March 16, 2014
First Reading: Matthew 26:47-56
While Jesus was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
Dante’s Inferno, Canto xii, lines 40-46, translated by Robert Pinsky
“But your keep your eyes below, for coming near
Is the river of blood–in which boils everyone
Whose violence hurt others.” O blind desire
of covetousness, O anger gone insane–
That goad us on through life, which is so brief
To steep in eternal woe when life is done.
Truth: most of the important questions can’t be fairly addressed in a 10-20 minute sermon. Second truth: this is one place where we come to hear about what matters to God in 10-20 minutes. So this is your fair warning that I’m not going to tell you what I think you should think – not just because there isn’t enough time but also … I don’t know the answers. I am going to tell you about questions that you and I have to think about if we are going to be faithful to God.
So let me give you the bullet points for this morning:
- People matter to God. All of them.
- Human beings are damaged by violence – by the violence that happens to them and by the violence that they inflict on others. More on this in a moment.
- We use the threat of violence and violence itself to create order in society and between countries.
- Violence is also a function of rage, greed, and will. Some of our societal use of force is an attempt to control the violence of others. Some of it is a function of rage, greed and will.
Violence is not part of most of our lives. Most of us live in relatively stable families – dysfunctional perhaps, but relatively stable, and in stable communities in a stable nation. The violence we experience is an invention: TV, movies, video games – these are the source of much of the violence we experience. Even in our books. It is ironic that the violence of this Lenten season comes to us from the Inferno. These fictional locations are where we experience the cathartic thrill watching actors beat up and kill the “bad guys.” It has been argued that this thrill may function as a psychological release, and that may be, but if violence is our primary entertainment then something more than release happens — we have trained our brains and spirits to need bloodshed.
The blood that is shed out of fear;
The blood that is shed out of anger;
The blood that boils.
Rivers of blood.
In the Civil War Battle of Antietam in Maryland, there is a place known as bloody lane, a long depression across the field where so many men were killed in one day that it literally became a river of blood.
And a river of blood is the what Dante and Virgil encounter when they arrive in the 7th circle of hell. Here we find Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun and other warmongers and tyrants and pirates. All those whose way in the world was by violence. These who had shed so much blood find themselves forever in a river of boiling blood, kept there by a troop of centaurs, half-human, half-beast, armed with bows and arrows. As the rage of these violent men birthed boiling blood, their violence births more violence by way of beastly humanity or human beasts. That is all they have known and all they will know.
It is the goriest manifestation of the proverb: if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If all you have is a sword everyone becomes the enemy, every body becomes a sheath.
My mom’s parents were Mennonites. Mennonites, like their religious cousins, the Amish and the Quakers, are pacifists. They take literally the commandment: You shall not kill. For over two centuries they migrated from Germany to the Ukraine to the US and Canada in order to remain pacifists, in order to be faithful to the commandment. As I understand it they believe that it is better that our bodies be killed, than that our lose their souls by killing others. Confirmed in Jesus’ other words: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” I don’t know if their faithfulness to this belief as eliminated their fears, but it has had a direct bearing on their way living and how they live and where they live. They have moved everything time and again because they believe that something evil happens to a person who participates in killing.
I am not a pacifist. I know full well that if someone threatened any of my family, and that includes you-all, and that I had the capacity to stop that person with a gun I would use it. Nonetheless, it is also true that if I would use a gun to inflict violence on another person, something would happen to me inside. Something that is evil. Bonhoeffer knew this danger to his own soul even as he participated in plotting Hitler’s assassination.
This decision – whether or not to use a weapon to wound or kill someone – is not a decision you or I have to make. Others make it for us. Consider this scene from the 1992 movie, “A Few Good Men.” The movie is about the court-martial of two Marines charged with murdering another Marine, Santiago. In the scene the commander of the post at Guantanamo Bay, Colonel Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson, is on the stand being cross-examined by Tom Cruise’s character, Lt. Kaffee, when this famous exchange place:
Jessep: You want answers?
Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to them.
Jessep: You want answers?
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Jessep: You can’t handle the truth!
Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives…You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.
Jessep goes on, because he was a man who did not understand the limits of his job and in fact had ordered the action that resulted in the death of Santiago, but let’s stop here. Because here is the relevant question: Do we need men and women with guns? And, if we do, do we understand that they are at risk of losing some of their humanity, of becoming only a sword – or in the words of Jessep – becoming in some small ways – grotesque and incomprehensible? Maybe. Maybe, not. I’m not going to answer that question, because I do not have an answer. But I believe the least we can do, the least we have to do, is to acknowledge that participating in violence does something to people and that if we make them do it for us, we had better be prepared to address the consequences for them. Most of the time we hope they are surrounded by enough time and support and love and healing to cover the wound that violence makes. So many men and women have been on extended tours of duty in our wars; too many tours of duty for many of them, and one tour of duty is sometimes too many. Our warriors are wounded by more than bodily wounds. There are limits on how long you can do this … be in places where your life and limb are threatened, where you threaten the lives and limbs of other people, where the people around you are wounded and killed. We have left many of our young in the river of boiling blood far too long and they cannot find their way to wholeness. The incidences of PTSD, suicide, and domestic violence among soldiers, prison guards, police and others we hire to maintain our safe world should make us do more than tut-tut. We need to honest about that price they have paid and ask hard question about limits of war and force and about the support and care we owe those who carry our guns.
Like I said … too much for a Sunday morning. But if we are going to take the tour of the hell of souls we need to spend time considering the state of our corporate, collective soul. So this is where we find ourselves on this Sunday morning.
A Sunday morning in Lent on the way to the cross, where our God chose to die for us rather than shed the blood of the guilty. Where God faced violence not with violence but with love. A less satisfying movie perhaps, but a profoundly more holy reality.
Jesus didn’t fight for us.
Jesus didn’t kill for us.
Jesus died for us. All of us.
Including every single person who is wounded or killed in our name.
And every single person who wounds or kills in our name.
What. Does. That. Mean?