It Takes Guts to Believe that God Loves You

In a world characterised by so much brutality and suffering, it is a bold person who still asserts that human beings are ‘made in the image’ of a loving God. If there are marks of divinity in human beings, the deity in question appears to be terrifyingly cruel.  In 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that scientists had uncovered what they described as ‘evidence of the earliest known murder among our ancestors’, with the implication that ‘interpersonal violence may be baked into the human experience’.  It came in the form of a grisly skull belonging to a hominid species much older than Neanderthals. The cranium showed signs of two repeated blows with the same implement, suggesting an ‘intent to kill’. These pre-historic remains hint at the dark possibility that the murder of Abel by Cain is emblematic of the human condition.  As the wars and genocides of the twentieth century conclusively proved, even with all our technology and education, we are frequently no better than that frightened ape that clubbed his enemy to death (although so much deadlier). As Sigmund Freud noted grimly in his essay Civilisation and Its Discontents (1929):

 Men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus.

Yet, if “man is a wolf to man” (surely a slur on wolves?) how can that be reconciled with the human-positive language of the Gospel?  Are Freud’s ravenous apes the same creatures worthy of having their hairs counted by God (Matt. 10:30)? Are these monsters the same creatures of which God says, “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters” (2 Corinthians 6:18).  Are these designers of bombs and missiles really the meek sheep which Christ will gather back (Matt. 18:12–14)?  When we peer into ourselves the darkness can sometimes seem overwhelming. Often we feel trapped by our egotism and although we know what we should do, we often shudder at the prospect of doing it. We rather others died before we died to our own selves. As Paul put it:  ‘For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it’ (Romans 7:15-20). In Paul’s painful honesty, we readily see the processes of natural selection which have made us. We perceive the outworking of millions of years of biting, tearing and clawing.

In the face of this shattering reality, it is hard to believe that anything so vicious could be cherished by any Supreme Being worth its salt. Yet this is precisely what the Gospel tells us about ourselves. When God sees us, he does not perceive a violent primate, but sons and daughters, heirs, and princes.  He does not see our sins, but rather the Spirit of Christ at work in us. In other words, God always sees us through the eyes of mercy. In the face of all the wrong we commit (or ever will commit) God declares in grace: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool’ (Isaiah 1:18). The promise of Jesus is that God will not be pushed away.  The Cross and the Resurrection are signs of God’s ultimate refusal to give up on his creatures. Even when confronted with the roving spirit of Cain, God is not deterred by our coldness. He continues to wait and he continues to give. This is exciting and it is frankly scary. We are invited into a love we cannot earn, we cannot control and do not deserve by any human metric. This is the ‘ocean of light and love’ experienced by George Fox at his convincement, and it is the true reality of which Paul said, ‘neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers’ can bar us. Believing this promise of grace is the most radical act we can undertake. For once we hear and believe in that love which persists we can see beyond “fight and flight”, and all the ancient forces which keep us trapped in the past (both personal and collective).

What does such a graceful affirmation offer us? We can lift a sense of judgment from ourselves and by extension lift the burden of judgement from others. We can declare along with the Songs of Songs: “My beloved is mine and I am his” (2:16). In articulating this new status, we can begin to act like the cherished one we know we are.   Through the love freely offered us, we become capable of sharing love more abundantly with others. Once we recognise our identities as sons and daughters of a loving Father, we can be open to the riches of our inheritance. As Martin Luther once put it: “If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his”. But as the story of the Cross illustrates it takes guts to believe that God is love, because to do so calls into question the punitive behaviour which characterises our species- all our weapons, all our prisons and detention centres become shadows. God’s loving judgement, puts human judgements to shame.  But such a gift of escape may be too much for some to bear. Paul puts the challenge of this new nature provocatively when he tells the Church at Corinth:  “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1 Corinthians 6:2-3). Putting the issue more pointedly still, Athanasius said that, the Son of God became man so that we might become God.  We are earth-bound creatures of mud and blood, meant for eternity- a destiny we share with the whole of creation (Rev. 21).

