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An End to Violence

Lent 1B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


Hurt people hurt people.  Victims will claim their vengeance.  An eye for an eye makes everyone blind.  The message of baptism and Lent stand in stark contrast.  They remind us that there can be no peace without justice, no joy which cannot be shared by all; no light found in the dark dreams of our hearts; and no prosperity that is wrung from the sweat of other human beings.

The gospel of Jesus put a decisive end to all scape-goating on the cross. It is a sign that Christianity has lost sight of the way of Christ when it begins to be part of the sin-accounting game rather than a dispensary of grace and mercy.

The ancient Romans used to say, “Si vis Pacem para bellum.”  If you want peace, prepare for war.  Pope Paul the VI’s summarized the gospel of Jesus as a counterpoint to the so-called wisdom of the world, “If you want peace, work for justice.” More guns will never be an answer to reducing gun violence. Only peace begets true peace.

The way to break the endless cycle of violence rolling over us begins with forgiveness.

The fourfold path of forgiveness as taught by Archbishop Desmond Tutu has the potential to free our hearts and break the cycle of violence regardless of which end of the sword –the handle or the blade—we are on. That’s important because, if we have lived long enough, we know we have been both the perpetrators and the victims of violence.

Desmond Tutu tells this story (he tells many interesting stories in this little, easy to read, book):

“YES, SIR. RIGHT THIS WAY, MADAM,” the policeman responded to our query. My wife, Leah, and I knew exactly where we were going. We had no need to ask directions of this fresh-faced London bobby so eager to help us. But after the rudeness and harassment, we had come to expect as our due at the hands of the police in our native South Africa, these encounters with English policemen were a sublime pleasure. Police in South Africa were the frontline agents of the apartheid state. Their role was to enforce every indignity in the racist arsenal. So, it was quite a shock when we landed in England and found the London bobbies so polite and eager to help us.

Our time in England was in so many ways a haven of civility and hospitality. It was an oasis from the constant prejudice, chaos, and violence we had come to know at home. For four years we were able to eat in any restaurant, go to any theater, and board any bus. It was liberating and life-changing to experience. And then the call came.

Leah and I talked about what it would mean to go back to South Africa after this second period in England. The first time around I had come as a student. This time I had worked for three years for the World Council of Churches in the Theological Education Fund. The children, older now, would have to go back to boarding schools across the border in Swaziland. I could see how much Leah dreaded breaking up our family. I could see how much she dreaded the return to second-class status. But I felt drawn to this new role. I would become the dean of Johannesburg, the senior resident cleric at St. Mary’s Cathedral where I had been ordained. I would be the first black person to fill that role. I pressed. Leah has always supported my ministry.

She, reluctantly, agreed. It was one of the times that most strained our marriage.

At home in South Africa, in the face of the viciousness of apartheid, I could not be silent. And then the death threats came. I would see Leah or one of the children slowly hang up the phone with a distant look of fear on her face and I knew that it had been another one of those vile threatening calls. I asked Leah then if I should stop speaking up. Quite incredibly, she said to me that she would be happier with me on Robben Island, where Mandela and so many other anti-apartheid stalwarts were imprisoned, than silent outside. This emboldened me more than I can say. But each time I saw her or one of our children shaking in rage or fear after answering one of those phone calls, I knew my actions were the cause of their pain.

We make choices that affect others even when we do not mean to hurt them. Many years later I asked Leah whether she would forgive me for the impact my work had had on her and our family. She smiled at me, perhaps grateful for the acknowledgment of her sacrifice. “I forgave you a long time ago.”

(Excerpt from Desmond Tutu & Mpho Tutu. “The Book of Forgiving.” Chapter 8 “Needing Forgiveness,” pages 165-167)

From whom do you need forgiveness? What have you done? Have you hurt someone you love? Does the guilt or shame gnaw at you? Have you caused pain and anguish? Are you trapped in the wreckage of your actions with no visible means of escape?”

The way that leads into the season of Lent takes us on a winding path over the edge of a dark chasm that goes deep into the human heart.  The ancient Priestly writer of Genesis 6:11 says God’s reason for flooding the earth in Noah’s time was that “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” It was to wash away the violence of earth that God allowed the waters to burst from their confinement above the heavens and flood the dry land.  “In anger and regret, God made the rains to fall, and the waters to rise, and the waves to beat.  The water rose and obliterated every living thing.  Only one family was preserved, one family and their small collection of creatures.  Noah’s family was preserved on the ark” (William Willimon, Vol. 34, No 1, Year B).  In the Noah story, God did what we would expect any benevolent power to do –God used violence to root out violence.

But then this story of God takes a remarkable and unexpected turn.  The Priestly writers say God saw answering destructiveness with destruction, attempting to deal with corruption simply by erasing its effects, could not get at the root cause of corruption, nor would it heal the inclination toward violence.  The flood could not cure the virus of hatred and sin in us.  So, God placed a rainbow in the sky as a promise and a reminder, not for us, but for God.

The rainbow means that God put down his bow and arrow.  God laid down his weapon.  God has put an end to all hostilities between us, although we had no power to demand it, or any right to expect it.

This covenant God made with us now becomes our mission.  With the covenant to never again destroy all life with a flood, God promised to deal with the problem of sin and evil by more creative means than simply wiping us out. Pastor and theologian Paul Nancarrow writes ‘God chose to be a Redeemer, above and beyond being Creator and Destroyer.’ (Paul Nancarrow).  Now you and I are God’s plan.

In baptism, God does not merely wipe our slate clean, as one removes “dirt from the body” (I Peter 3:19), but begins a new relationship with us with the power to get at the root cause of corruption.  God’s rainbow, like Christ’s baptism, represents the unbreakable promise to always be with us even as we confront the power of evil that threatens our lives and the world.  God’s gift is the power of forgiveness. This lent comes at a time when we most urgently need this wisdom.  In this season of Lent, we remind ourselves and each other Jesus’ story is not simply his own—it must be ours as well.  We are baptized into a death like his so that now we might share in the abundance of a life like his.

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