How do you balance your own deep sense of faith with your passion for your nation?
I’m not sure I have a passion for my nation, to tell the truth. Right now I’m sitting in the Orlando airport. The past few days I’ve been watching overweight, sloppily dressed tourists wander around fake streets built to resemble Portofino, Italy, and Jerusalem, Israel. I visited a high-tech school where bright young students pay $40,000 US dollars per year in tuition to learn how to do computer animation so they can create video games of babes in bikinis shooting each other. This is how we employ our best and brightest? We’re an over-consuming, entertainment-obsessed, self-indulgent culture. Maybe I’m cynical, but I’m in the Magic Kingdom and it doesn’t seem that magical. I’d rather be in a place like Brazil or the Philippines where people are fighting for survival and yet serve one another, care for their families without much government help, and know a thing or two about worship and love. If only it weren’t so hot there…
The good will stemming from the cowardly 9-11 attacks evaporated quickly. Where do you believe there is a need for policy change on foreign issues?
The average American has a new appreciation for the fact that you can’t control a country by blowing up its buildings and invading it. We managed to dismay our friends and enrage our enemies by the Iraq war, and now we’re mired down in Afghanistan as well. Sadly, most Americans seem more motivated by our soldiers’ deaths than by the fact that the war was ill-conceived in the first place—and that tens of thousands of Iraqis have died and the Middle East is like a hornet’s nest that’s been swatted by a club. Beyond that, I hesitate to make political pronouncements. I feel sorry for those who have to manage policy on Iraq and Afghanistan.
What hopes do you hold for inter-faith communication in a world of political and spiritual division?
The three faiths of Abraham (Islam, Judaism, Christianity) have so much in common, including the entire Old Testament, shared stories, and a similar morality. For one thing, I wish moderate Muslims would speak out more openly against the extremists who are giving their religion a bad name (we Christians have had our turn, of course). And I wish Christians would be more humble in letting God pick out the weeds from the crops, to borrow a metaphor from Jesus. I don’t see Jesus twisting arms and imposing beliefs on people. He won their hearts in a different way.
You asked about hopes, didn’t you. Frankly, I don’t have a lot of hope. I imagine this “clash of civilizations” will be with us for a long time to come. I fear that the situation in the world today may be one of those hinge moments of history with grave consequences for Christian/Muslim relations, surely. September 11, as horrible as it was, is symptomatic of the kind of suffering much of the world lives with on a regular basis. Ideally, an event like that should make our nation more sensitive to injustice in the world, and not simply defensive in a way to preserve our way of life. To me, whether the U.S. can accomplish that is a very open question.
What do you think of the participation of Evangelical Christians in politics?
I see it as an opportunity that quickly becomes a danger and distraction. We are not called to “clean up” society. Jesus and Paul spent no energy on trying to clean up the Roman empire, despite their terrible practices of abandoning infants, pederasty, and gladiator games. Indeed, the people Jesus denounced most harshly, the Pharisees, were some of the most moral people on earth. He did not give us the challenge of imposing our morality on others, but rather of spreading a far more radical message: that God loves sinners. Politics is based on power, and power always causes divisions. It is very difficulty indeed to get across a message of love and power at the same time. One of them always loses out, and we are called to emphasize love.
Sometimes I feel like a liberal among conservatives and sometimes like a conservative among liberals. I have conservative theology—I believe the Bible—but that leads me to “progressive” opinions about politics, because the Bible has much to say about justice and helping the poor. And I believe we are called to show love and grace even toward people we disagree with, especially toward people we disagree with.
Should religion play a part in American politics, say in the presidential races?
Martin Luther used to say that if he faced surgery he’d rather have a Turkish surgeon than a Christian butcher. I try to vote for candidates who would do the best job running the country, with policies I can support, regardless of their personal piety. Jimmy Carter and Woodrow Wilson, two of our most religiously devout Presidents, aren’t judged well by historians.
What about on a more local level. How involved should Christians get in politics?
I’ve mentioned the danger of Christians becoming too closely identified with political causes and even political parties, and of launching a “clean up the culture” campaign that I see no model for in the New Testament. Jesus seemed much more concerned with establishing settlements of the Kingdom of God which would shine out like lights in darkness, like a city on a hill.
Having said that, I look to people like Bono as models for our engagement with the world on issues that matter to us as Christians. Bono quotes the Old Testament prophets when he speaks at the Presidential Prayer Breakfast, but appeals to basic moral conscience when he speaks to the world at large. He’s as wise as a serpent (though maybe not as harmless as a dove!). Motivated by his Christian commitment, he has shrewdly managed to reach out to both political parties to raise billions of dollars in aid for AIDS work in Africa, as well as debt relief for poor countries.
Both George Bush and Tony Blair seemed to believe that God was on their side in the invasion of Iraq. Saddam and other Muslims might have thought God was on their side.
Most conservative Christians in the United States supported the Iraq war—with the notable exception, interestingly, of foreign missionaries. They know very well the devastating consequences of the world perceiving the U.S. as a global bully using its power in a clash of civilizations. It puts them at personal risk and colors the global perception of the Gospel. Because I travel internationally, I share their concern and have written openly about my objections to the Iraq war. The only possible justification I could see would be an imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction, and no such threat was ever substantiated.
In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln spelled out the limits of “theological politics” as well as anyone I know. In that case, the American North and South both claimed the sanction of the Christian God, and prayed fervently for God’s intervention. Or think of the Wars of Religion that devastated Europe. Or the American Revolution—whose side was God on then, in a war about taxes, not weapons of mass destruction? I’d better stop, before I get myself in trouble.
