Brother Boyd, I think you’re wrong on Syria

greg_250_wideI have much respect for Greg Boyd. I used to listen to the Woodland Hills podcast when I did chores around the house. I own many, if not most, of Boyd’s books and his theology continues to resonate within my own evolution as a believer.

In the midst of a Church faced with certainty, racial tensions, and anti-intellectualism, I think his is an important voice that many in the US need to hear. I wish more would do so.

Greg recently wrote a blog post entitled, “What I–a Pacifist–Would Say to Obama About the Crisis in Syria,” where he addresses several ideas about Kingdom pacifism in light of what he would ask of Obama should the President solicit his advice on the current conflict.

Among the many things I appreciate about Boyd (and his community), I’ve especially enjoyed watching their transformation from Evangelical to Neo-Anabaptist. So in the long tradition of Anabaptist practice, let me respectfully say to Brother Boyd, “I think you’re wrong on the situation in Syria.”

Responding to Greg Boyd’s Take

Boyd writes,

The first thing I’ll say is that I don’t believe that being a kingdom pacifist (viz. on who swears off violence out of obedience to Jesus) means that one must embrace the conviction that governments are supposed to embrace pacifism. Many people assume this, and I’ve found that the implausibility of this position is one of the main reasons some people reject pacifism. After giving talks about the kingdom call to unconditional non-violence, I’ve frequently received responses like: “Are you telling me our government should just love the terrorists and ‘turn the other cheek’?” Actually, I’m not saying this.  I don’t believe Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching on the need for disciples to adopt an enemy-loving, non-violent lifestyle was ever intended to serve as a mandate for how governments are supposed to respond to evil.

First of all, I totally agree with your perspective regarding who (and what) Paul is writing to. His epistle isn’t a treatise on the best-practices of “Biblical” or “Godly” governmental authority. But isn’t it a bit anachronistic to interpret Paul’s ideas concerning how government’s “respond to evil” in the context of war? I mean, he was writing to the Christians in Rome, many of whom had recently been expelled because they were Jews. Others surely encountered immense persecution by the Roman authorities “that wielded the sword.”

Are we to believe that those who were being punished under Roman authority were only being persecuted because they were ‘wrongdoers’? Rome clearly labeled Christians as evil. Surely there is another way to look at this passage in light of Jesus and the rest of Scripture?

Secondly I don’t think it is our job as kingdom pacifists to make kingdom pacifism palatable to those who don’t embrace it. The “Prince of Peace” seems to be a Messianic prophecy from the Holy Spirit, living at peace with all seems to be a commandment from the Messiah, so it only follows that the natural production of the fruit of the Spirit in the life of the believer includes “peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.” Why then refrain from advocating peace if that means some will reject the produce of the Spirit or the commandment of our King? In other words, when the Body of Christ promotes peace both internally and externally, is this not  an out-flowing of the work of the Holy Spirit within them?

Third, what exactly do we mean by government? I hear the word ‘government’ used in this context so often that I often forget how nuanced, diverse, and multi-facted ‘government’ really is. Anyone familiar with government knows it’s not some arcane and monolithic cabal bent on thwarting individual liberty. In the American town square, we often hear conflicting ideals of what government is, ranging from the “of the people, by the people, and for the people” variety to the 400 lbs political gorilla hiding under our bed (or monitoring our guns/phones/emails, etc).

Referring to ‘government’ in such a manner is like referring to the ‘powers and principalities’ as ‘the power and principality’–it just doesn’t compute well. Our ‘government’ can’t even coordinate communication between active duty soldiers and the VA, let alone the FBI and the NSA, CIA, or even local law enforcement agencies. How then can we honestly refer to it as some monolithic entity in this context?

Perhaps we need a little more context when addressing what we refer to as government, since in our nation, citizens empower the government not only by working for the government or by participating in our elections, but also by buying into their system of domination. Where does the ‘government’ get the money to wage war? How does the government have the authority to hire Americans into fighting without drafting them anymore? What interests, aside from economic and martial domination, does our government truly protect?

Fourth, if governments are not supposed to embrace Kingdom pacifism as you maintain, the question seems to be then how we, as Kingdom of Jesus people, are supposed to operate under governments who stand opposed to the ways of Jesus?

