I believe that thought experiments and hypothetical situations are fantastic ways to soften our hearts and show us glaring holes in our belief systems. This is what Samuel essentially did to David when he confronted him about Bathsheba in what is perhaps one of the most powerful displays of such a method used in the Bible. So, I'd like to begin by presenting you with a hypothetical situation that rocked my world for many years.
Imagine, as in the M.A.S.H. clip below, that you are on a bus full of people trying to escape imminent death from persecutors. Your bus pulls off to the side of the road and into some thicket to avoid an incoming enemy patrol. As the patrol nears, your young child begins to scream. What do you do? Do you allow your child to scream so that the fifty lives on the bus are all lost, or do you smother your child so that only one life is lost? Fifty or one? What's the right answer?
John Howard Yoder was the first person who helped me discover that this question wasn't really a difficult one to answer at all. You don't kill the baby. Not for one life, not for fifty lives, and not for a million. The means of taking a life into your own hands for the end of preserving life is wrong. Yoder's book "The Politics of Jesus" changed my life. Yoder helped me to see some glaring blindsponts I had picked up from my experience as a Western Christian. While I sat back and criticized other Christian cultures for being syncretists, it never crossed my mind that I had myself infused non-Christian cultural values into my Christianity. While I could go into a hundred different, profound quotes from Yoder, I think the following quote sums the idea that has been the catalyst to the transformation of some of my syncretistic beliefs.
One way to characterize thinking about social ethics in our time is to say that Christians in our age are obsessed with the meaning and direction of history. Social ethical concern is moved by a deep desire to make things move in the right direction. Whether a given action is right or not seems to be inseparable from the question of what effects it will cause. Thus part if not all of social concern has to do with looking for the right 'handle' by which one can 'get a hold of' the course of history and move it in the right direction. For the movement called Moral Rearmament, ideology was this handle; 'ideas have legs,' so that if we can get a contagious new thought moving, it will make its own way. For others, it is the process of education that ultimately determines the character and course of the civilization; whoever rules the teachers' colleges rules the world...
Whichever the favored 'handle' may be, the structure of this approach is logically the same. One seeks to lift up one focal point in the midst of the course of human relations, one thread of meaning and causality which is more important than the individual persons, their lives and well-being, because it in itself determines wherein their well-being consists. Therefore it is justified to sacrifice to this one 'cause' other subordinate values, including the life and welfare of one's self, one's neighbor, and (of course!) the enemy. We pull this one strategic thread in order to save the whole fabric. We can see this kind of reasoning with Constantine saving the Roman Empire, with Luther saving the Reformation by making an alliance with the princes, or with Khrushchev and his successors saving Marxism by making it somewhat more capitalistic, or with the United States saving democracy by alliances with military dictatorships and by the threatened use of the bomb...is there not in Christ's teaching on meekness, or in the attitude of Jesus toward power and servanthood, a deeper question being raised about whether it is our business at all to guide our action by the course we wish history to take?
I know that Christians are thinking right now that I'm crazy. Of course you know this. Maybe you do. But I really think we struggle with this truth as Western Christians. Here's the problem we have - we have become "ends" Christians rather than "means" Christians. We Americans are so efficiency minded and goal oriented that we have made Christianity an attempt to accomplish the end of bringing about our vision of what God's Kingdom should be without using the means that he prescribed. But isn't this very thing the root of so much evil in the BIble? Subverting God's means to accomplish what we believe the ends should be?
