Nota Bene: A version of this sermon was published as an article in The Baptist Peacemaker in 2004.
The War Resister
Barbara Brown Taylor, one of Rev. Cindy’s major theological dialogue partners, says that it is time to put the “protest” back in “Protestant.” Specifically, she wants us to reclaim the prophetic traditions of the church—not absent from Catholic or Orthodox history by any means—that were nonetheless highlighted and emphasized by the Protestant Reformers. The renewed focus on close biblical study promoted, in different ways, by the likes of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrich Zwingli, and the Anabaptists of the Radical Reformation like Conrad Grebel, Michael Sattler, Pilgram Marpeck, Hans Hut, Pieter Ridemann, and Menno Simons, led to a recovery of the prophets of ancient Israel for the life of the church.
It has always fascinated me that Israel’s prophets flourished most with the institution of the monarchy. When Israel, and later the divided kingdom of Israel and Judah, desires to have kings “like the other nations,” God must continually give them prophets to remind them to be different from the nations, the empires. We need that, too. The church too often forgets to be different from the particular nations in which it lives. Especially in the United States, we are tempted to be “good Americans” first and “good Christians” only insofar as that doesn’t conflict with the other gods of this nation, especially the great gods “Free Market” and “War Machine.” “I knew just how much trouble we were in,” says the Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas, “in the days following Sept. 11, 2001, when politicians and pundits began to tell us that nothing after 9/11 could ever be the same as before.” They were saying that 9/11 was the decisive event in history, but, for Christians, the decisive event in history was the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And if we viewed the 9/11 attacks, and our vengeful response, through Jesus, things look very different.
We, like our spiritual forebears in ancient Israel and Judah, are too often tempted to understand our world and our lives in terms dictated by the empire. The biblical prophets can help us recover our own alternative readings of history. Today, in a time of greed, violence, war, and corruption, I especially want to highlight the life and message of the prophet Jeremiah, who, in the name of God, spoke out against greed, violence, war, and corruption in the Southern Kingdom of Judah 7 centuries before Jesus and did so for 40 long years.
Was the prophet Jeremiah a pacifist? If we mean to ask if Jeremiah was absolutely opposed to all uses of violence, then I don’t think the Scripture gives us enough information to settle the debate. Jeremiah makes no sweeping statements against all war and violence. His writings contain nothing similar to the Sermon on the Mount, nor does he ever suggest a disbanding of Judah’s army. What we can know for certain is that Jeremiah was a war resister. He resisted all the wars of his day and he inspires us to resist the wars of our day.
Consider Jeremiah’s resounding denunciation of Judah’s war plans in chapter 21. Zedekiah, God’s anointed King of Judah, wanted Jeremiah’s counsel in order to make sure that God was on the king’s side in the coming war against Babylon. Did Jeremiah give such assurance? NO! In fact, Jeremiah sounded positively treasonous to Judah’s pro-war party. The prophet claimed that their proposed war was an offense to God and that, if they went to war, God would fight against them and punish them!
Behold,[God says] I will turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands with which you fight against the King of Babylon. . . . And I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and with a strong arm, even in anger and in fury and in great wrath! (21:3-5)
This language is all the more startling when we realize that King Zedekiah’s war aims were so much more justifiable than those of contemporary imperial USA. Zedekiah had no doctrine of “preemptive war,” nor “preventive war,” nor any ambitions for “regime change” in Babylonia. He only wanted the prophet to assure him of God’s approval of Judah’s military resistance to the Babylonian Empire’s plans to annex Judah. King Zedekiah’s war aims were purely defensive and would probably have met the criteria of the later “Just War” tradition—something the “preventive war” doctrine formulated by Bush (and partially continued by Obama) definitely does not.
Yet, even if Zedekiah’s war aims would have passed muster with the Just War criteria of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas (and Luther, Calvin, and many contemporary Protestant theologians), they could not pass Jeremiah’s criteria for divine approval. Using terms as harsh as those Jesus used against the disciples’ attempted defensive violence in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26), Jeremiah thundered against Zedekiah’s plans to resist Babylon with military might.
Why was Jeremiah so sure that God was against the planned violent defense of Judah (including defense of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Temple of YHWH)? Why was Jeremiah so sure that God wanted no military resistance to the cruel invasion of the Babylonians? Jeremiah understood that foreigners and people of other religions could still be the agents of the very will of God. Like other pre-exilic prophets, Jeremiah saw the coming loss of Judean national sovereignty as the instrument of God’s corrective discipline for an unfaithful people.
