#23  What We Do Is More Important than What We Believe

ORTHODOXY IS A WORD that has had a long and checkered history in the two-millennia-long story of the Christian faith. While the idea of orthodoxy was not completely absent even in New Testament times,[1] the emphasis on the importance of orthodoxy was not prevalent in Christianity until the fourth century. The Ecumenical Councils of the church, beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325, composed creeds which were intended to separate orthodoxy from heresy. More precisely, the religious and political leaders sought to remove those deemed to be heretics from the orthodox within the Church. Continue reading “#23  What We Do Is More Important than What We Believe”

#22  Jesus Expects His Followers to be Peacemakers

ORIGINALLY, THIS WAS NOT one of the chapters planned for this book. But in the process of writing the previous chapter, I became aware of how closely related are the ideas of simple living and peacemaking. In looking back at exemplary Christians through the centuries, most of those most interested in simple living were also interested in peacemaking, and many of those most interested in peacemaking were also interested in simple living.

In that connection, through the years I have also become increasingly cognizant of how there seems to be a significant economic factor behind most major historical events, including, and especially, wars. In spite of all the high-sounding rhetoric, wars are almost always fought for economic reasons, at least in part.

In his State of the Union message in January 2002, President George W. Bush referred to three countries as “the axis of evil.” Those three countries were Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. The next year war was launched against Iraq, and there have been repeated rumblings about a future war against Iran. While the government of North Korea has often been renounced, however, until briefly in 2017 there has been little talk of going to war against that country. What is the difference? It is hard to deny that the abundance of oil in the Middle East and the scarcity of oil in North Korea was likely the major reason Iran and Iraq were targeted and North Korea was not.

If population pressures, the need for natural resources, the desire for markets are all factors lying behind most wars (a generalization that, admittedly, some historians would disagree with), it is not hard to understand that an emphasis on simple living is closely related to peacemaking.

St. Francis Again

Murray Bodo is a Franciscan priest and the author of several books about Francis of Assisi.  His best-selling book is Francis, the Journey and the Dream, which has sold over 200,000 copies.[1] When I read that book a few years ago, I was most impressed with the chapter called “Francis before the Sultan.” It is a historical fact that Francis participated in the fifth crusade, first called for by Pope Innocent III, the pope that blessed Francis in their historic encounter before the papal throne in 1209. Ten years later, in the midst of the crusade, Francis went to Egypt, the main site of the fighting, and ended up having another historic encounter, this time with Malik al-Kamil, the Sultan of Egypt and the leader of the Muslim forces fighting against the Christians.

Bodo conjectures that it was there before the powerful Islamic leader that Francis voiced his widely-known and oft-quoted prayer that begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” Whether Francis actually was able to articulate that prayer before the sultan is not known, but it is quite certain that his purpose for risking his life to see the Muslim leader was with the intention of making peace. Following Jesus, for Francis, meant not only living a simple life but also seeking in every way possible to be a peacemaker.

Paul Moses, a journalist who became a university professor, has written The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace, a book about that dramatic meeting of Francis and Malik al-Kamil.[2] In his fascinating book, Moses mentions that Francis’ “devotion to Lady Poverty has always received more attention than his peacemaking efforts. The two, however,” he goes on to assert, “are closely linked since, as Francis knew, wars are so often fought for economic gain.”[3]

Francis did not succeed in ending the Fifth Crusade. But he did engage in a time of dialogue with the Muslim leader, talks that seem to have gone on for several days. And, as Moses significantly points out, Francis clearly showed Sultan al-Kamil “what it meant to be a true Christian, a holy person who truly believed Jesus’ call to love the enemy” (p. 145).

Peacemakers are not always successful, but as I discuss in a later chapter, the New Testament word for success is faithfulness. Francis was faithful to the teaching of Jesus. Today, many Christians seem to be more prone to follow the government’s call to war than Jesus’ call to peace. For Francis, though, following Jesus meant to go against the popes who had called for the crusade and against Cardinal Pelagius who was the hands-on leader of the Crusaders who fought in Egypt during the time Francis was there. [4] For Francis, following Jesus meant actively seeking to be an instrument of peace.

