The Centurion, Memorial Day and Christian Pacifism

Transcribed from the sermon preached May 29, 2016

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

Scripture Readings: I Kings 8:37-43, Luke 7:1-10

For most of my life I was the rebel who spotted the injustice of authority. I was the friend of coworkers, the one who listened to the complaints about the boss. Then I became a parent, and then I got a job where I was the boss. I am still a rebel, but I think I am more humble about it because sometimes I have the privilege and responsibility to be the judge and referee.

We see at least two things addressed in this story of the healing of the Centurion’s slave.  First, the centurion is a Gentile, not one already in the fold.  Second, while the centurion is someone with authority serving the occupying power, he nevertheless demonstrates how someone can both carry authority and power and still be humble, kind and faithful.  Humility is the key ingredient in Jesus’ reaction. Don’t let being in the in group go to your head, and don’t let authority go to your head.

Arrogance and self-righteousness are forms of idolatry – the worship of self rather than God.  Liberals and progressives are in as much danger of these forms of idolatry as any other.  As we attempt to be faithful to the non-violent Gospel of Jesus Christ, as we have focused on non-violence this year, we must be careful that we are not like the self-righteous pious person in the temple who says, “thank God I am so much better than that police officer and soldier.”

After a long hard day at church for me and my little boys, we were driving home and the boys started fighting. I told them to stop. They didn’t. I said, “You have to listen to me. I am your father.” Then Nick said, “Well, I am the Lord God, and you have to listen to me.”

On this Memorial Day Sunday, we remember and give thanks for the service and lives of Andy Benson, my father, and the many people among our families, friends and community who have served or are serving in the role of protector. And we pray that we the people, our representatives, and those we employ may indeed be sent to defend a just cause, to protect and preserve peace, justice and liberty.  And we must admit that to some degree, for the middle and upper middle classes in the dominant race of the dominant empire of the world that the ease with which we can advocate non-violence reflects a privilege which rests on an unjust peace established by violence and maintained by coercion.

The relative peace and justice that we have in the United States, maintained by our police and military, (entrusted with the job by the people) is quite different, for instance, than the situation in Guatemala.  As a church we are working that our police be trained well, that they be honest, non-prejudicial and peace loving, and that they be held accountable when they are not.  We work as citizens to refrain from the violence of war, and we send our soldiers to kill and die only when all other options have been exhausted. We have a long way to go, but we ought to stop and take the time now and again to give thanks for the relative peace and justice we do have.

We know that our government bears significant responsibility for the political and economic situation in Guatemala, but not all the responsibility. Central American society was not paradise before the US showed up, nor before the Spanish showed up.  How much responsibility is ours is not my conversation this morning.  Rather, it is to acknowledge that our relative peace and privilege allows us to call ourselves pacifists without much sacrifice. And here I make no distinction between pacifist and non-violent activist.

In Why Nations Fail Acemoglu and Robinson argue that a successful and prosperous nation must have strong and inclusive political and economic institutions. They cannot be run by and serve the few. Power and opportunity need to be distributed with relative equality and then they need to be protected with relatively equal justice.  Key is a centralized and powerful state. They write, “A telling contrast is the East African nation of Somalia… Political power in Somalia has long been widely distributed – almost pluralistic. Indeed there is no real authority that can control or sanction what anyone does. Society is divided into deeply antagonistic clans that cannot dominate one another. The power of one clan is constrained only by the guns of the other.  This distribution of power leads not to inclusive institutions but to chaos.” (P.80) The root of the problem is the lack of a centralized power and the inability to enforce even the minimal amount of law and order to support economic activity, trade, or even the basic security of its citizens. Note this is a pro-capitalist argument for strong and active government.

So we pray for a nation with a people who trust the centralized government enough to rule with relative justice. We hope our leaders and soldiers have some humility, and recognize the importance of their conduct and strength in the exercise of their authority.  We want to trust them, so we pray that they are trustworthy.  Since we want to trust them, we may fail to acknowledge their sin and fail to hold them accountable. We resonate with Colonel Jessup in the movie a Few Good Men who said, “You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall — you need me on that wall…I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it.”

But we have to police the police. We have to remind them how important their job is to protect and to serve.  Consider John McCain’s argument against torture: he said, and I paraphrase from memory: “We are supposed to be different, that is what I was fighting for, that is what I suffered imprisonment for.”

