Speaker: Micah Tillman
I. Our Unofficial Identity Statement
Hyattsville Mennonite is a Christ-centered welcoming church committed to peace and justice. How do I know this? you ask. I’ve been going here for years, and I’m happy to say it’s just kind of obvious. But also, it’s on the front page of every bulletin, so even first-time attendees will know what they’re in for. That is, they’ll know what they’re in for if they know how to read the code.
The phrase “Christ-centered” is our way of saying, among other things, that we start reading the Bible in the Gospels, and work our way out from there. Baptist churches, in contrast, usually move a little to the right, reading everything through the lens of Paul; megachurches often go all the way to the end, start in Revelations and read the Bible backward; and Lutherans and Calvinists start in Augustine’s Confessions, continue on to Augustine’s City of God, Augustine’s On Grace and Free Will, and Augustine’s On the Predestination of the Saints, and then . . . start over with the Confessions again.
The next phrase in our unofficial church identity statement is, “welcoming.” That means we accept lesbian and gay members. “But what about Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13?” you ask. “The Law says homosexuality is an abomination and homosexuals should be executed.” Well, first, it doesn’t say anything about Lesbians, so they’re off the hook. And while the Gospels don’t tell us how Jesus read Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, they do tell us how he read at least two other laws in the Torah that were enforceable by execution (Leviticus 20:10 [see John 8:3–11] and Exodus 31:14–15, 35:2 [see Matthew 12:1–13]). In the case of breaking the Sabbath law specifically, Jesus says that if you have the opportunity to do good, you should make an exception to the rule not to work. That is, if and when the Sabbath law conflicts with what Jesus says (Matthew 22:34–40) are the two most important laws—loving God with everything we are (Deuteronomy 6:5), and loving our neighbors like we love ourselves (Leviticus 19:18)—the higher laws trump the lower. So, as a Christ-centered church, we want to read the Torah the way Jesus did, and when we get to the scary parts of the Bible, we just hold onto Jesus all the tighter.
C. Committed to Peace
After “welcoming,” the bulletin says we are a church committed to peace. That’s code for being pacifists, which is good because as Mennonites that’s what we are supposed to be. We may admit in whispers, however, that one of us is not a pacifist, but even he believes that when he committed to membership in this congregation, he thereby committed himself to doggedly supporting our identity as a peace community that advocates the use, both at home and abroad, of creative non-violence to resolve disputes. This unnamed person, furthermore, is determined that any non-pacifist heresies will remain quarantined within his own brain, and thus he will oppose you very creatively and very non-violently if you ever, ever try turn this into a non-peace church.
D. Committed to Justice
But we are not just committed to peace; the bulletin concludes with the claim that we are committed to justice. This is because peace is an absence of conflict and abuse that allows people to live healthy, thriving lives. But injustice is a form of conflict and abuse whose presence deprives people of healthy and thriving lives. Therefore, you cannot have peace without justice, and to be committed to peace requires a commitment to justice.
But there’s the problem. Justice imposes rules and requirements on us, and a requirement that is not enforced is not a rule. It’s a suggestion. So, justice requires enforcement. And enforcement requires a government. And a government consists primarily of a bunch of men with guns—called the police or army—with a few older men—called politicians—telling them when and where to point their guns. In other words, justice requires rules, rules require enforcement, enforcement requires force, and force is just a polite name for male violence.
So, if you want peace, you must also want justice. But you cannot demand peace without denying force, and cannot demand justice without inviting force. You cannot be a pacifist and a political activist at the same time, without self-contradiction. How, then, are we supposed to be a church committed to both peace and justice?
II. The Lectionary Readings
To answer this question, we need to think more deeply about what laws and rules are. And fortunately for us, the lectionary readings for today are all about laws and rules. Take the reading from Psalm 119 (verses 105–112). There, the Psalmist says that God’s word is a guide to how to live and what to do, and God’s law is a source of joy. In this stanza of the poem, it’s pretty clear that the Psalmist is using God’s “word” and God’s “law” interchangeably. So this means that God’s law shows us how to live, and leads to happiness.
