Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Peace of the Body of Christ, Part IV: Rwanda and the Proclamation of the Gospel

Lee Camp begins his book Mere Discipleship with a discussion of the nation considered in the early 1990s to be the most evangelized, Christian nation in Africa: Rwanda. Camp directly contrasts this general, confident consensus with the brutal reality of the genocide in 1994 that devastated Rwanda in its awful efficiency, hellish intentionality, and geographic totality. The poster child for American Christians' evangelism of Africa went from pacific harmony to unspeakable violence with a seeming flip of a switch, and before the swift cruelty of the machete, the faith, given and received, did not stand a chance.

Oddly enough, Rwanda is often a test case or paradigm example offered by Christians (or others) who seek to argue that in such a horrific situation, surely violence is justified, either for individual self-defense or (more likely) by foreign powers (such as America) intervening responsibly for the just cause of preventing genocide. In this case, we will confine our discussion to the question of the church, but let it be noted that, as we explored in the previous post, the simple application of a violent solution is never as simple, or as predictable, or as salutary as its proponents claim.

Regardless, the assumption, for Christians, that violence, of all times and of all places, is justified here, is sorely misleading. It reminds me of the anecdote Richard Hays shares in his Moral Vision of the New Testament, how in response to the question of Hitler put to pacifism he offers a second question in reply: What if the German soldiers, almost all of whom were explicitly or nominally Christian, had refused to fight? What if, because as the church's faith was taught and lived out violence was understood as inherently inimical to the gospel, German Christians knew from the start that fighting for the Führer and following Jesus were mutually exclusive options?

Similarly, what if Christian missionaries around the world proclaimed the gospel as intrinsically a challenge, a judgment, and an alternative to the violence and national loyalties of all peoples? Neither Rwanda nor Germany, two of the most nominally or culturally Christian nations of the 20th century, could descend into a maelstrom of ethnic hatred and genocide at the very least without casting off or seriously distorting the claims of the gospel. More likely and more importantly, though, a new and hopeful possibility might emerge: the formation and training of a people who knew and claimed and lived, as an embodiment of their conscious communal calling, peacefully and with love for enemies and hospitality to strangers. A people unwilling to sacrifice any life but their own for the sake of others. What would the presence of this sort of people mean for a society? What sort of futures would it make possible that otherwise were unimaginable? What reconciliation and what friendship could emerge within its own life and in its slow emanating leavening?

In short, the renunciation of the sword must be part and parcel of the missionary proclamation of the gospel of Christ crucified. And not only in exotic or far away places like Rwanda or China, but in the West, and in America in particular. The nation in which we find ourselves is no less a mission field than elsewhere, except that we have been given the even greater challenge to reformulate and refashion our prior, faulty, syncretistic, shallow, sometimes-Gnostic faith into the full-formed, biblical, flesh-and-blood, demanding call to take up our cross and be God's people in a foreign land. To do anything less would be to forsake the commission we have been given to make from all nations disciples of the crucified and risen Lord, Jesus of Nazareth.

John Howard Yoder, in an updated essay originally written in 1954 entitled Peace Without Eschatology?, shares a story to conclude his thoughts that serves adequately for our own conclusion here:
[I] was present in 1950-51 when Karl Barth dealt with war and related questions in the lectures which were to become volume III/4 of his Church Dogmatics. For most of an hour his argument was categorical, condemning practically all the concrete causes for which wars have been and may be fought. The students became more and more uneasy, especially when he said that pacifism is "almost infinitely right." Then came the dialectical twist, with the idea of a divine vocation of self-defense assigned to a particular nation, and a war which Switzerland might fight was declared — hypothetically — admissible. First there was a general release of tension in a mood of "didn't think he'd make it," then applause. What is significant here is the difference between what Barth said and what the students understood. Even though a consistent application of Karl Barth's teaching would condemn all wars except those fought to defend the independence of small Christian republics, and even though Barth himself now takes a position categorically opposed to nuclear weapons, calling himself in fact "practically pacifist," every half-informed Christian thinks Karl Barth is opposed to war. ... This tendency of theologians' statements to be misinterpreted is also part of "political reality." Even the most clairvoyant and realistic analysis of the modern theologian is thus powerless against the momentum of the Constantinian compromise. Once the nation is authorized exceptionally to be the agent of God's wrath, the heritage of paganism makes quick work of generalizing that authorization into a divine rubber stamp. (The Original Revolution [Scottdale: Herald Press, 1971], pp. 83-84)
What is true for "theologians' statements," all the more so for the proclamation of the gospel. The exception, or the negotiable or the unspoken, by the "quick work" of the "divine rubber stamp" of pagan appropriation, inevitably becomes the rule, and then the assumption — and then unquestionable.

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