Jesus and the Christian response to violence
“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne
There are disclosure moments in the Bible when we can get behind the formal written word and feel what is going on. In tomorrow’s Old Testament reading, for example, we have the story of Absalom’s rebellion against his father King David and how in the ensuing battle Absalom is killed. When David is told that his son has been killed he is grief-stricken: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” This is a pain that no tears can wash away; it is a pain inflicted on people across the world on a daily basis.
In Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17th a young white man fired on the congregation in the Emmanuel African Methodist Church killing nine people. People were appalled at this racist attack and even more appalled that it could happen in a church even though churches are often attacked in parts of the world.
In July in another church, London’s St Martin in the Fields, a service was held to mark the 10th anniversary of the London bombings when 56 people were killed and 700 injured. The preacher was the American priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor, once listed in Time magazine among the world’s 100 most influential women.
She said that from the time of John the Baptist violence did not surprise Jesus. He was prepared for it and tried to prepare his followers but few of them had ears to hear. Referring to what happened in Charleston she said it was about race and not religion, that the victims were in most ways no different from anyone else suffering violence. “The only difference was the teachings they had absorbed, year after year, about how to handle violence when it came. When the young white man with the odd haircut showed up at their Bible study on Wednesday night, they did what the Bible told them to do: they welcomed the stranger so warmly that he sat with them for close to an hour before he remembered why he was there. Then he took out his gun and started shooting.”
She described how all the key people had made statements: President Obama pleaded for gun control, the Governor demanded the death penalty.
The reaction of the victims’ families to the accused was much more interesting: “You have killed some of the most beautifulest people I know,” a mother said of her son, “. . . but may God have mercy on you.”
“You took something very precious away from me,” said a daughter of her mother. “I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you.”
Barbara Brown Taylor says that despite their pain they did what Jesus had taught them: turn the cheek, pray for the persecutor, love the enemy, welcome the stranger. In everything do to others as you would have them do to you. “It sounds like advice for angels, not humans” she said, “so unrealistic, so undefended, it’s a wonder we repeat it at all. Yet there it is: the Christian teaching on how to respond to violence when it comes. Sometimes it actually works to disarm the violence in others, which is why we know the names of Gandhi, Tutu, and King. But that is not its main purpose. Its main purpose is to disarm the violence in us, so that we do not join the other team.”
Michael Lapsley is an Anglican priest working in South Africa. Because of his resistance to apartheid he had to flee that country. In 1990 as a result of a parcel bomb attack he lost an eye and both hands. Despite this he has worked tirelessly for healing and reconciliation in South Africa. He insists victims must be heard: “There are often areas of silence where people are told they must forget and move on. Yet everyone has a right to have their story heard in a safe place.” It’s something we do well to remember on this island.