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Kay Spiritual Life Center, March 7, 2018
Micah 4:1-4; Qur'an 81:1-14; 42:40-47
"I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them…" These are the words of God to Noah in the sixth chapter of the book of Genesis. This is the reason God gives for the impending flood that is about to erase the created order and destroy the world.
That state of affairs was itself an escalation of the sin of the world-a straight line from the Cain's murder of his brother Abel. In the generations in between that primordial act of fratricide, the situation had only gotten worse. It had increased to the point where there was a state of universal lawlessness and violence. "For the earth is filled with violence."
Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
It's hard to escape the sense that our world is full of violence. And that it's only getting worse. Things used to be better in the not-too-distant past: a time free of senseless violence, when schools were safe havens, when neighbors left their doors unlocked, when kids walked by themselves to school without fear of violence or harm.
Now, we are descending into an ever more violent age, approaching Quentin Tarantino levels of daily violence.
II. THE VIOLENT WORLD
It turns out that the reality is the opposite: things are not more violent than they have been in the past. We are, somewhat curiously, living at a time when violence is actually lower than it was in the past.
In the middle ages, a much higher percentage of the population would die a violent, non-natural death. In the ancient world it was even higher.
In pre-state societies, quite in contrast to the patronizingly idyllic portrait often presented, it was common for 1 out of every 4 males to die in violence.
Compared to that, today only 1% of the population dies violently. By any objective statistical measure, the world is far less violent today than it ever has been.
Well, as Mark Twain used to say, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."
Indeed, some have taken great exception to the idea that the world is less violent than it used to be, and charge that the methodology of such surveys is suspect in the ways that they categorize what counts as "violence." To be fair even were the statistics accurate and the world were indeed getting less violent-they don't tell the whole truth.
Because as the world becomes more peaceful, the incidents of violence that we do have to face become all the more horrific. Perhaps in an earlier age, when violence was rampant, we wouldn't bat an eye at persistent violence. But against a backdrop of progress in our social order, our scientific order, and in the ever-increasing ability to provide the resources for a meaningful, productive, and long life that violence should appear all the more senseless and unnecessary.
It would be one thing if we were living in the bronze age, eking out a subsistence living against marauding bands of raiders and brigands, in the midst of a landscape dominated by competing warlords. It's another thing to continue to experience violence in what is supposed to be a world that has gone beyond barbarism, that has organized itself into peaceful societies that order their affairs through ballots rather than bullets.
III. THE VIOLENT LAND
In that context, any violent act seems egregiously out of place. Even more terrifying for all its incongruity with the world we are supposed to have.
Because the reality is that whether the world is getting less violent, more violent, or is at a constant state of violence, one act of violence is too many. And lately, we've seen a lot more than one.
I don't know if there is a name for this phenomenon yet, but I think of it as "banner dread"-that queasy feeling you get when a news alert banner pops up on your phone telling you that there's a breaking news story coming. "Good God, what now?" I find myself saying whenever one pops up. Because even though they are frequently stories about tariffs, the resignation of economic advisors, and strange media blitz appearances by former campaign aides, there is a dread that the next one will begin with, "Authorities say at least 10 confirmed dead in a shooting at …"
Indeed, the dread of the news of violence reflects the dread of the violence itself. It is not confined to lawless frontiers and front lines in combat. It finds us in our night clubs, in our movie theaters, in our community centers, in our churches, mosques, and synagogues, in our schools. In all the places that suggest safety or tranquility or community.
But in those places we find mayhem. In the spaces where we expect rest, enjoyment, and safety instead we find violence.
Much of the recent horror began with the massacre of killing of 13 high school students by two of their classmates at Columbine High School in 1999. That violent became such a shocking event in our consciousness, that it has become the macabre benchmark for such killings ever since. But far from becoming an isolated phenomenon, we have only seen the horror continue:
- Red Lake shootings, 2005, 10 (including the perpetrator), Multiple weapons
- Virginia Tech shooting , 2007, 33 (including the perpetrator), Handguns
- Binghamton shootings, 2009, 14 (including the perpetrator), Handguns
- Fort Hood shooting, 2009, 13, Handguns
- Geneva County massacre, 2009, 11 (including the perpetrator), Multiple weapons
- Aurora shooting, 2012, 12, Multiple weapons
- Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, 2012, 28 (including the perpetrator), Semi-automatic rifle and handgun
- Washington Navy Yard shooting, 2013, 13 (including the perpetrator), Shotgun and handgun
- San Bernardino attack, 2015, 16 (including both perpetrators), Semi-automatic rifles
- Umpqua Community College shooting, 2015, 10 (including the perpetrator), Handguns
- Orlando nightclub shooting , 2016, 50 (including the perpetrator), Semi-automatic rifle
- Las Vegas shooting, 2017, 59 (including the perpetrator), Semi-automatic rifles
- Sutherland Springs church shooting, 2017, 27 (including the perpetrator), Semi-automatic rifle,
- Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, 2018, 17, Semi-automatic rifle
Those who argue that violence is on the decrease may prove right, I don't know. But in the meantime, we have to contend with this litany of violent tragedy that seems never to stop.
IV. WHAT DO WE DO?
So what do we do about all of this? In seeking to craft a response, it is helpful first to have a vision. And there are few visions more powerful than that of the prophet Micah:
Micah 4:1-4 • In days to come the mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; 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; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.
What does it mean to beat a sword into plowshares? What are the "swords" that we're supposed to be transforming from instruments of violence into instruments of peace?
A. What the sword is
1. The gun
The most obvious answers is, of course, the gun. In the 1996 film Romeo & Juliet, they thought as much. In that film, which used Shakespeare's original words but set the action in a modern-day setting, all of the guns were referred to as "sword."
And indeed, guns are usually what people think of when thinking of instruments of violence. Soon, thousands will gather in this city to call for more meaningful regulation of precisely those instruments of violence.
2. But also not the gun: the alienation
It is absolutely true that guns make violence more catastrophic. And the more powerful the gun, the more powerful the catastrophe. And so it is not unreasonable to ask what can be done about guns and the easy access to firearms that makes such tragedies so common in this country.
But focusing on guns alone would prevent us from looking at deeper problems. At deeper issues that people of faith should care about.
B. Whence the Violence?
In his 2003 film Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore set out to explore why it was that gun violence was so high in the United States. He looked seriously at the question of whether it was the presence of firearms alone.
In statistics that today are similar to the results Moore found in 2003, there are 112 guns per every 100 residents in the US. In Canada, there are only 30.8 guns per every 100 residents. A nearly 4-1 difference. But the U.S. sees 3.5 firearm related homicides per 100,000 people versus Canada's 0.5 firearm-related homicides per 100,000. That's a 7-1 difference. That cannot be accounted for by the number of guns alone. Something else must be at work.
Is it that we're more violent than other peoples? That is certainly a fair question to ask in a nation founded on settler-colonialism, genocide of indigenous peoples, and captive slavery of Africans. But it would be hard to say that we were more violent than, say, the Germans or the English or the French, all of whom have firearm related deaths 14 to 35 times lower than we do.
In talking to some Canadians, Moore encountered a common refrain they had about the US after having watched a fair amount of American television: "It seems you all are really scared down there. What are you so scared of?"
That's a really good question. There is no doubt that we Americans are a scared lot. Fear is used to sell foreign policy: fear of terrorism. Fear is used to sell domestic policy: fear of immigrants, fear of racial minorities, fear of economic instability, fear of change. Fear is used to get you to tune in to the evening newscast: "An everyday product probably in your house right now can kill you! Find out which one at 11!" Fear is used to sell products: we are told to fear receding hairlines and off-white teeth. Fear pervades our national life.
And fear is a powerful motivator to violent action.
It has been pointed out that states tend to revert to violent oppression when they fear that their power slipping away. It's not when they are powerful that they use violence to effect their will-in some ways, true power is in not having to use violence-it's when they feel they are losing power. (Again, just look at who the perpetrators of most of our gun violence are and you'll find disaffected white men, who are feeling powerless.)
And when we're afraid, we want control. When we're feeling powerless, we want power.
C. The Nature of the Gun
And nothing gives us that feeling of control, that feeling of power, like a gun.
There is something particular about the gun: it is powerful, it is immediate. In the martial arts, by the time you get to the point where you could kill a person with your bare hands, you don't. You've undergone so much discipline and training that the awesome power you now wield is grounded in that very discipline and training. But a gun requires no such discipline-it is immediate, it is powerful, it is deadly.
If we are to truly vanquish violence, especially gun violence, we have to do something about the underlying causes of violence, as well.
Our task must be to build communities in which no one is alienated, no one is feeling disaffected.
D. A new way
Right now, our world is undergoing great transformation. And change causes fear and anxiety-and with the high level of unprecendented change taking place culturally, scientifically, and socially, there's a lot of fear and anxiety out there.
But our two main responses to that change is: (1) say that change is terrible and promise people that we can go back in time and undo all the changes; or (2) say that change is inevitable and tell people to get over it.
But nowhere is there anyone who is acknowledging that change is frightening, but also offering a vision of a shared future. It must be terrifying to lose the family farm after generations because of industrial agriculture and not have any sense of how you'll fit into the future economy. That should be affirmed. But is not our task to provide a vision of how we can all move forward together and will take care of one another?
