“We’ve got to protect our borders.” A man named Hank approached me after a talk about Jesus’ way of peace that I gave at a church in the United States, and this is how he started a conversation.
“Tell me more,” I invited.
“We’re called by God to protect our own,” he said. Okay, I thought to myself; this is going to be interesting.
“You’re a Christian, yes?” I asked him. I wanted to confirm where he was coming from.
“Absolutely!” Hank confirmed. “Born and bred.”
“Wonderful,” I said. “I can understand an earthly nation needing to protect its borders, but can you tell me more about where you got the idea that our first calling as Christians is to protect ourselves?”
And off he went on a five-minute, wandering rant. For the sake of clarity, let me organize his thoughts into the following ten points:
Hank’s Top Ten List
- We (the United States—he wasn’t sure about Canada) are a Christian nation.
- As a Christian nation, we need to defend the freedom and liberty God has given us.
- Since God established this nation, it would be wrong to let it depart from the basics of the Bible.
- The Bible says that the government bears the sword to execute God’s judgement.
- In the Old Testament, God called Israel to go to war many times to defend their land.
- In the New Testament, Jesus said he came to bring a sword.
- In the book of Revelation, Jesus comes back with a sword and he is covered in blood, ready to kick ass.
- The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says it is our right and responsibility as good citizens to bear arms.
- Yes, Jesus might have said we should “turn the other cheek.” But we’ve only got two cheeks, so eventually we should hit back. (I thought that one was clever.)
- Therefore, good Christians should not be sissies and shrink from their responsibility to bear arms, protect our own, and defeat our enemies.
When Hank finished his rant, I could see he was convinced that he had just said some very convincing, very Christian things. I began my response by saying, “Thank you, Hank, for sharing those thoughts. But it seems to me like you would make a better Muslim than a Christian.” Now I had his attention. We had time, so one by one I began to respond to his arguments. My response went something like this:
- There is no such thing as a “Christian nation,” only Christian people—people of all nations who are part of the transnational, multiethnic kingdom of Christ.
- The only kingdom that God has given us to defend is the kingdom of Christ, and we defend and advance this kingdom by confronting lies with truth and hate with love.
- Christ-followers don’t just follow “the basics of the Bible”; we follow Jesus. Besides, the United States was born out of rebellion against their rightful ruler in England at that time, even if he wasn’t a very good one. It involved the manipulative and often violent acquisition of land filled with indigenous people—the Native Americans who were, well, here first. There is nothing particularly Christian about that beginning.
- Yes, Romans 13 says Christians should support, pay taxes, and pray for the government who bears the sword—right after Romans 12, where it says that Christians themselves should not directly participate in the sword-bearing itself. The means and the ends of the state (Romans 13) are different from the means and ends of the church (Romans 12).
- America is not Israel, and Jesus brought the new covenant and his new kingdom, which makes the old covenant obsolete (Hebrews 8:13).
- The “sword” Jesus brought is not held by his followers. The message of Jesus might bring the sword, but the context to this teaching tells us that Jesus means persecution of Christians, not violence done by Christians. In fact, one disciple, Peter, made the same mistake and thought that Jesus meant he should carry a literal sword and not be afraid to use it. Jesus had to rebuke him for his error.
- The “sword” that Jesus bears in the book of Revelation is coming out of his mouth—it is clearly his message. (Have you ever seen someone try to win a literal sword fight while holding a sword in the mouth? I haven’t either. Because that would be stupid.) And Jesus is said to be covered in blood before the battle even begins. This is his own blood shed for his enemies, not the blood of his enemies shed at his hand.
- Christ-followers are ultimately citizens of a different kingdom and a different kind of kingdom. We are ambassadors to our earthly nation on behalf of Christ’s country, where nonviolence is the norm. There is no Second Amendment in the Jesus Nation. The only way we “bear arms” is by wearing T-shirts.
- How many times did Jesus say we should forgive? Seventy times seven. That’s a lot of cheek.
- The Bible says good Christians should not shrink back from laying down their lives while loving their enemies. It is always Christlike to die for a cause, just never to kill for a cause.
