We have a problem with violence.
I know, shocker; but it isn’t the problem we think we have.
The problem we have with violence isn’t that it exists and we need to stop people from shooting, stabbing, maiming, and killing each other.
No, the problem we have with violence is that we have a long, rewarding relationship with violence because a lot of times it gets us what we want — money, land, admirers, respect; and if we’re really good at it, we get throngs of people screaming our names and millions of dollars in cash and prizes so that people can watch us do it. We spent billions of dollars during the first Gulf War to put cameras on our bombs because seeing the cloud of dust in the distance just wasn’t good enough.
Our truth is that the high points of American history and culture are all punctuated by violence.
We make those who excel at war our presidents and Congresspersons. We call them leaders and heroes, and so many of our American figures of speech revolve around violence that they’re toothless for their commonness. Thomas Jefferson said in a letter to James Madison, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical”. That’s a witty little sociopolitical thought, but ask any Syrian how well their little rebellion is working out for them. Or ask a Liberian about their civil war. Or read accounts from our own Civil War and ask many Southerners today how they feel about this war that happened two centuries ago, and all of a sudden you’ll realize that the anger, spite, and hard feelings from that brief four years have now endured for more than seven generations.
The problem we have with violence is that violence isn’t our rebellion, it’s our doctrine; it’s our creed; it’s the sacrament of the American Christic Cult, and we have offered the bodies and blood of millions and millions of people throughout history worshiping at the altar of this vengeful god who declares the sites of our slaughter to be hallowed, and we make pilgrimages to them in our television shows, movies, and our history books — Fort Sumter; Gettysburg; Hiroshima; Saigon; Bridge Over the River Kwai; Game of Thrones (long may it last); NCIS and its 57 spinoffs. And the truth of our culture is that Superheroes and villains all have the same solution, a pulp fiction of mayhem that leaves cities and families in ruin behind them so they can display their prowess on the stage that we clamor to see even though a city is falling down around our ears.
We don’t have a problem with violence, and that’s our problem with violence.
We have a deep and abiding relationship with violence that we’ve cultivated over the generations with great care and tenderness, nurturing the seed in our hearts and cultures. We long for and lust after violence, and we sneak around after dark with it. We tell our children to leave it alone while we encourage them to play army, or cops and robbers, or when I was a kid, cowboys and indians was still popular because the American West was nothing but six shooters and hunting down outlaws and savages according to what I remember of the Westerns we watched.
Now it’s true, we go through the motions to say that we don’t allow it in our homes and our schools. We don’t allow schoolyard fighting, and we make an impotent gesture against domestic abuse. It’s true that the averages of violent crime have been in decline, but we’re just as committed to the old god as we always were. We still enshrine it on Sunday nights, “never mind that half the players may end up with traumatic long term brain injuries, did you see that pass?”
It’s not that we’re actually against violence. What we don’t want is for people to be promiscuous about it.
After all, we’re a moral people, so we want to maintain our longterm monogamy by sanctifying our zealotry in a doctrine that says it’s okay as long as you follow the rules. We baptize in Gatorade, and cheer at the metal chair evangelism of WWE’s Monday Night Raw, and celebrate the homiletic brilliance of the generals who exegete the texts of smart bombings, drone strikes, and mutually assured destruction. We eat the meal of suffering gathered around the altar upon which we sacrifice our men, women, and children generation after generation after generation. We make our leaders swear on the Holy Bible that we will do it again.
And I promise, we will.
The Westerns I mentioned have a different narrative as well, that of sensible hard-working people trying hard to live right and just. I never knew that until I was an adult. As a child, the only narrative I understood was the narrative of the pistol. Samuel Colt, how many lives have we sacrificed in your name?
Our violent idolatry is one that’s deeply rooted in our narrative.
The Gospel offers us a second narrative, a narrative of freedom. Not freed by war or a sword, or by marching legions coming to bring it to us; but freed by the cross. God’s power isn’t rooted in violence, but in the creative energy of love. God creates and restores. God renews and revives our spirits that are so depleted by our culture of violence with the healing waters of God’s love.
