So, I was thinking that I am not the only one out there who feels despair at the growing reality of violence around us. I mean, enough already! With each day more dead pile up under a barrage of senseless and even insane acts of violence.
In just the last month we have seen a shooting rampage in a Sikh place of worship in Wisconsin that left six dead at the hand of a White Supremacist – also dead. Someone tried to burn down a mosque in Joplin, Missouri around Independence Day – perhaps to celebrate our freedom – (especially religious?) A month later they came back and got the job done. The members of the Islamic community in Joplin were mostly doctors and health care people who cared for the whole community in their daily life. This all, of course, falls on the heels of the senseless attack in Aurora, Colorado where a man thought he was the Joker, and armed with enough explosives and weapons to outfit a squad, set out to kill everyone he could for reasons that will never be clear. Texas A&M is reeling from a campus shooting and as I write, two Louisiana deputies lie dead and wounded in another senseless act of aggression. Our nation, our world, is seemingly at war. The news stories come so fast and so frequently, I wonder how much we even notice anymore.
Hatred is a way of viewing the world, a code by which people live. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that there are more than 1,000 hate groups actively and openly at work in the United States that advocate violence and hatred against a whole gamut of people — yes, even people like you and me. This brand of hatred elevates intolerance, anger and cruelty to the level of blasphemy, as it often invokes God to justify the violence. How did we get to this place? What sowed the seeds of such destruction? How can people become so full of hatred?
First, let me offer this — hold on to your socks, you may not like this: Anyone of us is capable of any of the things that we see in the paper. I don’t buy for a moment that these are just “bad people” who are somehow different from “the rest of us.” Humans are capable of great good, and great evil. We are – and I know you may be sick of hearing this – saints and sinners all at the same time. Let’s not live under the illusion that people are basically good – we are not. Nor under the lie that “normal people” are peace-loving and full of love – we are not. If we were, we would have no need for the overwhelming grace of God shown in Christ to forgive us and claim us. If we were, we would not need law to provide boundaries for bad behavior. No, I’m not a cynic, or a pessimist, or depressed — I’m a Lutheran! The reality of human brokenness and sin, the tremendous evil that everyday people can inflict upon one another is staggering and we must acknowledge it completely. (Watch the 1998 movie A Simple Plan for a realistic vision of what normal, everyday, good folks are capable of doing to each other with little temptation).
The fall into hatred and blasphemy (violence and hate given a fake divine seal of approval) is a process that begins innocently. It arises out of our natural human response to threats – anxiety. Anxiety, poorly managed, becomes fear. The response to a single threat starts to grow into a state of being. We live in fear of anything and everything. Stephen King says that “Americans are apocalyptic by nature. The reason why is that we’ve always had so much, so we live in deadly fear that people are going to take it away from us.” Fear is the opposite of faith, it drives us to trust no one and nothing. Life has now become centered on self and our pride, lust after what others have and self-justification makes protection at all cost a consideration. That desire to protect gone awry leads to cruelty, and finally to god-sanctioned cruelty in our own minds (blasphemy). (For an in-depth analysis of the process of sin, see Ted Peters, Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society). To live afraid is to take the first step toward hatred and violence. To ease our fears by building walls, eliminating threats, buying guns and knives, persecuting other people is not an answer, but a capitulation. Only faith in who and whose we are can cast out fear.
Once we begin to justify ourselves and shape the world into “us and them” we have taken another step to violence — dehumanizing others. I heard it once said that the Holocaust began with a cruel racial joke. Whenever we can make another person less human, we open up the possibility to treat them as an animal – or worse. The scope of human history is littered with scapegoats. Lynchings, shootings, terror attacks, and crucifixions – all done in the name of some higher good – are ways dealing with our fear and self-hatred.
So what do we do about all this? The first step is to nurture our faith instead of our fears. The media, our political leaders, marketing reps are all very good at instilling fear: Fear I will get old; fear I will die, fear my kids won’t love me; fear I won’t have enough; fear that THOSE people are going to take something from me; fear that …. well, you get the point. As a child of the living God. blessed with the presence of Christ through the power of the Spirit, nobody can take anything away from you that matters. You have nothing to fear!
The second step is watch our tongues. Really. We live in a culture that has become absolutely out of control with invective and attack. The slightest utterance becomes cause for outrage. James 3:8-9 says “but no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” The advent of social media like Facebook and Twitter, which one might think would promote dialogue, instead offers detached ways to rant and scold, mostly about things that really don’t matter. Dr. Jalees Rehman has written a provocative article about the way social media creates an opportunity for anonymous hatred to grow. Now, I understand that freedom of speech is sacrosanct in our culture, but as Soren Kierkegarrd, the great Danish (Lutheran) philosopher observed: “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” We need to think before we re-actively post, perpetrate, pass on, our pontifications and platitudes. We need to love before we speak.
We must speak in ways that edify, seek understanding and graciously, tenderly, engage in dialogue. Ephesians 4:29 says: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths (or be typed by your fingers – my translation) but only what is useful for building up as there is need so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Think of what change would happen if we lived by these words instead of words of hate and fear. Perhaps Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reminder about all things, including our language provides a stout reminder: “God’s truth judges created things out of love, and Satan’s truth judges them out of envy and hatred.”
I have watched postings between friends and colleagues turn ugly and a relationship gets threatened if not lost. I have listened to countless people chronicle the evil words that have ended marriages and family relationships. I have served in the Church, where evil talk has lead to disaster. I have studied the ways in which words, simple words, inflamed nations to genocide. I have been attacked with the words that leave scars, and hurled them myself. Hatred begins with a word. So, love can begin with God’s Word. I believe this.
We can bring peace to the world in lots of ways, but choosing our words with grace and love might be the most powerful first step.
Pax Christi, Pastor Tim