Peace Theology · Spiritual Formation

Black Riders and the Battle in Our Minds

We live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ. 2 Cor. 10:3-5

Taking “every thought captive to obey Christ.” Here we see the power of rationality in all its image-of-God splendour! Note that the passage says that WE destroy arguments and every proud obstacle . . . And it is WE who take every thought captive. We must realize our power, the power of rationality. That power allows us to stand back and say no to one thought and yes to another. We choose which thoughts will be our reality. Our wills, not our feelings, direct our minds.

The idea of controlling our thoughts seems daunting. The forces we contend with in our inner life may feel as terrifying as the black riders whose power infiltrated Frodo’s mind when he put on the ring of power. Our minds may be inundated with guilt for a past transgression. We may seem powerless when someone puts the thought of chocolate in our minds. We may feel like a failure, hopeless and condemned. Nevertheless, Paul says in the passage above that it doesn’t matter how intimidating the powers are, we are still in charge.

We can rise up and take control of that dark, fearful and menacing thought and make it obedient to the gospel of Jesus Christ. For example, when guilt and condemnation trouble us, the gospel says, “If we confess our sin he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9) and “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God,” (1 Cor. 6:11) and “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isa. 1:18). This is our new reality, the reality of being born of the Spirit and being part of a new kingdom. All we need do is agree with this message and refuse any other.

One more thing. Taking every thought captive requires that we be still enough to be aware of the deeper thoughts within. If we race through life constantly in haste, our thoughts will drive us and we will have abandoned our God-given power of rationality. The dark powers will be only too willing to fill the vacuum we create by our refusal to choose God’s thoughts. If we don’t take responsibility for what goes through our minds, the black riders will gladly take the reins. Why not take a few minutes today to be still and gently place your mind on Jesus? Seeing his beauty, you will surely choose the good!

Peace Theology

Why Peace Means War

In our last post we considered how conflict is intrinsic to stories. Nevertheless, I maintained that there is a place for reading such stories to our children as we can interpret the violence as a picture of the spiritual war waged against us. Depending upon the age of the child, we will be able to say more or less on this subject.

In this post, I would like to further consider this great irony–Jesus’ calling to a life of peace, meekness and nonviolence means war. I alluded to this previously when I spoke of leading peace advocates such as Martin Luther King, Ghandi and Jesus, all of whom were murdered. Of course, we also have countless individuals from the early days of Christianity who were committed to living and proclaiming a life of peace, to doing good to everyone, to taking care of the poor and sick (even of their Roman oppressors), who were nevertheless slaughtered because of their convictions.

Hence, the seeming contradiction that peace means war was obvious to the early church. They saw their martyrdom as part of a great cosmic conflict with Satan. Well-known, for example, is the story of a young noblewoman named Perpetua who chronicled her story while waiting to be thrown to wild beasts in the arena. She tells of her passionate love for Jesus that made her refuse to recant her faith even though she had a nursing baby. Her heartbroken father begged her to recant and at one point he rolls on the ground and plucks out his beard with grief. Yet Perpetua remains strong as we see from her diary:

“Father,” said I, “do you see this vase here, for example?”
“Yes, I do,” said he.
And I told him: “Could it be called by any other name than what it is?”
And he said: “No.”
“Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.”

With Perpetua is her slave, Felicity, who is pregnant and gives birth while in prison. Felicity too refuses to deny her Lord and they are both martyred for their faith in A.D. 203 in Carthage, North Africa.

The night before she was to be executed Perpetua has a vision of herself fighting with a terrifying Egyptian warrior. The vision teaches her that she is embroiled in a spiritual war and that the real enemy she fights with is Satan. In her vision the warrior strikes at her heal, but she treads on his head and is victorious. The editor who continued Perpetua’s diary after she was taken by the guards describes her and Felicity’s end:

The day of their victory dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheater joyfully as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare by her own intense gaze.

That Christians are in a war with a vicious, invisible enemy has always been the church’s understanding. As Greg Boyd writes in God at War, much of the New Testament does not make sense without understanding the reality of the dark forces coming against us.

