Empire, Pacifism and the Sermon on the Mount

My visit to Rochester College for their Sermon Seminar was extremely interesting and rewarding. The theme was Dare We Live in the World Imagined in the Sermon on the Mount. Several scholars addressed this theme and uncovered, at least for me, some fresh layers of the sermon. Their scholarship helped me to gain a better understanding of the rich context of the sermon, its tremendous scope and the great challenge it presents us.

I was led to consider the idea of empire against which the sermon is set and how Jesus through the sermon is calling us to boldly counter the “principalities and powers” of empire not through their language of violence but through the non-violent heavenly testimony of turning the other cheek, going the extra mile and praying for and loving our enemies.

I was led to reconsider the beatitudes as very literal and to rediscover the power in them to turn a culture upside down. In Christ’s kingdom the honored truly are the meek, the poor, and the hungry.

I was convicted to in my own feeble way apply better the teaching of the sermon and share its blessings and challenges with others.

There were- for me though- a couple of mildly surprising threads that seemed to run throughout the presentations.

A clear pacifist message was delivered. The presenters equated the meaning of the sermon’s non-violent response to empire as a call to pacifism. As you might guess during a scheduled panel question and answer session they were challenged. To me, their answers were inadequate to the questions- as is to be expected on any side of this issue.

There was also a political overtone to the lectures. The leap from Roman Empire to American empire was made rather easily complete with indictments on our current war and immigration policy. I do see the similarities between Rome and America. This makes the challenge of the sermon even more urgent. I believe Christians who dare live out this sermon in our world can make an incredible difference. I believe our “empire” will strike back (as one presenter put it) against such bold Christian witness. And I believe there will be a cost involved for all who dare to live so. But I questioned whether this seminar was a proper platform for political statements.

But then again, maybe I missed the entire point of the sermon. It is political. It speaks of the politics of the Kingdom and this politic inevitably will engage the politics of empire.

Overall the seminar was very stimulating. The hospitality of Rochester College was a blessing. The weather in Michigan was wonderful. And the opportunity to be challenged by those in the Word was needed.


6 Responses to Empire, Pacifism and the Sermon on the Mount

  1. Ben Overby says:

    I’m about to head out to Nashville, but I thought I’d type out a quick note. I’m not sure how well Mt. 5-7 fits into strictly political categories or even as the prime context. I think it makes more sense when read against the social (which includes the political fallout) backdrop of Galilee, not just the political fabric surrounding villages in the areas of Sepphoris and Tiberius. The social was deeply effected by the political, but if we read it as a political statement then chapter 6 and 7 and most of ch. 5 don’t fit. Most of my “enemies” aren’t political. I can’t turn the other cheek to a terrorist in Saudi Arabia, but I am challenged to turn the other cheek when someone’s rude in Walmart or on the Interstate or when I’m worried about my economic position or how I’m perceived by the “religious elite”. Richard Horsely has the led the way in pushing the political threads in scripture, making, for some, the political the primary context. Though Jesus’ gospel was absolutely a political challenge to Rome and all the powers (the kingdom has come near is a distinctly political statement), it was lived out in a way that subverted the powers. Mark begins his gospel with an “in your face” statement–“. . . The gospel of the Son of God.” The gospel of Caesar was being circulated with the very same language, first with Julius, then Augustus (the poets described him as the son of god–he’d been adopted by Julius post-death), and later his adopted son, Tiberius. So, the gospel was risky in purely political terms, but the power of the gospel gets all the way down into the deeper, social structures that have to do with who is really well off, who’s good, how can we be good people, all in the context of family, work, fishing villages, church communities, etc. It will threaten the political structures, but more subversively than the social structures. It’s convenient, and frankly safe, to read political agenda’s into scripture in a context of free speech, making Jesus be against the US, etc. I’d be more impressed with some of our scholars if they could do the same thing in WWII, like a Bonhoffer, where the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world was just a wee bit more striking, or in the 50’s and 60’s when black people were both politically and socially oppressed and when there was real risk in uncorking the power of the gospel. In my opinion, the risk in preaching the sermon on the mount in “our world” is found within our religious structures, where the broken, social power structures are doing quite well.


    PS. By the way, I stand in Soldiers Chapel and defend Jesus’ teaching over against some fairly powerful structures in the Infantry Training Brigade (love enemies, pray for enemies vs. hate, etc.) so this is all very much on my “radar screen.”

