INTERPRETING JESUS FOR POLITICS AND WAR
PRIESTS AND KINGS
In an earlier article we noted that the lens through which one views the text limits what one can see in the Biblical text. If we make the cross our lens for looking at history, the cross event informs the past, the present, and even the future so that we can see the whole, though not in detail or perfectly in focus. The experience of our life in the Spirit and the experience of the church on its journey will continue to bring focus and clarity to what is already there.
In ancient empires, the king was often worshipped along with the gods. Before Saul and David, God was king in Israel, and therefore the King was to be worshipped. With the establishment of monarchy in Israel, there came a schizophrenic breach within the social order between Divine authority and human authority. King and prophet were frequently at odds, each declaring their own authority as God’s representative.
The breach appeared immediately in King Saul’s relationship with Samuel. In 1 Samuel 13 the question arose as to whether the king had the right to offer sacrifice? Samuel said, “No!” A king, whose duty was war, could not function in the role of a priest. How much of this conflict was personal and how much was principle is sometimes hard to say, but the issue reflected Moses’ teaching in Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy 17 as I discussed in the earlier article on “Moses and Just War.” Samuel viewed the current crisis through the lens of Moses’ teaching. That would be one reason Samuel objected to Saul’s sacrifice, and is also why a generation later the prophet Nathan forbid David from building God’s house (2 Samuel 7). The issue arose again in the 8th century when King Uzziah tried to offer incense on the sacred altar. He immediately broke out with leprosy.
Jesus was uniquely qualified for both the offices of priest and of king. Jesus peacefully rode a donkey into Jerusalem and demonstrated the effectiveness of his unique authority without the expected bloodbath that normally births revolution. Birth of a child involves blood, as does the birth of an empire. With his own blood, Jesus united both the offices of priest and king into one. The priest/king must not conduct warfare.
If the priest/king cannot take life, then this challenges most interpretations of Revelation. If Jesus’ first coming reveals the essential nature of his government, then his second coming will confirm the same pattern. Bloodshed, there will be, but the bloodshed will not be acted or ordered by Jesus. The pattern of judgment was set in AD 70 when Jesus’ prediction for the destruction of Jerusalem was executed by Rome, not by Jesus. The killing of Jesus’ enemies is invariably done by Jesus’ enemies or from acts of nature. When we see the catastrophic acts of nature against humanity in Revelation, the best explanation is that nature itself explodes in revolt against the misrule of humankind over the natural world. Nature’s violence is the violence of God written into the created order, but the Kingdom of our Lord is not established thereby.
In Revelation 1:6 Jesus’ followers are called to be a kingdom of priests after the model of Exodus 19. If all believers are called to be priests, then how can those priests wage war after the manner of this world? We have the same dilemma that Samuel had when Israel demanded a king for the purpose of national defense.
STONES ON THE PATH
The Role of Accommodating Structures
If we make the cross the center of all interpretation, then some kind of pacifism seems to be demanded, but the pathway is filled with stones for stumbling. The wars of the Old Testament are boulders that continually block the way. Does God call some of his priests to not be priests? David is a good case in point. David would not have been permitted to offer the sacrifice in behalf of the people as Saul had done to Samuel’s consternation. David was not even permitted to build the house where sacrifices would take place. Here is a paradox, for David, even today, continues to serve as a priest for us whenever we read the Psalms, which continue to point heavenward and bring us into God’s presence. The difference appears to be the issue of blood sacrifice. David’s Psalms point us properly to God, but the sacrifice must still take place to remove the offense.
Obviously war is not God’s will for humankind. Still God commanded it. Jesus provides a clue as to why God permits things he does not approve. What we learn from Jesus is that God works within the boundaries our limited faith. An example is found in Matthew 19 and in Mark 10 where Jesus discusses a completely different topic. One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason? Jesus responded, “There is no provision at all.” “What!” exclaimed the disciples. “The law of Moses says a man may divorce his wife and provides a procedure for doing so.” Jesus responded, “Moses gave this accommodation because of your unbelieving hearts.” The procedure gave the woman a degree of protection she wouldn’t otherwise have.
Divorce violates the very nature of what it means to be human as God designed. According to Jesus, unbelief, then, is the root cause of divorce, not bad communication, not mental illness, not any kind of so-called incompatibility, nor any other diagnosis. These are merely complicating factors. If we don’t believe God can get us safely through a difficult time, then we tend to give up and blame some other relevant, but not decisive factors. Jesus rested his case entirely upon the creation story, and that settled the question. We can call Genesis 1-2 the Original Human Charter, because it takes precedence over the accommodations of the law. When Jesus appeals to the creation story, he speaks of what is true for all time for all humanity.
