non-violence – Christian anarchism – Sermon on the Mount – spiritual activism
– a song-bite by Tim McKamey
I wrote a song this week called Waging Peace. click to listen. I am still far too close to it to make any kind of objective appraisal as to how it will stand up over time. Very few songs last. But it is an important song to me personally because it helped heal a wound that has been with me a great many years. Perhaps this story will help others.
So this is the story of a song, which in folklore implicates other songs and other stories. There are a few different entry points into this story. The first one chronologically would have been the mid-sixties, not my mid-sixties, but “back in the day” circa 1967. I still remember the room I was in when I first really listened to the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s With God On Our Side. The version recorded by Joan Baez is riveting, perhaps due to the stark contrast between the atrocities listed in the song and Joan’s hauntingly beautiful voice.
I can think of no other song that has shaken my Christian foundations more than this one, but in the end I am grateful for the journey it set me on. First performed in 1963, the tune of With God On Our Side is identical to Irish songwriter Dominic Behan’s The Patriot Game, (a song with a similar though secular meaning) also made popular by Liam Clancy. Behan called Dylan a plagiarist and a thief for using the melody. Dylan never responded and if he had he might have reminded the writer that Behan had borrowed the melody from an older traditional Irish song “The Merry Month of May”. The folk-process at work. But it was the lyrics of the song that made me take a hard look at everything I had accepted up until then as a Christian. The song addresses the human notion that God or some other higher power invariably sides with them and opposes those with whom they disagree, and thus they don’t question the morality of wars fought and atrocities committed by their country. Dylan mentions several historical events, including the slaughter of Native Americans in the nineteenth century, the Spanish–American War, the American Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Holocaust, the Cold War and even the betrayal of Jesus Christ by Judas Iscariot. The song later went on to make references to the Vietnam War in live renditions in the 1980s.
As a teenager listening to this song, what I overlooked at the time of course was that a God of transcendence does not take sides. It is overly zealous humans who attempt to justify their own misdirected deeds who suffer from the delusion that they are proceeding with God on their side. This human notion of Christians as victors over some “axis of evil” as George W. Bush would eventually declare, completely turns the whole teaching of Christianity on its head. How do religious teachings originally intended to promote love become twisted into weapons of hate? More importantly, as Christians today, how do we reconcile the tragedy of the bloody history outlined in Dylan’s song with the original teachings in scripture? Finally, over the years I am beginning to come to terms with the ironic contradictions that arise with such oxymorons as Holy War and Christian soldiers.
Sometimes history is kind of like observing a train wreck from the viewpoint of someone who wasn’t involved in the disaster but arrives at the scene shortly after the dust has settled. From our vantage point in the present as we gaze down the twisted tracks of Christian history, for many of us, all we can see is alot of wreckage. But upon closer examination it is possible for a good forensics expert to untangle the events that led up to this unfortunate situation. As we will see, there have always been clear theological signals all along the right-of-way that the conscientious engineer might have heeded. But as with the Wreck of the Old 97, all too often we throw caution to the wind at full throttle just to meet our schedule on time, our deadline.
In the sixties words like pacifism and anarchism were tossed about casually as if we knew what we were talking about. But a few of us went to the trouble to really understand these ideas and the rich heritage beyond the words. I knew that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been inspired by Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience and worked hard at organizing the Civil Rights Movement around those same principles. I also found it intriguing that the Baptist minister took to heart the ideas of the preeminent Indian civil-rights leader who was raised primarily in a culture of Hindu and Jain religious beliefs.
I had read Henry David Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience and much later I would learn about Christian anarchism through the writings of Jacques Ellul and Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You. Christian anarchism has little or nothing to do with the kind of anarchism I witnessed in the streets of Seattle during the WTO demonstrations in 1999. Black-hooded hoodlums smashing store-fronts does nothing to promote the ideals of social justice that concientious demonstrators sought to express. It has been said often enough and has always seemed clear to me that violence begets violence and those who live by the sword die by the sword. So if one is looking for ways to promote social justice and express effective acts of civil disobedience, it has to be done non-violently. Mobs and riots are exceedingly counter-productive.
