When I was in the hospital I learned to appreciate things that we usually take for granted. Like feeding yourself. Like being able to walk. Like breathing. At about 3:30 am February 5th I lost the ability to breathe in my left lung. I was grateful that the aide and nurses and on-duty docs came running when I hit the call button but less pleased that they were arguing about whether I was having a heart attack or had thrown a pulmonary embolus. They were asking about chest pain and I was gasping out, “I—can't—breathe!” Finally someone decided it must be a PE and rushed me to ICU. But my point is that we are rarely aware of breathing and the air around us because they are always there. And the prevalence of other things makes them invisible, too.
Race, for instance. If you are white, it is rarely an issue, personally. You are not constantly being reminded that you are white. But if you are a person of color, you are made aware of that every day by the way people treat you and talk to you. If you are black, you notice that salespeople follow your throughout a store, probably thinking you may shoplift. If you are a black man, you notice that people will often be wary around you, fearful of you. If you are a black woman, you notice the facial expression of the checkout people who sometimes look askance at the items you buy, judging you if you buy liquor, or looking skeptically at expensive purchases. If you are driving, especially in a nice neighborhood, you are rarely surprised to be pulled over by the police and quizzed about why you are in that area. They are often doubtful if you claim to live in that same nice neighborhood. These are not things I made up. They are things told me by fellow Episcopalians at the anti-racism training we are mandated to take. When we broke into small groups and shared our experiences, I was astonished at how pervasive racism was for brothers and sisters in Christ who happened to be brown. But to me as a white male it was just not a factor in my life. And that's why some people think racism is not a problem anymore. They just don't see it.
There is another thing that we don't see because for many of us it doesn't rear its ugly head in our lives very often but it pervades the world and that is violence. Today's reading from Habakkuk (1:1-4, 2:1-4) is concerned with the problem of violence and injustice. Habakkuk apparently lived around the time that the Assyrian Empire, which had taken the northern kingdom of Israel into exile, was about to fall and the Babylonian Empire was rising. Babylon would sack Nineveh, the Assyrian capitol, and conquer the southern kingdom of Judah and take it into exile. So it was a time of violence on a major scale. But Habakkuk is initially more concerned with injustice among God's people. And having them punished by Babylon is harsh in his eyes. The cure seems worse than the disease. He is told that Babylon is also destined to fall but that's hardly satisfying. Habakkuk, like Job, questions God's justice and, like Job, he is not considered sinful for doing so.
Violence can achieve a sort of rough justice, which is why we arm our police and use our military to try to straighten out problems overseas. But violence is never surgical; it is always a blunt instrument. And violence is contagious. If I hit you, you might back down. But you are just as likely to hit me back. And sure enough, we have found that not all situations can be handled by inflicting violence. Terrorism, which is asymmetrical warfare, is not stopped by violence. In fact, the harder we hit the terrorists, the easier it is for them to recruit our own citizens to hit us back by means of random, limited in scope but horrifying violence. Because they don't usually present an actual front line or represent a nation, we have no practical way to hit back. And when we try to lash out against, say, refugees who are trying to flee ISIS, the more terrorists we create at home by seeming to confirm ISIS propaganda that this is a war against not terrorism but Muslims.
In his book The Locust Effect, Gary Haugen argues that poverty can't be ended until the violence that keeps people in that state ends. The reason that many poor girls don't go to school in third world countries is the real fear of sexual violence befalling them when away from their parents. The poor are oppressed by violence by neighbors, by family members, by employers and by police. In many countries, the poor are not automatically provided with legal representation, law enforcement officers are not well paid and thus corruptable, and the wealthy can get away with murder at times. Violence is a regular feature in poverty-stricken areas in America, because of gangs and drugs. And throughout all strata of society, rich, middle class and poor, domestic violence and sexual violence can be found. And much of that falls upon females. Between 2001 and 2012, 11,766 American women were murdered by their male partners, current or ex. That's nearly double the number of our troops who died during the same period. 4,774,000 women each year are the victims of violence by their intimate partners. 1 in 4 women will suffer severe domestic violence during their lifetime; 1 in 7 men will. 85% of women who are physically abused are also sexually abused by their partner.
