I’ve just finished watching an interview on the washingtonpost.com website with Gen. William Boykin, whom you may remember fell into a fair amount of controversy a few years ago regarding his use of religious language to describe the war on terror. Right off the bat, Boykin’s interviewer asked him about how he reconciles having to kill people in his profession with his Christian faith. Boykin said he turned to a Christian pastor for guidance in this area early on in his career, and their dialogue regarding violence and Jesus is a sad microcosm of the state of mainstream American Christianity.
Boykin relates three main points from the conversation.
First, his pastor asked him two questions:
“Do you believe that America was ordained by God to be a light in a world of darkness,” and “Do you believe that he intended it to be defended entirely by those who are not religious?” Boykin answered “yes” and “no,” respectively. Then his pastor pointed him to Jesus’ statement to his disciples on the night of his arrest: “If you do not have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” From this interaction, Boykin came to the conclusion that “…[H]aving to kill people is totally consistent with … my faith and the teachings of Christ.”
Let’s unpack this a bit:
1) America as “a light to the nations.” The phrase “a light to the nations” is a reference to Israel, to the people of God. The idea of the “American Israel” is older than the United States. The Puritans began the tradition of referring to their nascent society as “a city on the hill” and the “new American Israel.” The Puritan allusion to the Israelite story is understandable – they were a people leaving what they believed to be a corrupt society, travelling across the sea, making a home in a land occupied by people who do not share their understanding of God.
But, as N.T. Wright points out in Jesus and the Victory of God, Jesus redefined the renewed Israel as those who gave their loyalty to him. He urged his fellow Jews to give up their inverted idea of election, of chosen-ness, and return to their vocation of being the light to the world, meaning they were to become an example of righteousness to others and draw them to God, rather than seek to win their freedom from Rome through martial force. After Easter, the “light to the world” is to be Jesus, active through the renewed Israel, his church, not a political kingdom of this world that rules through violence and domination. It is a categorical mistake to apply the idea of being a “light to the world” to the United States, which, as a kingdom of the world under the influence of the satan, is distinct from the Kingdom of God.
2) The Christian obligation to defend America as the “light to the nations” is largely negated by the above. Christians “defend” the kingdom to which they belong through self-sacrificing, nonviolent love and by returning good for evil. Christ called us to resist evil by turning the other cheek, going the second mile, giving the shirt when the cloak is asked for. In the Christian view, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
3) “Buy a sword.” Boykin’s pastor severely misinterprets this passage. For a detailed refutation, I recommend Rev. Charles Emanuel McCarthy’s explanation on the Center for Christian Nonviolence’s website (Under “Audio,” scroll down to “Buy a Sword?”)
This kind of thinking is deeply ingrained in American mainstream Christianity, and we have to do a better job confronting it and refuting it if we are ever to regain our nonviolence as a church.