Below is part of an interview. Listen to the entire interview here:
Brian Zahnd is a pastor from Saint Joseph, Missouri, whose own thought journey mirrors that of many libertarian Christians: away from neoconservatism and nationalism, and towards skepticism of empire and the pursuit of peace.
Interviewer [Libertarian Christian Institute]: It seems so evident. It’s like wait. Jesus is not violent. It makes so much sense to me now. Why do you think it is so difficult, or what has happened in the church thatseeing Jesus as nonviolent and noncorrosive so that the Kingdom of God that He is talking about is not one of violence and of the sword but is other-worldly and different. Why is this lost on so many Christians in the West, do you think?
Pastor Brian Zahnd: There is a very well-documented story. For the first 300 years, the first three centuries of the church, the church was almost universally passivist. By the way, when we speak of passivist, we have to know how to spell it. It is rooted in the word passivic, meaning peaceful, not impassive meaning that we simply sit back. So peacemaking can be very engaging, risky, heroic, I mean the idea that a passivist is a coward is completely wrong-headed. Okay, I just wanted to throw that out. And while I am on it I might as well say that technically, I don’t consider myself a passivist because that is an ethical position that one can have regarding violence apart from Jesus Christ, and many do. And while I respect that position, that is not who I am as a Christian.
And as Christ informs me on the subject of violence, I realize that I am called to follow Jesus and His not-only preaching but in His modeling of nonviolence. And this is what the church did for 300 years. This is well-documented. If you want to know about this, there is a lot you can read. I may first recommend Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider. So this was the position of the church, they understood that Jesus called us to nonviolence, called to enemy love, called us to embody the peace of Christ in the world. And it remained that was for three centuries until you arrive at the phenomenon of Constantine, who was a general engaged in a civil war, and who wanted to become emperor.
As the story is told, he saw a vision and saw a cross in the sky and said by this sign you shall conquer, and of course conquer in this context is a euphemism for kill. And so he went forth employing the cross as a kind of talisman for good luck in war. He won the battle of Milvian Bridge and became the emperor. It is not correct to say he became a Christian because he delayed his baptism until he was essentially ready to retire from being the emperor because even Constantine understood that you really couldn’t be an emperor and a Christian at the same time. But nevertheless we have something like a Christian emperor, and you then have the beginning of Christianity becoming now essentially the state-sponsored religion of the Roman Empire.
This now becomes very confusing. Why in the world is a militant empire interested in a church anyway? Well, they want to use the church as God’s sanction upon their war-waging endeavors. And the church went along for the ride. In one sense it is hard for me to really critique them. I think they just thought that somehow the Kingdom of God was coming to the world in this manner, but it did not. In fact, what happened is that the church became the chaplain of empire.
And instead of Jesus being Lord, which of course is a political statement, but we hear it as a purely spiritual, religious statement, but Jesus is Lord was a subversive statement that Christians made that implied that Caesar was not. It is important that we understand that titles like Son of God, King of Kings, Prince of Peace, Savior of the World, were all imperial titles given to the Roman emperors. It would be on the coins, which was the means of mass communication in that day. So that when Christians began to say that Jesus is the Son of God, Savior of the World, Prince of Peace, King of Kings, Jesus is Lord, it is a very dangerous and provocative mood because it is a direct challenge to the lordship of Caesar.
Well, now that you have a Christian empire, as it were, this creates a problem because now Jesus is not actually Lord, so we have to come up with a new job for Jesus. Jesus’s new job will be the Secretary of after-life affairs. The job of Jesus now becomes to get our souls [spirits] into Heaven when we die instead of actually Lord over the nations.
So the story of the church being complicit with the militarism of empire is nothing new. It is not something that began with the religious right in the 1980s. This goes all the way back, and there is a steady history of it through the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, the Russian Empire, the Spanish Empire, the British Empire, etc.
Now we have America playing the imperial game, and whereas America doesn’t officially have a state church, America really does have an unofficial, defacto state church in American conservative Evangelicalism, which is more than willing to bless all of America’s war-waging efforts. But to do so they have to turn a blind eye to the clear teaching of Jesus Christ.
Interviewer: I heard you say in a message one time in order to grab the sword of Caesar you have to go to the cross of Christ.
Pastor Brian Zahnd: Isn’t the cross the antithesis of the sword? Remember when Jesus is arrested, and first he is tried on issues having to do with religious matters, and He is charged with blasphemy by the Sanhedrin, but the Sanhedrin cannot enforce capital punishment. That is under the jurisdiction of the occupying Romans. So then he is transferred to the Roman Governor, and Pilate is not interested in any theological dispute, but he is interested in someone claiming to be a king because all of the kings in the realm of the Roman Empire were puppet kings; they were client kings that were endorsed and put in power by Rome. And so he asked Jesus, “Are you a king?” Jesus said, “It is as you say, but my Kingdom is not from this world.” In other words, it does not come from the same system as the Caesars and the Pharaohs. He says, My Kingdom is not from this world. If my Kingdom were from this world, My servants would be fighting. But Jesus says, My Kingdom is not from this world. It is for this world, but it is not from this world.
And then Jesus says, “For this purpose I have come into the world that I might bear witness to the truth. Whoever is of the truth listens to My voice.” Pilate famously says, “What is truth?” and walks out of the room. Jesus is then scourged. Jesus is then brought in the second time before Pilate, and Pilate continues his interrogation, but Jesus is no longer engaging with him. Pilate in frustration says, “Don’t you know that I have power to release you and power to kill you?” That’s where Pilate answers his own question. What is truth? For Pilate, and for much of the world, ultimate truth is the power to kill. That the world is run by those who have the power, the ways, the means, and the will to kill. Jesus says, “No. That’s a lie.” That the world has to be arranged around an axis of power enforced by violence. So that at the cross what Jesus does is nothing less than re-found the world around a new arrangement; that is, the cross now becomes the center of human arrangement. Instead of an axis of power enforced by violence, the cross becomes an axis of love expressed in forgiveness. Now this is a very radical thing to say, I understand it, but it is also known as Christianity. This is what Christians confess about Jesus once it is untangled from empire.