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Posts Tagged ‘violence’

Blessed are the Meek

 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Matthew 5:5

Among the modern-day synonyms for meek are timid, docile, passive, spineless, resigned, and weak. I suspect the definition of meekness has softened from what it meant in Jesus’ day, and here is why: One of Jesus’ most frequent instructions was to follow him, presumably even in his meekness. I find no evidence that any of these terms describe Jesus or his nature. Rather, he was assertive, courageous, persistent, and action-oriented. Therefore, as we read this Beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” I think we must look to a more reflective meaning for meekness.

A more accurate, contemporary translation might be to say blessed are the non-violent. Jesus passionately challenged injustice, illness, ignorance, and poverty wherever and whenever he found them, but he did so in a non-violent manner. There were a number of non-violent activists from the last century who modeled Jesus’ brand of meekness, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. None stood idly by in the face of injustice, but they steadfastly refused to answer violence with violence. The inconvenient truth is that Jesus did not allow his followers to react with violence at his arrest (Matthew 26:51), nor did he raise a finger to avoid his own violent death. There is a price to pay for a non-violent commitment, often a painful price.

Violence is never isolated. It is a reaction to a perceived threat and, as a reaction, violence is always a choice we make. In other words, we choose whether to respond in a violent manner to a particular situation. We deceive ourselves to think violence is always physical, however. Emotional cruelty, verbal abuse, and economic injustice are much more common and can wound more deeply. Violence in our culture extends beyond gun control debates, abortion, the death penalty, bullying, and military invasions of sovereign nations. Violent reactions, personally and collectively, reflect our insecurities and subconscious motivations. When we value others in terms of their usefulness for our own interests, we misuse whatever power we have over them to our advantage and at their expense. We see this manifest in rape and other types of sexual exploitation. The reach is broader than that, however. When we believe the rest of creation exists only for our benefit, we cause environmental destruction. Further, when we judge others as of no value to us, as wrong or insignificant, we ignore the higher truth that every person is a child of and loved by God every bit as much as we are. When we see our world (and everything in it) as our playground, as something for our personal exploitation, or even when we expect that others should think and act as we do, we box ourselves into a very small, incomplete world. Such a limited domain can only be forcibly sustained (temporarily) by violence because it is completely contrary to how the world was created.

Far from a cry to timidity, Jesus calls us to courageous and active resistance to the violence of our day, to find creative solutions that do not perpetuate cycles of violence. Such solutions respect and honor life where and as we find it, while also not allowing one immature life to run roughshod over another. Admittedly, it is not an easy undertaking. Jesus’ message is clear, however. In Matthew 5:38-39, he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Jesus modeled a higher level of response, one that is non-vengeful and non-violent.

There is always a moment immediately following a threatening event when we can consciously choose our reaction. Sometimes it is best to hold the tension for a time, acknowledging it for what it is and identifying what within us is threatened by it. This allows the tension to become a source of internal healing instead of a trigger for another round of violence. As we learn to respond in non-violent ways to the world around us, as we learn Jesus’ brand of meekness, we find our lives and the lives of those around us increasingly blessed in innumerable ways. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the good things of the earth, which ultimately exist in a web of beautifully diverse, interdependent relationships.

This is the 13th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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A Militant God

Then Israel made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will indeed give this people into our hands, then we will utterly destroy their towns.” The Lord listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their towns. Numbers 21:2-3

There is a militant face of God that appears in the Old Testament where God seemingly participates in the destruction of an enemy. Sometimes God participates as the destroyer, where other times God empowers the army of one nation to overthrow another. In the passage from Numbers 21 above, God is asked to “give this people into our hands,” which means to wipe them out. Because the Israelites defeated the Canaanites in this particular battle, God received credit for the carnage. Stories like these turn some people, particularly those with a pacifistic bent, away from the Old Testament.

I, too, find the thought that God might actually take sides in a physical battle troubling. (I am also bothered by people who pray for their team’s victory in a sporting event.) My concern centers around two issues. First, I believe all people are created in the image of God and are loved by God as such. Second, the image of a militant God is inconsistent with the uncompromisingly non-violent persona of God embodied as Jesus the Christ in the New Testament.

While I realize the Bible was written from the perspective of the Israelites, I find the idea that God’s support or displeasure was revealed in the outcome of a war difficult to accept. Especially considering that in addition to the normal carnage of warfare, the women and children of the defeated group were often killed or enslaved. This is not to mention the plundering of everything of value. It seems that “winning” was not sufficient, but that total annihilation was somehow justified. When the Israelites were defeated in battle, the biblical authors attributed it to God’s “punishment” for their insolence. What troubles me is the implication that God would somehow participate in the annihilation of a human life God created and called good. I understand that our human sin separates us from God, but I believe God reaches out to us in our sin to pull us back, rather than brutally snuffing the life out of the sinner.

The Old Testament portrayals of God leading a nation into battle is, to me, contrary to the life of Jesus the Christ, God’s embodiment in human form. Jesus’ life was a model of non-violence. In his final human act on earth, he submitted to the violent and deadly actions of his captors. He allowed himself to be falsely accused, humiliated, beaten, and nailed to a cross. Surely, if there was a time for God to intervene in a violent way on behalf of innocent life, that would have been it. Instead of portraying a militant face of God, however, Jesus manifested a vulnerable, submissive face. He held up a mirror for humanity to view its own cruelty and inhumanity. Perhaps God was waiting for one of us to intervene…

Fortunately, I believe there are other ways to interpret the violence recorded in the Bible. We can read biblical stories literally and as historical documents, and we can also understand them allegorically. Perhaps the battles documented in the Bible represent the battles that go on inside of us. I know I am forever trying to “defeat” or “annihilate” something in myself that is detrimental to my life and the lives around me. I, like many of us, worship the idols of wealth, power, and possession, covet what belongs to my neighbor, and attempt to establish God in my own image instead of allowing God’s image to shape me. It is a constant combat to overcome my human frailties, and that is a battle I could see God taking sides in. By the way, I am all for praying before a sporting event, as long as the prayer is for the participants to show respect to their opponent and to act in ways that honor their status as children of God.

