I write this knowing that I don’t have a strategic plan for how to make this world, this country, or this state I live in a less violent place. I write this more than a decade after 9/11 and less than 3 months after the Newtown massacre. I write this as the debate on gun control escalates, even within faith circles. I write this knowing that people who are otherwise gentle people insist they would use violent means to protect their own lives or those they love. I also write this with a clear vision of what my faith, as an aspiring follower of Christ, calls me to.
Among others, I’m grateful for Alan Storey of South Africa, whose reflections on the great flood story and whose prophetic words to the Church have compelled me to speak out on the critical condition of our violent world.
As an adult, I have often wrestled with the great flood story in the Book of Genesis and what it says about God. I invite you to read it to refresh your memory – Genesis 6-9. I encourage you to listen and look deeper than the animals boarding the ark in pairs or the dove coming back with an olive leaf. I challenge you to hear the cries of people and their children as they’re drowning and to see the carnage of decaying bodies as the waters recede. And I ask you to please notice that despite the plan for the flood to wipe evil off the face of the earth, wickedness remained. This master plan – based on the all-too-familiar idea of dividing the good people from the bad people and destroying the latter to make a better world – this plan failed. What becomes evident is that even God could not use violence successfully. Let me say it again, even God could not use violence successfully. And unlike much of our world, God repents and promises to never use such a weapon of mass destruction again. As Alan Storey so aptly put it, the flood story is the great narrative of the disarmament of God.
As we read the Gospel accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus, we find that God has indeed laid his weapons down and asks nothing less of us. No matter what rules we lived by before, Christ commands us to not just love our neighbor but also our enemy (Matthew 5:43-48). And he proved he meant it on the cross. The cross is, for me, a most unsettling yet clear symbol of God’s commitment to nonviolence – there we see that God would rather die than respond to our violence with violence. But not only did he refuse to retaliate or defend himself, he prayed for the forgiveness of those who hung him on that brutal tree. He responded to the perpetrators of such violence with compassion, aware that they were acting out of ignorance (Luke 23:34).
Honestly, I believe all violence is carried out in ignorance – out of a tragic lack of social and soul consciousness. Yet, how long will we remain so ignorant? When will we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the hearts to hurt for each other? I’m not the first to ask this question, Bob Dylan was asking it in the 1960’s with his powerful protest song “Blowin’ in the Wind”, and Shane Claiborne offers a powerful evangelical voice crying out in our present-day wilderness.
Many of us have not known what it’s like to be a victim of physical violence or to lose someone in our personal circle of friends and family to murder or war. And many of us don’t know what it’s like to personally know a perpetrator of such violence. But if we draw our circles wider, which God continually calls us to do, we will find our own hearts breaking for the pain and loss our human family suffers.
For a brief moment after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., Americans had a window into what it might feel like to live in a war-torn Middle Eastern or third world country. We were faced with the painful opportunity to love our enemy and become a better neighbor to the world. But the vulnerability was too much, so we boarded up that window, replaced our cross with the flag, and prayed for vengeance rather than the forgiveness of those that terrorized us. And then we proceeded to take thousands more civilian lives than were taken from us. That’s not even an ‘eye for an eye’, much less loving our enemy.
And then there’s the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut this past December. I can’t talk or write about it without the tears welling up in my eyes. I mourn for the 20 young children, for the 6 courageous staff, and for all their families and friends. And I mourn for Nancy Lanza, a mother killed by her own mentally disturbed son. And I mourn for Adam Lanza. I grieve at the thought that throughout the nation, most church bells rang only 26 times. Some rang 27 times, but few rang a 28th time, to acknowledge Adam’s own tragic death. It’s as if his life and death don’t count, as if he didn’t belong to us, too. But he did, and until we can claim the Adam Lanzas as our own, I’m not sure we can really find our way out of this vicious cycle of violence we’re caught in.
You see, we look with horror at the tragedy of Newtown and we call the gunman a monster. We look back at 9/11 and call the terrorists evil. But we refuse to acknowledge our own role as gunmen and terrorists. We fail to hold ourselves or our government accountable for the deaths of civilians in other countries, including many children, as a direct result of our bullets, our missiles, our drones…not to mention the indirect results of our military strikes. Were the lives of the 178 children killed by U.S. drones in Pakistan and Yemen any less precious than the 20 killed in Connecticut? Desmund Tutu speaks truth to America when he says “Your response as a society to Osama bin Laden and his followers threatens to undermine your moral standards and your humanity.” Actually, I’d say it already has.
But it doesn’t have to stay this way, we’re still writing our story – we don’t have to continue down this bloody road, a road that even God found futile. We can repent, reclaim our humanity and refuse to respond to violence with violence. We can draw our circles ever wider. For those professing to follow Jesus, it’s time to realize we can’t carry our cross and carry a gun or flag at the same time. I started this blog saying I don’t have a strategic plan for making this world a less violent place, but the Indigo Girls just reminded me – the plan is simple but profound: “lay down your weapons and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Read more from Renee Sappington at her blog.