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Things that Make for Peace: Gospel Against Empire

This post is a modified form of the talk I gave at Christians for Liberty 2015. The purpose of the talk was to explore why valuing peace is a critical point of integration for being a Christian libertarian. I wanted to answer the question, “Who are we, as Christians and as libertarians.”  If you were present at my talk, you’ll benefit from reading content left out due to limited time. 

If you were to take inventory of what you see in the world around you, what do you think our world needs most? What grieves you when you watch or read the news? What makes your heart ache?

What is your reaction to hearing about yet another mass shooting or a devastating hurricane in a developing country? What is your reaction to the political responses to these tragedies? I’m deeply frustrated by what I see. I wish gun control advocates would avoid hasty actions and thoughtless proposals. I wish gun rights activists would humbly acknowledge that arming more people is not the easy solution to a deeper problem. I shudder when I read that climate change is causing hurricanes and therefore the poor are in danger if we don’t stop using fossil fuels instead of equipping them with the fossil fuel-based technology to protect them from climate danger.

When we get past our initial reactions and look deep inside to ask what we’re really looking for in this world, the answer is so profound it is often treated as cliché, and we don’t do cliche. So we look for another answer. In the movie Miss Congeniality, Sandra Bullock’s character, a no-BS undercover agent who needs to infiltrate the Miss United States pageant, is asked, like all the other candidates, what the most important thing our society needs. Every other candidate, who is caricatured as mindless, vain females wrapped up only in their appearance, says, “World peace!” After each of their answers, the crowd erupts with applause. The scene illustrates how far-fetched and idealistic the desire for world peace is. Bullock’s character, true to her authenticity, replies, “Harsher punishment for parole violators.” Crickets. It is not until she reluctantly adds, “And world peace!” that the crowd erupts in applause for her. The scene illustrates that the answers provided by all but Bullock’s character were of the same makeup as the characters themselves: plastic.

Libertarians Value Peace

As trite as it may sound, seeking peace is not something libertarians are against. We are certainly for peace. Just consider Larry Reed’s book title: Anything Peaceful. If it is not done in peace we are against it. We want to eliminate the use of coercion and force in our world, and we are highly critical of the state because force is its modus operandi. We believe that conflict can be resolved through conversation, cooperation, and collaboration, whether it be between individuals or institutions or nations.

This commitment to peace is most succinctly described as an outworking of the non-aggression principle. No aggression is permissible except in cases of self-defense. Offensive aggression is just that: offensive.

But for Christians, there’s more meaning to peace.

Christians Value Peace

Just like any word, “peace” may not adequately capture the biblical concept of peace. The Bible starts with the world being spoken into existence instead of appearing as a result of the warring gods of Babylon. The Israelites, both in slavery, in their own land, or in exile, were a people longing for shalom. And we see God actively working to get his people there, culminating in Incarnation – Jesus. That’s why Jesus is so important. The heart of the Christian message is that God in Christ has come to bring peace to the world. Not just the absence of violence, but the presence of Shalom, a thoroughly Jewish theme.

Let’s define shalom.

Cornelius Plantinga defines shalom as “…the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight…Shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be…the full flourishing of human life in all aspects, as God intended it to be.”

So, think Eden. Original goodness as declared in the beginning. 

What results from shalom? Hugh Whelchel from TIFWE believes real shalom will produce the following:

  • Prosperity (Psalms 72:1-7)
  • Health (Isaiah 57:19)
  • Reconciliation (Genesis 26:29)
  • Contentment (Genesis 15:15; Psalms 4:8)
  • Good relationships between the nations and peoples (1 Chronicles 12:17-18). This means that peace has a social as well as a personal dimension.

The specific outcomes and results of such a world does not imply that everyone makes a particular wage, that income inequality is nonexistent, or that nobody ever owns a weapon of any kind (what would we do with rocks?). Perhaps in such a world there is a “living wage,” though how that comes about is probably through a combination of market forces and generosity instead of State-issued mandate. Perhaps in such a society health care will be affordable, but not because of a single-payer system for 100 million people but because basic needs are affordable through market efficiencies. Perhaps in such a world income inequality will be minimal or unproblematic, but because of genuine prosperity and thriving of all in society, not because of redistribution.

That last point, “good relationships between nations and peoples,” is important to focus on for a few moments. In 2 Corinthians 5 Paul identifies Christians as “ministers of reconciliation.” What does that mean? What God did in Christ was reconcile the world to himself. Christians have inherited that ministry. I know most people think of this as a mission to convert individuals, but I think it goes further than that. The world needs the gospel because the world needs peace. I believe that Christians have a unique role to play in the world of politics if we are careful and deliberate.