There are a lot of my white brothers and sisters who are terrified at the prospect of losing their privilege (a privilege most of them deny they have in the first place, paradoxically). Is not our task to provide a vision of how a diverse and inclusive world is a world that benefits everyone?
Beating the swords of gun violence into plowshares of prosperity won't be as effective if we cannot simultaneously turn the spears of fear, alienation, and anxiety into the pruning hooks of well-being for the whole community.
There was a meme that circulated for a time after the Parkland shootings. It was of the empty cargo hold of a delivery truck with the caption, "The first shipment of thoughts and prayers has been delivered to Parkland, Florida."
There has been a fair amount of justified criticism of the usual politicians' response to violent tragedies with "thoughts and prayers." Now, that might seem strange to point out in a chapel service that is all about prayer and reflection.
But it is important to point out what we understand prayer to do. If we understand prayer simply as petition to the deity-"Dear God, we have a problem, please fix it. Yours truly…"-then prayer, and certainly thoughts, can be seen as insufficient.
But if we view prayer not as a petition for wish-fulfillment or to speak to the divine, but as an opportunity to listen to the divine, then we understand something different to be going on.
The mystics and the philosophers of all the great religious traditions understood prayer in its most meaningful sense not as an opportunity to get God to listen to you, but as an opportunity to allow God to speak into you. It's a spiritual discipline that helps us to focus, to center on what's important, to be mindful. The answer to our prayers comes not when the Deity grants all our wishes, but when we, having opened ourselves up to inspiration, are filled with a sense of purpose, a direction to move forward in.
We have gathered here today for just such a moment. To open our hearts in prayer, but then to use those prayers as an opportunity to be spoken into, as an opportunity to hear the call to transform our world from a world of fear, anxiety, alienation, and violence, into a world of love, comfort, inclusion, and peace.
Words of Sacred Tradition
Texts Used in the Chapel Service
וְהָיָ֣ה ׀ בְּאַחֲרִ֣ית הַיָּמִ֗ים יִ֠הְיֶה הַ֣ר בֵּית־יְהוָ֤ה נָכוֹן֙ בְּרֹ֣אשׁ הֶהָרִ֔ים וְנִשָּׂ֥א ה֖וּא מִגְּבָע֑וֹת וְנָהֲר֥וּ עָלָ֖יו עַמִּֽים׃וְֽהָלְכ֞וּ גּוֹיִ֣ם רַבִּ֗ים וְאָֽמְרוּ֙ לְכ֣וּ ׀ וְנַעֲלֶ֣ה אֶל־הַר־יְהוָ֗ה וְאֶל־בֵּית֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב וְיוֹרֵ֙נוּ֙ מִדְּרָכָ֔יו וְנֵלְכָ֖ה בְּאֹֽרְחֹתָ֑יו כִּ֤י מִצִּיּוֹן֙ תֵּצֵ֣א תוֹרָ֔ה וּדְבַר־יְהוָ֖ה מִירוּשָׁלִָֽם׃וְשָׁפַ֗ט בֵּ֚ין עַמִּ֣ים רַבִּ֔ים וְהוֹכִ֛יחַ לְגוֹיִ֥ם עֲצֻמִ֖ים עַד־רָח֑וֹק וְכִתְּת֨וּ חַרְבֹתֵיהֶ֜ם לְאִתִּ֗ים וַחֲנִיתֹֽתֵיהֶם֙ לְמַזְמֵר֔וֹת לֹֽא־יִשְׂא֞וּ גּ֤וֹי אֶל־גּוֹי֙ חֶ֔רֶב וְלֹא־יִלְמְד֥וּן ע֖וֹד מִלְחָמָֽה׃וְיָשְׁב֗וּ אִ֣ישׁ תַּ֧חַת גַּפְנ֛וֹ וְתַ֥חַת תְּאֵנָת֖וֹ וְאֵ֣ין מַחֲרִ֑יד כִּי־פִ֛י יְהוָ֥ה צְבָא֖וֹת דִּבֵּֽר׃
Micah 4:1-4 In days to come the mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; 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; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.