According to French philosopher, author and lay theologian Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) we find roots of Christian anarchism as far back as the Old Testament. In Judges 21:25 Ellul recounts; “there was no king in Israel and everyone did as they saw fit.” Later in 1 Samuel 8 we read, “the people of Israel wanted a king to be like other nations.” Ellul goes on to explain how God declared the people had rejected Him as their king and warned that a human king would lead to militarism, conscription and taxation, and that their pleas for mercy from the king’s demands would go unanswered. Samuel passed on God’s warnings to the Israelites but they disregarded him and chose Saul as their king. Much of the subsequent Old Testament chronicles them trying to live with this decision.
Right here is the beginning of the train wreck. It stems from the confusion that arises around ideas of kingdom. In their attempts to bring the Kingdom of God from heaven down to Earth, humans tend to jump to the conclusion that this can be accomplished through purely human means. Now it gets tricky because as Tolstoy will write centuries later, The Kingdom of God is Within You, and I believe Tolstoy is correct. The problems arise when we try to construct institutions that by their very nature must exist in the material world between the God that is within and the God in heaven. However well meaning such efforts start out, they invariably become corrupt and topple under their own weight. Religion seems to work best in small scale, personal endeavors. Try and institutionalize it and what happens? You end up with Inquistions, Holy Wars and TV evangelists!
[Jacques Ellul was a prolific exegete of the theories of Karl Marx and was influenced heavily by the Christian existenialism of Soren Kierkegaard and the dialectical theology of Karl Barth. See Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity, (1988) and see also Alexandre Christoyannopoulos’ Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel (2010) for more fascinating insights from a postmodern perspective.]
As the narrative goes, God eventually sends Jesus to try and get things back on track so to speak. As Church of the Brethren pastor Vernard Eller points out in his book Christian Anarchy: Jesus’ Primacy Over the Powers. (1987, Wm. B. Eerdmans) “God and Samuel accept (and honor) Israel’s (bad) decision as accomplished fact and proceed to live with it rather than try to reverse it.” Moving forward then, Jesus’ mission was to reinvigorate humanity with a radical revisioning of the Good News that the Kingdom of God is still at hand, and incorporated teachings that would assist us in freeing ourselves as individuals from the tyranny of unjust authorities. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew contains the core of Jesus’ teachings on love and forgiveness. Here we find amidst The Beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the Sons of God,” and some of the most challenging precepts ever handed down such as “turn the other cheek” and “love thine enemies”.
This past week as we celebrated Martin Luther King Day, I was reminded of these challenges when I read Dr. King’s words;
“We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. … Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Christ’s teachings stand today as valid as they were two thousand years ago. This is all the more remarkable considering how so many institutional implementations of Christianity have come and gone. At the Sermon on the Mount Jesus also told his followers to not swear oaths in the name of God or man. In a world as full of social contracts as that in which we live today, this is indeed a challenging idea. Tolstoy and other proponents of Christian anarchism understand this to mean that Christians may find themselves unable to fulfill the will of God if they are bound to the will of a fellow man. Tolstoy considered any oath as evil, but especially an oath of allegiance. Some of the fathers of the early church in the first few centuries understood this. Tatian (120-180 AD) addressed the Greeks saying
“I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command….Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it.”
and Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 AD) said;
“A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate must resign or be rejected. If a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God.”
Nevertheless, many Christians did serve in armies in large numbers swearing oaths of allegiance and by the 4th century our train wreck is well underway as the Roman Emperor Constantine rose to absolute power. After standing by idly in 303 AD during Diocletian’s Great Persecution, the most severe persecution of Christians in Roman history, the Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity and proceeds to galvanize his power-base throughout the Roman Empire under the motto of “One God, One Emperor!” In 325 AD Constantine calls together the first ecumenical gathering of Christian bishops for the First Council of Nicaea. Even while this august convention is hammering out issues like the Christological aspects of The Son in relation to God the Father, calculating the date for Easter and the promulgation of early cannon law, Constantine’s hired assassins are murdering his brother-in-law Licinius and nephew, son of Constantine’s sister Constantia in Thessalonica!
So here is another entry point into our story. Several days ago I watched a BBC documentary on Constantine and the tragic saga chronicled in Bob Dylan’s song came rushing back at me. The whole notion of a “Christian soldier” is an oxymoron if there ever was one. If Christians are to uphold the Ten Commandments Moses brought down from the mountain in the Old Testament, and therefore “shall not kill”, how then can there even be such a thing as a Christian soldier? With Constantine the politicization of Christianity begins in earnest as a means to worldly power and the whole bloody history of the Holy Roman Empire, the Protestant Reformation and countless wars ever since, all fought with somebody beliving they had God on their side. Nowhere is this more ironic than in the present day conflicts in the Middle East where we find Jews, Muslims and Christians, all ‘People of the Book’, each believing they have the same One True God on their side.
After watching that documentary I wrestled with my conscience over the lyrics in hymns I’d come to love. One ray of hope came from my recent understanding of how the history of hymnody is, if nothing else, a rich and vibrant history of innovation and reform. In my recent studies of the interelationships between folk music and hymns over the centuries I had come to learn how Christianity is continually renewing and re-expressing itself not only in the academic world of theological scholars, but in the songs and hymns the people themselves sing. From Psalms to contemporary gospel bluegrass, from Gregorian chant to Jazz Vespers, hymns and folk music are where ordinary people express their theology.
One of my recent favorite discoveries has been Chris Rice’s refreshing arrangement of the Martin Luther hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Written in 1527, the Thirty Years War still a hundred years off, a literal reading of the language in Luther’s hymn would lead a modern-day reader to dismiss it as militant and divisive. This interpretation is only reinforced by the strident manner in which the hymn has been traditionally performed. But Rice’s reading of the song casts the lyrics in a fresh new light, and it came to me as a breath of fresh air. The simple guitar fingering played up on the higher strings with a capo on the 4th fret elevates the song into a lighter aire and Rice’s voice is soft and gentle but full of subtle inflection that brings out the strength in Luther’s poetic imagery. The metaphoric aspects of the battle between good and evil too often get lost in traditional literal interpretations. I sang this song as a child many times growing up in the Lutheran church, but back then it was just about some ancient war between God and Satan. It wasn’t until I listened to Chris Rice sing the song that I was able to notice how the language describes our own immediate personal involvement in the struggle and how the choices we make as individuals has everything to do with the ultimate outcome. Suddenly the lines “one little word shall fell him,” and “That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours,” jumped out at me, forcing me to look again at the message in this song. What Rice’s version did for me was to take the song off of the battlefield of history and into the heart, where the real battle is waged every day.
Renewed, I started poking around looking for anti-war messages in hymns. I stumbled across one written by Charles Wesley in 1762 called Messiah, Prince of Peace. I used a few of Wesley’s opening phrases in the first three lines of my new song, Waging Peace, and wrote out the rest of it that afternoon processing many of the ideas described above. I returned to Wesley’s lyrics briefly again in the second to the last verse. You can read all the lyrics below, with Wesley’s in italics. You may listen to it over on YouTube here: click to listen.
Waging peace in a world that has waged war for so long is a daunting prospect, and will, I suspect, require many more lively and joyous tunes than this humble offering. If my song comes across as somber, so be it. But it has been for me a balm to soothe a troubled soul. I had to smile out loud however when that same afternoon after finishing the song I opened an email from Pastor Jeremy at our Covington Community Church of the Brethren and read that he would be speaking this week on Christian pacifism. Amongst the readings he recommended I found this by Brethren pastor Vernard Eller (1927-2000);
“Be clear, any of those human [authorities] are where they are only because God is allowing them to be there. They exist only at his sufferance. And if God is willing to put up with…the Roman Empire, you ought to be willing to put up with it, too. There is no indication God has called you to clear it out of the way or get it converted for him. You can’t fight an Empire without becoming like the Roman Empire; so you had better leave such matters in God’s hands where they belong.”
Wherever war is learned
Thy people must confess
Thy kingdom cannot come
Without the love that we profess.
Marching into battle
When will it cease?
Is it only those who come to rest
In death…who find peace?
Whatever begs the question
Assumes we do not know
War is not the answer,
Let the record show.
For all of those who’ve fallen
And paid such a cost,
In the end is what we’ve won
Really worth… all we’ve lost?
There’s a still small voice within us
We may not comprehend
When we bind ourselves or swear an oath
In the name of God or man.
For when we’re called on to fulfill
Our part in the Divine Plan
We must have the freedom to,
Unbound… by the laws of man.
When we come to exercise
This hellish art no more,
And Thou our long-lost paradise
With Thyself we restore
Help us learn Thy lesson Lord
And by Thy love increase
Our hope to turn this Earth to Heaven
…by waging peace.
– Tim McKamey, January 26, 2013