What utterly scandalous suggestions! How could such weak and spiteful beings have sway over the powers of the invisible world? How can we become mirrors reflecting the nature of God? It is surely more realistic to return to the savage safety of the rules which made us:  “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). It is this ethic of struggle that we hear in the voice of the High Priest of the Jerusalem Temple who fears what Jesus might do to his ordered world: “You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50). Or it put it another way, it is better that unruly love should be snuffed out than allow the anarchy of a perpetually giving God to recast the world. It is much easier to put this ceaseless love on trial and nail it to a cross than hear it and feel open to change. It is easier to follow the script of our evolution than concede the possibility that we nasty bipeds are meant to be a mirror of the Eternal, to be vessels for a reality that is just not like us.

Sometimes this refusal to accept the radical nature of grace becomes manifest in the way some Christians talk about God on the Cross. Instead of understanding the crucifixion as an outpouring of God’s love in the face of the wretchedness of the human situation, an emphasis is placed on stilling the anger of a righteous God, who must have satisfaction in blood. This theological reading is surely built on our ancient Reptilian brain; that part of ourselves which controls our aggressive instincts. Here, God, the bloodthirsty judge serves as a projection of our fears for survival. Someone must die so that we must live. In some theories of atonement, God’s Law is simply a refined version of our own longings for retribution against those who or put us in danger. But the Gospel repeatedly tries to push us beyond this reptilian apparatus by telling us that we must not return evil for evil and that peacemakers will be blessed. The Deity Christians worship is the arch offender against notions of natural justice. In his community, the first will be last and the last will be first, where rain is sent on ‘the just and the unjust alike’ (Matt. 5:45). The God of Jesus Christ is not a capricious sky Father filled with all our instinctual aggressions. The One loved by Israel, whom Jesus calls Father has come to save the world and not to condemn it. Yet there has been much copious theologising trying to blunt this fact. Grace perfects nature as the old Catholic theologians tell us, but invariably nature resists. We still want to believe that God plays by our rules of vindication and punishment, something the logic of grace denies. Our challenge is this. Are we prepared to see ourselves as God sees us or continue to be defined by our past? Grace is the key but will we open the door?

The Shrinking Story: The Changing Meaning of ‘That of God in everyone’

The ‘That of God’ Problem

[If] you know not a principle within, which is of God, to guide you to wait upon God, ye are still in your own knowledge…. But waiting all upon God in that which is of God, you are kept open to receive the teachings of God.  (George Fox).

The phrase ‘that of God in everyone’ is now so beloved among Liberal Quakers that it has become something of a shibboleth. In its orbit are cozy intuitions of human dignity, equality, and inherent worth. But what does such a statement mean? Who or what is the God in the phrase, and how is deity manifest ‘in everyone’? According to Lewis Benson, in order to answer these questions, we have to place the phrase in the context of George Fox’s understanding of the following text from Romans: ‘Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them (Romans 1:19 KJB). What did Fox think Paul was getting at? As Benson puts it, for Fox “That of God in everyone” is not a statement of values, much less an exploration of human faculties (‘some human means of knowing like reason…. or moral law within’) but something which God uses in the conscience, to draw creatures back into communication with Deity. To posit that God is ‘manifest’ in people is fundamentally about the way God is made known to human beings. It is not an anthropological statement about human dignity or equality per se. As Benson elaborates ‘that of God’ refers to ‘seekinging counsel of the Creator. The Creator imparts his wisdom to man. This is not human wisdom, but the voice and wisdom of the Creator. ‘(“That of God in Every Man” — What Did George Fox Mean by It?). But as Benson would doubtless remind us, when early Friends spoke of ‘God’ and ‘wisdom’ they were speaking in a definite Christ-shaped tone. The God that reached out within the human self, was not any old transcendental presence, but a God with a given character and story.  This is the unknown God Paul proclaims in Athens:

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands… we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.  In the past, God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.  For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead”’ (Acts 17:24-31).

