Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21:23-32
First Congregational Church of Anchorage : 8 October 2017
The month of October is, among other things, Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Speaking from a state with the highest level of domestic abuse, we are likely personally aware of the real effects of domestic violence, or at minimum aware of its larger social effects.
You can see the statistics. A full half of women in our state are affected, as well as men.
Even with all the statistics, violence is not easy to quantify. Even more difficult is the effort to pinpoint a singular source of violence in a given event or place. I watched parts of the Vietnam documentary series on PBS. During one of the episodes, something stuck out to me. When military and political leadership would talk about what success looked like, the only measure they could come up with was body counts. Since other measures such as territory control were difficult to quantify, they needed something else.
My parents have spoken often of what it was like to get daily updates on the news of body counts, which included US military dead and wounded, as well as Vietnamese dead and wounded. It was in many ways traumatic.
What one of the interviewees in the documentary pointed out is that whatever your measure of success is, that will be the number people chase. His point was that since the measure of success was found in body counts, the incentive to deliver success in an increasingly difficult situation led to greater human violence with less and less reflection on why. Too few people asked, When will we have enough and do something different?
I can’t help but see a remnant of this in the way terrorism in the form of mass shootings is reported and talked about following the tragic events of Las Vegas. We measure the “success” or the magnitude in the number of people who died. We fixate on the number of dead and wounded.
But what is the difference between 58 people in Las Vegas, or 26 in Newtown at Sandy Hook Elementary, or 49 in Orlando at the Pulse nightclub, or 9 in Charleston at Mother Emanuel AME church.
On Monday morning, the morning after the shooting in Las Vegas, people were already ranking this as the deadliest mass shooting in US history, as if that will have any affect on what we do in the aftermath. Following the Sandy Hook shooting, we demanded nothing. Nothing changed. We as a society could muster no collective courage to at a minimum be shocked into the smallest of action. After the lack of courage to do anything when children and their teachers were killed, I have no doubt that tourists and concert goers in Las Vegas will warrant not a second thought other than empty prayers. When will we have enough and do something different?
The shift in war to body counts probably began in the Korean War, although claiming a single shift is impossible. Territory gained as a measure of success began shifting to the wholesale elimination of people from the land. A full 10% of the total Korean population were killed, over 3 million. That is higher per capita than Russian casualties during all of WWII. The US dropped more bombs on North Korea than was used in the entire Pacific theater in WWII by everyone.
The tension in the Korean peninsula that remains today is no doubt a result of this history of violence, a violence that some people still living have a first-hand understanding of, let alone the effects on their children and grandchildren.
General MacArthur said in a congressional hearing in 1951, in the early days of the Korean War:
“The war in Korea has already almost destroyed that nation of 20,000,000 people. I have never seen such devastation. I have seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and it just curdled my stomach the last time I was there. After I looked at the wreckage and those thousands of women and children and everything, I vomited … If you go on indefinitely, you are perpetuating a slaughter such as I have never heard of in the history of mankind.”
I am not attempting a complete history lesson, nor am I trying to make quick comparisons between different events of great violence. But we just sent soldiers from this city over to Syria, a place boiling with such massive violence that it will be years and decades before we have any grasp on the suffering of the people who are experiencing it as we speak.
What has become a clearer is that a drought and food shortage was probably the underlying factor in the uprising and ongoing suffering in Syria. But even that fails to consider the history of violence in the Middle East, both before and after we sent the first soldiers to the region.
If history proves to be useful, then there is little reason to believe that the current violence experienced will cease, whether we are involved or not. Violence becomes generational until a generation has had more than enough and decides to imagine a different world together. The question always stands. When will we have enough and do something different?
This history of violence is not new, and of course Christians are not immune. The 30 years war in Europe took place between 1618 and 1648. 8 million people died.
It was a religious war between Protestant Lutherans and Reformed churches (that’s us), and Catholic Christians throughout many small and large nation states in central Europe. It was also partly a territorial war that engulfed most of Europe.
Finally, after 30 years of grinding war, the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648. People were exhausted by war and the second generation that finished fighting simply refused to continue. They had had enough, and chose to do something different. That violent period helped form our own ideas of religious toleration as we have come to know it. Religious belief began to shift from a state matter of policy to an individual and communal act of participation.
Unfortunately that memory of violence and determination for peace was eventually forgotten, and has been repeated in different forms many times over.
The shooting in Las Vegas is not shocking. It is tragic, but not shocking. My children have never lived in a country that wasn’t at war with other people. Mass shootings have been constant sources of news ratings my entire adult life. Maybe we just don’t want to deal with the reality of this situation. The cries of those who suffer are not louder than our denial of a deeper pain that affects us all.