If the gospel of Jesus were merely about personal spiritual awakening, Pilate and Caiaphas would not have colluded to crucify him. Yet Jesus was a threat to the Roman empire, and it was not because Jesus was a king like Caesar. It was because somehow what happened when people turned their allegiance to to King Jesus, it became a threat to the Roman empire. Identifying as Christian today poses little to no threat to the American Empire, but it should. Ron Paul, for instance, poses a serious threat with his prophetic admonitions to end the Federal Reserve System.

If allegiance to Jesus Christ does not in some way pose a threat to the empire, the gospel has been diluted to suit our consumeristic palates. Believing the gospel – being saved – is not a consumption good of eternal significance. It is a radical reorientation against empire and toward shalom. 

Christian and Libertarian

The commitment to peace is a minimum commitment to qualify as a libertarian. Libertarianism is by and large a philosophy about what one may not do to others and the logic that unfolds from that premise. However, deciding on what is prohibited, even if based on the non-aggression principle, does not go far enough for the Christian. If we are going to couple the term “Christian” and “libertarian” together, there’s something about the term “Christian” that modifies the kind of libertarians we are to be in the world.

Think about the second greatest commandment according to Jesus: Love your neighbor. Certainly not harming your neighbor by advocating freedom is included, but it does not capture the essence of love. Likewise, the essence of shalom is not captured by non-aggression alone. There is more to life than making sure people are simply nice to each other, though that’s enough of a task as it is!

When we confess “Jesus is Lord,” we are not simply affirming a religious dogma. We are declaring the counter-truth against the empires of this world, which say, “We rule you, bow to our demands.” We are declaring that Jesus is the rightful ruler of the world, and we can stand against the empire and say, “No, you’ve got it backward. You’re really not in charge, no matter how many weapons you wield.”

The empire is not inclined toward peace, but toward violence. Yes, modern empires have become particularly cunning in promising peace, but only at the expense of unwavering commitment to its agenda. And many Christians, Left and Right, succumb to its alluring aroma of power, endorsing it under the guise of the common good, establishing a “Christian nation,” or serving the kingdom of God. The result is the nearly cult-like fashion many Christians look for a leader that will set the tone for the nation. They look for perfect regulation that will stave off evil. They glorify or even worship the military instead of treating its rightful role as a protecting institution. They enthusiastically embrace so-called rights bestowed by the state because they feel entitled to the property of others.

The Christian commitment to peace starts with allegiance to the Prince of Peace. Allegiance to Jesus Christ is a threat to empire. The message of liberty is a threat to empire. Christian libertarians are armed with both messages and are capable of speaking truth to power in a fresh way to a generation discontent with the current scope of allowable opinion. The world must be rescued from violent regimes.

How is the world rescued from violence? This is a big question, one that Christians have wrestled with for centuries. Part of the answer lies in reading our Bibles and finding our place in the ongoing narrative of history to see where God is taking us.

“How is the world rescued from violence?” A big question deserves more time than a talk or a few articles, but in order to get at the answer we need to understand the narrative of Scripture and a theological concept called telos.

Telos

Jeffrey Tucker said at Students for Liberty in February, “If we knew what would result from freedom we wouldn’t need freedom.” This seems like an ambivalent way to treat outcomes, and it illustrates why Libertarians are not known for being people concerned with ends. “The ends don’t justify the means,” we often say. We talk about the legitimate use of force, which turns into discussions on the rightful place of state as an institution of force. I think Christian libertarians can offer something that is missing from this argument. That is, the means are the ends.

In a way, libertarians are concerned with the ends, just in a different way. Our “ends” are peaceful, non-aggressive, and free-from-violence processes from which emerge outcomes that indicate shalom. The “ends” are a way of being in the world.

So libertarians are about means and Christians believe the end is shalom. We believe this because we know there’s a future toward which humanity is heading. We have insight into the divine telos. That’s a Greek word, meaning “end, goal, completion, fulfillment.” It reminds us of the Jewish belief that YHWH would someday come to earth and set the world right by establishing justice and shalom. That was the telos toward which the world was headed.

Brian Zahnd cleverly titles a chapter in his book, Beauty Will Save the World, “I Am From the Future.” What he means is this: Jesus accomplished on the cross and through the resurrection the seeds of Christian hope: resurrection and new creation. Theologians call this “inaugurated eschatology.” Jesus is not Lord-Elect, Jesus is Lord today. This is why Paul can say, “If anyone is in Christ, there is new creation!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Brian Zahnd eloquently states what was being declared:

The world now has a new Lord. It is Jesus the Christ. The proof of this is that God raised him to life again after the principalities and powers of this age put him to death on a cross. All who believe this proclamation and confess Jesus as Lord are forgiven of their sins. Now, rethink your life and act accordingly.

If we are from the future but we live in the present, then we must introduce shalom to a world which does not have the insight we have. They don’t see “new creation,” but we must show them.

In the end, heaven comes down to earth and God rules, and there is shalom. I believe that imagery applies today, so that where we see Jesus reigning and ruling today, heaven is on earth. In fact, that’s what Jesus taught us to pray: “on earth as in heaven.”

Let’s be clear, here: if God needed the state to carry on the kingdom, there would be little need for the Church. Yeah, I know some people say there’s a role for the state to do its part for the Kingdom of God. But considering Jesus rejected those options, I’ll take that as a repudiation of the violence and thus the state. Babylon had plenty of strength and could have been used to extend the knowledge of YHWH throughout its empire. God could have used the power and extensive reach of the Roman empire to send the message of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. But what we see is God becoming flesh at a time when empire was at its pinnacle, during a time when “son of God” was a title given to Caesar Augustus, during a time when declaring Jesus is Lord was a highly charged counter-claim to empire, namely, “Caesar is not!”

The end to which history is heading – heaven on earth – is one away from reliance upon empire and toward reliance upon God as king. And just how does God act as king? Let’s take a look at the first group who were the people of God, Israel.

What we see in the story of Israel is a people thoroughly immersed in a grander narrative that framed their identity. Their oral tradition, which we have as literature today, were identity-forming stories. That’s why generations long after the exodus, the Israelites were celebrating, or enacting, Passover, because that was their past, and it was deeply ingrained in their identity.

They were shaped by their past but oriented toward the future. And what was the future? The day when things would be put right – shalom! 

Let’s go through a brief tour of Israel’s history.

Identity

The Big Story

Starting with Adam we see that humanity wants to be god-like rather than god-ly. Our propensity is to usurp God’s true authority, whether through being “like god” by eating the fruit of knowledge, building a tower to heaven (Babel), or asking to have a king like other nations. Human beings often seek some other authority other than God.

When Israel asked for a human king, they were rejecting God’s kingship over them. God relented, but we must remember that this was Plan B, not Plan A, where God ruled. 1 Samuel 8 is such a weighty passage that the astute reader might think that later in the Old Testament, God will probably say, “I told you so.”

But even then, God adapts to the new reality, letting Israel be free to choose a human king, and the rest of the Old Testament is Israel’s story centered on the story of David:

“I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.” (1 Chronicles 17:14)

“Of all my sons—and the Lord has given me many—he has chosen my son Solomon to sit on the throne of the kingdom of the Lord over Israel.” (1 Chronicles 28:5)

“Praise be to the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on his throne as king to rule for the Lord your God. Because of the love of your God for Israel and his desire to uphold them forever, he has made you king over them, to maintain justice and righteousness.” (2 Chronicles 9:8)

Remember, though, that a human king on the throne was God’s Plan B. It wasn’t God’s first desire. So under human kingship, the end result was, as we know, exile. In exile Israel must hope for God to someday rule again. When would that happen? Reading Amos 9:11, we read

“In that day ‘I will restore David’s fallen shelter—
I will repair its broken walls
And restore its ruins—
And will rebuild it as it used to be.”

The restoration of God’s rule was then framed in terms of the Davidic kingship. We should not read this as though God reflects and says, “Well, I guess the king thing worked out after all.” No, David left a legacy that hearkened back to a time when life was good for Israel (relatively speaking). So we see God telling Israel God will be restoring something again. There will be a new beginning. Their eschatology was awaiting a messiah that would be the new David.

So when we get to Acts 15, James verifies that exile is over because Jesus is the new beginning. God is once again on the throne and ruling the land. When Jesus is announcing the Kingdom of God is near, he is saying exile is over and God is now the rightful king.

Notice something about the phrase “Kingdom of God.” “Of God” is important, because as much as we see God’s newly restored people as a restoration of the Davidic Kingdom, it isn’t so much a better Plan B, but a Revised Plan A. When we think of Kingdom of God, or Kingdom of Heaven, it isn’t so much about a location or place of operation as it is a space here and now being occupied for a new purpose. It is a contrast between the rule of humans, even one so nostalgically remembered as David’s, and God’s rule.

One way to think of what happened 2,000 years ago is that God had brought the future for the world into the present. And the Early Church embraced this future orientation rooted in the history of Israel. In a very real sense, when the Church acts as the Body of Christ in the world today, we make the future happen in the present. It was demonstrated by God’s Son, and carried on through his Body – the Church – led by the Spirit. Insofar as God’s rule and reign is manifest today, we are witnessing the future. 