Other Examples from the Past

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there were others who believed, and lived, very much like Francis and his band of friars. One group centered around a man whose name is sometimes given as Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant in Lyon, France, who gave up his wealth and embraced a life of voluntary poverty.[5] His followers, who are known as Waldensians, came to be known not only for their simple lifestyle but also for their pacifism and their refusal to take oaths.

Centuries later, some Christians in and around Zurich, Switzerland, began to hold several views similar to those of the Waldensians (and similar also to those of Francis except for his loyalty to the Catholic Church). Simple living, refusal of oaths, and pacifism were key emphases of the “Swiss Brethren,” who in January 1525 performed the first baptism of adults who had already received infant baptism. This was the beginning of the movement of Christians who came to be called Anabaptists (meaning re-baptizers) by their opponents called.

In the present day, the Anabaptist tradition is most clearly seen in the Mennonite churches in the U.S. and other parts of the world. Named after the Dutch reformer Menno Simons,[6] this group rejected the extremes of some Anabaptists who used violence. Rather, they emphasized the pacifist position, and that has been a hallmark of their churches through the centuries. The Mennonites are one of the three so-called peace churches in the U.S.[7]

Peace Advocates in the Present

Although most Christians seemingly agree with the “just war” theory that goes back to the time of Augustine, there are now some Christians in many denominations who are outspoken opponents of war and ardent advocates of peace. This is true even for some who are members of the Roman Catholic Church, which has been the most heavily involved in “holy wars” in the past, particularly the Crusades from the end of the eleventh century until the thirteenth century. (Of course, until the sixteenth century there weren’t many other Christian groups.)

Before he converted to the Orthodox Church in 1988, Jim Forest was a Catholic for some twenty-five years, and during that time he founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship.[8] There were many notable Catholic pacifists before Forest, of course: one thinks particularly of Dorothy Day, founder of The Catholic Worker,[9] Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk,[10] and Daniel and Philip Berrigan, the pacifist Catholic priests who were often in the news during the Vietnam War.[11]

And the work for peace continues with the activities of younger Catholic peacemakers. One of the most active at this time is John Dear, a Jesuit priest, who was awarded the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in 2010.[12]

There are also a number of Christian peace groups, such as the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, to which I have belonged for many years. Members of these fellowships are not all pacifists, but all are committed to seeking non-violent ways to end regional, national, and international conflicts.

While first working on this chapter I made a blog posting on the “Top Ten Christians,” the people after New Testament and early church times, but now deceased, whom I at that time considered the “best” Christians in history. In looking back at that list, I realized that they all, to varying degrees, espoused Christian pacifism.

Then, I began thinking about composing a list of the “top ten” living Christians. In some ways, that was more difficult, but, again, for the most part those who made the list are strong opponents of war and are active in peace and justice activities.

To give just one example, two people I considered when I first started working on the latter list were Nelson Mandela (who was still alive) and Desmond Tutu. Those two South Africans were agents of peace and reconciliation in the midst of a harsh social system of oppression. Tutu, who became an Anglican archbishop, fully deserved the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 1984, as did Mandela, who was given the same award in 1993.

Mandela and Tutu are good examples of Christians who are living faithfully according to the teachings of Jesus Christ by seeking peace and reconciliation. They were active peacemakers in South Africa in much the same way the late Martin Luther King, Jr., was in the United States—and it is no surprise that King, too, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.[13]

Peacemaking as Love in Action

One of King’s notable books contains fifteen sermons published under the title Strength to Love.[14] Two sermons appearing early in the book are “Love in Action” and “Love Your Enemies,” and then the final sermon is “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.” Those sermons sum up well what everyone needs to realize about love, which is at the core of the Christian faith.