  2. Danny says:

    The social aspect of the sermon was much discussed too- especially concerning our responsibility to the poor and how the empire was built on their backs.

    Ben, you always bring a well-thought out perspective and considering your ministry you definitly have much to share on this topic.

    God bless on your trip to Nashville.

  3. KylerCole says:

    Ben- talk about on the radar screen, I’m sitting in Kabul, Afghanistan. Are you an Army Chaplain? Thank you for your comments.

    Danny- it’s nice to be able to have this blog to keep in touch and share feelings about spiritual matters. It’s difficult to be “out of the loop” for so long, but little things like this and other means of contact keep up hope. As you can see, I’ve got lots of free time to think here. I’m anxious to be back with everyone at home again soon.

    This topic has been heavy on my heart this year, because the ideas have been brought up in our family. I was called back into the Army “involuntarily” last year to serve in Operation Enduring Freedom. Thankfully, I’ve been able to use my talents here in a peaceful way as a Finance administrator. I resigned my Active Duty commission six years ago next week. After I resigned, I, like thousands of others went into the Inactive Reserve pool. On Feb. 28, 2005, I received the letter returning me to active duty under penalty of desertion if I failed to report. This is called a “back-door draft.” I think Americans are vaguely aware that this has been going on, but most of them don’t understand it. Hundreds of thousands have been placed into the same situation over the past five years if you include the National Guard, who have not been deployed in combat since WWII. The active duty forces are still reeling from the Clinton draw down years, and have no sustainability for the types of long conflicts that we have committed to recently without conscription efforts. When you have to put the Navy and Air Force into ground convoy combat situations like we are here and now, you know we’re hurting for people. Almost all active duty units have done two rotations to a combat zone in the past five years. I don’t think Americans realize just how thin the military is stretched.

    For Shannon and I, this past year and a half have been a nightmare, and thankfully, a stretch of our faith that is developing into some grateful perseverance. But it really leaves a lot of relationships divided and challenged. When I came home for leave, I had just about a many people tell me that they opposed what the nation was doing in these operations as I had people who told me they were satisfied with the nation’s decision. In fact, the first guy I saw, my neighbor, Mr. Weber (who by the way is a WWII vet) said “hey, I don’t think we should be there where you are, but I support you.” Thankfully, at church, all were supportive, regardless of their political position. In our family, my wife’s brother is a minister in Indiana. He and his wife are opposed to war, and made their strong beliefs known to the family this year, not in a challenging or unloving way, but just in a way that it can no longer be a topic of conversation. My father-in-law is a Vietnam veteran, and he was taken back and has struggled with this, as have I. This has put a strain on all of our relations in general, and I know will affect us for years to come. They, like most Christians, support and love me and those on the ground everywhere, but it still is a predicament, and the comments from Danny’s conference plucked at my heart because of the obvious questions that arise.

    I see every day here, unlike those at home, the difference we make in people’s lives here. I can’t speak for Iraq. I think we’ve made a bigger difference in Afghanistan than we have in Iraq, but that’s a whole other discussion. I have two Afghans who work for me, and I know and have come to love them as well as I know and love anyone back home. I know their stories of fear and torture under the Taliban. I can tell you about how they fled on foot to Pakistan to avoid the shelling of 3,000 rockets in one day from the warlord Mullah Ghulbodin’s evil forces and many other stories like that. For these reasons, I can personally know that we have intervened in a way that lets people here live peaceful and productive lives because I can see it. It’s these stories that don’t get back to the home front that need to be told. Yes, there are acts of war that cause pain and loss. Those we seek to avoid, but they do occur. I pray that over time in my life, God will be able to use the time I have had here as a testimony in some way, shape or form. I know He can do it, because I don’t believe I am here for no good reason.