I then explained to Hank that his misunderstandings of the way of Christ were more rooted in the example of Muhammad than Jesus. If we can believe the traditions of Muhammad’s life (the hadiths), Muhammad fought dozens of battles to establish and then defend an earthly, religiopolitical kingdom called a caliphate. The caliphate is a physical kingdom where the law of the land (sharia law) and the religion of the land (Islam) are fused together as a single way of life. In the caliphate, there is no separation between religion and politics, between ‘church’ and state. When it comes to understanding “the kingdom of God,” Muhammad and Jesus offer very different visions. I expect my Muslim friends to align with Muhammad. I expect people who call themselves Christians to align with Christ.
Every kingdom shapes, and is shaped by, three things:
- Its loyalty.
- Its laws.
- Its lifestyle.
In the kingdom of Christ, our loyalty is clear: Jesus. But what kind of law governs the actions of its citizens? (I’ll save discussing our lifestyle for another post.)
In Christ’s kingdom, the law of the land can be boiled down to one value that fulfills all laws: love. Love is our sharia, an Arabic word meaning “way” or “path.”
Love trumps law as the guiding principle of Jesus. Law is case specific, whereas love is universally applicable. Law is shaped by culture, whereas love shapes cultures by shaping hearts. In fact, when love leads our hearts, rules become redundant.
This kind of teaching didn’t go over very well with some of the religious elite in Jesus’ day. And today, little has changed. Religious people, including and especially the most dedicated, really love rules. Expected and even mandated patterns of behavior are easy because they are clear. “Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it” is the cry of many religious people who value clarity over caring.
On one occasion, Jesus was approached by a religious leader with a most important question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” the leader asked.
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:36-40)
Love God with all you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself. That’s the whole kit and caboodle, according to Jesus. On the surface his answer is incredibly simple. But if we look beneath the surface, we’ll see that it is also incredibly profound.
Do you see what Jesus did there? Jesus wasn’t asked for the top two commandments. He was asked for the greatest commandment. But in his response, Jesus showed that he wouldn’t let us separate love for God from love for one another. He knew that just loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength without an equal commitment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves could lead to expressions of religious piety that ignore the hurting people around us, or worse, actually hurt people around us. People blow themselves and others up for “love of God.” Other people dedicate their lives to meditating in monasteries while ignoring the hurting world around them for “love of God.” So Jesus tied our love for God together with our love for others. In fact, this bidirectional spirituality of Jesus teaches us that the primary way we love God is through loving others (see Jesus’ story about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46).
Near the end of his life, Jesus so much wanted to emphasize to his disciples the need to fuse their love for God together with practical, caring, other-centered love for one another that he skipped right over the first command and summed everything up in just the second:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
Two things changed from Jesus’ earlier statement of bidirectional love: First, Jesus placed what appears to be exclusive emphasis on what was the second commandment to love one another. Second, Jesus had altered the second commandment (now the one central command). Jesus told his followers not just to love others as they love themselves, but to love them the way he—Jesus—loved them. That is a big love upgrade!
The early church embraced this new moral code and adopted the “love others above all” ethic as the sum total of the law of the land in the kingdom of Christ (e.g., Romans 13:8; Galatians 5:14; Ephesians 5:2; James 2:8; 1 Peter 4:8; 1 John 3:14-18; 4:19-21). For instance, the apostle Paul said:
For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14, emphasis mine)
To people who have already declared their love for God and their commitment to follow Jesus, the early Church leaders made our focus clear: love others. In fact, the bi-directional, love-G0d-and-others command of Jesus is never repeated in New Testament writings. Loving others well is the primary way we love God.
Many religions have pious practices designed to please God: lengthy pilgrimages to holy shrines; daily prayers at specific times; holy ceremonies in holy buildings led by holy men wearing holy clothes while they perform holy rituals. But for Christ-followers…
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)
Simply loving others as Jesus does is our highest form of worship and the central ceremony of our “religion.”
[Adapted from my book, (re)union.]