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Confessing Christ in a World of Violence

In 2004, Christian activists and theologians in the United States issued a statement on confessing Christ in the context of debates over the Iraq war.

The following statement draws heavily upon that confession in challenging the church in Australia to consider what it means to confess Christ in the light of current political events:

Our world is wracked with violence and war. But Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Mt. 5:9). Innocent people, at home and abroad, are increasingly threatened by terrorist attacks. But Jesus said: “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44). These words, which have never been easy, seem all the more difficult today.”

Nevertheless, a time comes when silence is betrayal. Where is the serious debate about what it means to confess Christ in a world of violence? Does Christian “realism” mean resigning ourselves to an endless future of “pre-emptive wars?” Does it mean turning a blind eye to torture and massive civilian casualties? Does it mean acting out of fear and resentment? Does it mean accepting without query a political idolatry in which significantly unaccountable power of state control and surveillance is surrendered to national government under cover of a politics of fear?

Faithfully confessing Christ is the church’s task, and the need is never more urgent than when its confession is silenced by an assumption that the claims of nationalism override that task.

Confessing Christ is made more difficult, but also more necessary because of the co-option of Christianity by nationalism and militarism in the United States. Such co-option is witnessed by a “theology of war” emanating from the highest circles of the U.S. government; increasing use of the language of “righteous empire;” and talk of an American “mission” and “divine appointment” to “rid the world of evil,” confusing the roles of God, church and nation.

In this time of crisis, we need a new confession of Christ.

1. Jesus Christ, as attested in Holy Scripture, knows no national boundaries. Those who confess his name are found throughout the earth. Our allegiance to Christ takes priority over national identity. Whenever Christianity compromises with empire, his gospel is discredited.

We reject the false teaching that any nation-state can ever be described with the words, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” These words, used in Scripture, apply only to Christ. No political leader has the right to twist them in the service of war.

2. Christ commits Christians to a strong presumption against war. The wanton destructiveness of modern warfare strengthens this obligation. Standing in the shadow of the Cross, Christians have a responsibility to count the cost, speak out for the victims, and explore every alternative before a nation goes to war. We are committed to international cooperation rather than unilateral policies.

We reject the false teaching that a war on terrorism takes precedence over ethical and legal norms. Some things ought never be done–torture, the deliberate bombing of civilians, the use of indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction–regardless of the consequences.

3. Christ commands us to see not only the splinter in our adversary’s eye, but also the beam in our own. Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed that the distinction between good and evil does not run between one nation and another, or one group and another. It runs straight through every human heart.

We reject the false teaching that America, Australia or another nations are “Christian,” representing only virtue, and beyond criticism, while its adversaries are nothing but vicious and evil. We reject the belief that these countries have nothing to repent of, even as we reject any account that they represents most of the world’s evil. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).

4. Christ shows us that enemy-love is the heart of the gospel. While we were yet enemies, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8, 10). We are to show love to our enemies even as we believe God in Christ has shown love to us and to the whole world. Enemy-love does not mean capitulating to hostile agendas or domination. It does mean refusing to demonize any human being created in God’s image.

We reject the false teaching that any human being can be defined as outside the law’s protection. We reject the demonization of perceived enemies, which only paves the way to abuse; and we reject the mistreatment of prisoners, regardless of supposed benefits to their captors.

5. Christ teaches us that humility is the virtue befitting forgiven sinners. It tempers all political disagreements, and it allows that our own political perceptions, in a complex world, may be wrong.

We reject the false teaching that those who are not for our nation politically are against it or that those who fundamentally question Australia and American policies must be with the “evil-doers.” Such crude distinctions, especially when used by Christians, are expressions of the Manichaean heresy, in which the world is divided into forces of absolute good and absolute evil.

6. Christ calls us to exercise our freedom from the powers–whether political, economic or social–that claim to control our conscience and action. We are called to freedom, not as individualistic license to do what feels good, but to serve the neighbor even if they are under arrest or subject to detention without trial.

The Lord Jesus Christ is either authoritative for Christians in their living and dying, or he is not. The Church dare not set aside his authority at the bidding of any earthly authority or power, or teach its members to do so. No nation-state may usurp the place of God.

Acknowledging and living out this confession is indispensable for followers of Christ. As disciples we need to be shaped by this confession in making our decisions as citizens. Peacemaking is central to our vocation as Christians and is central to our confessing Christ in a world of violence.

Doug Hynd is a sessional lecturer in theology and a federal public servant in Canberra. This column appears in “Soundings,” an e-newsletter published by the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College, a Baptist theological and Bible college in Sydney, Australia.