Creating Peace in a Violent World


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown

December 9, 2018

Texts: Malachi 3:1-10; Luke 3:1-6

       In response to the ban on 15-round magazine guns–you know, like the AR-15, obviously a weapon to protect the average homeowner–the New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Club sued the state and went to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. This week the appeals court upheld the law first upheld by the U.S. District Judge Philip Sheridan in Trenton.

        The law which reduces the capacity of guns from 15 rounds to 10 rounds was signed into law by Governor Murphy on June 13. In its decision, the appeals court held that “New Jersey's law reasonably fits the state's interest in public safety and does not unconstitutionally burden the Second Amendment's right to self-defense in the home." Oh, boy! Now the gun lobby can only murder two-thirds as quickly as before.

       Although it is true that most gun violence is committed with smaller scale arms, and much of it by persons who should never have had access to a gun at all, the number of mass shootings has risen expo-nentially over the past decade. The synagogue attack was not the latest mass shooting. There have been at least three more since the horror that occurred in Pittsburgh. And the NRA and its state affiliates con-tinue to push for fewer restrictions all the time.

        Much like the shooting at Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, and the Pulse, people were taken un-awares that something terrible was about to happen as the congregation gathered to celebrate the High Holidays. Usually we do not understand the motives of the shooters because they are dead. Pittsburgh was an exception, of course.

        These guns, these weapons of mass destruc-tion, had been bought legally. You can still get a Glock on the internet although the price has gone up from the $452 in 2012 to $599.99. Got to have our guns, you know. Hopefully, the new Congress will show more spine than the old one but to get a law passed, the House has to get it by a Senate beholden to the NRA, not to mention the Oval Office.

        Over the past month we have had several attacks on regular people we would deem innocent by ideological zealots such as those who have bought into the hateful rhetoric we have been subject to over the last few years. Granted the deliberate ramming of a car into a crowd of people in Charlottesville was not with a gun but it was the result of ignorant hate. The perpetrators of such attacks argue that their attacks were not on innocents as we understand the word but on actors or at least participants in a system, an order that is inherently evil.

        In her book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Karen Armstrong argues that religion, although blamed for everything from the Thirty Years War that destroyed half of Europe in the seventeenth century to the attacks on the Twin Towers and Paris, is not inherently violent. Although Armstrong’s style is polemical as she argues her case, she does make us think whether there is a universal understanding of what is meant by the word religion. That word does not mean the same thing to all people.

         In our Western tradition, we tend to consider religion as a set of beliefs tied to sets of rituals sepa-rated from the secular life. Our language distinguishes the sacred from the secular. However, in many parts of the world, religion means something larger, vaguer, and more encompassing. Religion has been often used as a simple explanation for such violence as occurred in the Crusades, but it is important to re-member that the so-called Christian Crusaders killed just as many Christians on their way to liberate Jerusalem from those they called infidels.

         Understanding what drives people to kill for religion is necessary if we are to build a world where people can live in peaceful tolerance and acceptance. Scripture does not offer us a rosy picture of this pro-cess. Malachi, whose name means “the messenger,” presents a picture of the one who comes in the name of the Lord as a refiner’s fire who will be swift to witness against those who swear falsely, oppress the widow and orphan and thrust aside the alien.

        Luke’s Gospel presents a similar portrait of John using the words of Isaiah. This morning’s reading stops just before John calls people coming to be bap-tized a brood of vipers who face God’s wrath because they do not bear good fruit.

          Do we need to undergo a refiner’s fire before learning to live together? What is required for us to create peace in a violent world? These are really difficult questions and have no simple answers. How is it that we learn to get past our history of Christian intolerance of other religions and yet hold onto what is unique to our faith? These are questions both theo-logical and practical not just for Christians but for other religious traditions as well. In some sense Islam, the newest of the three Abrahamic religious traditions, has taken our Christian religious exclu-sivism and applied it to its understanding of salvation.

         Armstrong argues that it is impossible to under-stand all or even most historical and contemporary violence through the imposition of “religion” as its cause, whether the Crusades, the Thirty Years War, or the Paris attacks, or abortion clinic bombings. All of these horrors have a cultural and political context that is much more complex than ascribing the cause to Jihadi fundamentalism or even Christian fundament-alism. And, as Christians, we cannot be let off the hook by simply describing a fundamentalist Christian who kills abortion providers or shoots up a clinic as mentally deranged. We must look at the broader cultural context of their actions.

      This question has become even more important in our world today as the language used to describe the righteous from the unrighteous becomes more violent. There is a thin line between ideology and religion.

         But even thoughtful analysis does not answer our central question: how do we create peace in a violent world? This question cannot be addressed in isolation because it involves our responsibility to help others have peace in the world as well. We recognize that there are certainly people and groups who are so bent on creating their own world of terror, who are beyond negotiation. How do we address the evil that uses such a twisted understanding of religion, of ideology–and we should distinguish here between the two in spite of the fact that ideology has its own violence just as deadly as anything we ascribe to religion.

         Far wiser people than I struggle with these questions. It’s both easy and difficult to take a Desmond Tutu or Martin Luther King approach of nonviolence. We want to be for peaceful solutions to the violence around us, but what do we do when confronted with people with whom we cannot reason?

         In our struggle to make sense of how best to prepare for peace, we not only have the examples of King and Tutu but also the example of Bonhoeffer who was at least tangentially involved in the plot to kill Hitler. We need to develop models of engagement that lead to peace that are more complex than repeating sweet aphorisms of peace in our hearts.               Understanding the cultural context gives us some clues but does not answer all the questions.

Sometimes we can only work within the confines of our own society. Here we can help to create peace in our state and nation by decrying patently false state-ments that lead to fear and hate, for fear is a strong catalyst to hatred, be it ideological or religious. We must speak out against those who vilify others be-cause of their religion or ethnic background.

         When John the Baptizer cried out, “Prepare ye the way o the Lord,” he was not just using empty words. At times the preparation leads to conse-quences we did not want. In a Nazi prison in December 1944, the Jesuit priest Alfred Delp wrote, “Advent is a time for rousing in order to wake up the truth.” He continued stating that such a rousing “was necessary to kindle the inner light which confirms the blessing and the promise of the Lord. A shattering is the necessary preliminary. Life only begins when the whole framework is shaken.”

        John announced the shaking of the framework when he said, “Every mountain shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places made smooth.” Those words announce the reversal of the normal order. They are not only words of promise but words of warning to those who would continue to create hate and fear in our political and social lives.

          Like Jesus, we must not respond in kind, but, also like Jesus, we cannot be silent. He spoke out against the injustices of his time and preached a welcoming inclusive God. Perhaps that is the way for us: speaking out against the injustices of our time while holding out the vision of a welcoming inclusive God who embraces us all.

        Let us pray: Embracing and all-encompassing One, we ask that you give us a vision of peace and the imagination to actualize the peace you want for us in the world. In the name of him who is your peace, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.