Therefore, Jeremiah accepted the Babylonian king as a new overlord, under whom Judah would be safe from other would-be invaders and able to learn a better way to be God’s covenant people. Violent resistance would not succeed in saving Judah’s national sovereignty, Jeremiah knew, but it would result in a much harsher invasion, occupation, and deportation into a long exile. And thus it came to pass.
Jeremiah’s attitude was light-years away from that of contemporary nationalism or patriotism. By the standards of contemporary U.S. Christians, Jeremiah would be a traitor who shamelessly cooperates with the enemy. People of other religions justified in conquering the would-be People of God while God’s prophet consorts with those pagans? Strong stuff. Any Christian wishing to justify a current crusade against Muslims had better leave Jeremiah off the reading list.
Jeremiah insists in chapters 12 and 18 that God is free to make or unmake any nation of people as God’s own—with no exceptions for Judah—or for the U.S. or the modern state of Israel for that matter. To Jeremiah, God is universal and the moral rules of Torah are universal in application. The Way of God cannot be made the exclusive claim of any single nationality, culture, or ethnic group. A people can only demonstrate that they are God’s people by abiding in God’s will.
Jeremiah declares that God’s covenant with Israel/Judah is broken and nullified. He looks for a new covenant that God will write on the hearts of God’s people (31:31-33). Jeremiah anticipates and informs Jesus’ own revolutionary extension of the divine covenant to the Gentiles.
Jeremiah’s call for the men of Judah to “circumcise their hearts” instead of their foreskins will inform the Apostle Paul’s judgment that Gentile Christians do not need physical circumcision to be part of God’s covenant people. (See especially the argument Paul makes to the Galatians.) Women and eunuchs cannot be physically circumcised, but they can “circumcise their hearts” through baptism. Here is a universal invitation to be included in the People of God, but also a universal challenge to faithfulness.
So what is God’s will for any people that would call themselves the People of God? According to Jeremiah, God’s people make justice and not war. In chapter 5, Jeremiah denounces the way the rich people of Judah exploit their poor neighbors. Jeremiah describes the rich of his day as “setting traps” for their fellow human beings and accuses them of having no respect for the rights of other people. He accuses the religious leaders of his day of exploiting their positions and then he declares that the majority of the people enjoy this abominable situation.
All this sounds horrifyingly contemporary and applicable to U.S. Christians. The rich steal from the poor with the help of government. Government tax giveaways to the rich hurt the poor and the common good. The rich convinced the government in 1981 to repeal usury laws that once limited how much interest credit card companies could charge. In the late 1990s, the rich convinced the government to abolish the wall between investment banks and regular banks that had been in place since 1937—allowing huge “too big to fail” financial institutions to gamble with ordinary people’s money—and wreck the global economy. (By the way, that wall between ordinary banks and investment firms was not restored in the recent financial reform law.) Then the rich convinced the government to make it harder for the poor to declare bankruptcy but easier for wealthy corporations to do the same. In the name of “tort reform,” the rich convince the government to limit the amount of damages that courts can award people who have been harmed by corporations. The U.S. Supreme Court rules that government can use “eminent domain” to take private homes and businesses NOT for highways, parks and other public use, but to sell them to big corporations to “develop.” And, in the ultimate insult, that same Supreme Court declares that “corporations are persons” and “money is speech,” and, therefore, corporations may spend unlimited amounts of money electing tame politicians who help them continue to rob the poor.
Meanwhile far too many church leaders support all this “reverse Robin Hood” action. A nationwide study conducted by Baylor University found that frequent church attenders oppose government assistance to the unemployed because they identify the “invisible hand” of the so-called “free market” with the Providence of God! In this messed up theology, if some are rich it is not because they have exploited others, but because God has made them rich and, if others are unemployed or underemployed or even homeless, it is because they have sinned in some way. Nationally famous church leaders glorify violence, promote war, call for assassination of some foreign leaders while defending other dictators with whom they are in big business. Other famous clergy engage in the sexual exploitation of children and then scapegoat vulnerable populations such as minority ethnic groups, minority religions, single mothers, sexual minorities and other vulnerable groups. In 2009, A Pew Study was released that still has me in shock: It showed that the more frequently one attended church in the U.S., the more likely one was to think that “some torture is justified!” It is not hard to guess what Jeremiah would say to us.
