Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 6, 1987, p. 453. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The United Methodist Bishop’s pastoral letter on peace, In Defense of Creation, is theologically flawed and focuses too much on mere survival. Resisting the historic Wesleyan emphasis on sanctification — making better people — they take up a more acceptable activism — doing effective politics. Jesus called us to a change of heart and life — but now it’s enough, it seems, simply to be politically effective. Politics has become our only means of transcendence.
Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, . . . famines and pestilences, and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. . . . do not be terrified. .. . This will be a time for you to bear testimony [Luke 21:5-19].
Tourists from everywhere shuffle by my window 365 days a year, having come to admire the beauty of this neo-Gothic cathedral amid North Carolina pines. Why do so many thousands come to see Duke Chapel? My guess is that it’s because in a world of disposable diapers, non-returnable soft-drink bottles, throw-. away cartons, biodegradable shopping bags and plastic everything, it is reassuring to encounter something substantial. So much that surrounds us is so transitory. Everything changes, decays, is tossed on the garbage heap of time, but this place — eternal-looking, serene, with stone upon stone, arch upon arch — shall last. Or so it seems.
"Tourists" of another time — the disciples — were walking by the temple in Jerusalem one day, admiring its massive beauty. So many stones. Arches upon arches. Jesus then came out of the temple, and the disciples approached him to give him a tour of the temple buildings. But Jesus, who was their guide on a tour to a land called Truth, said, "The days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down" (Matt. 24:1-2)
It must have been difficult for the disciples to conceive that Herod’s great temple, one of the wonders of the world, would be torn down, stone by stone, until it was nothing but a heap of rubble. Such a thing was unimaginable. The temple, the very center of national life and pride, the very seat of God, destroyed? Unthinkable!
Yet that is what Jesus told the disciples about this supposedly eternal temple of God, and barely 40 years after he spoke these words it lay in ruin. Jesus’ words rang true:
"Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences; . . . terrors, . . . great signs."
We are unaccustomed to hearing such talk around places like Duke Chapel. Most mainline, liberal religion — of the sort preached from my limestone pulpit — has had as its goal adjustment to and satisfaction with the present order rather than speculation or concern about the future. Some of our best biblical scholars have enabled us to read passages like Luke 21 without having to take them seriously. But talk about such biblical texts and about the end of the world is no longer the sole property of late-night radio preachers and shouting Bible-pounders. Even United Methodist bishops speak of apocalypse now. Their recent pastoral, in Defense of Creation, warns that we live in a fearful time when all creation is threatened. The bishops foretell a nuclear apocalypse that would entail "incredible fire storms," and in which "hundreds of tons of sooty smoke would absorb so much of the sun’s rays that only five per cent of the normal amount of light would reach the earth. . . . all land plants would be damaged or destroyed, temperatures [would] plummet for several months, . . . All biological life on planet earth would be gravely threatened’ (p. 7) We hold the powers of life and death within our hands, declare the bishops. Our nuclear weapons could destroy every living thing upon the earth. The end is near, they say, and the doomsday clock is ticking — if we don’t take matters into our own hands and work for peace. "Only an informed and caring citizenry can stand in the way of such power to destroy" (p. 7)
Ironically, however, it is just that sort of thinking that may have gotten us into this nuclear madness in the first place. The theological presuppositions behind the bishops’ call for peace are flawed. To put it another way: the people who believe that the bomb is our only hope and the people who believe that doing away with the bomb is our only hope have much in common. As Christopher Lasch remarks in The Minimal Self (Norton, 1984) , the modern world makes "survival artists" of us all. Fearful about the water we drink, the air we breathe, the great mushroom cloud looming over us, we get by as best we can and grab what we can. And when you are very frightened, you tend to hold on very tightly — even to things that do not last.
Those ancient words from Luke sound so foreign to our ears, so primitive with their prediction of wars and rumors of wars, of stones upturned, of pestilence and signs from heaven. Yet, strangely enough, we are coming to believe them.
Jesus says, "As for these things which you see, the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down." And we say, "Jesus, we believe you. Though there may be many who do not believe in you, we all believe you — nuclear winter, ecological disaster, thinning ozone, shrinking resources, exploding populations — tell us about it!"
When asked about possibilities for the future, about prospects for tomorrow, Jesus responded frankly, saying that, for us, there will be an end — stones cast down, famine, pestilence, terrors, signs from heaven. It’s in the Bible: the end is near. And because of our bomb, and Carl Sagan’s bleak predictions for the future, it’s in us. The nuclear threat has put us in a unique position: we may be the first generation in a long time to understand Jesus on the subject of the end.
Despite Jesus’ predictions, however, the world did not come to an end during his own generation. The temple was destroyed, yes, but not the whole world. The world went on. Paul told early Christians not to marry, not to worry about whether they were slave or free because this world was soon to end. But it didn’t. So Paul was wrong, too. The end did not come in A.D. 70 when the temple was destroyed, or when the Roman Empire fell. There have been wars and rumors of wars, but still the world endures. The end has not come. Jesus said that the end was here, but it wasn’t.
