Title: A faithful remnant; or, On being part of a faithful remnant when your girlfriend insists upon packing heat.
Texts: Jeremiah 31:7-14
Date: January 3, 2010
Author: Chris Gooding
Prayer: O LORD of hosts, we recognize that we have often not been very good at explaining your work among your people, Israel. Help us to learn from the experience of your people as they lived in exile among the Babylonians. We also pray that you might give us the strength to hold to our convictions in a world that is quite often hostile to them. In all things, LORD, may we reflect the faithfulness of your Son, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, amen.
I met my friend Parker when I was an undergrad at Biola University. About a year after I met Parker (and about 4 years into my stint at an Anabaptist church in Long Beach), I started the rather interesting process of becoming a pacifist. Parker, like most people, was initially pretty skeptical about my non-violent convictions, and it took him probably about three years before he was won over to the idea that robust discipleship to Jesus entailed the renunciation of all forms of killing. But, eventually, Parker became a pacifist. And interestingly enough, he soon became painfully of aware of how much this put him at odds with certain segments of his church culture, which has neo-conservative elements. Soon after this transition, Parker started dating a girl named Ashley, who attended the same church. Ashley had very clearly defined ideals of what constituted “maturity,” and a commitment to non-violence just didn’t mesh well with these ideals. Ashley kept a revolver loaded with hollow-tipped bullets in her apartment at all times, in a location that was quite easily accessible. This was the only “responsible” thing to do, in her mind, as she thought of herself as constantly in danger of being assaulted in her rather upscale, low-crime-rate Huntington Beach apartment. I told Parker that it might be very “responsible” of him to never drop by her place unannounced. After a few months of dating, Ashley came to Parker and told him quite gravely, “You need to talk to my dad.” Parker was sure, by the tone of her voice, that he must be in trouble, but he didn’t exactly know why. So Parker goes and meets with her dad, and her dad opens with “We have something serious that we need to discuss: I hear you’re a pacifist.”
“Yes, sir,” Parker responds.
“You mean, you won’t kill anyone? Even to protect my daughter?” Dad asks.
“Well, I’ll protect her with my life if it comes to that, sir. But I won’t kill anyone.”
Parker then explained to him that he is simply trying his best to follow Christ in following through with this conviction, citing Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Ashley’s father came back at him by asking “What about David’s war campaigns? Or Joshua’s conquest narratives? The God of the Old Testament seems perfectly okay with violence.” In an interesting summation of the entirety of Biblical teaching, he concludes: “The Bible teaches you to defend ‘you and yours.’ To fail to defend your family with violence is a sin.”
Dad then proceeds to pose the following scenario to Parker: “What would you do if a violent person held Ashley at gunpoint?” Parker calmly explains that he doubts that the possibility for killing such an assailant to defend Ashley would ever realistically occur, as he never walks around carrying a lethal weapon on his person.
“Why not?” Dad responds.
Parker is a bit taken aback by this. “What do you mean, sir?” he asks.
“Well, I have a concealed carry permit. I carry a gun on me at all times. I even carry it with me to the supermarket. Why don’t you get one?”
Parker was too shocked to give an adequate response to this. Dad thereafter determined that Parker’s unwillingness to procure this concealed carry permit definitively demonstrated that he was not mature enough to date his daughter. And so, because Ashley values her father’s opinion quite highly, their relationship ended then and there.
Shortly after this happened, I sat down with Parker, and he related the incident to me. Dumbfounded, he said to me, “I can understand Christian communities having to pay a cost for pacifist convictions when their country is at war and a draft is in effect. But quite frankly, I never saw having to pay a cost in my romantic life for them. I never thought that my Christian girlfriend would break up with me over my religious convictions.”
At the time, I chuckled, and half-joked that I was sure his reward in heaven would be greater for it.
Two things stand out about this incident that I think are quite interesting. First, Parker learned that living as a part of a religious minority with convictions quite different from the majority religious community often sucks. The incident stands as a firm reminder that, though it may not be as costly for us to follow through on many of our convictions as it has been for certain Christian groups that have gone before us, even adherence to the (perhaps meager-seeming) guidelines expected of members of the Mennonite Church USA in the “Statement of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective” on such things as non-resistance, singleness and marriage, and Christian stewardship are sometimes enough to provoke suspicion, marginalization, perhaps even hostility. This can be exacerbated if, like I do, you sometimes feel like you’re not doing particularly well at upholding some of these convictions (To put it frankly, I wonder if some of my consumer choices over the holiday upheld the “Christian stewardship” section). The temptation for assimilation is quite strong.
