In 1994 a plane transporting the president of Rwanda and Burindi crashed, killing both presidents. What commenced has gone down into history as one of the most despairing responses to the death of national leaders. The people of Rwanda, over the next several months, suffered a genocide–800,000 men, women and children within a one hundred day period. This bloody history showcases the depth of depravity, but what makes this chilling tale even more ominous, was that Rwanda, was named the most Christian country in Africa.–over 90 percent were identified as Christian. Yet, despite all this, violence erupted between the two dominant tribes, the Tutsis and the Hutus. Missionaries recount Rwanda as a successful case study of the spread of Christianity, but this tragic story does nothing but afford us the sentiment that something about western Christian missionary preaching went awry. Among these tribes a small percentage became martyrs, and sought peace to stop the violence; it seems nationalism had more influence that discipleship. The gospel, that, Jesus is Lord must not have been grasped or taught properly in favor of cheap grace, easy believism, or a five step plan of salvation designed to get someone saved.

That is a tragic story and all, but people in uncivilized countries tend to do that sort of thing; they revert back to what they know and begin to practice inimical barbaric behavior. We Americans would never do such a thing, right? Allegedly, America is the fruit of manifest destiny. The south is resolutely nick named the Bible belt and our land has seen revivals, gospel meetings, and prides itself on being a Christian nation. The belief that American democracy, along with the mass conversions of people to the Christian religion, lead people to believe utopia was possible, but the Civil War between 1861 and 1864 dashed this hope to pieces. Able bodied Americans and American Christians suited up with rifle and bayonet, and lined up in rows and ended human lives in a bloody content of mutual hostility. Christian brothers made widows of their brothers in the north and south, and for what? For life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Approximately 620,000 people were killed, it appears yet again, that the good news and the kingdom of God were not understood, and only a few Christians stood against such an onslaught. Cheap grace, easy believism, and water baptism replaced true discipleship. Why did these things takes place? What can be done to avoid violence? The answer lies in a proper understanding of Kingdom, Power, and Cross

The Kingdom of God

Jesus arrived on the scene and announced right away, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” What did Jesus mean by the cryptic expression, “kingdom of God?” And what should we take of the often misunderstood adverb eggus, which is translated, near or at hand.

In our culture, “repent and believe the good news” or “repent for the kingdom of God is near” tends to mean, stop drinking, stop smoking, and come to church. While there would be moral nuances, those words would have had larger import. What exactly was Jesus claiming to do and what were the people expecting? In order to answer that question we are going to back track a few hundred years. When the Jews were taken away into Babylonian exile, they mourned for their land and prayed for God’s deliverance, that he at last would become king and set things aright. Although they did return back to the land of promise, the Jews still waited for their “true deliverance” a “full return from exile.” It’s appropriate to describe the Jewish faith plurally, as Judaisms, since there wasn’t one grounded expectation. This expectation sounded something like this, God will through a king, or Messiah, or prophet or himself will vanquish the pagans from the land, rebuild the true temple and God would reign over all creation and will resurrect righteous saints. So, here and there, you had leaders, pressure groups and brigands who attempted to bring about God’s rule. One such character is Judas Maccabeus (Judah the Hammer).

He lived two hundreds years before Jesus, like Jesus his campaign lasted for three years and like Jesus he had a triumphant entry into Jerusalem where he cleansed the temple, between 167 and 164 BCE. He and his family lead a guerilla warfare against the Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes, for three solid years, eventually, against the odds beating them back and reclaiming the temple. This victory is still commemorated as Hanukkah in Jewish circles. Judah’s victory launched them into the positions of high priest and king of the Jews–even though they were not rightly either of these things. Judah and family resuscitated Israel’s story, God had acted again like he did in the Exodus, or through Phinehas or Elijah and paganism. The people rallied around this new leadership Utopianism didn’t last and within that next generation the future seem darker, pressure groups arose to challenge this new Hasmonean dynasty.