I am honestly not interested in having fiery discussions about the 2nd amendment. If that is the first place we can think of to start, then we have already decided who’s and what pain is worth being ignored.
At this point, no small changes in the law or new regulations will prevent this kind of violence. But no amount of weapons will protect us from it either. The usual discussions go nowhere until we deal with what we find so difficult to deal with.
I want to talk about our cultural obsession with violence. I want to talk about our acceptance of violence carried out by all manner of people, both citizens and civil servants.
I want to talk about how quickly we blame victims of violence as somehow guilty for what happened to them. I want to talk about the violence we accept in the number of hungry and poor children in the richest country in world history.
I want to talk about how hard people and the news attempt to discover with great pains why a supposed “normal” white male would do such an act of violence in Las Vegas, yet seem to know with absolute certainty what they think is wrong with Chicago, or within parts of Islam, or in my previous home of St. Louis.
We accept so much violence every day as just a part of life. The problem is that the structural violence engrained in our society becomes the expected normal. It’s not just the obvious images of violence on TV, but the grinding disregard for people played out at every level, including within places that should be places of safety. When will we have enough and do something different?
What I know is that violence like we saw in Las Vegas will happen again. People will pray, look for motivations of the shooter, and speculate as to why it happened, and it will still happen again. He will be called awful, an animal, evil, yet it will happen again. I am not interested in scripted mourning from a distance, the prayers sent and that’s it. I am interested in doing the difficult work of addressing the pervasive violence that permeates our lives.
Instead of responding in the usual ways, down the typical talking points, what if we as people of faith decided to do something different. Let the conspiracy theories flow past your feed. Don’t respond to the people who swear there is one singular reason for the shooting in Las Vegas. I have seen article after article, some with well thought out examinations, that insist on pointing to one single thing and claiming that they know the reason, disregarding all other possible contributing factors that they don’t like or want to deal with.
I get it. An easy answer feels better. Simple explanations allow us to move on quicker. When will we have enough and do something different?
The first step is an honest lamenting of the reality we face. And we as Christians have tools and traditions to do this. To lament is to speak honestly and openly about pain experienced, without filters, speaking to God, to each other, witnessing to the suffering that swirls around us. We need to speak it, and we need to be a place able to hear it. This sanctuary, above any other place, should be the place able to handle the speaking of it.
The next engagement is through active ritual healing. We are swimming in violence, even if we don’t always feel the direct impact. It has effects we don’t always notice, but the scars are with us, the emotional trauma stays with us.
My former professor of Religious Education often speaks of the reality of violence, and the religious practices that support violence as well as the practices that have the power to undo violence. She points to two aspects. The first is to proclaim through public witness the pain and histories of pain. The difference is that she insists that we do this with our bodies. We stand in the history, sometimes in the exact place of violence, and we refuse to let it have the last word.
The next thing is to take our bodies and act out new liturgies, new practices, new songs of hope that compel reality to be changed in order to fit the promises of hopeful ecstasy our voices are calling forth in Christ. Arguing ideas from a distance and yelling at one another will be rendered silence when our bodies and voices proclaim life in the face of violence.
We read in Isaiah the first instance of Isaiah speaking as a prophet. What is interesting is that he begins it all with a song. He sings a song about the helplessness he feels as his own people are running towards a cliff of despair. He is not immune from the moment. He is one of them, and he sees a difficult future ahead. Yet he sings.
As early as 1943, Kurt Lewin, an early social psychologist and refugee from Nazi Germany said that “While it is correct that [a] change of values will finally lead to a change of social conduct, it is equally correct that changes of action patterns and of actual group life will change cultural values.”
We as Christians, as people of faith, know how to do this. We do this every week, and often in between. We practice communal action, we speak values we believe, we sing so that a new day will come. We do not proclaim that our reason alone will solve the problems we face.
We proclaim a God, the divine presence around us, that is beyond our problems as well as our solutions. We sing, we pray, we eat together. We practice peace, even when it stands little chance of winning the day. We create new realities by living them. We follow a Jesus that spoke in ways that transcended the days in which he lived.
He spoke of authority that confounded those in authority. He lived the way of justice and righteousness, even while bloodshed and cries of distress would take his own life.
Do you see what I mean? When will we have enough and do something different?
What hold has violence placed on your life, and how can we stand together and bring forth words and actions of hope that see something different?
Expect that God is in the midst of despair, even as the walls come crashing down.
Expect that in our singing through death, God will be with us.
Expect the realm of God through words of truth and actions of hope.
Do something different. Refuse to give violence a foothold, and sing new songs of righteousness and just peace.
Expect something different, and never settle for less than God’s all-encompassing salvation of the world.