Monday, September 1, 2014

The Sword Versus the Word

Walter Wink coined the phrase “the myth of redemptive violence.” It is the idea that in a chaotic world, you can create goodness by inflicting violence on evil. Wink traces this basic concept all the way back to the Babylonian creation myth. In it the god Marduk kills the goddess Tiamat, mother of the gods, creating the world from her corpse and humanity from the blood of her husband. Marduk does this in return for the promise that the other gods will grant him supremacy over them.

The idea that if might doesn't make right, it is nevertheless necessary to re-establish or preserve right runs through much of our fiction. From King Arthur to Batman to James Bond to Star Wars to Guardians of the Galaxy, we keep retelling the story of how the good guy won by killing the bad guy. Even Joss Whedon, creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” admits with chagrin that most of his stories do seem to reinforce the idea that violence (in the hands of “good” warriors) is the answer. Even in the episode which ends with Buffy willingly sacrificing her life to save the universe, her mentor smothers her defeated and battered enemy, Glory, on the pragmatic grounds that she remains a threat and that Buffy is too noble to do what is necessary; ie, kill her. In fact, the only season finale that doesn't end with the violent death of that year's major villain is the only one not written by Whedon. At the end of season 6, Xander, the only non-superpowered member of Buffy's friends, prevents the destruction of the world. He does this simply by interposing himself between the instrument of doom and his magic-intoxicated friend Willow, who is intent on avenging her dead lover. Xander just tells his childhood friend over and over again that he loves her unconditionally, until she comes to herself and falls sobbing into his arms. Significantly, the song which follows Willow's repentance and restoration is a haunting version of the St. Francis prayer.

In a world rife with examples that violence only begets more violence, why aren't there more stories in which love and reconciliation win out? Because it is natural to want to see the people who cause suffering suffer in return. We want no quarter offered to them. So we cheer when the good guy destroys the bad guy. And we do prefer that he be destroyed. After all, by not killing the Joker, isn't Batman responsible, in a sense, for all of that laughing villain's future victims? We never envision the bad guy changing. We never consider that maybe the hero is there to save the villain, too.

Evil can be described in several ways. For the present let's say that evil is that which harms or corrupts or misuses or neglects or destroys what is good. Notice that evil can really only be properly defined by its relationship to good, because it is a diminishing or an undoing of it. And too often we only think of good as the antagonist of evil.

Unlike evil, which is basically parasitic in nature, good can exist independently of its opposite. Good is that which creates and nurtures life, love, well-being and harmony. When it comes into contact with evil, then good manifests itself by restoring, redirecting, redeeming, rescuing, and even resurrecting. Which raises the question: when evil uses violence, should good use violence to oppose it?

Unfortunately, answering that question only leads to many more and we haven't the time to answer them all. So we will restrict ourselves to this one: is there an alternative to fighting violence with violence? The answer of the selections in today's lectionary is a resounding “Yes!”

Last week, we read the beginning of the story of the Exodus. The people of Israel are living in slavery. The pharaoh is afraid of their growing numbers and fear brings out just one response from a tyrant: suppression. In an attempt to control the Hebrew slaves, Pharaoh uses oppression and systematic murder. One who escapes his plot to kill all the male children is Moses. Born of a slave, raised by Pharaoh's daughter, Moses one day kills an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew. He hides the body and when found out, he flees into the desert. In today's reading (Exodus 3:1-15) we catch up with him in his new profession: shepherd. While looking for water, grazing land and predators, Moses sees something out of the ordinary—a burning bush. What is amazing is that the bush isn't consumed by the fire. It is a theophany, an appearance by God. Fire enlightens, purifies and refines and here, it doesn't destroy a living thing.

God tells Moses that he has heard the cry of his people. This is a theme that runs through the Bible, ever since God tells Cain that he can hear his slain brother's blood crying from the ground. God is ever sensitive to the outcry of the oppressed, the victims of violence. He has resolved to deliver his people from slavery and give them a land of their own. And he has chosen Moses to be his agent.

Now if this were a typical story we would be treated next to a sequence in which the hero masters various fighting skills. But God isn't choosing Moses to become a warrior or to turn the Israelites into the army Pharaoh feared. He chooses Moses to be his spokesman. He is giving Pharaoh fair warning so he will know who he is up against. God himself will deliver his people.

So God does not ask or command his people to fight for their freedom. He accomplishes that by himself. In fact, had Pharaoh let his people go, had he not decided to pit himself, god-king of Egypt, against the God who is king of the universe, the departure of the Israelites would not have been so expensive. But each time Moses asks for the release of his people, Pharaoh refuses and finds not human beings but nature in revolt against him. Each of the 10 plagues both represents and subverts a different Egyptian god, such as the Nile itself. But God does not arm or incite his people to riot.

