Isaiah 35:1-10, Magnificat, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11
When I was a kid my parents did not allow us to have toy guns. So we just used the best sticks we could find. For my tenth birthday I was given some money and I bought myself a toy machine gun. It had a crank that when you turned it, it went rata-tata-tata. My parents gave in and let me keep it.
Violence, as I’ve been saying for the last three weeks, is natural, and today I’m adding that violence is attractive and alluring, even to children. Cartoons and comics and video games are full of it. And judging by so much of adult television and cinema I’m going to say that violence is seductive and even beautiful.
If beauty be defined as “that which draws your eye to look at, again and again, with desire,” then, judging by what we watch on screen, you’d have to say that we find violence to be beautiful. And judging by what we watch on screen, you could say that what we find most beautiful of all is vengeance.
If vengeance can be beautiful then it’s not contradictory for this lovely prophecy from Isaiah about blossoms and the crocus and the majesty of the mountains also to have vengeance right there in it. “Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Terrible recompense does seem necessary for there to be real justice, that is, for salvation to be more than an escape. For salvation to be righteous, then the bad guys have to be defeated plus punished.
So of course John the Baptist, in our gospel lesson, who by this time was in Guantanamo, had been doubting his cousin Jesus as the long-expected Messiah. And all those miracles of healing that he did are beside the point. Not just the symptoms but the system! Social work is nice, but a salvation worth giving your life for requires a revolution. "Listen, Jesus, didn’t your mother Mary ever teach you that revolutionary song she sang when you were still inside her womb?"
Vengeance is a second step in violence. I mean the violence of necessity, non-malicious violence. The first step in violence is defensive, when the aggression of another forces you to be violent back, or when the government wields the sword to keep the peace, protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty.
But from punishment it’s a short next step to vengeance. Vengeance is aggression that claims its rightness, vengeance claims justice, vengeance assumes real grievance, blood crying out, a debt unpaid, somebody getting away with something, an upset in the moral equilibrium requiring further violence to get the balance back.
Last Monday I was in my bodega getting a coffee and a neighbor was looking at The Daily News with its report on the death of that three-year old boy who had been tortured by his father. She said, “That father should be tortured and killed, he deserves it.” She said, “You know I used to work at Rikers, and if he goes there, they’ll know what to do with him, they’ll torture him and kill him like he deserves. You know they have an ethic there.” Vengeance is violence that claims an ethic.
Well, I can tell you that the ethic of the Bible, in both Testaments, for all of the Bible’s violence, is that vengeance is absolutely reserved for God. The Torah does prescribe regulations to put limits on vengeance, thus admitting it, but the right to vengeance is fundamentally denied to humans, and the Book of Judges tells of the general misery for everyone when vengeance is allowed.
So I have to say that the current alliance between the Christian-right and the NRA is not only unbiblical but also would have been unthinkable to the conservative Protestant Republicans of my childhood, like my parents. It’s the historic ethic of the Christian church that private persons are not allowed to initiate any violence, no matter how bad the other guy, and if blood cries out, that is up to the government.
But how about if they keep getting away with it? What was remarkable in this latest presidential campaign is that both sides complained that the candidate of the other kept getting away with doing wrong. And the big banks keep getting away with it, hedgefund traders, multinationals, ExxonMobil, tobacco companies. How could God allow Hitler and Stalin and Mao and whoever else to get away with all their murderous evil for so long? That’s the complaint against God that I hear most often from people who reject belief, and the most telling complaint, I think. Evil gets away with it.
At the more personal level we grumble, we grumble from a sense of grievance. This is what is addressed by our epistle. That spiritual root of bitterness which can grow into the choking vine of vengeance. And what the epistle calls for is patience. Not patience as passivity, but specifically active patience, “heart-strengthened” patience, robust patience, a kind of activity and busy-ness that leaves the outcome open to God. Doing Christian action but trusting God with the outcome.
Witnessing, for example, as I said last week. Witnesses in the forms of unmasking and advocating. First, unmasking the full extent of violence in all of its subtlety and toleration, unmasking the reality of its misery even when the use of it cannot be avoided. Second, advocating for the silent victims of violence, especially when that violence is done by otherwise respectable governments and institutions—advocating for the meek of the earth.
In both unmasking and advocating being witnesses, even when our witness is unpopular. But then, and here’s the hardest part, not being the jury or the judge, that is, leaving the verdict up to God, and still being hopeful, and still being loving, which takes an awful lot of patience, and an awful lot of trust in God.
To respond to evil not with vengeance but with witnessing is what I mean by active patience, and active patience is what I’m calling anti-violence. But to maintain this active patience requires some Christian disciplines. And the two Christian disciplines that I’m going to recommend to you today are penitence and joy.
Penitence is the opposite of grievance. Your grievances are real, so your penitence has to be just as real. Penitence is when you stop judging others and you judge yourself. Penitence is when you take yourself off the throne of your Cartesian autocracy, with all your rights and privilege pertaining thereto, and you take your place among the petitioners, among the humble, even among the guilty, and “there but for the grace of God go I.”
Lenten penitence is mortification, preparing to die. Advent penitence is about surrendering your place, giving up your nice room at the inn to bed down in the stable. Advent penitence is surrendering your right to your grievances. Anti-violence.
The opposite of bitterness is joy. Because the real endurance of real grievances give real cause for bitterness, you have to cultivate joy. As a discipline. You know the Bible is remarkable in that it commands you to love, when love is usually considered a feeling; a feeling is raised into an ethic. Just so the Bible commands joy, and another feeling is raised into an ethic. Not that you can force the feeling of joy. But you cultivate the attitudes of joy, the patterns of joy, the language of joy, even the habits of joy.
The pattern of joy is signified by the command “re-joice,” which in Latin is gaudete, and Gaudete is the traditional name of the Third Sunday of Advent and the reason for the candle’s color being rose. Today you are commanded to rejoice, and so today you have to ask yourself what right do you have not to be joyful? Your cultivation of joy is your active antidote to bitterness, and your penitence reminds you that you have no enduring right to bitterness. Occasions for bitterness will certainly come, as your anti-violence will be met by unfair opposition, so you’ll need to practice joy in order to keep on going in your anti-violence.
Penitence and joy are the means. The end is love. I invite you to the anti-vengeance that is love, that love of God that is so humble that it surrenders every right and privilege and takes on flesh in the stable among the poor and the beasts. Find yourself in this great mystery of God’s love for you.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.