God’s answer to violence isn’t to stamp it out in Old Testament fashion. No; the Father’s ultimate answer to violence is to do what generations of parents for time untold have done, he sacrificed his Son and sent him off to war. Not a war fought with bullets or swords or bombs; but war nonetheless. It’s the war against war; the struggle against violence; the holy campaign against that need we have in our hearts to act out our own pain and fear and cravings for power and utter terror in the face of death that causes us to wage told and retold horrors against each other. It’s a battle for the heart, in which the only side that loses a life is God’s side. “I lay down my life to pick it up again”, says Jesus in the Gospel of John; and again in Chapter 12, “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”.
God’s answer to violence is to offer it up to the cross. God doesn’t defeat it by waging war with a heavenly army, God disarms violence and robs it of its power with love, and in the utter defeat of this doctrine of violence, God’s love stands free from the neatly folded grave clothes in an empty tomb. Love conquers hate, casts out fear, and reveals that the power of violence is fruitless when it comes to accomplishing God’s objective of redeeming creation. In God there is no other, which means there’s no one to fight.
“But pastor, didn’t Peter bring a sword? Obviously we’re supposed to defend ourselves!” Let’s look at that.
The one time in the Gospels where we see a disciple take up arms is in Gethsemane the night Jesus was arrested. In Matthew, one of Jesus’ followers drew a sword and cut off the ear of a servant of the high priest who was present at the arrest. The violence is faceless and impersonal. It’s just a servant, right? So much of the violence of violence is that what our culture of violence does is dehumanize us all, making us all potential victims and impending threats. Even if we’re a psychologist trying to comfort an autistic man, this violence is so deeply engrained that we don’t even know why anymore. And the truth is that it doesn’t even matter who it is, there’s always a reason.
It’s just Iraq or Afghanistan. They’ve been fighting for years and we need to take them some freedom.
It’s just a black person. You know how they are, they’d shoot each other if it weren’t one of us.
It’s just a cop, they shoot everyone anyway.
It’s just a soldier, that’s what they signed up for.
It’s just a criminal, they had it coming.
It’s just an immigrant, a Jew, a Muslim, a Syrian, a Mexican, a woman, a poor person. They had it coming.
The false god Violence robs us of our identity. God gives it back.
In John’s Gospel, it’s Peter who drew his sword and struck Malchus, the servant of the high priest Caiaphas. In this account Jesus doesn’t heal Malchus, but he gets something more important — a name. Malchus gets a name, a face, an identity. It wasn’t a disciple who cut off a servant’s ear; it was Peter, disciple of Jesus and future leader of the Church, who struck out and wounded Malchus, who served in the Temple with Caiaphas.
The love of God destroys the power of violence to make us nameless and faceless; to make us another casualty; to allow us to lump people into categories so that their loss can feel justifiable.
The Gospel tells us that to God, we all have names; and those names matter.
Tonight we hear this good news in the face of tragedy, that all these names are sacred to God; sanctified in God’s heart as beloved and accounted for. God sees us, all of us, and loves us, all of us.
It’s time we stop our insistence on worshiping at the altar of false gods, whose worship brings us death and pain. We must choose not to make an idol of the violence rooted in our culture and make excuses for it. It’s time to stop our belief in the lie that the only thing that will solve blood is blood.
God leads us down the way of the cross, and along that way God teaches us that the only way to stop violence is to stop violence.
To put wheels on this thing, what do we carry with us? We simply carry what we’ve always known, that through the waters of baptism, we no longer belong to the world. We belong to God and we belong to each other. These waters make us part of a family that’s eternal, stronger than our own birth families because it’s a family God is creating around us in all times and places as we gather as one around the table which requires no sacrifice that we could bring. Ours is the story of a family born in water and word, washed clean of our violent idolatry, and called to live in peace.
As we are washed clean of this brokenness, we carry with us the new truth, the only hope and promise that can give rest to our weary hearts: in God’s family water is thicker than blood, and it is in this water that we find ourselves standing beside our own neatly folded grave clothes in an empty tomb. It’s in these waters that God conquers our wandering hearts with the only thing that has any real power in this universe: Love.
This is a sermon delivered on July 21 in my role as Assistant to the Bishop because Bishop Yoos wasn’t able to attend. This was a service of “Peace, Love, Prayer, and Music” at Reformation Lutheran Church in Columbia in response to the slayings of 6 police officers and three unarmed black men recently.
The South Carolina Synod of the ELCA, where I am a pastor, is committed to living out racial reconciliation, and throughout South Carolina, we are working to forge ties to AME congregations and other historically black congregations so that we can begin to undo the stigma of race in the South and in America, beginning with God’s Church.