We Are God’s Hands, Not God’s Fists
Last Saturday, I had the privilege of being one of the keynote speakers at a conference called, “Making Peace with Revelation.” The point was to discuss interpretations of the book of Revelation that do not promote violence. Because I have a book coming out on the subject, I was asked to talk about my own interpretation of Revelation, which is an alternative to the popular “end-times” tribulation speculation. It was an honor to be part of this event, organized by the Raven Foundation, in partnership with such organizations as CARE, CeaseFire, and Nonviolent Peace Force.
The book of Revelation is not about some worldwide government that will persecute Christians in the future – it’s about a worldwide government that persecuted Christians in the past – it was called the Roman Empire. Revelation was written in the context of the persecution at the end of the first century, CE. But the sad reality is that the persecution is not really over. In fact, Christians have always been persecuted somewhere in the world. Even today, there are places where Christians are oppressed. Just a few days ago, a Christian woman in Pakistan was sentenced to death for her faith. An organization called The Voice of the Martyrs keeps track of the persecution of Christians around the world – I encourage you to check out their website. Not that Christians are without sin, as we all know. There have been times when Christians in authority have persecuted Jews, Muslims, and even fellow Christians who happen to belong to alternative sects. So what is it that makes us as humans repeatedly fall back on the use of force to oppress others when they aren’t converted by our words or example?
I’m not saying that all religions are equal. To be honest, I actually believe that Christianity is the best religion. I know it’s not politically correct, but yes, I’m crass enough to hold on to the belief that my religion is better than all the others. There you have it – deal with it. If I didn’t think Christianity was the most reasonable religion, I wouldn’t be Christian, I’d be something else. But here’s the thing. I can still be your friend if you think your religion is better than mine. I don’t hate you, and I don’t want to hurt you. I might share my faith with you, and on my better days I might be able to set a good example of what it means to be a person made in the image of God. I might even enjoy some dialogue with you, in which we’ll compare our faiths and our worldviews.
That’s why it’s hard for me to get my head around why people can terrorize and kill each other in the name of religion. Not that I think I’m above that, but I’ll come back to that in minute. I think there’s an equation that, if all the parts fall into place, it has a disastrous conclusion. It goes something like this: Religious Fundamentalism + Nationalism + State Sanctioned Religion = Persecution and Oppression. So what’s the solution? I suppose the separation of church and state is a start. Not the kind of separation that prevents the ten commandments from being posted in a public place, but the kind of separation that ensures a free market of ideas. Sure, there’s a part of me that would like to see my own faith be privileged in the public sphere, but I’ve grown skeptical of the possibility of a benevolent dictatorship regardless of whether we’re talking about politics or religion. So religious freedom is a must. Seems like a no-brainer. Then why are there so many places in the world without it? The answer is the “F” word… Fear. Sure, there is the self-righteous paternalism that believes it would be doing someone a favor to convert them, even by coercion. But it really comes down to fear – fear that those who don’t accept one’s religion somehow chip away at its credibility. In fact, I think fear is a major factor in religious fundamentalism. But I also think fear is essentially the hallmark of spiritual immaturity.
Spiritual maturity, on the other hand, is conviction without fear – without that defensiveness that causes people to lash out at others. But here’s the really hard part. True spiritual maturity (and I believe I have Jesus on my side here) is more than simply refusing to commit violence against others. True spiritual maturity also means forgiving those who commit violence against us. Damn. I was hoping Jesus wouldn’t ask me to love my enemies. That’s really hard to do. But as I say in Spiritual Blueprint (in the chapter on the home for your spirit) it all comes down to forgiveness. Because after the debate over faith versus works has exhausted us into silence, Jesus says, “If you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:15). Ouch.
As I said above, on the one hand, I can’t understand why people would commit acts of violence in the name of religion, but on the other hand, I’m also willing to admit I’m not above the kind of emotion that might lead to violence. What I mean is this. I think I can honestly say it would not occur to me to initiate the violence. I wouldn’t start it. But if I’m honest with myself I have to admit that once the violence is begun, I feel the same anger that many people feel, and I can relate to the desire for retaliation. Let’s face it, it’s now over nine years since 9/11 and it still hurts. This kind of brings us full circle back to the book of Revelation. When John wrote Revelation, it had been 25 years since the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, and yet it was such a traumatic event that it’s described, both in the gospels and in Revelation, as an earth-shattering cataclysmic event that meant the end of the world as they knew it. The same empire that had sacked Jerusalem and leveled the sacred temple was now persecuting the Christian Church. And it was going to get worse before it got better.
So what’s the advice from Jesus for his followers? Is it retaliation? Revenge? Do we take matters into our own hands? No. That response might be easy, or comfortable, or satisfying, but it wouldn’t be Christian. Judgment and vengeance belong to God. The response that Jesus asks for is much harder. It’s forgiveness. Forgiveness, followed by patience (Revelation 6:9-11), and reconciliation (cf. II Corinthians 5:17-20). Sometimes forgiveness seems downright impossible. I go into this more in Spiritual Blueprint, but suffice it to say that Jesus never promised that the right way would be the easy way. So we are called to be God’s hands, but not God’s fists.