The Spirit of the Lord, §10.3: Political Pacifism

Third, the vision of the New Jerusalem is politically pacifist. The term “politically pacifist” combines two ideas—political and pacifist. Each one is worthy of discussion in its own right, but in the passage from Micah, the two terms cannot be dissociated. The passage is political precisely in that it is a vision of peace. Peace is portrayed in fundamentally political terms—“nation shall not lift up sword against nation”—so that it becomes impossible to discuss the political nature of Micah’s vision without also discussing its radical vision of peace and justice. To place a wedge between the two ideas would be to distort the text. Peace throughout Scripture is a sociopolitical reality which has dramatic ramifications for everyday human life. No aspect of our creaturely existence is untouched by the reign of peace.

That said, Micah boldly proclaims a politically charged vision of a community of peace (communio pacis). The eschatological New Jerusalem will not be an inner kingdom of the soul but a sociopolitical kingdom of reconciliation in which the many nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Mic. 4:3). Micah presents the vision of a new world in which the bellicose become pastoral, in which weapons become agricultural instruments, and in which Armageddon becomes Arcadia. It is a vision of the impossible possibility that war shall be no more, that nation shall not lift up sword against nation, that no one shall learn the way of violence (via violentiae) any longer but instead learn the way of peace (via pacis). It is a vision which fundamentally alters the horizon of reality, which subverts the actual in favor of the possible, which transforms the very contours of a creation enslaved to violence, a creation in bondage to being incurvatus in se. It is a vision anticipating the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer: “your kingdom come; your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10; Lk. 11:2b). To paraphrase Gal. 6:15, according to Micah’s prophecy, neither war-making nor agriculture is anything; what matters is a new creation.

In the statements above, I should really say that the creation is only seemingly in bondage, because the event of Jesus Christ is the true cosmic reality which definitely liberated creation from its enslavement through his death and resurrection. At the eschaton, the bondage of creation will be revealed as the nothingness that it actually is, and God will be “all in all.” However, here and now, such bondage to sin and death is a palpable reality which enshrouds our lives in shadow, even though we know the Light has already come in Jesus Christ. For now, however, we await the day of the Lord when this Light will shine in fullness of glory, when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10-11).

The reign of God is a reign of peace. The messianic prophecies proclaim peace as the mark of Christ’s reign. Isaiah not only declares that the messiah, the promised child, is the Prince of Peace, but just prior to this announcement the prophet proclaims: “For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire” (Isa. 9:5). The righteous reign of the messianic king will result in the annihilation of all instruments of warfare. As a result of his reign, “there shall be endless peace” (Isa. 9:7); in the presence of Christ, the very possibility of one nation rising up against another will be definitively destroyed. The Deus pacis declares a clear No to any human attempt to say No to a fellow human; God’s definitive No renders the No of one human against another utterly obsolete. God’s No is also for all the nations. The messiah not only demilitarizes the enemies of Israel; rather, all people are stripped of their weapons. No one is exempt from the divine judgment against violence.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zech. 9:10)
God’s No is, of course, entirely in service to God’s Yes. The judgment against violence and warfare serves the establishment of human solidarity in peace. God denies the use of swords and battle bows—not to mention the use of machine guns, ballistic missiles, and the latest Future Force Warrior systems—in order that humans might serve their neighbors instead of subjugate them and love their neighbors instead of ignore them. God says No to the oppressive domination of nation against nation and neighbor against neighbor, and Yes to the universal liberating domination of the messiah who “shall command peace to the nations” and whose “dominion shall be from sea to sea.” God says No to human enslavement to the powers of death and Yes to human liberation for life in correspondence to the Word. God says No to homo incurvatus in se and Yes to homo extra se: No to humanity curved in upon itself and Yes to humanity outside itself. Humanity curved in upon itself is a humanity content with denying life and love to others; only humanity outside itself is capable of serving the other as Christ served us by taking the form of a servant and submitting to a violent death on a cross for the sake of a world lost in a maelstrom of violence.

The heart of the pacifist vision of the prophets is the covenant of grace. The prophet Zechariah follows the proclamation of God’s righteous and peaceful reign “from sea to sea” with the important declaration: “As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double” (Zech. 9:11-12). The Lord liberates on the basis of the covenant. The deliverance of the captives which we find in Isa. 61 is here rooted in the covenantal relation between God and the people of God. As a result of the covenant of grace established and maintained by the Lord, those who are presently imprisoned are paradoxically called “prisoners of hope.” A true “theology of hope” thus depends on a robust theology of the covenant: eschatological hope is covenantal hope, eschatological peace is covenantal peace.

