Ask an American to tell the story of America and they will begin, perhaps, with the story of the American Revolution where freedom from tyranny was secured. It will progress to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Naturally, the story will weave its way through World War I and II, where the tyrannical powers of the world were halted by our military might. Vietnam and Korea. The Cold War, Desert Storm and the Iraqi War will all make their appearance. Our imagination, our identity as a country has been shaped by the marking of our history – a history littered with violence. Some have gone so far as to say that the ethos of our dominant narrative is war.
Of course, our violence is not limited to national warfare. Our history includes the dark shadow of slavery, sexism, and colonialism. The poor have always and continue to be oppressed by unethical financial practices… just ask Wall Street and Wal-Mart. Manifest Destiny was thinly veiled genocide hailed as progress. This fails to mention human trafficking, child and spousal abuse, school violence, and political mud-slinging. If we have only mentioned our human relationships, what list might we build if we considered violence done to the environment and to the rest of Creation?
The prevailing praxis flowing out of our ethos of violence is necessary to understand. Our conceptions of power are built on the notion that “might makes right,” no less if by majority vote. Power is used to attain what one desires and to maintain what one has acquired. And, if something should be desired or my possessions threatened, then force, violence – even war – are deemed acceptable options to our desired end, no matter who or what might be destroyed. This “will to power” objectifies the Creation, which includes other humans, for manipulation and exploitation for personal gain, pleasure or benefit.
From this perspective, everything is a commodity to be consumed. Our consuming is never satisfied. Our demand continues to climb higher while those commodities becomes fewer. It is the crisis of the market. Supply and demand create scarcity, which produces fear, which turns into violence to grab those precious resources. That’s only one reason nobody wants to be a Wal-Mart door greeter on Black Friday. Violence is a natural outcome and by-product of consumerism because it is based upon competition for limited resources. All of Creation suffers as a result. We are a culture characterized by violence.
The American church has been significantly impacted by this prevailing cultural narrative. We have engaged in our own methods and forms of violent behavior. Schism and division. Proclaiming “truth” without tempering it with love. We enforce our “rights,” using our power (both individually and corporately) for political posturing and the securing of our “freedoms.”
We have rendered people as commodities to be counted to bolster our attendance numbers to reach the next plateau of growth or what they can do for our ministry until they are used up and discarded, instead of seeing each person as inherently valuable as God’s creation. We exercise violence through our words against our enemies, by demonizing our opposition. We do violence to the Gospel when we make it about us. We do violence to the name of God when the Church cannot be distinguished from the murderous world.
Because our dominate narrative is violence, it is difficult for us to imagine a world otherwise. After all, how is it possible for our world to change when there is such an extensive history of violence? Plus, if everyone is looking out for themselves, who’s looking out for me? The answer, it seems, is obvious. Kill or be killed. It’s about survival. If someone puts out your eye or knocks out your teeth, then it is your right, not only to get even, to exact revenge. Violence begets violence… and the cycle continues.
Micah, a prophet during the height of Judah’s power, lives in a world filled with violence. Micah paints a picture of his contemporaries: “Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (Mic. 2:1-2).
The leaders of the community are unfamiliar with justice. Micah testifies against them saying, “[you] tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones, [you] eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a cauldron” (Mic. 3:2-3). The prophets are also culpable. Micah says they proclaim “’Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths” (Mic. 3:5).
God’s people do not look much different than the Assyrians, who had recently destroyed Israel. They take advantage of the poor, do violence to one another, and misuse the gifts that God has given to them. Neighbor mistreats neighbor. The weak of society are trampled under foot. The powerful and the affluent hoard and oppress to the detriment of the community. As such, they misuse God’s name.
Micah, however, imagines an alternative script for the ways in which Judah might faithfully live as God’s people again. Hear what Micah says, “[God] will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths… 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. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.”
Weapons of violence are re-shaped as instruments of cultivation. Power is re-oriented to the sustaining of life and the protection of the weak, not for the exploitation of the poor and the elimination of our competition. Power is re-directed from “might makes right” to purposefully seeking the “good of all.” Micah invites a new world into their midst, not as a pipe dream… as an open invitation to live into God’s future now. It is a future where power no longer resembles the warrior garbed in battle attire.
Rather, it is a future where they are empowered to live in right relationship with one another, enjoying the fruits of Creation which they help cultivate together, and where fear is but a memory. No longer is their identity to be found in being a warrior, using power for their own security. God’s people will be those that till the soil, utilizing their power to add value back into the Creation and into the lives of others.
But, of course, it does seem like a pipe dream. Israel and Judah both fail to live into this future that God is providing. Several centuries after Micah, Jesus shows up on the scene. Things haven’t changed much for Israel. They live under the pax Romana, peace maintained with the keen edge of a sword. Power politics rule the day. Rulers, like Caesar, Pilate, Herod, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees, all play by Rome’s rules. Some placate more than others, but Rome dominates the landscape and the way of life. It is Rome’s way or the proverbial highway. Violence is the basis for this so-called “peace.”
Jesus begins preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.” He offers an imaginative alternative to Caesar and Herod, to the prevailing violence of politics and religion and business-as-usual. Fortunate are those who are pure in heart, the peace makers, the meek, the merciful, the poor in spirit, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and those that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. The world claims that power is for the fortunate. Jesus re-arranges power and what it means to be fortunate!
Jesus challenges the violence that neighbor committed against neighbor. He even calls for everyone to love their enemies! But, in a culture and world where imagination is dominated by violence, it is nearly impossible to see God’s light dawning in the midst of such darkness. The world’s violence against one another turns to violence against the Creator. Though the Word became flesh and tabernacles among us, we do not know him and want to put out his light. And, so, Jesus is crucified. The world takes up sword and spear against the Creator and slays him upon the cross.
Yet, that was not the end of the story. By the power of God, Jesus was raised from the dead. Death is crushed to death. Light pierces the darkness, scattering it. Sin and death are defeated foes. When confronted by the violence of the world, Christ lays down his life… “[He] was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Is. 53:5).
Christ transforms the cross, the world’s instrument of violence, into God’s instrument of peace. Beating swords into plowshares. The cross which was the world’s means of violence, became the very means by which God cultivates and prunes the Creation… readying it for the harvest of salvation. Jesus, like Micah, wasn’t offering a pipe dream… He is calling us to re-imagine the world, to see God’s future that is even now breaking into our present… offering hope in the midst of violence, offering life instead of death. And, calling for us to live into that future hope.
St. Francis of Assisi penned a well-known prayer that is very appropriate. May it be our prayer.
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
When we gather at the Lord’s Table, we are confronted by our own propensity toward animosity, hatred, and violence. Yet, it is at this Table that we are offered a new way, God’s way of being in this world. Jesus breaks bread with his disciples. He breaks bread with his betrayer. The Risen Christ stands among us with pierced hands and feet, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”
The Eucharist reminds us that Death is not the worst thing that can happen to us… precisely because it is a conquered foe. At this Table, we remember that “on the night that Christ was betrayed, he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:23-26).