It’s Hard to Believe in Jesus

3298 Sermon on Mount 10.5x13.75 cas d(v) Dec. 23, 1949 signed (v)

It’s Hard to Believe in Jesus
Brian Zahnd

The cross is shock therapy for a world addicted to solving its problems through violence. The cross shocks us into the devastating realization that our system of violence murdered God! The things hidden from the foundation of the world have now been revealed. The cross shames our ancient foundation of violence. The cross strips naked the principalities and powers. The cross tears down the façade of glory that we use to hide the bodies of slain victims.

In the light of the cross, we are to realize that if what we have built on Cain’s foundation is capable of murdering the Son of God, then whole edifice needs to come down. In the light of the cross, our war anthems lose their luster. But this throws us into a crisis. What other alternatives are there? How else are we to arrange the world? The alternative is what Jesus is offering us when he told us that the kingdom of God is at hand. God’s way of arranging the world around love and forgiveness is within reach. If we only dare to reach out for it, we can have it. But we are so afraid. We’re not sure we can risk it. It’s so hard for us to let go of the sword and take the hand of the Crucified One. It’s so hard for us to really believe in Jesus.

The crowd never believes in Jesus. Only the little flock that accepts its vulnerability can believe in Jesus. If you tell those rushing to war that their hatred of enemies and their plan for the organized killing of enemies is evil, the crowd will hate you. War is sacred. It lies beyond critique. To critique it is blasphemy. The crowd hates blasphemy. The crowd wants to kill blasphemers. The crowd knows that the criticism of their violence is blasphemy because they know their cause is just. They believe it. And from their perspective their cause is just. They can prove it. Both sides can prove it. Always.

Achilles knew his cause was just and that it was perfectly legitimate to drag Hector’s body from his chariot in front of the gates of Troy in a show of grotesque triumphalism. It’s the same grotesque impulse that causes modern soldiers to pose for gruesome photos with the bodies of dead enemies. It’s literally the way of the world. But it’s not the way of the new world founded by Jesus. Jesus is not the warrior king the world is accustomed to. Jesus is not the Jewish Achilles. Jesus refused to be the violent Messiah Israel longed for. Jesus did not kill Pilate and drag the governor’s body behind his chariot. Jesus did not pose triumphantly over the dead bodies of slain Roman soldiers. Instead it was Jesus who hung naked on a tree after being put to death through a state-sponsored execution. Jesus founded his kingdom in solidarity with brutalized victims. This is the gospel, but it’s hard for us to believe in a Jesus who would rather die than kill his enemies. It’s harder yet to believe in a Jesus who calls us to take up our own cross, follow him, and be willing to die rather than kill our enemies.

Many American Christians are fond of describing the United States as a “Christian nation” — which would mean a Christlike nation. With that in mind, here’s a wild thought experiment. Imagine if Jesus went to Washington D.C. Imagine that he is invited to give a speech to a joint session of Congress. (He’s Jesus after all, and I’m sure the senators and congressmen would be delighted to hear a speech from the founder of the world’s largest religion — if nothing else it would confer some dignity upon their institution.) Imagine that the speech Jesus gave was his most famous sermon — the Sermon on the Mount. Can you imagine that?

Jesus is introduced. (Standing ovation.) He stands before Congress and begins to deliver his speech. “Blessed are the poor…the mourners…the meek.” “Love your enemies.” “Turn the other cheek.” After a few perfunctory applauses early on, I’m pretty sure there would be a lot of squirming senators and uncomfortable congressmen. The room would sink into a tense silence. And when Jesus concluded his speech with a prophecy of the inevitable fall of the house that would not act upon his words, what would Congress do? Nothing. They would not act. They could not act. To act on Jesus’ words would undo their system. The Sermon on the Mount doesn’t work in Cain’s system — no matter how noble or sophisticated. In the end, the U.S. Congress would no more adopt the policies Jesus set out in the Sermon on the Mount than they were adopted by the Jewish Sanhedrin or the Roman Senate.

The Jesus way and conventional power politics don’t mix. So we tell Jesus to mind his own business — to go back to church and to “saving souls” and not to meddle in the real affairs of running the world. We sequester Jesus in a stained glass quarantine and appropriate a trillion dollars for the war machine. This begs the question of why Christians get so worked up over which side has the most representatives in Congress when the entire system is incapable of implementing what Jesus taught. Do you see what I mean? It’s hard to believe in Jesus! To believe in Jesus fully, to believe in Jesus as more than a personal savior, to believe in Jesus without qualifications, to believe in Jesus as God’s way to run the world, to believe in Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount, to believe in Jesus as the unimagined solution for a world gone wrong and not as merely chaplain or cheerleader for our favorite version of the status quo is very hard to do. It’s also very controversial.

If believing in Jesus were as easy as we pretend, it would have been easy for me to pass my 9/11 test. But it wasn’t easy. And I didn’t pass the test. I didn’t wrestle with what Jesus calls his followers to do in the Sermon on the Mount. It didn’t even cross my mind! I didn’t pray about what it means to love my enemies. I prayed a war prayer. I preached war sermons. Sermons like “The Road to Armageddon” and “Jesus, Jerusalem, and Jihad” — sermons in which I actually said, “We are at war with Islam.” I’m ashamed of it now; I can barely stand to look at those sermon notes. But I preached those sermons. And they were popular sermons! People loved them. The crowd told me those sermons were anointed. When I was preaching my war sermons, I never once received any criticism for them. Never once! Telling the crowd that God is on our side is never a bad career move.

But a few years later, when I encountered Jesus in a fresh and new way, when I began to take the “words in red” seriously, when I repented for my war prayers and war sermons, when I started preaching peace sermons, then criticism came. Oh, believe me, it came! People left the church over my “new direction.” My new direction was that I began to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. My new direction was that I began to see the kingdom of Christ as God’s alternative society. My new direction was to believe that peacemakers are the children of God. And I learned a bitter lesson. I learned that it is much easier to unite people around a Jesus who hates our enemies and blesses our wars than it is to unite people around a Jesus who calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It broke my heart to learn that people are not as easily drawn to a gospel of peace as they are to a rally for war.

But I couldn’t blame them. I had been the same way. I had endorsed war in the name of the Lord. I had prayed war prayers. I had preached war sermons. And if people became angry when I started praying peace prayers and preaching peace sermons, I couldn’t be surprised. I had been the same way. Believing in a Mars-like Messiah is easy. Believing in the Prince of Peace is hard.


This is an adapted excerpt from A Farewell To Mars.

The artwork is Before Jerusalem (1949) by Gaylord Flory.