American foreign policy is always in the news. After all, the United States currently has the largest military in the world, and frequently serves as the globe’s police force through alliances such as the United Nations and NATO. The recent appointment of John Bolton as National Security Adviser for the Trump administration simply reinforces this as Bolton was very supportive of the US invasion of Iraq and supports further military aggression towards Iran and North Korea.
On that last point, the Korean War also happens to be in the news again in response to recent nuclear testing by the North and now peace talks in Korea between both Korean nations.
War is in the news. It usually is, and I don’t see any chance of that changing any time soon. It is very unfortunate, but those of us in Christian peace and nonviolence organizations also have to talk about war. This is a great sin in our world, and it expresses the spirit of the Wicked One rather than the spirit of the Anointed One.
With all of these things in the news recently, it is very timely that the following passage from the Revised Common Lectionary came up for this Sunday. It is a reading from John’s first epistle:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father also loves the one born of him. This is how we know that we love God’s children: when we love God and obey his commands. For this is what love for God is: to keep his commands. And his commands are not a burden, because everyone who has been born of God conquers the world. This is the victory that has conquered the world: our faith.
Who is the one who conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? Jesus Christ—he is the one who came by water and blood, not by water only, but by water and by blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth (1 John 5:1-6).
John is one of my favorite authors in the Bible, but unfortunately, people tend to only read his works in a spiritual fashion. We often miss how his works can have a sort of political meaning. What John writes here is very applicable to the political tensions and violence in today’s world.
Consider a few statements made by John here. There are some real first-century political implications. They would have been crystal clear 2,000 years ago when he wrote this letter, but today we need to translate things a bit.
John states that Jesus is the Christ (Anointed One) and the Son of God. These statements seem to form the basic foundation of who and what a Christian is. Paul had a similar expression in his primitive creed — Jesus is Lord (1 Cor. 12:3). Today, these terms have a distinctly religious context, and we miss the political implication behind these words. The term “Christ” (or “Messiah”, the Anointed One) is a term that was used by the ancient kings of Israel. It was also used to refer to some emperors of the ancient world, as we see in Cyrus the Great who was identified as an “anointed one” by Isaiah (45:1).
The same is true for the term “son of god”. When the Bible calls Jesus “the Son of God” it is not simply a formulation of Trinitarian theology in which Jesus is the Son of the Father. In the first century, this was a state title. Augustus Caesar, for instance, was titled “the son of the god” (i.e. the adoptive son of the “divine” Julius Caesar). It is not surprising that the early Christians were not treated with tolerance by the normally liberal Roman Empire.
Then, in this passage from 1 John, we have another political statement that is relevant to how we think about foreign policy — “everyone who has been born of God conquers the world. This is the victory that has conquered the world: our faith.”
Our faith in Jesus is described in terms of world conquest. However, unlike Caesar who conquers through military force, our faith is described by John to be one based in love. In this same passage, we see the same basic formula that is mentioned by Jesus — you should love God and obey his commands. This obviously includes the commandments from Christ and his apostles that we should love our neighbors and enemies. In fact, it was this very teaching that was covered in last week’s lectionary passage from the same letter (1 John 4:7-21). It is in that portion that we are instructed by John that God is love and that God abides in those who love, and he also instructs us that we should love one another.
The American Caesars tell us the same as the Roman Caesars. We should conquer the world through military strength. Peace and prosperity come at the end of a sword when the foe has been vanquished. The barbarians are at the gates, and we must defend our republic from them. Jesus, however, gives us another way. Jesus tells us that we proclaim his Lordship first, and that we bring about global change through his Lordship. We bring the world to peace and prosperity not through violent conquest, but through loving conquest.
Violence is a cycle. The Scripture tells us that violence begets violence, and those who live by the sword die by the sword (Matthew 26:52). As Christians, we are called to a different way. We conquer the world not through the sword, but by the Word expressed in love.