Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Luke 22: Christian Terrorism

Every time I have my New York friends convinced that Michigan isn't such a bad place to live, a bunch of people from my home state are arrested for plotting to kill police officers and bomb funeral processions.

Today, the New York Times reports that a Saturday night raid in Clayton, MI led to the arrest of eight individuals who were planning to assassinate a local police officer and then use insurgency-inspired IED's to wreak havoc on the officer's funeral procession. If the strategy had succeeded, they were going to retreat to defensive positions in the woods and fight a to-the-death battle with local law enforcement. Classy, huh? Here's a video posted on the group's web site:

Of course, my friends only think I'm crazier after they read first quote from the Times's coverage: "'In Michigan, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal to be in a militia', said Tom McDormett, a neighbor. He added: 'They would practice shooting, but that’s not a big deal. People do that all the time out here'."

For the record, it is a big deal if you are militia member in Michigan. I have hundreds of friends from home, and not one of them has joined an ad hoc paramilitary strike force with designs on bringing down the federal government. Well, except for my buddy Ralph ... and he's a really sweet guy. He volunteers at the local children's hospital between automatic weaponry classes.

However, the fearsome eightsome from Clayton is unique, as militias go. Though it calls police officers "foot soldiers" of an oppressive federal government, its members are apocalyptic Christians. They call themselves the "Hutaree," a neologism meaning "Christian warrior."

The Times reports that the Hutaree are inspired by events described in Revelation, the Biblical book that plays out a bloody end-times scenario in which righteous believers battle minions of the Antichrist before the apocalypse.

However, I checked out the Hutaree site this morning and was surprised to find that their philosophy is less inspired by Revelation than it is by the words of Jesus himself.

Of course, Jesus is best known as a proponent of non-violence, or perhaps more specifically, non-retaliation. Verses like Mattew 5:39--"if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also"--are said to have inspired the passive resistance strategies of Gandhi and, later, Martin Luther King.

However, as I tell my New Testament students time and again, this Christ is a hard character to pin down, and it seems as if the Hutaree are motivated by someone other than MLK's Jesus.

Just like the sites of Starbucks, the World Bank, and Wikipedia, the Hutaree web site features an "About Us" link--how thoughtful. (Apparently, the Michigan educational system taught them basic web design but neglected to teach them not to blow up hearses.) It reads, in part, "Jesus wanted us to be ready to defend ourselves using the sword."

Reading this, I immediately think not of Revelation, but of a later chapter in Matthew, when Jesus ominously intones, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father [...] and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household" (10:45). Here, Jesus seems to promise a frightening strife similar to the funeral attack planned by the Hutaree.

However, the Hutaree themselves have another passage in mind, Luke 22:35-38: "He said to them, ‘But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled'. They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords'. He replied, ‘It is enough'."

Here, Jesus seems to preach not only (self-defensive?) violence--buy a sword, or two--but "criminal" action against law enforcement agents. Indeed, to be "lawless" is to directly fulfill scriptural prophecy. Thus, in planning to take up arms against police agents, the Hutaree perhaps thought that they were preparing to carry out the divine command.

Once again, we arrive at the dangers of interpretive literalism--and at the perils of Biblical ignorance. Context, as always, is absolutely crucial. For Luke 22 does not demand that modern believers follow in the footsteps of the Hutaree.

The Luke author wrote his gospel to audiences living around 80 C.E., when Roman violence against Christians was on the rise. Indeed, those who first read Luke in the second half of the first century may have been considered "lawless." Thus Luke's Jesus is not advocating terrorist action against the government--in the first century, such action would have been suicidal. He may, however, be advising Christians of the dangers of active belief--and of the necessity for savvy self-defense. Remember, Jesus was crucified as an insurgent and a revolutionary, and his followers risked similar fates in treading his path.

At least in the United States, Christians face no such danger; indeed, our last three presidents have been remarkably open in professing their faith. Nonetheless, the Hutaree see the world differently, and they can find in the Bible words that support their skewed view.

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