Foundry UMC

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Security at What Cost?

March 12th, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, March 12, 2017, the second Sunday of Lent.

Text:  Matthew 5:38-48

 

I’ve been dreading preaching this sermon for a long time.  It is a sermon about what Jesus teaches about violence. It is a sermon about the ways that violence is one of the favored idols in American culture.  It is a sermon that challenges our assumptions about what creates, maintains, and assures our security.  It is sermon that is impossible to preach without leaving out important context, history, and nuance.  It’s a sermon that raises more questions than answers.  It’s a sermon that’s impossible to preach without stepping on everyone’s toes; it’s an “equal aggravation” kind of message.  In fact, in my preparation, I have found myself profoundly convicted and uncomfortable.  But this sermon is important; because it names an often unspoken but constant and pervasive challenge to those of us who try to follow Jesus.  And it’s appropriate we acknowledge this challenge in these weeks of Lent, as we seek to identify places where our hearts and lives are not fully aligned with the way of Jesus, the way of life in God’s Kin-dom.  So…here goes.  //

 

Violence is pervasive.  It lives as a capacity in every human heart.  It shows up in domestic abuse, in self-destructive behavior, in gang life, in unjust policies; in kindergartens and movie theaters and Bible studies.  Images and instances of violence are everywhere on our large screens and small devices.  The devastation of war and drones and bombs are so prevalent in other places that the headlines rarely get a second look here.  We swim in a culture saturated with violence. 

 

So what does Jesus teach us about violence?  The late biblical scholar Walter Wink writes, “The new reality Jesus proclaimed was nonviolent.  That much is clear, not just from the Sermon on the Mount, but his entire life and teaching and, above all, the way he faced his death.”[i]  Folks may try to challenge Wink’s claim by pointing to a scripture here or there—perhaps a parable that ends with gnashing of teeth or a hyperbolic teaching about bringing a sword.  But Wink’s assessment of Jesus rings true to me. I can’t imagine any scenario in the Gospels in which Jesus did or would advocate doing violence to another person.  Can you imagine Jesus carrying a weapon?  Can you imagine Jesus beating the body of another person?  Can you imagine Jesus calling for an airstrike?

 

A key scripture is the one we heard today from the Sermon on the Mount.  I want us to look primarily at the first verse we heard today as that sets the context for all that follows.  When Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” (Mt 5:38) he is referencing Hebrew scripture, what is known as the lex talionis, or the law of retaliation.  This was “an attempt to enact fair justice (cf. Deuteronomy 19:21) among the people of ancient Israel. Wherever harm is committed (cf. Leviticus 24:20,  Exodus 21:24)…the judges of ancient Israel were expected to authorize the law of retaliation (i.e., “eye for an eye”)…it ensures that the penalty is not arbitrary, making the punishment more severe than the crime.”[ii]  Jesus mentions the ancient law and then overturns it saying, “But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.”  The Greek word translated “resist,” antistenai, is most often used as a military term, a way to describe violent opposition to an aggressor.  Wink concludes, “antistenai means more [here] than simply to ‘stand against’ or ‘resist.’  It means to resist violently...  Jesus is not encouraging submission to evil; that would run counter to everything he did and said.  He is, rather, warning against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of our opposition.  Perhaps most importantly, he cautions us against being made over into the very evil we oppose by adopting its methods and spirit.  He is saying, in effect… do not become the very thing you hate.  The best translation is… ‘Don't react violently against the one who is evil.’”[iii]  The examples Jesus gives in verses 39-42 of giving your coat, of going the second mile, of giving to those who beg are culturally specific illustrations of this core teaching of non-violent resistance. 

 

Jesus teaches and models courageous, active, nonviolent resistance to evil, injustice, and oppression in any forms they present themselves.  That is our call as well.  We are not to be doormats for abusers or to remain in a life-threatening relationship.  We are not to passively stand by in the face of injustice.  We are to claim our agency and stand strong in our dignity; we are to tell the truth to those with power and to name the pain that we endure or see.  But we are not to respond to hate with hate, to violence with violence.  Loving our enemies (Mt 5:44) will take many forms, but you can be sure that torturing, maiming, or killing them is not what Jesus had in mind.  

