Bethlehem, Branson, and Baltimore


Bethlehem, Branson, and Baltimore
Brian Zahnd

Last week I was with a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem. He talked about his grandfather — a peaceable follower of Jesus who was senselessly killed by an Israeli sniper. He also talked about his grandmother who refused to allow the family to fall into the dark abyss of hate. He talked about the decades of injustice and the daily indignities suffered by the Palestinian people. He talked about how Jesus is found among the oppressed. But he also said Jesus told him this: “Stop using me to justify hating your enemies.” He went on to say, “I live under Israeli military occupation and Jesus calls me to do one thing: Love my enemy.” Wise words. Wise words that didn’t come cheap and don’t ring hollow.

This week I’ve been in Branson speaking at a retreat for Nazarene pastors — a beautiful gathering of thoughtful women and men who are engaged in the demanding task of leading congregations in the way of Jesus. It was a privilege to speak to these pastors. Next door to us in the convention hall was an end-time-doom-and-gloom preacher hawking blood moons and sporting banners festooned with American flags. I see a good deal of this sort of thing. Flags and crosses all mixed up. Crosses on flags. Flags on crosses. American flags flying in superiority over Christian crosses on church lawns. Flags mounted on top of churches where crosses ought to be. One gets the feeling that the idea is that flag and cross are interchangeable — quite nearly the same thing. But I beg to differ. Allow me to reproduce a passage from one of my books:

“Once you extricate Jesus from subservience to a nationalistic agenda, you can rethink everything in the light of Christ. And isn’t that required of a Christian? I first started thinking this way while reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s prophetic novel, Demons. (I call it prophetic, because in it, Dostoevsky seems to foresee with terrifying clarity the dark and bloody fate that would fall upon Russia with the rise of Soviet Communism.) In an important passage, Shatov explains to Stavrogin how all great nations believe that God is expressly their God — that somehow great nations deify and personify their nation as God. I still remember when I first read this passage.”—

I raise the nation up to God. Has it ever been otherwise? The nation is the body of God. Any nation is a nation only as long as it has its own particular God and rules out all other gods in the world with no conciliation; as long as it believes that through its God it will be victorious and will drive all other gods from the world. … A truly great nation can never be reconciled with a secondary role in mankind, or even with a primary, but inevitably and exclusively with the first. Any that loses this faith is no longer a great nation. But the truth is one, and therefore only one among the nations can have the true God.

“That brief passage from a nineteenth-century Russian novel may not move you, but when I read those words for the first time, it so shocked me, I left my house, book in hand, and walked for a mile pondering what I had just read. It was a ‘take the red pill’ moment for me. What I saw was that great and powerful nations shape God into their own image; great and powerful nations conscript God to do their bidding. Great and powerful nations use the idea and vocabulary of God to legitimize their own agenda. Great and powerful nations project God as a personification of their own national interests.” (A Farewell To Mars, pp. 41, 42)

And now there’s Baltimore. What can I say? Can I understand the rage without condoning the violence? Yes, I believe so. Last night I tweeted this—

It’s my attempt to communicate that I understand how a history of injustice can lead to violent eruptions of rage. Most people were sympathetic to my sentiment. But a few were not. One person responded with this—

If you did none of that to anyone, YOU shouldn’t been held responsible for it. Personal responsibility is what is missing!!

Well, no, I’ve never been a slave trader, slave owner, or a practitioner of Jim Crow. But I am a beneficiary of white privilege. I know this. And I can’t afford to pretend I don’t know this — that would be damaging to my soul.

If you are interested in learning how people like me have been afforded economic and social privilege based on the two original sins of America (ethnic cleansing and slave labor), I would recommend these two recently published books:

Ethnic Cleansing and the Indian: The Crime That Should Haunt America by Gary Clayton Anderson

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist

Why do I bother to pester you with these disturbing truths? Because the One whose disciple I am taught that we are set free by facing hard truths, not by hiding in comfortable lies.

A friend from Bethlehem.
A retreat in Branson.
The news from Baltimore.

Bethlehem, Branson, and Baltimore have set me to praying. I’m seeking Jesus more intentionally this week. I’m praying that the life of Jesus would seep through my life enough that I could help bring some hope and healing, some peace and justice, some freedom and forgiveness to Bethlehem, Branson, Baltimore, or wherever I am.


(The artwork is Good Friday by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri.)

  • John A. C. Kelley

    Why would this be blocked on Facebook?

  • It was a problem for a lot of people. It’s now been fixed.

  • Jesse Ireland

    Thanks for the post. It was a wonderful read. I just wanted to share my thoughts in response to what you wrote. Violence is a huge issue in the United States and across the world. There are all sorts of types and victims. My question is why do you think this occurs? My thinking is that people do not realize who they are (identity crisis). If we all understood/realized we are created in the image of God, violence to me would not be an issue. The problem is people try to fix the problem with everything, but the one true solution which is having Jesus give us our identity instead of something/someone else. How you think God views you makes all the difference in the world. Just my thoughts.

  • Steve Tiger King

    I have observed political solutions never solve social problems……and by the time a society realizes it has a social problem it is too late for that society to solve the problem…..

  • Anita Chancey

    Thanks Brian – two more books to read!

  • Luke

    Semi’s didn’t say his grandfather was killed by a Israeli sniper. It is very possible that he was killed by a Jordanian sniper. Sami will tell you his family doesn’t know who killed his grandfather.

  • Gerald Lewis

    Each time the US military, CIA, or hired mercenaries kill someone else in the world, you and I share the responsibility. They are killing in our name. “We The People”

  • Brian, I love your books and I am thankful for voices seeking to point out how we wrongly turn Jesus into some sort of political or nationalistic mascot. With regard to the racial issues brought up by Baltimore, I’m curious what your vision is for where this ends? We need to face hard truths, yes. But do we stay in that place forever (whites forever seeking forgiveness for past sins) or is there a vision for how we all heal and move forward together? (I’ve started reading Farewell To Mars but haven’t finished it yet). Thanks!

  • Bill

    As one born in the middle and given the tools to move up or down as I choose, I really have no right to claim I understand what it’s like to be one born at the bottom and never given the skills needed to move up.
    One good thing we can say about America, though, is that its structure was set up in a way that allows it to redress many of its own societal sins and make forward movement while holding itself together. There are many societies that cannot make such a claim.

  • John L.

    Brian, I like to think I am not that old, but I am. I grew up in a segregated community in California but attended a very racially diverse public school a few miles away. When my birthday in 2nd grade came around I invited my small class to my home for a party. Problem was my community did not allow nonwhites to visit. My classmates included an African-American, a Japanese student who’s parents had been interned during WWII, a native American, a daughter of a Filipino fieldworker, a Hispanic girl who lived in a labor camp, even a red headed kid who was disabled from polio. The kid with polio could stay as he was white but the others were told by the local “Sheriff” they were not welcome even for the duration of short 2nd grade birthday party. I like to think times have changed a lot but in many ways they haven’t.

    During the summer of 1968, as a teenager, I spent 3 months traveling in Europe including a few weeks in the USSR. It was there, when I literally was able to look our Cold War enemy in the eye, that I began a journey that led me to understand that I needed to take the commands to love my enemy seriously.

    Your Palestinian Christian acquaintance reminded me of the words attributed to Mother Teresa when asked if she ever gets frustrated over the lack of progress in the world. Supposedly she replied, “No, God doesn’t call me to be successful; God calls me to be faithful.”

    Thank you for your article.