If the Judeo-Christian ferment is not dead, it must be engaged in an obscure struggle against deeper and deeper layers of the essential complicity between violence and human culture. Rene Girard
Only a few weeks ago on Easter Sunday we sang “The strife is o’er, the battle done; the victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun: Alleluia!”
Something in me wants to say: Not!
Just what kind of strife is over, what sort of battle won? The constant drumbeat of war and strife seem to drown out any victory for life. Battles erupt and spread through the world like wild fire. Reading Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw’s Jesus for President , I came across these statistics about defense spending:
The US arsenal is the largest stockpile of nuclear weaponry in the world, equivalent to over 150,000 Hiroshima bombs. US military budget is over 450 billion per year, and it would take the combined budgets of the next 15 countries to equal that of the US (Russia is the next biggest spender at around 70 billion, China at 50 billion, and the entire “Axis of Evil” is less than 10 billion. (p.178)
Then last week we learned of a decisive, courageous act of violence which seeks, if not to end the war on terror, to seriously debilitate it, while attempting to obtain justice for those so horribly wronged.
On the surface I felt a mixture of relief, satisfaction, and a sober resignation to the violence. As the days passed I kept asking, was not the state sponsored violent execution, to which the Son of God surrendered, supposed to end all this? Why are we still killing each other in the effort to preserve peace, when we have already killed the Prince of Peace who shook off death and rose to proclaim the forgiveness of sins?
Christians declare that in Christ’s death and resurrection a momentous, wrenching, earth shattering shift occurred in our relationship with God and with one another. So why is it business as usual? Sin, evil, resentment, lust, greed, war continue to thrive and spread.
With the Judeo-Christian ferment still strong in my heart, the killing of Osama Bin Laden has engaged me in that obscure struggle, which anthropologist Girard describes, against the deeper and deeper layers of the essential complicity between violence and human culture.
The very fact that I may live safely on a quiet street in Kansas, as I leisurely consider such questions, is a tip of my hat to countless individuals whose struggles, deaths, and acts of preemptive and retaliatory violence, have helped to preserve the peace I enjoy.
That peace was troubled six weeks ago, when I woke in the night terrified by a dream. I was staying in the home I grew up in, where I had been sorting through family treasures, photos, records, and sixty years of lives well lived. My father is deceased and mom now lives in a care center. My siblings and I are preparing the home for sale. I was in town that weekend to attend the auction of my father’s collection of Indian relics. The stone tools, arrow points, ax heads, and weapons had been his passion, a focus of a life-long study of the early people who lived in Southeast Iowa and whose history extends back thousands of years.
The dream was deeply disturbing. A demonic, ghostly presence is in the house moving about. A small white poodle lies under a table. Suddenly its fur turns bright red, like blood, as though a red light were shining upon it. I place my hands on the side of the dog where the light was shining. When I pull them away, my palms have real blood on them.
I want to show my hands to my brother. Then suddenly a terrifying presence is with me. I scream very loudly and in screaming, cough up a wad of phlegm, which flies out of my mouth into the air. I think to myself my brother will be here soon, and I wake myself up screaming.
Good grief, I thought, shaken, what was that about? As I lay fearful and pondering the blood on my hands, the blood seemed to change in my memory from wet blood to a small rust colored stain in the center of the palm of each hand.
I got up and walked through the house, past the stacks of old photographs and the large ornate memorial pictures commemorating the deaths of various family members. A blue willow plate that traveled in a covered wagon with my Great Aunt Ethel sat among old family dishes. A china chamber pot leaned next to a pile of scrap books containing local history.
The process of closing a home is disorienting, chaotic, and uprooting. Objects handled by generations are stirred up, turned over, lifted out of boxes, hauled down from attics, and exposed to the light. Once Dad took me to Indian mounds under excavation. I remember walking along a wooden platform that circled the mound and looking down at the tiers of the remains.