    I know that there is more injustice and violence in the world than America can handle on its own. But I can tell you, compared to other nations, America seeks justice and peace with more fervor, passion, and resources than any other nation on Earth. We serve here with eight other coalition nations. Some nations serve with “caveats” such as “they will not participate in certain operations.” So who gets to go out and do the dirty work? Americans. We escort the ambulances that pick up the foreign aid workers who go to the poorest and most remote provinces for medical missions. America lays it all out there. Every time. I have a difficult time when people say that America is emperialistic like the Roman empire. That’s just not true, however, there are striking social similiarities that are particularly worrisome. We’re not going places and conquering. We’re going purposefully (albeit there are obvious disagreements about objectives political, economic or social) to places where we can stay and then leave without occupation in the traditional military sense. And everyone here who is enjoying the peace will tell you that once the Americans leave, their lives are in danger once again. No one wants us to leave who enjoys peace. The ones who want us to leave are those whose evil desires are to be brutal dictators and warlords.

    I agree with Ben’s conclusions that the scriptures are pointing more to the social, rather than political landscape as it exists today. I pray that is the correct interpretation. I would not want to be participating, even in the involuntary sense as I am now, against the teachings of Christ. But I am open to correction and encourage anyone and everyone who has feelings on this to please talk about it. Everyone prays for peace, but especially those who are in harm’s way, I guarantee you.


  4. Danny says:

    Kyler, I simply cannot imagine your experience in Afghanistan but I very much appreciate what you are doing there and sharing some of that with us.

    For you and others- this is all more than just theory discussed at a seminar.

    I know you are doing your best to live out the sermon and demonstrate God’s kingdom- and you are in our prayers.

    May God keep you until we can see you again- soon- in Pensacola.

  5. Stoned-Campbell Disciple says:


    This is a highly charged subject for most folks. Especially in our present situation. I think we need to be sensitive, caring, compassionate, give people time to grow and expand their paradigms. But the Sermon on the Mount still challenges us at the root of our being, and that is precisely why so many through the years have attempted to find ways to blunt what Jesus actually says.

    The first danger to avoid is the so-called “spiritualizing” of the text. We do things with that word “spiritual” that no Jew, much less Jesus, would grasp.

    I am sure somewhere in the RC lectures they brought up what Luke does with those beattitudes. Quite fascinating. Spiritual is this worldly for Jesus, Paul, Matthew and Luke.

    I am in a very interesting situation. I grew up in one of the most legalistic homes but also one of the most patriotic! Those who dissed the flag were subject to the firing squad in my dad’s (still held) opinion. America was God’s special place in the world. My brother is career Navy, former Seal in fact. My father in law is retired Air Force, served two tours in Vietnam, currently works for a company that builds weapons for the military . . . and I am a pacifist! We have interesting discussions.

    I have unlimited respect for all of these and in no way sit in judgement upon their convictions.

    As you have read my book with John Mark, Kingdom Come, you know the position I argue in the chapter on “The Prince of Peace.” I actually have more of a problem with the not so subtle forms of “religious” nationalism than anything . . . whether one embraces pacifism is beside the point.

    On another note if you really want to dig into the so-called “political” aspect of Jesus then John Howard Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus” is an absolute must read. This is probably the most significant presentation of the pacifism of Jesus of the last hundred years. I am sure it came up in the conference. It is a book that can be argued against but it is not one that can be dismissed. I believe the argument for non-violence goes far beyond the Sermon on the Mount though and includes the entire NT and perhaps more significantly the notion of being “aliens” in the world.

    I used to hold to the Just War tradition. My problem with that line of thought was that it was never applied to our ethical thinking.

    I end where I began. This is a subject that reqires deep thinking, great compassion and a willingness to listen. Emotions tend to get out of hand on this one . . .

    Bobby Valentine
    Milwaukee, WI

  6. Steve Puckett says:

    Welcome home. Rochester always seems to offer stimulating thinkers in their seminars.

    I did a whole series of lessons a year or so ago on Life in the Kingdom and I think I learned a lot more than I was able to share with the church.

    I have several members of my church family who red, white, and blue blooded veterans of Gulf War, Iraqi War, Vietnam, World War II and the Korean War. We’re near Patrick AFB and have some who are currently active duty.

    My take on Pacifism, Politics, and military service is that God knows our hearts and receives what we have to offer at any particular moment in time. When it comes to military service, most of us are products of our environment and most sincerely so.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I do pray very hard any time I approach this subject knowing we have many who have given their lives for freedom and others who believe strongly that God has called them to this type of service.

    “Peace” has always been my closing motto and I do believe that peace is at the heart of Jesus’ work, not necessarily peace in one’s circumstances, but peace in the hearts of people.


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