If I were in the U.S. I would be quite hesitant about answering this question. In fact, I have major disagreements with the president on the environment, on justice issues, on unilateral foreign policy, on a seeming lack of compassion for the poor. You may not know it, but there is a vibrant minority of Christians in the U.S. who have quite liberal political views. In places like the U.K. and Australia and New Zealand, evangelicals are more likely to be associated with the left-wing than the right-wing.
Jesus Christ is called the “prince of peace.” What does that mean? He also says, “Blessed are those who work for peace.” Does this peace only refer to “spiritual” things?
The actual Hebrew word is shalom, which also means “fullness, completeness, health, contentment.” Jesus himself claimed to bring “abundant life” to us. I truly believe that the life that follows Jesus’ way is the very best life, a shalom life. Imagine a society where you never have to worry about identity theft or crime, where you can trust everyone, where families stay together and children are raised by loving parents, where the rich look out for the poor and the well look out for the sick. That is the kind of healthy society that the word peace describes. Jesus came to show us how to set that process in motion, to be a model settlement, a light in the darkness, to the watching world around us.
“Peace on earth, good will toward men,” the angels sang from the skies at Jesus’ birth. They were singing out the vision for us that God wants, that Jesus asked us to pray for: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Sadly, we’re a very long way from fulfilling that vision.
It is deeply ironic, isn’t it, that Jesus’ life, which started with this angelic proclamation of peace, ended with his death at the hands of a brutal empire. Obviously Jesus cared about peace in the physical dimension too. During the entire scene of trial and crucifixion, the only miracle he performed was to heal a man’s ear which had been cut off by one of his zealous disciples. He could have called on legions of angels, he assured us; he chose instead the way of peace even when it cost him his life.
If Christ is the prince of peace, why do Christians—his body—start wars?
I would hesitate to say that Christ’s body starts wars. That may have been true in medieval days, when the pope had an army and when church and government were closely enmeshed. That’s not true now—in fact one of the distinctives between Christianity and Islam is that we separate church and state and Islamic countries tend to blend them.
It may be more accurate to say that individual Christians start wars. For example, President George W. Bush made a decision as president of the country to go to war. Yet many American Christians opposed what happened in Iraq and were horrified when President Bush announced that God told him to attack Iraq.
Those who defend war point out that we live on a fallen planet where violence occurs and sometimes it is necessary to use force to keep evil in check. The tradition of “just war” has a long history in the church. The problem is that Christians, even theologians, can find a way to support almost any war. In the Second World War, for instance, both Japanese and German Christian leaders supported the Axis cause while British and Americans supported the Allied cause. Or, in the American Civil War both sides, North and South, claimed to be doing God’s will.
To answer your question directly, Christians start unjust wars for the same reason Christians lie, lust, and steal. We are beginners on the road to redemption, and we make many mistakes.
The title “Prince of Peace” comes from Isaiah 11, which goes on to describe a lamb lying down with a wolf and a bear and cow grazing together. Clearly, the kind of shalom the prophet foresaw will only find its final fulfillment when God finishes the task of restoring this earth to the original design.
In the 21st century, we all know that we are not supposed to invade nor commit genocide against other ethnic groups. How should we understand “holy war” in the Old Testament? The God of the Old Testament seems to promote war and told Israel to invade ungodly towns. On the other hand, Jesus never taught us to invade or kill. Why are they so different?
I am troubled by the very same things in the Old Testament, and I should point out that one reason we are troubled is because we look at it in the light of Jesus! Two things help me understand these difficult passages.
First, I see the Old Testament as a kind of “kindergarten” phase of human development. Think of all the laws in the Old Testament that were presented as God’s will; yet in Romans and Galatians Paul insists we are no longer bound by those cultural laws. God was a kind of schoolteacher—Paul used that very image—working with people as they matured. When you raise children, you shout “No!” a lot, and forbid them from playing with knives, running in the streets, driving cars. As an adult, I use knives, jog in the street, and drive a car. I have matured into that freedom.
I often return to a quote by a British archbishop, Michael Ramsey, who said, “In God is no unChristlikness at all”—a theologian’s way of saying that to know what God is like, we look at Jesus. Whenever I have a troubling question, I start with what I learn about God from Jesus. Yes, indeed there is a contrast between what we see in Jesus and what we see in parts of the Old Testament. But the Bible tells us that Jesus is the “exact image of God,” the perfect expression of what God is like. So I conclude that Jesus is the culmination of what God wants us to learn about life on this planet.
Second, in the Old Testament it’s clear that God was dealing with one distinct people, the Israelites, as a national entity. God started with one man, Abraham, then a family, then a nation. The goal was not to produce a super-nation, a theocracy, but rather to establish a culture from which to launch the Gospel that could then go out into every culture.
As a journalist, I get to travel around the world and see the kingdom of God at work in all sorts of places: Brazil, South Africa, Taiwan, Tahiti, Japan. The Gospel can take root and thrive in any culture, even one opposed to it (think of the underground church in China).
This international scope is what Jesus commanded in the Great Commission, and it’s really the theme of the book of Acts, the story of the Gospel breaking out of its Jewish cocoon and spreading its wings. In the Old Testament, Israel sought guidance directly from God on what laws to pass, when to fight wars, where to establish national boundaries. That’s radically different from what happened at Pentecost, where the Gospel changed the lives of people from many nations, who then returned to their own nations to spread the Good News. The kingdom of God sets up a kind of counter-culture that transcends nations. That’s a very different pattern than you see in the Old Testament, and I’m firmly convinced that’s what God had in mind all along.Copyright © 2010 by Philip Yancey