unseen realm

When Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” he didn’t exclude the “Culture War”

The New Testament pictures life in this world, for Christians, as a spiritual war, and it also tells us how followers of Jesus should participate in that war.

When Paul writes about ‘the armour of God’ in Ephesians he says “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6).

Some part of this spiritual war is played out in the realm of worldly politics. When John writes Revelation he pictures the beastly Roman empire, in league with Satan, going to war with the church on Satan’s behalf. Culture wars, like other wars, can be expressions of this spiritual warfare. I’ve really enjoyed Richard Bauckham’s work on Revelation and Michael Heiser’s work on the Unseen Realm and thinking about the overlap of politics and the ‘powers and principalities’ in the heavenly realms, and how nations outside of Israel might have been given to these other members of the divine court.

In The Unseen Realm, Heiser unpacks Deuteronomy 4 and 32 (and a disputed translation in 32, where english versions choose either ‘sons of God’ or ‘sons of Israel’), to suggest:

“As odd as it sounds, the rest of the nations were placed under the authority of members of Yahweh’s divine council. The other nations were assigned to lesser elohim as a judgment from the Most High, Yahweh.”

Heiser’s work here is fascinating; and, I think, lines up with something Paul says about the church; and the coming together of Jew and gentile in Christ, and what that means not just in earth, but also in the heavenly realm, where he says:

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. — Ephesians 3:10-11

The ‘spiritual war’ playing out in the Bible is a war for our fidelity, as humans, a war for our worship; being fought out by cosmic beings — God, the creator, other ‘gods’ who are given people other than God’s own people to rule, and the sinister figure of Satan pulling the strings behind human empires set up in opposition to God — he’s there in the background in Ephesians, and in Revelation, and is the figure who is the opponent in the spiritual war the Bible describes from Genesis to Revelation; he is the enemy who holds us in sin, death, and destruction — as Paul puts it:

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” — Ephesians 2:1-2

It would be naive to suggest Christianity does not involve a war; and that this war doesn’t impact politics. The Bible explicitly links worldly regimes like Egypt, Babylon, and Rome to spiritual forces aligned against the kingdom of God (and has Israel jump on board with each of these regimes at various times, and in various ways).

It would be naive, even, to suggest that the war the Bible describes, being predominantly played out around objects of worship, and the cultures created by these empires to make different gods alluring, or desirable, is not a ‘culture war.’ The ‘cultures’ — or ‘cultic groups’ at war in the Bible are the culture of lesser gods and their glory, and the culture of God’s kingdom; the culture of the nations surrounding Israel — especially what Walter Wink called “domination systems” — cultures driven by the proud, the sword wielding, and the idolatrous seeking their own glory and the culture of a kingdom whose God “opposes the proud, and gives grace to the humble,” or “and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honour.” The Kingdom of God has a ‘culture’ built on the character of God as revealed in the king of God’s kingdom — the crucified Jesus. And, so, the ‘culture war’ we fight is not fought with worldly weapons; or by playing ‘power games’ in a domination system; seeking dominance for our own interests. The ‘culture war’ we fight is with the armour of God; or in weakness and ‘cruciformity’ (living lives shaped by the ethic of the cross). Or, as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians, after saying his approach to proclaiming God’s kingdom involves ‘renouncing underhanded’ and worldly ways:

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” — 2 Corinthians 4:7-12

And…

“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” — 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

We do not wage culture wars as the world does either. We do not fight culture wars with the weapons of this world. Paul goes on to describe his approach, again, as involving weakness; his scars and floggings and broken body are an embodiment of his message; the message of the cross; where God won his victory over sin, and death, and Satan, or, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, “he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14).

The real ‘culture war’ is a ‘worship war’ — it’s a battle for the love, loyalty, and eternal security of people — a fight to join God’s kingdom and its mission to win people from the clutches of Satan, and the depths of darkness, into the kingdom of light, the presence of God, and union with Jesus via the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life so that they are raised with Jesus and seated with him in the heavenly realms as not just his inheritance, but as God’s heirs.