Image result for quaker worshipSuch a Spirit is the God of the whole world but was made manifest in the first-century Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. And what about wisdom? As a diligent reader of Scripture, Fox understood the language of wisdom in two interlocking senses. The first is the ‘holy wisdom’ of God which had ordered the world in the beginning (Proverbs 8:22), the second was the foolish ‘wisdom of God’ revealed in the crucified Christ (1 Corinthians 1:25). Fox understood both forms of wisdom to be the work and expression of a single reality: God’s son who sustains ‘all things by his powerful word’ (Hebrews 1:3). So to speak to ‘that of God in everyone’ meant to draw people into the Life and Power of that creative yet crucified wisdom.In the first instance, people are drawn into such a Life through an awareness of their own failings and inadequacies. People are invited into the crucified wisdom by allowing all that is blocking the Spirit to be crucified within them. Thus, when Fox spoke of the Light of Christ, he meant something akin to a searchlight which would pick up the contours of our injured selves and bring them to account. As George Fox put it in The Journal:

But oh, then did I see my troubles, trials, and temptations more than ever I had done! As the light appeared, all appeared that is out of the light, darkness, death, temptations, the unrighteous, the ungodly; all was manifest and seen in the light….And then the spiritual discerning came into me, by which I did discern my own thoughts, groans, and sighs, and what it was that did veil me, and what it was that did open me.
What Paul had described as ‘the wrath of God…revealed from heaven against all ungodliness’ (Romans 1:18-19) was felt in Fox’s own life. But instead of breaking him, such an interior realization freed him from both shame and inadequacy.Once he had owned what he had done and what he had looked like before God, he was able to begin a new chapter in his life. God had been his judge, his comforter, then finally his healer. But today for many Liberal British Quakers to declare that kind of ‘God in everyone’ is dangerously specific, if not horrifyingly evangelical. Steven Davison in his Flaming Sword blog argues persuasively that while early Friends used ‘that of God’ in the context of a bigger account of ‘sin’, ‘eternity’ and ‘salvation’ Liberal Quaker theology uses the phrase as a shorthand for transcendence and a replacement for a traditional soul-language now viewed as problematic by many Liberal Friends. Instead of worrying about the Pauline language of repentance, Liberal Friends are more concerned with inward mystical experience and contact with the ineffable. ‘That of God’ becomes a way of expressing the capacity of such contact. Steven charts this process of replacement in the work of Rufus Jones. He writes:

Both a mystic and a scholar, he sought to understand the mystical experience, so he studied it. And in that study, especially his study of Neoplatonism, he found the notion of the divine spark. He also wanted to place his own mystical experience in both the mystical traditions of the world (or at least, of the West) and in his own tradition of Quakerism. He accomplished this by defining “that of God” as a divine spark after the Neoplatonists, even though George Fox never had any such idea in mind when he used the phrase. Thus, was liberal Quaker “theology” born.

 The Implications of Liberal Quaker Theology

Image result for quaker worshipWhat did this shift mean for the subsequent development of Liberal Quaker reflection? The first thing to be said is that Jones’ equation of ‘that of God’ with the Neo-Platonic divine spark, subtly shifted the Quaker message away from Fox’s claim that ‘there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition ‘, to ‘there is an indefinite Deity who lives in you already’.  One thinks of the roundly impersonal God of Stoicism or the shadowy Atman of the Upanishads. What is lacking in such an approach is religious specificity. Such a God demands nothing specific, loves nothing concrete, calls us to nothing, other than the ‘experience’ of that which cannot be named.  It is nearly impossible to imagine such a divine spirit declaring as Yahweh does in the Hebrew Scriptures: “For the sake of Jacob My servant, And Israel My chosen one, I have also called you by your name; I have given you a title of honor Though you have not known Me’ (Isaiah 45:4). Impossible because the Platonic God of Jones is not tied to history, beyond the personal histories of those who look within. The domain of the divine spark is not nations and communities, but hearts and individuals. Here the God with a story is jettisoned in favour of a universal mystical Power which is inherent in all people (making everyone a little bit divine). After Jones, it was possible to say (along with some reconstructed Sufis and Theosophists) that Quakerism was just part of a generic perennial wisdom which was the property of all wise and good spiritual seekers. In this way, all people, were understood as Quaker already.

