Friday, December 02, 2016

December 4, Advent 2, Violence #2: Justice

Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

Let me list the animals, vegetables, and minerals in our lessons today. We get a wolf, a leopard, a bear, and twice a lion. We get a lamb, a kid, a calf, a veal-calf, a cow, and an ox. We get three poisonous snakes: an asp, an adder, and vipers. We get locusts, we get camel’s hair, we get honey, wheat, the husk, and straw. We get a tree stump, a shoot, a branch, and thrice a root. We get an ax on the roots and trees chopped down and burned. We get fire twice, and water, and wind. We get the sea, rain, showers, mown fields, little hills, and mountains twice. We get stones, the children of stones, and children of Abraham. We get a little child, a nursing child, and a weaned child.

Quote: “And a little child shall lead them.” It’s a children’s parade. That was the sermon preached on these lessons six years ago by our seminary intern Rachel Daley. That sermon was so wonderful that we made a picture book of it and gave it to Rachel as a present. A little child shall lead them. And that little child must be Jesus, we Christians cannot help but think.

It is a principle of Jewish and Christian theology that a prophecy can mean more than the prophet intended, so I can doubt that Isaiah foresaw the child as the Messiah, but as a beneficiary of the Messiah and of the peace that the Messiah would bring. Isaiah was predicting the return of the king, the revival of the cut-off dynasty of David, of the chopped-down House of Jesse. The king would bring justice back with him (the first part of the prophecy), and his justice would result in peace (the second part of the prophecy). But here’s the thing: to bring that justice would require some violence.

This is the second sermon in my Advent series on violence. Why this topic? Because violence is on the increase in our nation and the world, and being accepted as making us great again, so if the baby in the manger is the Prince of Peace, then we must understand from what he’s saving us.

Last week I made the claim that violence is natural and of necessity. We should not be surprised at it, nor sentimental nor even idealistic in our facing it. But just because violence is natural and necessary does not mean Christians should choose for it. Do we not choose against the natural necessities of illness, and scarcity, and death? Why not then also violence? But we can only do this as believers. Governments themselves cannot. All governments are violent, no matter how they justify their violence, as they must do. So how do we Christians make our way in this?

The Bible holds together two realities about government: First, government is ordained by God for our good, and it wields the sword to chastise the wicked and protect the good. You get this in our Psalm for today, and also in the writings of St. Paul.

Second, government is the Beast from the great abyss, or idolatrous Babylon, the constant source of persecution and injustice. You get this in the prophets, the Book of Revelation, and the predictions of the Lord Jesus.

Both realities more or less take form in every government, the USA included, and both realities, whether for justice or oppression, resort to the same power of the sword. Both realities use violence.

We just heard John the Baptist predicting a violent Messiah, leading a holy war, chopping, slashing, and burning. His images are violent, but violence for good, as every revolution justifies itself against the oppressor. He was right about the Messiah, but wrong about the Messiah’s plans.

What the Lord Jesus would have to show by his teaching and example, and by his life and his death would have to explore for the first time ever, was his radical freedom from nature and necessity, such that he could accomplish justice and rightness in a way that was absolutely anti-violent.

That was not a given. As I said last week, the Bible is full of violence, not only by its heroes but even by God. So it’s wonderful that Jesus, while he was still living at home in Nazareth in those quiet years before he was announced by John the Baptist, when he meditated on those prophecies that saw the Messiah as a warrior, leading a revolution of the saints, wielding the sword of justice to vindicate the poor, defending the meek by smashing heads, that he chose instead a very different course, as yet untried by anyone, and one that he could tell he’d have to pay for with his life.

How did he choose against the natural necessity of violence? Because he did not judge by what his eyes saw, which we cannot help but do, nor did he decide by what his ears heard, which we have no choice but do. Because we are natural people we live by the laws of necessity and the sad wisdom of our experience—that if the wolf lies down with the lamb, that’s it for the lamb, and a child who puts her hand over a snake-pit gets dead. We have good reason to doubt the choice for anti-violence when we judge by our own knowledge and experience.

But honest experience also confronts us with the laws of violence no weaker than the laws of nature. It’s the law of violence that once you resort to violence, even in the name of good, you cannot stop it. Once you resort to violence, your adversary will as well. Once you give yourself the right to violence, you cannot refuse your adversary that same right. The law of violence is that violence begets more violence, to use it is never to control it, and even if you gain your objective it’s always a net loss down the road. The misery of violence is recognized by realism no less than its necessity. The Lord Jesus was realistic, not idealistic, and he chose for anti-violence.

