KINGDOM ETHICS D A V I D P. G U S H E E
Toward an Ancient-Future Christian Public Witness My career in Christian public witness began 20 years ago when I moved my family to Philadelphia and settled into the basement offices of ESA. It was November 1990. Since then I have taken positions on issues ranging from the First Gulf War to Bill Clinton’s impeachment to the Iraq War to torture to climate change. Like Ron Sider and others who do similar work, I have done my best to bring Christian principles to bear as faithfully as possible on the issues of the moment. These days I am in a period of rethinking related to a current book project on the sanctity of human life. For this project, I am walking through the history of biblical, Christian, and Western thought. I am trying to pick up the thread of the development of this astonishingly important belief and to see how it works its way through the history of our churches and our cultures. I am also paying attention to those voices that have rejected and negated the idea at its very core. Currently I am completing a twochapter section related to the early history of Christian thought and practice as it pertains to life’s sacredness. I have reviewed the evidence of what the early church said and did and am now in that pivotal transition period when the church went from persecuted minority under Diocletian to established state religion under Theodosius. Of course everyone knows that Constantine’s purported conversion to Christianity in
312 AD was a critically important step in that fateful transition. One reason I am doing this project is that I want to return to the roots of Christian public witness for a surer grounding for what I am doing today. In a context in which American Christians seem so often to blow with the partisan political winds, I want very deep and strong roots in the holy texts and traditions of the church. I want to articulate what might be called an ancient-future public witness — a witness that stands in continuity with the most ancient Christian posture towards the world, which I believe is best suited to speak to American culture, both today and in the future. I decided this past year that I really had to read that part of ancient scriptural writing that made it into the Catholic canon but was excluded by Luther and
-VY[OYLLJLU[\YPLZ [OLJO\YJOYLQLJ[LK ISVVKZOLKHUKRPSSPUN the Protestants. Most of these works were written in Greek in the last two centuries of the era before Christ. They give us perhaps the best evidence of the religious and political environment facing the Jewish people in the era just before our Savior’s incarnation. In particular, I have spent many weeks reading the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees. They are filled with violence, articulated as a kind of holy defensive crusade against pagan oppressors of the Jewish people — and against Jewish apostates and collaborators. Against this backdrop, the New Testament and the authoritative writings of the first three centuries of the Christian church offer a truly astonishing counterwitness. Here is a body of literature that consistently offers and demands an absolute repudiation of the bloody killPRISM 2 0 1 0
ing so prevalent in every sector of the known world at the time. This apocalyptic spinoff of Judaism totally rejected the sacred violence of large parts of the Jewish scriptures.This growing religious movement in the Roman Empire completely refused the imperial violence daily present in the Pax Romana. The pull toward violence in that world — as in ours — was a seemingly irresistible force. “Everyone knew” that violence was required to resolve all kinds of human problems, from questions of political succession to keeping criminals in line. But for three centuries the church took a different path. The literary evidence left behind by the church bears ample witness to this rejection of bloodshed and killing, and contemporary non-Christian observers (often angrily) confirm this evidence. Rooted in the example of Jesus, who died for the world but would not kill for anyone, the early church followed his example even as pressure built for the numerically growing church to compromise. The commitment to nonviolence did not stand alone but was embedded in a broader narrative of what God was doing in the world through Christ and through the church.The church could not compromise its commitment to nonviolence without rejecting its own most basic understanding of its identity. After Constantine, the church suddenly accommodated to the violence of worldly politics. It sought to moderate that violence, but it no longer corporately rejected it. Three centuries of Christian moral teaching were set aside. I am now convinced that Christian public witness must return to its earliest roots. In fidelity to our ancient tradition, I know that I will never again endorse the shedding of blood. N David P. Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, Ga.