Image result for quaker worshipFor many Liberal Friends, this vision of radical inclusion is a badge of their innermost identity. The language of ‘mysticism’ in this context is deeply attractive because it does not bind people to any particular community, set of images or sacred stories. Such universalism helps many Quakers (some of whom have been wounded by the exclusivities of other Churches) to constitute themselves as a loving and supportive community. Yet such inclusion is not without its costs for the coherence of the Quaker Way. By refusing to affirm the centrality of a formative story (including a God who demands, loves, and forgives) Quaker worship loses much of its radical power. Without a God with a story, our gatherings can become whatever we want them to be (a time for personal prayer, an escape from the week, a form of meditation or reflection). While some may regard such liberality as freeing, without the God with a story at the core of why we wait, there is a danger that our Worship disintegrates into a personal rather than shared enterprise. We start investing the silence with a kind of protective solipsism, the sense that this is ‘our time’ rather than the gift of a definitive gift-giver.  We keep on using old Quaker words (words which suggest a substantial story) but we have forgotten where the words come from and/or how to fit them together. In such an amorphous state, it is easy to throw away hard readings of what we do in Worship. We might relegate the old Quaker language about the Light convicting us of sin (or revealing our darkness) for something more affirming, less difficult, and more malleable. Reflecting on the coziness of present ‘that of God’ language Steven suggests:

[The] advantage of…that-of-God is that it’s not scary. The idea of a soul with an afterlife is scary; scary as hell. Who wouldn’t trade divine judgment for a nice little divine spark? This fear helps to explain why, after decades of relying more and more on this little phrase, we have yet to elaborate on what “that of God in everyone” actually means. The vaguer it is, the nicer it is.

If this description is right, it seems clear that Liberal Quakerism is increasingly good at supporting and affirming individuals, but less good at binding us together as Friends.

Recovering Heavenly Worship

So this leads us to a tough question. Is Worship about being inclusive and nice or is it about something else? Certainly, our Worship together should be guided by love, but does such affection mean that being Quaker must be infinitely elastic?  In protective vagueness, we may end up losing the sense of what we sit in silence for. Without facing things that are thorny, difficult, or even a bit scary it’s easy to float along, feeling that we are not accountable to anything except our own sense of inward wellbeing.  Yet in stressing affirmation over more troubling languages of healing, change, and transformation, we may render our Quaker Way shrunken and directionless. Mystical experiences are nothing but pleasant spiritual highs unless they are tied to some goal or discipline which structures them. We do this through our pattern of Worship, but also through the words we use to express our Quaker Way (Testimony, Light, Spirit Peace). Each piece of shared Quaker-speak is a reminder that Worship is not a private possession, but part of a coherent narrative, with a shared spiritual reality at its core.  Do we dare to be part of this? Or are we content with rather prosaic and half-formed notions of ‘personal spiritual journeys’? When early Quakers sat in worship together, they saw themselves as doing more than a therapeutic exercise or a kind of extended prayer-practice. They believed that in the silence they would encounter the cosmic Christ who calls out to them to join the heavenly wedding feast: ‘Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me’ (Revelation 3:20). When Meeting began, they understood themselves as sat in that Eternal God-space beyond the reach of the everyday world. As the prolific Quaker polemicist Francis Howgill attempted to express this new reality:

O beloved Ones, who are the Children of my eternal Father, who have eaten at his Table, and drunken of the new Wine in the Kingdom of God, who are nourished and dandled upon the Lap of everlasting Love, who suck at the Breasts of everlasting Consolation; you Beauty is comely, I am ravished, I am filled, I am filled with Love to you all, I am sick of Love, your Beauty hath ravished my Heart:… and in him I meet you, and leave you in his Arms; I lye down with you in the bosom of eternal Love, Life, Peace, Joy and Rest forever, where none can make us afraid. [ix] (Howgill 1655)

