The City of God

Babylon and Rome, to be sure, have a veneer of glory and a semblance of beauty, but they always seem to hide the ugly truth that they have built their city on the shed blood of their brothers.
– Brian Zahnd

* This is the fourth installment of a blog-along through Brian Zahnd’s Beauty Will Save the World.

Zahnd’s book continues to pick up steam. The fourth chapter, “East of Eden,” is a well-written contrast of the ways of the kingdoms of the world to the ways of God’s reign. He draws on the story of Cain and Abel, how Cain’s legacy is one that is built on the blood of Abel. He then moves forward to discuss the story of the founding of Rome, with the great city built on the blood of Remus (Romulus’ brother). His primary thesis is that the nation-states of the world are almost always built on the blood of another taken in violence. And while he doesn’t make the connection explicitly, even the United States was founded on the blood of violence, killing others out of what some may consider revenge. The commonwealth of God’s shalom, however, is one that is built not on the vengeful taking of a life but on the self-sacrificial giving of a life. The New Jerusalem, the eternal city of peace, will come bearing with it the faith of the martyrs and the blood of the Lamb rather than the seemingly virtuous slaying of an enemy. This chapter is a reminder that God’s reign is so vastly different from the ways the kingdoms of the world choose to operate. And on this day that remembers the events of September 11, 2001, and the ensuing 17-year war against an ethereal enemy (“terror”), it is appropriate to consider how the safety and stability of a peace gained for the western world through sustained violence differs greatly from the eternal stability and security of God’s holy reign that has come and is coming in the Prince of Peace who gave up his life.

Pacifism is a theological and ethical concept that has draped around my conscience for as long as I can remember. Since childhood I have been uncomfortable with violence, both in reality and in entertainment. It was during college that I stumbled across Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Until this point I fretted over whether one could be both opposed to violence and be Christian. I grew up in a military family where violence was not a necessary evil but a necessary good ordained by God. It was a relief to discover that I was in the company of Jesus in choosing the way of peace!

I was a pastor for many years in the Anabaptist tradition, in two of the three historic peace churches that oppose violence, warfare, and military participation. While I am still credentialed by one of these denominations and no longer actively pastor a congregation, I still teach my children the principles of nonviolence and hope that they choose the path of conscientious objection to violence. But being part of the historic peace churches provided a helpful cover in the face of questions over my opposition to violence. I could simply say, “Well, I’m Mennonite,” and that was sufficient. In the past few months I have realized the need to come to terms with what exactly it means to say I oppose violence. Pacifism, unlike the criticism that is often put to it, is not passive-ismIt is not a lie-down-and-don’t-say-a-word approach to injustice and violence. What is often lacking in the conversations around world decisions related to war, and even personal decisions related to the use of self-defense, are the ample opportunities we are presented in life to both prevent a situation that leads to violence and to engage in nonviolent dialogue when presented with violence. I see in Zahnd’s chapter a call to remember that the beauty of God’s reign is that violence can and should be something we abhor, and the way of peace through peaceful action should be our present course of action. Do we do enough to dialogue, understand the “other,” and refuse to pick up our swords or violent speech before we jump to force?

The City of God, the New Jerusalem, the Eternal City, is not a spiritual ideology that embodies the way of peace in a distant future when we have vanquished our foes. That is the way of Cain, of Romulus, of empire. The eternal city of peace of which the Scriptures speak, the prophets long, and the Christ embodies is something that is breaking into our world now. Congregational worship should be our training ground, our source of understanding of that reality. For in worship we gather around Christ’s table. It is the table at which friends and enemies alike sit and dine. (Remember, Jesus ate with Judas!) During worship we hear a different story from the world, and it isn’t a spiritualized or personalized message of inner peace. It is a startling declaration that the City of God is here, now. Are we claiming and living into our citizenship as ambassadors of peace and goodness?

What stood out to you in this chapter? How were you challenged by Zahnd’s writing?

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