One pressure group that arose were the Pharisees. Pharisees were loyal to the “old paths” and challenged the would be high priest and Israelite kings; they sought to take what was found in the temple, and bring it to the table, and in many ways, they tried to make purity laws more accessible to the average Jew. Among others were the Essenes who lived in the caves near the dead sea, they felt the entire temple system was illegitimate. The Hasmoneans were in many ways complicate with pagan rule–since Rome put aristocrats in charge, and Sadducees were the conservatives of the bunch. Besides all these you had brigands, groups, lead by would be Messiahs who sought to rescue the Jews from impurity and pagan rule. Resistance movements, violent assaults, and hope for victory over enemies swirled in the area and clouded their vision like a sand vortex on the desert floor. There are too many to mention but these movements were a dime a dozen (Acts 5:33-37).

One more example will set the stage for understanding Jesus and his kingdom announcement. Josephus describes an incident in Galilee where he went to squelch a Roman resistance movement. In AD 66 (roughly around the time the synoptics where being worked out) Jesus, a brigand chief (not the Messiah), makes an attempt at Josephus’ life; Josephus foils it and says: “That I was not ignorant of the plot which he had contrived against me . . .; I would, nevertheless, condone his actions if he would show repentance and prove his loyalty to me[2] (Josephus Life 110).” In Greek, it’s more literally, “repent and believe me.” When Jesus says it, it sounds religious, a sort of, accept me into your heart kind of thing, but when Josephus says it, it sound much more political. Josephus’ declaration is a safe framework through which we can understand Jesus’ words–repent of your programs and prove yourself loyal to my kingdom movement. In our time we are accustomed to separation politics and religion, but for Jesus’ day it was one in the same. Thus, Josephus in Galilee in the sixties saying “repent and believe me” to resistance movements, or people defending their lives, would have been similar sounding to Jesus in Galilee thirty years earlier saying something similar to a similar group of people.

What do Jesus’ words mean then? God is in charge now! Repent of your programs and get on board. The kingdom of God is God’s rule, it was near because in the person of Jesus, God was bringing justice to Israel and to those who were broken, poor, hungry and sick. On one occassion he says, “if I cast out demons by the power of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you” and on another “blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God”–or to put it another way, those poor, marginalized, who longed to see injustice fixed, God’s rule welcomes you! It’s appropriate to see the kingdom, even to this day, as “now-but-not-yet.” It’s appropriate to view the kingdom as coming in stages. Since the kingdom is God’s rule, his love, mercy, justice in the earth than it had already come in a very real way, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Kingdom Refocused

Now, we move from between the testament to the precursor of the reign of God, and sojourn our way through Matthew with the reconstituted Israel. If we are careful, we’ll see how this power rethought, confused even the great prophet, John. Matthew sets the stage,

““I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”(Matthew 3:11-12)

I don’t know for sure how John thought all this was going to play out, but he seems shocked by Jesus’ debut. Instead of judgment, Jesus comes to be immersed! Thus identifying himself with the plight of an exiled Israel, and perhaps showing his willingness to suffer with his people. Yes, there would be a judgment in 70 AD and yes, there is to be a final judgment, but John’s response, “I need to be immersed by you and you are coming to me!” suggests that even he didn’t have it all right.

John’s misunderstandings are brought into sharp focus while he is in prison. There he sends messengers to ask Jesus, is he really the Messiah or not. I have preached against this injustice of this so called king and his marriage–something a true king would never do, and now I am in prison. Aren’t you going to do something? Break me out perhaps? After all, isn’t the Messiah to “set the prisoners free”? Why are you not staging a coup and busting me out? “Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matt 11:5-6). What a remarkable response. Here, Jesus at once destroys any notion that his kingship would come as a violent overthrow, or is some sort of spiritual inward kingdom. Look at what God is doing, creation is being fixed and justice meeted out. Jesus doesn’t say, John I’m out here saving the immaterial part of a person called a soul that you can’t see, but you’ll know I am who I say I am when you die and see some of these people in heaven. Rather he points to concrete, real, substantive things he was doing. What Jesus is doing is what God promised to do,

Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. (Isaiah 35:3-5)

There you have vengeance and divine retribution bringing deliverance–but Jesus reimagines this vision here, and heals the sick, gives speech to the mute, and gives strength to lame legs, but without the wrath and vengeance and this is startling people.