The second thing that stands out to me is that Ashley’s dad had his finger on something that is quite deeply ingrained in a common Christian view about the Old Testament (and by extension, about Judaism). The idea is that the Old Testament is quite violent and is predominated by military campaigns, capital punishment, and bloody retribution. This assumption is taken up frequently both by Christians defending Parker’s position and by Christians defending Ashley’s dad’s position. For those defending Parker’s position, the assumption is often that the God of the Old Testament allowed and even at times mandated violence, but that age is now over with, having been superseded by Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. More commonly, however, the “inherently violent” nature of the Old Testament is used in the way Ashley’s dad deployed it: it is used as a justification to overrule Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. Either way, if such a view is combined with a static conception of Judaism (the idea that Judaism has essentially remained unchanged since the first century), the resulting Jewish stereotypes can become quite ugly.
Interestingly, our passage from Jeremiah for today speaks to both issues, though it may not seem so at first glance. In order to see how this is so, we must first back up a few chapters, to chapter 29. In chapter 29, Jeremiah drafts a letter that is sent to the Jewish elders, priests, prophets, and all people taken into exile. They are directed by the LORD to “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the LORD.”
In other words, the Israelites are instructed to sit tight and settle down in exile in Babylon: they will be in it for the long haul. In fact, they will be in it for “70 years” (in other words, an indefinite, but certainly long, period of time). During this time, they are neither politically nor militarily independent (in other words, they are without Jerusalem, and without the Temple). They are to seek the good of the city, but they are to do so without taking up the sword. To seek to prematurely leave by their own efforts, by grabbing at national sovereignty by taking up the sword, as certain prophets were prophesying, will bring down divine chastisement. This model of life in the Diaspora, of living as “a remnant” would become the normative model of Jewish existence taken up by Rabbinic Judaism, that strain of Judaism finding its origins in roughly the second century, and extending through the medieval period. Modern Jews trace their lineage back to this grouping of rabbis. In other words, for the majority of their history, Jews have refused the sword in self-defense: they have effectively been pacifists due to their divinely mandated sociological and political arrangement.
John Howard Yoder captures this well in a passage so provocative that it is worth quoting at length: “Generally, Jewish ethics can be characterized as never justifying violence. It makes much of frequent non-violent martyrs who did not fight back against their persecutors. God might be chastising them at the hand of their persecutors, and in any case, only God can save. Theirs is a story of frequent emigration and occasional prosperity and privilege after the model of Joseph and Daniel. Judaism successfully kept its identity without ever using the sword; it kept its community solidarity without ever possessing national sovereignty. In other words, medieval Judaism demonstrated the sociological viability of the ethic of Jesus. In terms of actual ethical performance, Judaism represents the most important medieval sect living the ethic of Jesus under Christendom. Jews were granted exemption from becoming “Christian” because of the racism and anti-Judaism of official Christianity. Their story thereby demonstrates inadvertently that the way to be a Christian sectarian minority is to live without the sword. Judaism lived from the conviction of the sovereignty of God. Because God is sovereign, God’s people let God work. If God wants to save God’s people, God will. If God wants to chastise them, they should not try to defend themselves.”
This insight is important to keep in mind as we approach chapter 31: our passage for today could be misread in very violently Zionist tones. It does imagine the promised return from exile, but it is important to note that at all points in this vision, it is God who is the actor and deliverer, not armed human beings. The LORD saves the remnant. The LORD gathers them from the farthest parts of the earth. The LORD ransoms Jacob. It is not through armed violence that the innocent are freed from their captivity.
