Aaron Bushnell and Faithful Service

Image: “The Right to be Held,” poster by Lala Montoya, @the_edge_project, via Artist’s Against Apartheid

 

It is not enough that the history of Jesus Christ should be objectively revealed to all men, in His resurrection from the dead, as the history of the one man who was faithful to God in virtue of God’s faithfulness. What God wills in this history and with its manifestation is that all men should be saved… and that in this knowledge they should be freed for faithfulness to Him… What He wills is that this man, as the recipient of the pledge which was long since given and not just proffered to him, should be comforted and admonished by the promise which is addressed to him too, that he should arise, live and act, no longer looking back but, in accordance with the fact that that history was and is and will be his own salvation history, looking and moving forward, coming to God, becoming faithful to Him, just as He, God, in the history of Jesus Christ and its manifestations, has long since come to him and shown His faithfulness to him.
– Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Volume IV, Part 1

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
– Romans 12:2

I am an active duty member of the United States Air Force. And I will no longer be complicit to genocide. I am about to engage in an extreme act of protest. But compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers—it’s not extreme at all.
– Aaron Bushnell

 

I began writing this catechesis piece prior to learning of the self-immolation of Aaron Bushnell in protest of the mass crimes against Palestinians being perpetrated by countries of the imperial core, including America, Canada, and Israel. As I wrote about the “pistis Christou” debate and Karl Barth’s account of the faithfullness of Christ, this self-sacrificing act of protest caused me to reflect on “faithful service” in relation to Aaron Bushnell and Palestinian liberation.

Within biblical scholarship and Christian theological circles the “pistis Christou” debate refers to discussion and dis- agreement around the interpretation of the Greek phrase “pistis Christou.” The debate has centered around whether the phrase should be translated as “faith in Christ” or “faith of Christ,” (or, if both, in which cases either should be used).

The question at stake theologically is whether faith should be primarily understood as something humans exercise towards Christ or as the faithfulness of Christ himself.

In traditional translations of the New Testament, “pistis Christou” is often rendered as “faith in Christ,” emphasizing the faith that individuals place in Jesus Christ for salvation. A number of Christian denominations emphasize the intellectual assent of the individual to statements of faith: what matters to them is right belief about Christ. This interpretation treats “faith” and “belief” as interchangeable, downplaying the more practice-based implications of “faithfulness,” and centering individual subjectivity and voluntarism, over the active grace of God.

Some scholars, prominently including Karl Barth, have argued for an alternative interpretation, understanding “pistis Christou” to mean “the faithfulness of Christ.”

According to Barth, the faithfulness of Christ refers to Christ’s perfect obedience to God’s will, culminating in his death and resurrection for the redemption of humanity. For Barth, salvation is not primarily based on human efforts or faith, but on the faithfulness of Christ himself.

Barth sees the faithfulness of Christ as the foundation of Christian faith, with human faith being a response to and participation in Christ’s faithfulness. Importantly, this participation is not transactional or based on a sort of indebtedness on our part (God requires nothing from us), rather it is the appropriate and willed response to proper understanding of the life to be found in faithfulness to the God who is already faithful to us.

On February 25, Aaron Bushnell, a serviceman of the United States Airforce self-immolated in front of the Israeli consulate in Washington. This is not the first but the second act of self-immolation (in which a person dies by lighting themselves on fire) this year in response to the genocide against Palestinians. And it is one of many acts of protest of this kind historically. In response to an interviewer’s question about claims that Bushnell’s act stemmed from suicidality, Levi Pierpont, a friend of Bushnell’s replied “He didn’t have thoughts of suicide. He had thoughts of justice.”

I think this has everything to do with faithfulness as described by Barth and found in the New Testament writings of Paul.

Bushnell grew up in a high-control, conservative Christian religious sect. Another ex-member of the group suggested that often people from the community would be attracted to the army because of the similarly high-control environment. Against all odds, Bushnell came out of this upbringing with a kind, compassionate nature, and a strong concern for justice. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Bushnell, while still an active member of the US military, had the openness of heart to read and learn about the history and nature of American police and military force, and the courage to show up at justice-oriented organizing meetings, while attempting to navigate an exit from the army.

Bushnell’s death, I believe, can only be explained through an account of faithfulness—a faithfulness to life, justice, and liberation for all, because these things are worth everything. Bushnell’s horrifying death included the dropping away in ash of the military uniform from his barely still-standing body. Amidst incomprehensible cries of pain Bushnell somehow still forced the words “Free Palestine!” from his dying, flaming body. At once the empire fell away in ash and screams, as he enacted a terrible and total solidarity. Through this act, Bushnell joined dead and dying Palestinians, and the cause of Palestinian liberation.

There is nothing romantic about it. There is nothing romantic about someone going from a living, loving human person to ash. It’s horrifying, and that was the point. After watching Bushnell’s death, I felt hollowed and ashamed. Seeing a young, healthy, relatable person in a nearby context go from alive to dead connected with me in a way hearing of atrocities in a foreign place hadn’t. That too was the point. 30,000 people—beautiful, full people—alive and then lifeless, senselessly. Bushnell’s words are unbearable, but true: “compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers” his act was “not extreme at all.”

Faith is not an assurance of justification. All too often, “faith” is invoked alongside other concepts like hope, salvation, and resurrection, yet will not reckon with the reality of suffering, death, and senseless pain. There is something perverse about a faith that does not stand for life and against injustice.

When asked how Bushnell’s actions may have been influenced by religious beliefs, Pierpont responded: “I think, ultimately, by the time that he did what he did, he didn’t identify with any particular religion. But I know that for me, even though I’m more agnostic than I grew up, my evangelical roots still influence me. They influence my sense of justice. And they told me since I was a young child that you have to stand up for what you believe in. And I can imagine that it was the same way for Aaron.”

 

Resources for Supporting Palestinians:

Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund

UNRAW: Gaza Emergency Appeal

 

 

 

Jude Claude is a graduate student at St. Michael’s College at Toronto School of Theology, with an interest in political theology and ecological destruction. They were the previous editor of the Rupert’s Land News.

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