The prophecy says he was able to do this because the spirit of the Lord rested on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord should be greater than your fear of anything else. That gives you a certain freedom. Not freedom from the emotion of fear, which is a healthy thing, but freedom from the tyranny and the control of fear, which is what violence depends on. As I said last week, we are offered not freedom from violence  but freedom within violence.

We can exercise our Christian freedom in two ways, and both ways are forms of witness. Both ways of witness I have learned from the writing of Jacques Ellul, a Christian sociologist who served in the French Underground in World War II, and knew first hand what he was talking about.

First, we witness to the awful truth of violence whenever we find ourselves in the necessity of participating in it, say for the defense of a loved one or even of the civil state. Not that we act with reluctance or sad faces, but that we bear witness to Jesus Christ and his kingdom from within it as best that we know how. For how else shall we love our enemies. It is the law of violence that its users, be they oppressors or freedom fighters, always justify its use as good, and it is the job of Christians to unmask the long-range evil of it all, despite the claims and glories of the victors.

Second, we witness to the experience of the victims of violence who are silent or ignored. We Christians must use our good reputation with those who are in power to advocate to them on behalf of those victims whose victimization is unremarked and tolerated. In the words of Isaiah, the poor and the meek of the earth, no matter how depressed or despicable those victims might be. Even good governments are violent, even in subtle and painless ways, even just by negligence. Even good governments have their silent victims, and we who are good Christian citizens have the thankless and even ridiculous task of witnessing to the powerful on their behalf. We do this not for our own success, but the love of Jesus for such folks constrains us.

If we do these things we will be misunderstood. We will have to contend with other Christians and people of good will. And for some of these things, only the Rosa Parkses among us should we designate to do it, and the rest of us support it. I mean, the base line, according to St. Paul elsewhere (First Thessalonians), is that we should all live our lives in quiet, minding our own affairs. We do this in part to earn the respect and gain the ear of those who are in power and have the advantage of the violence around us, so that we can witness on behalf of those whom they do not so respect.

You  desire justice and order in the world. And you desire God, and you seek the vision of God. This vision gives you unfinished business. Advent is all about feeling unfinished. Be open to it, and wait for the coming of the Lord. “Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the nations; in him the nations shall hope.’ May the God of hope fill you with all joy and hope in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” 

Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.


Jeff Spurgeon said...

These are amazing sermons, Daniel, and I have to re-read them again and again to get ahold of them -- mostly I think because just embracing the topic is so difficult. In reading your thoughts, I am reminded of a recent essay by Robert Pogue Harrison, in The New York Review of Books, on the extreme violence of the punishments of the damned in The Inferno:

"Hell’s ultimate image of the self-consuming and self-perpetuating nature of revenge comes in cantos 32 and 33, when Dante sees Count Ugolino trapped in a hole in the ninth circle’s lake of ice. In the hole with him is his archenemy Ruggieri, the back of whose head Ugolino gnaws at ferociously, like a dog on bone. "Because Ruggieri had locked Ugolino and his children in a tower and starved them to death, Ugolino’s postmortem hunger for revenge is insatiable. The more he eats at the head of his 'neighbor,' as Ugolino calls the one who shares his hole, the more he hungers for that 'savage repast.'
"If revenge and reciprocal violence are the essence of God’s justice, Dante’s Inferno despairs of God...The extravagance of the punishments in lower Hell suggests that in those cantos, if not in the canticle as a whole, an infernal rather than divine justice is on display.
"When violence enters its cycles of reciprocity, when it spreads like a contagion out of all proportion, it turns into a form of mimetic insanity, drawing everyone, including God, into its vortex. Because Dante scholars operate on the assumption that their author is always in full control of his poem, they tend to blind themselves to all the indications that Dante—the author as well as his character—is starting to lose his mind at the end of Inferno."

If I'm reading Harrison correctly, he's saying Dante is showing not God's justice, but mankind's lust for violence and vengeance. The examples come from Dante's own time and from history as he understood it, but the lessons are timeless.

"Hell is not a place. It is the series of consequences of human action. Dante understood human free will as a gift that we turn into a curse, especially when secular institutions of justice fail to fulfill their purpose on earth. Whether it assumes responsibility for its consequences or not, human agency takes charge of history. When I say that there is no divine justice in Hell, I mean that God, in Dante’s vision, has put the human world under human jurisdiction. The freedom of human action is such that we humans choose whether to infernalize the world or render it humanly inhabitable through laws, education, and institutions of government."

If you'd like to see the whole essay, I'll be happy to send it to you.
Thanks for these sermons, and for leading us into a way to discuss this painful part of our national identity and our spiritual identity.

Old First said...

I am both thrilled and humbled by this comment, JS. You are most welcome. What a brilliant meditation on violence in Dante's Hell. I very much want to see that essay.