Then take the reading from Romans 8 (verses 1–11). There Paul contrasts two different laws. One is the law of the flesh, which, if you commit to it, will end in death. The other is the law of the Spirit, which, if you commit to it, means being filled with life and the very Spirit of God. Echoing Psalm 119, Paul says God’s law shows us how to walk in a way that leads to life, in contrast with the path specified by the flesh, which leads to death.
And finally, take the reading from Matthew 13 (verses 18–23). There, Jesus is explaining the parable of the Sower and the Soils. The Sower is announcing God’s Kingdom, which is like being the herald sent ahead of an invading monarch. You offer the people of a city a chance to submit and be peacefully incorporated into the monarch’s empire, rather than being destroyed. Some people will respond, “This is Sparta!,” kick you into a convenient pit, and go on living as if nothing has changed. Others, however, will be excited by the new way of life offered by the invading ruler—like the Psalmist was excited about God’s law—but end up falling back into old patterns as if the doomed regime was still in charge. But then there will be some who truly get the new way of life specified by the laws of the new kingdom, and find them to produce a life of abundance.
III. What Is a Kingdom?
But what is a kingdom? What is a monarchy?
A monarchy is either the place or the people ruled by a monarch.
What, then, does it mean to rule?
It means that the ruler decides how things are going to be done. The ruler makes decisions, and everyone else is expected to follow those decisions. The Queen decides that we should all drive on the left side of the road from now on, and we all obey. That is, we get in our cars, and deliberately drive on the left, even though we could have chosen to drive on the right. Or a majority of the members of Congress decide that everyone should decide to purchase insurance, and we—hearing about this law—all go out and choose an insurance plan for ourselves.
For a monarch, ruler, governor, or government to rule, therefore, is for her, him, or them to decide what choices or decisions their subjects should make about some issue or other. In the end, a law or rule boils down to a decision made by one person about what another person should decide to do.
IV. Getting Others to Follow the Rules
The challenge that faces every ruler, parent, boss, teacher, coach, and pastor, then, is how to get people to follow the rules. How do you get other people to make the decisions you have decided they should make? People are not machines, after all, and decisions are not dominoes. The people for whom you have made a decision will either choose to go along with that decision or they won’t. In making the law, you made the choice for them—you made a decision in their place about what they should do—but you can’t just push a button and make that decision “kick in” in each of their minds. You somehow have to get them to make the choice for themselves—to choose what you chose for them, for themselves.
So, how do you do this? You either threaten them with punishment, or promise them a reward, or you inspire them by your own example. In the first case, you get people to make a decision by claiming something bad will happen to them if they do not make that decision. In the second, you get people to make a decision by claiming something good will happen to them if they make that decision. In the third, you get people to make a decision by living out that decision yourself and showing them you’re being the kind of person they want to be.
In the first case, you walk behind the donkey, carrying a big stick. In the second, you ride on top of the donkey, dangling a carrot in front of its nose. In the third, you walk ahead of the donkey, munching happily on the carrot to show the donkey how much fun it is to take the path you chose.
V. The Kingdom of God
So far, we’ve only been talking about kingdoms of this world. But what approach does God take in the monarchy that Jesus is always talking about? Does Jesus get people to make the decisions God has made for them by threatening them with hell, by promising them heaven, or by offering himself as an inspiring example? Or is it somehow a mixture of all three?
There’s no reason, for instance, that the punishments couldn’t just be built into the decisions we’re supposed to avoid, and rewards couldn’t just be built into the decisions we’re supposed to make. It might be that in ignoring Jesus’ choices, we end up walking away from God like a teen leaving the family farm on a self-destructive search for sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll in the big city. And it might be that in imitating Jesus’ choices we end up living a heavenly life, just because the choices Jesus makes are God’s own choices, and so in making them we end up living God’s life. In fact, I think this is exactly what Paul was trying to say in Romans 8. God’s laws lead to life because the decisions God makes for us are intrinsically healthy, while the alternatives are intrinsically destructive.