God’s accommodations to our limited trust create what I will call an accommodating social structure. Accommodating structures can be observed throughout the Biblical story in the social realities of patriarchy, monarchy, and slavery, as I have demonstrated in The Old Testament Roots of Nonviolence. These three structures governed family, government, and labor in every ancient empire. With accommodating structures as a tool for understanding, we have a way to explain not only the wars of Israel, but polygamy and slavery as well. The triad of patriarchy, monarchy, and slavery ruled the ancient world until Christ conquered the principalities and powers, that is, the spirits of nature that governed humanity. This triad of hierarchy was the shape of Satan’s kingdom on earth, which was defeated at the cross. (A marvelous exposition of this reality is Rene Girard’s I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning. New York: Orbis, 2001, along with his other books on scapegoating and violence.)
After Samuel, the monarchy in Israel served as an accommodating structure for three hundred years until the captivity. The church also had its monarchy beginning with Constantine, and the church celebrated Constantine’s victories just as Israel had celebrated David’s victories. Still Constantine’s Christendom could not go unchallenged. Three hundred years after Constantine, Islam became the protector of the church in the Middle East and Africa as a controlled minority. In the rest of Christendom, the church slowly began to fragment and has continued to do so until today.
In the Old Testament, God sent prophets to oppose and critique the unbelief of their contemporaries. Likewise, the Anabaptist prophets of the 16th century complained against Christian kings at war with Christian kings, and against a church that tried to convert Muslims by force of arms. Their witness was rejected, and a century of blood followed. We can conclude that Christians today who continually scream for more national defense in the United States, the imperial leader of the world—these false prophets have denied their Lord, and the land will mourn because of them. They are false prophets of Baal who serve the god of human pride and unbelief in the garb of religion, wolves in sheep’s clothing. The liberty bought and sustained by bloodshed in war is not the same liberty as that bought by the blood of the lamb. To equate the two borders on blasphemy.
This is not meant to condemn those who wear the uniform. God’s grace is still available to all who call upon him wherever they are. Soldiers can serve Jesus on the battlefield as surely as pacifists may serve him in prison and martyrdom, but it is clear as to which approach Jesus took to establish his government. Jesus’ government is where the future is going, and we do best to align ourselves with the future, and not the failing present order.
The sword of human government does serve a restraining purpose in our unbelieving world. This is clear from Romans 13. But because the cross has conquered these accommodating structures, they have been and continue to be in the process of disintegration. Their ineffectiveness to keep the peace grows year by year. Victory in Christ sets us free of dependence upon them, if we have faith to believe this is true.
SUMMARY OF HERMENEUTICAL PROCESS
In this section, we determined that with Jesus’ example in the center as the definitive lens for viewing all of scripture, we arrive at some kind of pacifism, although not as a sealed, air tight conclusion, and there are large barriers on the path. The interpretative process works something like this. 1. In the Old Testament we have Divinely sanctioned war, including what appears to be attempted genocide. 2. We noted that according to Moses, God alone has the authority to take life. A nation of priests does not maintain an army in preparation for war. 3. Then we noted how that Jesus established himself as king while at the same time restricting himself to the role of priest, and in so doing united both offices in one. As a priest, he cannot conduct warfare. As king, Jesus took control of our hearts by the authority of his own person impelled by love, and not by material force. 4. Jesus has called us to be a kingdom of priests; therefore, we must live as priests and not accept the role of a warrior after the manner of the fallen world.
If one reads the Bible as a flat book, with every scripture of equal weight, then a different conclusion will emerge. According to this method, one develops a succession of theological topics that sometimes collide. Then one must balance the various topics against each other. If one constructs a theology of human government based solely upon Romans 13, one can support the role of a soldier by citing the example of Cornelius along with the Old Testament story in its entirety. This then needs to be balanced against Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies and pray for the persecutors. Luther decided that one can love the enemies while killing them as a way to balance his theology of government with Jesus teaching about love. Luther didn’t say this, but in Luther’s behalf, we could ask this question: When God determines that someone’s life should end; does that mean God no longer loves that person?
In the Old Testament, both giving life and ending it was God’s work. Assuming that God’s grace and mercy are present in everything God does, and that love is essential to God’s own nature, then the eviction of the Canaanites from the land by force was impelled by God’s love. At that point the “iniquity of the Amorites was complete” (Genesis 15:16). God’s love for the world demanded their annihilation, and his mercy spared the unborn and as yet unconceived children of that wicked generation. To say that God is a nonviolent God is not true to the evidence. God both gives life and takes life in love, and this alone is God’s prerogative. The devil’s promise to be like God and know good from evil includes the power of life and death, and monarchy gives one human power over the life and death for others. Jesus, as the ideal and perfect human king rejected this power. In his humanity he dared not touch it. We can still insist that violence does not belong to our Lord’s kingdom on earth and it is not appropriate for the kingdom of priests he established.
When we observe through a wide angle lens the breadth of history from the high perspective of the cross, the choice of a Christ centered hermeneutic leads to a different conclusion from the flat Bible approach. While the authority to bear the sword in Romans 13 is divinely ordained, it is still the authority of an accommodating structure, and in Christ, the accommodating structures are made obsolete. They belong to the realm of principalities and powers Jesus defeated.