“Jesus’ teaching, His exorcisms, His healings and other miracles, as well as His work on the cross, all remain, to some extent, incoherent and unrelated to one another until we interpret them within this apocalyptic context—until we interpret them as acts of war. . . . Jesus never once appeals to a mysterious divine will to explain why a person is sick, maimed or deceased.

In every instance, He comes against such things as the by-products of a creation that has gone berserk through the evil influence of a satanic army. Many times, he attributes sicknesses to direct demonic involvement.”

Jesus leaves us in no doubt concerning the reality of this war, but also the kind of weapons he uses to defeat the powers. Whereas the devil and his forces fight by stealing, killing and destroying, Jesus overwhelms with life and that abundantly (John 10:10. He destroys the work of the devil (1 John 3:8) by healing and doing good (Acts 10:38). Similarly, Paul informs us that we do battle with darkness by being kind to our enemies, giving them food and drink if necessary. In so doing we “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17-21).

Early Christians knew Jesus’ battle strategy and they eagerly enlisted for this war. Ignatius of Antioch, whom tradition says was a disciple of the Apostle John, speaks of the battle with Satan. Despite the cruelty of the enemy, Ignatius fights with “meekness, by which the devil, the prince of this world, is brought to nought.” Ignatius saw himself in a spiritual war right up until the end when he was torn apart by wild beasts for the entertainment of the crowds in a Roman colosseum.

The Bible writers link peace with warfare. Paul tells his Roman readers, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet (Rom. 16:20). Part of the believer’s clothing for spiritual war will be “shoes” that make us “ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15). And the greatest peace offering– Jesus giving his life for our salvation–is described as an act of war by which he destroys the devil (Col. 1:20; Col. 2:13-15;Heb. 2:14-15; 1 Cor. 2:6-8).

Perhaps there is no better chapter in the Bible than Luke 10 to see how the gospel of peace is God’s plan to vanquish the forces of evil. Jesus prepares his disciples for an evangelistic mission by making it clear that they are headed into war. He tells them, “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (v3) and giving you “authority to tread on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy”(v19). At the same time, he gives them assurance of absolute victory by explaining that Satan has already been defeated. Jesus, in fact, witnessed him being thrown out of heaven (v18). Therefore, Jesus can guarantee his followers that “nothing will hurt you.”

He explains they will not fight by earthly weapons nor in a spirit of anger. Rather, they are to come against the evil one by bringing a spirit of peace to everyone they meet, by graciously eating whatever they are offered, by healing the sick and announcing the great, comforting news that, “the kingdom of God has come near you.”

So how do we apply this to our current context, a world increasing in hostility daily it seems? How do we deal with angry people filled with a determination to fight for their rights and mercilessly punish anyone who disagrees with them? Like those first disciples, Jesus calls us to “let our peace” come into our environment. He asks us to listen to those we disagree with, to put ourselves in their place and not judge them. God tells us to not let their bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander or malice infect us (Eph. 4:31).

Of course, this is completely different than the spirit of the world. Even some Christians bristle at the thought of not responding with anger to those who oppose them. But that’s precisely what God calls us to do. In fact, according to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, if we are not making peace, we’re not children of God (Mat. 5:9). He reiterates this point later in the sermon when he tells his followers to turn the other cheek when someone strikes them, to practice the servant life if someone takes advantage of them and even to love their enemies. Only then, Jesus says, will we be God’s children (Mat. 5:38-45). As we see from Perpetua, Felicity and a host of other martyrs, truly this war takes courage!

In our next post, we will turn inward and consider the war being waged in the battleground of our minds. We will see that dark powers can keep us in a state of turbulence if we refuse to take the responsibility given to us as God’s image-bearers.

Peace Theology

Should We Read Stories that Contain Violence to Our Children?

