All posts in America

  • Memorial Day

    Memorial Day
    by Brian Zahnd

    I have vivid memories of Memorial Day growing up in Savannah, Missouri. The last Monday in May marked the end of the school year and the beginning of summer vacation. As such it is a fond memory. And on Memorial Day I always went with my dad to a ceremony held in the northeast corner of the town cemetery. This is where the war dead are buried. Each uniform grave was decorated with a small American flag. As a child in the 1960s, the freshest graves contained the bodies of young men who had returned from Vietnam in flag-draped coffins. Old men were there wearing faded and ill-fitting uniforms from the wars of yesteryear. There would be a speaker (some years it was my dad), a prayer offered by one of the town’s clergy, the National Anthem played by the high school band, a twenty-one gun salute from the old men in their faded uniforms, and taps played by a trumpeter in the distance. The occasion was somber and patriotic. And the theme of the prayers and speeches was always the same — it was the language of sacrifice.
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  • Thoughts On the National Day of Prayer

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    Thoughts On the National Day of Prayer
    Brian Zahnd

    A few years ago, I was invited to speak on prayer at a Christian school on the National Day of Prayer (an observance established in 1952 during the Cold War Era). As you might have guessed I’m less than enthusiastic about the National Day of Prayer, mainly because of its tendency to turn into the Day of Nationalistic Prayer. I would rather we observe Ascension Day as a global day of prayer. Ironically these two days occasionally coincide, and it’s telling that the American National Day of Prayer easily overshadows observing the Ascension of Christ to reign over all the nations. But despite my ambivalence toward the National Day of Prayer, it was less trouble for me to accept the invitation than to decline. The student assembly was held in the gymnasium, and before I spoke the students were to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer. The Pledge of Allegiance came off without a hitch — every student recited it flawlessly, complete with a hand-over-heart liturgical gesture. But the Lord’s Prayer was another story; in fact it was a bit of a fiasco. The students in this private Christian school didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer. So a student was pressed into service to read it so he could lead the student body through it line by line in “repeat after me” fashion. It was embarrassing. I turned to the faculty member assigned to host me saying, “It’s not that this Protestant Christian school doesn’t believe in liturgy, you just don’t believe in Christian liturgy; your students know their American liturgy quite well.” It was a harsh assessment on my part, but the faculty member could only sheepishly agree.
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  • Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down

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    Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down
    Brian Zahnd

    Yesterday I heard Attorney General Jeff Sessions attempt to defend the deliberately cruel practice of separating immigrant children from their parents and placing them in separate detention camps by citing the Bible. This outraged me. This is not a partisan political issue, but a human rights issue. The United Nations human rights office, the American Psychological Association, Catholic Bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention, and Franklin Graham all agree. But using the Bible to justify this repugnant policy…well, that sent me over the edge.

    Here’s what I had to say about it last night on Twitter.

    Today I sat at my writing desk for seven hours working on the “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” chapter for my next book, Postcards From Babylon, and I thought I would share with you the last paragraph I wrote before calling it a day…
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  • Saved from Rage

    Iliad
    Saved from Rage
    Brian Zahnd

    Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
    murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
    hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls…
    What god drove them to fight with such fury?

    –The Iliad

    Homer’s Iliad — the closest thing the pagan world had to a Bible — is a five-hundred page war poem. Homer doesn’t sing his song in praise of war, though courage and valor are given their due; rather Homer alerts the world — then and now — to the senseless carnage that can be wrought once rage is let loose in the world of arrogant humans. It’s no accident that the first word of the ancient world’s greatest epic is Rage. And it’s noteworthy that in just the ninth line of the poem Homer asks, What god drove them to fight with such fury? Indeed, what god?

    The ancient world saw rage not as a mere human emotion, but as a kind of malevolent entity, a demon, a monster that if let loose could not easily be brought under control, and in its chaos could lay waste entire civilizations. The Iliad is Homer’s beautiful, but bitter testament to the destructive potential of unchecked Rage.
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  • The Sermon on the Mount and Caesar’s Sword

    Constantine

    The Sermon On the Mount and Caesar’s Sword
    Brian Zahnd

    As I call Christians to the practices of radical forgiveness and nonviolent peacemaking that Jesus embodied and most clearly sets forth in the Sermon on the Mount, I often encounter Christians using Romans 13:1–7 as a kind of rebuttal. (Though whom they’re rebutting — me or Jesus — isn’t always clear.) Their argument goes something like this:

    “God has ordained the government and has given it the sword to execute vengeance; therefore we cannot be opposed to war because Romans 13 sanctions ‘Just War.’”

