Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding darkness to a night already devoid of stars…Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Loving Your Enemies
When a gunman walked into First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas on Sunday, killing more than 20 people, we were confronted yet again with the painful reality of violence in our world.
Our heart sinks, our stomach turns, and our minds race. What is the church to do about the great and seemingly inexhaustible violence of our age? After we lament, and grieve with, and shed tears: What word do we speak to such violence? How should we live?
Violence is from Hell
First, as Christians, we must be clear that violence is from hell.
Biblically speaking, it is a tragic and direct result of the fall. Theologically speaking, it is what we might call an “ontological interruption” of the normal order of things—brought about, of course, by sin. Our defection from God bred, among other things, confusion of mind and soul, resulting in fear, aggression, and a desire to stamp out the lives of those who threaten or differ from us. The biblical word for this is enmity: a perpetual state of hostility.
Welcome to the world we live in.
It is no coincidence that the very first narrative following humanity’s treasonous behavior in the Garden is the horrifying story of twin brothers, Cain and Abel, wherein the former takes the life of the latter in an utterly senseless and misguided act of murder. Irrational bloodlust is born into the collective psyche of humanity, grieving the heart of God. “Now the earth,” the writer of Genesis declares just two short chapters later, “was corrupt in God’s sight and full of violence” (Genesis 6:11), a situation that resulted in God’s heart being “deeply troubled” (6:6).
The God we worship and serve in Christian faith is not the author of the violence we see in our world. Our creeds and canons announce to the world a God who is himself a perfectly harmonious communion of Persons; and that—that perfectly harmonious communion that we call “Trinity”—is in fact the “bedrock” of the universe.
This is, of course, another way of saying that violence has no ontological finality. God did not create it. God grieves it. And God will purge it from his world.
I say this because sometimes one detects a note of resignation in society, and even, sadly, the church. One detects the resignation that “this is just the way things are.” At best, all one can do is fortify oneself against it; at worst, one can do no other than capitulate to it—which in truth are two sides of the same coin.
Christian orthodoxy admits of no such resignation. There is no room for it whatsoever!
Which leads to my second point.
Violence Will Come to an End
There is hope.
The troubling of our world by sin is not the final word. There is “hope.” And I mean “hope” in the robust, biblical sense, not pious sentimentality or empty wishing. “Hope” is as concrete as the flesh and blood of a Jewish man from Galilee.
The redemptive act of God in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord is a judgment on all the violence of our world and a declaration that this state of affairs will not last. Furthermore, there is a people in Christ Jesus—the Church—who are called along with him to bear witness to a coming world in which enmity will be swallowed up and violence will be no more.
The catechism of the Book of Common Prayer perhaps states God’s dream for the Church in a violent world best when it says, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Jesus Christ,” which is but an amplification of Paul’s basic theology, stated tersely: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19), entrusting also his church with both the message and, importantly, the ministry of reconciliation. Or as an old priest I know of puts it: “The Holy Spirit is always leading us into friendship.”
The swallowing up of enmity and the establishment of friendship is precisely what God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit does. This is our hope, and the only hope likewise of the world.
There is an impulse that still lives in the heart of evangelical Christianity to assert that things like the Church’s address to the violence of our world are outside of the purview of the gospel. I think we must have the courage to flatly say: this is nonsense. Either the reconciling activity of God in Christ overcomes the sinful impulses of the soul that lead us to fear and hate one another, or it does nothing specifically human at all.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a legal fiction. It is the power of God that saves us from every hell of our own making. We are a people born of the reconciling work of God, bearing witness to a peace that is, and is yet, to come.
Which is, of course, a way of saying that “Jesus is Lord.”
And that leads me to my third point.
Violence Must Find No Customers in the Church
A people who follow Jesus as Lord cannot become pupils to the way of violence. In fact, we must have the courage to both practice and export peace wherever and however we can. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” declares Jesus, “for they will called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). We are, apparently, most like our Father in heaven when we practice peace, export peace, fight for peace, and enact peace between hostile neighbors—whenever and wherever and however we can.
Indeed, from one angle, the entire Sermon on the Mount, in which the beatitude of Matthew 5:9 finds its footing, can be usefully read as a prophetic manifesto on the ethos of a community that is defined, in part, by its utter refusal to play the manipulative, violent games of vengeance that permeate our world. We show mercy. We make peace. We forgive. We seek reconciliation. Our word is our bond. We love our enemies. We pray for those who persecute. We return good for evil. We, in short, absorb the many disruptions of relationship wrought by sin and say, with courage, “Thus far you will come and no further.”
Tragically, too many of us in the church fail to practice peace, and thus we have no credible gospel export to a world so desperately in need of it.
Our homes are riddled with low-grade strife that goes scarcely addressed, except of course when it reaches a boiling point.
Our speech betrays a ubiquitous “us versus them” antagonism that God the Son spilled holy blood to save us from.
Our churches often reinforce those same antagonistic, hostile impulses by enshrining them in our culture. When one megachurch pastor commented, following the Sutherland Springs tragedy, that no such mass shooting would happen at his church because a good deal of his parishioners are armed (in church!), and that thus the best deterrent to future shootings is an increasingly armed ecclesial populace, it was, I think, a waving of the white flag of surrender to violence—a sad statement of the way that our minds and hearts are captive more to the “powers” that enslave the world than they are to the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world for our freedom.
We can, and must, do better.
Our Response to Violence: A Prophetic Word of Peace
A friend of mine remarks often that communion with one another is not God’s idea. It is, rather, God’s identity. As a people grafted into the peaceful life of the Triune God, practicing peace is not a hobby. It is our unique vocation.
Following the shooting in Las Vegas earlier this fall, my wife and I sat together with our kids and explained to them, “Sin perverts people’s minds and fills them with anger and fear.” Through tears, we implored, “That is why in this home we fight for gentleness, for tenderness, for love. That is why we don’t harbor anger. That is why we serve each other. Why we forgive. This is part of our statement to a world that has lost its mind.”
When we practice peace in our homes and churches—peace in our actions, peace in our language—we are made capable of speaking a prophetic word of peace to a world that knows it not.
In a political culture and climate so riddled with antagonism and hostility, we are a people uniquely positioned to point to a better way.
One great document of the Church, Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”), claims that the Church is “an expert in humanity”, since we know the One who, as the Creed declares, “became truly human”, showing us what it means to live up to our vocation as genuine image-bearers.
We have something to give to the world: a language and practice of a peace that passes understanding. The radiant goodness, the unimpeachable beauty of our way of life ought to draw the world to the feet of the Prince of Peace himself.
That was and is and will always be God’s intention. “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
In the end, I am convinced, it is the practice of ordinary discipleship to Jesus in our homes and churches that is our highest and best address to the violence of our world.
So be it, God.