Saturday, November 26, 2016
November 27, Advent 1: Violence #1: War
Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44
This is the first in a sermon series on violence. We’re asking the scripture lessons every week to tell us about violence. Now this is not a jolly theme for the happy holidays. But Advent is a penitential season, and repentance means facing hard realities, and the hard reality is that America is a violent country, the most violent of the great democracies.
It’s true that violence is natural. “Nature is red in tooth and claw.” Adolf Hitler once said, “I cannot see why man should not be just as cruel as nature.” But nature seems to be getting more violent of late, at least the weather is, thanks to our messing things up. And civic violence has found new expression and encouragement by the President-elect, despite the real distress and real concerns of so many people who did vote for him. The worst of it was the Access-Hollywood tape when he boasted of assaulting women and rejoiced in talk of raping them.
To “make America great again” should we threaten war to enforce our interests around the world? To “make America great again” should we resume our assault upon the landscape, the biosphere, the atmosphere, the water, the carbon in the ground, not to mention the poor of the earth whom we need to exploit for the cheapness of the products we consume? Forty years ago President Jimmy Carter called us to repentance on such things and we hated it. “We have nothing to repent of! We are great, and now we shall be great again in those things in which a violent nation can be great.” That’s what we’re looking at. And Advent is a season of repentance.
Repentance requires realism. We shan’t be idealistic. The gospel is anything but idealistic. The Bible is realistic about violence. People are put off by the violence in the Bible, but its violence is realistic. The Judges were violent, Joshua was violent, the Children of Israel were violent, David was violent, prophets called for violence, and God did not just tolerate violence, God committed it.
On the other hand, the Creation account in the Bible is distinctly non-violent when compared to the ancient mythologies. In the mythologies, violence was regarded as essential to existence, and the world was formed as a product of the wars between the gods. But the God of the Bible spoke the world into being, absolutely peacefully. God said, Let there be light, and that light made space in the universal darkness. God said, Let there be a firmament, to hold back the natural chaos and disorder and make a great safe space for the freedom of birds and fish, and then God spoke to push the water back to make dry land, for plants and animals and humankind to flourish in. And it was good.
But humankind rebelled and brought the violence back in. Cain killed Abel, and then down to the days of Noah violence increased upon the earth, and normalized, as normal as eating and drinking, as marrying and giving in marriage, warfare increased until God released the waters back and washed it away. Yes, with natural violence God dealt with human violence. But then, with the rainbow, God said, I won’t do that again. God is in process with violence, step by step repudiating it.
You can make the Bible justify violence, as you can make the Bible justify anything. The Bible is not a systematic book of good ideas, well-thought out and organized. It’s a collection of stories, the story of God within the stories of real people in the real world, of fallen people in a fallen world. We have to read these individual stories in terms of the single, over-arching story, and the story of the love of God in Jesus Christ trumps every other story. The anti-violence of the Lord Jesus is the story that puts the other violent stories in their place.
We read the stories of the violence of the Judges as the stories that long for the Messiah of God, and the stories of the wars of Israel are put to rest in the Prince of Peace. The prophecies that the Messiah would lead a holy war and smash the heads of his enemies were laid to rest with the Jesus in the tomb. We read the stories of violence in the Bible to remind us to repent of our own works of darkness in general and of our own knack for violence in particular, our toleration of it, our excusing it, our taking of our ease and wealth from it. In Advent we repent.
We will not be idealistic. Violence is natural and even of necessity. All nations are violent. Civilization is not the absence of violence but the organization of it. The civil authority has a monopoly on violence to make for safety and order. Except in America, where we refuse the government its monopoly on violence because the private handgun is a sacred fetish of our civil religion. We claim a civil right to kill another person at our own discretion, so it’s only natural that our police departments defend themselves with military weaponry. We descend to the state of nature with its necessity of war, even low-level war domestically. Like in the days of Noah, and the sea-level is rising.
It’s because violence is natural that the prophecy of the Lord Jesus in today’s Gospel is always true and will always be relevant until he comes again. Within the darkness keep awake! Be yourself a space of light within the darkness, make a space in the chaos of nature for freedom and safety and peace. To keep awake in the dark is to exercise your freedom from the necessity of nature. The gift of salvation is freedom, freedom from the power of sin, freedom from payback, freedom from the law of club and fang, freedom from the fear of death, freedom from the iron claims of violence.
Freedom from some things means freedom within other things, the other things we don’t escape until the Lord Jesus comes again. You are not free from the world but free within the world. You are not free from nature but free within nature. You are not free from necessity but free within necessity. You are not free from violence but free within violence. You are not free from war but you are free within war.
What does this mean? I don’t know fully yet, and what I have to say today is tentative, but I ask you to be open to where this conversation may lead us in the coming weeks. Here’s my report for today:
There will be war, and we can’t escape it, we can’t pretend it won’t be necessary. We will not be idealistic, and humanistic efforts at appeasement may well make things worse. But the realism of Christians says that wars do not solve problems, they only postpone them and recast them. There is no good war, no just war, even when it’s necessary, and every war makes another war. Making war is not what makes a nation great. If we have to submit to violence to defend our families or the Jews among us or the Muslims or whomever, then at the same time we must grieve it, and mourn it, and not pretend we’ve made the world a safer place by having done it. And we may never, never equate our national interests with the advancement of the Kingdom of God.
In Manhattan, at the United Nations, you can see a monumental inscription of the wonderful words from Isaiah about “beating our swords into plowshares and learning war no more.” But actually in Isaiah it’s not the nations who are able to make peace among themselves, it’s rather God who makes peace among the nations by God judging them, by God deciding between them, God arbitrates between them with a binding arbitration.
The sober reality of the Christian gospel is that the peace among the nations is not an achievement of the nations themselves, for nations are naturally violent, but wherever peace occurs it’s only ever from the judgment of God upon the nations. Peace is never a matter of human progress but of God’s judgment pushing back against us, pushing back against our works of darkness. And the way that we receive God’s judgment by way of repentance.
Repentance is a liberation. When you recognize the darkness, you can look for light. The good news here is that the nations of the world, for all our darkness, really do long for the light. So says Isaiah. This good news is the mission that God has given us in all of this. For out of Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the Lord. We are entrusted with the word of the Lord, and many peoples shall come and say, “Come let us go up to the house of the Lord, come let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.