Matthew 5:8: μακάριοι οἱ καθαροὶ τῇ καρδίᾳ, ὅτι αὐτοὶ τὸν θεὸν ὄψονται.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Pure in heart. Pure in the inner-person, the sensibilities, emotions, thoughts, appetites, soul.
The word translated “pure,” is katharos, from which we get the English word
“catharsis.” It means “pure” in the sense of:
- Purgation of negative emotions
The word meant those things in Ancient Greek, but it also sometimes carried connotations of:
- A cloudless, sunny, clear day
- Clear, pure, pristine water
- A river that is clear and open
- Land that is free of weeds
- A document free of mistakes
- Being free of debt, liability
- Being free from pollution
- Being clean physically or morally
- Figuratively, a branch that has been pruned to bear fruit
“Catharsis” entered the English language as a medical term used to speak of a cleansing of the bowels. More recently, its primary use is in psychology, where we speak of a catharsis as a cleansing or purifying of negative or destructive emotions, such as self-pity or fear, through their release during psychotherapy. A cathartic experience brings renewal, release of guilt, forgiveness, soothing, healing, or the relieving of stress, often through art or music.
But, I am a debtor, a field overrun by weeds, a foul, polluted river, a contaminated spring, a vine without fruit. None of my concerted, well meaning, efforts can cleanse, expunge, or purify. I am no more able to make my inner-being pure than the man with the withered hand was able to grasp or the demoniac able to free himself of legions. It must all be the work of pure grace, the gracious gift of a loving God operating in and through me in God’s own way and in God’s own time, to create in me a new heart.
And that is exactly what God has promised to do.
The governor of Ohio recently signed into law what has been described as the most restrictive anti-abortion bill in the nation. A crowd around him cheered. I have mixed feelings.
On the one hand, I am pro-life. I’m personally opposed to abortion as a form of birth control. I’ve been around the medical field long enough to know that there are a fair number of gray area cases that involve the woman’s life and health, and I’m aware that there are pregnancies that are clearly not going to result in a live baby. So, I would make exceptions. But, still, I’m pretty strongly pro-life.
(BTW, pro-life also means being anti-war, anti-gun, anti-capital punishment, pro-environment, pro-social justice for the oppressed, and supportive of universal healthcare. I’m way more pro-life than most of the pro-life folks I know.)
The governor said that it is a fundamental duty of government to protect the innocent. That makes some sense to me. Our laws protect infants and children.
On the other hand, I’m male, so it is easy for me to have an opinion about a subject that can never directly affect me.
Moreover, I do not see how this issue can ever be solved politically. One view is entrenched in the Republican Party; the opposite view is entrenched in the Democratic Party.
The two sides are mutually exclusive – one side says we, as a society, must allow all abortions, all the time, for any reason; the other side says we must ban all abortions all the time.
Both sides fear a “slippery slope.” One side says, if we allow any abortions, we’ll slip into allowing all abortions. The other side says, if we agree to limit some abortions (virtually everyone hates partial birth abortion), then we’ll lose the right to any.
One side says they are defending innocent babies. The other side says they are defending a woman’s right to control her own body. There’s no room for compromise on either side.
Furthermore, pro-life that I am, I question the tactics of the pro-life movement. What will be accomplished by legislatively forcing the pro-life view on the populace? Sadly, the answer is that abortions will go underground; wealthy women will continue to have them at will somewhere; poor women will die in back-ally “clinics.”
I also struggle with the logic of both sides.
The pro-life side insists that human life begins at conception. There is no proof of that, either medically or scripturally. The pro-choice side says it’s a human being when she or he is viably born and takes her or his first breath. Again, there is no proof. No one knows, or can know, when a human “begins.” The fact that God saw you in your mother’s womb says something about God, not much about the human zygote.
The pro-life side insists that abortion is murder. That is the logical conclusion if humanity begins at conception. And, if that’s the case, do we seriously want to criminalize all women who have an abortion for whatever reason as murderers, and dole out the same criminal punishments we would for the person who guns down another in cold blood? Fear that that is where all this is headed is one big reason why pro-choice people are so dug in. And, it’s a real fear. There is a law being debated in the legislature of one of our southern states right now that would mandate the death penalty for anyone having an abortion. I’m told it has no chance of passing.
Our country is being ripped apart by culture wars. American society is changing rapidly and there are many people who hate that, especially the white males who have had a monopoly on power. America is becoming increasingly multiethnic, white people are losing power and clout, gay people are getting legally married, and abortion is still readily available. That is producing backlash in the form of nationalism, racism, homophobia, and strong anti-abortion views.
Donald trump is a man who’s entire life has been characterized by greed, cheating, lies, selfishness, coercion, racism, and gross ethical violations – indeed, he is a man whose character and behavior are diametrically opposite the teachings of Christianity. Yet, fundamentalists – both white Protestant evangelicals and white conservative Catholics – voted for, and continue to be his strongest base of support. They do so, at least in part, because they think he will appoint judges who will help them win the culture wars. Abortion is the primary issue fundamentalists feel very hopeful of winning. Trump’s Supreme Court appointees are on board.