Christian pacifists, such as Francis of Assisi as well as the descendants of the Swiss Brethren and the other pacifistic Anabaptists, do not base their peacemaking activities upon the optimistic belief that people are basically good and that peace can result from that goodness if people just tap into it and talk to each other in a rational manner. No, Christian pacifism is primarily based on Jesus’ teachings about love.

Christian pacifism does not necessarily “work” in every case. You might say it didn’t “work” for Jesus. It didn’t work for numerous Christian martyrs through the centuries, people who out of obedience to Christ were willing to shed their own blood rather than to be engaged in killing other people. They took literally Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

And so to the present time, many of those who take Jesus’ teaching seriously refuse to support war, for they do not see how it would be possible to love their enemies if they were also seeking to kill them through warfare.

Christians often find themselves in a bind when they seek to follow Jesus’ teaching in a country that has declared war. Fortunately, this country has made allowance for “conscientious objectors,” but that is not an option for Christians in some countries—and it is not always easy to “get off the hook” that way in this country. And by “getting off the hook” I don’t mean to imply that no service is required of those who are pacifists. In lieu of military service, other types of activity are required, and generally positively embraced by COs.

There is one more important point that needs to be recognized here: pacifism does not mean “passivism,” and many peace activists talk about the necessity of waging peace.[15] Real peacemakers are not passive. They are not cowards who sit on the sidelines while others are out in the “real world” doing all the “dirty work.” People like Dorothy Day, M.L. King, Jr., John Dear, and many others have made it quite clear that peacemaking is hard, dangerous work. And most of the people who want to be “good” Christians fall far short of the example that people like them have set.

In a world where Christianity has often been entwined with war and warlike activities, in the past more than in the present, people like Day, King, and Dear challenge us to realize that Jesus expects his followers to be peacemakers. This is another “true thing” that everyone needs to recognize.

[1] (Second ed., Saint Anthony Messenger Press, 1988; first published in 1972). Bodo (b. 1937) became a Franciscan in 1955 and has been leading pilgrimages to Assisi since 1976.

[2] (Doubleday, 2009). Moses (b. 1948) joined the Journalism faculty at Brooklyn College in 2001.

[3] Pp. 37-38. Perhaps that was especially true of most wars during the Middle Ages, including the war between Assisi and Perguia, in which Francis had fought, and became a prisoner of, in 1202.

[4] Cardinal Pelagius (c.1165-1230) was the papal legate dispatched by Pope Honorius III to lead the Fifth Crusade at Damietta in Egypt; it is widely recognized that he made a poor strategic decision in turning down peace offers made by al-Kamil.

[5] Waldo’s dates are uncertain, but he was born around 1140 and probably died around 1218, although he may have died much earlier. He had gathered a large number of followers, sometimes called the Poor of Lyon, by 1170, more than a decade before Francis’ birth.

[6] Simons (1496-1561) was a Catholic priest who converted to the Anabaptist expression of Christianity in 1536.

[7] The other two are the Society of Friends (Quakers), whose beginning is traced back to George Fox in mid-seventeenth century England, and the Church of the Brethren, which originated in Germany in 1708 and is sometimes called the Dunkers or German Baptist Brethren. In the U.S., their Annual Conference of 1935 made the church’s position on pacifism clear by declaring that “all war is sin.” Currently, the Community of Christ (formerly the RLDS) is in the process of becoming a peace church.

[8] Forest (b. 1941) was also a key member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation for many years, including his service for more than a decade (1977-88) as Secretary General of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation.

[9] Day (1897-1980) started The Catholic Worker in the early 1930s, and she is another good example of one who greatly emphasized both justice for the poor and under-privileged people of society and world peace through non-violence.

[10] Merton (1915-68) grew increasingly insistent on nonviolence and peacemaking. David W. Givey’s revised book The Social Thought of Thomas Merton: The Way of Nonviolence and Peace for the Future (Anselm Academic, 2009) explores Merton’s evolution in that direction.

