Paris. Beirut. Mali. A wave of murderous violence has issued from the Islamic State and Al Qaeda over the past week. Based on credible intelligence, Brussels is bracing for a similar attack.
Polls tell us that a majority of Americans favor increased air strikes on ISIS-held territory. A host of governors insist that their states will not accept Syrian refugees. The House of Representatives has moved to implement more stringent screening for refugees.
The slaughter of innocents outrages us. The threat of harm to us and to our loved ones on our own shores frightens us. We are prepared to strike back and to reinforce our defenses.
Our response to such violence and suffering is understandable. This is what we fallen humans do. God created us to seek enduring justice and peace. Alas, in our fallen state, violence has been our failed recurring strategy for achieving these holy ends.
Facing violence and unspeakable suffering at the hands of the Roman Empire, Jesus says something that should give his followers pause as we scramble for a response to the very real threat of ISIS. “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over… But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36)
The religious authorities have turned Jesus over to the Roman authorities. He stands accused of grabbing political power from Rome. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” In other words, “Are you rising in political opposition to Rome’s imperial authority?”
Jesus makes it clear that his kingdom is not from this world. He doesn’t mean that his kingdom exists in some other place or that it is merely spiritual rather than earthly. Instead, God sent Jesus into this world to reclaim his rule over it.
Let me be clear about this. God did not merely send Jesus to improve our behavior, to get us in line with the divine rules. Our problem runs much deeper than that. The computer code that runs our human world has been corrupted. Jesus has come to rewrite our operating system.
God created us in the divine image. In the Garden of Eden, we were invited to participate in God’s mission of nurture and compassion. God’s love would flow through our hands. The creation would grow and flourish as a result.
The story of the Fall suggests that our operating system has been infected in some way. Instead of compassion and nurture we respond with coercion and violence. The Bible tells this story again and again as the story of Empires set against the Kingdom of God.
Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Rome reign by exerting power over people. Their authority is coercive. The threat of violence lies at the heart of every empire. Empires maintain their borders with violence and expand their borders by conquest.
Imperial peace is nothing more than fear-induced compliance. Suffering, resentment, oppression, and degradation lace this kind of peace. A privileged few reap status and wealth and security. Many find themselves crushed and suffocating, struggling to keep their heads above water and finding degrading comfort in being a little better off than the next guy.
When Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world, he means that the Kingdom of God—the Kingdom of God as he is bringing it into this world—looks nothing like an empire. Jesus’s followers do not seek to overcome violence and suffering by exercising violence and creating suffering. The way of Jesus is the way of compassion and healing.
Listen to the slightly altered words that we prayed at a liturgy I participated in this past week:
Jesus speaks through hungry women, outcast men,
the poor and impure.
He chooses what is despised to make us whole.
He abandons the temple, laughs at the powerful,
kisses sinners, and heals the unclean.
He breaks open the prisons, frees slaves and captives, feasts with the starving, and breaks bread with strangers.*
Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, to forgive those who hate us, to serve the widow and the orphan. And I don’t remember Jesus ever saying that this would be easy or safe. On the contrary, before his death he told his friends, “Don’t lose heart.” (John 14:1; translation my own) In other words, be courageous. Persevere. Take risks in the powerful name of love.
Like many of my colleagues and friends, I urge my fellow citizens and our elected officials to make space in our land for refugees from the unspeakable terror in Syria. This is not risk-free. Compassion and justice never are.
But let us learn the lessons of our own history. We turned away a ship of 900 German Jews fleeing the Nazis and rejected a proposal to receive 20,000 Jewish children. Their fate in the death camps haunts our national memory still.
I am not a pacifist, and yet I recognize that war is never a good. It is always the least bad terrible thing available to us in certain situations. When the weak and the innocent suffer at the hands of brutal powers like ISIS, we find ourselves compelled to protect those who cannot defend themselves.
And yet we must always be mindful of this. Even unrepentant, remorseless killers are children of God. When we take up arms against them, we kill and maim those whom our God loves.
This is why we need a King who is also our Savior. We inhabit a broken universe that we cannot fix with our own hands and our own hearts. Only a power greater than ourselves can restore us to the sanity God originally intended.
Jesus began this restoration in the manger and on the cross. As we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, we are reminded that he will come again to complete what he has begun. And in the meantime, his work continues—imperfectly and haltingly—through the frail and fragile likes of us.
*Revised from Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, Paul Fromberg and Sara Miles