Posted in book reviews

Brian Zahnd and the peace of Christ that opposes Empire

indexIt’s all the rage, this little anti-war tome, A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace (David C. Cook, 2014; Kindle edition). Pastor Brian Zahnd has written an insightful and controversial book that will push many followers of Christ to re-evaluate what Jesus would do not just in our lives as individuals but as nations sharing one planet.

Pastor Zahnd – like many Americans at the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – was solidly behind the foray into the country ruled by Saddam Hussein. Zahnd had led in public prayers for the troops, bellicose war prayers for which God later gently nudged the pastor toward repentance. Gradually, Zahnd re-examined his position and is now as staunch a proponent of peace as he is an opponent of Empire, no matter what country is behind it. In place of Empire, Zahnd espouses a different more durable kind of arrangement:

“The resurrection is not only God’s vindication of his Son; it is the vindication of all Jesus taught. Easter Sunday is nothing less than the triumph of the peaceable kingdom of Christ.”- location 231

Herein lies an attractive feature of Zahnd’s work: It’s mostly about Jesus. It’s hard to argue with that methodology if we are going to be Christians, little Christs. Yet ironically, have we as followers of the good and gentle shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11, NIV) justified wars in his name? Zahnd argues convincingly that we have. Citing the disastrous medieval military campaigns to take back Jerusalem from Muslims, he concludes: “The crusades are perhaps the most egregious example of how distorted Christianity can become when we separate Christ from his ideas. Yet we continue to do this – we worship Jesus as Savior while dismissing his ideas about peace” (location 160).

Pastor Zahnd rightfully protests the melding of Christian and militaristic symbolism, recounting a visit to the chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy where the “cross” at the front of the sanctuary was made up of swords. Zahnd concludes that this becomes a strange composite, a tribute more fitting to the Roman god of war (Mars) than Jesus, the Prince of Peace. The danger is that the church – which should be promoting the kingdom of God – unwittingly becomes a mere chaplain to the state. He explains:

“Our responsibility is not to chaplain the state but to call the state to repentance and to surrender to the King who is Lord. Our responsibility is to be an alternative to the state. Christians would do far more good for our country by learning not to look to DC for solutions but to the glorious Son of God, who loves us and gave himself for us and, in doing so, gave us a whole new way of life – one not shaped by the power of force but the force of the gospel ” (location 35).

Yet Zahnd’s argument suffers from off-putting elements for the otherwise open-minded reader. Rejecting the label of “pacifist,” he concludes: “But I am not a political pacifist. What I am is a Christian” (location 1354).Does this imply that those who have reached different conclusions on war and peace are not Christian? My experience is that Mennonites – who are unashamedly part of the peace church tradition – avoid statements like Zahnd’s that appear to demonize Christian brothers and sisters outside their circle. Further, Zahnd’s two caustic poems in the book may leave readers with the same bad taste in their mouths.

Beyond the question of the sometimes acerbic tone is that of biblical interpretation. It only makes sense that the “peaceable kingdom” of Isaiah 2:2-4 would figure prominently in Zahnd’s thinking, the famous vision of swords beaten into plowshares. What he neglects to mention is the prophet Joel’s contrary admonition: “Hammer your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears. Train even your weaklings to be warriors” (Joel 3:10). Joel’s is an end times vision of the armies of the earth gathering together for battle. So this prophecy is all the more important for Zahnd to address since war talk among 21st century American Evangelicals is often wrapped-up with apocalyptic scenarios.

At times Zahnd’s arguments are not sufficiently developed. While it is clear he opposes the offensive use of military force that Empires require, he leaves unaddressed the defense of nations or loved ones under attack that is the arena for Just War Theory.

Weaknesses aside, Brian Zahnd’s A Farewell to Mars makes an important and timely contribution. Zahnd’s writing style is engaging. He succeeds in presenting from Scripture an historic and peaceful alternative to the well-worn path of war that for America and the world has too often yielded little but bitter fruit.

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