Christmas Re-Imagined:
God's Response to Violence

Violence - Brian Stauffer.jpg

First Sunday After Epiphany • January 7, 2018
Baptism of the Lord Sunday

Recommended Readings: Matthew 2:1-18

          Herod the Great was a bad man. He was also known as Herod the Wicked. Some historical writers have designated him a paranoid sociopath. He had one of his brothers drowned because he thought the Romans might favor him to be their puppet king of the Jews. He executed one of his ten wives and her mother when he suspected them of plotting against him. Near the end of his life he had three of his sons murdered. In his last days, as he lay on his deathbed, fearful that the people would celebrate his demise, he rounded up dozens of prominent Jewish leaders and had them slated for execution so that the people would have something to cry about upon his death. So, it wasn’t a big leap for Herod to order the slaughter of a dozen or so male children under the age of two in a small town near the holy city to eliminate a possible rival. Violence was a way of life for him. While Herod is an extreme example, his actions tell us a lot about the sources of human violence. He was super-protective of his power, privilege, and wealth. He was also very narcissistic, fearful, insecure, and very anxious about how people viewed him. Aren’t contemporary sources of violence still much the same? Isn’t domestic violence often about defending male power and privilege? The violence perpetrated in racially-biased policing and the criminal justice system serves to defend white power and privilege, and even, to an extent, the self-esteem of many whites. And the nearly continuous wars carried out by the United States or its surrogates since the 1960s are also aimed at defending the power, privilege, and wealth of the U.S. ruling class. Now, tell me, doesn’t Herod remind you of the current occupant of the Oval Office? Like Herod, He’s also very paranoid, narcissistic,  and insecure. He has a very big button and wants to make sure everyone knows how smart and powerful he is. 

          God’s response to our human violence is always to oppose it. Moreover, God never responds to our violence with violence or coercion. Now, I perhaps some of you thinking, “that is not how God is presented in the Bible.” That is true – partially. In fact, the Bible seems to present contradictory portrayals of God. On the one hand, God is often portrayed as angry and inflicting punishment on God’s people when they get out of line. Psalm 11, for example, declares, “God tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates the lover of violence” and, in the very next sentence, states, “On the wicked God will rain coals of fire and sulfur; a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.” God’s wrath is shown nowhere more violently than when God wipes out the whole of humanity except for Noah and his family. Moreover, God is often presented as endorsing human violence, as when God approved the slaughter of the Canaanites so the Israelites could take over their land. I am convinced that all of this violence or endorsement of violence on God’s part was the result of the authors and editors of the Bible projecting onto God and providing divine cover for our own human tendency toward evil and violence.

          Moreover, such portrayals of God are strongly countered elsewhere. The scriptures repeatedly state that God is merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. And, in the mouths of the prophets, God takes very clear and repeated stands against violence. Listen to two among numerous examples: 

Jeremiah 22:3
Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.

Habakkuk 2.5-13
Wealth is treacherous; the arrogant do not endure. They open their throats wide as Sheol; like Death they never have enough. They gather all nations for themselves, and collect all peoples as their own…. How long will you load yourselves with goods taken in pledge?… Because you have plundered many nations, all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you – because of human bloodshed, and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them. The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork. “Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed, and found a city on iniquity!”

          Habakkuk’s description sounds like our own nation, doesn’t it? – a nation built on genocidal bloodshed against Native peoples, the horrific enslavement of millions of Africans, the vicious and continuing exploitation of labor, and the continuing oppression of people of color, a nation that does violence to the earth – always with the primary purpose of stealing the wealth and resources for a few. 

          If we are to see God’s nonviolence, we need to account for more than just what we read in the Bible. We need to understand God through our own experience of the divine. Yes, human violence makes God very angry but, if God practices violence and retribution against those who carry out evil, injustice, and oppression, why did God not stop Herod from killing the innocent male children in Bethlehem? Why did God not prevent human slavery from ever arising? Why does God not punish, in every instance, domestic abusers, rapists, white supremacists, police who gun down unarmed people of color, greedy business leaders, warmongers, and corrupt politicians? It is because, while God opposes all forms of violence, but God responds with persuasion, inspiration, and love to try to turn us away from our violent ways. God is love, so God can only use nonviolent and non-coercive means to counter our violence. We know that from what we can observe with our own eyes and feel with our own spirits about the way God works in the world.