Because violent people seldom pick on someone their own size, children also suffer. At our recent clergy conference an expert told us that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. That's 10% of all school children. Contrary to popular belief only 10% of abusers are strangers; 30% are family and 60% are known to the child. I was shocked to find out that 50% of child abuse is perpetrated by their peers, usually older kids.
You would think in view of the negative effect of violence we would have a negative view of it. Not if our entertainment reflects our tastes. In movies, TV and books good guys defeat bad guys through violence. There is very little difference in the means good guys and bad guys use to achieve their ends. In fact, those heroes who have scruples get criticized. Batman, motivated by the murder of his parents, refrains from using guns and from killing bad guys. And some people have argued that by not killing the Joker, Batman is responsible for all the people the Joker has subsequently killed, including one of the Robins. Because, in many people's minds, the end justifies the means.
There are religious people who believe that as well. Torturing a bad guy is justified. Killing bad guys is justified. And as bad as it is to see Buddhists in Myamar leading mobs against Muslim-owned businesses, it is distressing to realize that some people can call themselves Christians and still inflict violence on other people. Jesus commanded us to turn the other cheek and yet some folks think it is all right not only to hit back but to start fights. And this in the name of Christ who told his disciples to put up the sword when they tried to defend him from being arrested and crucified! If Christians can't use violence to defend Jesus when he was physically on earth, how can we justify using violence in his name now that he has passed the baton to us? We are the Body of Christ today. So we have to ask ourselves, “Whom would Jesus harm?”
Generally people lash out in violence when they are angry and frustrated. But we don't all do that. Why do some folks turn to violence?
Jesus points to one big reason: retaliation. (Matt 5:38) People tend to hurt others if they feel that people have hurt them. And the folks they hurt don't necessarily have to be the same ones who originally hurt them. People who grow up with violence become violent in turn. They learn from their environment that violence is an acceptable response to things that anger you. Or irritate you. Or frighten you. Or just disturb you. Small wonder people who were abused as children so often turn into abusers.
Most people are taught as children not to hit other people. Abused children might be taught that as well—by being beaten when they hit their siblings. Which means they are getting a mixed message. Hitting is okay if you are big. Or in authority. When I was working as production director and copywriter at US-1 Radio, I was asked to do some ads to recruit for the Sheriff's Office. So I wrote some creative commercials along the lines of “Wouldn't you like to be a crime fighter like Batman? Or Sherlock Holmes?” When I read them to Sheriff's Public Information Officer Deputy Becky Herrin over the phone, she told me, “No! We don't want to attract that kind of person as a Sheriff's Deputy!” They don't want crusaders. They don't want zealots. They want law-abiding, reasonable people who can de-escalate situations when necessary. We have all seen what happens when law enforcement officers act unprofessionally and basically go Dirty Harry on someone who clearly hasn't done anything to merit such extreme measures. I was glad to learn that our Sheriff's Office was trying to filter out such people from the start.
Violence has been a problem from the beginning of humanity. According to the Bible, the first murder occurred between the first siblings. (Genesis 5:8) Violence is given as the reason God decides to reboot the earth with Noah. (Gen 6:11-13) And God tells Noah that murder is wrong because human beings are created in God's image. Homicide is symbolic deicide. (Gen 9:5-6) That means each person has intrinsic worth. No one is expendable.
Later God reinforces this through the enacted parable of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham believed that God might very well ask him to sacrifice his son because other gods did. It was a common practice in the land of Canaan. Archeologists have excavated cemeteries full of children sacrificed to Moloch. But then God stops Abraham. He reveals himself not to be a God who asks us to sacrifice our children to him.