Power Rethought

Now on to Jesus’ baptism. After he arises from the water, the heavens open, the Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice from heaven declares him to be the son of God. We need to slow down, because we may miss an important clue in these immediate verses that describe what this king’s rule will be. Isaiah, was so frustrated with being in exile, he prayed “O that you would rend the heavens and come down that the mountains would tremble before you!” (Isaiah 64:1), he wanted the mountains to quake and for the enemies to know God’s power, like when he came down in Sinai. God does indeed rend the heavens, but there is no quake, no fire, no terror, but he comes as a gentle dove and comes on Jesus. Three scripture should come to mind when reading this story, Isaiah 42, Isaiah 11 and Psalm 2. Isaiah 42 and Isaiah 11 describes the Spirit as coming on his servant and him bringing justice on the earth. Psalm 2 is a much clearer allusion: “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”I will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father. (Psalm 2:6-7). This Psalm is often overlooked, and it makes God’s pronouncement and the temptation that follows about Jesus’ divinity, when that’s not what it’s about at all. “You are my son” is kingly sonship, the king in Psalm two, perhaps David was God’s son; his king who would rule the nations–Israel was God’s son and when they became a monarchy that sonship was often transferred to the king who represented the entire nation. Like the passage Isaiah 35 and Isaiah 64, Psalm 2 also assumes a violent overthrow of enemies.

This sets the stage for Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness in Matthew 4. Having fasted forty days representing Israel himself (we should be thinking of the wilderness wandering here in Exodus), his first temptation is to turn a stone into bread. But as John Yoder remarked, one doesn’t fast for forty days only to easily succumb to wanting to eat bread. But if we have been correct so far, Jesus is announcing how God is becoming king, and as a newly anointed king he faces the temptation of how he will rule. As he wrestled and debated with himself for forty long days, interacted with the ways the kings in the world ruled, he decided he would not become a welfare king and gain prestige through ending world hunger, though he has something to say about it later. Nor will he jump from the temple and make a religious spectacle of himself so as to propel himself to the top of the polls, to use modern vernacular. Finally, and I think this was Jesus’ greatest temptation. Satan shows him all the kingdom of the world and promises he will give it to him, if he would but serve him. This isn’t some quirky satanic cult, but a way of reigning (Jesus never disputes that Satan has sway over the nations). Nations rule from the top down, with the sword, and with fear. Jesus rejects that too, but exactly what his rule looks like has yet to be seen. You can imagine, a peasant or slave boy who was mistreated his whole life, and for whatever reason comes to a position of power where he can fix all that was wrong to him, and exact vengeance on those who hurt him and others who were weak, that is the best way to view the temptation scenarios.

It is within this context, of rejecting the way kings rule and finding a mysterious third way that he announces “repent for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt 4:17) and at once begins to reconstitute Israel around himself, by selecting twelve men who would represent the twelve tribes of Israel. To the watching crowd, you have another Judah the hammer, another resistance movement, who is claiming deliverance and is symbolically redefining Israel. What could he be meaning, and what exactly does he think he is going to do? How do we respond to Roman occupation, which mistreats us, hurts us, and belittle us? What do we do about the current Jewish king and priests, and resistance movements? It’s as if all these questions are being whispered on the outer fringes and in the secret places, and in the synagogues, and Jesus is centered stage with a microphone in front of his face, being entreated to answer.

As we climb up the sermon on the mount before he gives transforming initiatives he welcomes those who embrace God’s empire, those who are poor, hungry, wanting justice, pure in heart, and who want peace and forgiveness (Matthew 5:1-11), then he identifies his disciples as salt, light and a city set on a hill, basically we are an alternative city within our cities, an embassy representing what God looks like, “as in heaven even so on earth.”

