Here is how Chris Kyle introduces himself in the opening of his autobiography, American Sniper (2013). Many will come to know him as he is portrayed by Bradley Cooper in the blockbuster movie of the same name.
Every story has a beginning. Mine starts in north-central Texas. I grew up in small towns where I learned the importance of family and traditional values, like patriotism, self-reliance, and watching out for your family and neighbors. I’m proud to say that I still try to live my life according to those values. I have a strong sense of justice. It’s pretty much black-and-white. I don’t see too much gray. I think it’s important to protect others. I don’t mind hard work. At the same time, I like to have fun. Life’s too short not to.
I was raised with, and still believe in, the Christian faith. If I had to order my priorities, they would be God, Country, Family. There might be some debate on where those last two fall—these days I’ve come around to believing that Family, may, under some circumstances, outrank Country. But it’s a close race (7-8).
Kyle presumes, perhaps correctly, that the triumvirate of God, Country, and Family is no longer popular in the general population, but did he know how ancient the trio is? Not to know the long lineage linking the three results in a serious misreading of Jesus cleansing the Temple. It also blinds us to the goals of ISIS, the Islamic State.
Moderns are educated to split the sacred and the secular. It’s a product of the Enlightenment, a separation presumably needed to stifle wars of religion. The sacred pertains to the person, to the family. The secular controls the economy, the social weal. Sometimes, in order to safeguard those, it goes to war.
Splitting the sacred and the secular, a modern reader assumes that Jesus cleansed the temple because he resented religion being linked to economic concerns. “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” (Jn 2:16). But that would have made Jesus a very odd Jew. Indeed it would have made him incomprehensible to anyone in the ancient world.
As the religious scholar Karen Armstrong points out in her superb Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014), one seriously misreads history in believing that, before the modern period, people went to war for religion. Wars date to the dawn of civilization, because they accompany the development of agriculture.
The hunter-gatherer societies, which preceded farming, were different in three ways. They were egalitarian, because everyone could hunt or gather. Because their violence was limited to the control of scarce resources, there was no military caste. If violence came, everyone fought. And religiously, hunter-gatherer societies were animists. They saw sprites where we see the forces of nature. They revered the spirits that animated their waters, their trees, even their prey.
Agriculture allowed humans to do more than subsist. It greatly increased populations, but, in doing so, it created societies based on control of the land. Most people would labor in the fields, and some, a very few, would organize that labor and fight to preserve and extend property, which had become the basis of all wealth. Religion also evolved. A landscape filled with spirits was replaced by a cosmos, an ordered society in which every person and every resource was fitted into a governing narrative. Most were serfs; some were nobles. This was the price of civilization. Every human advance of the ancient world depended upon the enslavement of the majority so that a leisured few could pursue progress.
Religion changed as well. It now came with stories. The gods had personalities. Every myth, every ritual reinforced the seamless unity of the divine, country, and family. Temples were repositories of wealth. Wars were “religious” because there was no separation of the sacred and the secular.
If asked about religiosity, Jews at the time of Jesus would have done the same as Romans, Greeks, or Egyptians. They would have pointed to a temple, where a professional class cared for the commonweal by coddling deities, and, when necessary, invoking their aid in the martial extension of an agricultural economy.
Animals and grains were sacrificed in the temple Jesus cleansed. As a Jew, he would not have been incensed by the practice or its preparatory needs. He wouldn’t have seen the secular invading the sacred. The two had never been sundered.
Something else is happening here, something which links Jesus to his adversaries the Pharisees, who, despite their differences, represent a similar strain in religious evolution. In the mind of Jesus, in the teaching of the Pharisees, a modern notion of religion is entering history. It’s still bound up with myth and ritual. It’s still a search for meaning, but it’s no longer essentially corporate. It’s becoming deeply personal.
The Pharisees taught their disciples to learn scripture, to pray, and to perform personal rituals. They didn’t bring religion into everyday life. It had always been there. They brought it to the individual, to the personal search for purpose.
In Jesus religion breaks free of the commonweal and becomes a way of self-completion. The Christ is animated by an absolute identification of his person and his God. He addresses the God of Israel as Father, not as patriarch of the people.
Until Constantine wed Christianity to the state, Christians were pacifists. They would not fight for God, Country, and Family. Those ties had been radically reordered by a deeply personal relationship with the Father of Jesus.
When ISIS solemnly declares the foundation of a new caliphate, it announces that God, Country, and Family are once again a triumvirate. There is no separation of the sacred and the secular. True believers should immigrate to caliphate’s territory and fight to preserve and extend it. It’s not a modern notion, but it has an ancient lineage.
Jesus was executed as an insurrectionist, as one who challenged Rome’s version of the same triumvirate. And had he been the sort of Messiah his people had expected, that would have been true. But his God is too deeply “Father” simply to stamp the status quo; his kingdom is not of this world; and he calls men and women to a relationship more foundational than family.
The way of Jesus is indeed narrow. It still demands difficult decisions. Modern economies have expanded beyond the agricultural, yet they haven’t left war behind. At times, it may still be a sad necessity. Especially if our adversaries think God desires violence.
Exodus 20: 1-17 1 Corinthians 1: 22-25 John 2: 13-25