The Renewed People of God

The incarnation of Jesus and his message of the Kingdom make it clear that the purposes of God will one day be fulfilled. How? It will be accomplished through the Body of Christ, the Church — who N.T. Wright calls “the renewed people of God” — led by the Spirit into this new Kingdom reality. Our call and vocation as followers of Jesus is to build for this Kingdom.

So if the gospel stories were written to proclaim that God has become King, and Jesus’s main proclamation was, “The Kingdom of God is arriving in me,” then we have no reason to doubt the King’s power to advance his kingdom, in spite of all that stands in its way. Jesus’s way was peaceful, nonviolent, and self-sacrificial. This stands in stark contrast to the political kingdoms of this world (see Matthew 20:24-26).

So let me be clear here about our identity as Christians: the church is political through and through because its identity is counter-truth to the empire of lies. But let’s not be mistaken about what it means to “be political.” This doesn’t mean we ought to be more politically involved. What it means is that we are to embody what the reign of God looks like. Involvement in politics, if we choose to be involved, is a minor chord in God’s grand masterpiece. We don’t need the state. We need to embrace the message of Jesus and embody it in the world. In contrast to the state, we demonstrate clearly that human beings cooperating, sharing, or even living in community are capable of producing more goods and providing better services than the state ever could.

When we live as resident aliens in a world of empire, we have been given the creative task of speaking prophetically to that empire. 

Christians live as “resident aliens” in a world dominated by empire. A central component of our mission to announce the gospel to all the world is serving as a prophetic voice as we speak truth to power. Libertarians know all-too well that the State is an empire which deserves our critique.

Prophetic Voice

What do we do? Let me quote Brian Zahnd again (Beauty, p 150):

In the midst of a hateful, violent, and idolatrous world, the church is to be an enclave of love, peace, and holiness. To be a faithful church, the church must be distinguished by holiness. Not holiness as puritanical moralism, but holiness as otherness — we are to be other to the values of this present darkness.

In the world of politics in America, libertarians know all-too well what it means to be considered as “other.” As Christians, it is beginning to feel that way as our society becomes more pluralistic. But being “other” is part of our identity, and it means being a light-bearer, a peacemaker, a truth-teller. What exactly does this look like?

We libertarians spend a lot of time trying to abolish the institutions and programs the state has decided are “good for us.” We spend a lot of time advocating for deregulation, privatization, and restricting the state in any way possible. That’s fine, and I have no quarrel with these endeavors. But since we are from the future, and because we know shalom has no room for empire, we can expect the state to become obsolete. Let’s plan on it! 

We don’t see the Early Church moving to overthrow the Roman Empire, but neither do we see strong endorsement of it. (If you’re thinking of Romans 13, I’ll direct you to this article. And this one.)

Put yourselves in the place of Jesus’ followers, thoroughly Jewish for the most part, where religion and politics were woven together. Rome was occupying your land, and Jesus comes along, promises a new politic, but is then killed by the very empire you want to be rescued from. You’re disappointed, but then – resurrection! Everything changed. It was an exciting time. Can you wonder why they didn’t seem to be very concerned with what happened to the Roman Empire?

In other words, the early Christians simply went on living joyfully in this new reality, calling people out of empire, speaking truth to power, and serving as ministers of reconciliation. They were wholly unconcerned with the usefulness of the state. They didn’t need it.

An important aside: it’s remarkable that the early Christians were able to enjoy the freedom of living in Christ whether they were oppressed or free. Paul said he was content in all circumstances, free or in bondage. Whatever empire is oppressing us, we can and should live as free people.

Let’s end with how libertarian Christians can be a prophetic voice against empire.

Speak Truth to Power

Libertarians have been keen on identifying the nature of the State, calling it out on both overt evils and innocuous inefficiencies. As Christians we are to awaken others to a reality which they are unable to see. This takes prayer, of course, because only the Spirit of God can cause the blind to see. But they must have something to see.

Empires project a sense of all-embracing normality. Not only do empires want us to think that reality is totally composed of the structures, symbols and systems that have been imperially constructed, they also want us to believe that the future holds no more than a heightened realization of imperial hopes and dreams . . . If all the maps are provided by the empire, if all the reality we can see is what the empire has constructed as reality for us, then our praxis will never be creative, and it will never be subversive to that empire. (Walsh and Keesmaat, 155-156)

A prophetic imagination is required for us to take this task seriously.

Reliance upon the state must decrease, and reliance upon peaceful means of social progress must increase. Libertarian Christians are poised to offer a beautiful alternative to the limited options from which the church and the world are used to selecting. 