True Discipleship Embraces Non-Violence

What does Jesus have to say to violence in his day? What does he have to say about violence in our day, does he have a word for Rwanda, the civil war, and in a more modern setting, for Serbian Christians and Muslims or Al Qaeda or the American soldier? He is first and foremost giving instructions to the disciples that follow him and they are to shine in the world as a model to follow, so for the time being let’s focus on us.

“You’ve heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” but I say to you, don’t return evil in kind, but if someone backhands you on the right cheek, turn him your left cheek. If someone summons you to court and wants to sue you for shirt on your back, strip down and give him your pants, too. Whenever a Roman soldier conscripts you to carry his backpack for one mile, go with him two miles! Look at it this way, your giving to beggars, don’t turn them away. (Author’s Translation)

Eye for an eye was a way to even the score without escalating an incident far beyond the punishment required. If you injure my eye, then I can only injure your eye, if you strike me then at the very least I get to strike you back. But to be salt and light in Jesus’ Community there can be no place for retaliation. The word evil, “don’t resist evil” regularly means “violent resistance” or “resistance with force” if disciples are forbidden violent resistance how do we respond to injustices?

If someone backhands you turn the other cheek. In the first century a superior could backhand an inferior, gentile to Jew, or male to woman or child. To open hand slap an equal was illegal and you had to pay a fine. How to respond to injustice, confront it as an equal without resorting to slapping or attacking back. Turning the cheek was basically saying, your attempt to put me in my place didn’t work, try again but now as an equal. Retaliation breeds more evil, it perpetuates a cycle of systemic violence, but refuse to participate, fizzles it out. Discipleship calls for non-violent resistant love to physical injustice

Next scenaro. The Old Testament stipulated that a person could give you there outer garment as collateral for a loan, but if they were poor, the loaner had to give the outer coat back so that they could sleep on it at night. In this case, a poor person is being drawn into court in order to have his outer garment permanently seized. Such injustice needs to be exposed, when you give them your outer garment, give them the inner garment too, Jesus retorts–Jews only wore and outer and inner garment, thus you would be standing in the courtroom, naked! The effect would show how the rich are robbing the poor naked and as we know the guilt for exposing someone’s nakedness fail on the perpetrator. Discipleship calls for non-violent resistance love to economic injustice.

Next scenatio. It is said that when Roman soldiers would come into a town, people would scatter because they would abuse their power. By law Roman soldiers could conscript a person to carry their backpack for one mile. Imagine the jaw dropping response by observers, who find this Jew, who is generously carrying this back pack, and refuses to give the back pack back, when they reach the one mile marker! How comical it would be to see a Roman soldier begging for his back pack back. But all of these things are done to “settle the score” without resorting to violence or fisticuffs.

There is a story about New York social worker, who rode the train every day from work and stopped at a Diner to eat dinner. One night, as he stepped off the train he was greeted by a teen with a pistol–give me your wallet, he threatened. The man gave him his wallet, but then said, here take my coat too, if you are going to be out all night robbing people you may as well keep warm. He then asked the teen if he was hungry and invited him to the diner to eat with him, the teen accepted. The robber noticed he was kind to all the people who worked there and remarked such, the social worker responded, weren’t you told to be nice to everyone. He said, yeah but I didn’t think anyone did it. When the bill came around, he told him I can pay for it if you’ll give me my wallet back, otherwise you handle the bill. He gave the wallet to the man and eventually gave up gun too, and when they departed he gave the young man twenty bucks. This is how disciples are to behave.

Disciples of Jesus love inclusively like God does.

You’ve heard it said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ but I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who harm you, so that you’ll be the children of your Father in heaven, since he raises the sun on the good and bad, and sends rain to the just and unjust alike. If you love those who love you, what good is that? Don’t even loan sharks love those who love them? And if you respect and show politeness to your family and friends only, what good is that? doesn’t the world do that, too? Be all inclusive as your Father is all inclusive in heaven.”