إِذَا ٱلشَّمْسُ كُوِّرَتْ وَإِذَا ٱلنُّجُومُ ٱنكَدَرَتْ وَإِذَا ٱلْجِبَالُ سُيِّرَتْ وَإِذَا ٱلْعِشَارُ عُطِّلَتْ وَإِذَا ٱلْوُحُوشُ حُشِرَتْ وَإِذَا ٱلْبِحَارُ سُجِّرَتْ وَإِذَا ٱلنُّفُوسُ زُوِّجَتْ وَإِذَا ٱلْمَوْءُۥدَةُ سُئِلَتْ بِأَىِّ ذَنۢبٍ قُتِلَتْ وَإِذَا ٱلصُّحُفُ نُشِرَتْ وَإِذَا ٱلسَّمَآءُ كُشِطَتْ وَإِذَا ٱلْجَحِيمُ سُعِّرَتْ وَإِذَا ٱلْجَنَّةُ أُزْلِفَتْ عَلِمَتْ نَفْسٌ مَّآ أَحْضَرَتْ
Qur'an 81:1-14 • When the sun (with its spacious light) is folded up; When the stars fall, losing their lustre; When the mountains vanish (like a mirage); When the she-camels, ten months with young, are left untended; When the wild beasts are herded together (in the human habitations);When the oceans boil over with a swell; When the souls are sorted out, (being joined, like with like);When the female (infant), buried alive, is questioned -For what crime she was killed; When the scrolls are laid open; When the world on High is unveiled; When the Blazing Fire is kindled to fierce heat; And when the Garden is brought near;-(Then) shall each soul know what it has put forward."
وَجَزَٰٓؤُاْ سَيِّئَةٍ سَيِّئَةٌ مِّثْلُهَا فَمَنْ عَفَا وَأَصْلَحَ فَأَجْرُهُۥ عَلَى ٱللَّهِ إِنَّهُۥ لَا يُحِبُّ ٱلظَّٰلِمِينَ وَلَمَنِ ٱنتَصَرَ بَعْدَ ظُلْمِهِۦ فَأُوْلَٰٓئِكَ مَا عَلَيْهِم مِّن سَبِيلٍ إِنَّمَا ٱلسَّبِيلُ عَلَى ٱلَّذِينَ يَظْلِمُونَ ٱلنَّاسَ وَيَبْغُونَ فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ بِغَيْرِ ٱلْحَقِّ أُوْلَٰٓئِكَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ وَلَمَن صَبَرَ وَغَفَرَ إِنَّ ذَٰلِكَ لَمِنْ عَزْمِ ٱلْأُمُورِ وَمَن يُضْلِلِ ٱللَّهُ فَمَا لَهُۥ مِن وَلِىٍّ مِّنۢ بَعْدِهِۦ وَتَرَى ٱلظَّٰلِمِينَ لَمَّا رَأَوُاْ ٱلْعَذَابَ يَقُولُونَ هَلْ إِلَىٰ مَرَدٍّ مِّن سَبِيلٍ وَتَرَىٰهُمْ يُعْرَضُونَ عَلَيْهَا خَٰشِعِينَ مِنَ ٱلذُّلِّ يَنظُرُونَ مِن طَرْفٍ خَفِىٍّ وَقَالَ ٱلَّذِينَ آمَنُوٓاْ إِنَّ ٱلْخَٰسِرِينَ ٱلَّذِينَ خَسِرُوٓاْ أَنفُسَهُمْ وَأَهْلِيهِمْ يَوْمَ ٱلْقِيَٰمَةِ أَلَآ إِنَّ ٱلظَّٰلِمِينَ فِى عَذَابٍ مُّقِيمٍ وَمَا كَانَ لَهُم مِّنْ أَوْلِيَآءَ يَنصُرُونَهُم مِّن دُونِ ٱللَّهِ وَمَن يُضْلِلِ ٱللَّهُ فَمَا لَهُۥ مِن سَبِيلٍ ٱسْتَجِيبُواْ لِرَبِّكُم مِّن قَبْلِ أَن يَأْتِىَ يَوْمٌ لَّا مَرَدَّ لَهُۥ مِنَ ٱللَّهِ مَا لَكُم مِّن مَّلْجَإٍ يَوْمَئِذٍ وَمَا لَكُم مِّن نَّكِيرٍ
42:40-47 • The recompense for an injury is an injury equal thereto (in degree): but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from God: for (God) loveth not those who do wrong. But indeed if any do help and defend themselves after a wrong (done) to them, against such there is no cause of blame. The blame is only against those who oppress men and wrong-doing and insolently transgress beyond bounds through the land, defying right and justice: for such there will be a penalty grievous. But indeed if any show patience and forgive, that would truly be an exercise of courageous will and resolution in the conduct of affairs. For any whom God leaves astray, there is no protector thereafter. And thou wilt see the Wrong-doers, when in sight of the Penalty, Say: "Is there any way (to effect) a return?" And thou wilt see them brought forward to the (Penalty), in a humble frame of mind because of (their) disgrace, (and) looking with a stealthy glance. And the Believers will say: "Those are indeed in loss, who have given to perdition their own selves and those belonging to them on the Day of Judgment. Behold! Truly the Wrong-doers are in a lasting penalty!" And no protectors have they to help them, other than God. And for any whom God leaves to stray, there is no way (to the Goal).Hearken ye to your Lord, before there come a Day which there will be no putting back, because of (the Ordainment of) God! that Day there will be for you no place of refuge nor will there be for you any room for denial (of your sins)!