Sunday, December 7, 2014
Texts: Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85: 8-11; Mark 1: 1-8
It’s hard to imagine “peace on earth” when a double homicide dominates the local headlines, when Eric Garner’s death at the hands of a New York police officer claims national concern, when the deaths of an American and a South African journalist in Yemen make international news. Thank God, the violence you and I usually encounter–or create–is not physical.
Johan Galtung, a peacemaking strategist, says that in addition to physical violence, there are two other types: “structural” violence and “cultural” violence (qtd. in Peterson 41).The life and teachings of Jesus, the writings of St. Paul, the words of the Psalmist, and the prophecies of Isaiah condemn these less obvious impediments to God’s peace.
Let’s first consider peaceful responses to physical violence—which is the type of violence easiest to recognize and the type I experienced this week.
George and I were returning from our evening walk last Wednesday with new dog Rascal. A few months ago Rascal joined our family, having previously been the victim of considerable violence. He came to us from a rescue organization with buckshot pellets embedded in his back and hindquarters, blind in one eye, a slight limp from being hit by a car, and scars up and down one leg consistent with bite marks. And he was/is heart worm positive. But this little fella is 40 pounds of insistent, in-your-face affection and hilarity. Those eyes—one gazing at you adoringly, the other weirdly vacant—melt your heart. He’s an odd and compact combination of being cuddly and street-wise—like one of the characters the young Mickey Rooney used to play. I fell in love with him the first time he snuggled up.
On Wednesday night I was leading Rascal on his leash back into our yard when another dog came toward us out of the dark in a running crouch. Two seconds later three more large dogs charged us. I remember mainly the sounds: snarling and barking from the pack and doggie screams from Rascal. George, who was trailing about fifteen feet behind us, and two neighbors got to us fairly quickly. George tried kicking the other dogs away but they kept coming back into the vicious vortex. One neighbor ran inside her house to get a spray bottle of water and came back with it to distract the dogs. I remember screaming for Rascal and trying to pick him up, but he had slipped his collar and leash. The other dogs darted in and out on every side. I thought they were killing him. I didn’t know what to do. Somehow he and I escaped into our garage and just hunkered down between our two cars for a long time. After the dogs’ owner got control of the other dogs and put them in her home, she walked back to our yard and into our garage to see if we were okay. She was crying, breathing hard. I just kept saying, “We’re alright. We’re alright,” even though I couldn’t really assess our injuries yet. I didn’t realize until I got ready for bed later that I had blood all over my face.
Turns out we were alright—no stitches required. Pain meds and an oral antibiotic for poor Rascal who had at least six bite wounds. Simple first aid for a few minor bites on my hands. Since then the dogs’ owners and I have talked to make sure nothing like that happens again.
Here’s what haunts me most about that situation. I am still wondering what I should have done. I didn’t know how to stop the violence. But I’m pretty sure that screaming Rascal’s name and plunging my hands into a circle of bared teeth was one of the worst things I could have done. My fear for Rascal only added to the agitation and frenzy.
Of course, in the midst of conflict there’s usually no time to develop a plan. In the darkness of night there’s usually slim hope for a peaceful response. But peacemakers believe we can be taught strategies for creative nonviolence, and we can practice those strategies. Our very liturgy–which weekly involves speaking words of peace to one another, holding concerns for the world in empathetic prayer, and gathering at the Table of peace as sisters and brothers–instills these habits of thought and action.
That’s why Jesus taught a way, a holistic way to live in this world. His way of discipling others was not a simplistic set of rules. His way was a spiritual discipline that could be practiced, a spiritual disposition that could developed in order to live in right relationship with God, neighbors, and ourselves. Jesus’s “third way,” spelled out most clearly in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, was neither to respond to violence with more violence, nor to submit to violence and degradation, but to actively oppose violence with creative nonviolence.
Look at the first verse of the Gospel of Mark, which, you’ll note, is not a complete sentence. That’s why some believe Mark 1:1 was intended as something like a title or subtitle launching this Gospel and declaring its intention. If so, the entire Gospel of Mark is aimed at sharing the Good News (or gospel) of Jesus Christ. Mark’s method for doing so is to show how Jesus discipled others in his ways. As we work through the book of Mark this year, we’ll observe Jesus instructing his followers ina way of living and, as readers of that Gospel, we can be instructed, too.
