[December 18, 2012] On Friday morning we found out about the murder of twenty six- and seven-year-old children and six adult women who were called to care for those children and the killer’s mother. In today’s reading the crowd asks John the Baptist, “Then what shall we do?” I wonder if we can discuss this as Christians?
Right away I want to put aside the question of “constitutional rights.” The constitution is not a sacred document. It may give us legal but it does not give us moral rights. The right to bear arms is not divinely sanctioned. Christians have a right to question the morality of any legal document, including the United States Constitution. Can any Christian seriously disagree with this? Those who would claim otherwise on the basis of some sort of divine election and exceptionalism are far outside the bounds of catholic Christianity and have essentially isolated themselves as a cult.
I also question the desire of a Christian to privately own a gun. One person can claim it is only for target practice, though one’s choice of such a destructive piece ought to be scrutinized. Another person can claim it is only for hunting; putting necessity aside (since most hunters do not hunt out of necessity), I cannot fathom how a person can claim to be a Christian and not only arrogate to themselves but take pleasure in killing animals, which the Scriptures tell us are souls enlivened by spirit, the breath of life from God no less than humans. To own a weapon as powerful as a gun for personal self-defense is the argument of an unbeliever.
We Americans are practical people who like to get things done and, when we lack patience, the use of force seems to be fine with us. We have a romantic notion of violence and bloodshed. We think it is a legitimate way of resolving conflict—whoever can exercise violence the most skillfully and effectively has the right to win any conflict. This is apparently what we actually believe when negotiations fail. This is the notion of violence that is reinforced by countless movies and television shows, regardless of the moral indignation that justifies it. Whatever the justification, violence is what resolves the central conflict. Because this glorification of violence possesses the public imagination, people are tempted to believe that violence is a legitimate way to express their anger. When people are mentally disturbed and possessed by something irrational (they often feel themselves to be eminently rational), their imagination takes up these images of violence that are glorified by our society and they identify with these images. Certainly it is more complicated than this, but there is also enough truth to what I am saying for my point to hold.
The Bible has a different view of bloodshed. It begins with Cain slaying his brother, and then the descendants of Cain building fortified cities and weapons to protect their amassing of private property, and Lamech proclaiming, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” In the days leading up to the flood, we read that “the earth was filled with violence.” Though the history of the Old Testament is filled with violence, this needs to be interpreted. Of the over twenty uses of the word “bloodshed” in the Old Testament, every one of them is a condemnation of it. The word “violence” is used more often but with the same sense of condemnation. The Old Testament, while accepting it in many cases, does not glorify it. Rather, this acceptance takes place within the context of our sin and God’s judgment. It is a provisional acceptance that, even in the case of King David, is ultimately unacceptable, and is the reason why he could not be the one who was to build the Temple in Jerusalem.
Part of the repentance demanded by the Baptist is our leaving the world and its values behind and entering the “wilderness” with God. Last week we attempted a slight exploration of this. The wilderness was often enough a literal place in the Old Testament, and even for the Baptist and for Jesus, but its significance was (and is) in what it represents. For us the wilderness is a metaphorical place. It is where we are when we intentionally place ourselves under God’s judgment—acknowledging and loving its righteousness—and with loving adherence to God’s disposal, place ourselves before the mercy of God, in constant dependence on God’s providence. The issue of violence and our supposed right to employ it suddenly looks very different from this perspective.
When people are in the throes of personal loss and grief, it may not be possible to discuss the human tragedy in which we find ourselves. Their loss is not—certainly not in this case—the direct effect of what they have done. Rather they are suffering from the effect of what we all are doing, of the human condition. Sin, as the Bible calls it, is a collective phenomenon belonging to the age, the generation, or the world. Yes, we are individually guilty, but only because we individually are caught up in this social matrix and willingly cooperate with it. What we suffer is the affect of the collective and the operation of the powers of its gestalt. Violence is one of those powers. It is a power that perpetuates and breeds itself. As a phenomenon it makes itself a “necessity,” for it always justifies itself and calls forth more violence, which in turn justifies itself. When we treat violence so trivially in our entertainment, we are playing with fire, and innocent children eventually become the victims.
Salvation begins with repentance; and repentance means giving up the rules of the game, the game being the world and what it deems socially “necessary.” In this case, it means the renunciation of violence. I am not speaking of law-enforcement or national self-defense. For the time being let us simply accept that as providential, that those who are so employed are providentially “ministers—diakonoi—of God for good, avengers who brings wrath on those who practice evil (in the sense that Nebuchadnezzer was; see Romans 13). I speak rather of us who have not been assigned that role as civil servants, who are individual citizens, say. Violence becomes the prerogative of God’s judgment but it is off-limits for us who are ourselves under the divine judgment.
Though we may be forgiven, the affect of this is inward in our personal relationship to God as our Father. Outwardly we still suffer the consequences of our actions, unless God spares us by mercy, and God continually does spare us. Outwardly we live in the world as sinners, along with everyone else. We are no better. When we confess, “We have erred and strayed from Thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against Thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us,” we do so as Christians in solidarity with the rest of the world. And we mean it. To imagine that we are good people and that as a society we are not so bad is a delusional fantasy at best, but in fact a manifestation of our sin and rebellion. This fact needs to inform any discussion of our own “right” to bear arms. Yes, of course, the other fellow is a sinner; but we have not grappled with the fact of our own sin—a condition in which we continue as Christians. We are at the mercy of God’s mercy.
What we can do for ourselves, the right thing to do, is create a different atmosphere in society: we ought to develop an extreme distaste for violence and force. We ought to develop a far greater sense of the value of life, not only our own “rights” but of the life of others, of the one who is different than myself, of those who are weak and helpless, of children, and even of the life of animals and the biological systems on which we depend. We ought to develop a different sense of masculine identity (in the past three decades, I believe only one of the mass killers was a woman), one that is not associated with violence and the imposition of one’s own will (or the will of others) by force.
The Gospel (the good story) that John proclaims is about the coming One, Who is the Lord (verse 4), Who will baptize in (en) the Holy Spirit and fire: that is, Who has the winnowing fork in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor and gather the wheat into His barn and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. We can prepare for His coming—and the Incarnate One comes to us in the Gospel and will come again in glory—by repentance, by entering the metaphorical wilderness and clearing away all the obstacles in His path, making that path straight. Repentance means adopting a lifestyle that makes room for Him, that depends on God’s mercy, and that avails itself of the means of grace. We make room for Him in our hearts by not being burdened by excess treasures and possessions and their security and maintenance. We depend on His mercy when we do not depend entirely upon ourselves for our security and safety but put our trust in God’s disposal of our lives. We avail ourselves of the means of grace when we pray, read and attempt to understand the Scriptures, and partake of corporate worship.