Christ-Centered Witness and the Proper Use of Power

By Jesse S. Wheeler

In a world busy with the misuse of power, I am continually drawn to the example of Christ who, by consistently rejecting the dual temptations of imperial compromise and armed rebellion, models for us the narrow path of self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing love.

This dual temptation is very much a universal experience, faced by millions across the world. And, it has recently been the choice presented to millions of Middle Easterners in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and beyond:

Imperial Compromise or Armed Rebellion.

For their part, Christian communities in the Middle East have not been immune, with Martin Accad, Wissam al-Saliby, Rupen Das, and Elie Haddad each presenting excellent insights as to an appropriate Christ-centered response to the crisis facing this region. The issues and insecurities involved are complex and in many respects understandable, but the manner by which Christians respond to this crisis concerns the very essence of who we are as followers of Christ and what it means to live and work as Christians in the Middle East.

When it comes to the appropriate use of power, followers of Christ should therefore be willing to:

1)     Forfeit the State

As the infinitely quotable N.T. Wright puts it, “The kings of the earth exercise power one way, by lording it over their subjects, but Jesus’s followers are going to do it the other way, the way of the servant.”[1] To align ourselves with the dictators or ruling powers of the day in exchange for communal well-being, to support drone strikes or racial profiling in the name of national security, or to support a political system that insures the sectarian dominance of one particular faction at the expense of another, or the widespread marginalization of refugee populations, is to become guilty ourselves of a regime’s tyranny or the persistent injustice of the status quo.

As Accad asks, “Can I, as a [Middle Eastern] Christian, support a dictatorial regime simply because I fear the negative consequences that might derive [for] my Christian community?” Or can I, as an American Christian, support targeted assassinations and torture simply because it “protects my freedom?”[2] Though circumstances may be complex, the answer is no.

2)    Lay Down the Sword

While the religious leaders of his day were proclaiming their undying love for their “one and only king” Caesar, Jesus was executed a traitor’s death as a political insurgent. In reality, however, Jesus consistently modeled non-violent, enemy-embracing love throughout his life, even declaring before Pilate, the regional representative of Roman imperial might, that his Kingdom is not like those of this world otherwise his disciples would fight.[3]

As human beings, Christian or not, our visceral response is to fight back when ill-treated. Yet, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer observes in The Cost of Discipleship, “Our enemies are those who harbor hostility against us, not those against whom we cherish hostility… As a Christian I am called to treat my enemy as a brother and to meet hostility with love. My behavior is thus determined not by the way others treat me, but by the treatment I receive from Jesus.”[4]

As followers of Christ, violent conflict is NOT an option.

Nor, however, is it effective.

As recent sociological studies indicate, “the argument that using violent resistance is the only effective way to win concessions from a repressive adversary simply does not stand up to the evidence. [By a margin of 2-1, the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that] nonviolent resistance has the strategic edge.” As based upon the message of Jesus AND empirical observation, “violent resistance is not only morally unjustifiable but also relatively ineffective both in the long and short run!”

3)    Engage with Politics at Every Conceivable Level…as Servants!

To reject, however, the dual temptations of imperial compromise and armed conflict does not in any way involve the denunciation of worldly affairs. We must instead be willing to engage with political systems at every conceivable level. And in the model of Christ, we must do this as servants. In the words of Christian ethicists Glen Stassen and David Gushee, “Jesus taught that his disciples are to be salt and light and can only be this as they obey him—through doing the personal, ecclesial, social and political deeds that he taught.”[5] As salt, we model for the world an alternative social ethic based upon self-sacrificial love. Yet, as light we work publicly to expose darkness wherever it’s found.

We have every obligation to abide by the prophet Jeremiah’s injunction to “seek the peace of the cities to which we are sent.” To serve God is to serve those cities, countries and regions within which we have been placed. Yet following the example set forth by Nathan we must also be willing to speak truth to power when necessary, often at great personal cost. Through it all, we Christians living in the Middle East (be we native or foreign born) have every obligation to strive toward the actualization of God’s Reign, a reign marked by justice, peace, and great joy![6]

(FYI, this is an excellent post on 5 five misunderstood political teachings of Jesus.)

4)    Acknowledge, Repent and Make Amends for Past Wrongs

Finally, we must acknowledge, repent and make amends for past wrongs. One of the most striking messages of the New Testament is to make amends with our brother or sister before even coming to God in worship. Furthermore, we are charged with examining the planks in our own eyes before condemning the speck of dust in another’s.

As human beings, we are quick to find fault in another and quick to take up arms. As followers of Christ, however, it is our duty to be self-critical and to repent, to not only acknowledge and apologize but to truly make amends for our past misuses and abuses of power. And when we do so, we have a tendency to find the violent option much less appealing. When injustice has been carried out in our name or with our tacit approval, we must repent. We must make amends. And as it turns out, this is central to my own calling as an American Evangelical living and working in the Middle East.

Conclusion:

With the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, an instrument of imperial domination becomes in biblical imagination the ultimate symbol of Divine Love and the power-reversing means by which God reigns. To follow Jesus, to take the narrow path, is to both surrender our claim to earthly domination and forfeit our right to vengeance, as we trust in the ultimate Lordship of Christ. In doing so, we offer the world a new way forward, the narrow path of self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing love.

For when we love them, our enemies cease to exist.


[1] Wright, N. T. (2012-03-13). How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (p. 139). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

[2] It doesn’t.

[3] Wright, N. T. (2011-10-25). The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation (Kindle Locations 5401-5402). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[4] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (2003-04-15). Discipleship: DBW 4 (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works) Augsburg Fortress. Kindle Edition.

[5] Glen Stassen and David Gushee. Kingdom Ethics. Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003) 491

[6] Ibid. 25

4 thoughts on “Christ-Centered Witness and the Proper Use of Power

  1. You encourage me not only to see Jesus as Savior, but to remember that he is ultimately my Lord and Monarch – to whom my unwavering allegiance must be focused. Thanks for the reminder to be first a citizen of his kingdom, and one who obeys radically in humility and servanthood.

    Lately I’ve been moved by the line of a popular song, which says, “Jesus commands my destiny.”

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