But questions still remain. Jesus teaches us to pray for God’s kingdom to come, and God’s will to be done on earth (Matthew 6:9–10). But in praying for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth, we are not praying for two different things. The coming of God’s kingdom just is God’s will being done on earth. But if the Kingdom of God essentially amounts to people consenting to God’s decisions for how humans should live, haven’t the righteous—from Abel to Zechariah son of Barachiah (Matthew 23:35)—been living in the Kingdom of God all along? In other words, hasn’t God’s Kingdom always been “among” us, in Jesus’ words (Luke 17:21)?
So, what was new about the presence of the Monarchy of God during Jesus’ ministry? And why, after 2000 years, hasn’t it finished arriving? Why isn’t it here yet? Is it that we humans have yet to set up a theocracy to enforce God’s decisions, and this theocracy has yet to take over the entire world? Surely not. Then is it that we haven’t figured out how to duplicate Jesus’ connection with God, even though we try to imitate the example he set for us? Or is it that we could duplicate Jesus’ connection with God, but we don’t because there are important aspects of Jesus’ example that we don’t even try to imitate?
VI. Back to the Beginning
Ah, sidetracks. I got lost on that tangent by hoping we could find a way to resolve the contradiction between our commitments to peace and justice. To be committed to peace means renouncing force, but to be committed to justice seems to mean embracing enforcement. Did we find a solution?
Perhaps we did, while thinking about how you get other people to follow decisions you’ve made for them. You can make threats, offer incentives, or inspire by example. And only the “making threats” option requires an appeal to force.
It is very possible, therefore, to express our commitment to justice by offering incentives to people not only to do what is just in the first place, but to rectify the injustices they have already committed. It is very possible, furthermore, for us to live the life of justice ourselves, and thus to show others how much better and more attractive that way of living is. I still do not think, however, that it is possible to be committed to peace if you express your commitment to justice through appeals to the government. Isn’t the power structure of government based on force? Doesn’t the fact that government can “get things done” ultimately rest on its ability to threaten violence? Without the ability to appeal to such a threat, backed up by its primarily male armed forces carrying phallic weapons, wouldn’t the governmental system collapse? Isn’t the tool you want to employ whenever you ask government to work on your behalf, therefore, powered by violence, even if you don’t personally ever experience that violence?
I think we must answer “yes” to all those questions. But that means if we want to seek justice while also being people of peace, we must seek justice through offering incentives and living our lives as enticing examples, not by appealing to government. If we do this, if we exemplify decisions for peace and for justice in everything we do, we will be living as citizens of God’s Kingdom. And I don’t know how it would be possible for that not to be attractive to others.
But if we are not going to rely on the violence-derived power of government, it seems to me we are going to have to rely on a different source of power. It seems to me the only way we can live the life of God’s monarchy, and persevere in making the decisions God has decided for us, is if we are filled with God’s own Spirit.
But I’m not sure how to do that. Is Paul saying in Romans 8 that we do it by following the law of the Spirit? Perhaps, then, it starts with simply going through the motions. Perhaps for God to be present in our lives we must first act as if God were present. After all, when we follow Christ, we imitate Christ, and when we imitate Christ, we act like Christ, and to act like something is to be an image or representation of it, and when you represent something absent, you make it more present. So, perhaps we need to step up our Jesus-imitation game in order for God to be more present to us and our world.
The fact that we need earthly governments is evidence of the absence of God, of the fact that God’s monarchy is still only arriving, after two millennia. And the fact that God is absent, I’m sure, must be our fault as Christians. We must be doing something wrong, and I’d very much like to know what it is. So, I’m looking forward to your responses, because while I don’t think politicians are any help, I trust that you, my sisters and brothers, will be.