Adam and Eve ate of the Apple because they didn't trust God's means. Cain killed Abel because he was jealous that Abel was favored for following the means that God had prescribed in sacrifice, whereas Cain did not. Abraham, attempted to accomplish God's end by his own means, caused so much harm by lying about Sarah, his wife, and mistreating his maid. Moses struck a rock instead of speaking to it and didn't see the Promised Land. Saul offered sacrifices without waiting for Samuel as was prescribed. Israel sought the military alliance of Egypt instead of relying solely on God. And Peter attempted to keep Christ from the cross twice by tempting him to avoid the cup of suffering and take up the sword. Nearly all of these individuals could have rationalized their actions. Adam wanted to be like God. Cain wanted his sacrifice to be as good to God as Abel's. Abraham was merely trying to preserve his life and have a child so God wouldn't be found a liar. Moses was frustrated with a belligerent people for not following God. Israel wanted to preserve itself. Peter wanted to protect the Messiah. Yet these actions were all evil and God punished the evil. At the same time the Bible is filled with stories of those who desired God's ends, yet submitted to his prescribed means that, from a human standpoint, appeared to be antithetical to accomplishing God's ends. Noah built an ark. Moses lifted up his rod. David threw off his armor and took only a sling. Daniel prayed. Samson grew out his hair. Gideon took torches and clay jars to a battle against overwhelming forces. Jesus - God himself - laid his life down and died at the hands of his enemies.
Yoder's quote, then, should strike a nerve in us as Western Christians. Actually, from the Bible's vantage point, it should strike a nerve in us if we're human. It is human nature to subvert the means that God gives us in order to accomplish the end we think God deserves. And what are the ends that Christians are fighting for today? The abolition of abortion, racial equality, the upholding of family values, religious freedom, economic freedom, etc. Most of the ends we are fighting for are very good things. In fact, when God establishes his perfect Kingdom we know that it will be an absolutely free, wonderful, moral place. Christians are by and large fighting for ideas that on paper are wonderful ends. But I'm afraid we've largely thrown off the means of God.
Paul's famous chapter on love, I Corinthians 13, falls smack in the middle of two chapters that deal with the use of our spiritual gifts. I don't think that placement is happenstance or irony. You want to speak in tongues, evangelize, prophecy, teach, etc? You want to accomplish ends for God? That's fantastic. Working hard for God by using the gifts and talents he has given you is great. But centered in these chapters that tell us all about how God has gifted us to bring about his ends is the passage on love. Paul tells us that no matter what we do, if it does not have love at the core, it is worthless. We can offer what we believe to be the sweetest aroma in the world up to God, just like the Pharisees, but if there is no love, it smells repugnant to God.
So what does it mean to be a "means" Christian instead of an "ends" Christian? Yoder has a lot to say about that and I would strongly encourage you to check out his book. If you don't have time for that, check out my summary of his biggest ideas. But essentially, Yoder would tell you that being a means Christian is examining our lives and checking it against the prescriptions of Christ's life. Are we taking brothers and sisters to court or are we eating the loss and forgiving for the sake of Christ's name and our brother's soul? Are we vengeful or are we turning the other cheek? Are we spending our time investing in those on the fringes of society or are we investing in those like us and those who advance our causes? Are we taking up our cross against entrenched and corrupted institutions (religious, political, national, business, etc) even though it costs us social and political capital? Are we trusting God's means of humility, service, and love over the means of acquiring power and coercive forces?
Yoder tells us that the best way to examine our lives to see if we are clinging to God's means over ours is to check for persecution. If nobody reviles you - if there's nobody in your life you would call your enemy, you likely aren't pressing the buttons of society very hard using God's means. This hatred likely won't come from the place you think either. The sinners loved Jesus. It was the zealots whose nationalistic dreams were crushed who ended up despising Christ for failing to bring the Kingdom their way. It was the religious leaders whose power structure and tradition were upended who took Christ to court. It was the Roman government who could afford to let a violent zealot like Barabbas go but had to crucify the peaceful lamb to maintain order in the region. Do you want to know if you're using the means of God? Ask yourself if you have enemies, and if those enemies are sitting in the seats of power of our day. God's means of love upend powerful businesses that exploit others. They undercut the political leaders who are self-serving and indulgent. They trample over empty religion that fails to help the widow and orphan. And that just makes powerful people angry. But that's ok. Our hope is not in working the levers of society, but in the gospel of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.
This Gospel concept of the cross of the Christian does not mean that suffering is thought of as in itself redemptive or that martyrdom is a value to be sought after. Nor does it refer uniquely to being persecuted for 'religious' reasons by an outspokenly pagan government. What Jesus refers to in his call to cross-bearing is rather the seeming defeat of that strategy of obedience which is no strategy, the inevitable suffering of those whose only goal is to be faithful to that love which puts one at the mercy of one's neighbor, which abandons claims to justice for oneself and for one's own in an overriding concern for the reconciling of the adversary and the estranged...
