“Come home. You’re better than this.”
—Daniel Dietrich, Hymn for the 81%
You had me at Brian Zahnd.
When the first seven days of 2021 had already trumped (sic) the insanity of 2020, and Christian nationalism had erupted in all manner of ‘prophetic’ blasphemies, I was neither surprised nor confused. That’s a lie. But I wasn’t bereft. That’s because I had already read the clear-minded social commentary of an actual national prophet—my friend and online pastor, Brian Zahnd. But what I pined for was that his sanity would be amplified for those whose heads are spinning. Cue the Postcards documentary.
A word about where I’m coming from. While I’m primarily known as a theologian, my PhD was in political theology, exploring the intersection of political philosophy and our theology of the Cross. Politically, I’m a Canadian “High Tory” conservative who regards the entire American experiment (from far left to far right) as a violent exultation in freedom as self-will. That’s problematic for me as a Christian resident in a vassal state under the direct shadow of history’s most powerful empire.
But I don’t hate America any more than Jesus hated Rome. Indeed, most of my best friends are Americans and I find their enthusiastic hospitality and authenticity incredibly beautiful. It’s the ‘empire’ part that’s troubling—but particularly when faith is seduced by the powers “in the name of Jesus.” And that’s where Postcards is crucial. “Americanism,” says Zahnd, “is a rival religion to authentic Christian faith.” It’s an unholy harmonization of the American dream and some patriotic, nationalistic and militaristic aberration of the gospel.
Narrator David Peters, the Zahnds, Walter Brueggemann and other featured interviewees highlight how the kingdom of God will not bow to the ideologies of left and right, progressive or conservative, elephant or donkey. The Lamb is Lord with his own politics, who stands above and against the lure of “Christian empire” or any dominionist theocracy from the Constantinian calamity to the Trumpist tragedy.
Zahnd’s rejection of Christianist politicism or imperial aspirations should not be mistaken for an attack from the ‘left.’ After all, wasn’t it Donald Trump who pushed back at the hawks, encouraged troop withdrawals and who eased tensions with Russia? No, Zahnd is not a partisan or political tribalist. He is announcing the Lordship of Christ over against the particularly American Evangelical/Charismatic demotion of Jesus to “secretary of afterlife affairs and chaplain of national interests.” He is addressing the elemental contradiction in this identity crisis between Christianity and civil religious nationalism.
Yes, he says, following Jeremiah, live as exiles called to serve the land where God plants you, even in elected office if you will. But never forget the first allegiance of exiles is to their homeland. And that involves making choices. Brueggemann says,
Faith calls us to choose between the dominant narrative of scarcity, fear, greed and violence or abundance, courage, generosity and peaceableness. Progressives and conservatives all face this same question.
Why, then, do white Evangelicals consistently poll 14% higher than unchurched Americans in favor, not only of war and pre-emptive war but of torture? How did John Wayne’s militant masculinism become the paragon of robust Christian America? How is it that the 81% came to define Evangelicalism? How could both a gallows and a cross be erected in the January 6 siege of the US Capitol, complete with “Jesus Saves” signs and “Auschwitz Staff” hoodies celebrating the day? These are among the critical questions that Postcards directly addresses.
Okay, I’ll just say it: Postcards from Babylon identifies the anti-Christ. And it ain’t Trump, Biden or any president. It is this beastly hybrid of politicized faith that transfigures the cross into a noose or a sword and blasphemously plagiarizes Jesus’ term “peacemaker” as a brand name for handguns and missiles … then dares call that Christian faithfulness! It doesn’t so much attack faith as much as co-opting and displacing it, retaining only a thin veneer of Jesus talk.
Paul Young wrote this to me recently,
Anti-Christ has the sense of over against Christ rather than simply against Christ. It looks like a lamb but has the voice of a dragon. Antichrist looks like this: I have a quality paint store and someone who is over against me (‘anti-Paul’) doesn’t ransack my store but rather, builds one next to mine, spends money on marketing and promotion, waters down the paint and sells it at half the cost. They dismantle my business by offering something false, gilded by advertising.
That’s what empire does to genuine faith. But against that, at the risk of spoilers, from his pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, Brian Zahnd speaks a better word, a gospel word that subsumes and subverts even the carnage-Christianity that tens of millions have already fled. I give him the last word:
We see a world formed in violence reaching a hideous apex, and with great violence, the world sinned its sin into the body of Jesus Christ. The wounds on Christ’s body—on his hands, his feet, his side—these are entry wounds as sins are violently injected into Jesus. What happens when sin enters the body of Jesus? Sin itself dies. Jesus goes down into death and leaves sin and death there, conquered and defeated. He’s raised on the third day; he comes back preaching the first word of the new world: “Peace be with you.” The Cross is where Christ abolishes war and the myth of redemptive violence and calls us into a new world formed in peace.
Brad Jersak (PhD) is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC.
He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery.