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A Farewell to Mars: Brian Zahnd's Timely Send-Off to the God of War in an Age of Religious Violence

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Zahnd, Brian. A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor's Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace. New York: David C. Cook, 2014. ISBN: 978-0781411189

Rarely do books on such timely topics combine the right mix of incisiveness, accessibility, and brilliant analysis in a single literary package, but Brian Zahnd has achieved this elusive synthesis in his most recent offering, A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor's Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace. On the heels of the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings on D-Day, Zahnd has given us a remarkable overview of Jesus' peaceable kingdom as an alternative to the nationalism, patriotism, and militarism that define the political ethos of his own American homeland, even if it exists to a lesser degree in other countries around the world as well. "What Jesus called evil," Zahnd observes, "are the very things our cultures and societies have honored in countless myths, memorials, and anthems."

Poetic and perceptive, insightful and courageous, it's as though nearly every sentence is a tweet-worthy aphorism with the power to generate life-changing (or at least life-reexamining) cognitive dissonance among his many readers: "We sequester Jesus to a stained-glass quarantine and appropriate a trillion dollars for the war machine," Zahnd laments. Pervading the pages of this thin yet rigorous volume is a careful deconstruction of one of the most ingrained impulses in societies built on the soul-destroying munitions that rouse endless warfare: gratitude toward "our side" -- which is mistakenly equated with "God's side" -- for killing other human beings in order to preserve our so-called "freedom" (read "comfortable, affluent lifestyle"). As Zahnd remarks, "Freedom becomes a euphemism for vanquishing (instead of loving) enemies; truth finds its ultimate form in the will to power (expressed in the willingness to kill). This is a long way from the ideas of peace, love, and forgiveness set forth by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount." Indeed, "If we carefully examine how we use the word freedom," Zahnd challenges us, "it becomes apparent that we use it to sanction our perceived right to pursue happiness in a self-interested fashion."

In setting the stage this way, this bold missive skillfully contrasts the Prince of Peace -- whom Christians will invoke usually when it's less challenging, agonizing or compromising to do so -- with Mars, the ancient Roman god of war whose bellicosity American Christianity regularly embraces in an effort to either deliberately or unwittingly muffle Christ's commandments to love our enemies (Mt. 5:44). With this archaic cultic impulse in mind, Zahnd dares American Christians "to prioritize caring for the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the imprisoned, and to renounce an ambition to dominate the world economically or militarily. I do this in the name of Jesus. I pledge no allegiance to elephants or donkeys, only to the Lamb."

Given its important and recognizable subject matter, A Farewell to Mars has also clearly drawn on such celebrated just-peace advocates as John Howard Yoder, Walter Wink, René Girard, and Stanley Hauerwas to undermine convenient and mesmerizingly misleading American -- or generally nationalistic -- mythologies. Indeed, this selective memory of patriotic idolatry marks out specific self-serving boundaries so that "the US Congress would no more adopt the policies Jesus set out in the Sermon on the Mount than they were adopted by the Jewish Sanhedrin or the Roman Senate." American lore has become so mesmerizing, in fact, that it's produced mass mimetic behaviour in the form of "crowds" -- deluded majorities, as the numerical goal of all calculated deception -- that sway automatically to the pulsing rhythms of nationalistic drum-beating as the overture to the theatres of war to come. As Zahnd again observes, "Jesus weeps over the nationalistic crowd whose hosannas are meant to egg him into violent revolution. The crowd is antichrist."

A Farewell to Mars is particularly noteworthy because it's written by someone who completed a 180-degree about-face, from a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of the American war machine to steadily trading homage to Mars for worship of the crucified, nonviolent, kenotic Prince of Peace. This gives Zahnd a unique platform and measure of credibility to powerfully articulate the ideas, events and internal struggles that triggered his turnaround in a way that can help others do the same. Within this semi-autobiographical outline, there is therefore a refreshing emphasis on personal repentance, functioning as a confessional of sorts--perhaps even an unburdening -- while challenging his readers to follow suit.

The crux of the matter for Zahnd? We separate Jesus' ideas from his life narrative at our own peril. As the author explains, "If our default response to this portion of the Sermon on the Mount [viz., Jesus' commandment to love our enemies] is to craft exemptions, we might give the impression that we really don't believe in Jesus's ideas of nonviolent resistance and enemy love at all," adding that "Christians may claim that war is a necessity, but they cannot claim that Jesus endorses this idea."

