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Jesus Answers the Headline News: Peace

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. - John 3:16

A few months ago, my son Matthew and I were sitting in the kitchen over breakfast as I was scrolling through the news and reading him the headlines.

“Serial Killer Found Nabbed in Long Island.”

“Shooting Kills Four at Party in Houston.” 

“Viral Video Shows Cops Attack Unarmed Man.”

“Man on the Run Kills Four, Including a Mother, Her Child and a Policemen.” 

Without looking up from his phone Matt said, “Stop doom scrolling, Dad. They’re just baiting you.” I had never heard the phrase, but I immediately knew what he meant. Each article clicked on felt like another layer of doom. I know there is a heaviness in my heart and many of yours. We have to take the news in small doses or else the doom and evil present in the world overwhelms us. The reality of war in the Ukraine and Israel, mass shootings in this country, chaos in Haiti, kidnapping of 300 children in Nigeria sears our souls. We can scarcely imagine what leads people to commit such horrors.  

It can be so debilitating that we can be forgiven for thinking we are in the worst of times. But the reality is that, according to evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, “…violence has declined sharply since the birth of the human race…Compared to our hunter-gatherer days, or the Middle Ages, our chances of dying by violent crime or as the result of war are miniscule.”

In fact, in some ways the very fact that we are so appalled by violence as a means to an end is great progress. As Dr. Pinker observed, “Our awareness of the rest of the world -- greater now than ever before -- cultivates empathy and makes us more likely to help than hurt other populations.”

And I believe this is due in no small part to Jesus’ answer the age-old headline of hatred, violence, and war, “turn the other cheek.” Jesus taught us to not respond to violence with violence but peace. He taught us to see anyone and everyone as your neighbor, even your enemy. He showed us how to forgive; He taught us how to defeat evil, not through the strength of our arms but the depth of our sacrifice and love.               

Jesus, who lived in a world filled with violence, had more than lofty goals. He gives us concrete commands. He had a very specific pattern for teaching about and responding to acts of violence.

When Jesus unfurled the scroll of Isaiah amongst others, He chose to read the words, “Set the prisoners free.” I don’t imagine Jesus simply had the idea that we should literally open the doors of all the prisons. Rather, set them free. 

There is evidence that incarceration is strongly correlated to poverty. We know Jesus worked to bring good news to the poor, and part of this good news was to free them from the debilitating effects of poverty, which can lead to desperate acts.

Last month there was a discussion at the U.N., “A Human Dignity and Faith Perspective on the Eradication of Poverty as one of the Main Root Causes of Incarceration in the World”.  

Here is a description of that event:

Each of the speakers spoke from their perspective to a filled-to-the-maximum audience of professionals in this area, about how so much of crime is rooted in the effects of poverty, and racism, on people and society – little or no access to medical and mental health care, unsafe neighborhoods, substandard schools / education, poor housing conditions, lack of jobs, the list is long. Many people who find themselves in the carceral system were failed by society long before they ever committed a crime.  

Brick members were at this event. Brick Church is working to combat poverty which prayerfully will work to curb the environments which foster violence. It means bringing dignity to all people no matter their station in life. It means helping to create pathways for people to experience hope in the bleakest of places.  

And yet, clearly there is more to the cause of violence than poverty and more to Jesus’words than iron bars. Setting free means so much more.   

Jesus had followers who wanted a violent uprising, but His goal was not to establish a political realm but a heavenly kingdom shaped realm. It would not come through laws and procedures but by love and sacrifice. At that conference on incarceration, they observed that prisons with a faith element exceeded others in reducing recidivism.  

Jesus taught disciples to stop the cycle of violence and forgive. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus’ famously challenges us, You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

Let me begin unpacking this verse by making something clear, Jesus does not intend these words to allow an abuser to continue abusing another. It is not a universal principle. Rather He means to expand our notions of justice. And eye for an eye sounds harsh but at its inception, thousands of years ago, known as lex talions it was an improvement. If you were a rich landowner and your servant stole a loaf of bread you could cut off his hand. An eye for an eye moved the world into greater equality.  

But Jesus’ followers have a greater responsibility to end the spiral. Turning the other cheek not only stems the violence, it confronts the aggressor with a new way of responding. 

Thus, Jesus tells Peter at his arrest:

"Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?"

It’s a rather curious phrase Jesus used in referring to the crucifixion, “It must happen this way.”

Why must it? Why must Jesus die a violent death? It sounds as one theologian explained, “…that God the father, is the supernatural shylock demanding a pound of flesh.”  This could not be further from the truth.

Rather, it must happen because Jesus truly believed in turning the other cheek. Jesus knew that if He kept speaking the truth people would kill Him. And He was not going to stop speaking the truth.

He could not run forever. For His plan was to change us within, to change our love for violence with love of others. 

I have referenced it many times and I will reference it again. Mark’s gospel tells us that upon Jesus’ death, His murderer and His enemy, a centurion guard, declared, “Truly this man was God’s son.” That guard found God in Jesus’ sacrifice of love. It changed his heart.

Turning the other cheek was not mere strategy. It is an act of love.

While there are social factors that need to be addressed, ultimately all violence has its root in a spiritual deficit, either within individuals or within society. In response to 911, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, wrote these words, which still apply today:

When violence becomes so prevalent throughout the planet, it's too easy to simply talk of "deranged minds." We need to ask ourselves, "What is it in the way that we are living, organizing our societies, and treating each other that makes violence seem plausible to so many people?"

We may tell ourselves that the suffering of refugees and the oppressed have nothing to do with us--that that's a different story that is going on somewhere else. But we live in one world, increasingly interconnected with everyone, and the forces that lead people to feel outrage, anger and desperation eventually impact on our own daily lives.

It’s true, but not enough, to say that the current violence is a reflection of our estrangement from God. More precisely, it is the way we fail to respond to each other as embodiments of the sacred.

When we look into the eyes and another and see the face of God no matter how dim its presence is, we can only respond with love.

On September 6, 2018, in Dallas, Texas, a Caucasian police officer, Amber Guyer, was returning to her apartment when she found what she believed to be an intruder. In the dark and in fear, she murdered Botham Jean, an unarmed Afro-Caribbean man from the Island of St. Lucia. Only it wasn’t her apartment. It was his. Hers was three floors directly above. At her trial, Botham’s brother, 18-year-old Brandt Jean, said these words to his brother’s killer for all the world to see:

… I love you just like anyone else. And I'm not gonna say I hope you rot and die just like my brother did but I presently want the best for you. And I wasn't going to ever say this in front of my family or anyone, but I don't even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you, because I know that's exactly what Botham would want you to do. And the best would be to give your life to Christ. I'm not going to say anything else. I think giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do. Again I love you as a person and I don't wish anything bad on you. I don't know if this is possible, but can I give her a hug, please? Please?

And then, unbelievably, the two embraced, their eyes filled with tears, for a full minute.

When we respond to violence through turning the other cheek it fills us with God’s love, like it did with Brandt Jean. And when that love touches others we pray it does the same, like we pray it changed Amber Guyer. And we trust that the path of Christ is the path that leads to peace within our hearts and for the world. Amen. 

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