This is no week (at least for me) to go on about unwarranted searches and surveillance, or whether a Bush bump in approval ratings is due to superficially frank speeches, a growing economy, the reduction in gasoline prices, or some combination thereof, let alone the fate of the PATRIOT Act. As a believer in, at the very least, the significance of Jesus as a prophet and teacher worthy of respect and close study, and perhaps rescue from many who profess and call themselves Christians and a good deal more, to be frank this is a time of the year when I am drawn to reflection beyond worldly things and events. What can we learn or relearn about what has been, both for better and for worse, probably the most world-historically influential religion in modern history (this is hardly an absolute claim, nor does it deny that other religions have been influential) to help make our world a better, more peaceful, more lovely place? Or is Christianity more a faith for individual lives than one that aspires to or can ameliorate conditions in this world?
Among the most pressing needs in this world at this time, it seems to me, is a resurgence of what might be called a culture of peace. I mean by that a widespread idea in a society that peace is normal and desirable the default position, if you will and is only to be disturbed in the most extreme circumstances. The United States obviously does not have a strong peace culture just now.
The current situation, of course, is heavily influenced by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 four years ago, an attack that seemed to many Americans unprovoked (though there’s little question that our foreign policy of many years was at least a partial provocation) and encouraged support for a bellicose response. If we had had a stronger peace culture, however, the administration and the neocons would have had a much harder time selling a war of choice one initiated by the United States against a country that, despite all the efforts to gin up a credible threat, posed no immediate threat and almost certainly no medium-term threat to this country.
The fact that all the justifications for the war turned out to be bogus and that the aftermath has hardly been a model of waging a short war to gain something like lasting peace, or at least a modicum of stability, has turned public opinion against this war and to some extent against this administration. But that’s a far cry from having a durable culture of peace in which most people view war as only a last resort and a tragedy if necessity forces us into one.
Americans are encouraged to worship soldiers, and for most it is hardly a hard sell. All the "highbrow," supposedly educational cable channels History, Discovery, even PBS and the like increasingly feature wars and war stories on their programming, which subtly reinforces in the minds of viewers the notion that war is inevitable in this world and simply a part of ordinary life rather than an extraordinary disruption of normal life that is viewed as undesirable even if necessary. Although the United States ended its last constitutionally declared war in 1945, a case can be made that the country has since then been constantly involved in some war or another and that while we haven’t yet become like the Spartans of old, the dominant culture comes rather close to being a war culture
Help From Religions?
Can religions help those of us who dream of reconstituting a peace culture in a country whose Constitution was built for peace and which for much of its history did seem to view peace as normal and war as an aberration? It may be difficult to dismiss out of hand those who would look at the record of major religions and conclude that the answer is in the negative. Among Christians today, those who are highlighted most often in the media tend to be not only supportive of this war but to see it as part of a larger "holy war" against warlike adherents to another religion. And while those who are most enthusiastic about the current war tend to be lumped together as the "religious Right," during World War I and its prelude, the most enthusiastic (and sometimes alarmingly bloodthirsty) support for war came from self-styled "progressives" and advocates of the "social gospel" in the "mainline" denominations.
Islam is styled by many as a religion of peace, but its adherents for centuries from the time of Muhammad engaged in almost endless war and conquest. They were countered at times by European Christians who sponsored the bloody Crusades of the Middle Ages to take back Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the "infidels" of Islam. And many Muslims who are far from being part of the jihadist heresy can yet find justification within their religion for war and violence. And adherents of various religions (among which I include communism and perhaps some brands of fascism and nationalism), when they believe a war has any of the attributes of a holy war, can be extraordinarily offhanded and sometimes downright fanatical in justifying slaughter and brutality that you would think would be deeply offensive to even a modest sense of decency as the "will of God," or in the atheist version, of History.