Christian culture warriors who want you to join a political battle and “fight furiously” using domination system games, or the tools of worldly empire, even if they see the spiritual reality behind the culture wars, are signing you up for a mugs game, and potentially to pay a game that leads straight into the enemy’s camp; not as prisoners of war, or infiltrators, but as people who think they’re on the side of the angels but who are actually participating in a kingdom other than the kingdom of God.

Christian culture warriors who see weakness as failure, and not as God’s strength, or wisdom, are not wise. They are worldly. The cross is the wisdom and power of God; not political campaigns, numbers games, lobbying, aggressive arguments, or hit pieces published on propaganda websites.

Christian culture warriors who want to dominate and go to war with ‘the other’ — be they ‘Christian social justice warriors’ or soldiers on the ‘Christian right’ — or the ‘political left’ or the ‘political right’ — are adopting the weapons of this world and so picking an armour or weapon, that does not come from God, or serve God. This is true even if one grants that the empires built by the left, or the right are demonic, idolatrous, domination systems harnessing a variety of dark spiritual forces. The catch is, when we take up worldly weapons and fight in worldly ways — when we play ‘culture warrior’ rather than ‘peace maker,’ we are actively joining the spiritual battle on the wrong side.

And life when the church — or the ‘city of God’ is at work as God’s ‘faithful presence’ in the world, and shaping ‘cities of man’; on both the right and the left; this is complex and variegated. What isn’t complex is the decision about how Christians should participate in the culture war, or the Spiritual battle we find ourselves in that plays out in our politics.

Because Jesus, not the Caldron Pool, gives us our marching orders. And he doesn’t tell us to fight. He tells us to turn the other cheek. He tells us, ultimately, to take up our cross and follow him.

He does not say ‘blessed are the culture warriors, who dominate the other, for they will bring the kingdom of God.’ He doesn’t even say ‘blessed are those who use the Gospel as a worldly power play and try to build a Christian state.’ He doesn’t say “blessed are you when the government makes it easy for you to be a citizen of two kingdoms, so fight for that right,” or even “evangelise for that purpose.” He doesn’t say the government will use ‘the sword’ to protect us, or what’s good — in fact, he seems to expect the government will use a sword to arrest him, and a cross to crucify him, and we are called to take up our cross and follow (by Jesus), and to “submit” to the same crucifying empire by Paul.

Jesus does say “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” (Matthew 5:9-11), and then he goes to make peace between God, and us — though we were enemies in a culture war — by laying down his life on a cross (a symbol of the Roman domination system).

When Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” — he didn’t just mean for his disciples to remember this when the leaders of Israel, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, see Jesus as their enemy in a ‘culture war,’ or when Roman soldiers come to arrest him with swords drawn to crucify him, or later when the same regimes conspire to arrest them and crucify them upside down (Peter), or the same Jewish leaders turn on them, and try to put them to death (like Paul in Acts). He didn’t just mean ‘the church shouldn’t go to war against other religious or culture groups’ with swords to secure ‘holy territory’ like in the Crusades, or Christendom… He meant ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ in our culture war, because this is how the spiritual war is fought and won. He meant that love, and giving up our rights, and blessing in response to persecution were the hallmarks of the Kingdom, and the ‘weapons’ God uses to bring an end to enmity between people and himself as they embody the message of the cross.

When Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ he was talking about how we, the people of his kingdom, take part in the Culture WarTM — or rather, how we refuse to… When your enemy declares a culture war on you, “do not resist an evil person,” (Jesus, in Matthew 5:39), or as Paul puts it “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone,” (Romans 12:17-18). When your ‘enemy’ — some ‘other’ — “slaps you on the right cheek,” or tweets about you, “turn to them the other cheek also,” or if they take want to trap you in some legal situation where you have to insist on your rights to fight some good fight, if they sue you for your shirt, “hand over your coat as well” (Matthew 5:40). He said ““You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven,” (Matthew 5:43-45). When your enemy declares themselves an enemy; love them, “treat others as you would have them treat you.”