In other words, when governments decide who their enemies are and who is evil, where does that leave us as Kingdom followers of Jesus? Are the government’s enemies also our ‘enemies’ in this case (since we are Americans), or are these enemies only the government’s enemies? What if we work for the government? What if we pay government taxes that fund the naming of enemies and evil doers, let alone the wielding of God’s vengeance upon them when our government ‘responds to evil’?

The point is, can we really separate ourselves from the government’s enemies if we are supporting our government’s ability to go to war with those ‘enemies’?

Enemies? What Enemies?

Not only does Jesus command us to love our enemies, but he also commands us to do good/bless/love those who persecute us. So it seems it doesn’t matter if they are truly ‘our enemies’ or not–the point is that even if they call us enemies, we are still to do good/bless/love them as Christ loved us.

Since we are supposed to love those who call us enemies, then loving, doing good, and blessing them would not only put us into conflict with our own government (who would readily see our actions as seditious), but our love would also radically express the Good News of Jesus Christ that is in the business of loving one’s enemies. If we expressed blessing and good will towards one side, the other might interpret that as an act of war, as was recently realized in the beheading of a Franciscan, martyred for allegedly ‘aiding’ Assad’s regime. (warning, this link is extremely graphic)

If they are not ‘our enemies’, then why do you label them as ‘evil’?

If they are evil, then we are good, and how the government responds to them as evil doers seems ‘ordered’ by God. But as Christians, it seems you would have us refrain from advocating for peace and doing good to the Syrians (who call us enemies) while simultaneously, we empower our government to wage war against them. Ultimately, this line of thinking skirts Luther’s dual-citizenship theory of Kingdom ethics, where we reject the cake on the one hand, but we want to eat it too. When the ‘government’ gets to choose who the enemies and evil doers are when ‘wielding the sword God has given them,’ we have already bought into the myth of redemptive violence and have operated under the presupposition that God is on our side.

Boyd continues,

To the contrary, in Romans 12 and 13, Paul explicitly contrasts the call of disciples to swear off violence as they love and serve enemies with the way God uses governments. …Rather than retaliating, disciple must rather feed our enemy when they’re hungry and give them something to drink when they’re thirsty, thereby overcoming evil with good rather than allowing evil to overcome good (vss.20-21)… God uses these sword-wielding authorities “to bring punishment” or “vengeance” (ekdikos ) on the wrongdoer” (vs.4).

War is never, ever surgical. It never merely involves violence against combatants only, let alone “wrongdoers.” There is always “collateral” damage during war. So if God is “taking vengeance” upon wrongdoers, why is it okay for God to also take vengeance upon innocent bystanders who are caught up in the violence of war?

And if God uses sword-wielding governmental authorities to “bring punishment” or “vengeance” upon the “wrongdoer,” then what does it mean when our own government has the sword brought down upon itself through war and violence by another government? In other words, whose government is being used by God to bring “vengeance” upon wrongdoers? Every government? Just our government? The Roman government of Paul’s day?

And what does it imply when we make the logical argument that, ‘well, the government is punishing wrongdoers, therefore, America’s enemies are wrongdoers– therefore, God is using our government to do God’s righteousness’ as so many in the past have claimed?

You must admit that this line of reasoning has been used to justify a hundred thousand atrocities throughout Church history.

But I think Jesus has nothing to do with it.

Boyd continues,

The important point for us to see is that Paul forbids disciples to ever engage in the very activity he says God uses governments to accomplish – namely, taking vengeance (ekdikēsis). …This doesn’t mean that God wants governments to be violent. It just means that, since the governments of this fallen world are going to be violent, God is willing to get involved in them by “ordering” (tassō) their violence to bring about as much good as possible.

“You do not know what spirit you are of…”

Brother Greg, can you show me one instance in the Scriptures where Jesus, who is the exact representation of the Father, was “willing to get involved in ordering violence to bring about as much good as possible”?

Pointing to this exact type of reasoning, Quaker and political philosopher Jonathan Dymond wrote in 1824:

It is obvious that this reasoning proceeds upon the principle that it is lawful to do evil that good may come. If good will come by violating a treaty, we may violate it.35 If good will come by slaughtering other men, we may slaughter them. I know that the advocate of expediency will tell us that that is not evil of which good, in the aggregate, comes; and that the good or evil of actions consists in the good or evil of their general consequences. – I appeal to the understanding and the conscience of the reader – Is this distinction honest to the meaning of the apostle? Did he intend to tell his readers that they might violate their solemn promises, that they might destroy their fellow Christians, in order that good might come? If he did mean this, surely there was little truth in the declaration of the same apostle, that he used great plainness of speech.