Image result for Lamb book of revelationTo worship God in this ecstatic sense is to be taken to the heavenly court where the saints and angels praise the Lamb.  What does such imagery tell us? We do not worship just for ourselves, but for the whole community of worshippers throughout all time. We worship with and for a creation which is infused with God’s promise of healing. In this shape, Quaker silence is not merely a spiritual retreat, it is our Eucharist when we celebrate the love of a God who feeds and guides us. The royal road to such spiritual food is in confronting our wounds and wrongs (the things which need care and mending). By allowing ourselves to be embraced by the Spirit, God’s  Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life. Here vague mysticism gives way to a meaning and direction not our own. Grace is all about being carried along by that. What a scary and awesome thought!  Of course, not every individual Meeting for Worship will be equally earth-shattering, but the point is that our Worship is made for radical transformation, embedded within the story of a God who wishes to turn the world upside down.  The invitation is always there if we wish to take it up. We do our individual spiritual journeys a deep disservice when we replace this cosmic vision of ‘that of God’ with an insular model of personal religion which excludes the possibility of a spiritual path with shared words, images, and focus. But perhaps the scariest aspect of recovering this approach to our Quakerism is that it places on us the responsibility to articulate and share the feast we are part of.  If weary Friends detect a whiff of evangelicalism in these remakes, they are right to do so. Calling back the God with a story to the very heart of our Worship means retrieving the Good News the phrase ‘that of God in everyone’ is intended to express.  This doesn’t mean we all must believe, or indeed say the same thing, but it does mean we need more trust in our Quaker-speak, including our language around the moral life and God. It isn’t about policing or conformity, but about blending our story with the story of the Quaker Way, allowing our hearts to open to all that has been revealed. Such trust will, with a bit of luck, help us to get back to specifics and shake off the story-less deity of Jones.

Once we have climbed out of personal cocoons new possibilities for being Quaker emerge. When we keep everything vague we have no reason to tell our Quaker story well (we only need to be convinced of our own stories). But when we discover a shared way of seeing through a narrative-filled Presence, we can do more than simply speak for ourselves (a common tendency at Quaker Quest evenings) but sustain and pass on shared treasures. This isn’t about megaphones, posters, or even individual moral perfection, it is about allowing ourselves to place weight behind the shared story we use. As 1 Peter defines the task: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15).  This posture comes with risks of course. If not everyone is a Quaker already, then we come to the world with a distinctive story to tell, a story not everyone will find easy or palatable. But then, declaring hope is never easy midst cultures of quick fixes and cynicism. But before we go out into the world and start passing on our deep hope, Friends need to become accustomed to this practice of communal hope-telling.  Only then will we discover the full import of these famous words belonging to George Fox:

In the power of life and wisdom, and dread of the Lord God of life, and heaven, and earth, dwell; that in the wisdom of God over all ye may be preserved, and be a terror to all the adversaries of God, and a dread, answering that of God in them all, spreading the Truth abroad, awakening the witness, confounding deceit, gathering up out of transgression into the life, the covenant of light and peace with God……[Be] patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone (Quaker Faith and Practice, 19:30).

The Theological Politics of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Over the last few decades the Star Wars films have been part of a burgeoning industry of ‘pop apologetics’ in Christian periodicals. The recurrent motifs of temptation, fall and redemption have led some to assume that Lucas’ vision of conflict in a galaxy, far, far away, relies on an intrinsically Christian anthropology.

Over the last few decades, the Star Wars films have been part of a burgeoning industry of ‘pop apologetics’ in Christian periodicals. The recurrent motifs of temptation, fall and redemption have led some to assume that Lucas’ vision of conflict in a galaxy, far, far away, relies on an intrinsically Christian anthropology. As Joel Hodge  has reflected in a recent article in the Washington Post the mythic structure of the first and second trilogies are seemingly hospitable to Christian concepts not only of sin, but also forgiveness. Noting the restorative conduct of Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, Hodge suggests:

In a parallel way to humanity in the Christian story, Vader falls and cannot find his way out of the dark side – “You don’t know the power of the dark side! I must obey my Master,” he says to Luke. Yet, Vader is eventually redeemed, though not through his own power or by his manipulation of the Force, but through his son, Luke Skywalker. In the same moment, the Force is purified of evil.

Seekers after explicitly theological motifs may also look approvingly on the battle between the New Republic and the First Order. Here, the world is clearly divided between the followers of Light and Darkness. The films do not dice with ambiguity or relativism. We are confronted with clear factions with clearly defined motives. There is no question that we should see the conflict from the standpoint of Sith, nor is there any question that the New Republicans are in the right. The moral absolutism of the films, say the apologists, proves that Star Wars is really an exploration of an eternal moral order (read Plato and Aquinas) and the struggle of the human to remain faithful to that order (read Paul and Augustine at their absolute grimmest). Yet, if we look carefully at the most recent installment of the saga, we can see that in no abiding sense does Star Wars derive its structure from the Jewish/Christian story. Indeed, one could go as far as suggesting that it represents a mythic counter narrative to that story.