He didn’t say ‘use the court system, or political power, to eradicate anybody who does not hold your opinion, or to make laws that destroy worldly kingdoms in opposition to your own. He didn’t say ‘vote for rulers who promise you a seat at the table and political power’ or ‘ask rulers to do things for you in exchange for votes (or give up your birthright for a bowl of soup). He did say “what good is it to gain the whole world, and yet forfeit your soul” right after he says “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-26). Paul does say we demolish those strongholds with the Gospel, and that we should proclaim the Gospel by ‘carrying the death of Jesus in our bodies’ as ambassadors for Christ.

 

On seeing… truly (or how my escaping colour blindness is a metaphor for escaping spiritual blindness)

My wife Robyn is an amazing gift giver. She is thoughtful. This year for Father’s Day she exceeded all expectations by giving me a trip to the optometrist and some new glasses.

That might sound like an anti-climax.

New glasses.

But these are magic glasses.

I can now see colours that previously did not exist for me.

Colour blindness is a weird phenomenon to try to explain to someone who doesn’t experience it. I’ve given up. I’ve also given up playing the game where people ask ‘what colour is this’ because I just don’t know, and I can’t see what I’m missing, and I hate that. I hate trying to identify colours, especially around the red/green spectrums, but the way colour works means I also have trouble with purples, and yellows, and other weird colours I’d never expected.

I had a default way of seeing the world. I had no idea what I was missing.

But now I know.

And boy, was I missing a lot.

You can watch reaction videos that pretty much capture my experience here.

It’s crazy to know how much I was missing. One way to demonstrate it, simply, is that I thought I had these apps on my phone’s home screen grouped by colour.

Now I know I didn’t…

One retailer of these glasses, EnChroma, has a video that says that colour blind people see “a world less saturated, less vibrant” and that has been my experience. Apparently you non-colour blind people can experience life through our eyes by looking at the world through a piece of green cellophane.

Even wearing them I spent a bunch of time skeptical that what I’m seeing now is really real, and not just the world through rose coloured glasses (and maybe the person who coined that idiom was colour blind…). But the more I dig in to this reality, the realer it seems. EnChroma has an online colour blindness test. Here are my results without the glasses on, and then wearing them.

I was missing so much. Who knew? Well. Everybody. Everybody who isn’t colour blind that is. And if you are colour blind — those reaction videos are real. These glasses are amazing.

It’s worth seeing the world as it is.

Over the past year or two I’ve been having another experience that feels a lot like this. I think I’m also recovering from being spiritually colour blind.

It started with my deep dive into C.S Lewis’ academic work The Discarded Image, and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and their shared analysis of the modern western world; that we’ve chosen a view of the world that is “less saturated” and “less vibrant”; that we’ve, because of our commitment to rationalism and a purely ‘sensible’ world; a world where only what we can sense is real; disenchanted reality. Where we could’ve kept our rose coloured glasses on we’ve reached for (or been given) the green cellophane by a culture, and powerful institutions, and perhaps spiritual forces, that do very well for themselves by keeping us blind to reality as it is. We settle for a less saturated, less vibrant, life and colour blindness becomes our reality, green cellophane becomes our lens.

And this lens effects the way we see everything. Reality as we live in it, but also, for Christians, the Bible and the story of Jesus as we encounter it. One ‘new pair of glasses’ that might help us see the world as it really is, or at least one that worked for me, was Michael Heiser’s Unseen Realm, which invites us to free ourselves of the green cellophane view provided by the modern world, and to read the Biblical text the way its first readers would have understood it; part of this exercise is to, with Lewis, Taylor, and Heiser, acknowledge that not every part of our modern, secular, age is a product of a Christian vision of reality, and that not everything modern is truer than the past.

Trying to take off the ‘green cellophane’ of the disenchanted view, or overcoming spiritual colour blindness with this new lens is weird. I spend a lot of time feeling the same sort of skepticism about this way of seeing the world that I now feel when I see colours. Surely this can’t actually be real?

There’s an interesting dynamic here for me where, for example, there’s a temptation to read Genesis 1 as modern people and either say ‘science disproved this, so it can’t be true’ or to read the creation story through the lens of modern science and try to make it cohere, and this is a trap that both the young earth creationist movement and old earth counterparts fall into.

