I'm writing this newsletter to you on the 21st of February. We did not gather for worship on the previous Sunday due to inclement weather. So what continues to haunt my thoughts, and I'm sure yours as well, is the assault on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla, in which 17 people were slaughtered. Each day I've been praying for the safety of our students and our teachers and our first responders. There is such heartache, grief at watching this kind tragedy unfold once again. Honestly, I do not only feel grief but frustration and anger. In the wake of Parkland many statistics circulated on the news and social media, such as one stating that there had been 18 school shootings already in 2018. This statistic included any incident in which a firearm was discharged on school ground, even if that was a closed school with no students or after business hours when no students were present, which doesn't seem quite accurate. Of course at the other end of the spectrum, the Washington Post countered that there had only been five incidents of school shootings like the tragedy at Parkland Florida, not counting an incident if no students were injured, which seems to obscure the point as well. I mention this not to take a cheap shot at the news or social media or advocacy groups, but simply to illustrate the fact that this is a complex issue that we as a culture find very difficult to define and so have a dialogue about. Trying to simplify the facts for a culture too focused on sound-bites, twitter messages and the scrolling news slide at the bottom of the tv screen does a disservice to us all as we struggle with a response to what is obviously a serious problem.
I also noticed that many, on facebook and twitter rushed to the Bible for scriptural support for their perspective. What truly disturbed me about this was the number of people who would quote Luke 22:36 in which Jesus says to the disciples, "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one," as a defense of the 2nd amendment and its recent interpretation as the right for citizens to own assault weapons. Once again, a complex issue such as what exactly Jesus meant by this statement is oversimplified. When something Jesus says is oversimplified it reveals that the desire is not to be shaped or guided by the life and teaching of Jesus, but instead to shape Jesus into an image that is more comfortable for us and requires no repentance or justification by faith. This particular verse is and has virtually always been a troubling one. It is troubling because it does not seem to agree with the other instances in Luke in which Jesus has addressed violence. For instance, Luke 6 records Jesus as teaching, ' “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. . . . Love your enemies, and do good. . . . Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” In Luke 9 we read the story of the disciple's desire to call down fire from the heavens (God) in response to the lack of hospitality of the Samaritans. Luke tells us that Jesus 'rebukes' them. And just after Jesus seems to urge the disciples to take up weapons in Luke 22, when one of the disciples actually uses the sword to cut off the ear of a servant of the High Priest, Jesus stops the violence and heals the servant. We should also recall that in Matthew's telling of this incident Jesus offers the following warning, 'Those who live by the sword will die by the sword,' meaning violence only leads to more violence and does not ever deliver the safety and security it promises.
Warnings against the seduction of force are a constant theme in the Bible. God marks Cain in Genesis 4 to protect him from murderous vengeance because he killed his brother. God created a barrier to the ongoing cycle of violence. In the second chapter of Isaiah the prophet describes the result of the nation's gathering to learn the way of God in this way; 'They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.' On Christmas Eve Christian churches around the world will read from the 9th chapter of Isaiah, 'Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. 6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.
In the 20th Psalm we hear the writer proclaim faith in God thusly; 'Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.' Looking again at Isaiah 2, we see the prophets critique of his own nation and people, 'You have forsaken the ways of your people, O house of Jacob...their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots.' In both cases, chariots and horses symbolize a culture which has put its faith in force and violence to ensure safety and security over faith in the goodness and power of God. This is idolatry, putting ultimate trust in force, strength, and threat, instead of placing ultimate trust in God and God's ways.
Not wishing to fall into the trap I exposed earlier, of oversimplifying the matter, I will admit there is much violence in scripture as well. From the flood in Genesis which is God's response to the evil of humanity, to the violent overthrow of the Canaanites to ensure that Israel can have a safe and secure land, to David's battle against Goliath, and Ananias and Saphira being struck dead for disobeying the will of God in Acts, we can find acts of violence by God or sanctioned by God. We know 'Thou shall not kill,' is one of the commandments, but the exact intent of that commandment is open to debate. Is the command against all killing in general or murder specifically? Does it outlaw self-defense? Israel struggled to interpret and apply this commandment, and there were certainly cases in which Israel found killing to be a necessary evil. For instance, in Genesis 9:6 we read, 'Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,' which appears to sanction some forms of violence. But we also find the proclamation of God in Deuteronomy, 'vengeance is mine...' Which seems to reserve the right of violent response for God alone. Paul would quote this verse from Deuteronomy in Romans 12 adding, 'Repay no one evil for evil...If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.'
But having acknowledged, the complexity of violence in the Bible, both its sanction and its prohibition, I want to close by highlighting two things and making a suggestion for our Lenten spiritual practice. First, there is the consistent and ongoing theme of God prohibiting and interrupting the cycle of violence. From God marking Cain to commanding against murder, sending the prophets to confront the idolatry of weaponry and force to Jesus teaching prayer and forgiveness, the biblical witness is clear that those who are faithful to the way of God will strive to learn to be non-violent people. Second, it is clear, based on the prophets and the life and teachings of Jesus that reliance on force and violence is idolatry. It is very clearly a sin to put our hope and trust in violence and weapons to ensure our security. Too often the dialogue about violence in our society falls back to the 2nd amendment for guidance and then debate what how to interpret that. I would suggest that as Christians, as Baptists specifically we say that the Bible is our authority in faith and in life and so instead of falling back to or hiding behind the 2nd amendment, we have to look to scripture, the word of God incarnate in the life of Jesus to be our guide, to offer us wisdom and to challenge us. That means going beyond simplistically quoting one verse to support the perspective that we have already reached. It also means that we have some confessing and repenting to do as a nation. Violence is an idol as are weapons of destruction.
Although the mantra, 'thoughts and prayers for the victims,' has been justifiably derided by many as a shelter from action, I would suggest that begin to confess, repent and confront the idolatry of our nation with prayer. But it is a prayer practice in which we devote time to sit and listen to the word of God. I will take time each day to sit and listen to the God's command not to kill, the prophets warning about horses and chariots, imagine the transformation of swords to plowshares, and hear Jesus tell me to turn my cheek and pray for my enemies. I will submit to these discomforting lessons so that they shape me. And I will also ask how they are calling me to behave and to advocate for a peaceful and just society. And I hope you will join me for the remainder of Lent, in this practice of prayer, repentance of idolatry and then actions of obedience to God which advocate for justice and peace in our nation and world.