Take a key element of The Force Awakens, praised by both critics and fans; its subtle mirroring of the landscapes and aesthetics of New Hope. From the barren desert plant to a droid on the run with vital information, we are constantly being drawn back into the world of Episode IV. What does this tell us about the Star Wars universe? Principally, that the cosmos of George Lucas (reimagined by J.J. Abrams) is structurally pagan in the tragic Greek sense. In the experience of these forebears of ours the world and its meaning constituted a closed system, because there was never anything genuinely new. One could never escape an eternal chain of causality; one could only repeat the designs of Fate. What then of history? To the Hellenistic mind, the course of events were always cyclical; with the present always mirroring the past and past always mirroring the future. One achieves consolation in this world not by looking for the new, but rather by harmonizing oneself with the eternal verities of the world. The Jedis are the absolute epitome of this philosophy, so popular in our own era of ‘pop Buddhism’ and Self-Help sages. Here Religiosity involves a Stoical act of surrender to the way ‘things are’ rather than breaking free of anything. This cyclical cosmos is even at work in the film’s chief antagonist and rebel Kylo Ren. His life is not one of self-chosen malevolence, but the outworking of a particular past, namely the temptation and fall of Anakin Skywalker. As Kylo Ren admits himself (while standing before the charred remains of Vader’s mask), “Nothing will stand in our way. I will finish what you started.” Ren is but a pawn in a larger drama. Like the Greek anti-hero, he cannot go beyond the confines of his destiny.

What should be made of this dramatic scheme? While there are doubtless some readings of the Christian story which attempt to link the life and Resurrection of Jesus with some anodyne replay of the past, I think Paul Tillich called it right when he said that Christianity is fundamentally concerned with Christ, the New Being. The central thing about Christian faith (something noted again and again by the Apostle Paul) is that while Christianity is a creature of prophecy, nothing fully predicted God’s work in Jesus. The Messiah as ‘God made flesh’ is a scandal which furthers the mythic reorientation of Israel, first undertaken by the Hebrew prophets. In the deity who paradoxically declares, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” and yet sacrifices Himself- God lays bare his solidarity Israel and the world. Here divine power is revealed not in heroic strength but in the subversion of what is weak and lowly. Thus, when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, the crowds are expecting him to follow a prescribed narrative of the Davidic King, yet he manifestly refuses this narrative logic. His parousia is not imperial- it does not seek armies, victories or political mastery. Rather, it seeks to reveal God’s concern for the lives of people trying to survive. The King-Messiah is transformed in the unpredictable hands of Jesus into anointed healer and prophet. Even at his death people were trying to place Jesus in this same narrative box, albeit mockingly, by nailing the notice “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” above his cross. Jesus’ outward failure in the eyes of the world is ultimately one narrative unconformity. The people who cried, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (Jn. 1:46) could extricate themselves from the heroic  tales of old. They could not look beyond the surety of the cynical voice in Ecclesiastes which declares, ‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun’ (1.9).

The same people could not understand how such a seemingly powerful figure had allowed himself to be executed, grumbling, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:40). Behind such remarks is doubtless a sense of narrative betrayal. How could it end like this? Humiliation and  desolation were definitely not meant to be part of the plot. This sense of incredulity is preserved in the post-Resurrection scenes of Jesus opening the eyes his disciples to the presence of their Master’s life and death in the Hebrew Scriptures: ‘At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him’ (Jn 12:16). They could not be led there on their own; they needed the shattering presence of Jesus (that utterly New Being) to do it. Yet the narrative scandal of Jesus could never be confined to the world of ancient Palestine, but also  had the potential to transform an entire culture regimented and scared by the story of Rome and her empire. This shattering power is first glimpsed in the Gospel itself. When the Centurion looks up at the dying body of Jesus he breaks through the conventional reading of this man, by declaring, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mk. 15:39). Such a redescription fundamentally challenged the Imperial cosmology of Rome. In the midst of deathless Olympian deities (who were said to delight in their own perfection), a helpless and dying man becomes a perverse figure of theophany. Nothing could be newer, nothing could be stranger. There is nothing like this in the on-screen universe of Star Wars.

