So, I was thinking that the last thing I wanted to see in the news today was another senseless act of violence. Unfortunately, the lead story details a shooting at a mall in Oregon. Last week it was a woman shot to death by her NFL lover, who then turned the gun on himself. In other news, the middle east is still a cauldron of hate and violence and, lest we think violence is only a reality in far away places, the news reports that an Ankeny man will be spending the rest of his life in prison for the death of his daughter. Just another day in paradise.
As we prepare to celebrate the birth of the “Prince of Peace” it is no wonder that atheists and people who have deep doubts about the Christian faith think we are a little out of touch with reality. I mean, if Jesus brought peace, where the heck is it anyway? Bono, the front man for the group U2 sings in the song “Peace on Earth” –
Jesus can you take the time
To throw a drowning man a line
Peace on Earth
To tell the ones who hear no sound
Whose sons are living in the ground
Peace on Earth
Jesus this song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
Peace on Earth
Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won’t rhyme
So what’s it worth?
This peace on Earth
It is a legitimate question. And there are legitimate answers – but not simple ones. In the coming of Jesus, peace (and grace and love and justice) dawned, but the sunrise continues to be an agonizingly long process. In the midst of a very violent world full of very violent people (and that includes you and me) God made a declarative statement in Jesus that violence was NOT part of the reign of God, peace was the way. God declared that justice and love would win out in the end, which makes them worthy, eternal values in the life we lead today. Peace can happen today, if we dare to live in anticipation of the peace that began in Christ. But that is harder than it sounds. To live with a predisposition to violence that mirrors Christ is dangerous and divisive.
The violence around us often sparks conversations about guns. Now, I am not going to wade into a debate about the constitutional right to bear arms. I’m not a constitutional scholar. That we can bear arms seems a given in our civil society. If you own guns, fine. Hear me clearly, I’m not telling anyone what to do when it comes to guns, knives, fists, or harsh words. You have a constitutional right to have a gun, carry a legal knife, defend yourself and say whatever you want. Please don’t take what I write here and find cause to yell at me about your rights. I completely acknowledge them. On the matter of peace and violence, I don’t care about constitutional arguments.
As a theologian and pastor, I know this: If “the constitution” of the reign of God says: “(God) shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4) then I think it is safe to say that no one in the courts of heaven will be packing heat. If swords are pounded into plowshares, I’m not sure what happens to guns. Bud vases? Hammers? Tent stakes?
For me that means that I choose to live as if the reign of God is already here in ways that make sense to me. That, not the Constitution, governs my behavior. I do indeed have the right to say whatever I please. I am always reminded of Kierkegaard’s thought on free speech: “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” The most difficult thing to holster is our mouths. Violence starts with harsh words. As James says: “For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:7-8) So, living in the reign of God means I begin my path to peace by rejecting words that harm and injure. My guess is that every shooting has a harsh word in its trajectory to death. So, we holster our pie holes in the name of peace. Told you it was tough.
So, as the reign of God pertains to guns, I share the approach of Hawkeye Pierce from the TV Series M*A*S*H: “I’ll carry your books, I’ll carry a torch, I’ll carry a tune, I’ll carry on, carry over, carry forward, Cary Grant, cash and carry, carry me back to Old Virginia, I’ll even `hari-kari’ if you show me how, but I will not carry a gun!” For me, same goes for anything bigger than a pocket knife to open Amazon boxes – won’t have one. I hope and pray that if you assault me, I will manage to keep my Irish side in check, and forget the Tae Kwon Do I practiced, and turn the other cheek. After all, I profess to follow one who could raise the dead and cure the sick, but who absorbed the violence inflicted upon him as a means of unmasking the ugly face of evil and overcoming it in God’s redemptive action. Jesus refused to participate in the violence. He told Peter to put away the sword. He did not unleash the awful power of God on the people who nailed him to the cross. He practiced what he preached and then had the nerve to call us to do the same. See? Peace is tough.
I recognize that this all sounds foolish. Some have said that if we all carried guns, violence would decrease. That assumes a pretty elevated view of humanity to me. It assumes that only “bad” people do violent things. The truth is, unless you are Jesus, we are all bad people, capable of evil things. I know that revenge, retaliation, and fighting for honor are all part of the fabric of life, but I long for peace more than I value these things — at least I want to; I feel called to. And, it is foolish. I admit it. So did Paul: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)
Again, I’m not telling anybody what to do with your weapons or your words. I’m just suggesting that the reign of God has come near in Christ – and that means peace is an eternal reality, and a present possibility. So we are not hypocrites for celebrating the coming of the Prince of Peace. Christ calls his followers to work our with fear and trembling not how to live according to the rule of a violent world, committed to death. Christ calls each of us to figure out how we become the blessed peacemakers who live in hopeful anticipation of the peaceable reign of a peace-loving God. Then we can read the bad news in the paper with hope that it is not the only and final word. The Word (of peace) has been made flesh and dwells among us.
Pax Christi (Peace of Christ)