There are whispered stories of violence in my family history – suicide, murder, conflict, suffering, grief. Who am I to rail against war, when my hands have blood on them in ways both known and unknown to me? My civilized life is complicit with violence. In fact “civilization” stands on the shoulders of violence and layers upon layers of sacred bones.
The story does not end here, nor the gift of my dream. Though the roots of terror and violence run deep in the human heart, succumbing to violence to end violence is only a temporary solution.
Anthropologist Gil Bailie writes:
Violence is immensely compelling. Those who witness spectacles of violence can be seduced by its logic even when – perhaps especially when – they are morally scandalized by it. Violence is labyrinthine. It turns back on itself in serpentine ways. The paths that seem to exit from its madness so often lead deeper into its maze.
… We may no longer be able and willing to turn violence into religion [as in primitive approaches to violence, such as human sacrifice and scapegoating], but neither are we able to turn the other cheek, and the conventional way of resisting evil causes the contagion of evil to spread, perpetrated by those who are most determined to eradicate it. How to resist evil in ways that prevent its spread is now history’s most fundamental dilemma. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled – Humanity at the Crossroads, (p. 90)
How do we resist evil in ways that prevent its spread and prevent our own vulnerability to its contagion? For the followers of Christ, the Way is in the manger and hanging from the cross. The Way is meeting us as we remember Christ’s suffering and resurrection. The Way is obedience to the greatest commandment: to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. (Matthew 22:37)
Perfect love is what casts out terror, not more terror.
There is no terror in love. But perfect love drives out terror, because terror has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
I John 4: 18.
When our love is divided, when our love is parceled out and diffused among many desires, we are like a branch cut off from the vine. When we succumb to fear and anxiety, we wither, wilt, and die. When other desires stand between our hearts and that supreme Love, the power given to us in the cross of Christ is diluted, blocked, and becomes irrelevant to us.
After I walked through the house, I went back to bed and a fervent prayer rose up in me. I prayed against that dark presence and for each family member, going back through the generations, all the way to Cain and Abel. I prayed for the ancient people, whose relics had been in my family’s respectful care for close to sixty years. The artifacts, now scattered, rested in unfamiliar hands. I prayed for all my relations, my brothers and sisters throughout time and space. I prayed for their protection, for forgiveness, healing, freedom, and peace. I prayed for their fullest joy in God. I prayed with the authority of my baptism for anything evil to depart and leave these ones alone. I prayed through the victory of Jesus won by his shed blood, once, for all. I prayed like a house afire for everyone I could think of. Recalling my dream, I not only spit on the devil, I hocked a big loogie. Then I turned over and slept like a baby.
Gil Bailie illuminates the significance of the mysterious redemptive power of the crucifixion and the implications for our time with his anthropological perspective.
Humans in crisis easily succumb to social contagions that end in violence that is accompanied by a primitive form of religious intoxication. In the final analysis, the only alternative to the simulated transcendence of social contagion and violence is another experience of religious transcendence, one at the center of which is a God who chooses to suffer violence rather than sponsor it. (Violence Unveiled – Humanity at the Crossroads, p 66)
“Put down your weapon!” Jesus told Peter, when Peter drew his sword to defend his master and severed the soldier’s ear.
The choice to suffer violence, rather than sponsoring it, is made possible by an extraordinary love for God, the Transcendent Power of the Universe. This is the greatest and first commandment. Only as this is followed may the second commandment of love for neighbor and self be fully embraced. For it is love for God, which gives one the strength for suffering the sins of others, the capacity to forgive, the faith to believe in the unseen possibility of new life, and the hope to endure. Love of God bestows the deeply sustaining and transforming inner communion with Love itself. Love of God releases the rushing river of redemption to flow through us into the world.
We are all complicit. We all have blood on our hands. The strife is o’er, the battle done; the victory of life is won for those who have suffered, along with Jesus, the crucifixion in themselves of all that is not love. These carry the stain of the blood of the Lamb in their palms.
For love is
as strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it. Song of Songs 8: 6b-7