An interesting point came up in the first session of a church history class a few weeks ago. The professor was speaking of our tendency to look back and judge the Christians of certain eras by the horrors of their time. It is difficult for us to look back at the late medieval church, which took to arms in the Crusades, and understand their motivation. Or consider the churches of the southern United States in the nineteenth century--many of their theologians actually produced biblical studies supporting the practice of slavery.
But then the professor brought the point home. He looked over the class, and then said, "We live in a world where tens of thousands of children die every day from hunger and preventable disease. I would not be surprised if the church three hundred years from now looks back and wonders how on earth we could have called ourselves Christians."
And he's right. We're living in the richest and safest country the world has ever known, lavishing ourselves with extraordinary comforts while most of the world's population has to struggle just to survive. How is it that we can let this kind of reprehensible inequity go on? And let me say plainly, this shameful neglect of the poor is even less defensible from the Scriptures than were the Crusades or slavery.
But the principle extends even beyond the problems of hunger and disease. Take, for instance, the appalling history of violence in the twentieth century--the bloodiest by far in world history, and by all signs it may well continue at the same pace into the twenty-first. I've been following closely the continually degenerating situation in Darfur, Sudan, where some of my friends are working. It's looking unlikely that the UN will issue peacekeepers there, and now the Sudanese government, which is probably responsible for most of the genocidal war crimes of the past few years in that region, has launched a major offensive against the Darfuri rebel groups. There are a number of reasons why situations like Darfur still exist today, but one of them is that we, as the church, have not been doing our job very well.
One of the doctrines I hold to as a Christian is the practice of peace. However, I believe that we have lost the power of this word. It would probably be better put as the practice of peacemaking. The peace that Christ commands of his followers is not the absence of violence, it is an all-out engagement of the world to spread his peace to every people and every land.
Those of you who know me know that I'm generally quiet and laid-back. Those of you who know me well know that my spirit can be somewhat militant at times. And to be honest, for a long time the doctrine of peace didn't appeal to my emotions at all. It seemed that peace was a little bit boring, a little bit tame, and that all of the vigor and courage and intensity lay somewhere else. I don't think I'm alone in this misconception. Even though most Christians probably don't share my love for violent spirituality, I have noticed (even when it's not articulated in these terms), that to live a peaceful Christian life tends to be equated with laying back and enjoying the comforts the Lord has blessed us with here. It's not wrong to enjoy those comforts, but it is wrong to choose those comforts over the active peacemaking of the Kingdom. Peace is something powerful and intense, the fullness of the Gospel, and if we equate peace with the absence of conflict and confrontation, then we have been mistaken. Peacemaking can be very confrontational, perhaps even conflictual, and it requires more courage than anything else I know of.
If we as Christians truly believe in the doctrine of peace, then we should be living it. We should see Christians moving into the inner-city to engage the gang culture, not running away from it. We should see the church running from every corner of the globe to the hardest places in the world--to Darfur and Iraq and the Congo, there to give all our energies in the enterprise of the Kingdom. Do I think that all Christians should sell their homes and move to the inner cities or Darfur? Certainly not. But I do think that more Christians should be doing it, and I think that if we choose to remain passively in the peaceful comfort of our homes, we should seriously consider why we are doing that. The Christian life is an outward life, and if we are not actively engaged in bringing the peace of the Kingdom into a war-weary world, then we must re-examine our lives. I would love to see, both in my own life and in the American church, more of the passion that William Booth had in founding the Salvation Army: "While women weep, as they do now, I'll fight; while little children go hungry, I'll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I'll fight--while there is yet a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, where there remains one dark soul without the light of God--I'll fight! I'll fight to the very end!"
(A number of organizations have marked this Sunday, September 17, as an international day of prayer for Darfur. Please remember the people of that region in your prayers this week).
Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.