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A Feature Review of
A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace
Paperback: David C. Cook, 2014.
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Reviewed by John W. Morehead
In recent years an increasing number of Evangelicals have taken up the work of peacemaking. No longer seen as the sole purview of progressives or liberals, these Evangelicals have connected their work in peacemaking as a central facet of the Gospel and a broader Christian theology and praxis. Brian Zahnd makes a thought provoking contribution to this growing body of work through his book.
A Farewell to Mars captures the reader’s interest in that, as the title suggests, it explores its subject matter by way of the author’s personal journey. He begins with his response to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Like many Americans, Zahnd watched our military forces conduct warfare each day on the evening news. And perhaps also like many American Evangelicals, he believed God was on the side of the U.S as we attacked the forces of aggression. But later Zahnd would come to question the perspective from which he engaged in such warfare cheerleading, and he thinks other Christians should as well. He writes, “The American church especially could benefit greatly from an unvarnished reading of Jesus liberated from the censoring lens of militaristic empire and its chaplaincy religion” (41).
This ability to reflect critically on our assumptions about Jesus and his relationship to militaristic empire is presented in challenging fashion in Chapter 4, “It’s
Hard to Believe in Jesus.” Here Zahnd moves to the days immediately following 9/11. As with Operation Desert Storm, following the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, he participated in the national spirit of the times, the anger and desire for military action against the Islamic terrorists who perpetrated the acts. He connected this to his work for the church, and describes preaching “war sermons” with titles like “The Road to Armageddon,” “Jesus, Jerusalem, and Jihad,” and “We are at war with Islam” (109). But after encountering “Jesus in a fresh and new way” (Ibid.) he came to understand Christ and his Gospel of the Kingdom of God very differently. Rather than connecting Jesus to warfare, violence, and the destruction of our “enemies,” Zahnd came to see Christ as calling his disciples to the way of nonviolence, peacemaking, and redemption. “Instead of retaliatory violence; the world is to be refounded on cosuffering love” (103).
This perspective sees Jesus’ call for his disciples to be peacemakers (Mat. 5:9), and to follow the two great commandments of love of God and neighbor, but also love of enemy (Mat. 5:43-48), not as “add on” practices that some Christ followers might engage in from time to time, but instead, but instead as integral elements of Jesus’ example, teaching, and requirement for the Christian life. To hammer the point home, Zahnd goes on to argue in Chapter 6 that this is what Jesus had in mind in regards to the “narrow gate” of Mat. 7:12-14. It is “not a sinner’s prayer: the narrow gate is the practice of the Jesus way” that embraces “empathetic love of neighbor in imitation of Jesus” (147).
Returning to the title of Chapter 4, “It’s Hard to Believe in Jesus,” Zahnd argues that it is not the typical type of faith formula for Christians of believing in Jesus by faith and confessing certain things about his person and work that is difficult. When Zahnd says “it’s hard to believe in Jesus” he means, “What’s hard is to believe in Jesus as a political theologian” (97), that is, embracing his “teachings about the kingdom of God and especially his ideas about nonviolence and enemy love” (Ibid).
This reviewer agrees with Zahnd, and has taken a similar journey himself in his own life and ministry. I therefore think the author is correct when he states that 9/11 was a test, not only for American democracy in terms of security and liberty, but also for the American church. Zahnd asks, “Will we succumb to the temptation of scapegoating? Will the church scapegoat Muslims in the twenty-first century as the church scapegoated Jews in previous centuries? For me it was a personal test of my commitment to the Jesus way of responding to violence and enemies” (92). In my view our response to terrorism is the prominent way in which this test is playing out, but not the only one. The American church also faces a test in how peacemaking, nonviolence, and enemy love will play a part in our larger engagement of others in a multi-faith world.
The post-9/11 test for the American church gives every indication that it will continue for some time. The so-called “War on Terror” shows no signs of coming to an end anytime soon despite American military action under two, two-term presidential administrations. In connection with this, American Evangelicals have often been at the forefront of calls for retributive and “preventive” violence through military action in response to terrorism, but Zahnd’s thesis gives us reason for pause. Perhaps, like many nations before us, we have been too quick to connect the Prince of Peace to the national drumbeat of war.
John W. Morehead is the Custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy and the Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies. He is the editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion, 2009), and works in multi-faith engagement in the areas of Islam, Mormonism, and Paganism.
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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com