Jeremiah also had much to say about exploited laborers and the unfair treatment of resident aliens. In chapters 7 and 22, Jeremiah rails against the exploitation of poor workers and resident aliens. What Jeremiah would say about the current demonization of immigrants and refugees in this country is not hard to guess. One of King Zedekiah’s predecessors, King Jehoiakim, is denounced for exploitation of the poor by building large palaces and employing the poor at low wages to build them. No doubt Jehoiakim defended his “jobs program” by explaining that living wages would hurt competition and small businesses.
Ever since 1981, U.S. labor law has become increasingly weaker and workers’ rights ignored or undermined, along with the ability to engage in collective bargaining through labor unions. Global trade agreements like NAFTA, CAFTA, and the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, subordinate national labor laws to these treaties, along with using these treaties to override local environmental and workplace safety rules. Now, the government is free to give rich no-bid contracts for rebuilding to corporate cronies and exploit the workers they hire for this necessary work! Further, millions of resident aliens in the U.S. labor in slave-like conditions in U.S. fields and sweatshops (intimidated by the lack of “green cards” into keeping quiet about their abuse). Led by the state of Arizona, state after state in this country is rushing to pass ever harsher laws against undocumented workers and immigrants, culminating in Alabama’s new law that would cut off water to anyone who couldn’t PROVE citizenship!
Like all true prophets, Jeremiah constantly announced that economic exploitation and war were fundamental offenses to God and no amount of “prosperity doctrine” or “health and wealth” gospel by the false prophets of his day or ours can efface that reality.
A prophetic war resister like Jeremiah will not only be unpopular with the rich and powerful, but often with the common folk as well. Throughout the Book of Jeremiah we see him hounded as a traitor and a troublemaker. He was accused of destroying the people’s morale during wartime.
Early in his career as a prophet, the people of his hometown threw Jeremiah into the stocks. Later, he was thrown in prison. Still later, he was thrown into a partially dry cistern where he sank into the mud and experienced continual physical pain.
God wasn’t easy on Jeremiah, either. God forced Jeremiah to prophesy doom and destruction on the people he loved and when Jeremiah tried to be silent, the Word of God burned in his bones like fire! God refused to let Jeremiah marry or have children—a huge curse in his culture. Jeremiah was a priest who was forbidden to serve at Temple!
Having been forced to watch most of the people of Judah taken into Exile by the Babylonians, near the end of Jeremiah’s life, he was abducted and forced to go to Egypt by a group of Judah’s “freedom fighters” who had assassinated the Babylonian governor of their region. The group which kidnapped Jeremiah pressured him into prophesying things that would favor their actions, but he steadfastly refused. He died in Egypt.
Violent, terrorist “patriots” holding war resisters captive sounds very contemporary, doesn’t it?
In the passage we read for today, 29:1-14, Jeremiah writes to the people of Judah taken into exile in the Babylonian empire. He outlines a “mission strategy” if you will, that I think will serve a global church, scattered in exile in the various nations around the world.
“Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters. Take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage. That they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there and do not decrease. But seek the Shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf for in its’ shalom you will find your shalom. ”
It’s a risky strategy. One is not to disappear into the greater culture. One must remain a distinct people—and this will mean resisting many of the customs of the surrounding empire. One has to continue to have children—a sign of hope in a world bent on destruction. But then one seeks the welfare, the shalom, the peace, of the city where one is in exile. Seek BABYLON’s peace and well- being? Babylon who has just destroyed the nation and the temple of God? Yes—and we have to seek the peace of Louisville of the U.S., of whatever city and country God sends us—and pray to God on its behalf. But the empires of our exile may not recognize that we seek their shalom: Our resistance to the values of violence and greed and corruption—our refusal to cheer military victories or delight in the downfall of those named as enemies—our continued welcome to those named by others as “illegal” or “deviant” or “unclean,” all this may make the empire’s inhabitants nervous about us, to say the least. The WAY we are to seek the well-being, the “shalom” of our places of exile may not look very “shalom-seeking” to our unbelieving and other-believing neighbors.
We are likely to be misunderstood, as Jeremiah, was misunderstood—for 40 years of painful witness. Yet, if we too will become “circumcised of the heart” (ch. 4), Jeremiah is an excellent example for us of how to be faithful to God, resist injustice, war, and violence in our day as he did in his.
I have neglected this blog for too long. New posts will be coming soon. Pilgrim Pathways will return to being a blog mainly about Christian theology and related topics from my (ana)baptist, Believers’ Church, “incarnational discipleship” perspective.