Yet if The Force Awakens fails to encapsulate the radical narrative logic of Christianity, it also fails to grasp a truly Christian conception of peace. At its heart the cosmology of the Jedi is Manichean and not Christian. According to the religion of the Force, the world is divided between two equal and opposite forces of light and darkness. We are never given the sense that this is a temporary standoff (awaiting a final liberation) but a permanent reality. All that can be hoped for is a balance of power; an equilibrium of hostile parties in the context of a cyclical cosmos. There is no evidence that the Jedi can finally undo the Sith, nor that the tools of violence can ever be exchanged for those of peace. There is no triumphant Mount Zion in the prophecies of the Jedi. There is no Isaiah, calling for the renunciation of the tools of war. Instead there is the watchword of American democracy: Eternal vigilance. This implicit theme of perpetual violence is given expression not only in the Jedi valorisation of ‘balance’ but in the political goals of The First Order who oppose them. As Kylo Ren notes in Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of the film:

The task of the First Order [is] to remove the disorder from our own existence, so that civilization may be returned to the stability that promotes progress. A stability that existed under the Empire, was reduced to anarchy by the Rebellion, was inherited in turn by the so-called Republic, and will be restored by us. Future historians will look upon this as the time when a strong hand brought the rule of law back to civilization.

Here, we are offered two options: the ‘balance’ of the Jedi (the administration of democracy by a military aristocracy) or a tyrannical order, where democracy is suspended, but organized violence still remains. In both cases, there is no option to cease the enactment or preparation for war. Indeed, it is the threat of violence which give both the Jedi and the First Order their identity. Nothing could be a greater inversion of the politics of Christianity. At the heart of the Christian revelation is the ultimate triumph of goodness and peace over the forces of war and violence. The cross is the ultimate rebuke to those who would have us believe that peace is established through force. Rather, ultimate peace is always a work of sacrificial love. This is not merely a pleasant platitude for the Christian, but always refers to an ontological reality- what Hauerwas calls ‘the grain of the universe’. Augustine, in his conflict with a dying dualistic paganism, concluded that evil was not a force in its own right, but a deprivation of ultimate good. Such a declaration (although Platonic in garb) was meant to guard the hard won Jewish/Christian claim that creation is good and it is meant for a reign of peace and justice.

When we refuse this reality (replacing it with a stale dualism) we labour under a lie, the fruit of which can only be a kind of  trudging futility. All we can do is fend off the worst, in the hope that some restbite can be established. It is here that the Star Wars offers a mirror into the narrative impoverishment of our own post-Christian culture. It is impoverished because it is deeply conservative. Our tired liberal democracies (wearied and compromised by the last century) now desire balance, if not stasis, at the expense of some of their highest ideals. From the peculiarly termed ‘war on terror’ to the abuses of Guantanamo Bay, our liberal global order is slowly beginning to accept that violence and domination are the unquestioned currencies of both political and social life. The world of Star Wars is a cultural symptom of this general acceptance. The Jedi may be noble yet their commitment to balance does nothing to alter the supremacy of violence. This is rooted in what we might call their spirited liberalism.

Such political minds want to be ‘useful’, ‘humanitarian’, ‘just’ but above all they want to be good rulers. It is this last motive which make both they and liberal Democrats stumble. In their eagerness to run civilized life (to initiate some improvement or social reform) the liberal’s talk of peace takes second place to order. This might be pragmatic, expedient or realistic, but it is not Christian. Indeed as Terry Eagleton has recently noted, ‘the New Testament has little or nothing to say of responsible citizenship. It is not a ‘civilised’ document at all. It shows no enthusiasm for social consensus. Since it holds that such values are imminently to pass away, it is not greatly taken with standards of civic excellence or codes of good conduct. What it adds to common or garden morality is not some supernatural support but the grossly inconvenient news that our forms of life must undergo radical dissolution if they are to be reborn as just and compassionate communities.’  If we want a Republic without the return of violence (some Darth Vader rising from the ashes) we must relinquish all attempts to be conventionally useful or noble-especially if that means any resort to violence.This kind of relinquishment is the first step in understanding what Jesus meant by the Kingdom. His polis does not represent some delicate balance between the light and dark, but as the Creeds put it, belongs to ‘the true God, light of light’.