Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The impossibility of Christ in khaki

I'm delighted to have finally found the source of a quote I'd heard some time ago.
Look! Christ in khaki, out in France thrusting his bayonet into a German workman. See! The Son of God with a machine gun ambushing a column of German infantry. …. That picture is impossible – and we all know it.
It comes from a book by Alfred Salter, The Religion of the Conscientious Objector. Published in 1914, it sold over a million copies. Although I don't have the book I'm struck by the vision of the quote and the questions it raises.

Would Jesus have gone to a war like the Great War, WW2, Viet Nam, Iraq?

Would Jesus have stabbed a Roman who was mistreating a Hebrew? I think here of Moses who killed an Egyptian for the same reason.

Is it fair to say that because Jesus fashioned a whip to drive money lenders from the temple that he would use a machine gun to drive invaders out?

Would Jesus stand by and do nothing while an invader attacked civilians?

If we suggest that Jesus would take up arms "in the right circumstances" then we can imagine Jesus with the bayonet or the machine gun. But if we can't imagine Jesus with the bayonet or machine gun, can we say that there are ever "the right circumstances" for that kind of violence?

If we suggest that Jesus would not bear arms against the invader, we must imagine a way to be Christian in the midst of an oppressive regime. How would Jesus have lived if Capernaum had been invaded by the worst warlords in history? Choose whichever warlord you like for the exercise.

In the end we have to return to the biblical accounts of Jesus and his disciples who lived under Roman military occupation, albeit mostly benevolent, and who chose a path of non-violence on the way to his death at the hands of those same Romans. He chose a violent rebel, Simon the Zealot, to be one of his disciples and taught him to love the enemy, to pray for the persecutor, to go the extra mile for the oppressor.
Look! Christ in khaki, out in France thrusting his bayonet into a German workman. See! The Son of God with a machine gun ambushing a column of German infantry. …. That picture is impossible – and we all know it.
Christ in khaki... an impossible picture.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Blessed, not Flourishing

Blessed. The word is a rorshach test. Ask a Christian what they mean when they say it and you'll catch a glimpse into their theology. From the highly unscientific research I've conducted it seems that most people treat it as happy, fortunate, recipient of a gift, well off, and so on. In some cases that's what we mean when we say it too, and in some cases that's what the biblical writers meant as well.

It reminds me of eudaimonia, the flourishing that many ancient Greek philosophers highlighted as the chief meaning of life. To be blessed is to have some kind of divine favour that leads to eudaimonia.

A little word study reveals an alternative to this concept of blessed in Jesus' sermon on the mount. In both Matthew and Luke the word behind "blessed" is makarios. Makarios was only used of the gods, the dead, and the astronomically wealthy. In short, if someone doesn't have to worry about the concerns of this world they are makarios-blessed. Strange, then, that Jesus says the following:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Jesus has put a message out that says it is possible to escape the trials of this world, that people can be free from worrying about the struggle and can get on with the more divine life. To mourn, to be meek, to hunger for righteousness; all of these things provide a way out of the drudgery of the daily grind, the daily pursuit of consumer goods, the daily concerns about career, and so on. Jesus' sermon is about a life distinct from those things, about a life that is makarios.

These blessings are not flourishing, and don't pretend to be flourishing. In stark contrast to eudaimonia they belong to an existence that is unencumbered from that life. Jesus' gospel is a new way to live, not a divinely-charged hyper-life that puts believers on the cover of lifestyle magazines. To be blessed this way is to be in the world but not of the world.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Yes, but is it ontological?

Much of my theological thinking has revolved around the sociopolitical role of the church and the ideology of the gospel. The church is a political strategy (thank you Stanley) in the world, a divine oppositional alternative to the established order (thank you Soren).

Where this kind of thinking goes next depends on whether we remain at the level of the sociopolitical or whether we insist on ontological repercussions. Is it enough to say that the church is counter-cultural or must we take it a step further an insist that the church is an ontological change as it becomes the new creation? As a sociopolitical element it fits neatly within Badiou's model of truth and subjectivity but is scarcely distinguishable from other instances of love, science, art and politics. We must avoid the notion of a church that is devoid of content and merely profound in structure. The content of the church and the gospel must have some significance.

The question that I've yet to answer for myself is whether the significance is confined only to a strict sociopolitical account or whether there is an actual ontological change for the Christian subject and therefore also an actual ontological change for the church in the world. Grace is real, but at what level?