In the name of the God of Justice and Peace, Amen.
This week, as I read through the Scripture passages assigned for today, I kept coming back, over and over again, to thoughts of the violence that seems completely ubiquitous in today’s world, and the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. day that will take place tomorrow. I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast of the Gospel story of Jesus – the Prince of Peace – set over against the seemingly endless stream of stories about people killing other people; set against the backdrop of a national holiday that commemorates the life of a man whose ministry was dedicated to social change through non-violence.
In my struggle to bring coherence – or at least to make some sort of sense – to these disparate images, I read an article by the Rev. Timothy Merrill, a minister from the United Church of Christ tradition. I was quite taken by some of what Merrill had to say. He began by talking about the comparison between mass shootings and the assassination of Dr. King. He talked about the fact that it has now been almost 50 years since Dr. King’s assassination and that there have been thousands upon thousands of innocent children, women and men killed during that time. He noted that, even though Dr. King’s assassination deeply affected this country, his was certainly not the first or last assassination we had felt personally. For example, there was JFK in 1963 and then RFK shortly after Dr. King.
America is many things, and much of it good. No argument there. But we're not here to discuss America's goodness, but America's illness. Even to the casual observer, America is a victim of the virus of violence, and America is a patient who can't seem to recover from this dangerous disease. We are a country that seems to reflect the vision of the ancient prophet Habakukk: (who said) ‘So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted’ (1:4).
It doesn't help to say that the illness is self-inflicted. What matters is to decide how we're going treat the disease or learn to live with the virus of violence.
(The events in every mass shooting remind us that our nation is ill with a sometimes dormant virus). Granted, we're not always FEELING sick and while violence is going on SOMEWHERE, in the communities where we live, we might be untouched by violence-for now. … We're saddened because we can empathize with those who are grieving, and of course (when it hit Lafayette) we [took] up the national debate as to how we [could] treat this virus of violence.
(Merrill goes on) But this virus is never really dormant. While (our) community is at rest, somewhere in our country - in many place(s), in fact - communities are mourning an outbreak of violence. A child has been hit by a stray bullet, a 7-Eleven clerk has been robbed and murdered for $24 and change …, a teenager has been the bully's victim for too long, an ex-husband murders the ex-wife, the child kills the parent, and so on. Every week, children are dying in cities across America to accidental shootings, gang-related (violence), or in school yards and classrooms. … Don't think we're infected with the virus of violence? The situation has become so bad, that many schools require students, teachers, … staff and visitors to pass through metal detectors. Some authorities advocate arming teachers so they can fight violence with violence. These same folks suggest creating textbooks with Kevlar covers so that students can use (them) as shields when the bullets start flying. ….
Can we with integrity say that this will change? Can we preach that the Peaceful Kingdom is coming if we will but treat the mentally ill better, tighten up (reasonable) gun control measures …, try to do a better job in getting young people into a religious culture that effectively teaches the values of love and respect? Can we really preach the vision of Isaiah that someday the wolf and the lamb will lie down together?
Rev. Merrill suggests that the answer to that question is “no.” Only God can usher in the time of the Peaceable Kingdom that the prophet Isaiah talks about.
Perhaps (he says) that's why MLK said that we must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.
Rev. Merrill wrote that article back in 2011, when the country was mourning the shooting in Tucson, Arizona, in which Representative Gabby Giffords was dealt a wound from which she still not recovered completely. Since then we have seen so much wanton violence in the name of nothing. Even we in the loving community of Lafayette, have seen such senseless violence up close. The number of incidents and the number of deceased just keeps rising to the point where we can no longer keep accurate count. And still the virus of violence goes on, unchecked. How then, do we deal with this problem?
Christians are people who are called to advocate for change. So (Rev. Merrill suggests) if you can help educational and government(al) and institutional agencies do a better job treating the mentally ill, do it. If you can lobby for gun control measures that (make sense), do it. If you can use your voice to help soften the rhetoric and encourage civil discourse, do it.
[We are to do the best we can do to make the world a more peaceable place.] The (prophet Isaiah) says: ‘Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause’ (Isaiah 1:17). (Dr. King) said: ‘If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music. (You) should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street-sweeper who did his job well.’ … (The German writer and martyr, Deitrich) Bonhoeffer is often quoted (in saying that) we must bind the wounds of those the wheel has crushed, but we must also stop the wheel. If you can in any way be a wheel-stopper, be a wheel-stopper.
That (means), …. Embrace peace as a life-style choice. Never lift your voice or your hand against another living creature. The apostle Paul, writing to the Romans, urges, ‘If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all.’ (12:18) ‘A soft answer turns away wrath,’ so goes an ancient Hebrew proverb, ‘but a harsh word stirs up anger’ (Proverbs 15:1). As MLK once said, ‘Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.’
In this day and age of the virus of violence, we Christians are called, more than ever, to live a Christ-like life. In other words, to live our lives as Jesus lived, truly and completely loving our neighbor in the exact same way that we love ourselves and our families. Dr. King famously said, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars... Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” It seems to me that Dr. King was calling for something that was even more radical than loving our neighbors as ourselves. He seems instead to have been calling for the completely radical idea of loving our enemies. Dr. King wanted us to follow Jesus’ call for agape love. Agape is pure love. Love without a motive. Loving someone simply because God loves them.
Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It (is selfless love that) begins by loving others for their sakes. Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both.
So if we love others with true agape … if we can really put aside our dislike (if not hatred) for those whom we hold as enemies, and truly show them the love of Christ – the love that says, “I only want the best for you,” will we solve the problem of violence?
[Merrill says] Sadly no. But these actions will make a difference where we live. They will bring healing where it’s possible to bring healing. [And] It’s our only option.
Again, listen to Dr. King’s words, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars... Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
We have a new year here. Let’s try radical, agape in 2017. Let’s see if we can begin to bring healing to our corner of the world. As Dr. King said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” God bless the soul of Martin Luther King, Jr. Amen.