By Jeff Mallinson –
“If it were easy someone would have explained The Way to the ruler,” so says the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi. He was right. Even with educated advisors, experts, and commentators, no one really seems to know what’s going on. The nations rage. World leaders seem incapable of keeping up with complex conflicts of our age.
My tribe of Christianity (Lutheran) emphasizes the already and not yet. We are already saved and not yet experiencing the totality of that salvation. The kingdom of God is already at hand and we have not yet witnessed the return of the King. We are already a community of reconciled sinners, but we’ve not yet dispensed with our bickering. This patient waiting for the fullness of the divine promises is rarely easy.
I believe that many of the tensions within Christianity—from debates about whether a Christian can achieve perfection in this life, to how vocal a Christian should be in the political arena, to how many tares may tolerably remain within a particular denomination’s ostensible wheat—often boil down to a disagreement between those who think the divine healing the world can reasonably be achieved in our generation and those who think the whole cosmic drama will be a long arduous expedition.
We are by nature impatient; we tend to force things. So, right and left, we see religious folks attempting to grab the reins of power and steer society—by coercion if necessary—to Kingdom Come. We grow impatient with the idea that we are simul justus et peccator (simultaneously just and sinful). We have sought to inaugurate our peculiar utopias. We forget that this same impatient drive also fueled most of the truly horrific violence of the last hundred years. We want the ultimate, and seem to lack the faith necessary to keep cool in our penultimate world.
Practically and theologically speaking, I understand the skepticism with which many Christians view other Christians who are trying to bring about real tangible peace in our time. But I was reflecting on something this week that unsettled me. There was a period of about four years, a while back, when some of the brightest and most interesting undergraduates I’ve encountered to this day all showed up at the same Christian university. Eventually, they took off in wildly different religious directions. Some ended up in Eastern Orthodoxy, others in Catholicism, several became Lutherans, a few shrugged off traditional theism altogether, one explored Eastern spirituality, and another went on to get a doctorate in animal ethics and theology from a top tier grad school.
Amidst this crop of students was a young named Mike Martin, who later founded and runs RAWtools, Inc.. His organization creates home tools by repurposing weapons (they cite Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3 as the inspiration for their concept). If we can set aside the contentious question of how a just society, with a Constitution like ours here in the US, can reduce violent death domestically and globally, surely we’ll see that it remains something for which we should strive.
Dan and I explore whether it is even possible to end war on the latest Virtue in the Wasteland podcast; we were joined by military historian, Dr. Caleb Karges. Alas, if we only consider the past, it is hard to see much reason to hope.
So I’m not asking if you think we can eradicate all violence, or whether you agree with this, or that particular strategy for peace making. I’m asking why we wouldn’t, whatever our political allegiance, strive to end violence. Is it because we are impatient with imperfection or our slow pace of progress? Is it because we secretly love vengeance and wrath when we are delivering it to them? Is it because we think we already performed the eschatological, ecological or economic calculations and realize that we’ve passed the point of no return?
Nonetheless, there is a case for courageously pressing despite the absence of reasons to hope. Interestingly, it’s something we do all the time. I’ve witnessed the following strange things:
- I saw guys standing and cheering for their team even when they were down by three scores and there were less than three minutes in the game.
- I saw a daughter reading books about how to beat cancer, when her mom wouldn’t see another week of life.
- I saw ski jumpers doing back flips in the Winter Olympics, even when the medalists were already locked in.
- I saw a man passing his credit card over to our friend, despite his previous declaration that he’d be paying for dinner that night. He said he wouldn’t hear another word about it.
Consider this final example for a moment. By the way, even when your boss or friend with a bigger salary is eating with you, it isn’t a bad move to offer to at least split the tab. In a similar way, can we all not at least offer to contribute here? Please tell me we aren’t so resigned to a world of death and pain that we won’t gesture against the tide of death?
By theological conviction and confession, I’m convinced that the great cosmic story’s last chapter is so beautiful that it can redeem and re-chapter the ugly ones. The good news is that, if we do press on, we might find that Aristotle was right about the cultivation of virtue: we should fake it till we make it. Also, don’t forget that we might end up finding peace despite our pessimistic expectations. Even if we encounter ultimate doom, we won’t have gone down drenched in vice, and we’ll have formed a habit of peace within ourselves along the way.
—The Wayfaring Stranger
Composed while sipping tequila and club soda with lime, between chapters of Alister McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation.