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  • Pharisee Nation

    John Dear


    Last September, I spoke to some 2,000 students during their annual lecture at a Baptist college in Pennsylvania. After a short prayer service for peace centered on the Beatitudes, I took the stage and got right to the point. "Now let me get this straight," I said. "Jesus says, 'Blessed are the peacemakers,' which means he does not say, 'Blessed are the warmakers,' which means, the warmakers are not blessed, which means warmakers are cursed, which means, if you want to follow the nonviolent Jesus you have to work for peace, which means, we all have to resist this horrific, evil war on the people of Iraq."

    With that, the place exploded, and 500 students stormed out. The rest of them then started chanting, "Bush! Bush! Bush!"

    So much for my speech. Not to mention the Beatitudes.

    I was not at all surprised that George W. Bush was reelected president. As I travel the country speaking out against war, injustice and nuclear weapons, I see many people consciously siding with the culture of war, choosing the path of violence, supporting corporate greed, rampant militarism, and global domination. I see many others swept up in the raging current of patriotism. Since most of these people, beginning with the president, claim to be Christian, I am ashamed and appalled that they support war and systemic injustice, that they do it in the name of God, and that they feign fidelity to the nonviolent Jesus who gave his life resisting institutionalized injustice.

    I am reminded of Flannery O'Connor's great book, "Wise Blood," where her outrageous character Hazel Motes is so fed up with Christian hypocrisy that he forms his own church, the "Church of Christ without Christ," "where the lame don't walk, the blind don't see, and the dead don't rise." That's where we are headed today.

    I used to think these all-American Christians never read the Gospel, that they simply chose not to be authentic disciples of the nonviolent Jesus. Now, alas, I think they have indeed chosen discipleship, but not to the hero of the Gospels, Jesus. Instead, through their actions, they have become disciples of the devout, religious, all-powerful, murderous Pharisees who killed him.

    A Culture of Pharisees

    We have become a culture of Pharisees. Instead of practicing an authentic spirituality of compassion, nonviolence, love and peace, we as a collective people have become self-righteous, arrogant, powerful, murderous hypocrites who dominate and kill others in the name of God. The Pharisees supported the brutal Roman rulers and soldiers, and lived off the comforts of the empire by running an elaborate banking system which charged an exorbitant fee for ordinary people just to worship God in the Temple. Since they taught that God was present only in the Temple, they were able to control the entire population. If anyone opposed their power or violated their law, the Pharisees could kill them on the spot, even in the holy sanctuary.

    Most North American Christians are now becoming more and more like these hypocritical Pharisees. We side with the rulers, the bankers, and the corporate millionaires and billionaires. We run the Pentagon, bless the bombing raids, support executions, make nuclear weapons and seek global domination for America as if that was what the nonviolent Jesus wants. And we dismiss anyone who disagrees with us.

    We have become a mean, vicious people, what the bible calls "stiff-necked people." And we do it all with the mistaken belief that we have the blessing of God.

    In the past, empires persecuted religious groups and threatened them into passivity and silence. Now these so-called Christians run the American empire, and teach a subtle spirituality of empire to back up their power in the name of God. This spirituality of empire insists that violence saves us, might makes right, war is justified, bombing raids are blessed, nuclear weapons offer the only true security from terrorism, and the good news is not love for our enemies, but the elimination of them. The empire is working hard these days to tell the nation--and the churches--what is moral and immoral, sinful and holy. It denounces certain personal behavior as immoral, in order to distract us from the blatant immorality and mortal sin of the U.S. bombing raids which have left 100,000 Iraqis dead, or our ongoing development of thousands of weapons of mass destruction. Our Pharisee rulers would have us believe that our wars and our weapons are holy and blessed by God.

    In the old days, the early Christians had big words for such behavior, such lies. They were called "blasphemous, idolatrous, heretical, hypocritical and sinful." Such words and actions were denounced as the betrayal, denial and execution of Jesus all over again in the world's poor. But the empire needs the church to bless and support its wars, or at least to remain passive and silent. As we Christians go along with the Bush administration and the American empire, we betray Jesus, renounce his teachings, and create a "Church of Christ without Christ," as Flannery O'Connor foresaw.

    Troublemaking Nonviolence, the Measure of the Gospel

    The first thing we Christians have to do in this time is not to become good Pharisees. Instead, we have to try all over again to follow the dangerous, nonviolent, troublemaking Jesus. I believe war, weapons, corporate greed and systemic injustice are an abomination in the sight of God. They are the definition of mortal sin. They mock God and threaten to destroy God's gift of creation. If you want to seek the living God, you have to pit your entire life against war, weapons, greed and injustice--and their perpetrators. It is as simple as that.

    Every religion, including Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, is rooted in nonviolence, but I submit that the only thing we know for sure about Jesus is that he was nonviolent and so, nonviolence is the hallmark of Christianity and the measure of authentic Christian living. Jesus commands that we love one another, love our neighbors, seek justice, forgive those who hurt us, pray for our persecutors, and be as compassionate as God. But at the center of his teaching is the most radical declaration ever uttered: "love your enemies."

    If we dare call ourselves Christian, we cannot support war or nuclear weapons or corporate greed or executions or systemic injustice of any kind. If we do, we may well be devout American citizens, but we no longer follow the nonviolent Jesus. We have joined the hypocrites and blasphemers of the land, beginning with their leaders in the White House, the Pentagon and Los Alamos.

    Jesus resisted the empire, engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience in the Temple, was arrested by the Pharisees, tried by the Roman governor and executed by Roman soldiers. If we dare follow this nonviolent revolutionary, we too must resist empire, engage in nonviolent civil disobedience against U.S. warmaking and imperial domination, and risk arrest and imprisonment like the great modern day disciples, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Philip Berrigan.

    If we do not want to be part of the Pharisaic culture and do want to follow the nonviolent Jesus, we have to get in trouble just as Jesus was constantly in trouble for speaking the truth, loving the wrong people, worshipping the wrong way, and promoting the wrong things, like justice and peace. We have to resist this new American empire, as well as its false spirituality and all those who claim to be Christian yet support the murder of other human beings. We have to repent of the sin of war, put down the sword, practice Gospel nonviolence, and take up the cross of revolutionary nonviolence by loving our enemies and discovering what the spiritual life is all about.

    Just because the culture and the cultural church have joined with the empire and its wars does not mean that we all have to go along with such heresy, or fall into despair as if nothing can be done. It is never too late to try to follow the troublemaking Jesus, to join his practice of revolutionary nonviolence and become authentic Christians. We may find ourselves in trouble, even at the hands of so-called Christians, just as Jesus was in trouble at the hands of the so-called religious leaders of his day. But this very trouble may lead us back to those Beatitude blessings.


    John Dear is a Jesuit priest and the author/editor of 20 books including most recently, "The Questions of Jesus" and "Living Peace" both published by Doubleday. He lives in New Mexico where he is working on a campaign to disarm Los Alamos. For info, see: www.johndear.org

    Published on Tuesday, February 15, 2005 by CommonDreams.org


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