My last post leads to a big problem. In it I talked about “the myth of redemptive violence,” the belief that violence is the way to bring about peace. WWI, naively labeled “the war to end all wars,” stands as the protoypical example. We saw how this myth is embedded in stories, including children’s stories where the good guy vanquishes an enemy in order to bring about peace i.e., everyone “lives happily ever after.” And here the problem arises. Would a serious Christ-follower then have to throw out all stories to follow Christ’s way of nonviolence? I say “all stories” because some level of violence or conflict is an essential element of a story. Have you ever read a decent story where there was no conflict? They don’t exist.

Embedded in the very fabric of story is the nature of the world we were born into– a world of conflict, violence and struggle. The Bible makes it clear that we are, in fact, in a war; it’s just not against physical enemies. “Our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). We know we’re in a war and, more importantly, we want to fight. We want to see the good triumph and evil be overcome. Ironically, stories involving conflict will always attract us because we want to see conflict vanquished. We long for the kingdom that is not of this world with its true, lasting peace.

Notice in the verse quoted above the enemies we fight against, “rulers,” “authorities,” “cosmic powers.” Most astonishly, it says they’re “in the heavenly places.” Clearly, much of the theatre of this war lies far above our comprehension. We can’t see our enemies, but our minds only understand through what they can picture. How then can we have any understanding of the conflict we are involved in? We need concrete images to understand spiritual realities. Stories provide a means of making this spiritual war somehow more real and understandable. 

The story that shapes my picture of this invisible war more than any other is The Lord of the Rings. Like hobbits we are caught up in a battle being waged against us by gigantic forces much stronger than we are and which we know very little about. Indeed, we see through a glass darkly. However, despite our ignorance of what’s going on, God calls us to play a significant part in this monumental struggle of good and evil. When I feel an internal battle going on, I remember Frodo and Sam on their way to Mordor and I remember their success against all odds. And I know I’m involved in a bigger struggle, and yes, there are dark forces that threaten, but I’m not alone. There are also gigantic forces for good that have given me a mission to carry out. I feel strengthened for the fight.

Therefore, we can read some stories that contain violence even to our children. Discernment, of course, is required. Firstly, they should be stories that exemplify virtues such as courage, self-sacrifice, longsuffering etc., stories that glorify the good. Secondly, they should not sensationalize violence or indulge in it gratuitously. And thirdly, we must continually remind ourselves that such stories are only physical pictures of a spiritual reality. 

In the case of children, we may have to tell them that we can’t say much about this invisible war right now, but that we’ll explain more later when they can understand. We can ask God for wisdom on this, wisdom such as Corrie ten Boom’s father had when she asked him about sex as a young girl. They were about to disembark from a train and Corrie’s father put his suitcase on the floor in front of her.

“Will you carry it off the train, Corrie?” he said. I stood up and tugged at it. It was crammed with the watches and spare parts he had purchased that morning.

“It’s too heavy,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “And it would be a pretty poor father who would ask his little daughter to carry such a load.  It’s the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you are older and stronger you can bear it. For now you must trust me to carry it for you.”

And I was satisfied.  More than satisfied, wonderfully at peace. There were answers to this and all my hard questions, for now I was content to leave them in my father’s keeping.

As with sexuality, how much we say to children about the forces of darkness requires wisdom. In addition to praying for wisdom, I suggest this is something small groups of parents should discuss together.

In our next post, we will consider the irony that the gospel of peace necessitates war.

Peace Theology · Spiritual Formation

Why Have Even Christians Had Faith in Violence?

As we close out 2021 let us reflect on the contrast of the angels’ Christmas greeting, “peace on earth, good will to all,” with how the year began i.e. even professing Christians violently storming the capitol building of the United States.

In my last post we saw that Jesus perfectly reveals God’s nature. He did so most clearly on the cross where we see perfect love enduring the greatest  pain and humiliation in order to bring salvation and show humanity his new nonviolent way of living. Many Christians are OK with Jesus bringing us salvation, but not sure about the idea that his death demonstrates a nonviolent lifestyle for us to follow. 

