The Radical Alternative of the Gospel of Peace
by Brian Zahnd
Christians call Jesus the “Prince of Peace.” But what does that mean? Is it just a Christmas card cliché? Does it merely mean some peace of mind in an anxiety-ridden world? Or might it mean something more substantial? Perhaps much more substantial. Might it mean that Jesus offers the world an alternative arrangement that could best be described as peace? This is what I have come to believe. Jesus is the savior of the world in a real, wonderful, and urgent way — the Prince of Peace who can lead humanity out of the madness of arranging our world around power, violence and war.
I have my own story of how I moved beyond a misguided allegiance to that tired paradigm of violence by discovering the radical alternative of the gospel of peace. This was not an easy move, but it was worth it. And it’s a story worth telling.
But I’m most interested in telling the story of Jesus of Nazareth and the revolutionary ideas he preached — especially his ideas about peace. This first century Jew from whose birth we date our common era, this one who became the heir of Isaiah’s ancient moniker of “Prince of Peace,” preached a new way of being human and an alternative arrangement of society that he called the reign or kingdom of God. It was (and is!) a peaceable kingdom. My claim, which I’m told is audacious by some and naïve by others is simply this: Jesus Christ and his peaceable kingdom are the hope of the world.
So let me declare: I believe in Jesus Christ! I believe what the gospels report and what the creeds confess concerning the crucified and risen Christ. That’s what makes me an orthodox Christian. But I also believe in Jesus’ ideas — the ideas he preached about the peaceable kingdom of God. That’s what makes me a radical Christian. Believing in the divinity of Jesus is the heart of Christian orthodoxy. But it’s believing in the viability of Jesus’ ideas that makes Christianity truly radical.
Divorcing Jesus from his ideas — especially his political ideas — has been a scandal plaguing the church for seventeen centuries. The problem is this: When we separate Jesus from his ideas for an alternative social structure, we inevitably succumb to the temptation to harness Jesus to our own ideas — thus conferring upon our power-based political constructs an assumed divine endorsement.
With little or no awareness of what we are doing we find ourselves in collusion with the principalities and powers to keep the world in lock-step with the ancient choreography of violence, war, and death. We do this mostly unconsciously, but we do it. I’ve done it. And the result is that we reduce Jesus to being a savior who guarantees our reservation in heaven while using him to endorse our own ideas about how to run the world. This feeds into a nationalized narrative of the gospel and leads to a state-owned Jesus. Thus our understanding of Christ has mutated through the centuries from Roman-Jesus to Byzantine-Jesus to Russian-Jesus to Anglo-Jesus to German-Jesus to American-Jesus and so on.
Conscripting Jesus to a nationalistic agenda creates a grotesque caricature of Christ that the church must reject — now more than ever! Understanding Jesus as the Prince of Peace who transcends idolatrous nationalism and overcomes the archaic ways of war is an imperative the church must at last begin to take seriously.
If we think the ideas of Jesus about peace are irrelevant in the age of genocide and nuclear weapons, we have invented an utterly irrelevant Christianity!
Question: Can humanity possess the capacity for self-destruction and not resort to it? The jury is still out. But this much is certain — if we think the ideas of Jesus about peace are irrelevant in the age of genocide and nuclear weapons, we have invented an utterly irrelevant Christianity!
Because the stakes are now so intolerably high, people with a modicum of common sense have come to realize we must at last talk seriously about how to live together peaceably on our little blue planet. Our capacity for self-destruction demands this.
Yet here’s the problem. People committed to the idea of peace as a real alternative to the paradigms of power and violence often see Jesus and his followers as peripheral to the cause of peace. They don’t see the need to get the serious business of peacemaking mixed up with a religious figure — especially when the religion he inspired has so often been associated with violence and war.
On the other hand it seems that too often those most committed to the person of Jesus Christ see little need to get Jesus mixed up in the real-world work of peacemaking (which they somehow view as slightly suspicious). Certainly the evangelical view of real-world peacemaking has been something like this: “Doesn’t Jesus have more important work to do?” According to this view Christianity is mostly about the “spiritual” work of “saving souls” for an afterlife in heaven, and Jesus’ ideas about peace can be put on hold until the age to come. Or so the argument goes. But I think otherwise. Jesus Christ and the historical events of his crucifixion and resurrection are not to be separated from the ideas he preached about a kingdom of peace.
To be continued…
(In a full-length book.)
(The artwork is Christ Mocked by Solider by Georges Rouault)