The path of peace remains an impossibility. We cannot forget this. We cannot forget that no amount of ethical striving and political manipulation will make such peace a human possibility. There is no way from ‘here’ to ‘there,’ so to speak. But because it is the Lord alone who judges between nations, such peace is indeed an impossible possibility. Micah is quite clear: the Lord God “shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away” (Mic. 4:3). Micah’s vision is no social program or political platform that only awaits the human will to implement it. On the contrary, it is an eschatological vision, which is to say, it is a vision of divine possibilities. Micah speaks not of what humanity can accomplish through its own resources, but rather of what God alone can accomplish as the Judge and Arbiter between peoples. God alone is the source, preserver, and finisher of peace. The God who liberated Israel from bondage is the Deus pacis, and only as the community shaped by God’s covenant of grace can humanity flourish as the communio pacis. Only because we are judged by the Lord is true justice possible. Only because we are liberated by the Lord is true freedom possible. Only in light of the reconciliation accomplished by the Lord is there a message of reconciliation for all peoples and life everlasting in the eternal kingdom of Christ.

The epistle of Jude makes a striking connection between Israel’s liberation from Egyptian oppression and the person of Jesus Christ. In Jd. 5, the author writes: “Now I desire to remind you, though you are fully informed, that the Lord, who once for all saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.” Here Jude explicitly says that the Lord is the one who delivered Israel from the hands of Pharaoh. That “Lord” refers specifically to Jesus Christ is made clear in the previous verse, in which Jude denounces the false teachers (“intruders”) who have “stolen in among you . . . and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (v. 4). (Not to mention the fact that a number of ancient authorities replace “Lord” with “Jesus” in v. 5.) In these two verses we thus have a brief glimpse of an early christology, which confesses Jesus Christ himself as the one who freed Israel from slavery. Like Paul, Jude affirms Christ’s preexistence, but whereas Paul speaks of Christ’s activity primarily in terms of election (Eph. 1:4-5) and creation (Col. 1:15-16), Jude goes a step further and establishes Christ’s involvement in the events narrated in the Old Testament. Christ is not only involved in pre-temporal eternity or in the origins of creation; he is also the active agent throughout salvation history. Jesus Christ, the one who definitively liberated humanity in his death and resurrection, is also the one who liberated Israel as a proleptic realization of what he would later accomplish on the cross. On the basis of this christological insight, we can supplement the exclusionist reading of the exodus put forward by Jude with a more christocentric account of divine reconciliation. While Jude is correct to point out that Christ is the one who liberates—in the past events of exodus and crucifixion, in the present event of the word proclaimed, and in the future events of redemption and glorification—we must remember that Christ’s saving work encompasses even those who were “destroyed” in the event of Israel’s deliverance. Jude denounces the “intruders” as the “ungodly” (vv. 4, 15), but we must confess along with Paul that “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6).


a. steward said…
Great post David! I would like to see the message of Jonah represented in this, though. The interplay between it and Nahum is one that has always troubled me - namely that between them you have God's intense compassion towards his enemies held in dialectical tension with his working of justice against oppressors. From Jonah, though, we at least have our categories of "us and them" harshly subverted.
Anonymous said…
Excellent! This is the only time since retiring Subversive Christianity that I wish I hadn't: so I could link to this post!

Thanks for the comment! The comparison of Jonah and Nahum is interesting. Could you explain a little more about Nahum? What exactly is the troubling part?


Thanks for the kind words. Of course, I wish you hadn't stopped your blog so I could link to it!
Anonymous said…
This is one of the best posts in this excellent series. I have been too busy to comment, but I have really liked this series, David. You are a better theologian as a seminary student than I have yet to grow to be--or may grow to be.
a. steward said…
David -

Hopeful I'll get around to posting some more extended reflections on the relationship between the voices of Jonah and Nahum, but for now I'll just say that they are saying very different things about one topic, namely Yahweh's response to the historic oppression of Israel by Assyria.

Nahum is prophesying that Yahweh is soon to destroy the city of Nineveh (Assyria's capital) because of their brutal occupation and deportation of Israel and her inhabitants. Nahum bears this as a joyful tiding, for in it Yahweh, in accordance with his righteous character, is working justice for the oppressed.

Jonah, however, is a bit more complicated. The prophet there seems to expect something similar to what Nahum has prophesied. Yet this expectation is completed subverted by Yahweh first sending a prophet to warn the Ninevites, and then relenting of his promised destruction when they repent.

And so there is some serious tension, which at the time of the exhilic writings is unresolved: Yahweh's passion for justice vs. Yahweh's compassion for his enemies. Ultimately, I believe this tension is resolved in Jesus Christ, upon whose cross we see Yahweh's ultimate and final outpouring of wrath against his enemy (sin), and also the universal invitation of grace and forgiveness to his enemies (us).
a. steward said…
I've decided to make a series out of it (my first!). Here is the first of three.
Thanks for the comment, Adam! I think you will find §10.5 in the series to be quite consonant with your own views. You can look forward to it in the coming weeks.
a. steward said…
I'm excited to see what's in store. This series has been exciting to read, particularly in the way you seem to be engaging in a sort of "theological exegesis" that seems like a promising direction for the Church's engagement with Scripture. It would be interesting to see you develop some theses on method for the movements from description (which my posts will primarily be) to engagement with the historical and systematic developments of theology, to engagement with modern life. For my part, I see the task as progressing pretty clearly in that order, but that is just a default assumption. It seems that theological exegesis rejects such clear distinctions between the tasks, perhaps following Gadamer and the rest in affirming that there is no text except that which we see through our particular horizon, etc.