Sometimes the lectionary throws up very timely readings. After Friday 13th November, a day which saw deadly attacks in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad, on the Sunday (15th Nov) we were given Mark 13, perhaps the longest teaching on how Christians are called to respond to War and violence in the whole of the New Testament. The following Sunday (22nd Nov) we read another pertinent text from John 18; Jesus tells Pilate “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over…but as it is, my kingdom is not from here”. Tomorrow we have another text of war and turmoil, Luke 21:25-36. “There will be signs … nations in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves; men dying of fear as they await what menaces the world”
These readings speak very powerfully in the context of a wealthy world racketing itself up with war fever; in a context of millions of refugees fleeing war and seeking safety elsewhere; and in a context of multiple guerrilla armies, backed up by religious beliefs, filled with young men willing to die for their cause.
The bible’s words read in the current international climate have much to teach us, I urge all of you to spend some time reflecting on these passages. I believe they proclaim a very different gospel from that of our tabloid newspapers and political leaders, and equally very different from the ideology of Islamic State.
We are in a moment when the loudest voices on all sides are proclaiming a message of redemptive violence, if we kill these bad guys then all will be well. This message is fatalist, there is no other way, only through the use of violence can we end this evil which threatens us. Evil must be separated from good in very clear and distinct ways, our group is Good and the other is Evil. Righteous are those who strike to destroy this evil.
Against the overwhelming momentum of this ideology of redemptive violence those voices speaking for a different way will likely be drowned out, too quiet to be heard above the shouting, those that advocate alternatives will be quickly attacked as being weak, or dangerous.
Our gospels were written in a context very similar to that in which we now live. Mark was likely written in the midst of the Jewish Roman War of 66-70; the other gospels were written a little bit later. War, destruction, refugees and persecution are realities which hang over the gospels.
Mark 13 was probably written during a moment of crisis. The Jewish rebellion of 66ce has momentarily been successful, but everyone knew that the Roman Empire will return for revenge. In this moment of coming war each side is polarised. Both sides’ absolute belief in the justness of their cause is solidifying, no dissension from this ideology will be tolerated. Each person must decide, are you with the Romans or with the Jewish fighters.
Jesus’ words in Mark are striking, his advice is that his followers should run away! Redemptive violence is a dead-end, so run for the hill (Mark 13:14). As Christians we are instructed to reject the very idea of participating in this violent struggle and simply step aside.
This stepping aside, or running away, is not a passive act. Mark 13 makes it clear that non-participation in violence is itself seen as a threat to those who have chosen the way of violence, persecution will follow from both sides.
Following Mark 13 in which the myth of redemptive violence is thrown down, Mark’s gospel moves into the passion narrative in which Jesus’ alternative ideology is presented, the way of redemptive suffering, or as we modern day Christians might call it, the way of creative non-violence. Jesus does not run away from conflict but neither does he participate. His way is to challenge the very heart of our belief in redemptive violence, to make visible in his own body the consequences of such a path. The centre of Christian discipleship is to embody this way of peace.
We are not called to simply ignore the suffering of others and pontificate on the wrongs of war from the comfort of our cosy warm homes. We are called to challenge the ways of redemptive violence wherever we find them and to risk the consequences of walking such a road. We are called to suffer alongside the victims of violence.
We find ourselves in an historical moment with many similarities to that of Mark’s community in the midst of the Jewish Roman War of 66-70ce. A radical, violence group, motivated by a religious identity of martyrdom and willing to fight to the last man, has taken control of a large swathe of Syria and Iraq. The great military powers of our world are preparing to engage this group in battle.
As Christians we need to find a response fast. All too quickly events will leave us behind. Some Christians will actively bless this coming war and declare it righteous. Most of us will likely find it all too depressing and turn over to watch Bake-Off, Strictly Come dancing or the Premier League.
The real question for all of us is how to avoid these two temptations, how can we reject the ideology of redemptive violence? While still taking the suffering of Syria, Beirut, Iraq, and Paris seriously?
“What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!” Mark 13:37b. Events are moving very quickly.