As part of its "Seven Burning Issues" series, Relevant magazine's web site has asked several well-known Christian leaders the following questions: "As Christians in the midst of a nation at war, how do we respond?" Respondents include Jim Wallis, N.T. Wright, Brian McLaren, Nancy Ortberg, Steve Brown, Shane Claiborne, Cindy Jacobs, and Church Colson.
Wallis's answer includes the insight that "[f]inal judgment over whether or not a war is just should never be left to governments. It should be left to the moral discernment of the global Body of Christ." He points to American evangelicals' initial support of the war with Iraq and claims a "disconnect" between the American church and the rest of the Christian world. He blames this difference on "the cultural captivity of the Church in America."
McLaren wants to reframe the question by broadening it: "Knowing that America is the richest and most powerful nation in history, what special concerns should we have about how our nation uses its power? What does Jesus say about power and how it should be used? Would we like to give [our children] a world where our nation has gone to war and killed thousands or millions of Muslims in an effort to increase our own security?"
Claiborne reports that the overall message of Christian soldiers having experienced war in Iraq is that "I feel like I’m trying to serve two masters, the cross and the sword, and my arms are not big enough to carry both of those."
By and large, the American Christians I have known are indeed, as Wallis charges, "Americans first and Christians second." The rhetoric is the opposite, but living a personal life or supporting social policies that mirror what are evident to me as Jesus' priorities is seen to be unrealistic. More often than not, being a good American and a Christian are simply conflated with nationalistic values purporting to be gospel values.
Americans give more lip service to religion than other so-called "developed" nations, but it seems to me that this religion rarely calls conventional understandings into question. One of Jesus' roles was that of the wisdom teacher, but, rather than legitimating conventional wisdom, he was continually challenging such conventional wisdom and offering an alternate vision.
In many situations, religion functions adequately as the legitimation of existing power structures. In our own situation, however, I believe that religion functions best to challenge existing paradigms, paradigms that are not even recognized as artificially produced, and to offer a new vision for what life can be. Jesus called this life "the kingdom of God"; perhaps a better translation of that for our times would be "God's commonwealth." A commitment to God's commonwealth eschews violence, competition, and domination and denounces any vision of common life that lifts any of these to redemptive status.