Quite the contrary. It is the Christian belief that we have already seen "the end," that the world has come to a decisive crisis in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. In his death, the entire history of the universe has reached a turning point. At that moment, when he was nailed to a cross, the conflict between life and death, good and evil, God and Caesar was resolved in favor of God’s lordship over existence. A new Kingdom was established — a Kingdom not dependent on whether we work out a mutually verifiable arms freeze with the Kremlin, but one based on what God has done and is doing for us and the world rather than on what we do.
Jesus admonishes, "When you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified." But how is it possible to think of the future and not be terrified? Robert J. Lifton calls it "nuclear numbness’ ‘ — paralysis brought on by terror of the future. Not to be terrified is possible only for those who are convinced that something decisive has happened in the life and death of Christ, that God has entered our world and — despite what we do with the world — will not desert us. There is no way to think about the future realistically without thinking with faith in the fact of God’s loving grasp on the future.
So much of our current thought about war — and peace — arises from our terror rather than from our faith. You may criticize the Pentagon’s Dr. Strangelove generals, but are they so different from the peace activists? Why wasn’t there a peace movement in 1946? The bomb existed in 1946; why weren’t the United Methodist and Roman Catholic bishops protesting it then? Because it was our bomb. There were ripples of concern when they got the bomb, but we were still convinced of our survivability. By the mid-1980s it had finally dawned on us that our government could no longer protect us from nuclear annihilation, that we could no longer survive such a cataclysm. Suddenly, peace made sense. So the United Methodist bishops reject the traditional just-war argument because "we are convinced that no. . . use of nuclear weapons offers any reasonable hope of success" (p. 13) If we don’t get peace, what might happen to us? We might not survive, the end might come — and then where would we be? As the prophets of old said, not everyone who cries "peace, peace" is talking about God’s peace.
"The American and Soviet peoples share a common humanity, a common aversion to war, a common horror of nuclear weapons, and a common hope for their economic and social well-being" (p. 17) , the bishops affirm. Let it also be said that we share a common idolatry, a common desire to save our own hides no matter what.
If we could only get the Russians to agree to peace. What will happen to us, Margaret Thatcher wants to know, if the U.S. negotiates away its missiles on British soil? But we aren’t too worried about the British. It’s our hides that concern us. We have lived quite nicely for 40 years with Eastern Europe enslaved, but we have had peace. We want peace, and so do the Soviets — to be left at peace to run the world on our terms. Get that bomb away from Israel or Pakistan — it might disturb our peace. Without peace, our peace, how can we survive?
After the failure of the Reykjavik summit a woman wrote to me to say how deeply depressed she was over the failure of President Reagan to win peace in our time. "These two leaders held the fate of the world in their hands. They had the power to enable me to put my child to bed secure tonight." It has at last come to that. The hopes of all the world are on the shoulders of men like Reagan and Gorbachev.
Jesus, when questioned about peace, was up-front about it: You will have no peace; there will be wars and rumors of wars, tumults, signs from above — but do not be terrified. Peace based on a desire for mere survival can be idolatrous, can be unjust in our acceptance of some lesser evil — the enslavement of Eastern Europe, a totalitarian government, a monolithic defense establishment — in the name of security and order. As Luther said, security is the ultimate idol. the bishops state that "our No to nuclear war and weapons is more than a matter of ethical calculation. It is a refusal to participate in that nuclear idolatry that presumes to usurp the sovereignty of the God of shalom" (pp. 34-35) But does another idol lurk behind this call for peace? A peace movement arising out of terror is as idolatrous as peace based on the bomb. Jesus was put to death by a politician who wanted peace with justice, and Caiphas noted that one man’s death was not too great a price for peace in our time.
That great theologian General Alexander Haig once said that "there are worse things than a nuclear war’ ‘ — a stupid statement, yet in a sense it represents what Christians believe.
"My peace I give to you," said Jesus, "not as the world gives peace" (John 14:27) The peace we should desire is that peace, his peace. And it is only God’s to give, for it is based on the recognition that it is not our task to make history come out right or to save the world — through either our bombs or our peace — because, in Jesus Christ, history has already come out right. We have already seen the end.
The bishops do not have to construct for us a future out of our fears. The quest for peace should begin not with talk of nuclear numbness but with repentance for our gospel numbness. Christians can and should work for peace. But we work as those who know something about the end — something which the world may not know. Jesus wept that Jerusalem did not know the "things that make for peace" (Luke 19:41-44) As Jesus says, frightening times like ours are a "time for you to bear testimony." It is time for us to help clarify the moral issues that are at stake in our desire for peace.
There can be no better work for us than — in our own way, in our own place — to testify to the fact that God rules the world; nations do not. History has already come out right, for the lordship of Christ has been established. There is only one thing that lasts in this world. There is only one truth which is sure. And there is only one name wherein is our hope.