Indeed, the tendency in the fear-based Christianity that's prevalent in the United States and emulated to a lesser extent elsewhere around the world ignores the weight that the political and religious authorities in Jesus' own day placed on these ideas that we now trivialize as quaint and unrealistic: "If Jesus of Nazareth had preached the paper-thin version of what passes for the 'gospel' today -- a shrunken, postmortem promise of going to heaven when you die--Pilate would have shrugged his shoulders and released the Nazarene, warning him not to get mixed up in the affairs of the real world." But, as Zahnd recalls elsewhere, it was Jesus' "ideas about an alternative arrangement of the world -- an arrangement that might best be called peace -- that resulted in his death by state-sponsored execution."

Compact yet wise and purposeful in its use of limited space, A Farewell to Mars is willing to assemble a helpful framework for understanding the particulars that it couldn't get around to explicating in more detail due to space constraints. Sure, Zahnd gets his hands dirty in the nitty-gritty details that form the pericopes he enlists in support of his thesis, such as his deft and masterful analysis of John 8 in chapter 5. Here, he concludes:

"Violence cannot tolerate the presence of one who owes it nothing. It's why everyone at a stoning needs to throw a rock. If someone at a stoning doesn't participate, they are in danger of becoming the next victim. For the illusion of innocence to work, everyone must participate in the collective murder. The one who won't throw a rock becomes a prophet shining light on the evil of stoning. The community must then either repent or stone the prophet."

But this thin volume is also refreshingly broad in its scope. To this end, Zahnd unfurls a more sweeping anthropological explanation for the appearance of violence in the Old Testament through an implicit appeal to Girard's Mimetic Theory. Here, God's incremental subversion of knee-jerk violence and retaliation that was reinforced by human sacrifice or scapegoating is eventually replaced by animal sacrifice to divert the target of our violence, and eventually by God Incarnate himself who imitably absorbed our violence against him rather than fighting back: "We forget that when we see Christ dead upon the cross, we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies." In this vein, Zahnd designates the cross as "shock therapy for a world addicted to solving its problems through violence. The cross shocks us into the devastating realization that our system of violence murdered God!"

Throughout the entire volume, one theme is clear: God is like Jesus and he has always been like Jesus. By channeling his inner Girard, Zahnd further demonstrates how Jesus eroded the scapegoat mechanism that characterized the mimetic desire and sacred violence of primitive religion, the realization of which transforms our imitative behavior:

"When we denigrate those of differing nationalities, ethnicities, religions, politics, and classes to a dehumanized 'them,' we open the door to deep hostility and the potential for unimaginable atrocities. If we believe the lie that they are 'not like us,' we are capable of becoming murderers and monsters."

As should be apparent by now, Zahnd doesn't shy away from the most dangerous ideological cocktails that boast both widespread appeal and acute harm -- within Christianity and the whole world. To wit, A Farewell to Mars challenges flimsy futurist hermeneutics that sideline our responsibilities in the here-and-now and gaze longingly toward the post-apocalyptic hereafter. "Let me say it clearly," Zahnd declares confidently, "if you are waiting for something to happen before you beat your sword into a plowshare and your spear into a pruning hook, you can stop waiting! If you confess that Jesus is the Prince of Peace foretold by the prophets, you can start being a peacemaker -- today! You don't need to wait for anything else. You shouldn't wait for anything else!" This impassioned appeal seeks to overturn the "faulty, half-baked, doom-oriented, hyperviolent eschatology, popularized in Christian fiction (of all things!), that envisions God as saving parts of people for a nonspatial, nontemporal existence in a Platonic 'heaven'," in which the "right" kind of Christians triumphantly pronounce themselves the celestial victors, while the world we once knew and that God loves and created as "good" becomes a massive smoldering lump of charcoal drifting aimlessly through outer space.

To fill this theological black hole with a more hopeful alternative, Zahnd expertly uncovers the socio-political nucleus of Jesus' teachings, in which we're called to participate today, as opposed to the heaven-obsessed ramblings of pop-Christianity. "Jesus is not a heavenly conductor handing out tickets to heaven," Zahnd reminds us, "Jesus is the carpenter who repairs, renovates, and restores God's good world." In this sense, A Farewell to Mars includes a clarion call to imagine a better world and produce more creative solutions to the world's ills: "We simply cannot envision the world other than it is. Our very imaginations have been commandeered by the principalities and powers. As Walter Brueggemann describes our situation, 'Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing.'"

If I were to choose one book to give to my friends who haven't yet grasped Jesus' message of enemy-love and nonviolence, I would give them A Farewell to Mars. For those who already at least aspire to be co-laborers with the Prince of Peace, this volume is a must-have addition to your library. Convincing, lucid, multi-textured, original yet not unfamiliar, and sensitive to the usual objections to shining a spotlight on Jesus' way of peace, Zahnd has written a masterpiece worthy of our attention -- both critics and the choir alike.