I remember sitting in an Old Testament subject at college scoffing at  ancient conceptual maps of the cosmos with a heavenly and earthly realm like this one, because to take that seriously was to take the Old Testament too literally, when we now have our model of the universe through science, and so our job was to get to the ‘actual truth’ the Old Testament was trying to convey; that God is the creator of a good and ordered world, and we mess it up through sin… but what if one of the big points of the creation story is that there is a heavenly realm, and an earthly one? And what if this is one of the threads that binds the whole narrative of the Bible from first chapter to last chapter together (where heaven and earth are brought together in a new creation)?

The green cellophane view says ‘get to the sensible point that aligns with how we see reality’ — but the rose coloured glasses say ‘sit with the view of the cosmos this text creates and have it change the way you see reality.’

This doesn’t mean rejecting the insights of science around material questions, or even questions about the age of the earth, but it means the activity of trying to approach the text of Genesis 1 through green cellophane is always going to leave you with a less vibrant, less saturated, world.

This is also true of the Gospel itself; if we green cellophane the Gospel stories then reading these biographies of Jesus leaves us looking for the “Jesus of history” and positioning Jesus as an alternative, revolutionary, political leader to Caesar, bringing an alternative economic system that we’d love to see realised in this world as we pursue justice; a moral example; a wise teacher; and maybe at most, still a saviour who’ll bring forgiveness to you in a divine economy or supernatural order that has very little to do with day to day life now (and very little to say about the significance of the Holy Spirit). The stuff about Satan and Demons you shove to the side. Angels become ‘human messengers’ through a little etymological gymnastics (literally what we were taught at Bible college by a former lecturer though), and you’re left with a disenchanted Christianity. The rose coloured glasses view — the more vibrant, more saturated view — sees the Gospels as the story of God’s victory over Satan and his demons; those authorities and powers that ruled the nations, and captured and captivated Israel, exiling them from God, and a victory that means beastly human governments that are built around spiritual powers and authorities no longer have dominion over people. It’s a victory that means not only can Israel come home to God via their Messiah, but the nations can be restored as well, and be seated in the heavenly realms, even now, because of our union with Jesus by the presence of the Spirit.

We’ve been working through Ephesians at church this year, and I think seeing reality this way is exactly what Paul is after when he prays for the church that the “eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (Ephesians 1:17) before launching into the story of how Jews and Gentiles are now united in Jesus, raised together with him, and seated in the heavenlies. He wants this reality to be their view of the day to day world we live in; a more vibrant, more saturated, reality.

Here’s one of the talks I gave in that series where one older, wiser, listener (ok, my dad, who’s got a pretty compelling picture of the way pronouns in Ephesians are used to distinguish Jewish Christians (we and us) from Gentile Christians (you) in Paul’s schema) summed up with the statement ‘who knew the Nephilim were so important for understanding the Bible’… You might think getting to those strange ‘sons of God’ in Genesis is a ‘weird flex’ from Ephesians… and you might be right. Consider this an invitation to put on some rose coloured glasses and take up a more vibrant, more saturated, view of the world, including how we understand politics, economics, and ethics (how we live as people, in communities). It’s straight off our Zoom recording, filmed from an iPhone, so apologies for the quality.

Maybe we need a way of seeing the world that is different to the green cellophane handed to us; a more vibrant, more vivid world. Maybe those ideas of ‘the eyes of our hearts being opened’ and us being enlightened is part of recapturing the wonder not just of the Gospel, but of creation itself.

Perhaps our job as people ‘raised with Christ and seated in the heavenlies’ is to first see the reality of God and his world rightly, through new lenses, and then to see our task as getting the good news and the rose coloured glasses out to as many people as possible; what if we were as excited about the eye opening truth of the Gospel as the people in those reaction videos putting on their rose coloured glasses for the first time?

The trick is that so much of this task actually starts within the church, where, we’ve been so thoroughly schooled from the rational, sensible, secular age outlook that to simply say what the Bible says about the Spiritual realm and its reality, and its interplay with the political or the economic makes you feel and sound like a crazy person. Why settle for a less vivid, less saturated world when you can see truly.

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