Hindus are generally reputed to be peaceful types, but the prevalence of Hinduism has hardly eliminated bloodshed from Indian history; indeed, when Indians break out in what is usually referred to as "communal" conflict (which is almost always religiously based, though sometimes it is more tribal), they can engage in alarming feats of slaughter. Buddhism in its best manifestations may be the most peace-oriented of the major world religions, but that hasn’t prevented wholesale slaughter in wars in every Asian country.
Taking Back the Prince of Peace
Over the years, I have met adherents of other religions, including Buddhist monks and Muslim imams, who are doing yeoman work in trying to recall believers to the idea of peace rather than war as the way religious people should work to make the world a better place. I can’t help believing it’s possible to reclaim the peaceful aspects of Christianity which I believe is the most authentic reflection of what Jesus tried to teach. At Christmas time, despite its having been largely preempted by Santa Claus and commercialism, it is still possible to detect a heightened sense of good will among people, a desire to live a more fruitful and productive life of righteousness, a desire on the part of lukewarm Christians and many non-Christians to connect in a more profound way with the itinerant preacher who declared, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God."
We might start by acknowledging that the accounts of the birth of Christ are more than likely anything but historically reliable. The gospel most biblical scholars believe was written at the earliest time, that of Mark, does not have an account of the birth. Luke’s version, the inspiration for a thousand Christmas pageants, is almost impossible to cross-check with other sources. Almost everyone acknowledges that Jesus was almost certainly not born on Dec. 25, but that the date was chosen by the early church to preempt the Roman festival of Saturnalia and other pagan festivals centered around the Winter Solstice.
The account in Luke (and to some extent in Matthew), thus likely reflects not what happened but what the early church wanted to believe had happened. It might coincide with reality in some aspects, but it is best understood as reflecting what the early church believed would help to explain what manner of person (or God) this Jesus was. It is therefore of interest as a way of understanding what the first Christians believed was important about this Jesus. Properly understood, it can be quite telling about Jesus’ relationship to the powers of this world and to the hierarchies of the day.
One might expect, for example, that the birth of someone destined to the messenger of the High and Lofty Ruler of the Universe, destined to sit at his right hand and participate in judgment, would have taken place at least in a temple of some religion, if not in the kind of luxurious palace that the rulers of this world prefer. That the early Christians believed that God would choose an obscure and probably poor mother, putting her in the shocking position (especially in that society) of being an unwed mother, who might ordinarily be pushed beyond the fringes of respectable society, says something about what they thought of respectable society.
The story of being pushed out to a stable or cave because there was no room at the inn might have fit in with Isaiah’s prophecy that he shall be "despised and rejected of men" (which may or may not have been meant to refer to Jesus), but it hardly fit with what most of society, then and now, considered the way for somebody worthy of respect and reverence to have been born. The early church, then, viewed itself as radically separated from not necessarily in active opposition to but perhaps more indifferent to the claims of the powerful and influential in that society or any other society. Many early churches forbade their members to serve in the military or police.
Matthew has the local king so anxious and jealous about some obscure nobody prophesied to become king of the Jews that he seeks to kill the young child by killing all the infants in Bethlehem. Thus Jesus is seen from the outset as dangerous to duly constituted authority. Properly understood and despite the unseemly love of some current Christians for state authority in all its forms I believe he still is.
When the Romans came to take Jesus away for trial and Peter drew his sword (again, the significance is not in the literal truth but in the fact that all the gospels consider the incident significant enough to include it), but Jesus admonished him. In Matthew’s telling (King James, which I still like despite some archaisms and questions about accuracy), he said, "Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword." This was not an advocate of conversion by force, let alone military force, but of seeking followers by setting an example of peaceful living and then submitting, even unto death, rather than fighting back when he knew death was almost certainly imminent. One can argue whether Christianity implies pacifism, but it is difficult to see Jesus as an advocate of war and violence.
At this time of year, I can still entertain hope that that babe in the manger can help us move toward a world of peace, compassion, and love rather than war, hatred, and violence. History offers plenty of reasons to believe otherwise, including professed adherents of that child who have supported war, hatred, and violence. While the hope may be faint, however, I still cling to it.