[11] Daniel (1921-2016) and Philip (1923-2002) were both Catholic priests who engaged in extensive nonviolent protests in opposition to the Vietnam War.

[12] Dear (b. 1959) has written some twenty-five books on peace and has been arrested at least seventy-five times for civil disobedience as he protested war and violence. He has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, including by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2008.

[13] When King (1929-1968) was awarded the Peace Prize in 1964, he was the youngest person to ever receive that prestigious award.

[14] First published in 1963, this book was re-issued by Fortress Press in 1981 with a foreword by Coretta Scott King, the widow of M.L. King, Jr.

[15] I first became aware of this idea probably in the late 1970s or early 1980s as it was an emphasis of Sojourners. Jim Wallis, founder and editor of that magazine, is also the editor of Waging Peace: A Handbook for the Struggle Against Nuclear Arms (Harper & Row, 1982).

#21 Too Little Is Almost Always Better than Too Much

MY CHILDREN PROBABLY DIDN’T appreciate me mentioning it so much, but from time to time I would say to them, “Too little is almost always better than too much.” That saying was not in harmony with the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, in which we were living then—or are living now. In the United States, as in most of the “developed world,” the winds of capitalism have blown over the land so strongly that, fanned by the ubiquitous commercials on television, radio, and newspapers, the desire of most people is for more and more material things.

Generally, people don’t like to think about or use the word greed, especially in referring to themselves, but upon careful analysis it is hard not to think that that word is applicable to much of the consumerism rampant in capitalist societies. Of course, greed means the excessive desire to acquire more, especially more and more material possessions, than what one needs. But the question is always about what is enough and what is, truly, excessive.

Compared to the vast majority of the people in the world, most of us middle-class people in North America, Europe, and Japan possess much more than we really need. And considering the sizeable portion of the world’s population who live in poverty, the middle class, to say nothing of the upper class, definitely have excessive possessions. (Of course, many of those middle-class people, especially in this country, have excessive debts as well.)

So it is in thinking about the problem of economic imbalance in the world, about matters of justice and equality, that led me to say to my children that too little is almost always better than too much. What seems like too little is usually enough; what is too much is usually wasteful and/or extravagant. Consuming too much is a problem for those who take seriously the words of the Bible admonishing people to love their neighbors as they love themselves.

The Extreme Example of St. Francis

One of my favorite people of all time is Francis of Assisi. As I write this, I am reflecting on my recent reading of some books about him. I am impressed all over again at the way Francis lived out of what he thought was obedience to the example and teaching of Jesus Christ. And for Francis that meant, among other things, a commitment to what he called Lady Poverty.

The Last Christian is a book I had heard of for years but just read for the first time shortly before initially writing this chapter.[1] The author’s point is that perhaps no one else before or after Francis ever lived so much like Jesus, so if following Jesus is what it means to be a Christian, perhaps he was, indeed, the last Christian.

Jesus said, in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, “Don’t worry and say, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ The people who don’t know God keep trying to get these things, and your Father in heaven knows you need them. Seek first God’s kingdom and what God wants. Then all your other needs will be met as well.”[2] Francis lived as though he really believed those words to be true.

Francesco Bernardone (1181/2-1226), whom we know as Francis of Assisi, grew up in an affluent home in central Italy. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant, and in his youth Francis enjoyed the “good life” that his father’s money made possible. But when he was in his early twenties, he decided that a life such as he had been living was not satisfactory. He felt that he must seek to live much differently.

Although it probably was not as dramatic as depicted in the movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,”[3] Francis’ break with his affluent lifestyle, which meant a break with his father and his abundance, was a “big deal.” And his “downsizing” was permanent. So his was, and is, a clarion call to a simple lifestyle.

Of course few, if any now, can live completely in the way Francis did. Even those of his own group during his lifetime, and especially those who lived later and came to be known as Franciscans, were not able to live as simply as Francis did. But Francis’ example has been influential among many people who have sought to live a simpler lifestyle than they previously lived and/or than most of the people around them live. They live more simply than would likely have been the case without Francis’ example.