Now there is certainly a difference between God ‘getting involved in violence to bring about as much good as possible” and God taking what some meant for evil and redeeming the aftermath for something good. As Bonhoeffer wrote, “I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. For that purpose, he needs men who make the best use of everything…” but does that mean that God is willing to get involved in evil by ‘ordering violence’ to bring about good??
I think the example of Jesus says no. I think the both world wars, the Holocaust, Vietnam, and Iraq say no.

The books of Isaiah have more to say about the coming Messiah than any other prophet in the Bible. Prophesying to the day that the Messiah would rise out of Judah, Isaiah says:

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (NRSV)

Things radically change when King Jesus arrives on the scene. This isn’t some distant pre/post/mid-tribulation dispensationalism, this is the prophetic eschatological reality in the new Kingdom of the Messiah. In the Reign of God under the Messiah, God’s people will not only fail to engage in war (passivism), but they will also “break” and “shatter” the weapons of war (activism) and live in the peace and security of their master since nations will not even train for conflict.

Too Close to Home

Boyd’s argument seems to imply that the church can be faithful to our One King and One Kingdom by simply failing to engage in war instead of also engaging in breaking and shattering the weapons of war through non-violent means. He seems to suggest that we can live securely under the wings of Uncle Sam’s war eagle while also living securely under the wings of our crucified Lord. Confusingly, Boyd suggests we are to love our enemies and do good acts of blessing to them, but then infers that Syria (perhaps the Assad regime) are not our enemies–only the government’s enemies–even though we as American citizens have empowered our government to wage war if we do nothing to stop them.

But Isaiah seems to juxtapose the Reign of God against the Reign of the violent powers and principalities of this world as he continues the Messianic narrative from before:
5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord! 6 For you have forsaken the ways of your people, O house of Jacob. Indeed they are full of diviners from the east and of soothsayers like the Philistines, and they clasp hands with foreigners. 7 Their land is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots. 8 Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made. 9 And so people are humbled, and everyone is brought low— do not forgive them!
Now I don’t know about you, but I think that sort of definition could include powerful, wealthy, violent nations just like ours. The Empire of America stands to gain immense profits from waging war against Syria. and our 1233408_524429147636519_2084899935_nviolent military contractors (and those with stock in them) seem to be making a fortune as well.
There are certainly some things I agree with Greg Boyd’s blog post. I agree that being a follower of Jesus doesn’t give us a special insight to political or governmental affairs.
Boyd writes, “These governments operate by an entirely different set of rules than the kingdom we belong to and are called to advance. They defend their self-interest, while we die to ours. They are focused on doing what is practical while we are concerned only with being faithful. And they trust the power of force, while our only confidence is in the power of self-sacrificial love.
I also agree that we should not hold governments to the same standards of the Church, and neither should we expect them to do so.
But the question remains, what do we do as Kingdom of Jesus people, when our Kingdom commandments call for an allegiance that puts us at odds with allegiance to our sovereign nation–especially when we the people are as much a part of the government as we are in the United States of America?Can’t we also advance the Reign of God while dying to our own self-interests while being faithful to the Prince of Peace “in the power of self-sacrificial love”?

9 thoughts on “Brother Boyd, I think you’re wrong on Syria

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  2. I think you’ve misunderstood what Greg meant by “ordering”. As I’ve heard him say elsewhere, tasso does not mean commanding; it means the sort of ordering, or filing, that a librarian would do with books (whether or not the librarian agreed with the content of the books). I think Greg is saying that similarly God works to bring the best out of the evil done by violence, just as God works for good in all other circumstances. (I don’t mean that God causes the evil.) Greg’s realised that he may not have been as clear as he could have been on this, so he’s going to write a blog to explain. I think you’ll find he agrees with you a lot more than you thought!

    Blessings.

    • Hi Joe, its entirely possible that I misunderstood what he meant by ordering. Thanks for pointing that out. I’m certainly aware that Greg is a pacifist, and as I stated earlier, I have much respect for him. In fact, it was Greg (and not other Anabaptist teachings) that lead me to the nonviolence of Jesus as part of discipleship.