  • We believe a free society is the best framework for diffused power so that people are genuinely free.
  • We believe that stable property rights are the best framework within which free humans can cooperate and resolve conflict.
  • We embrace the intrinsic value and worth of every human being.
  • We believe in peace and are against all forms of initiation of aggression.
  • We pray for and actively work toward a world where the will of God is done “on earth as in heaven.”

I often engage with progressives who tend to focus on the societal issues they deem problematic. I do my best to focus on areas of agreement and propose changes I believe would result in their preferred outcomes. For instance, ending the banking cartel we know as the Federal Reserve System would eliminate many of their worries about wealth disparity. Probably not all, but it’s a good start, and most progressives are at least willing to entertain this option. Another area of common ground is imperialism: bring our troops home, no more wars, and dramatically reduce military spending. A third is mass incarceration. I’m not well-educated regarding non-violent offenders, but it seems to be a bipartisan effort to at least evaluate this. To be quite honest, I’d die a happier man if we only made those three changes, and none others. Well, okay, I’d add a fourth: I’d like to see something relatively close to open borders.

We as libertarians believe in the autonomy of the individual, but as Christians we believe in the necessity of community. We enjoy the fruits of fellowship and the camaraderie that comes from a sense of belonging. We do not have to pick between individualism and collectivism.

“Communities which are genuinely voluntary can affirm individual dignity… without enshrining individualism. They can likewise realize community without authorizing lordship or establishment.” (John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom)

This life is founded upon a message of peace and carried out through the practice of love toward our neighbors. When individuals choose peace over conflict, they embody God’s Kingdom. When individuals die to self in efforts to reconcile differences, they embody true Kingdom power. This doesn’t mean bringing together only those who are fighting. Embodying real community means bringing that which is broken into wholeness, and this can be done in various ways, both in the local church and in the marketplace. Providing a job, if you’re a business owner. Turning natural resources into usable energy, technology, or sustenance is a powerful way to move toward prosperity for more people and is far more creative than confiscating already-existing wealth from the people who have done such work.

What works against reconciliation?

In an earlier post, I gave two examples of two popular opinions. Here they are, evaluated in light of reconciliation.

  • “We should tax the wealthy.”
    • How does this incline our heart toward love?
    • Does this attitude reflect our love for people or our lust for what they have that we wish to use?
    • If we accept this as a legitimate role for government, do we diminish our ability to see the rich as individuals made in God’s image?
    • Christian libertarians suggest that, in fact, taxation undermines human dignity and reflects a lack of respect for those taxed and even for those receiving the state benefit.
  • “We should secure the borders.”
    • However we define “secure,” this statement is fraught with disheartening attitudes toward other human beings.
    • What is it about those living on the other side of a geopolitical border that makes them a threat?
    • Perhaps those most adamant should stand at the border and face a hungry child and say to her, “If I say yes to you, I will have to say yes to potential terrorists.” Is that too subjective an idea on which to base policy? Perhaps. However, if we are committed to reconciliation, a certain element of subjectivity is involved in all decisions, try as we might to be as objective as possible.

Concluding Thoughts

The gospel is the announcement that God’s new movement to rescue creation has begun in Jesus. Christ on the cross and God’s raising him to life is the final defeat of the violent Roman empire, and by implication all empires and their violence. New creation means empire is ending. When Christians declare that Jesus frees us from sin, that means Jesus frees us from the consequences of our own sin as well as the consequences of the damaging effects of sin.

Lastly, let me issue a word of caution, because we can easily become sloppy in our thinking regarding works like “freedom” or “liberty,” equivocating on their usage in Scripture. We can also become over-zealous in defending ourselves using the Bible. Libertarians should use wisdom in using the Bible to defend freedom. Freedom from empire is certainly part of the good news of the gospel, but it is not the whole gospel. Liberation theology, for all its contributions to the theological conversation, seems to miss this point. Liberation from empire is part of the gospel because Jesus came to liberate us from sin and the manifestations of sin. The satan was defeated, and hence the satan’s greatest achievement in institutionalizing violence (the state) is defeated.

To not be misunderstood, let me be clear: advocating for liberty is not the whole endeavor of working for God’s peace on earth. Libertarian peace is not identical to shalom.

The peace found in a free society is a healthy starting point and can serve as stage one in recognizing the things that make for peace by discerning that which works against it. That’s our aim as libertarians. As Christians, we take it one step further. We embody the reign of God in the world as a counter-script to the narrative empire gives us. We love from the bottom up and not the top down.

Embracing a dual identity – libertarian and Christian – means to go beyond fighting against things worth fighting against, and begin striving for that which is worth striving for.

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