In I Kings 8, at the consecration of the temple, no doubt built with considerable coercion, we hear King Solomon’s prayer for the people.  Democracy is not a Hebrew scripture concept, at least not by 950 BCE, but Solomon still has in mind the peace and prosperity of the people and even the wellbeing of foreign immigrant and visitors.  If the unification of the Kingdom of Israel was not decided by a democratic vote of the common people, there was at least an agreement based on the strength or David and mutual interest of the 12 clan leaders.

In Guatemala, political institutions have been set up by and supported the very few wealthy. The US government, backing the economic interests of a few powerful businessmen has supported this government by the few. These extractive political institutions then enable economic institutions which extract wealth from the many for the few to further consolidate economic wealth and political dominance.  With a government who literally answers to the highest bidder, it was easy for drug lords to infiltrate and even take over Guatemalan society.  The cartels resemble the clans of Somalia, and the society is literally disintegrating.

Now the cartels have set up their own extractive de facto governments, enforcing their own law and extracting their own taxes through extortion.  Those who don’t go along are murdered and raped.  So when I hear a girl’s testimony of being raped in front of her parents, and then hear testimony after testimony and realize this is not an isolated case but a very common one, when I realize that evil doers can become so accustomed to evil doing that they do it with ease and even pleasure, I find myself thankful for our relatively stable law and justice.  Not only that, but I find myself praying, that if I was the witness to some horrific act of evil men, and I had the opportunity and weapons, that I would have the courage to act as protector and to kill.  I am also quite certain, that if I did witness such an act and did not use violence when violence could have prevented the act, I would feel ashamed, as if I had done wrong.  Some priests in Latin American felt this same way during the civil wars of the 70s and 80s.  Seeing the injustice and violence, they argued that armed struggle was justified, while a few even took up arms.

They were influenced by Marxist understanding of History, which reflects the Latin American context quite well, but also by great Christians like Bartolome de Las Casas and Thomas Aquinas.  Aquinas argued that a just war had three things: it was carried out by a legitimate authority, it was for a just cause, and those using violence had the right intention.

Reinhold Niebuhr was consistently progressive in political objectives, but rejected the self-righteousness, the idealism and utopianism of many liberal pacifists.  He considered modern pacifism leading into WWII an extension not of Christian values but of Renaissance humanism and the Enlightenment notion of the progress of man. (Pavlischek, Keith. Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian Realism, and Just War Theory http://eppc.org/docLib/20080205_palpatterson03.pdf)  The idea that we could achieve world peace if we were all willing to “take Christ seriously” was a failure to understand the sinful nature of humanity demonstrated over and over and over again in history.  Pacifism was the idealism of the immature who fail to take responsibility for living with power in a sinful world.

Now Niebuhr does have respect for folks like our contemporary Stanley Hauerwas, who argues that the objective of the non-violent Christian is not to make the world behave but for we ourselves to follow the Way of Jesus Christ.  Niebuhr concedes that it is clear from the biblical record that Jesus advocated and lived radical non-violent love. Niebuhr admits the argument for violence will always kill itself.  There is too much injustice and sin within us for our violence to be good for long, if ever.  Or, as Gandhi is quoted, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Niebuhr does not argue like just war theory that soldiers killing is not sin; he just says that in a sinful world that needs authority, somebody has to do it.

Hauerwas almost argues for blinders, like Paul he wants us to disregard the arguments of the world, of the “flesh” and simply live the way of love, the way of the Spirit.  We are to be “Resident Aliens,” in the world but not of it.  To some degree that is the path of St. John’s. We are not saying that the US government should not have an army, or some sort of immigration policy which they enforce by law, we are saying that as Christians, God told us to welcome strangers, love our neighbor as ourselves and the law of God is higher than the law of the state.  We are not to be escapists, ascetics, but neither are we to fall into the grandiosity or arrogance of thinking that though the world crucified Christ, it will listen to our logic, see our love, become educated, repent of their sinful violence, and peace will break out and everyone will hold hands and sing John Lennon’s Imagine.

We are all in need of the grace of Christ.  Some of us may be offended that Jesus praises and acts on the faith of a slave holder and soldier of the occupying power.  We don’t see ourselves in the story. Maybe this is one of those times when we identify most with the Pharisees and Sadducees, who say, hey wait a minute. Then again look what the Centurion is asking for, look who Jesus heals:  a slave.  If we have ever had any power whatsoever: if we have been a parent, a teacher or a boss, a soldier or a politician, a citizen who has voted for a representative who has sent soldiers to war, then we are the Centurion – the benefactor and executor of coercive power – and we are in need of the radical healing love of Christ.  Will we ask for it so that others might be healed?