NOVEMBER 22 2015
A little boy and his “papa” are being interviewed by CNN in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris. The little boy is trying to make his father aware of the danger: “Bad guys are not very nice … They have guns and they can shoot us because they’re really, really mean, papa. We have to be really careful or we have to change houses.”
His dad replies: “It’s OK – they may have guns but we have flowers.” And the boy says “But flowers don’t do anything, they’re for …” and he trails off, unable to think of anything that flowers really do.
But Dad points over to where dozens of people are placing flowers at the outdoor memorial and says “”Of course they do. Look. Everyone is putting flowers,” the father says. “It’s to fight against guns,” he explains.
The boy thinks about this. “It’s to protect? And the candles too?” The child finally seems to accept this argument, which is odd — a child trying to make the adult to come to grips with reality and the adult being the one to offer a counter-intuitive, imaginative vision, managing to find the words that put his son at ease and let him feel less powerless and vulnerable in the face of these atrocities.
In truth, I really don’t know how to respond to what we have been seeing around the world. Part of me wants to reach for the sword, to tap into that warrior energy, to let the anger flow. Part of me wants to see these people harmed, and everything about them destroyed.
Even the Pope has struggled to find adequate language to respond to the terrorists: “This is an attack on peace for all humanity, and it requires a decisive, supportive response on the part of all of us as we counter the spread of this homicidal hatred in all of its forms.” Pope Francis said he was shaken by these “inhuman” attacks.” He was quoted on Vatican Radio as saying: “I am moved and I am saddened. I do not understand; these things are hard to understand . . . There is no religious or human justification for it.”
In a similar vein, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said: “The sorrow in Paris is heartbreaking and the evil of those who planned and perpetrated the Paris atrocities is beyond measure or words . . . The violence of this evil group brings terror to all, including in the Muslim world where its cowardly acts are opposed by many. This is a global and generational struggle against an evil cult that chooses death and fear.”
“Hate what is evil” St Paul advised the early church, and indeed I hate the fact that four year old kids, not only in Paris but around the world, are forced to deal with the side-effects of terrorism and gratuitous violence. I think of passages like Matthew 18.6, where Jesus says: “’If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.’”
But we see this mentality, this violence, this rage, in our own culture as well, which has been described by some as a “culture of death,” and violence and acts of aggression are celebrated and encouraged in business, in sports, in video games, in TV programs and movies. So where do we direct the anger, the outrage, that arises within us? Who is to blame?
While saying “hate what is evil,” St Paul also says “do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” Paul reminds followers of Christ that they need to be aware of the context. And to remind them of the importance of their individual contribution to the well-being of the community, he says: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God” (see Rom. Ch. 12). And he says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). That is the battle, the challenge that is set before anyone who would be a follower of Christ.
There is a reason people speak of blind rage. The risk of giving way to hatred, of wanting to respond in kind (“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”), is that we are in some measure destroyed by such an approach by becoming like our enemy; by focusing and fixating upon them, they occupy a place in our consciousness that they don’t deserve, and is beyond their actual significance.
Rage narrows our vision – wants to simplify things that we find too complex to understand or deal with. It can seem to be the most effective solution to make a problem go away, but it never works that way.
Hatred, as a way of being oriented to the world, or as a motivation, is destructive, and diminishes our own humanity because it de-humanizes others. I recall my parish being picketed by members of the extremist Westboro Baptist church. They had signs that proclaimed their narrowness and hatred, and they marched about singing hymns as though that somehow justified the disharmony they were creating. People attempting to challenge them or just speak to them found that there was no reasoning with them – no way of connecting – no way of getting past the programming. All they wanted to do was condemn, and just as the musical scale has a variety of notes, for there to be harmony, and something of a tune, there needs to be more than one note sounding all the time. Some people only want to sound one note – one angry, loud and very out-of-tune note – and it does not contribute to the heavenly chorus.
Martin Luther King once said “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
It’s OK to be angry. It’s OK to be concerned. But what do you do?
I think Christians must always look in hope for a different spirit to emerge – to be manifested – for a different mindset to express itself – and I heard that spirit in the wise words of that Parisian father to his son.
50 years ago a phenomenon called “Flower Power” had a dramatic impact on the American and even the world’s psyche, proclaiming the way of peace at a time of much conflict in the world, with the prospect of nuclear annihilation hanging over the future of humankind.
