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…