The Rev’d Matthew D. Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Proper 7, Year C
June 19th, 2016
In Response to Violence
Today’s lectionary readings are filled with violence. Violence remembered from the past. Violence threatened in the future. Violence enacted in the present. Violence responding to violence. Social violence. Psychological violence. Violence against humans. Violence against animals. Violence against the environment. Violence fueled by ethnicity. Violence fueled by economics. Violence fueled by religion.
Our newsfeeds this week are also filled with violence. Violence directed specifically against the LGBTQ community. Violence motivated by bigotry. Violence with guns. Violent rhetoric. Threats of violence. Violence promised by politicians. Violence enacted against politicians. Violence ignored by politicians.
Our readings also model different responses to violence. In our Gospel reading, we see some people respond to the violence enacted against demons and the pigs. What Jesus does makes them feel afraid. They ask Jesus to leave. And he does.
This is a common response to violence. It blames God. It is fear based. It asks God to go away. And in the Gospel reading Jesus does leave. Jesus effects the destruction of innocent animals and innocent people’s livelihood. Please leave, Jesus. We are afraid of you. Religion is the problem. No more religion. God, please go away. And God does.
In the story of Elijah, we see several responses to violence. The story is all about where to find God. At first Elijah is hiding from violence. He is holed up in a deserted place. The world is scary so I will go away.
This is another common response to violence. The world is wicked and full of terrors. Let’s run away. Let’s hide our heads in the sand. I can understand the impulse. I often feel it myself. But the ability to ignore violence, to pretend it doesn’t exist is a privilege that followers of Jesus Christ must not take.
As Elijah peaks his head out of the cleft of the rock, we see another response to violence. It had never occurred to me until this week that I bet Elijah wanted God to be in a windstorm so strong that it ripped the rocks to pieces. Oh, he would have loved to have a God who exists in the earthquake. He could have really used a God who is in the firestorm. He was running for his life from a furious monarch who had sworn to kill him. He was lonely refugee in a dangerous land. I would not at all be surprised if he wanted a God who responded to violence with violence.
This is a response to violence all too common in our country. Violence! What will we do? What must we do to keep ourselves safe? Violence against violence against violence. The answer to gun violence is more guns. The answer to global violence is a bigger military. Responding to violence feels like an act of power, but it is actually an act of cowardice. America has a big problem here.
Pablo Picasso’s 1951 “Massacre in Korea” captures the American mindset well. If you have never seen it, look it up. Just not now on your phone during my sermon. Or maybe do. On the left are women, stripped naked, many pregnant, with children clinging to them. On the right are armed robot-like men, who have no penises but have phallic-like guns pointed at the women, prepared to execute them. The painting shows not only the evil of hawkish American military tactics, but also the idiocy of war itself. It presents war not as a violence against the living, but war as senseless violence against the future of life itself. Guns problems are never solved by more guns. The way to peace is never a bigger military. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.
When Jesus was led up to Golgotha, he did not pull out an AR-15 he had recently purchased and blow his Roman executioners to smithereens. When Jesus was hanging on a cross, he was the Commander-in-Chief of a powerful army, but he didn’t issue a lethal airstrike to flex his muscles and intimidate his enemies. That is not how the story goes.
What Elijah saw was that God was not in the windstorm, the earthquake, or the fire. Where was God? God was in the sound of sheer silence. Or as the old King James puts it: in the still small voice. God always seems to appear in the most unexpected and paradoxical places. In Christ the answer to violence is never more violence but love—a brave, radical love. The kind of love that always has open arms.
We see another response to violence in our Epistle. After Paul had planted church in Galatia, others came in to reinstitute different classes of Christians. They had inflicted social violence. Paul responds to violence by proclaiming a message in Christ of our common humanity. Humans like to draw lines: between races, sexes, gender, sexual orientation, class. You’re not like me. Your sexual orientation is different. Your race is different. Your sex is different. Thus, I fear you. In fear, I act violently. But Paul’s pronouncement: in Christ all those lines no longer matter. All bear the inestimably valuable image of God. You are no longer an Other worthy of fear and violence. Rather you present to me another aspect of the image of a diverse God. The Trinity teaches us that difference does not present threat. It shows us perfect love and unity amidst diversity. It shows us that divinity is diverse and unified, so humanity, which bears God’s image, is called to be, too.
Violence begets terror. The feeling of terror, all too often, begets further violence. It creates a growing cycle of violence. Trying to address the growing cycle with more guns, more military is evil. It is unchristian. But there is a perfect love casts out fear. A love that extinguishes hate, that defeats violence. Nowhere is that love made more clear than on the cross. Jesus not only endured the cross but went to the deepest parts of hell and emptied violence and evil of its power.
We are called not to hide from violence, not to respond to violence with violence. But to stare violence in the face with courageous eyes, without blinking, and to love. Love unconditionally. To contend fearlessly against evil, to make no peace with oppression, to proclaim the peace of Christ to eliminates violence. To declare that all humans bear God’s image. To look evil square in the face and tell evil to go to hell. To pronounce that in Christ by God’s life-giving Spirit barriers that divide us crumble, suspicions disappear, hatreds cease. Other is not enemy. Difference is God’s beautiful design.
Elijah needs to be fed the food of angels before his journey. “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” We too must be nourished by God to fulfill our calling. At the altar we find God as host and sacrifice. There we find the power to journey, to fight against evil, to walk the way of the cross. The cross doesn’t respond to violence with violence. It responds to violence with love. The word spoken in the still, low, silence is love. Unconditional love.