So even though extreme, through the centuries and still today Francis of Assisi has helped many people to see that when it comes to material things, too little is almost always better than too much.

The Simple Living Movement

In the 1960s and 1970s there was considerable talk among some Christians about “simple living.” A prominent British missionary and theologian wrote a book published in 1975 called Enough Is Enough,[4] and another book I remember reading back then had the unlikely title No More Plastic Jesus.[5] One of the significant parts of the latter book is about the Shakertown Pledge, written in 1973, which includes the promise, “I commit myself to lead a life of creative simplicity and to share my personal wealth with the world’s poor.”

In addition to Francis, whom we have just considered, during that time some Christians, and Christian groups, who were rooted in the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century also made considerable emphasis on simple living. In the early 1970s, I first read, and was significantly influenced by, The New Left and Christian Radicalism, a small book by Arthur G. Gish.[6] Simple living, as well as pacifism, was a part of the focus of that powerful work. So in addition to opposition to the Vietnam War, which was a part of the emphasis of Gish’s work, along with some other Christians during that time I became quite interested in the simple living movement. That is when I first started saying to my children, “Too little is almost always better than too much.”

Also in the 1970s, “Live simply so that others may simply live” was a quite popular slogan in some circles.[7] The idea behind that statement, of course, is that those who voluntarily choose to live simply will have more resources to share with those who don’t have enough to live on.

There has been some emphasis on simple living in more recent years. For example, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Simple Living was published in 2000.[8] And even more recently, and more specifically related to Christianity, Francis Chan, the founding pastor of a megachurch in California, has written about the implications of loving others as self in his bestselling book Crazy Love.[9] But more than writing about that concept, which is so often talked about but rarely implemented to any significant degree by Christian preachers and others, Chan and his church have exemplified what that means in actual practice.

According to reports, Chan gives away about ninety percent of his income and has not received a salary from his church. In addition, by 2009 he had donated all of his book royalties, which totaled about $500,000, to various charities. Much of his charitable giving went to help rescue sex slaves in foreign countries. As for the church he founded, in 2008 it was reported that it would give away 55% of its income to charitable causes. The church also decided to build an amphitheater rather than go to the expense of erecting a large and expensive building.

David Platt, an even younger pastor, has written Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, which was a bestselling book in 2010[10] and even attracted the attention of the New York Times op-ed writer David Books.[11] One chapter of Platt’s challenging book is “How Much is Enough?” In that chapter he calls on readers to cap their lifestyle. He suggests that people live as if they made $50,000 a year and give everything else away.[12] There are, of course, many people in this country, and most people in most countries around the world, who would very much like to live on $50,000 a year but can’t—because their income is less (and often far, far less) than that. Still, for many people in this country to give away all above $50,000 a year would be a move in the right direction toward a simpler lifestyle.

Loving Neighbor as Self

The two examples given in the previous section make reference to loving one’s neighbor as oneself. But what does that really mean, and is that something that can actually be put into practice?

There are some secular people who try to implement simple living primarily for their own benefit. And it has to be recognized that from Francis of Assisi to Francis Chan part of the motivation of Christians to live simply has been for the sake of being freed of the burden of possessions, liberated to enjoy life more by focusing on non-material values. So, simple living is not completely for the purpose of helping others, although it invariably leads to that in most cases. In its most sublime form, simple living is primarily for the purpose of seeking to love neighbor as self.

And, still, there is the age-old question, “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus answered that question pretty well, saying in effect that one’s neighbor is anyone in need whom one has the opportunity of helping.[13] In response to the lawyer’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Then the lawyer, wanting to justify himself, asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded by what is usually called “the parable of the good Samaritan.” Someone has suggested that if he were telling that story in the U.S. today, Jesus might have told about the good Muslim. The point is that “neighbor” doesn’t refer to someone like us or someone who lives in our neighborhood. Our neighbor, according to Jesus, is someone in need that we have the means and opportunity to help. So in Jesus’ parable it was a Samaritan, a person who was generally looked down upon in Jewish society of that day, who was the one who acted neighborly.

