The Maccabees, A Christmas Truce, and Bonhoeffer: Reflections on Peacemaking and Resistance to Evil

Three Stories
164 B.C. The Maccabean resistance defeats the larger armies of the Seleucid Empire and the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem is re-consecrated. From this joyful moment comes the Chanukah celebration, the “festival” of John 7. In the midst of securing this victory and subsequent autonomy under the Hasmoneans, there was much political and theological debate among the Jews. As Antiochus IV Epiphanies imposed oppressive taxes, forced Hellenization of the culture (with the desecration of the Temple), Judean Jews responded in three ways. Some apostatized and took on Greek beliefs and practices completely. Others remained faithful to the Covenant, but refused to engage in any military resistance. A third group, under the leadership of Judas Maccabaeus, chose military action and secured a century of relative peace and independence.

Who were the faithful…the pacifists or activists?

Christmas 1914. From the coast of Belgium to the Swiss border, the guns of World War I’s Western Front fall silent and Europe’s self-immolation takes an informal break for the Birth of our Savior. In the coming days, more that 500,000 soldiers will exchange gifts, play soccer and send letters to relatives in the nations of their enemies. All of this violates the orders of the commanding generals on both sides, but officers in the field allow some liberty after months of ceaseless bombardment and gruesome combat. And after 1915 arrives, the carnage resumes and baptized soldiers go over the top and face machine guns, poison gas and tanks.

What if the 500,000 refused to return to their trenches?

August 1939. Brilliant and popular theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer refuses a teaching position at Union Theological Seminary in New York and takes the last steamer from the USA back to Germany before the outbreak of WWII. He felt that he must endure the forthcoming suffering as preparation for the rebuilding the church and nation after the war. He was a committed pacifist and managed to work in German Intelligence (Abwehr) until his arrest in 1943. He and his band of conspirators tried to negotiate with Allied leaders, finding little interest from them in light of the commitment to unconditional surrender. Bonhoeffer was undoubtedly aware of the many plots to kill Hitler. He felt that the evil was so great that he has to trust God for grace as he participated in activities that included violence. He was executed on April 9, 1945, just weeks before the end of the war as the Nazi regime engaged in one last frenzy of revenge and self-destruction.

What if one of the plots against Hitler has succeeded?

December, 2014: Sporadic looting and rioting continue across the USA as thousands protest grand jury decisions in Missouri and New York regarding police officers causing the deaths of two African American men. Racial and ideological divisions surface as some defend the police decisions to shoot and use a chokehold as self-defense. Rioters argue that racial profiling led to the extreme measures and justice went on holiday with no charges filed against the officers. Politicians and pundits divide over the events and the responses, with many labeling the deceased as criminals and the rioters as anarchists, while others memorialize the victims and call for more civil disruption. In the midst of all this, moderating voices are rarely heard and African Americans own most of the businesses destroyed.

Our Challenges

For nearly two millennia, Christians have debated and discerned how to respond to injustice and violence, whether local/personal retribution or national/global military action. Under the (somewhat unhelpful) rubrics of “just war” and “pacifism” believers debate policies of great import, with responses to evil ranging from complete refusal to resist even personal attacks on family and self to rationalizing preemptive military action. On domestic fronts, recent media personalities have declared that the rioting in Ferguson, with the looting and burning of property is not really “violence.”

Just war theorists and supporters of “law and order” find fault with “peace” groups that defend violent actions by insurgents that undermine order and peace. Conversely, pacifists point out that there are no “good “ wars and the first and second century believers in the Roman Empire refused military service. My own denomination was officially pacifist until 1967 when it became a matter of conscience. Today I teach seminarians of all persuasions in the same building.

The lessons from the Maccabees, the Christmas Truce of WWI and the existential crisis of Bonhoeffer offer some helpful insights as thoughtful people of conscience wrestle with how to respond to injustice and discern when (and/or if) violence is necessary. For serious Christians, the issue of violence and war are especially vexing as believers navigate a variety of economic and political contexts while seeking to express God’s kingdom and invite their neighbors to saving faith in Jesus Christ.

In some Christian circles, it is trendy to affirm some form of pacifism (while strangely defending violent protestors and militants opposing the West and Israel). Special venom is reserved for the Religious Right and groups that are patriotic about the USA. In other communities, structural injustices are ignored or unseen and opposition to police and the military are viewed as immoral and even treasonous.

I overheard a Canadian pastor state that the soldiers of WWI were neither heroes nor villains, just pawns in a chess game of power. She found Armistice Day celebrations unsettling. A listener more sympathetic to soldiers was arrested by these comments and compelled to consider this new view. In a doctoral seminar in the USA, several American leaders were arguing for close to absolute pacifism as the only acceptable Christian position. A female Nigerian pastor, witness to hundreds of churches burned and thousands of fellow-believers killed and wounded, calmly argued in favor of placing armed guards inside and outside churches to defend them from attack. The debate was lively, with idealist Americans shocked by her testimony.

