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A Different Kind of Easter Message

Easter is the season for celebrating Jesus and what his death and resurrection accomplished for the world. It seems to be one of those times of the year when everyone who has some nominal identification with the Christian tradition finds their way back to a church service. Apparently, even some members of the Toronto Maple Leafs have taken an interest in churchgoing and prayer during this, the most important period of the Christian calendar, in the hopes, I presume, that God is as concerned that the New York Islanders lose tomorrow as they are.

Whatever your motivations for going to church this weekend, you undoubtedly have been or will be presented with some version of what remains one of the most utterly unique and completely counter intuitive of religious claims—that the cosmic redemption of the world was accomplished through the execution of a rebel Jew who was subsequently raised from the dead.

While I continue to consider the Easter story to be one of the strangest and most marvelous truths, and look forward to being confronted with it anew every year, it was a different kind of sermon from an unusual source that caught my eye today. Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation (a public policy institute out of Washington D.C.), wrote an op-ed piece which suggests that it might be time to consider putting Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount into practice in the realm of foreign policy:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:43-44)

Wright actually floats the idea that doing what Jesus said might represent a good political course of action for the Bush administration to take in order to diffuse the threat presented by radical Islam. A refusal to repay evil with evil could be a means of “reigning in hatred,” thereby hurting your enemy’s cause:

Suppose, for example, you were nurturing a nascent religious movement in the Roman Empire, and your antagonists welcomed excuses to harass you. Suppose, that is, you were the Apostle Paul. When Paul preaches kindness to enemies, he uses not the formulation found in the Gospels, but the one from the Hebrew Bible, complete with the coals of fire.

Of course, Mr. Bush is more in the shoes of the Roman emperor than of Paul. America isn’t a small but growing religious movement. It’s a great power threatened by a small but growing religious movement—radical Islam. But the logic can work both ways. Great powers, by mindlessly indulging retributive impulses, can give fuel to small but growing religious movements. If you want to deprive jihadists of ammunition, make it hard for them to persuade others to hate us.

The really interesting thing about this “Easter sermon” is that it’s not very concerned with institutional religion or private morality, and, despite the fact that it was written on Holy Saturday, it’s not much concerned with the prominent Easter themes of Jesus’ death and resurrection either. What Wright is concerned about is international politics. Jesus is being appealed to for pragmatic, not moral reasons:

The religious left… complains that Mr. Bush ignores the Bible’s moral injunctions. But leave morality aside. If he could just match the Bible’s strategic savvy, that would make a world of difference.

Of course the irony really is quite rich here isn’t it? A major secular newspaper urging the most powerful man in the world—a man who claims to be an evangelical Christian, and to have a personal relationship with Jesus—that an option that might be worth considering in the present political situation would be… to do what Jesus said!

Whatever you may think of Wright’s understanding or usage of Jesus’ teaching here, and whatever you may think of the political utility of loving and praying for one’s enemies, it strikes me as fascinating (especially after a semester of reading Bonhoeffer!) that now, at this stage of history, the idea of simply doing what it says in the Sermon on the Mount would be brought up as a potential way forward in a major international conflict.

Last week when I was driving the kids back from soccer I saw a bumper sticker that said “Jesus is the Answer.” I’m not sure international foreign policy was uppermost in the minivan driver’s mind, but that sticker may just be on to something…

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. jc #

    The things the NY Times puts on their op-ed page. This sounds much more like a platitude then a well thought out opinion. I usually try not to engage in these type of discussions and when I do I usually end up regretting it. Anyways, for the record I am an American, voted for Bush in 2000[not in 2004], have strong libertarian/capitalist beliefs, and listen to Rush Limbaugh daily. I don’t know whether it was a good idea to invade Iraq or not. I think time will tell… that is if Iraq eventually becomes a free country that respects human rights then it might have been worth it and if doesn’t it will have been a dismal failure. Unfortunately, the above linked to Op-Ed does not grapple with any of the really serious issues involved with Iraq right now. Here are some of the problems that I see.

    1. He seems to use the Hebrew to support his turn the other cheek strategy. He mentions a verse or to while overlooking the huge amount of violence in the Hebrew bible. Wars and genocides commanded by God who according to traditional Christian theology is part of the Trinity with Jesus.

    2. He doesn’t deal with the fact that the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993 and the USA did nothing of consequence about it. Clinton bombed a factory somewhere I think. Then eventually we end up at September 11, 2001 when the terrorists succeed with their goal.

    3. Given that the U.S. did go into Iraq and there is a sectarian war going on right now… what ought to happen now? How does this Sermon on the Mount strategy play out with this current situation? I see nothing in the article that puts forth any concrete solutions on how to deal with the situation we are in now.

    Those are a few points I could think of. I think criticism of Bush is fine. I think there are good cases for a change of direction in Iraq. It’s a very complex situation though. Leaving in a hurry without establishing a rule of law and free society will have consequences that may outweigh the consequences of staying. In response to this Op-Ed I would ask what he means by loving your enemy? Does love your enemy mean let them live under tyranny? Does love your enemy mean being pacifist and making yourself available to be victimized by the first strongman who comes along?

    April 9, 2007
  2. I think it’s a little unrealistic to expect a concrete exit strategy for Iraq, and a comprehensive account of violence in the Hebrew Bible, and a rigorous defense of pacifism, and an exposition of what loving your enemy means in a 750 word weekend newspaper article.

    I just thought it was interesting that after thousands of years of political and moral philosophy and theology someone of Wright’s stature would, in a major international newspaper, be recommending the utopian ramblings of an uneducated Jewish rebel on a Galilean hillside as a plausible option for American foreign policy. If I was cynical, I might say that it almost seems like we’re running out of ideas…

    April 10, 2007

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