The church has tended to focus on sexual sin as the great evil while downplaying the role violence plays in human affairs. Yes, sexual immorality is to be avoided at all costs, but so is our innate tendency to violence. Why, then, has there been a neglect of this essential biblical teaching? One reason is our great faith in violence as the means to get what we want. A glance at world history establishes this as an indisputable fact. Corpses and maimed bodies litter the millenia as powerful tribes and nations subdue their less powerful neighbours and plunder their resources. The strong dominate the weak. The rich spoil the poor. In 2021 we saw human faith in violence continuing unabated as Putin invaded Ukraine. 

That nations use violence to get what they want surprises no one. What is much more difficult to understand is how those who claim to have accepted Jesus’ gospel of peace participate in it. The blunt truth is that professing Christians did take part in the Jan. 6th violence protesting the supposed election steal of Joe Biden from Donald Trump.(see here)
“Indeed, antagonistic religious imagery was easy to spot at the Capitol raid the next day. One insurrectionist photographed in the building’s rotunda wore military fatigues with a patch on the shoulder that showcased a cross and the words “Armor of God.” Just below was another patch featuring a slogan wrapped around a stylized skull used by the comic book character The Punisher: ‘God will judge our enemies. We’ll arrange the meeting.’”(source)

One factor that has facilitated this willingness to engage in violence is “Christian nationalism” ideology. This set of beliefs includes the idea that God was behind the founding of the U.S. as a kind of promised land and that it is one’s God-given duty to keep it that way by routing out enemies. For some this even includes doing so violently if need be. “Christian nationalism really tends to draw on a kind of an Old Testament narrative, a kind of blood purity and violence where the Christian nation needs to be defended against the outsiders,”. . .(source)

Thankfully, many Christians are calling out the idolatry which equates the state with God’s kingdom. Several hundred prominent evangelical clergy members launched the “Say ‘No’ to Christian Nationalism” campaign to “recognize and condemn the role Christian nationalism played in the violent, racist, anti-American insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6.(source) Christianity Today adopted a similar posture in “offer[ing] advice to church leaders trying to deradicalize members of their own community.”(source)

One need not take a pacifist position to condemn such violence. There may be occasions when violence must be reluctantly engaged in, for example, when confronting someone raping a woman or the invasion of Ukraine spoken of above. The difficulty lies in our sinful human nature combined with the effectiveness of violence to get our way. That is, once we allow that there are some circumstances where violence is necessary, history has shown that it is easy to expand the number of such occasions to the point where violence can be justified pretty much for whatever we want.

For example, scripture was used to support the violent European conquest of North America. One American colonist who, after his group had completely annihilated an entire tribe of Native Americans, testified, “Sometimes Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents…We had sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.”(source)

A 1493 papal Bull justified declaring war on any natives in South America who refused to adhere to Christianity. The jurist Encisco claimed in 1509: “The king has every right to send his men to the Indies to demand their territory from these idolaters because he had received it from the pope. If the Indians refuse, he may quite legally fight them, kill them, and enslave them, just as Joshua enslaved the inhabitants of the country of Canaan. (source)

The same logic was used in the American Revolutionary War, the Civil War and countless others. 

Another reason for our faith in violence besides its ability to help us get what we want is what Walter Wink has described as “the myth of redemptive violence.” 

“[The myth of redemptive violence] enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world. … The belief that violence ”saves” is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience unto-death.” (source)

 World War I stands out as the prototypical example, being labeled “the war to end all wars.” In 1928, just to try to make that phrase a reality the nations of the world, including Germany, signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact where they agreed not to use war as a means of settling a dispute. Of course, we know how long that lasted. The hope that WWI was the “war to end all wars” evaporated like the end of the rainbow.

While violence in the short term may help us get what we want, its ability to bring lasting peace has been a spectacular failure. Nevertheless, the myth that violence will defeat violence continues as seemingly the number one strategy humans rely on. We’re indoctrinated with this propaganda from our earliest days in the form of fairy stories. The hero battles a monster, dragon or wicked king and brings about eternal peace i.e. they all “live happily ever after.” 

