly comprised of Christians, fulfil the state’s role of repressing the wicked? I do not purport to present an answer to that here. There are difficulties. In the ancient biblical kingdom of Israel, where both priests and kings acknowledged the authority of God, the separation of powers between priests and kings is informative, but is that relationship meant to be a model for the church and the state? Or at least, what lessons can be learned from it?
What can modern history teach us? In mediaeval Europe, the Catholic church was powerful but so were princes, and to an extent each kept the other in check. After the Reformation, a change was afoot in the rise of Protestant theocracies in some parts of Europe instead – and without such a tension to hold back excess - and it cannot be said that these theocracies showed some Protestant churches in their best possible light. What lessons can be learned from that? Was the mediaeval tension between the Catholic church and princes a safer bet for a fallen world? The modern state is overwhelmingly secular in the United Kingdom and the tension between church and church does too little to hold back the excesses of the state. Secular humanism is not a neutral space of course. It does not acknowledge the authority of God, and its powerful purveyors do not regard themselves as accountable to God or potentially subject to divine judgement. In such a situation, the risk is all the greater that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The risk is higher that the secular state lacks healthy boundaries and plays God, dictating to everyone and everything what to think, what to value, how to live in every sphere of life. In this situation, speaking truth to power is ever more important, and the church must not vacate the public space. For its freedoms, for its own good and the good of society, there is no healthy alternative.
And could the values of the beatitudes still prevail in a church-state that represents a hypothetical country of Christian disciples? For the moment, these remain hypothetical questions.
However, there are dangerous and violent powers in the world today, and the tension between church and state can play a helpful role. It is apposite that ‘the church injects values of God’s kingdom into the public square and improves the climate for them.’[83] The kingdom for which Jesus sought prayer does not assert tyranny;[84] but plays a role “to live the reconciling life of beatitude, in which blessings of the age are prefigured in this world.’[85] Historic interventions for shalom-making and reconciliation light the way; but until the day when all tears will be turned to joy, the lion lies with the lamb, and swords are beaten into ploughshares, this marks a line which shalom-making walks.

[1] Perry Yoder, Shalom (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1987), 144.
[2] Ibid., 114.
[3] Donald B. Kraybill, The Upside-down Kingdom (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2011), 185.
[4] John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), 63.
[5] Yoder, Shalom, 146.
[6] David H. McIlroy, A Trinitarian theology of law: In Conversation with Jurgen Moltmann, Oliver O’Donovan and Thomas Aquinas (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009), 238.
[7] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 35.
[8] Kim Tan, The Jubilee Gospel: The Jubilee, Spirit and the Church (Milton Keynes: Authentic, 2008), 93.
[9] McIlroy, Law, 56.
[10] Notably, apart from Jesus’ use in Matthew 5:24, Paul alone in the New Testament uses words translated as ‘reconcile’, and not often.
[11] Roger Forster, The Kingdom of Jesus (Carlisle: Authentic Lifestyle, 2002), 79.
[12] Kraybill, Upside-down, 192.
[13] Yoder, Shalom, 10-17.
[14] Ibid., 115.
[15] Clark H. Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1996), 146.
[16] Yoder, Shalom, 23.
[17] Bosch, Transforming, 118.
[18] Tan, Jubilee, 3, 16, 26.
[19] Ibid., 67.
[20] Ibid., 93.
[21] Yoder, Politics, 157.
[22] Bosch, Transforming, 110-111.
[23] Yoder, Shalom, 141.
[24] Alan Storkey, Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 10.
[25] Bosch, Transforming, 33.
[26] Nicholas T. Wright and Marcus J. Borg, The meaning of Jesus: Two visions (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1999), 219.
[27] Yoder, Politics, 39. See also Kraybill, Upside-down, 55; and Heidi Baker with Shara Pradhan, Compelled by Love (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2008), 128-130.
[28] McIlroy, Law, 58.
[29] Storkey, Jesus, 127.
[30] Forster, Kingdom, 25.
[31] Yoder, Politics, 158.
[32] Klug contemplates the use of the superpowers in ‘coercive methods’. Tony Klug, Visions of the Endgame: A strategy to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict swiftly to an end (London: Fabian Society, 2009), 4.
[33] Peter Brock, A Brief History of Pacifism from Jesus to Tolstoy (Toronto: Syracuse University Press, 1992), 20.
[34] Bosch, Transforming, 401.
[35] Ibid., 318.
[36] For a summary of isolationist positions, see Brock, Pacifism, 20, 23, 28, 31, 64.
[37] Storkey, Jesus, 38.
[38] Ibid., 188.
[39] Tan, Jubilee, 75, 88.
[40] Brock, Pacifism, 15.
[41] Ibid., 42-43.
[42] Ibid., 44.
[43] Ibid., 70-71.
[44] Ibid., 39, 56.
[45] Ibid., 57, 61.
[46] Ibid., 75.
[47] Yoder, Politics, 158.
[48] Bosch, Transforming, 434, 438.
[49] Klug, Endgame, 26.
[50] Brock, Pacifism, 62.
[51] Yoder, Shalom, 114.
[52] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 1989), 139.
[53] Yoder, Shalom, 103.
[54] Bosch, Transforming, 119.
[55] Gerald J. Mast and J. Denny Weaver, Defenseless Christianity (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2009), 57-58.
[56] Yoder, Politics, 202.
[57] Yoder, Shalom, 145.
[58] Mast and Weaver, Defenseless, 25.
[59] Kraybill, Upside-down, 187.
[60] Ibid., 198.
[61] Mast and Weaver, Defenseless, 101.
[62] Storkey, Jesus, 199.
[63] Ibid., 157.
[64] Klug, Visions, 27-29.
[65] Ibid., 6, 25-26.
[66] Brock, Pacifism, 19.
[67] Yoder, Shalom, 139.
[68] Yoder, Politics, 199-213.
[69] Gregory Boyd, “What I – a Pacifist – Would say to Obama About the Crisis In Syria”
(6 September 2013).
[70] Origen, Untitled. DECB, p. 680.
[71] Brock, Pacifism, 12.
[72] Kraybill, Upside-down, 187.
[73] Wright and Borg, Meaning, 36, 38, 48.
[74] Luke T. Johnson, The Living Gospel (London: Continuum, 2004), 84.
[75] Baker with Pradhan, Compelled, 112-114.
[76] Yoder, Shalom, 145.
[77] Dave and Neta Jackson, Living together in a World falling apart: a handbook on Christian community (Carol Stream, IL: Creation House, 1974), 273-274.
[78] Pinnock, Flame, 146-147.
[79] Mast and Weaver, Defenseless, 99.
[80] Wright and Borg, Meaning, 224.
[81] Newbigin, Gospel, 203.
[82] Yoder, Politics, 242, 248.
[83] Pinnock, Flame, 146.
[84] McIlroy, Law, 82.
[85] Pinnock, Flame, 143.
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Internet article
Boyd, Gregory. “What I – a Pacifist – Would say to Obama About the Crisis In Syria.” No pages.           
<> (6 September 2013).