As that father said to his young son, “They might have guns but we have flowers,” as if to say that we are empowered and inspired by things beautiful and have not been destroyed by the ugliness and emptiness of violence and hatred – that we will persist in choosing to look to things beautiful and good and true. Focus on what is good and noble and honourable — “think of these things” as Paul said (see Philippians 4:8).
The Archbishop of Canterbury said “We choose life and hope, to overcome their hate with the power of God’s love. In solidarity across all faiths and none, and with all human beings, rather than in the victimisation of any, we will find the way to defeat the demonic curse of terrorism. Christians are called, like Jesus, to stand with the suffering and broken and to oppose evil and fear with all their strength.”
The conclusion to Jesus’ central prayer is “deliver us from evil” which again is an expression of belief and trust that a different will and spirit and vision can emerge, in spite of appearances to the contrary – an expression of hope that says evil is not the ultimate way, and that death is not the final word. It is to place a real and not a token trust in the ultimate sovereignty and goodness of God.
The encounter between Jesus and Pilate in today’s Gospel expresses something central to Christian belief as Pilate questions Jesus. “Are you a king?” he says. Pilate is portrayed as trying to categorize Jesus, to understand where he fits in the scheme of things – to assess whether he is a threat or not – but Jesus does not fit in any category Pilate can imagine.
Jesus is pointing toward a whole new way of being. “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting…” Jesus replies.
“You say that I am a king.” The way of Christ disrupts the normal way of things, and ironically, the reign of Christ, despite being “not of this world,” ended up having much more impact on the world than the Roman Empire did. Christ is a king, but at a much deeper and archetypal level, and on a much higher and metaphysical level, than people like Pilate could ever tap into.
Philosopher Edmund Burke said: “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” So simply to be passive and hope evil goes away, is not an adequate response either. It’s not that Christians should just give up on the world or on attempting to find practical solutions to mundane problems. But the festival of the Reign of Christ is the assurance that ultimately God’s goodness and life shine through and prevail – that death and darkness are not the final word – that the sovereignty of God is indisputable and unassailable – that new life always emerges out of death.
As H.A. Williams (lecturer and later Dean, of Trinity College, Cambridge) reminds us, our spiritual life “is not escapism. It’s not a running away from the brute ugly facts of a situation into an illusory, never-never land.” It is rather “an acceptance of the reality of evil and suffering and death, while at the same time seeing these penultimate realities in the light of the ultimate and most real reality of God’s love, victorious over everything that opposes it…” (Becoming What I Am, p. 84)
There are no stronger weapons in this war than faith, hope and love, expressed first of all in prayer and in acts of compassion and encouragement, and also in not giving way to fear and despair. As someone said recently, “Christians simply cannot be world-changers if we’re paralyzed by the fear of violence.”
Pointing to the flowers, Jesus said, “Do not be anxious about anything.” I believe that is what that father did for his son, and for millions around the world. I believe strongly that we are much more edified gazing at flowers than in being transfixed by these isolated examples of what used to be called “man’s inhumanity to man.”
Jesus spoke with authority and not like the usual “experts.” He speaks into a different and distinct part of us, and that is what I heard being expressed by that wise and loving father gently shifting his son’s fears into a place of trust and hope.
Today’s Gospel, and the example of that Parisian father, encourage us never to stop acting and behaving in ways that generate peace no matter where we are, in ways that do not inflame anger or bitterness or violent tendencies. They also encourage us to persist in believing that what we put out into the world around us matters – that it has a powerful ripple effect – that even the simplest gesture of kindness, the smallest word that suggests hope and not cynicism, can and does change the world.
What we are really symbolizing today in our offering – our pledges – is a commitment to continue to promote the work of the one organization in the world whose message is the love of God and whose main purpose is the practice of the love of God. It is to offer an alternative, a counter-proposal to the world’s typical ways – to promote a way of life that is humane and just and compassionate and peaceful.
O God, the Alpha and the Omega, deliver us from evil, and may your kingdom come, and your will be done on earth as in heaven.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
2 Samuel 23:1-7 Now these are the last words of David: The oracle of David, son of Jesse, the oracle of the man whom God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel: The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land. Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire? But the godless are all like thorns that are thrown away; for they cannot be picked up with the hand; to touch them one uses an iron bar or the shaft of a spear. And they are entirely consumed in fire on the spot. If your sons keep my covenant and my decrees that I shall teach them, their sons also, forevermore, shall sit on your throne.”
Revelation 1:4b-8 Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
John 18:33-37 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”