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As the world lurches from crisis to crisis and from war to war, we tend to hold powerful forces — governments and multinational corporations — responsible. But for those of us in the Church, it is appropriate for us to examine our own culpability. We have all too often cooperated and colluded with these forces, and have failed our parishioners by diluting and distorting the message of Jesus we are commissioned to preach.
The big thing among Christians these days is WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?). They wear WWJD bracelets, necklaces, you name it. The problem is that many of them don’t have a clue what Jesus would really do, because their churches don’t teach them about Jesus. Jesus is almost completely missing from much of Christianity. The churches worship an ethereal risen Christ, but ignore the flesh-and-blood Jesus. Jesus was a first-century Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine. With his parables, he challenged the domination system of imperial Rome and its client kings and temple lackeys. He exposed the injustices of the empire/temple system, and made enemies of both the Romans and the Pharisees. In parables he warned of the futility of violent revolution. In the sermon on the mount he gave the people practical ways to employ nonviolent resistance. He taught them to stand upright and defiantly “turn the other cheek” instead of groveling in the dust. He advised them to “go the second mile,” knowing that it was illegal for Roman soldiers to conscript someone to carry their pack for more than a mile. And he turned the old ways upside down with his counsel to “love your enemies” and “do good to those who persecute you.”
But Jesus didn’t just preach nonviolence. He lived it, all the way to the cross. He showed us a nonviolent, all-loving, infinitely-merciful God — a God not at all like the jealous, scorekeeping, vengeful God too often portrayed in the Jewish scriptures. Yes, Jesus was a revolutionary — but his revolution wasn’t against Roman rule, but against the distorted image of God held by the people. He also drastically altered our understanding of how God wants us to act. God, it turns out, wants us to act like Jesus. He wants us to speak out against and nonviolently resist the exploitative, imperial powers of our day. (That means the oil companies and other global robber barons, as well as their hirelings in the U.S. government.) He wants us to promote the cause of widows and orphans, the poor and the outcast, the alienated and the victims of discrimination. He wants us on the side of single mothers, gays, Arabs — all the tax collectors, lepers, and Samaritans of today. Above all, He wants us to forego violence even in self-defense.
The early Church understood that. Christians were forbidden to be in the Army, to participate in capital punishment, even to testify against one accused of a capital offense. Their active nonviolent non-cooperation with Caesar resulted in their being persecuted and outlawed. The roots of the early Church were watered with the blood of its martyrs.
Then came Constantine. Christians came out of the catacombs and into the palaces. By so doing, they gave up their nonviolence, their independence, and their way. Instead of following Jesus, they began following Caesar. Oh, they came up with elaborate rationalizations for their actions. They invented the “Just War Theory” to justify taking up the sword for the emperor. And for the last 1600 years or so, most Christian churches and their hierarchies have advised young Christians to go to war for whatever is the latest adventure of Caesar, whether he is called Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, Bill Clinton, or George Bush (with whatever middle initials). Tens of millions of Christians have died in these wars. What’s worse, tens of millions have killed. Christian chaplains blessed Christian crews as they left to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Is this what Jesus would have done? Of course not!
As a confused but obedient Roman Catholic, I flew 101 combat missions in Vietnam. Knowing what I know now, I would not do it again. Why was there no chaplain to ask me what Jesus would do? Why was there no bishops’ conference to speak out against the war? Why was there no pope to declare participation in all warfare to be sinful? Why even today are the only Catholics truly following Jesus the handful in Pax Christi and the Catholic Worker houses around the country? Why does the Church not speak out against the phony War on Terrorism and the coming wars against Colombia and Iraq?
In the United States, only the traditional peace churches are opposing Caesar, and they’re small enough to be ignored. But what would happen if a really big and influential church became a peace church? What if the Roman Catholic Church did so? Would the Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Methodists be far behind? (The Baptists might take a little longer.) What if Christians throughout the armed services demanded non-combat service? What if no Christians volunteered or registered for the draft?
What might happen is that wars would stop. After all, how many wars can be fought without Christians? Oh, we might lose our tax exemptions and our favored treatment. We might even be persecuted again. If so, so be it. It’s better for us to follow Jesus in the catacombs than to betray him in the halls of power.
What might also happen is that our government would be unable to protect our property and maintain the affluence gap between us and the developing world. They might not be able to protect our right as Americans to consume eight times our share of the world’s resources. Giving up violence means giving up the fruits of violence. We must be prepared for that. (What would Jesus do?)
In the early 80s a Roman Catholic bishop said, “Just war? What just war? No such thing exists. But we must not tell this to the people.” The late John L. McKenzie said, “The statement of the renunciation of violence is clear enough. Christians have never questioned either that Jesus said it or that it admits no qualification. Christians have simply decided they cannot live according to these sayings of Jesus. … If the Roman Catholic Church were to decide to join the Mennonites in refusing violence, I doubt whether our harmonious relations with the government would endure the day after the decision.”
In one of his many essays against the Church’s support for warfare, Emmanuel Charles McCarthy said, “There are just some activities that there are no Christ-like ways of doing. A house of prostitution can be filled with statues, icons, incense, bells, piped in Gregorian chant, a theological library and a chapel but that does not make prostitution an act in conformity with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Nor would the presence of a chaplain. … The ultimate norm of Christian life has to be Jesus, His words and deeds — and if He is not the standard … who or what is? Plato? Aristotle? Hugh Hefner? NBC? FOX?” He went on to conclude, “All attempts today to justify violence from the life of Jesus or His teachings are devoid of spiritual and intellectual merit. … If a person does not wish to truthfully tell the story of Jesus, then why be ordained? Are the allurements of a secure income, status, power, and social acceptance so magnetic that they can seduce a Christian leader into falsifying a teaching of Jesus in order to obtain them or retain them?”
The conclusion we must reach is that when we emerged from the catacombs and embraced Constantine’s offer of secular power, prestige, and protection, we Christians prostituted ourselves. Fortunately, we can still go back! We can rescue the nonviolent Jesus from obscurity and restore the heritage of the early Church — the pre-Roman Catholic Church, if you will. We can spread the true message of the real Jesus through today’s equivalent of the catacombs — the internet and NCR. I call on pastors of all denominations to declare their parishes to be “peace churches” and to sign up at
Robert M. Bowman is presiding archbishop and primate of the United Catholic Church, an outgrowth of the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht, Netherlands. He lives in Melbourne, Florida. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org