But if the pro-life side “wins,” what have we won? We will have effectively alienated about half the population and convinced them to have nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus. And, are we even called to win? Are we not called to love, forgive, serve and be nonjudgmental? Are we not called to trust God to change hearts and minds so that, in this case, far fewer people will choose to have an abortion? And, if we are opposed to abortion, why are we not along side the poor pregnant woman or teen, giving her a place to live, walking with her, caring for her, and helping her for the next 20 years to raise her child? Or, alternatively, providing a good home for her child should that be her choice? We on the pro-life side demand an end to abortion, but we do little or nothing to alleviate the poverty that drives many women in that direction. In fact, many of the same people who oppose abortion, also oppose funding healthcare, job training, vocational guidance, daycare, and early childhood education.
We can’t win the culture war anyway. If the Supreme Court outlaws all abortions, the pro-choice folks (who, by the way, are not evil) will redouble their efforts until they have the political power, and the battle will continue.
For me, there is a third way. Not Republican. Not Democratic. It’s the way of Jesus. I refuse to be at war.
It is clear from scripture that Jesus is the perfect revelation of God:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:19-20, ESV)
God is exactly like Jesus. There is nothing unchristlike in God. If you have seen Jesus, you have seen the Father. Jesus and the Father are one.
It is also crystal clear that we are to imitate Jesus:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21-23)
Jesus asked: “Why do you call me Lord but do not do what I command you?”
And, it is obvious that Jesus taught unconditional nonviolent love:
Do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:39)
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45)
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39)
Blessed are the peacemakers… (Matthew 5:9)
When Jesus was arrested, he would not let his disciples use violence to prevent his arrest:
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. ‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who live by the sword will die by the sword.’ Enough of this, stop it!(Luke 22:49-51. See also Matthew 26:50-52)
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jewish leaders. But my kingdom is not from the world.”(John 18:36)
His apostles reiterated Jesus’ view:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.(Romans 12:14-21, ESV)
Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing…. (1 Peter 3:9)
And yet, most Christians, at least in the United States, support the military, are pro-gun, own guns, and approve of capital punishment. Many join the military; some are members of the NRA. Many churches display national flags and honor military achievements. Many celebrate the 4thof July, Memorial Day, and Veterans’ Day. Preachers and their congregations have often been the first to champion warfare causes. Many a person has been inspired to join the military by a rousing patriotic sermon. And all of this in direct opposition to the teachings of Christ.
Why the disconnect?
There are many reasons. Among them:
- A theological homogenization of empire and church that began with Augustine and has continued through the ages in virtually every mainline denomination. For the first 300 years of church history, Christians were persecuted by the State and they were adamant pacifists who forbade members from killing in any circumstance. When they were then given power by the State, theologians felt the need to justify state violence and the trajectory shifted. And so, the Bible was flattened. Old Testament scriptures were used to trump the words of Jesus, and the teachings of Christ were spiritualized away.
- The commitment, discipline, sacrifice, bravery and sacrifices of military personnel are rightly and unquestionably admirable. (I have a ton of friends who have served or are serving in the military, and I come from a long line of military patriots – my ancestor fought in the Continental army, his grandson, an abolitionist, fought in the Civil War, my great uncles were on the Western Front, my dad served throughout the entirety of World War II. I honor and respect them all.)
- Logic seems to dictate violence. How else could Hitler have been stopped or the home invader prevented from murder?
- Patriotism is seen as a virtue. In some circles, nationalism is also. Patriotism is love of one’s country. Nationalism is the belief that one’s country is the greatest there is – superior to all others.
- History is on the side of violence. In fact, history is often taught as nothing but a succession of wars and battles. Every empire in history was built on violent oppression. The United States is no exception. Native people were slaughtered, their land stolen. The economy of the young nation was built on the labor of slaves. That story is basically the same for all empires – Chinese, Egyptian, Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, Roman, Ottoman, German, Japanese, British, American. Violence, since Cain killed his brother, is the way of the world.
Ultimately, the real reason why we humans embrace violence is we either can’t or won’t trust God enough to not trust the sword.
Don’t we, though, have to sometimes trust the sword, for the reasons mentioned above?
The persecution of Christians by the state ended with emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milanin 313 AD, and Christianity became the official state religion of Rome under the emperor Theodosius in 380 AD. Church and State married and climbed in bed with each other. The state protected the church; the church gave credence to the state. Empire, the kingdoms of this world, and Christianity were blended and homogenized to the point of becoming inseparable. Shortly thereafter, Augustine invented the theology of church-state sanctioned violence. Whereas for three centuries, followers of Christ were forbidden to join the military or to kill, now they were welcome to do both as long as it was in the service of Rome. Augustine even maintained you could love your enemy while killing him. And that eventually led to the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Third Reich. During the Vietnam era, I saw a bumper sticker that read: “Kill a Commie for Christ.”