          God understands that violence can never end violence. The use of violence only fosters more violence in return. We have witnessed this vicious cycle for thousands of years of human history, yet most of humanity seems not to have learned the lesson. As Martin Luther King Jr. said so well, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence… Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

          We cannot talk about God’s response to violence separate from our own. Because God’s response focuses on getting us to challenge the violence within and around us. God strenuously and persistently call us to a different way – the way of nonviolence, the way of love and justice. God provides us with a vision of a new way of being in relationship with God and our fellow human beings that we sometimes refer to as the kin-dom of God. We call it a kin-dom and not a kingdom both to make clear our opposition to any schema that props up patriarchy and misogyny and also to make very clear that this realm is centered on kinship – on relationships with siblings founded on mutual love, respect, compassion, and a desire to understand one another. The kin-dom of God is radically nonviolent. It is a peaceable kin-dom. Listen to one of the many powerful ways the prophet Isaiah described it:

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind…. [My people] shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord – and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox…. They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord. [1]

This vision – God’s vision – of the kin-dom seeks the restoration of the fundamental wholeness and goodness of the creation. Whenever this wholeness is disrupted by hatred, racism, abuse, exploitation, or violence against people, animals, or the earth, God tries to bring us to our senses to heal the brokenness and restore wholeness and well-being. Whenever our relationships are damaged or torn asunder, God intervenes to try to bring us back into right relationship – that is, relationship centered on love.

          Now, let’s get real. This way of nonviolence is very hard. First, it’s dangerous. In the face of violence toward us, we are called to act with nonviolent resistance and love. And some violent people will take advantage of that. Sometimes the potential for violence is so dangerous, we just have avoid it. That idea came to me in a letter from our member John Flake, who is in Federal prison. He reminded me that in today’s scripture lesson the response of Jesus’ family was to flee. “In prison,” John wrote, “I have learned to simply get out of the way of people who are full of anger and violence. They are often full of rage that has nothing to do with me.” We know that many have lost their lives or given their lives in pursuit of a nonviolent way of being, including, ultimately, Jesus himself. 

          To live nonviolently, we have to learn to resist responding in kind. We have to accept God’s call to see even our worst enemies as also our siblings – children of the same God. That means we have to treat Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Mitch McConnell, and all the rest as siblings – very misguided siblings – but siblings nonetheless. The corollary is that whenever we hate them, whenever we feel violent impulses against them or wish them harm, we do violence to the wholeness and goodness of the world that God desires and, in fact, we do violence against God.

          Another way nonviolence is hard is that violence can be very attractive. And the more we allow ourselves to engage in it or fantasize about it, the more it sinks its claws into us. And that is true not only for those with power, privilege, and wealth. The resort to violence can be very attractive to those who have suffered oppression or abuse for a long time. 

          If you are like me, maybe you have your own love-hate relationship with violence. I confess that I really struggle with a total commitment to nonviolence. I am sympathetic to the many clergy and lay persons who rallied against the white supremacists in Charlottesville last year and said afterward they were very glad the militant anti-fascists were there to protect their peaceful protest. If I had been there, I would have wanted to join the antifas. Our impulse to violence – even if it is defensive violence – arises frequently and at a very personal level. I hope I could resist it in most circumstances, but I tell you very honestly, if it came down to it, I would have a hard time not resorting to violence to protect myself, or Diane, or any of you. 

          Therein lies my struggle – in my belief that God does, in fact, call us to an absolute commitment to nonviolent action in the face of violence. Jesus is our model for this way of living. He preached the demands of love and nonviolence this way:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you…. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as God is merciful.” [2]

And Jesus practiced what he preached. He lived a life of nonviolent resistance to evil, injustice, prejudice, and callous disregard for suffering. He risked his reputation and his life repeatedly. He knew it was dangerous to go to Jerusalem, but he was committed to speaking the truth in love and to challenging the violence of those in power. When soldiers came to arrest him, he did not resist and when one of his followers drew a sword in his defense, Jesus said, “Put your sword away; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” He did not call for violence or berate his accusers and executioners. Instead, he forgave them. This is God’s response to violence. This is exactly why I love Jesus so much and why I find it so hard to follow him. May God give all of us the strength, courage, and determination to pursue together the peaceable kin-dom. 


[1] Isaiah 65:17, 22-25 (NRSV)

[2] Luke 6:27-36