God's Politics

“What do you think of that man?” the old guy asked in a raspy voice as I settled in next to him on the plane. He pointed to the face of Saddam Hussein on the front of his newspaper with a headline story of the looming execution. I gathered myself, and prepared for what could turn out to be a rather chatty plane ride. I replied gently, “I think that man needs some love.” And the rather boisterous gentleman sat still, perhaps not exactly the response he predicted. Then he said pensively, “Hmmmm. I think you’re right…” And finally, he whispered in a forlorn tone, “And it is hard to communicate love through a noose.”

Sometimes we just need permission to say, “It’s not okay to kill someone to show everyone how much we hate killing.” As Christian artist Derek Webb sings, ” Peace by way of war is like purity by way of fornication. It’s like saying murder is wrong and showing them by way of execution.” I am encouraged by how many Christians I hear voicing an alternative to the myth of redemptive violence in light of the recent killing of Saddam, folks who love Jesus and have the unsettling feeling that Jesus loves evildoers so much he died for them, for us. I have heard many evangelicals who see Saddam’s execution as the ultimate act of hopelessness and faithlessness – after all it is humanity stepping in to make the final judgment, that this human created in God’s image is beyond redemption. And for those who believe in hell, executing someone who may not yet know of the love and grace of Christ is doubly offensive.

It is rather scandalous to think that we have a God who loves murderers and terrorists like Saul of Tarsus, Osama bin Laden, or Sadaam Hussein – but that is the “good news” isn’t it? It’s the old eye for an eye thing that gets us. But the more I’ve studied the Hebrew Scriptures the more I am convinced that this was just a boundary for people who lashed back. As the young exodus people are trying to discover a new way of living outside the empire, God made sure there were some boundaries, like if someone breaks your are, you cannot go back and break their arm and their leg. If someone kills hundreds of your people, you cannot kill 160,000 of theirs.

We’ve learned the eye for an eye thing all too well. A shock and awe bombing leads to a shock and awe beheading. A Pearl Harbor leads to a Hiroshima. A murder leads to an execution. A rude look leads to a cold shoulder. An eye for an eye we have indeed heard before and learned its logic all too well. But Jesus comes declaring in his State of the Union Sermon on the Mount address (Matthew 5): “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,'” but there is a another way. No wonder Jesus wept over Jerusalem because the people “did not know the things that make for peace.”

Gandhi and King used to say, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the whole world blind” (and with dentures). The gospels tell the story of a group of people who have dragged forward an adulteress and are ready to stone her (this was the legal consequence). Jesus is asked for his support of this death penalty case. His response is this… “You are all adulterers. If you have looked at someone lustfully, you have committed adultery in your heart.” And the people drop their stones and walk away with their heads bowed. We want to kill the murderers, and Jesus says to us: “You are all murderers. If you have called your neighbor ‘Raca, Fool’ you are guilty of murder in your heart.” Again the stones drop. We are all murderers and adulterers and terrorists. And we are all precious.

When we have new eyes we can look into the faces of those we don’t even like, and see the One we love. We can see God’s image in everyone we encounter. As Henri Nouwen puts it: “In the face of the oppressed I recognize my own face and in the hands of the oppressor I recognize my own hands. Their flesh is my flesh, their blood is my blood, their pain is my pain, their smile is my smile.” We are made of the same dust. We cry the same tears. No one is beyond redemption and no one is beyond repute. And that is when we are free to imagine a revolution that sets both the oppressed and the oppressors free. The world is starving for grace. And grace is hard to communicate with a noose.

Shane Claiborne is a founding partner of The Simple Way Community, a radical faith community that lives among and serves the homeless in Kensington, North Philadelphia. He is a Red Letter Christian and the author of The Irresistible Revolution.

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