And in Jesus, God reveals himself to be self-sacrificial love incarnate. If anyone is to be the scapegoat for our wrongs, it is God. If anyone is suffering to redeem us, it is God. If anyone is to be the target of religious violence, it is God. In Jesus, the script of violence is flipped.
At this point it is tempting to get sidetracked by certain Old Testament episodes where, say, God tells his people to cleanse the land of the Canaanites. I wish I could take the time to wrestle with this here but entire books have been written on this problem. (A good one is Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and the Canaanite Genocide, in which 4 Biblical scholars look at this from different perspectives.) But that was about the events leading to the establishment of the kingdom of Israel which, like all earthly kingdoms, involves violent conquest. We Christians do not live under the Old Covenant nor in Iron Age theocratic Israel. We live under the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus, the Prince of Peace. His kingdom does not come from this world and he never intended it to be spread by violence (John 18:36) but by love and the proclamation of the gospel, the good news of what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ.
Jesus commanded his disciples to be non-violent, even though he knew they would face violent persecution. Paul heeded that and though he used the military metaphor of the armor of God, (Ephesians 6:10-18) he pictures it as chiefly protective. The only weapon he includes is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” He also includes sandals which stand for “the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.” Paul gives no quarter to those who would commit violence for God, saying instead, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord. On the contrary: 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)
It is not our place to pass sentence on anyone. (Matt 7:1) God will handle that. We are to love our enemies and do good to them. (Matt 5:44) Hopefully, our responding to their bad behavior with good behavior will cause them to burn with shame and change their minds. “Change your mind” is the literal translation of the Greek word for repent.
Changing people's hearts and minds is how Jesus intends to make the kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of God. (Revelation 11:15) He will not do it by force. He will do it through us. He will do it through our loving words and actions towards others. We must proclaim the good news of God's love with our lives as well as with our lips.
The world believes that the only way to handle violence is to meet it with opposing violence. But that only increases violence and enriches arms dealers the world over. After all, humanity has been tried to end violence by resorting to violence since prehistory. And all that we've done is come up with more horrific ways to harm and kill more people. When you keep doing the same thing over and over and over again expecting different results, that's just stupid!
The Bible suggests another way. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away rage.” Really? Really. When Michael Brandon Hill slipped into an elementary school in Georgia carrying an AK-47, Antoinette Tuff, who worked in the front office, talked him down. She told him her struggles, told him she loved him and offered to walk him outside to surrender so the police wouldn't shoot him. When Brian Nichols, who shot his way out of a courtroom, killing 3 and wounding 1, took waitress Ashley Smith hostage in her apartment, she read to him from the Bible and from The Purpose Driven Life and made him pancakes. Speaking of her daughter, whose father had died, Smith managed to convince him to let her go. When a man walked into the small North Carolina church of Pastor Larry Wright with a rifle and ammo, the retired Army sergeant thought of tackling the gunman. But instead Wright talked to and prayed with the man, taking his rifle and handing it to a deacon. Church members hugged the man, and told him they loved him. The man let Wright finish his sermon, which, ironically, was on gun violence, and afterwards, the gunman answered the altar call and gave his life to Christ. Police took the man to the local medical center at his request for voluntary commitment.
There are other ways to deal with violence other than violently. But you have to be coolheaded and vulnerable and not play into the script that violent people and society think you must follow. You have to reach out in love and with a real desire to understand the other human being. You have to pray and let the Spirit guide you. It's not easy. And it won't always work. (For instance, in the typical cycle of domestic violence where it is of primary importance to protect children and oneself as the non-abusive parent.) The violent person may be totally irrational. But if you never try, we know from the news how these things usually work out.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Peace, shalom in Hebrew, means total well-being. If we want peace, we need to work for the total well-being of everyone. Nobody should have a legitimate reason to feel they have been harmed. Everyone should feel it is everyone's job to help those who need it.
In today's gospel (Luke 19:1-10) Jesus befriended a man who was a great sinner and turned him into a new person. That's how Jesus gets rid of bad guys: by turning them into good guys. Let us go and do likewise.