Whether Jesus be the Christ or not, whether Jesus the Christ be Lord or not, whether this kind of religious language be meaningful or not, most types of ethical approach will keep on functioning just the same... The cross is not a recipe for resurrection. Suffering is not a tool to make people come around, nor a good in itself. But the kind of faithfulness that is willing to accept evident defeat rather than complicity with evil is, by virtue of its conformity with what happens to God when he works among us, aligned with the ultimate triumph of the Lamb.
The vision of ultimate good being determined by faithfulness and not by results is the point where we moderns get off. We confuse the kind of 'triumph of the good,' whose sole guarantee is the resurrection and the promise of the eternal glory of the Lamb, which an immediately accessible triumph which can be manipulated, just past the next social action campaign, by getting hold of society as a whole at the top. What in the Middle Ages was done by Roman Christianity or Islam is now being attempted by Marxism and by democratic nationalism. In spite of all the difference in language, and in the detailed vision of just what a good society would look like (and as a matter of fact even the visions are not that different), the real uniqueness of each of these positions is only that it identifies differently the particular moral elite which it holds to be worthy of guiding its society from the top. We may well prefer a democratically controlled oligarchy to some other kind. We may well have a choice between Marxist and Islamic and other statements of the vision of the good society. But what our contemporaries find themselves practically incapable of challenging is that the social problem can be solved by determining which aristocrats are morally justified, by virtue of their better ideology, to use the power of society from the top so as to lead the whole system in their direction.
Once a desirable course of history has been labeled, once we know what the right cause is, then it is further assumed that we should be willing to sacrifice for it; sacrifice not only to our own values but also those of the neighbor and especially the enemy. In other words, the achievement of the good cause, the implementation in history of the changes we have determined to be desirable, creates a new autonomous ethical value, 'relevance' itself a good in the name of which evil may be done.
I believe that most Christians don't need any commentary on the symptoms we've seen displayed time and time again - Charlottesville just being one more festering wound. We know evil when we see it to this depth. But what Christians do need is commentary on what means we should pursue to resolve this gaping wound in our nation that just grows bigger and bigger, often exacerbated by the means we choose and the powers we coddle for change. Some Christians woke up the day after the events and began immediately pursuing political means. Republicans have been out in force defending President Trump in his weak condemnation of the Charlottesville events, defending the American freedom to protest no matter who you are, etc. They're bolstering their ends that the Republican platform brings them: religious freedom, lower socialization of systems, and more restrictions on abortion. To show weakness and lose the power of the platform is to be anti-Christian. Aren't these ideals the things that most glorify God? Isn't it better to prop up the party that brings about God's ends than join arms in solidarity and show weakness?At the same time, Christians who are Democrats came out in force berating Republicans for creating such a hostile climate that could culminate in Charlottesville, discussing restricted freedoms of protest and firearms, how to pursue impeachment, and who to run for the presidency in 2020. They too want to ensure that Charlottesville is used as a powerful catalyst to prop up their political party.
Regardless of which side of the aisle you're on, if you're a Christian, different aisles are the wrong place to be. Christians who believe that the gospel is about Christ's Kingdom come should believe that the true seat of power in this world is the Church. The Church is the hands and feet of Christ in the world. God brings about change through his Church, Christ's very presence in this world. Jesus calls his Church to serve, love, and sacrifice as the means through which his end and glory is brought about. Taking up our cross is quite different than crucifying the opposition. And while taking up our cross may be a foolish means, it is God's means. We see in the Bible that women in the church were told to keep their heads covered for the benefit of others in their culture, though they knew that freedom in Christ meant that they weren't below men. That's likely why they started taking their headcoverings off and bucking the cultural norm in the first place - because they recognized their dignity and position in Christ. Slaves in the church were told to remain in servitude and work hard for their masters, even though the gospel told them they were free men who could be leaders in the church and who were just as valuable as their masters. That's likely why Onesimus ran to Paul, as he sought his freedom and dignity under Christ. Slaveholders in the church were told to love their slaves like brothers, even though doing so would mean that their financial property and investment could no longer be treated as such. If a slave was your brother, how could he remain your slave? That's likely why the institution of slavery largely disappeared in the Roman empire as Christianity spread. A group of people who love, serve, and self-sacrifice even though they know they are sons of God is the only group that can change the world, though it may require us to die before we can experience the resurrection and new life.
