by Kurt Willems
Reprinted from the Summer 2017 edition of Shalom!
DO WE REALLY mean that? As Brethren in Christ folks, we have this value—pursuing peace—that our world most desperately needs to see in real life. When applied consistently, it confounds the ideologies of any political party. This value pushes us to take the “all” with utter seriousness. Or, as my friend Harriet Bicksler says in Focusing our Faith, the “all” is an adjective of “challenge.” The challenge in front of us is to determine just how far we are willing to take our adjectival “all.” Without it in the statement, we have an out. We don’t need to value certain forms of human life that fail to meet our conventions.
Our greatest temptation in the history of the Church has been to line up as many qualifiers as we could to justify vengeance and political ends. As Anabaptists, although each generation is tempted to negotiate this “all,” we call upon each other to stretch this “all” as far as Christ himself does—as wide open as a Roman cross, willingly dying at the hands of enemies to liberate them from the darkness that compelled these men to put Jesus on the cross in the first place! In our day, we struggle with the wideness of Calvary, and much of this is understandable.
News broke that Osama Bin Laden had been killed when I was leaving a seminary class meeting. I had been part of an engaging final discussion on modern spiritual memoirs (a spiritual formation class) and was about to begin a 40-minute commute when my wife called me to give me the news. My first reaction was to smile. Yes, I admit it: I smiled. There I was at Chevron, pumping the gas so generously provided by Middle Eastern oil fields grinning about the death of America’s number one enemy. Catching myself, I named that it was an understandable reaction.
I was a senior in high school when the planes hit the towers. 9/11 defines my generation. The world changed on that day. Our so-called invincibility was suspect. Our resolve for peace through vengeance multiplied. Our myths of progress were exposed and naked.
It is likely that most Americans had an initial reaction of this sort—a feeling of cultural catharsis is a natural response. As I drove home, listening to the news coverage of Bin Laden’s death, interviews with people could be summed up with joy: “We got ‘em!” And of course, if we believe that vengeance is sometimes needed in a world of chaos, this makes sense. But as followers of Jesus, we have no room for such a judgement. Vengeance is not for Christians. It belongs to God’s own wisdom and is delegated to the rulers and authorities with limits (Rom. 12-13). Simply put, we should do a double-take any time we find ourselves rejoicing in the loss of human life—any human life. We value all of it.
Even the Hebrew Scriptures, which condone certain forms of human violence (which the New Testament does not do), display God’s own lament about the death of any person: “Say to them, This is what the Lord God says: As surely as I live, do I take pleasure in the death of the wicked? If the wicked turn from their ways, they will live” (Ezek. 33:11 CEB). Then, of course by the time Jesus arrives on the scene, he upholds the value of the Torah and prophets by interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures in fresh and compelling ways: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well” (Matt. 5.38-39 CEB). Jesus takes what was always the heart of God for all of human life and invites his followers to take it to its logical conclusion: nonviolence. And in the same section, Jesus clarifies what this looks like: love for enemies (Matt. 5.44). For Jesus, “all” means “all.”
In our culture, we struggle to navigate the expansive love of “all” humans. For the 9/11 generation, many of us grew up around a politicized evangelical culture that replaced “all” with “unborn.” And there should be no doubt that we are called to value unborn life. Our methods have often been co-opted by the anti-abortion focus so much so that we often can’t extend our “all” to the needs of the poor. Studies continue to show a strong correlation between poverty and abortion rates. Thus, a middle ground between pro-life Christians and pro-choice politics exists: reduce poverty and thus, reduce abortion rates. Yet, the pro-life agenda is usually tied with a specific stream of economics that neglects the struggles of those at the margins while giving an overabundance of tax money to militarism. This is a contradiction at best. At worst, it is an ethical inconsistency. “All” means unborn babies, but not the single moms who can’t afford them or the Iraqi mom who might get in the way of our bombs? The way of Jesus includes “all” of these.
In a post-9/11 world, many of us started wondering: Why is abortion our only issue? Why do we take on the militarism of the so-called “war on terror” while not noticing the terror that fills our impoverished streets? Where else have our political imaginations been co-opted? These sorts of questions eventually led me to embrace the Anabaptist theology I had resisted in my Mennonite Brethren upbringing. As Jim Wallis and Shane Claiborne have often said, I became convinced that Jesus invites us to be pro-life from the womb to the tomb. Jesus followers extend the “all” to enemy nations, convicted murderers on death row, babies that incubate in wombs, children without adequate health coverage, Palestinians without access to resources, persons of color plagued by inequity, and so many other life issues of our day. A broader vision of “all” life has consistently pushed many of my peers to expand their definition of pro-life in similar ways.
The inequity we see between white folks and persons of color also challenges our “all.” The “all” challenges us to see how the powers and principalities blind us (who are white) to our privilege. But here’s where “all” gets interesting: Some of us like the word “all” when it serves to tell our black neighbors that they are being neglectful in saying #BlackLivesMatter. So, some of my friends decided that we needed the “corrective” of #AllLivesMatter. However, the modifier switch from black to all actually rendered the “all” to “some” (and yes, this sort of correction is actually an attitude of privilege, even if usually unintended). In reality, the prophetic cry that black lives matter always had an implicit “too” at the end of it. They are saying: We are being disproportionately incarcerated, terrorized, and killed by the so-called justice system. Will you notice our plight, white sisters and brothers? As soon as “all” is applied there, we’ve actually changed our slogan to “We value white human life.” My point here is that we need to be nuanced in how we, in a post-#BlackLivesMatter world, discern what the word “all” serves to communicate. Being pro-life, being committed to pursuing peace in the way of Jesus, means that consistency is central and marginalized voices at the conversation table are a gift. We need our blind spots exposed so we can become more effective at valuing all human life, just as Jesus does.
I believe that we are in a moment of prophetic opportunity. Will we place pursuing peace—the very thing that attracts several of our millennial-aged leaders to the Brethren in Christ—back into the center of our ethos as a church body? Paired with the resources we have in our other core values, we have the opportunity to be transformed into further Christlikeness as Jesus softens our hearts to those “alls” we’d rather modify as “some.” May we celebrate this “all” and may we encourage ourselves to expand our understanding of it to include those we are tempted to ignore. Thanks be to God that our Creator values all human life, so much so that Christ died to reconcile even his enemies—which once included each of us (Rom. 5.6-11). Since God values it all, may we go and do likewise.
Kurt Willems is the founding pastor of Pangea Church, a Brethren in Christ church plant in Seattle, WA. Connect with his online community at TheologyCurator.com to receive regular written reflections on theology, faith, and spiritual formation. Kurt is currently completing a second master’s degree at the University of Washington focusing on Paul, Judaism, and the Roman Empire.