This insight became an important part of Rabbinic Judaism’s interpretation of its own history. This is evident already in the Biblical narrative: there exists a general skepticism toward the role of king in parts of Judges, in Samuel, and in Chronicles. That Israel wanted “a king like other nations” was a deep sign of unfaithfulness. Rabbinic Jews came to see Jewish revolt and rebellion in the same terms: the failure of popular Jewish uprisings against the Greeks and Romans (such as the Maccabean revolt, the debacle at Masada, the various Zealot campaigns and the Bar Kochba revolt) failed precisely because God rejected their methodology: the Zealot path is wrong, and in not blessing their path, God is saying something that God has said more than once in history, and should not have to say again. Ashley’s dad was wrong: God does not want you to defend “you and yours” at all costs. Rabbi Steven Swartzchild suggests that this insight is even reflected in the Jewish canon: while the books of Maccabees may be in some Christian canons, they are not in the Jewish canon. The reason is that the path of the Maccabees has been proven to be divinely condemned.
Now, many have criticized Schwarzchild and Yoder by pointing out that an abstraction like “pacifism” just cannot be culled from rabbinic teaching: it just isn’t there. This is a fair criticism, but I think Yoder’s accolades about rabbinic faithfulness in the medieval period are generally accurate, and it is true that a clear bent toward a less violent interpretation of Israel’s Scriptures can be found in rabbinic writings, due largely to their divinely mandated “remnant” existence. As I discovered firsthand through my midrash courses taken with Rabbi Steven Sager at Duke, the Babylonian Talmud and Rabbinic records of halakah (applied law) are full of instances where they downplay the conquests of Joshua, interpret the violence out of the Deborah story, and practically override the capital punishment of the Mosaic law by using other parts of Scripture to amplify the rules of evidence. All of this is prompted by interpretation that is internal to the Old Testament, without a non-violent New Testament exercising “outside pressure” to reinterpret these events and legal codes in a non-violent light. And this is what we ought to expect. It is important to remember that Jesus portrays himself in Matthew as fulfilling, not abolishing, the law: he is authoritatively expositing the Law, not overriding the dictates of a God who originally instituted an ethic drastically opposed to his own. “The law indeed was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” as our John passage for today puts it, can thus be read as a statement of completion, rather than displacement.
The rabbis were fully aware, however, that suffering sometimes comes upon the remnant, not because of their unfaithfulness, but because of unjust treatment at the hands of evildoers. In such cases, suffering is unjust, but still serves a place in the divine economy in that it “sanctifies the name of the LORD,” as the rabbis put it. It is often difficult to determine the difference between suffering brought as correction, suffering brought about to strengthen character, and suffering that is undeserved. Thus, even in cases where suffering is brought about unjustly, the people of God do not have the right to take their survival into their own hands. The rabbis believed that God preserves the existence of Israel, and is faithful to continue doing so. Israel does not preserve her own existence. That is what living as a faithful remnant means.
Now, it is true that this insight can be used negatively against modern Jews, and should probably be avoided in conversations about the Holocaust. Additionally, it is clear that the modern state of Israel has little compunction against defending itself violently, and its supporters would likely dispute the interpretation of Jewish history that I have given above. Rabbi Schwarzchild, as an insider, is able to point out that current Israeli military policies are drawn far more from the desire to “be like other nations” than from rabbinic teaching in ways that I, as an outsider, cannot. However, the point I am trying to make is not about what the rabbis can teach modern Jews, but rather, what they can teach us as Mennonites. As a faithful remnant, they compel us to read the Old Testament far more closely, attentive to the subtle critiques of violent self-defense that are exercised throughout Israel’s history. This is where I obviously failed in teaching Parker to have non-violent convictions. The rabbis also teach us to see any marginalization we might experience as faithfulness to God’s plan. It is no accident that John portrays Jesus as “coming to his own, yet his own did not accept him” in the Gospel passage for today. His suffering and marginalization was an expected part of sanctifying the name of the LORD. So far as we are faithful, we should not expect a different fate.
Being part of a remnant sometimes is quite difficult, as I mentioned that Parker found out firsthand. Though Parker’s sacrifice might be small in comparison with that of the rabbis in the medieval period, or Jesus, or many others who have been faithful to the call of God in the face of persecution, nevertheless, I would like to think that, for holding his ground in the face of the temptation to accept the paranoia of the culture around him, in some small way, Parker sanctified the name of the LORD.
Appendix: Midrash on Deut. 21.18-22.
 John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, p. 140.