Jesus radicalizes love. Instead of hating your enemies, defeating them, or vindicating yourself against them. We are commanded to love them. For those who make our lives a hell on earth, even to the point of physically persecuting us, we are to pray for them. For disciples who take seriously Jesus’ teachings, and embody his words in a communal social setting, cannot spill the blood of their personal or national enemies, whether at the threshold of their door after an intrusive entry or on a field of mutual hostility in defense of ones country. Countries tell young men to “kill their enemies” but Jesus commands us to “love our enemies”–the two cannot be reconciled. Disciples who use weapons in defense of justice should be reminded of Peter, who attempted to defend the life of Jesus with a sword–to which Jesus responded, “put away your sword, for those who live by the sword will die by the sword” and healed his enemies ear. These commands are rooted in God’s character–why do we love our enemies? Because God takes care of them, therefore to be his children we must have his DNA and be like him and do the same. To extend kindness, love and friendship only in relationships of reciprocity makes us no different than any other social club or group. Klansmen love their own. The Taliban show affection to each other. To truly be like God we must embrace even the unlovable. We are to be “perfect” or “all inclusive” as our Father is.

This radical non-violent love isn’t utopian theology or ethical theory, but power being redefined. Non-violence is sharply put into focus when we see how Jesus embodies these very teachings himself. He healed the son of a Roman soldier who was occupying his own land. He was slapped in the face; he didn’t retaliate. He was compelled to carry his cross and he took it all the way. He was stripped of both outer and inner garments, was exposed.. And while he dangled, pinned to a cross, so dehydrated that the air tasted like fire, he uttered these remarkable words, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they do.”–he prayed for those who persecuted him. It’s precisely this sort of “weakness” that is strong and befuddles would be rulers and authorities. What appeared to be a decisive victory over a Jewish would be Messiah is a decisive blow to both Jewish and Roman rule. I’d like to close on Colossians 2:14-16 and read some closing remarks:

“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

New Testament scholar N.T Wright remarked about this text:

Roman forces “knew how to celebrate triumphs over hated enemies, and how to do so with maximum symbolic impact. In a world without electronic or printed media, victorious armies and generals would demonstrate to the folks back home what a splendid victory they had won, by bringing back the ‘spoils of war’. This would consist of all the booty they’d captured; a long and bedraggled line of prisoners; and, if possible, right at the end of the line, the king of the nation they’d just defeated.

Then, as the climax of the party, the king would be ceremonially executed. Just like burning a flag, only more so. When the Romans crucified Jesus of Nazareth, under the sign that said he was ‘King of the Jews’, that’s more or less what they thought they were doing. They hadn’t thought he was worth taking back to Rome. He hadn’t, after all, been leading an army, or a serious military revolt. But every crucifixion of a rebel ‘king’, even a strange one like Jesus, was another symbolic triumph for Rome, and hence, in Jewish eyes, for the power of paganism as a whole. Anyone looking at the cross of Jesus with a normal understanding of the first-century world would think: the rulers and authorities stripped him naked and celebrated a public triumph over him. That’s what they normally did to such people [it’s what they did to Jesus]. Now blink, rub your eyes, and read verse 15 again. On the cross, Paul declares, God was stripping the armour off the rulers and authorities! Yes: he was holding them up to public contempt! God was celebrating his triumph over the principalities and powers, the very powers that thought it was the other way round. Paul never gets tired of relishing the glorious paradox of the cross: God’s weakness overcoming human strength, God’s folly overcoming human wisdom (as he says in 1 Corinthians 1).”

After Jesus resurrected and appeared to the twelve he said, “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you, and look I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” For us to produce genuine followers of Jesus, it cannot be about faith alone, or grace alone, or baptism–but discipleship. If we don’t emphasize what it truly means to follow Jesus then “baptism for the remission of sins” is no different than sprinkling an infant. Teaching, faith and baptism makes disciples and disciples have a redeemed outlook on the world because of the cross and resurrection. Do you want to follow Jesus? Do you want to see justice, and peace, and God’s rule? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near; God is in charge, believe in the good news.”

Sources

Camp, Lee “Mere Discipleship”

Hays, Richard “The Moral Vision of The New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics

Wink, Walter “Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination

Wright, Nicholas “Simply Jesus”

Yoder, John “Politics of Jesus”