A Farewell to Mars (by Brian Zahnd) is a difficult book to read.
The writing is crisp, the arguments sound, the imagery vivid, but it is nevertheless a difficult read because it forces us to confront some of our ugliest demons—violence as a means to justice, our (supposed) inalienable right to self-preservation, scapegoating, and most of all, our systematic attempt to make the Bible say things about violence that it simply doesn’t say.
Brian’s argument stands (or at least seems to me) on three legs.
1.) The clear teachings of Jesus against violence and retaliation (Matthew 5).
2.) The crucifixion of Jesus as paradigmatic for Christian interaction with “enemies” and the deepest peek into the heart of God.
3.) The belief that Jesus is right now ruling and judging the world (the kingdom of God is in our midst).
It’s pretty hard to argue against the first leg, so the typical course of action is to try and think of exceptions—Hitler, some hostage situation, etc. Those who are looking for reasons to justify violence then attempt to use the exceptions to undercut the rule of nonviolence and enemy love. Virtually everything becomes an exception (funny how that happens) and Jesus’ teaching and crucifixion are relegated to the “spiritual” realm so the big boys and girls can go on doing what needs to be done to run the world. Brian is delightfully ruthless in exposing this line of thinking.
But not everyone who wrestles with Jesus’ teachings about nonviolence and his crucifixion are looking for excuses to justify violence. There are noble reasons for wrestling with it as well. C.S. Lewis comes to mind. In his essay, “Why I Am Not a Pacifist”, he goes the utilitarian/greater good route and argues that while war is a great evil, it is sometimes a lesser evil than not going to war. He feels that outright pacifism (which I should go ahead and point out, Brian does not come right out and argue for) cannot be sustained because “then you have handed over the state which does tolerate Pacifists to its totalitarian neighbor who does not.”
I think most thoughtful Christians go this route: violence is wrong and deeply incongruous with Christian faith, but in a broken world, ruled by the powers and principalities of darkness, it is sometimes the best we can do. In other words, we should take nonviolence and enemy love seriously up until the point they really threaten our well-being or the well-being of others. This line of thinking makes good sense to me. I am comfortable with it. It is realistic. C.S. Lewis endorsed it! But is it biblical?
Here’s where the second leg comes in and Brian brings us again and again to the crucifixion where we are forced to feel the irony of the “violence is sometimes a greater good” argument as we stare up at the crucified Messiah. Can we look up at Jesus crucified and tell ourselves that nonviolence and enemy love are only meant to be taken seriously up until the point they threaten our well-being or the well-being of others? That’s a tough sell. It takes a sustained effort to avoid choking on the irony. As Brian says it, “Jesus was willing to die for that which he was unwilling to kill for. Jesus won his kingdom by dying, not killing.” (185)
Ok, so Jesus didn’t take it seriously up until a point, but the crucifixion is an exception—the most unique event in the history of the world. We have to be more discerning and sober-minded because we’re not Jesus dying for the sins of the world. It’s a clever move—I tend to make it. But the problem with it is the Bible’s relentless affirmation that the crucifixion is the event that should most mark the lives of Jesus’ followers. It is unique and unrepeatable, but it is also paradigmatic. So while it’s exceptional, it’s not an exception—it’s the rule. We can kick leg two around, but it’s pretty sturdy.
The third leg is, I think, the most provocative and complex assertion in the book; namely, that Jesus is, right now, ruling and judging the world. In chapter 7, Brian implies it was the epiphany at the heart of his journey: “Perceiving the kingdom of God as an actual political reality is a game changer…The problem with the chaplaincy view of Christianity is the assumption that the kingdom (government) of God has yet to come.” (155-156)
Read the book for the details (and there’s lots of good biblical rationale to substantiate the claim), but the basic line of thought is that the Bible clearly claims that Jesus, in some very real sense, is right now at the right hand of God, ruling and judging the world. The kingdom of God, in a very real sense, has come. It is, right now, in our midst (Luke 17:20-21). And here’s where the rubber meets the road.
If the kingdom of God is really a viable reality in our midst and Jesus is really ruling and judging the world right now, then we can’t tell ourselves the world needs us to fight against the powers and principalities of darkness with violence in the interim between now and the second-coming to keep the world from spiraling out of control. Such logic betrays the belief that Jesus isn’t really ruling and judging the world right now (or at least not doing it very well), so it is up to us to do what God doesn’t appear to be doing. As Brian says it, “Do we believe that Jesus is the Son of Man who has been given dominion over the nations and has established a new kind of rule? Or do we in effect say, ‘Oh, someday the Son of Man will reign, but not now, and in the meantime, let’s trust Caesar to keep running the show’?” (161)
Christians have long wrestled with the “already and not yet” nature of the kingdom. At the heart of this book, there is the belief that the church needs to take the “already” more seriously than it has, leaning into new creation as an aggressive community of peace. We don’t wait for everyone else to lay down their swords. We don’t hoard spears until it is safe to hammer them into pruning hooks. We go ahead and do it now so the world can get a glimpse of what the reign of God looks like.
Plenty of questions remain. Personally, this is one of the most difficult issues for me to sort through (I am a born and bred Texan after all). I have my first child on the way, and I’m pretty sure (ok, positive) I would take matters into my own hands if he were in danger. I would have killed Hitler. But in sharing his story, Brian has helped me get a view of the world from this three-legged stool of Jesus’ teachings, crucifixion, and current reign. And at minimum, things certainly look a lot different from up here.
 C.S. Lewis “Why I am Not a Pacifist” in The Weight of Glory, 78.