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Fall 2013 · Vol. 42 No. 2 · pp. 262–265 

Book Review

The Jesus Factor in Justice and Peacemaking

C. Norman Kraus. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2011. 126 pages.

Reviewed by Harry J. Huebner

The Jesus Factor tackles an important issue, namely, bringing together the imaginations of contemporary peacemaking/justice with the Jesus of the Gospels. This is a valuable endeavor, for too often these two worlds want nothing to do with each other. Kraus argues that the nature of peacemaking is inherently a dialogical enterprise and so a central task in its pursuit is to unite these estranged worlds in dialogue. The thesis of the book is that violence emanates largely from the intransigent insistence of dominance by ideologies and/or religious cultures, usually enforced by military might. And since truth is not the exclusive possession of any tradition, culture, or religion, the search for it is best conducted through conversation and interaction. And here the model of Jesus helps us: not the Christian religious tradition undergirded by a theological superstructure that has inadvertently undermined his teaching, but the wandering peacemaker speaking peace and living as an example. In this way Jesus’ model is capable of inspiring peace in today’s conflict-ridden world.

The “Jesus paradigm” offers something distinctive if one permits the narratives of the Gospels to speak out of the culture in which they were lived and written. What Kraus lifts out in particular is Jesus’ new understanding of God and his re-definition of neighbor. Jesus sees God as radically impartial—Jews and Gentiles alike are God’s children. What’s more, for Jesus one does not “enter God’s kingdom” through the Jewish religion. Rather “God’s universal law of wisdom” is available to all human hearts and minds. This means that all cultures provide the bases for access to {263} God. And when Jesus also redefines “neighbor” to include the enemy, it is clear that obligations to friend and enemy, stranger and neighbor, Jew and Gentile, are the same.

Kraus argues that Evangelicals and Fundamentalists (he does not name any or make precise distinctions between the two) are a major impediment to peace because they insist on defining Jesus in orthodox (usually ontologically oriented) creedal categories which exclude relevance to social and political processes. Even more seriously, as Kraus puts it, “Fundamentalist claims, no matter in which religious tradition they occur, cripple the peace process” (36). Why? Because they emphasize right belief and leave practice to the accepted conventions of the day. Kraus laments the many unfortunate twists and turns that Christian theology has taken over the centuries in defending Christian truth against other so-called truths by rational means. Moreover, theology has relied particularly on ancient Hellenistic assumptions to shape an understanding of the structure of the universe, assumptions Jesus did not share. Jesus was not an exclusivist even though he said some things that might sound that way, such as, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6b). Says Kraus, “Instead of defining the religion of Israel as the only religion and proselyting [sic] the nations, [Jesus] invited Israel to become the vanguard of peacemaking among the nations through sacrificial self-giving” (41). Jesus neither inaugurated a new religion nor did he demand that his followers be converted before they followed. Instead of preoccupying himself with a “metaphysical paradigm,” Jesus dwelt on relationships—with God and with human beings. This re-framing of the deity and accounting of the lordship of Jesus are, for Kraus, necessary underpinnings of the proper pursuit of justice and peacemaking.

In Kraus’s view, what is most noteworthy about Jesus is his distinctive style (he also calls it gestalt). In making this assertion he claims to affirm John H. Yoder’s “political Jesus.” Instead of vindication and retaliation Jesus teaches and models “nonviolent politics” as the way of peacemaking. In accepting the cross and its associated violence Jesus deliberately inverts the style of the Roman imperium. Reconciliation, repentance, and forgiveness are all of one piece in the Jesus ethic. While this ethic is different in detail from the peace teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism, especially in their social and relational dimensions, there is nevertheless room for fruitful mutual learning and practice.