Augustine’s view became embedded in the organized church and was reinforced by all but the most radical of the Protestant reformers in the 16thcentury. Throughout history, the organized church has supported every world-dominating empire.
What is essentially wrong with this view is the central theme of the book of Revelation. Empire is evil. Empire is empowered by the forces of darkness. Empire is Satan’s creation. Juxtaposed is the Kingdom of God, which includes the refusal to serve Caesar as lord, as well as a radical commitment to follow King Jesus in a radical new way of doing life – a way of life demonstrated on the cross, where perfect, self-sacrificial, enemy-forgiving, love was demonstrated.
All empires are empowered by satanic forces, be they called Persia, Rome, Third Reich, or U.S. of A.
Is it wrong to be patriotic? That depends on our definition of patriotism. If by patriotism, we mean love of country, then, no, it is not wrong. Take the USA as an example with its vast canyons, towering mountains, fruited plains, and salt-washed shores – all beautiful where not spoiled by human greed. Principles of freedom, equality, mutual respect, toleration, opportunity, and diversity are at least acknowledged, if not always practiced, as virtues. I love all those things.
But, if we mean America is the greatest country on the earth, the last and best hope for humankind, a city set on a hill, the New Jerusalem, destined by God to rule the globe, then no, patriotism and nationalism are not only wrong, they are sinful.
As believers in Christ, we are called to be citizens of heaven. We are only guests in America, or Germany, or wherever we live. We are ambassadors. We are strangers, aliens, pilgrims. Our allegiance – our undivided allegiance – is to be to King Jesus and His Kingdom. It’s not “God and country,” it’s God. Not God first. God only. One Lord.
That’s why I do not say the Pledge of Allegiance. I pledge allegiance only to Jesus, not to anybody’s flag or republic.
That’s why I refused to join the military, filing with the draft board as a conscientious objector. If I lived, say, in France, I would try to be a good citizen and not cause trouble, but if France declared war on somebody, I would not join the French Foreign Legion. I am a citizen of the Kingdom of God. I serve King Jesus, not any earthly government, no matter how noble.
But what about Hitler? First, note that the majority of Germany was Christian and the majority of Christians supported Hitler. Had all those Christians been following King Jesus, Hitler never would have come to power. My father felt it his duty to help stop Hitler. A year before Pearl Harbor, he, having already completed college, joined the Navy, went to Officer Candidate School in Annapolis, was commissioned as an officer, and spent the entire war on three different warships in each of the three marine theaters. I understand and respect and deeply honor his commitment. The decision for me was made easier by the illegal and unjust war of my generation in Vietnam. Nevertheless, I hope, had I been of age in 1941, that I would have taken the path of my Anabaptist brethren who served bravely and diligently – often at great sacrifice in harm’s way – in noncombatant positions.
But, you may object, if everyone did that …
But, everyone didn’t, nor would there likely ever be a time when everyone would, so the very question is entirely hypothetical. But to answer it anyway: What would happen if an entire nation-state lived by the teachings of Jesus? They might very well be overrun, killed and subjugated by violent sinners, just like Christians were for the first 300 years when the Gospel spread like wildfire and martyrs welcomed death, knowing that their blood brought glory to their King.
Well, what about the home invader? Am I saying we should stand by idle while some horrible person rapes and murders our spouses and children? No, I am saying, we should love the home invader. Imagine that I’m visiting my son and his family. And imagine he goes nuts and in an insane rage is trying to kill his own son, my grandson. What would I do? I would hope I would do whatever is necessary to prevent him from hurting anyone. I would want to do that because I love him. But I wouldn’t kill him. Maybe in the process of stopping him, he might kill me. Better that than killing my grandson. I’d give my life for any of my kids or grandkids. If I could love that hypothetical home-invader like he was my own son, I would be following Jesus. Now, I really don’t know for sure what I would do or how I would react in a case like that, and the chances are extremely remote that I’ll ever have to find out. Isn’t it amazing that when we object to the teachings of Jesus, we fly to extreme hypothetical examples designed to stir up primitive fears?
Most of us are not called to confront a Hitler. Most of us will never experience a home invasion. But we are afraid. The media feeds our fears. Politicians feed our fears. Us versus them. We follow the crowd. Armed with our concealed weapons, we determine to stand our ground. We wave the flag and wipe away tears at parades. We demonize others. We insist on calling anyone who was ever in any branch of the Armed Services a hero, even though the vast majority did mundane jobs that required little in the way of courage. We call pacifists cowards and traitors.
What would happen instead, if we, who claim to follow King Jesus, displayed the courage to follow Him in a life of nonviolent, cruciform love?