While Matthew and Luke’s Gospels start with nativity stories (two different versions) and John’s Gospel starts with a poem about the pre-existing Word coming among us, Mark begins with another beginning: Jesus’s ministry, as heralded by John the baptizer. John is the one who prepares the way OF the Lord. I used to think that John was preparing the way FOR the Lord, merely announcing the coming of the Lord. But John is saying he’s preparing the way OF the Lord, preparing the people of Jesus’s day and preparing readers of Mark’s Gospel, with instruction in the Way, the way of God, through which God’s fullest reign can be ushered in.
That way is the way of peace. That way should be the work of the Church.
Let’s consider two other forms of violence that disrupt God’s peace as surely as physical violence does.
Structural violence is, says Galtung, “built into the very social, political, and economic systems that govern societies, states, and the world. It is the different allocations of good, resources, opportunities, between different groups, classes, genders, nationalities, etc.” (p. 41). In reporting on Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson last week for the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates exposed the invisible (and often unspeakable) rules and structures that perpetuate injustices in our country. He lamented, “Black people know what cannot be said. What clearly cannot be said is that the events of Ferguson do not begin with Michael Brown lying dead in the street, but with policies set forth by government at every level”
The third form of violence is cultural/relational, which Galtung says are those “aspects of a culture that legitimize violence and make violence seem like an acceptable means of responding to conflict. It’s a way a community or individuals view themselves in relation to themselves, to others, and the world. It often supports a sense of superiority over, and dehumanization of other cultures.” (qtd. in Peterson, 41).
The violence of actions and words and attitudes that one individual uses against another is easy to spot even if it’s not easy to address. The violence committed against an “underdog” can even be measurable: six puncture wounds on the little dog and none on the big dogs. But structural and cultural violence isn’t always so obvious. That’s why many Christians haven’t recognized that scriptures—from Isaiah to the Gospels—actually decry economic and political injustices as forms of violence.
Look at today’s passage from Isaiah, which the writer of Mark later paraphrased.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”
The prophet recognizes that a leveling must occur if we’re to receive God, if God’s way is to be created. Figurative valleys must be elevated; symbolic hills need to be leveled; God’s way, the Lord’s “highway” must be level. God’s kingdom lifts up the lowly and eliminates unfair privilege. Through symbolic topography, Isaiah implies that reparations may need to be made, systems equalized, and economic disparities corrected before we can receive God into our midst. Genuine peace cannot exist alongside injustice. The Roman Empire’s “peace” during Jesus’s time—pax Romana—was a false peace maintained through fearsome threats and military domination. Genuine peace is not mere absence of protest or conflict. It’s not passive, doormat acceptance of unjust treatment or degradation, which would allow violence to the human spirit. Living with hunger, being subjected to verbal abuse, being denied opportunity and choice and self-expression are forms of violence. Real peace is founded on fairness and equality and honoring the dignity of all.
The Psalmist put it this way: “Righteousness (which means social/economic justice in the Hebrew Bible) and peace kiss each other.” Peace and justice must kiss.
We are bearers and bringers of Good News of God’s peaceful reign.
People of faith must practice empathy and compassion in order to live nonviolently. People of faith must “study war no more” but instead study and think critically and creatively about peace and expose societal structures to make level the pathway for God’s peace. Followers of Jesus are called to treat the “least” in society with a certain privilege to honor Jesus as we lift up the valleys and lower the hills.
As I recall my unpreparedness for violence against my dog Rascal, I imagine Advent as proactively preparatory for the coming of the Christ, calling us think through our commitments to nonviolence and how we want to live that out. If we wait until we are in conflict with friend or family member to develop a plan of nonviolence, we may be as unprepared as I was during a dog fight. If we have not become sensitized to cultural and structural inequities, we might be as ill-equipped to work for genuine peace as the Romans with their phony Pax Romana. If we are not cultivating the spirit of peace within, we’ll have no inner resources for peacemaking in the world.
John the Baptist calls us to prepare the way of peace—in our relationships, in our society’s structures—through a commitment not only to peace but to justice. Jesus taught us how.
Peterson, Ken, ed. Engaging Our Conflicts: An Exploration of Nonviolent Peacemaking. Louisville: JustFaith Ministries, 2009.