Right now, Christians on all sides of theological and political debates are deciding how to garner the attention of all the powerful institutions in the nation. Christians are talking about the presidency, congressional elections, supreme court justice appointments, lobbying, corporate sponsorships, advertising companies banning the speech of certain groups, gun control, dehumanizing the evil white supremacists who are made in the image of God, dehumanizing Antifa proponents who are made in the image of God, deflecting the issue by bringing up peripheral sentiments as if they negate the problem at hand (e.g. "white lives matter too"), and the list goes on. The assertion of coercion and power - these things are the wisdom of the world. They are mechanisms at which we grasp in an attempt to guide history towards a certain end of our own liking, an end we often attribute as God's own end. And while some of these actions and pursuits may not be evil in and of themselves, when they are a subversion of the means that God has not only given us, but demonstrated for us, they are a forsaking of our God and his transformation in our lives.
So what are we to do, Christians - little Christs? Let's live up to our name. Let's be the church. Be his body. Be the foolishness of this world so that when lives are changed, beginning with our own, the end that we so loudly claim to pursue - God's glory - will undoubtedly be brought about. For who could accomplish anything through such foolish means but God? Martin Luther King Jr., one of the greatest activists in the last century, believed that God worked through such foolishness when he said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." King, imperfect as he and all humans are, not only changed the societal landscape, he imaged Christ to the world. So we don't like what happened in Charlottesville? Let's pray for the lives and souls of the injured as well as the lives and souls of those who injure. Is our God so weak that he can heal only the bones and not penetrate the hateful heart? Let's keep our mouths closed in our defense or our party's defense and mourn for what has happened. Let's move beyond Charlottesville and love beyond this one event. Let's drive a little farther to a church of those who aren't like us racially or economically. Let's use our free time to tutor the underprivileged. Let's get to know someone from the other side of the political aisle and chat with them over a coffee we purchase. No more coercion. No more vitriol. No more attempting to shout louder than the opposition. No more grasping at control - at the levers of power in this world. When you are carrying your cross, your hands aren't free to grasp at anything else. Let compassion, sorrow, and forgiveness be our first emotion when looking on people who are filled with hate. Let's mourn. Let's serve. Let's love. Let's cling to the power of the body of Christ.
Right now, most of us measure our lives by how well we avoid persecution, how well we forcefully impose our sense of morality on others, and how well we accrue comfort and wealth. I have to ask whether we're using the appropriate metric. The metric of Christ not only indicates that our current measures are wrong, but also that we are a long way from the metric of Calvary. We allow Christ to bear his cross and relish in this thought, while refusing to bear our own. We are like the disciples when they knew only crucifixion without the promise of resurrection. We scatter in the face of hardship, scared that our fate may be like our crucified savior's. We are not like the disciples who knew and had truly seen the risen Christ - fearlessly living under their sovereign king and obedient to him alone, even when his decrees seemed foolish and lead to a torturous end.
While the world stands in need of those willing to die to self, willing to love all people actually and unconditionally, we Christians all too often seem content to let Jesus do the dying alone, as we grasp at the very powers Jesus pushed aside - the very powers that killed him. We allow our savior who was sacrificed once for all to die over and over again as the only example of love we're willing to share with others, an ethic that we are unwilling to exemplify. We are all too often not disciples, but freeloaders. We've counted the cost of discipleship and found it too rich for our blood, yet suitable for God's own. We maintain the power politicized moralism grants to us and live our lives as self-proclaimed demigods rather than servants, decreeing ourselves as the righteous while we condemn those unlike us. We refuse to even consider dying the daily death of sacrifice. For the sake of our agenda we forsake all others, while a savior asks us to make him Lord and change the world by forsaking ourselves. Let's remember where true power comes from and what true power looks like.