Postcards from Babylon by Brian Zahnd
This book channels too much Joachim of Fiore and needs a counter-balancing wherein the civilizing works of the early Church Fathers are viewed positively.
But the idea of waging peace by patience instead of waging war by violence has been lost where the church has been willingly conscripted into serving the nation’s military agenda. War is the ultimate impatience. Instead of hearing Jesus tell Peter to put away his sword, a church with a superstitious reverence for armed combat imagines Jesus leading soldiers into battle—as a thousand Facebook memes attest. Whether it’s crusaders with crosses on their shields, German soldiers with Gott Mit Uns on their belt buckles, or American evangelicals fawning over the film American Sniper , waging war and following Jesus have been combined in a way that seeks to erase the contradiction established by Christ himself.
In civic religion, war is always publically remembered as an act of sacrifice. Public remembrances of war are deeply liturgical because war is memorialized as a sacrament within civic religion. Stanley Hauerwas has taught us that nationalism is a religion with war as its liturgy. The nature of war sacrifice in civic religion is that there must always be more sacrifices. Mars is an insatiable god. The sacrifices can be momentarily suspended (in what is falsely called “peacetime”) but never permanently abolished. Because the previous sacrifices must , as the liturgy states, “not have been in vain,” the day will come when more sacrifices must be offered upon the bloody altar of war. This is the dark truth of war remembrance liturgies.
Following the debacle of the Vietnam War and the divisiveness it wrought, what is to be done to unify a fractured nation? One approach would be to go out and win a “good old-fashioned war.” Of course, winning wars is not as easy as the myths would have us believe; besides that, we seem to be in an age of asymmetrical warfare where conventional victory and surrender do not apply. It’s hard to imagine how something as vague as the “war on terror” can be won in any way that resembles winning WWII. When the nation-states of Germany and Japan surrendered, America celebrated V-E and V-J Day. But it’s hard to imagine a V-T Day. And even if you are able to arrange a “good old-fashioned war” between two nation-states wearing uniforms and all, in an age where both sides are likely to have nuclear arsenals, it’s hard to imagine anyone “winning.” If we are committed to generating social unity through the civic religion of war sacrifice, we may very well be on the road to global annihilation.
So what is the role of the church in a world that careens toward catastrophic war? Is it to shout hurray for our side and assure the masters of war that God is with us? Of course not! It’s this kind of hubris and folly that led to the calamity of millions of Christians killing one another in the name of national allegiance during the two world wars. If the church is to be an ambassador of the good news and an agent of healing in the world, the church is going to have to become serious about being something other than the high priest of religious nationalism. With so many churchgoers entangled in the tentacles of nationalism, it’s time for the church to actually be the church. As Stanley Hauerwas has said in so many ways, it’s the task of the church to make the world the world.
I’ve been a pastor going on four decades and I can tell you that the greatest challenge to making disciples of Jesus in the American context is that most people are already thoroughly discipled into the rival religion of Americanism. America is a profound complexity and as such it is many things. America is a nation, a culture, an empire, a religion. As a nation and culture, America is a mixed bag, but there is much that is inspiring and admirable. As an empire, it is a rival to the kingdom of God, and as a religion it is a false god inviting idolatry.
When we admit it’s impossible to govern according to the Sermon on the Mount, we also admit it’s impossible for a nation that maintains a nuclear arsenal to be Christian. To contend that America could not survive without nuclear arms is to make my point. The people of God are sustained by the Holy Spirit, not hydrogen bombs.
Imagine this: A powerful charismatic figure arrives on the world scene and amasses a great following by announcing the arrival of a new arrangement of the world where those at the bottom are to be promoted and those on top are to have their lifestyle “restructured.” How do people receive this? I can imagine the Bangladeshis saying, “When do we start?!” and the Americans saying, “Hold on now, let’s not get carried away!”
As Christians we are free to put what we like in our stomachs, but Jesus warns us to guard what we let into our hearts. (See Mark 7:14–23) Just as Daniel and his friends living in the Babylonian empire had to be scrupulous about keeping kosher in an effort to maintain their Jewish identity, so Christians living in a modern empire must be scrupulous about what they feed on in an effort to maintain their baptismal identity. But what does that look like? What does it mean for a Christian to refuse to eat from the kitchen of empire? Well, what’s the empire cooking? Mostly a steady diet of consumerism and militarism.
In the context of an economic-military superpower, I see no warrant for believing God’s people will be the political majority—not until the Parousia anyway. In this present age, if we’re unwilling to live as a counter-imperial counterculture (as the first Christians did), I see no reason to believe that we can live in fidelity to Christ. In an economic-military superpower, it’s only by acquiescing to the falseness that Christians can hold political dominance. So let go of that seductive aspiration. We don’t need to grasp for “the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” We can live as responsible citizens as we seek to bear prophetic witness to the rulers, calling them to compassion and justice, but we will not sell our soul for the sake of political power. We’re not called to win but to be faithful. When we adopt a win-at-all-cost approach to our participation in partisan politics, the cost may be our soul—our Christian authenticity.