It is often expressed that the nature of the church is spiritual, not political. Jesus, the Savior of the world, is primarily, if not exclusively, interested in the salvation of souls.
However, when this assumption is tested in the face of tragedy, we are left with a shallow gospel that is unable to speak hope and restoration into the life of our world.
Jesus came with a message that was disturbingly political and it offered hope and restoration because of its alternative vision for engaging with all human relationships, especially those we consider “the enemy.”
This reflection comes in response to the Newtown, Conn., school massacre and the Boston marathon bombings.
While it may seem delayed, I believe it is crass to look beyond the human suffering toward political or theological resolutions in the moments immediately following a violent tragedy.
Hope and comfort must be the offered response of the church to those lost in grief and sorrow. Our songs should be laments that suffer and sorrow with them.
But after the period of mourning, the church must continue to speak its prophetic witness into the world.
The church and its crucified Lord are political, and that politics is deeply rooted in the spirit of the reconciling Trinity that draws all creation to itself.
Now that the country has resumed its normal pace of life and we head into the season of national festivities, it is timely to speak on Jesus’ political call toward nonviolence.
On patriotic days of celebration, it is common to hold up soldiers and participants in the armed forces as heroes and martyrs, those who valiantly defended the great American experiment.
In film and television, it is expected by the audience that a demonstration of true strength will come in the destruction of an enemy that threatens a particular value or people group.
The reality is that any person or group that commits violence against another person or group does so with a sense of justification.
In the military conflicts throughout American history, the American public has generally believed its actions in violent initiative or response to be justified against a foreign or domestic evil.
Even those who commit atrocities, such as the killing of children and innocents, do so with a sense of personal or social justification.
Adam Lanza in Connecticut and the Tsarnaev brothers in Massachusetts had what they believed to be a legitimate reason for their actions.
In no way do I support or condone their killing and harming of anyone. However, while the larger culture and the church may never endorse such horrific actions, the individual who perpetrates such an action believes it is warranted.
The problem rests both with the action of violence and the attempt to justify such action, no matter how noble or necessary the cause may seem.
To this, we find that Jesus’ highly political and disrupting message of love toward enemies and his example of forgiveness in the face of violent attacks comes with no justification.
It is not, “Love and bless your enemies except when you feel there is a moral justification not to.” An exclusively spiritualized gospel, disembodied from its politics, restricts the breadth of Jesus’ command to love enemies in a way that Jesus did not.
The violence we experienced in New England is akin to the violence that happens daily all around the world because it comes with a justification that violence can solve a problem.
Our children, neighbors and even our enemies are learning about Jesus from the example set by the church living its culture.
We cannot condemn violence when we believe it has no justification and exemplify those who enact it when we believe it is warranted.
Such posturing sends a dangerously ambiguous message to our culture that the church is unsure of its Lord’s teachings and example.
The massacre of children is horrifying and should bring us great sorrow; it is never justified. But the distinctly political message of Jesus tells us that the killing of our enemies should bring us as much sorrow.
The link between the two types of violence is troubling. We can never hope to curb the violence in our schools and on our streets until we stop making saints of those who are willing to kill our enemies on our behalf.
Like the historic peace churches have demonstrated through their centuries-old tradition of nonresistance, the cost will be high and the witness painful in a culture enamored with the ethos of superior military might and a justified proportional response to violence.
But in the face of such great sacrifice and prophetic witness, Jesus gives a message of promise to his church: “Love your enemies … Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the most high; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:35).
Christopher Montgomery is the pastor of a Church of the Brethren parish near Philadelphia.