 

It may be difficult but feasible to imagine applying this teaching in relational scenarios or certain political scenarios…But what about war?  Are we really not supposed to respond violently when our country has been attacked?  Is pacifism—the belief that war and other acts of violence are never acceptable—the only option for followers of Jesus?  There are certainly those who believe so.  There are also those who “believe that, when peaceful alternatives have failed, the force of arms may regretfully be preferable to unchecked aggression, tyranny and genocide.”[iv] It is up to each of us to wrestle with where we land on this.  The United Methodist Church makes room for both perspectives in our Social Principles, extending support both to conscientious objectors and to those who conscientiously serve in the military.  Even so, the Social Principles denounce war as “incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ,” “reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy,” and claim that “militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled; and that the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons be condemned.”[v] 

 

While the debates between proponents of pacifist and “just war” perspectives are pretty fierce sometimes, one thing the vast majority of people agree on is that a world without war and violence would be a good thing.  No healthy, well-adjusted person likes war.  Veterans I know would never suggest that we should have more war.  This past week, a colleague who’s a military chaplain confirmed this, saying while military service can inspire acts of great courage, love, and self-sacrifice and while there is powerful camaraderie that often develops among enlisted soldiers, the experience of war is brutal.  We know the terrible consequences all too well—physically, emotionally, spiritually, relationally.  We know the terrible cost, but it seems we just can’t let go of our reliance upon violence.  The justification we use is that of “security”—our personal security, the security of our families, the security of the vulnerable, national security.  Do weapons make us safer?  Does the promise of violence make us more secure?  Have our wars increased our security? 

 

Regardless of what your answers might be, as Christians, we must ask to whom or what we look for security.  A temptation is to fall into “practical atheism,” where we claim to believe in God but, in practice, act as though God doesn’t exist or have any real power.  We change the world.  We are in charge of making things secure.  We are in charge of making the world peaceful.  We simply have to get enough votes or have the most weapons or build the biggest wall or organize the best protest.  Regardless of where we land on any issue, we can fall into the trap of making God superfluous to our Kin-dom building project. 

 

As soon as God is moved into an adjacent position to our own will, then other gods can ascend.  The god of violence and war is always ready.  The god of violence and war wants to take over security detail.  And violence is de facto the god in whom this nation trusts.  Police units look like the national guard, the gun lobby is one of the most powerful in the country, and weapons, military might, good old “shock and awe” continue to be our “go-to” response when faced with outside aggression.  Can you imagine a response to 9/11, for example, other than what happened?  The fact that it seems so difficult and even impossible to imagine a non-violent retaliation is cause for some reflection…  I’ll never forget the sign in the back window of the pickup truck I pulled up behind at a red light in Rockville just days following 9/11:  “Pray today. Kick [bleep] tomorrow.”  I wondered, “What is that person praying for? Who is that person praying for?”  I had little doubt who they wanted to kick.  And, of course, these many years hence, our Muslim siblings continue to be maligned and harmed. 

 

Jesus teaches us to pray for those who persecute us and to refrain from violent retaliation.  Our nation doesn’t really care whether we pray, but consistently—and sometimes in bold defiance of even just war principles—retaliates with violent force and makes us complicit, whether we choose to be or not.  Regardless of your conviction about the use of violent force, this presents us with an inherent conflict as followers of Jesus.  So what do we do? 

 

I tried every which way to come up with a zinger here, to throw in a clever twist that would tie up all these musings in some satisfying package.  But the truth of the matter is that in the world as it is, there is nothing I can say or do that will satisfy.  (Thank God, I’m not God…)  So I’ll just tell a story.

 

Once upon a time, in a world at war, in an occupied land, God drew near in fully human form in a person named Jesus.  Jesus embodied that quote we love so much—you know the one: hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.  Jesus showed us it’s true and shows us how it’s done—most fully on the cross.  Jesus proclaimed a new reality—something the world had never seen before and couldn’t even imagine:  a reality in which the god of violence and war is overcome by the God of mercy, forgiveness, and love. 

 

Even though we claim to be an Easter people, we still struggle to imagine that reality is truly possible.  I wonder why…?

 

 

[i] Walter Wink, “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way,” http://www.cres.org/star/_wink.htm

[ii] Emerson Powery, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=840

[iii] Walter Wink, “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way,” http://www.cres.org/star/_wink.htm

[iv] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2012, Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, ¶164.I) Military Service, p. 138.

[v] Ibid., ¶165.C) War and Peace, p. 140.

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