Caring for the poor has a long history in the Christian church. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church makes the church’s position clear, saying that the church’s love for the poor “is a part of her constant tradition.” That love “is inspired by the Gospel of the Beatitudes, of the poverty of Jesus, and of his concern for the poor.” The same Catechism clearly declares, “Love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use,” and then it cites the stinging words of Archbishop John Chrysostom (c.349~407): “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life.”[14]

The language is not quite as strong, but centuries later Thomas Aquinas, the eminent thirteenth-century Catholic theologian, wrote, “One should not consider one’s material possessions as one’s own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.” Those words were cited by Pope Leo XII, who went on to declare, “But when what necessity demands has been supplied and one’s standing fairly provided for, it becomes a duty to give to the needy out of what remains over.”[15] By implication, not doing our duty to help the needy is the same as stealing from them.

There are many ways in the modern world that the rich steal from the poor, and over-consumption is one of those ways. That is the reason one of the things important for everyone to know now is that, when it comes to middle-class peoples’ use of material things, too little is almost always better than too much.

[1] (Doubleday & Co., 1980). Written by Austrian Catholic theologian Adolf Holl (b. 1930), this book was first published in German in 1979 and then translated into English by Peter Heinegg.

[2] Matthew 6:31-33, New Century Version. I have used this translation because the words usually translated God’s righteousness is here rendered what God wants, which is the meaning of God’s righteousness in this case.

[3] This 1972 film was directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starred Graham Faulkner and Judi Bowker. Zeffirelli’s movie attempted to draw parallels between the work and philosophy of Francis and the ideology that underpinned the worldwide hippie movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. It has a bit different “feel” when viewed in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

[4] John V. Taylor was the author of this book published by SCM Press after he had been consecrated the Bishop of Winchester. This is the same man who wrote Go-Between God, a book I referred to earlier in the chapter on the Holy Spirit.

[5] The subtitle of this book by Adam Daniel Finnerty is Global Justice and Christian Lifestyle (Orbis Books, 1977).

[6] (Eerdmans, 1970). Gish (1939-2010) grew up in the Amish community and later became an active member in the Church of the Brethren.

[7] Those words are often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), and it is easy to think that perhaps he did speak those words from time to time, but it seems that the first person on record to make that statement was Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821), who, in 1925, was the first person born in the United States to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.

[8] Written by Georgene Lockwood and published by Alpha Books. She is the author of nine books, including two more in the Complete Idiot’s Guides series.

[9] (David C. Cook, 2008). Chan was born in Hong Kong in 1967. In 1994 he and his wife started what is now the Cornerstone Church in Ventura County, California; they left that ministry in 2910.

[10] Platt (b. 1979) became the new senior pastor of the 4,300-member Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2006. It was reported that perhaps he was thereby the youngest megachurch pastor ever. From 2014 to 2018 Pratt was the President of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.

[11] Brooks’ article “The Gospel of Wealth” was published in the September 6, 2010, edition of the Times.

[12] It was somewhat disconcerting to read an article in the Wall Street Journal the very next today after Brook’s article appeared that said that happiness increases for those have increased income up to about $75,000 a year (Robert Frank, “The Perfect Salary for Happiness: $75,000”).

[13] What is generally called “the parable of the good Samaritan,” was Jesus’ response to the “lawyer” who asked him, “And who is my neighbor,” according to Luke 10:29.

[14] Chrysostom (c.347-407), one of the Church Fathers, is recognized both by the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church as a saint and a Doctor of the Church. Reference to Chrysostom was made in the first chapter of this book.

[15] Leo’s statement was made in Rerum Novarum, the highly significant encyclical he issued in 1891. The statements of both Pope Leo and Thomas Aquinas are cited in “Stealing from the Poor,” an article by Tito Edwards in the July 30, 2010, issue of “The American Catholic.”