The indoctrination doesn’t stop with children’s stories. Hart Wiens, the Director of Scripture Translation at the Canadian Bible Society, writes about how the myth of redemptive violence is perpetuated in adult books and movies. “The plot is depicted graphically in movies like Jaws, Rambo, and Air Force One. Likewise, the classic gunfighters of the “Western” settle old scores and restore order by shootouts, never by due process of law. The law in fact, is suspect, too weak to prevail in the conditions of near-anarchy that fiction has misrepresented as the Wild West. The gunfighter must take matters into his own hands. Similarly in the big city, in movies such as Dirty Harry, a beleaguered citizen finally rises up against the crooks … and creates justice out of the barrel of a gun. This is the environment in which we are catechized – more effectively than in any Sunday school.” (source)

Martin Luther King unmasked the lie behind this myth in December 1964: “Violence as a way of achieving justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible.”

Our belief in violence can be seen in one more disturbing fact: the vehement hatred of those who refuse to believe in violence. It can’t be a coincidence that arguably the three strongest voices lifted up against violence have all been killed, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and, worst of all, the One whose life was perfect peace.

The myth of redemptive violence is universal– almost, but not quite. Jesus shows us a different path. He inaugurates a realm of peace by completely contradiciting and confounding human wisdom. Instead, of killing others, he allows himself to be killed in their place. He says in effect. “Can’t you see that the way of violence is not working. It’s been going on incessantly for millenia and nothing has changed. I have a different plan–loving your enemy, turning the other cheek, living in peace with everyone.”

In the next post I will argue, perhaps surprisingly, that the war motif in stories (and in the Bible) still has a place. We are, in fact, very much caught up in a war. It’s just not a physical one.

Peace Theology · Spiritual Formation

A New Revelation of God!

As a Carribean hurricane wipes out every shanty in its path, so the New Testament destroys all previous conceptions of God. That is not to say that there was never any understanding of God before Christ came. Confucius, the Stoics and indeed all religions everywhere no doubt have some revelation of God’s glory and beauty. All humans can understand something of God through creation (Rom. 1:20). However, before Jesus, God had never been known in his essence. 

A bold claim indeed, but one that is clearly made in the New Testament. Paul says it was impossible for human beings to figure out God with their own wisdom (1 Cor. 1:18-25). God ordained that the only way to truly know him was through his foolishness, that is, through the death of a crucified messiah. Commenting on this passage, one scholar reminds us that, 

“Death on a cross was regarded in Roman society … as brutal, disgusting, and abhorrent. It was reserved for convicted slaves and convicted terrorists, and could never be imposed upon a Roman citizen or more “respectable” criminals.  It was so offensive to good taste that crucifixion was never mentioned in polite society, except through the use of euphemisms.  For Gentiles who might imagine a “divine” savior figure, and for Jews who expected a Messiah anointed with power and majesty, the notion of a crucified Christ, a Messiah on the cross, was an affront and an outrage.” 

No human being could have ever guessed that such a mangled spectacle has anything to do with a revelation of the power and glory of God. 

When we consider that Jesus shows us precisely what God is like (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3), the significance of the cross goes way beyond simply an understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection as the means of our salvation. Equally important is that Jesus’ Passion gives us an understanding of the nature of God. Indeed, the cross gives us a glimpse of the essence of God–love willing to suffer to the max for others. 

As the exact image of God, Jesus shows us that God  would choose to establish “justice and peace through his own death, rather than through the death of those who stood in his way.” God would ask for his executioners’ forgiveness even as he expired at their hands (Luke 23:34). 

What happened through the cross was so inconceivable, no one could have imagined the “the length and breadth and height and depth” of the love of God that would go to such extremes for our sake. I titled this post, “A New Revelation of God.” Perhaps some are thinking, “That’s not very new. The church has believed Jesus fully reveals the nature of God for almost 2,000 years.” But have we come to grips with the idea that, if Jesus is God, then God is nonviolent love?

I find that making such a claim gets push back even from Christians. I will suggest in the next post one of the reasons for this is our love for and great faith in violence.