Speaking on the end of the age, Jesus said to the disciples, “Beware that no one leads you astray… you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed.” (Matthew 24:4-6) I can’t count the number of times in the last three weeks I have felt my iPhone ping with the latest update from The New York Times, alerting me to the developments in Ukraine. The images we’ve seen are haunting in the truest sense: fleeing refugees and sheltering civilians; airstrikes on non-military targets; smoldering buildings; smoke rising against a backdrop of the gilded onion domes of Orthodox churches; and dead children in the streets, their suitcases fallen beside them. Wars and rumors of wars, indeed.
People have shared with me they don’t believe the church should be political. But I fear if the church doesn’t have the courage to name evil and speak to the geopolitical crises of the day in the light of God’s liberating work in Christ, it doesn’t have a right to say much else. St. Paul made one of the most subversive political statements of the first century when he declared: Jesus is Lord. Is that really true? If Jesus is Lord, then that means Caesar (or is it Czar?) is not.
In the midst of all this, I’ve turned again to the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr to find perspective. Niebuhr, perhaps the most celebrated Christian ethicist of the 20th century, was a fierce defender of democracy, even as he critiqued the unquestioned patriotism and economic systems that sometimes accompany it. He wrote once, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” In acknowledging the fallible condition of humanity, he simultaneously names our ever-present obligation to work toward the good of all. Our freedom is a gift, in Christ and in the world, and we should work so that others might also be free.
Even as the work of democracy is about creating a just world, Niebuhr notes the peculiarity of religion in making it possible. Christianity possesses within itself what Niebuhr calls the sublime madness. St. Paul calls it the foolishness of the cross. According to Niebuhr, “justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and ‘spiritual wickedness in high places.’” Another way to say that might be that to follow in the way of Jesus is to trust in God’s seemingly harebrained, liberating, and subversive power. It is the way of David against Goliath, where what the world believes can’t happen, happens anyway. Giants are slain. Mountains move with faith the size of a mustard seed. The powerful are pulled down from their thrones. The poor and marginalized inherit the earth. And the dead live again.
If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not. That’s not just a threat to oligarchs and autocrats; that’s a demanding call placed on our lives to live like it’s true. May the fear of these days give way to the peace of the One who knows our days: that we might live with boldness in working to share that peace with a world in desperate need of it.