Two Principles and Three Insights

There is another way forward that captures the heart of Jesus and the Apostles and makes room for active peacemaking and defending the lives of the innocent. There are two general principles and three practical insights emerging from reflection on Scripture and the historical examples enumerated that may help us navigate these treacherous waters.

General Principle One: There are no “good” wars and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is never promulgated by coercion or violence. The issues of when violence may be justified in a fallen world – whether in civil order or military action – must be forever separated from kingdom proclamation. Christian influence and persuasion for the common good are salutary. Theocratic imposition in matters of conscience and religious observance are unbiblical and contrary to human flourishing.

General Principle Two: In God’s common grace, civil authority is appointed to promote the common good and provide basic services, including ensuring justice and protecting citizens from violence. When the civil authority does its job properly, evil is punished and justice is promoted (Romans 13). When authorities infringe on matters of conscience and religion, citizens must obey God rather than the governing powers (Acts 3-5).

In a world awash in intolerance and violence, there is no place for “crusading” by the barrel of a gun. Suffering for obedience to Gospel truth brings divine approbation (Mt. 5; Lk. 6; John 16). Suffering for ethical violations or obnoxious actions and opinions brings deserved punitive measures (I Pt. 4).

As we recall the historical narratives of Judean insurgents, weary European soldiers and a courageous pastor-theologian, I offer three practical insights for discerning our responses to evil as believers. These will not resolve all tensions. Perhaps few will budge from entrenched ideologies, whether conservative or progressive, pacifist or just war. My aims are modest but substantial: consistency and integrity, with biblical principles informed by history guiding our contextualized responses instead of ideological trends thin on Scripture but strong on emotional appeal.

Insight One: From the Maccabees and Bonhoeffer we learn that violence must be the last resort after all other venues of justice have been exhausted. Humble, robust appeals, active, non-violent peacemaking and protests require much more character that Molotov cocktails, projectiles and guns. Second century B.C. Jewish leaders did not look for war and Bonhoeffer was deeply troubled by any form of violence. Fallen humankind is quick to rush to judgment and resort to violence in the face of unsatisfied appetites (James 4).

Insight Two: From the Christmas Truce of WWI we see that most people of conscience hate war, and if given the opportunity, will try to get along with their “enemies.” World War I was a European “civil war” with several combatant nations ruled by monarchs that were related to each other and Parliaments with political parties that shared values across national borders. This was the self-destruction of any remnants of Western Christendom, leading to the polarization and radicalization of the European political scene. The glory of battle quickly yields to the ghostly nether world of fear.

Insight Three: Capitulation to evil and violence does not glorify God or protect the innocent. It is the calling of civil government to protect its citizens. Such protection must include consequences for those that violate the law. Christians may differ on the extent of their involvement indomestic authority or military actions, but the legitimacy of protecting our neighbors must not be trumped by passive submission to hatred, intolerance or any form of totalitarianism. How we oppose evil – from our motives to our methods does matter. If force must be used, it is defensive, limited in objectives and a source of anguish.

Closer to Home

Civil, passionate protests are understandable for Missouri and New York. Looting and violence are not. Opposing ISIS is necessary, and it will require both moral courage and military wisdom. Standing with and helping to liberate the victims of sex and work slavery is a moral imperative. Perpetrators must be offered a way of repentance and restitution; however, refusal to show justice must have consequences for the sake of the victims.

The Maccabees fought against totalitarian power that not only wanted tribute, but religious fealty as well. Their resistance to evil helped secure liberty for Judah and for surrounding provinces. Their example is salutary in the fight against Hamas, ISIS and any other militants that reject liberty of conscience.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 can inspire us to find partners in peacemaking and work at the grassroots level to oppose both structural injustices and anarchistic/nihilistic violence.

Bonhoeffer awakens us to the joyous lament of the “already and not yet” of God’s reign. If we are face moments of tragic moral choice, we must act and ask forgiveness, refuse to harbor hate while protecting the vulnerable and aiming for reconciliation.

The Bread and Cup

As 2014 ends and 2015 dawns, will be debate with civility our responses to evil and violence? Can we come to the Eucharistic Feast and celebrate our Lord’s sacrifice while we wrestle with our relationship to power? Will we make friends across all the “no man’s land(s)” created by demagogues? If our passion is the Mission of God expressed through reconciling love, then we must embrace hope for better solutions and love every saint as we humbly cry for mercy.

Dr. Charlie Self
Professor of Church History
The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary
Sr. Advisor, The Acton Institute
Board Member, The Missio Alliance

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