Democracy don’t rule the world
You’d better get that in your head
This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that’s better left unsaid
Welcome to Advent.
Advent is the four weeks before Christmas. More precisely, it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get to Christmas. When Christmas falls on a Sunday the fourth week of Advent is a full week. This year, the fourth Sunday of Advent falls on Christmas Eve so the fourth week of Advent is only one day.
Advent is a season of darkness. Not the special darkness of Lent, which results from the shadow of the Cross falling squarely across our path, but a more general, pervasive darkness, the darkness of a world in waiting for the coming of its long-promised Savior and Redeemer. During this season, liturgical churches change the color and the decor, sing different hymns and do some things differently. Around here, what we typically do is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.
This time we are going to talk about violence. Why? Because even though it is only tangentially (if at all) related to Advent, it is timely (I believe) given where we are at this moment in our nation’s history.
The Bible has way more to say about violence than about any of the other sins it addresses. Some Jewish readings of Scripture hold the murderous episode of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4), instead of the thing with the apple (Genesis 3), as humanity’s first sin. Even if you do not agree with this reading, you must still take note that it only takes one chapter to get from the apple to the murder.
There is only one story in the entire Jewish/Christian tradition (the flood – Genesis 6) in which God pronounces a universal judgment against all of humanity. What prompts this judgment? The story begins thusly: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with …” –what? Not homosexuality or abortion or kneeling during the national anthem (sorry conservatives). Not institutional racism or corporate greed or environmental pollution or tax breaks for billionaires (sorry progressives). Violence.
We go to the prophets and it is almost impossible to find a single page on which they are not decrying violence in graphic detail. We go to Proverbs and the very first moral warning given by the author to young readers is as follows:
My child, if sinners entice you,
do not consent.
If they say, ‘Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood;
let us wantonly ambush the innocent;
like Sheol let us swallow them alive
and whole, like those who go down to the Pit.
We shall find all kinds of costly things;
we shall fill our houses with booty.
Throw in your lot among us;
we will all have one purse’—
my child, do not walk in their way,
keep your foot from their paths;
for their feet run to evil,
and they hurry to shed blood.
In light of this, a glaring question comes to mind: Where are all the sermons about this? Why isn’t this stuff front and center of every Christian discipleship program on the planet?
ICYMI: Last month there was a mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, a small town outside Dallas, Texas. 26 people were killed.
Predictably, right-wing conspiracy theorists were all over this thing like white on rice, labeling it a gay/liberal/Antifa/ISIS/communist conspiracy.
One church in Florida responded thusly:
Of course there are no answers to something like this. Liberals who support gun control are way too enamored of it to acknowledge in any way, shape, or form the limits of how far gun-control legislation can go in curtailing this and other such acts of violence. Conservatives, on the other hand, believe the answer is to place more guns in the hands of more people. But that will do nothing save to ratchet up the violence yet another notch. Both sides of the debate refuse to acknowledge that there is a limit to how far legislation–of any kind–can go. This is not to say there is nothing we or anyone else can do and that we should not at least be working to prevent violence–I for one believe that common sense reforms to gun laws would be an improvement–but the problem is bigger than politics. The problem is with all of us. I am violent. We are violent. This world is ruled by violence.
But where is the Church in all of this? Shouldn’t we be at the front lines of promoting sane, commonsense remedies to the violence in our communities? Wouldn’t that be a way to show love to our communities and the people therein? Conservatives decry the violence of abortion, yet when it comes to all of the other violence which permeates our news cycle… *crickets*. Progressives abhor oppression and violence against marginalized people and groups of all stripes, yet shamelessly employ tactics in the culture wars that would make Franklin Graham and Al Mohler fiercely proud if they were on the same team.
I shall leave you this week with the thoughts of Wendell Berry on the subject. His big idea is that we are just not invested in doing anything to change the status quo. We don’t know the answers, we don’t want to know the answers, because we have WAY too much invested in the violence inherent in the present order of things and how it benefits us.
This cheapening of life, and the violence that inevitably accompanies it, is surely the dominant theme of our time. The ease and quickness with which we resort to violence would be astounding if it were not conventional. …Each new resort to violence enlarges the argument against our species, and the task of hope becomes harder.
…The event in _________ is not unique or rare or surprising or in any way new. It is only another transaction in the commerce of violence: the unending, the not foreseeably endable, exchange of an eye for an eye, with customary justifications on every side, in which we fully participate; and beyond that, it is our willingness to destroy anything, any place, or anybody standing between us and whatever we are “manifestly destined” to have.
We congratulate ourselves perpetually upon our Civil War by which the slaves were, in a manner of speaking, “freed.” We forget, if we have ever learned, that the same army that “freed the slaves” established for us the “right” of military violence against a civilian population, and then acted upon that “right” by a war of extermination against the native people of the West. Nobody who knows our history, from the “Indian wars” to our contemporary foreign wars of “homeland defense,” should find anything unusual in the massacre of civilians and their children.
It is not possible for us to reduce the value of life, including human life, to nothing only to suit our own convenience or our own perceived need. By making this reduction for ourselves, we make it for everybody and anybody, even for our enemies, even for the maniacs whose enemies are schoolchildren or spectators at a marathon.
We forget also that violence is so securely founded among us— in war, in forms of land use, in various methods of economic “growth” and “development”— because it is immensely profitable. People do not become wealthy by treating one another or the world kindly and with respect. Do we not need to remember this? Do we have a single eminent leader who would dare to remind us?
…The solution, many times more complex and difficult, would be to go beyond our ideas, obviously insane, of war as the way to peace and of permanent damage to the ecosphere as the way to wealth. Actually to help our suffering of one man-made horror after another, we would have to revise radically our understanding of economic life, of community life, of work, and of pleasure. We employ thousands of scientists and spend billions of dollars to reduce matter to its smallest particles and to search for farther stars. How many scientists and how many dollars are devoted to harmony between economy and ecology, or to amity and lenity in the face of hatred and killing? To learn to meet our needs without continuous violence against one another and our only world would require an immense intellectual and practical effort, requiring the help of every human being perhaps to the end of human time.
This would be work worthy of the name “human.” It would be fascinating and lovely.
–Wendell Berry, from “The Commerce of Violence” (2013)