      To the point, I hope Greg addresses a few of the topics I’ve brought up:

      1. What is ‘government’ and (how?) are Christians complicit in our government’s violent actions while also not being culpable?

      2. If the government will always be at odds with the Kingdom, then what is the extent of our participation within the government? In other words, as Kingdom people, do we simply allow the government to continue violence if we have a stake, a say, and an ability to change their course of action in a non-violent way? (Remember, the Roman Empire of Paul’s time was not a Democracy in a Republic)

      3. Why does Greg call those whom the government uses the sword against as “evil” if they are not our enemies? If the government uses the sword against anyone, in our case, the government has already labeled them as evil (might makes right), so how are we to read Paul’s argument in that light?

      4. Further and related, how do we keep pacifism from devolving into passivism? I do not see Jesus or the Apostles being inactive in their nonviolence, but proactive. Perhaps Greg disagrees with me on this notion, but I think a compelling argument can be made from the early Church example, that Kingdom nonviolence is not passive (not merely failing to engage in violence, but active (promoting peace and justice where it resides).

  3. Thanks for your reply Tyler. I’d be interested in hearing Greg discuss those questions too! Hopefully his forthcoming blog post will address a good number of them; if not I’ll help you in encouraging him to discuss them!

  4. Thanks Joe. From what I can tell, Boyd often advocates something similar to Luther’s two kingdom perspective of citizenship. However, it seems that both Paul and Luther’s governments were not as ‘democratic’ (small d) in our modern sense. I also find that most of his teaching regarding pacifism is passive in response. For instance, he has made it known that he sees no reason for Christians to be involved in say protests, marches, petitions, etc. I find this upsetting for several reasons, which you have probably inferred from my blog here. The irony being that when Greg started publicly preaching against the co opting of the Church by right wing politics in the US, his approach was activist (not passive) I would argue. In the same manner, I feel like Christians have some sort of conflict with the kingdom of this world, because such a conflict is inevitable. (“If they hated me they will hate you…”) While he and I both would advocate for a nonviolent response, my take may be that we are indeed to be proactive in response while I think he would assert that we should be passive in our response. By that I mean, he infers the fact that our “enemies are not of flesh and blood” means that our response would be spiritual and not worldly. But I would argue that one does not have to be worldly to be salt and light, but that these fruits would naturally rub the kingdom of this world the wrong way. Also, I find we both share the conviction that our hope is not to be in any political or ‘worldly’ solution. However, I think I hold Walter Wink’s conviction that the powers and principalities are not flesh and blood but do in fact personify themselves in the structures and systems we find in our governments today.

  5. Since I have read many of Greg’s books and listened to and read many of his teachings, I will weigh-in on this post.

    I think where he is coming from is that since the government is not made up of all Christians (ie we are not a Christian nation), we should not force what we think is right upon those that do not share our convictions. Such as people who are not Christian and/or do not subscribe to pacifism. It may be that he is trying to be consistent with the 2 kingdom theory and making sure the church and the state remain separate. An example I can think of is the issue of Gay marriage. Certain Christians think it is wrong, so they protest, demonstrate, vote, encourage others to vote (along with many other ugly things) in the name of Jesus in an effort to force the government’s hand to “stop” Gay marriage. They assume it is the correct “Christian” thing and consequently always the “right” thing, so it must be forced upon others who maybe do not want to “stop” Gay marriage. Specifically those who are not Christian and/or do not hold those same values. It can be seen the same way when applied to trying to “force” the government (which is made up of individuals that are not all pacifist and/or Christian) to do what we (as Christians and/or pacifists) think is right.

    From what I can gather, his issue with protests is that he believes it puts too much trust in the government itself to make change. Since by protesting we are trusting that they (government) have the power to change things rather than trusting in the Kingdom of God.

    Also, the issue of “evil” by Greg Boyd is also something different. He sees the people that perform the evil not as evil in themselves but by acting in evil ways, they are victims themselves of our ultimate enemy Satan. So, when he calls someone evil, usually he is referring to their actions, not the persons, country, nation, etc.

    Now I myself do not know fully if these are the correct views but I think he is being consistent with his line of thought based on his books, theology, teachings, etc.

  6. Pingback: the Jesus Event | 2013 Roundup: most popular posts from 2013

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