#faithseeking: on not learning war


it’s a cliché for church people to bang on about how Advent is a season for sober reflection on the world and for pondering judgement, and how awful it is that (despite the calendars) most people skip it and jump straight into the high-spirit of Christmas festivities – boo consumerism, boo Coca-Cola, etc. however, despite it often coming across as snooty and somewhat sour, there is a point to this kind of grumbling.

our nativity: a Peruvian holy family, tiny toy animals & Rod & Todd Flanders (as shepherds, not Jedi)

just like how the celebration of life and bounty at Easter only really makes sense when preceded by Lenten fasting, so Advent properly contextualizes Christmas. moreover, given the way that most of us in the West live in relative plenty (from a global perspective), and Christmas will likely mean even more luxury than usual, it is perhaps more important than ever for the Church to take the discipline and witness of Advent seriously.

judgement, however, is not something that many christians find easy to reflect on. unless (as tragically some do) you take sadistic glee from the idea of some sort of fiery after-life torment awaiting the impious, then perhaps, like me, you tend to think of it as one of the more troubling aspects of the christian tradition.

magicians journey from the East (the TV)

what helpful sense can we make of judgement if we wish to reject the idea of God as a giant, bewigged Lord Justice poised to slap down his massive gavel and pronounce as many people guilty as possible and then punish them horribly? (and yes, i am aware that judges don’t really use gavels, but it’s an undeniably evocative part of the social imagination.)

in addition to my wariness, i also find some satisfaction in the (logical) notion that without judgement there can be no justice. justice, as i understand it, is not primarily about the punishment of criminals, but about that which makes for a flourishing society. those who transgress the boundaries of what is held to represent ‘the common good’, must both be held accountable for their selfishness, quiescence or general dereliction of duty, and offered restoration to and reintegration into the fractured community.

in the same way that justice is about hope for a better future, a future in which the things which spoil the present have been eradicated, judgement is the assurance that, regardless of wealth and influence, wrongs do not go unnoticed, and that there is a mechanism for the realization of our hopes for a better world.

given that there is nothing new about this insight and many other cleverer people than me have thought all this through before, it is no coincidence that the Hebrew Bible lesson for today came from the opening lines of First Isaiah’s vision of restoration:
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established
as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the
God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in
his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of
the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall
arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword
against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
(Isa. 2.1-5)

this profound conception of judgement does not focus on punishment, but on arbitration and the establishment of peace. Advent is really about looking at the world, and attending to the reality of its brokenness and partiality, but also finding consolation and strength for the works of mercy and justice that must be done in the idea that arbitration and restoration are possible; indeed, that they define the shape of the future.

my favourite part of Isaiah’s vision is the way he understands a peaceful world as one where people do not learn not to war, but rather where they stop learning war. for Isaiah, unlike Hobbes, the ‘natural’ state is not “bellum omnium contra omnes”, but a world in which if people want to fight, they must first learn so to do. the prophet draws on an aspect of the Hebrew anthropological tradition that understands violence as a corrosive, contagious corruption of, but not fundamental to, the human nature.

in this sense, Isaiah’s words prefigure those of John Lennon. the gaunt, four-round-eyed scouser, is not someone that i would usually celebrate as a serious thinker, let alone a source of religious wisdom. however, as the writings of Karl Marx demonstrate most profoundly, for many people atheism never quite manages to get in the way of theological insight. Lennon made “War is over, if you want it” the refrain of a whiny Christmas song – however, while this sentiment is in no sense out of place at Christmas, it might be that the truth of that line would find its proper home in an Advent carol.

Advent prepares us through its disciplines (such as should always precede a feast) and by calling us to reflect on what manner of world we live in and what manner we strive for, but, most importantly, it shows us that the real mystery of Christmas is that there might be some relationship between a grand, cosmic vision of a God who judges, intercedes for and restores the world (such as we find in First Isaiah) and a small, screaming baby clasped in the terrified and joyful arms of a young couple, huddled with steaming animals beneath an unfamiliar roof in an occupied city two millennia ago.

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  • Comments (3)
    • AndyR
    • November 28th, 2010

    If this is true I am a very lucky man.

    • Ramping
    • November 29th, 2010

    Dude. I love mince pies so much I felt moved to write a response.


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