The same can be said of the so-called battle of Armageddon in the book of Revelation. The forces of evil array themselves not against an army of Christians but against God himself. So, of course, it turns out to not really be a battle at all. And Christians are nowhere in that book or in the rest of Bible called to be combatants.

This starts in the Gospels. In Matthew 16:21-28, it helps to know that the disciples thought themselves to be lieutenants of the Messiah, a holy warrior-king who would bring about the kingdom of God by force. They believed in the myth of redemptive violence. So when Jesus talked about being killed by his earthly enemies they just couldn't believe it. Peter, who had just said Jesus was the son of God, was now telling Jesus that he's just plain wrong. He can't see how the kingdom will be established by a king who's dead. The hero wins by killing the bad guys, not by being killed. Peter can't understand what God is doing. And he won't until after Jesus' resurrection. So Peter will wield a sword at Gethsemane and he will draw blood. Aiming for a man's head, he will sever an ear. Which Jesus will heal before he goes to his trial and death.

As someone once put it, justice is getting what you deserve; mercy is not getting all you deserve; grace is getting what you don't deserve. Justice is a universally recognized virtue. Mercy is usually valued as well. But grace...not so much. We understand justice, being fair. We understand mercy, giving people a break. But why be magnanimous to be ignoble? Why show favor to the unworthy? Why bless the undeserving?

God's goodness is beyond that of human beings. And how fortunate we are that he is. He could have written us off. He could have wiped us out and started over. But God sent his Son to save us, even at the price of his life. He pours out his Spirit on us. And he expects us to emulate the same goodness he shows us.

In Romans 12:9-21 Paul is talking about how Christians should live, both among themselves and in public. It is all good advice and reasonable for the most part. But many of us would balk at the parts that tell us to “bless those who persecute you” and to give food and drink to your enemy. Surely that's going too far. But that is what Jesus did. He gave bread and wine to Judas, knowing the man would betray him. He prayed for those who were crucifying him. The point is you can't go too far when it comes to being good. It's normal to be good to those who are good to us. As Jesus said, there's no merit in that. We need to go the second mile. We need to go beyond just being nice. We need to be good even when most people would say, “Hit him back!” But we are called to turn the other cheek. We are called to leave payback in God's hands.

The world is full of righteously indignant people, who are justifiably outraged, who have a legitimate grievance, who have good reason to want to get back at the people who have wronged them. And those people, no less than their persecutors, are obstacles to peace and reconciliation. For instance, do you think the Shiites are just extra-touchy? They are an oppressed minority in all Muslim countries except Iran. And in Iraq, they were an oppressed majority. Now in that country, they are oppressors of Sunni Muslims. 

Many Jews fled to their ancient homeland in the aftermath of the Nazi genocide. The Palestinians, who had lived in that land for millennia, fled their homes during the war to establish modern Israel. Now those two oppressed people are fighting each other. Each has a legitimate beef. Neither has a realistic chance of eliminating their enemy. Neither seems inclined to forgive and forget.

People don't fight wars, don't turn their homelands into battlefields, don't strap bombs to themselves because they are a little bit miffed. They have genuine issues, which they are loathe to set aside, and thus are as intractable as their persecutors. Someone has to make the first move to reconcile the two sides. Jesus says it's us.

After all, God has a legitimate beef with us. We took the beautiful world he gave us and screwed it up, using his good gifts for evil purposes. We started fighting with, and harming, and torturing, and raping, and killing our brothers and sisters, all of whom were created in the image of God. But God took the first step. And the second and third. He has met us more than halfway. He spelled out in his Word what he expected of us. And then he provided the means for implementation. In his Son, he came to end all the violence by offering himself as a sacrifice for the whole world. “You want blood?” says God. “Here's mine. Let that be an end to it all. Now let's begin working together to clean up this mess. I'll get you started. I'll help through my Spirit in you. Let there be no more talk of vengeance and the past. Let us talk of love and our future together.”

That is the good news. That is the heart of the Word of God. And that's what he wants us to use to fight evil. At times it is tempting to fight fire with fire, to follow a scorched earth policy, to use the tools of evil to battle evil. But even if it seems justified, it just increases the evil in the world. “Do not repay anyone evil with evil,” says Paul. “Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.” He who lives by the sword will die by the sword but he who lives by the Word will live forever. The word of Pharaoh, the word of all tyrants and warriors and would-be conquerors, is “No” to God's way of forgiveness and reconciliation and peace. But the Word of God is the divine “Yes!” God said, “Let there be light; let there be life.” and the divine Word of God, Christ, the agent of creation, said, “Yes” and it was so. The Word says “Love God; love one another; love even your enemies.” And we, as the Body of Christ, the embodiment of his continued presence in humanity, must answer, “Yes,” and make it so. And by faith we know that the Word will defeat the sword. Swords rust and break. But the Word is eternal. And to reflect the Word, we need to start using this triple trinity of words: “I am sorry.” “I forgive you.” “I love you.” 

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