I will argue that Jesus’ message “love your enemies” has huge significance – both political and spiritual. Politically, Jesus revealed that the violence undergirding human societies is counter to God and thereby stripped empires and nations of their legitimacy to exist as organising structures. Pressing this point cost Him His life which both revealed and tested His spiritual connection to God, as it will ours.
- In all human societies violence is seen as a terrible thing that must be minimised but also as the only way to counter the violence of others. This doctrine of violence as the only way to maintain the group’s security and welfare is at the heart of nationalism and is the reason God rejects nationalism. The violence that is sanctioned is both external to the nation (e.g. international war) and internal to the nation (e.g. domestic police and judicial force). In both cases the populace is taught that only the State has the right to authorise violence.
- Modern empires and nations, just like ancient city-states and walled towns spring from the desire for security and for the welfare of one’s own family / team.
- The indoctrination of nationalism from childhood prepares the whole populace for the inevitability of periodic fighting to maintain a nation’s existence and welfare. A repeated memorializing of war dead (minimum of annual reminders) with special grave sites, and monuments listing their names mean they are treated differently from those who die of other causes. Mythologized and heroic war tales effectively teach responsibility to one’s sacred duty as well as bravery and valour in battling those who threaten the nation. Stories are told in mainstream media – newspapers, books, documentaries, and movies. Children’s cartoons teach the doctrines albeit without the historical context. The top leaders in each town, state and nationally are required to lend their weight to impress at every level with utmost seriousness that nationhood must be every citizen’s deepest Earthly commitment, enough to risk and sacrifice all in the service to the nation.
- Complete loyalty to the nation (extreme patriotism) is maintained for those times of emergency when it becomes activated. In the meantime a more spiritual outlook is desirable – love (or at least decency) to our fellow human beings. The easiest way to have both exist alongside each other is to obtain and teach a notion of God as One who is there to bless our own particular nation above other nations in war as well as peace. However, if Christ’s teachings and/or true spirituality are given priority, God will be understood as One who loves all nations and urges us to love not just our neighbours but our enemies as well. This outlook however directly undermines the legitimacy of nationhood, because nationhood depends killing, but killing is antithetical to loving one’s enemies.
- Those who object to the clear pacificism of Jesus may try to make a case for “just war” out of the Old Testament. But Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:43,44) “you have heard it said, ‘…hate your enemies’ but I tell you love your enemies..” In saying “you have heard it said” He avoided acknowledging any Divine authority for the ‘hate your enemies’ mindset. On the contrary, even if something like this seems to be taught in the Old Testament, we have it on Jesus’ authority that such views are not valid or acceptable.
- Nations have learned that the influence of just a few conscientious war-objectors can be minimised rather than neutralised. Such may be portrayed as extremists, fanatics, anti-loyalists, traitors and odd-balls. But heaven help any nation that as a whole adopts love and pacificism as it’s guiding lights! I heard an ‘apocryphal’ story (one I have not been able to verify) about a small ethnic group in China in the Middle Ages (?) which was converted to a pacificist version of Christianity. They refused to take up arms and were wiped out by a more ‘normal’ nation/group. Of course, this is normally considered as a proof that the pacificism theory “doesn’t work”, due to the assumption that our individual survival (along with our families and friends) is the number one goal of life. I have written elsewhere about the nature of death and murder, including why the former is to be welcomed not feared and why the latter is nevertheless still not acceptable.
- Jesus was crucified because of the threat He presented to the existence of the nation. His anti-nationalist teaching of “love your enemies” was taken seriously by the masses because it came with signs and wonders that stamped His message with the authority of Almighty God. Nevertheless the leaders of the nation (who are always those who gain the most from nationhood) resisted the message and as a group became determined to kill Him to save their nation. They knew that even if they would tolerate such spiritual teaching, their Roman masters when they became aware of the extent of the problem, would not. Their most senior religious leader justified their murderous sentiments and intentions by saying, “…it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:50 ISV)
- Hence Jesus’ project is both spiritual and political in nature. Politically, it undermines nationhood, revealing all nations to be illegitimate under God. Concomitantly, He revealed the legitimate power structure in which human beings are to live – the Kingdom of God, which is what will replace all the “kingdoms (nations) of the world.” The kingdom of God does not operate by force and its human constituents belong to it only to the degree they practice non-abuse, including non-violence.
- Spiritually, Jesus’ project gets us to think about the nature of life and death in the light of what Jesus revealed about God. A number of lessons culminate in the death and resurrection of Jesus: a) humanity is unjust and wrathful in sacrificing even the Most Innocent b) God Almighty numbers Himself with the victims, not with the national exponents of killing c) God’s support to victims is greater than their oppression and includes bodily resurrection d) this Gospel (including the fact that it was revealed by God Incarnate) needs to be preached and demonstrated to all.
- Ultimately, the Kingdom of God can only be occupied by those not afraid to die because they have been enlightened about the true nature of life and death – i.e. that God is a God of life and death is just a gateway into greater life! The Apostle Paul put it this way, “to live is Christ and to die, gain!” (Phil 1:21) All others are destined to live in nations, to underwrite killing (at least in self-defence) and to see no end to the craziness of the human inhabitation of the world. Given that all earthly resources and opportunities – and indeed this ordinary physical life itself – are limited, then for those who believe that this current physical life is all there is, then there will always be competition and rivalry and permanent peace will not be possible for them.
- God’s project is that we learn to believe in Him (John 6:29). In His Old Testament dealings He shapes humanity’s understandings of Who He is and how then we should live. His commandment about a life for a life (Gen 9:6) should be seen as a limitation on human revenge as well as a basis for human intervention to prevent excessive revenge and reciprocal escalation of violence. Israel becoming a nation – and then a nation under a human leader – gave I believe a demonstration of the limits of national systems. In 1 Samuel chapter 8, the Lord clearly states that Israel wanting to be like other nations (with standing armies (v11) and with much of the Gross National Product servicing the centralisation of power, v13-17) was actually a rejection of God Himself (v7). Ultimately, ancient Israel is a failed experiment in nationhood. It is a system that cannot be made to work, even with God taking an intimate interest. The promise of God to King David to have someone always on the throne therefore had to be fulfilled spiritually not physically by Christ in the Kingdom of God. Likewise the destiny of the modern nation of Israel awaits I believe, that time when nationhood is disbanded, when all beat their swords into ploughs and all the Earth belongs at last to the meek.
He will judge between the nations, and will render verdicts for the benefit of many. “They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nations will not raise swords against nations, and they will not learn warfare anymore. (Isaiah 2:4 ISV)
Happy the meek–because they shall inherit the land. (Matthew 5:5 YLT)
Additional point: In his final book The Kingdom Of God Is Within You, author Leo Tolstoy identified a God-centred love in which truly loving God also means loving all God loves. Thus the God-lover also loves the world as a whole, which necessarily includes its constituent parts – each nation, village, family and individual. When individuals hold this universal love they are sufficiently spiritually enlightened to refuse to bear arms for any purpose – then there will be no war because there will be no-one willing to wage war. I agree with the thrust of his argument (though not with his rejection of the doctrine of the divinity of Christ). (Tolstoy inspired M Gandhi, and Gandhi inspired Martin Luther King, and in this way Jesus was the original inspirer of the modern non-violent protest. )