God does not seek destruction as much as the transformation of a curse into a blessing. That is a militant face of God I can rally behind.

Note: this is the seventeenth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 3: The Way Out is Through

Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34a

                       “I shouted out, who killed the Kennedys? When after all, it was you and me.”

Sympathy for the Devil, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

We live in a violent time. Pundits of every persuasion speak with certainty about the causes and cures for the current violence. I am unconvinced. What I am listening for, but not hearing, is anyone recognizing and accepting personal responsibility for a solution.

Long ago, I was taught that one cannot solve a problem without accepting some level of responsibility. Once I recognize my part in a problem, I am able to begin making meaningful changes that may actually have a positive impact. The change, however, must begin within. If not, I join the legions of complainers, finger-pointers, hand-wringers, pontificators, and other reactionaries that only perpetuate the problem. As Christians, we have the audacity to claim Jesus took the sins of the world – past, present, and future – to the cross to purchase our salvation. But do we understand the nature of that sacrifice? Do we know how to apply it in practical ways? One lesson of the cross is how to participate in the reconciling of social ills. What Jesus modeled for us is this: The way out is through.

Jesus, an entirely innocent victim, knew a horrible death he did not deserve was waiting. He would endure the worst torture that humanity knew how to inflict at the time. The social systems of Jesus’ day, like today, were unjust and violent. They wrongly believed, as we believe, that progress – however the culture defines it – comes by force. Jesus recognized the corrupt underlying system and, in his humanity, refused to participate in or perpetuate it. Once accused, he did not get defensive, or try to shift the condemnation onto others. He knew the only way out of the situation – to begin a social healing process – was to accept his condemnation, take up his cross, and go through it. And in that act of civil disobedience, Jesus modeled what happens when we go through a difficult challenge – we come out the other side changed. All efforts to avoid, go around, or deny a problem leave it for another day.

What are my roles in today’s issues? Where are my actions toward others discriminatory and unjust? Which of my cultural assumptions are repressive? How do my words exclude others from kinship as fellow children of God? Specifically, what am I doing, or not doing, that is contributing to the problem? As a Christian, American (the only category of American without an ethnically-based prefix), heterosexual, white male, I have no meaningful experience with discrimination. I am near the top of the socio-economic ladder by accident of birth. Until I understand and accept my role in perpetuating a violent, discriminatory culture, I remain firmly a part of the problem – without ever pulling a trigger.

From the cross, Jesus looked with mercy on those who inflicted the horrible injustice upon him and asked that God forgive them. They did not know what they were doing; and neither do we. The spiral of violence we find ourselves in will only be solved when a critical mass of people accept responsibility for their part, say “Enough,” take up their cross, and go through the problem, including acceptance of its inevitable consequences.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only love can do that.” In these dark times, only love can carry us through to the other side. We underestimate how rare that sort of love is, however, let alone the level of sacrifice and focus it requires. Not all of us will survive, at least not physically, but deeply-imbedded social ills require much sacrifice for the future good. Jesus showed us the way. Non-violent leaders like Dr. King and Gandhi gave their lives for it. They faced evil head on, absorbed the worst evil could throw at them, and came out triumphant on the other side.

The way out is through. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

Less Human

Terrors frighten them on every side, and chase them at their heels. Their strength is consumed by hunger, and calamity is ready for their stumbling. Surely such are the dwellings of the ungodly, such is the place of those who do not know God.  Job 18:11-12, 21

Recently, I heard a radio interview with a Syrian refugee. He had been displaced from his home and life by the intense violence and unrest there. In describing the desperate state of his homeland and fellow Syrians he said, “Nothing makes you less human than being hungry.” My life is so sheltered and blessed compared to the lives of so many that it is difficult to imagine being that ravenous. I recall Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which illustrates how we cannot strive for higher, more human traits when our most basic needs are left wanting. When a person has no sense of security – no food, roof over their head, or basic space of their own – they cannot worry about how their words or actions will impact others, and so they may act in ways less human. Fundamental needs must be met before other more human traits can manifest.

It is difficult for those of us in first world countries to imagine such a degree of desperation. Typically, when we say we are “starving” it means we have not eaten for several hours, not that we have not eaten in days, or that we have not eaten adequately – ever. When we say we need “space,” we do not mean we need protection from the elements or criminals as much as we need a break from the abundance of people and material goods around us. I recall the secured fortresses around most living spaces in Honduras and understand them to be the result of their desperate need for safety. It seemed to me, at first glance, there were many needs the money could be better spent meeting than on personal security, but basic needs always come first.

We all hunger for different things in our lives and some of our desires cause us to be less human to others. Obviously, not all of us hunger for things as basic as food and safety. Rampant gang violence, civil wars, and other acts of lethal violence seem to occur mostly in poor countries and in the poorest sections of first world countries. Perhaps the conditions that result in the widespread loss of innocent human lives continue because the basic needs of the perpetrators are not being met – and so they act in ways we consider less human. The finger of judgement I point at these wrongdoers, however, ultimately points back at me. What am I doing to assist with the basic needs of people less fortunate than I am? What am I doing to feed the hungry, care for the homeless, and protect the vulnerable? If I am honest with myself, I am doing far too little. The Job passage above implies these are the conditions of the “ungodly” or of “those who do not know God.” Perhaps we can best help them know God by finding ways to feed them.

Come home to church this Sunday. The body of Christ needs you.

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