Violence seems to be on the rise all around us. Gun violence continues to be an intractable problem in American society. Drug and gang-related violence continues to inject fear into our inner cities. Civil war, persecution and deep insecurity is fueling massive migrations from Central America, Africa and the Middle East, which in turn fuels anti-immigration protest and antagonism in North America, Europe and South America. The terrorism of ISIS encourages nations to wall themselves off, and nations are increasingly uncertain about their alliances with one another. This is to say nothing about the dilemma police are facing across our country, as they struggle to deal with the reality of racial profiling, or the violence embedded in sexual abuse, and the sexual trafficking that is rampant in our land.
How can we as Episcopalians respond to all this violence? Our first response may be to pretend that it isn’t happening, or to call on our politicians, police and armed services to defend us. That’s not wrong. From the fourth century on, Christian theologians have taught that Christians in positions of governmental or military authority are obliged to use force, if necessary, to protect the innocent. But this was never meant to excuse a retreat from the essential teaching of Jesus, which is non-violent from beginning to end. Pacifism, or meeting violence with a refusal of violence, remains the heart of the Christian way. We may resort to force when there is no other way to protect those who depend on us, but we must regard force as a last resort. Every member of the military I have known would agree with this.
Force as a last resort reflects Christian conviction about our personal dealings with one another. Jesus calls us repeatedly to be patient and forgiving. Patience and forgiveness are essential Christian virtues. They are the opposite of force. How do these virtues work? When we are patient and forgiving, we listen attentively to what our neighbor has to say, however much we disagree with him or her, and find the place where we can connect and build from there. What we build is the possibility of relationship rather than being stalled in suspicion or enmity.
I was powerfully reminded of this through Margaret’s and my recent participation in a Bexley-Seabury course called “Learning from London.” The course, which involved observing a number of Church of England congregations in north London and meeting with their clergy and lay leaders, provided insight into a diocese that has experienced a remarkable turnaround in its vitality over the last twenty years. You will be hearing more from me about this trip over the next few months, but right now I want to focus on how that turnaround has hinged on the spiritual practice of listening. Congregations that had long isolated themselves from the neighborhoods that surrounded them – many of them dangerous and violent – began re-engaging. They did so simply by asking their neighbors who they were, what they hoped for, what they needed, and how the church could help. Now, listening effectively and patiently is not easy. But over time this deeply spiritual practice has yielded solid relationships, and this in turn has yielded a reduction in violence. It has also restored the local church to a position of servant leadership to all the people around it, be they Christian, Muslim, or completely estranged from religion in any form.
I was disturbed several years ago by a flurry of articles declaring that the human species was essentially violent. There are surely good reasons for thinking this, but I don’t think this view squares well with Christian faith or Christian experience. Certainly, we mustn’t discount human sin. But the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament are adamant that God created us for life-giving relationship, and in our heart of hearts, however much we have been bruised and brutalized, our desire is for peace, not enmity.
Here’s an example from modern-day Israel. I subscribe to a weekly Roman Catholic-based news bulletin called Fair Witness, which tries to provide balanced updates on what is happening on the Israeli-Palestinian scene. The bulletin divides its reports into “good news” and “bad news.” Just yesterday I read the following piece, entered as “good news.” It touched me.
“It happens every night. After dark, the Syrian wounded come to known locations on the Israel-Syria front in the Golan Heights, driven by desperation to seek help from an enemy army. Israeli soldiers on lookout or patrol spot them waiting by the fence and whisk them away to a rear position where army medics soon arrive, according to army officials operating in the area that was seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war….. ‘We’re doing everything we can to save their lives, to stabilize them and evacuate them to hospital,’ said [Israel Defense Forces] Captain Aviad Camisa, deputy chief medical officer of the Golan brigade…. ‘Some of the stories stir your emotions. When children come, as a father, it touches me personally.’ Millions have fled and hundreds of thousands have been killed in Syria’s conflict, which shows only fitful signs of being resolved. The trail to Israel is full of risks. Those who spoke to Reuters at Ziv Medical Center in Safed, northern Israel, did so freely but asked not to be identified or have their faces photographed or filmed for fear of retribution back home…. One man, his legs pierced by shrapnel, survived a bomb attack in his village in which 23 people were killed. ‘In the past we used to know Israel as our enemy. That’s what the regime used to tell us,’ he said. ‘When we came to Israel we changed our minds, there is no enmity between us.’”
The seeds of enmity are sown within us, but the spirit of peace is stronger. Let us practice peace, first by listening to one another in our congregations, and by inviting conversation about things on which we might disagree. Then let us take that conversation into the neighborhoods that surround us, listening with every fiber of our being. That is Christian non-violence on the ground.