    Usually this argument is given to me in the context of advocating that the United States government should wage total war on ISIS and other enemies of America, and that the church should celebrate this.

    But this is an egregious misinterpretation and misapplication of what Paul is talking about. Let me explain.
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  • Mercy In a Mean Time

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    Mercy In a Mean Time
    Brian Zahnd

    My father was a political man; a lawyer and a judge. He was an ideological conservative. He was also known for his kindness and mercy. My dad died in 2009. At his funeral a man approached me and said, “Your father sent me to prison for armed robbery. I came to his funeral today to honor him. He always treated me with respect and dignity, and he dealt with me as mercifully as the law would allow.” I don’t know how often a felon attends the funeral of a judge who sent him to prison in order to pay his respects, but I would guess it’s not too often. My point is that my father was a political conservative who never felt his conservatism was in conflict with his Christian commitment to kindness and mercy.

    Which is why I am so baffled and grieved by what seems to be a turn toward meanness in the name of conservatism. I’m also quite sure that my father, were he alive today, would be just as baffled and grieved.
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  • The Jesus Revolution

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    The Jesus Revolution
    Brian Zahnd

    You say you want a revolution
    Well, you know, we all want to change the world

    —The Beatles

    During the heady days of the Jesus Movement there was a pervasive conviction among the young people involved that we were part of something revolutionary. Our lives had been radically transformed by Jesus and we wanted to relive the Book of Acts. Church as usual was not an option for us. We weren’t interested in being conservative or playing it safe. We carried a strong counterculture ethos. We saw Jesus as a revolutionary and we wanted to be revolutionaries too. We shared much of the theology of conservative evangelicals, but our vibe was decidedly counterculture, with our long hair, patched blue jeans, and tie-dyed t-shirts. We preached on the streets, in the bars, and at rock concerts.

    More significantly we had inherited a distrust of government and a disdain for war from the Vietnam era. We saw a Christian critique of war as being faithful to the revolutionary Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount. We had no interest in serving the political causes of either Republicans or Democrats. We saw Christianity as a revolutionary movement that was incompatible with power-hungry political parties. We wanted to change the world in the name of Jesus; we weren’t interested in who was the current resident of the White House or the composition of Congress in the name of politics.
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  • We Need Contemplative Pastors

    JacobsDream

    We Need Contemplative Pastors
    Brian Zahnd

    I became a pastor when I was twenty-two. (In reality I had been doing the work of a pastor since I was seventeen, but by the time I was twenty-two I had been ordained and embarked upon the fulltime vocation of being a pastor.) As I look back upon this, it does appear somewhat ridiculous. A twenty-two-year-old founding pastor! Do I regret it? Yes and no. I admit that it’s probably not the best way to go about planting a church and making disciples, but it’s what happened. It was part of the phenomenon of the Jesus Movement. Young would-be followers of Jesus were looking to me for leadership. It’s the cards that were dealt me. So I did my best. I learned on the job. And the Lord was with us.

    But by the time we began to have the success of numerical church growth in the 1990s, we were fully locked into the charismatic evangelicalism that too often appears committed to an elementary level of faith. Later I would discover just how difficult it can be to lead a large church beyond a quasi-fundamentalist and largely reactive Christianity. It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult. And always painful.
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  • American Exceptionalism?

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    American Exceptionalism?
    Brian Zahnd

    American Exceptionalism: The theory that the United States occupies a special place among the nations of the world and possesses a unique destiny in history.

    I’ve heard it said, “American Exceptionalism is simply a fact.”

    I’m sure it is.

    Just like Greek Exceptionalism and Roman Exceptionalism and British Exceptionalism were facts too.

    If you’re not exceptional, you’re just another nation. “Exceptionalism” is required of a superpower. It’s what gives cred to the “We’re number one!” chant.

    But you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t get too excited about Greco-Roman-British-American Exceptionalism — or any other geopolitical claim to exceptionalism.

    (There really is a big difference between being truly exceptional and merely the latest in a long line.)

    American Exceptionalism. This too shall pass. There’s only one exception.

    The Kingdom which endures world without end: The Empire of Christ.
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