The church as watchman in a world of violence: Reading Ezekiel with Jacques Ellul

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September 23, 2013 by jmar198013


In the waning days of the Jerusalem empire, an exiled prophet named Ezekiel was told by God that his job was to be a watchman for his people in a quickly changing world. He was to warn them about their unfaithfulness. This is what God told Ezekiel:

Human one, I’ve made you a lookout for the house of Israel. When you hear a word from me, deliver my warning. If I declare that the wicked will die but you don’t warn them, if you say nothing to warn them from their wicked ways so that they might live, they will die because of their guilt, but I will hold you accountable for their deaths. If you do warn the wicked and they don’t turn from their wickedness or their wicked ways, they will die because of their guilt, but you will save your life.

The Lord’s word came to me: Human one, speak to your people and say to them: Suppose I bring a sword against a country, and the people of the land take a certain person from their assembly and make him their lookout. When he sees the sword coming against the land, he blows the trumpet and warns the people. If they hear the sound of the trumpet but don’t heed the warning, when the sword comes and they are taken away, they are responsible for their blood. They heard the sound of the trumpet but didn’t heed the warning, so their blood is on them. If they had paid attention to the warning, they would have saved their lives. If the lookout sees the sword coming but doesn’t blow the trumpet to warn the people, when the sword comes and takes away any of them, they are taken away in their sin, but I’ll hold the lookout responsible for their blood.

You, human one, I’ve made you a lookout for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear me speaking, you must give them warning from me. If I pronounce a death sentence on wicked people, and you don’t warn them to turn from their way, they will die in their guilt, but I will hold you responsible for their blood. But suppose you do warn the wicked of their ways so that they might turn from them. If they don’t turn from their ways, they will die in their guilt, but you will save your life.

You, human one, say to the house of Israel: This is what all of you are saying: “How our transgressions and our sins weigh on us! We waste away because of them. How can we live?” Say to them, This is what the Lord God says: As surely as I live, do I take pleasure in the death of the wicked? If the wicked turn from their ways, they will live. Turn, completely turn from your wicked ways! Why should you die, house of Israel?

You, human one, say to your people: The righteousness of the righteous doesn’t rescue them when they begin to sin. Nor does the wickedness of the wicked make them stumble if they turn from their wickedness. If the righteous sin, their righteousness won’t protect them. Even if I’ve told the righteous they will live, none of their righteous deeds will be remembered if they trust in their righteousness and do wrong. They will die because of their evil deeds. And even if I have pronounced a death sentence on the wicked, if they turn from sin and do what is just and right— if they return pledges, make restitution for robbery, and walk in life-giving regulations in order not to sin—they will live and not die. None of the sins they’ve committed will be remembered against them. They’ve done what is just and right, and they will live.

Yet your people say, “My Lord’s way doesn’t measure up.” Isn’t it their ways that don’t measure up? When the righteous turn from their righteousness to do wrong, they will die because of it. And when the wicked turn from their wickedness to do what is just and right, it is for that reason they will live. Yet you say, “My Lord’s way doesn’t measure up.” I judge each one of you according to your ways, house of Israel! (Ezek. 3.17-19; 33.1-20 CEB)

One of the most fascinating aspects of this passage is that it indicates that people have the capacity to change their fate. God is no fatalist. He is not an unmoved mover. God is responsive. He will spank the righteous when they sin, and spare the wicked when they repent. This passage also says something about identity. That God treats the righteous as wicked when they sin indicates that we are what we do. Finally, God’s word to Ezekiel about his prophetic vocation speaks to history, and the need for God’s people to discern movements in history.

The need for God’s people to discern movements in history and respond faithfully was of primary concern to Jacques Ellul. Ellul rightly understood that our existence as a people tasked with awaiting the breakthrough of God’s kingdom requires us to faithfully interpret the signs of the times. Ellul also rightly perceived that our faithful observation of the movements of history requires that we not embrace violence as a means of responding to history. For that would mean that we are trying to force the kingdom, not submit to it. Thus Ellul wrote:

Every advance realized in church and society must immediately be analyzed, criticized, measured  by the kingdom yardstick. The kingdom demands nothing less than radical change. Mind, in all this, we certainly must not get the idea that we are “preparing” the kingdom . . . as if we with our ideas could build the kingdom! . . . The coming kingdom of God is also the kingdom of heaven that is already present, hidden in the world (the treasure, the yeast, the seed), working in the world and changing it mysteriously. This gives rise to a second orientation: the Christian should be on the lookout, vigilant to discern signs of that working, ready to become himself a sign of that hidden life. This is not the attitude of a man who, on his own responsibility, demands change because he expects the kingdom to break in. It is an attitude of submission, patience, openness, in the confidence that God is at work in the present; an attitude that determines how the Christian should act with reference both to the future (which is given by God) and to the bidden present (where God reveals himself). That is why, in relation to future and present, the Christian is qualified to be ambassador, sentinel or sacrificer. And indeed he sometimes plays these roles when he intervenes in the affairs of the world. However, the Christian’s action must be specifically Christian. (Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective. New York: Seabury Press, 1969, p. 45)

Ellul concluded that Christians are called to take the role of lookouts on the wall, much as Ezekiel had. We are called to interpret the movements of history and to formulate and undertake specifically Christian responses to those movements. Thus Ellul wrote:

Let me emphasize that recourse to violence is a sign of incapacity: incapacity to solve the fundamental questions of our time (perhaps even just to see them) and incapacity to discern the specific form Christian action ought to take. I repeat once more that I fully understand the insurrection of the oppressed who see no way out, who fight desperately against the violence done them and will break loose from their chains the moment they can. I fully understand the revolts of slaves, the violent workers’ strikes of the nineteenth century, the rebellion of colonized peoples who want to avenge a century of humiliation, privation and injustice at one blow. I understand these explosions and, what is more, I approve of them. The oppressed have no other way of protesting their human right to live; and they think, too, that by rebelling they can change their situation for the better, if only to some small degree. But what cannot be condoned is that Christians associate themselves with this avengement, and, worse, that Christians affirm that violence will secure fundamental change. Christians do not have the reasons for believing this that the oppressed have. Christians ought above all to play the role of society’s sentinel (Ezekiel), to interpret for society the meaning of acts and events. But, of course, that is much more difficult and much less exciting than to plunge thoughtlessly into revolutionary action. To be on the side of the oppressed and at the same time have to tell them that their explosions of violence are futile and will bring no real change-this is the most thankless position anyone can take. It was the position of Martin Luther King, and we know how vulnerable it is. It was also the position of Jesus in relation to the Pharisees . . . and the Zealots. (Violence pp. 69-70)

Ellul is quite right in diagnosing Christians who speak up for violent solutions to problems of injustice in this world as being incapable of discerning specific forms of Christian action in response to evil. To the extent that we leave room for violence in our arsenal of response, we will always resort to violence. Because when we suppose that violence is a legitimate Christian undertaking, we are robbed of the imagination, the courage, and the trust in God’s vindication of the righteous that makes a Christian–and therefore peaceful and peace-building–response possible. This is why I view the vocation of Christian pacifists, who embrace a robust nonviolence as a matter of discipleship, as a matter of being lookouts on the walls of the church. We are called by God to remind God’s people that when we embrace the violent solutions of the world, this is sin. And the righteousness of our cause will not save us. We are what we do.


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