Wes Howard Brook teaches with his wife Sue Ferguson Johnson through their ministry (www.abideinme.net) and also at Seattle University. Between them, they are blessed with five children. Wes’ most recent book is Come Out My People: God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond.
I’ve been doing a lot of reflection on my experience of the Disarm Now Plowshares approach to the courtroom. I write this with great respect for those who have risked their freedom in witnessing against the weapons of mass destruction held by the United States, but with a seemingly great difference in understanding of the spiritual nature of the courtroom. I hope my words might generate some much needed conversation on where our hope truly lies.
In my “previous life,” I worked as counsel to the US Senate Judiciary Committee, and now teach and write about the biblical encounter with “empire” while seeking to follow Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One. These two contrasting life directions have combined to reveal to me some foundational truths. First, we live amid two diametrically opposed reigns of power. One of these is animated by the spirit of what Jesus calls “mammon”: that power of wealth which seeks to dominate and control all else, including people, the earth and other competing spirits. The other is animated by the spirit of God, which constantly seeks to heal our imperial brokenness and to restore the original, created glory and dignity of all creation.
The US Senate, as well as all other instrumentalities of our government, are part of the first of these reigns. The one rule I learned while working in the Senate, upon which all else turns, is “whoever has the most money wins.” This is not a new principle, nor one unique to American institutions. It is the nature of empire itself, from the ancient foundations of what we call “civilization.” Jesus, like many of the prophets before him, came to denounce this system and to replace it with what he called “the reign of God.”
Jesus expected his disciples to end up in imperial courtrooms, witnessing to what they came to experience and know through their relationship with him. For example, we hear in Luke’s gospel:
They will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. (Lk 21.12-15)
What are Jesus’ disciples to testify about? Certainly not the hope that empire’s system of law will be the source of justice or salvation. Rather, Jesus expects his disciples to witness to the certainly that empire and its system of laws will collapse, to be replaced by God’s authentic reign. This is what we hear in Acts of the Apostles, where Peter and Paul testify before both Judean and Roman officials. It is expressed in the powerful imagery at the end of Revelation, where fallen Babylon is replaced by New Jerusalem.
The system of arms treaties and war conventions in our world today were established, like their predecessors across the ages, not to provide justice for ordinary people, but to regulate inter-empire relationships and to legitimize war and imperial violence for the sake of protecting commerce. For example, David Korten’s powerful book, When Corporations Rule the World, showed clearly how NATO and the Bretton Woods agreements were generated at the end of World War II to protect European markets for US capitalism. Further examples could be multiplied endlessly to underscore this point.
When peace-loving people call upon international treaties and conventions as the potential source of peace, we only further empower empire. At the same time, we disempower God’s reign by making it seem like a fantasy incapable of being realized amid the concrete power structures of the world. In the situation of a rare “win” where such arguments succeed in achieving a “not guilty” verdict, the imperial system is strengthened even more by encouraging other disciples to pursue that route of “victory.”
What I’m speaking of is not simply adding “God talk” to our rhetoric, but rather, a deep and thorough examination of the social and spiritual dynamics of the courtroom. Our only true hope is in the reign of our loving and compassionate Creator God.