Today is Memorial Day, the day in which citizens of the United States of America remember those who died fighting in various U.S. conflicts. Such a day is usually filled with parades, barbecues, and solemn remembrances of the fallen. Such a day is celebrated in many nations. There’s no denying that those who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way and to even die for the sake of their country, their family, their friends are worthy of respect and honor. There’s no denying on a very basic level that such an action is honorable. What I don’t particularly like is that, often on this day, Jesus’ words from John 15:13 are used in support of Memorial Day remembrances. Such words are often seen floating around Facebook in the form of a meme. Just today I saw one from Lutheran Hour Ministries. Here it is:
While I just noted that willingness to die for a greater cause than oneself is quite admirable, it’s another thing to use Jesus’ words to his disciples on the night in which he was betrayed to support those who died in military combat and service to country. Forgive me if this strikes a chord within you, if you find yourself getting upset at what I just wrote. Please hear me out.
Jesus shared these words with his disciples as he was sharing his last supper with them. In just a short while he will be betrayed into the hands of sinners. Bear in mind that Jesus is in the act of establishing a new covenant, one based on selfless nonviolent love. In John 18, when Jesus is arrested, he tells his disciples to put down their swords, not to take them up. In fact, Peter had just cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant named Malchus. We learn from the synoptic gospels that Jesus then healed the man’s ear. After this, with his disciples having fled out of fear, Jesus is taken to the high priest for questioning and is violently struck on the face and spit upon. He is then taken to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate for questioning. Trying to ascertain if he claims he is a king or not, Jesus responds to Pilate’s inquiry by saying,
“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”
Here, before Pilate, Jesus makes a distinction between his kingdom and the kingdoms of the world. That distinction is made by the use of violence and control, hence, “If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would have been fighting”. If Jesus’ kingdom was from this world they would’ve fought back in the garden during his arrest. But Jesus’ kingdom is different, it is not like the kingdoms of this world. In Jesus’ kingdom evil is not repaid with evil. In Jesus’ kingdom suffering love is the weapon of choice, not a sword or an M16. This is borne out further in the gospel of John as Jesus is sentenced to crucifixion. There, the evils and injustices of the kingdoms of this world, the powers and the principalities, are on full display. There, Jesus is cursed, mocked, spit upon, but he does not repay evil for evil, instead he entrusts his life to his father in heaven, asking for God to forgive his enemies. There, Jesus lays down his life for his friends, for those who betrayed him. There, Jesus witnesses to his kingdom and not to the world’s kingdoms which will always punish traitors, which cannot bear to look weak. Three days later, Jesus’ entire life, all that he said and did, is vindicated when our father raised him from the dead having “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame.” God’s power having been made perfect/complete, not in military might, but in the weakness of the Roman Cross.
While I understand the desire to use Jesus’ words in such a way as the meme above does, it simply amounts to a misuse of Jesus’ words. It’s actually very similar to what Satan does to Jesus when he tempts him using God’s word in the wilderness (Lk 4:9-12, Ps. 91:11-12). If, after saying these words, Jesus went and fought in the garden alongside his disciples with a sword setting off the expected revolution then such usage would be okay. Unfortunately, such usage is bound up in our own cultural biases and presuppositions, rather than what’s going on in the text.
I’ve written more on this topic here.