According to Kraus, Jesus challenges the traditional power metaphor of ancient Israel’s political theology. On the ancient model, God intervenes violently to enforce peace. On Jesus’ model, there is no violent route to peace, either on God’s part or on his. Peace is itself the path, even when it is met with suffering and death. “Jesus views God’s power not as violent {264} intervention but as the nonviolent immanent dynamic of agape” (75). This implies a rather sharp break with the ancient view of God as mighty warrior. Jesus knew God as “Abba” (an Aramaic term communicating parental intimacy). The key characteristics of Abba God are love and forgiveness, which is not non-power since it holds great capacity for change, albeit nonviolent change. Says Kraus, “the power of God is nonviolent” (77). Hence it should not be surprising to find that Jesus’ many parables are about peacemaking and a loving Father-God. For the road to peace is not military might but love, compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Modern peacemakers can benefit from this presentation of Jesus, says Kraus. But he cautions them to resist three historically recurrent temptations: first, to spiritualize the teachings of Jesus; second, to politicize his teaching in a way that commits them to building “a universal political empire”; and third, to create monastic and sectarian communities removed from engagement with secular society. According to Kraus, the reign of peace envisioned by Jesus has little to do with the institutional church but is a call for disciples to be sojourners in society, playing “by a different set of assumptions and rules” (110). This “reign” can be pointed to here and there in concrete social and political human relationships but is not itself a structure.

In the view of this reader, Kraus rejects too much traditional theology in order to defend the version of peacemaking and justice rooted in the story of Jesus. He criticizes traditional Christian theology for having been unhelpfully preoccupied with metaphysics, which resulted in the depreciation of discipleship ethics. Ironically he, too, implicitly argues for an ontology; only (rightly, I would argue) for an ontology of peace. (See his fleeting reference to the “nonviolent grain of the universe” on page 51.) Critiques of traditional theology are surely warranted, but why not follow the promise of this “peaceful ontology” and show its value over rival ontologies of violence? This kind of project would naturally lead to engagement with the likes of Anglican theologian John Milbank, whose Theology and Social Theory is especially relevant here. One need not reject ontological theology to emphasize Jesus’ teaching on peace and justice. Choosing between metaphysics and ethics is not the issue! To make the point differently, although Kraus wants to deny it, he needs Nicaea to make his own argument work. For if Jesus were not fully God why should we follow him? And if he were not fully human how could ordinary mortals follow him? Yoder appreciates classical theology for recognizing these as important questions. Ironically, while Kraus wants to affirm Yoder’s Christology, he distances himself from the classical theology that undergirds Yoder’s interpretation of Jesus. {265}

A similar criticism can be made of Kraus’s comments on Jesus and the Old Testament. There is no doubt that Jesus was critical of the interpretation of much of what religious authorities took to be proper theology and ethics (“You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you . . .”). At the same time Jesus profoundly affirms the Old Testament creator, sustainer, redeeming God and God’s commandments to the people of Israel, especially the Great Commandment of loving God and neighbor. In fact, one could argue that what Jesus is calling for is the restoration of the original peace of creation (another metaphysical affirmation). Moreover, it is highly doubtful that for Jesus the “power of God is nonviolent,” as Kraus suggests, at least not exclusively so. Jesus’ parable of the judgment on the nations in Matthew 25, for example, does not fit that model neatly. This is not to suggest that the violence used by God is for us to emulate—clearly we are called to take up the cross and follow Jesus—but it is to question whether Kraus’s claim about Jesus’ view of God can be supported by the Gospels in any straightforward way.

Finally, I lament that Kraus does not provide a more robust and constructive role for the church in his view of justice and peacemaking. Of course there is much to be critical of in traditional ecclesiological models and practice, but it is hard to read the New Testament without noticing that it assigns the church a central role in Christian peacemaking.

There is much to commend about this book: Kraus’s many provocative questions, his invitation to dialogic theologizing and the collaborative search for justice, his effort to bring the teachings of Jesus to the challenges of contemporary peacemaking, not to mention the compact format of the book itself. It would make a fine textbook for conflict resolution courses and a great read for church study groups. This is a truly important book the value of which lies in great measure in its invitation to all in contemporary society, including adherents of other religions, to a dialogue on justice and peacemaking.

Harry J. Huebner
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Theology
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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