WHY VIOLENCE HAS NO PART IN THE FAITH
We should listen, speak and share with others in humble testimony and turn around when our path is blocked. This is the way of Jesus; the way of the cross.
Any alien planning to visit Earth could take a look at its culture – the stories its people tell one another – and assume they would be met with extreme violence on arrival. Perhaps they would. The dominant cultural forms – films and computer games – are saturated in violence. If these were any reflection on the experience of most people, Earth would be the most hellish place to live. Yet most people live quite peaceably here.
Why, then, do films and games present this way? The United States is a cultural leader and more violent as a society than most in the developed world, fuelled by gun culture. Its films present a moral dilemma, too. Violence is shown to be the most effective way to resolve problems and good people overcome bad people by being better at violence than the bad people. Most problems in life are overcome by patient negotiation between parties, where each side makes concessions in order that people may live more freely and peaceably. When did you last see a film end this way? It would be unfair to make film companies shoulder all the blame. To cover their costs, they need people to watch and the people seem to like watching more when there is a crashing climax of violence. So we seem to share responsibility.
In Violence: A Modern Obsession, the academic Richard Bessel argues that, despite these appearances, we are becoming less violent in western society and there is less tolerance of it, as shown by greater sensitivity to domestic abuse and the loss of appetite for capital punishment. He may be right, but this is no comfort for those who are trapped in abusive relationships behind closed doors or who walk streets marked territorially by gangs. To inflict pain on another person is, for too many still, a way of indulging their selfish desires for causing harm and asserting their power over another.
For Max Weber, the state is the only legitimate source of physical force; it should hold the monopoly on violence in a country through its policing of the community. But there is a different challenge globally today, as some people claim the use of violence as a God-given sanction against those who do not believe in him the right way. When some people think they have God on their side, the abuse of power quickly follows.
Luke 9 begins with Jesus setting his face resolutely towards Jerusalem and his own violent destiny. If we had the threat of violent death dangling in front of us, it would be hard not to be mesmerised by it. We have all had to do something really difficult at some point or other – an encounter we cannot avoid and which will hurt us. As a way of coping, we try to shut down our emotions so they won’t get the better of us. But in locking out our feelings, we make it harder to be sensitive to others, which is one reason conflict becomes entrenched in life. Jesus could have done the same, not least through the challenge suddenly presented by his friends James and John.
They approach a Samaritan village but in a typical piece of bureaucratic pedantry the villagers turn Jesus away because his travel card is marked ‘Jerusalem’. “Sorry mate, you can’t come this way – you need the coastal line, change at Caesarea”. This kind of apartheid, seen here between Jews and Samaritans, always breeds petty, alienating rules. For James and John, it is too much. Inspired by a very urban sense of rage, they seek Jesus’ permission to bring fire down from heaven to consume their prickly neighbours. They were the kind of men who did their evangelism by giving out free doughnuts and a John’s Gospel to enquirers and sending knuckle-grazers with baseball bats round to the scoffers. It looks so childish, but I wonder how many times in life we have imagined fantasy violence against those who hurt us?
In turning resolutely to Jerusalem, Jesus did not shut down his feelings for others as a way of coping with the cross, giving tacit permission to James and John to call in a drone strike. He rebuked his friends, took the villagers at their word and turned round. It was a scene repeated in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he died, in a little observed incident which had colossal implications for the Christian faith. As the spooks come to arrest Jesus, Peter draws a sword to attack one of them, but Jesus tells him to sheathe the weapon. If he hadn’t done that, others on both sides that night would have descended into a street fight and a precedent would have been set for Christians in how they deal with any opposition.
Our faith was born in peace. It has not remained so, as history bears tragic witness to, but those who choose to follow Christ with integrity commit themselves to lives of peace and goodwill towards their enemies as much as their friends. It is a high calling and one which is less tested in the UK than in North Africa and the Middle East, where gratuitous and intentional pain is inflicted on those who make the sign of the cross. What many of these Christians seek, more even than their deliverance, is the strength to remain faithful to their Saviour. These are the prayers we owe our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq.
We are called to share our faith in Jesus Christ through conversation, story-telling and the art of gentle persuasion. The Apostles set us the example. When Paul encountered idol worship in Athens, he chose to engage with it as an honest if misguided reaching out to God rather than taking a mallet to its sculptures. We may shudder at those who prefer the brutal wrecking of what they don’t agree with and thank God we live in a different place, but there remains a challenge for us.
Though we experience the liberal freedom to believe what we want, the advance of social media is slowly shaping a different world. We relate online to the people and the sources we are most comfortable with; the people who share our view of the world and are not likely to rock it. Other people then provide an echo chamber where we hear our voice bouncing back through theirs. On platforms where there are differences of opinion, people tend to shout at, abuse and ridicule one another rather than engage in meaningful debate. Slowly but surely, we are becoming more polarised in the way we think.
The very origin of the word conversation implies the possibility of conversion, where one person listens to another’s views and experiences as a way of getting a new perspective on life. If we only listen to those who think like we do, it becomes more threatening to us when we encounter different views. This is a challenge to the Church; that it listens carefully to other voices, to see how God may be at work within the lives of others. By the same token, it asks those who do not believe in Jesus to give those who do the honest space to express it. That this has become harder today is evidence of a polarising of opinion: some people raise serious objections when another person talks about God.
This is not a good place to be in, but the answer is not to launch a drone strike like James and John against those who do not believe like we do. It is to listen, speak and share with others in humble testimony and to turn around when others intentionally block our path. This is the way of Jesus; the way of the cross.
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