Brave, thought-provoking, heart-felt posts from A Church For Starving Artists , The Blue Room Blog , and the Political Theology Blog , have encouraged me to share reflections on the theme of violence and Holy Week via a sermon I preached several years ago during a Maundy Thursday Worship Service at a church I served in Maryland.
As I read the news earlier this week about deadly workplace shootings at Atlanta’s CNN Center and the University of Washington’s Seattle campus, my mind immediately recalled the murder of my friend Bonkey Nezeriah McCain that occurred 15 years ago in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.
Bonkey was at the local Pizza Hut with other members of the Shades Valley High School football team, celebrating their Friday night victory over a rival high school. As the players were leaving the restaurant to head home, a car drove by and a teenage hand reached out of the window with a gun and shot into the crowd. Although he wasn’t the intended target, Bonkey received a barrage of bullets to the chest. He died hours later in the hospital.
Bonkey and his family were active members of Shades Valley Presbyterian Church where I grew up. We became friends in youth group. Bonkey was a gentle, kind and talented guy who always had a huge smile on his face. Bonkey’s death struck a huge blow within he hearts of his family, friends, church, high school and community. It particularly jolted me because it was the first time I have ever known someone who died from an act of violence. The tragedy opened my eyes to see that deaths like Bonkey’s happen all the time, and that the blood of innocence is spilled very day in our streets and neighborhoods.
I have kept the experience of Bonkey’s death very close to my heart for many years, especially when I worked as a reporter at the Birmingham Post-Herald after graduating from college. Covering the police beat took me to the scenes of many senseless shootings and in the homes of many grieving families. Those experiences enabled me to be a pastor–to not just share other people’s stories but be a part of their story. God was calling me to be a source of comfort and to guide others in their life stories–in times of joy and tragedy, love and loss.
As a pastor and Christian, I believe deep down in my heart that God’s love prevails over violence and death and that God’s love shines as a light into the darkness of the world. I know that God’s love and grace for humanity and all of creation is unconditional and steadfast. I’ve seen so many wonderful examples of God’s power in my life. And yet it’s what I precisely know about God’s love for us that makes me shake my head when I hear stories about senseless acts of violence.
There are those times, however, when I have great doubts about humanity because of the way we as a human race have responded to God’s love throughout history. As Satan tells Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in a 1999 movie about Christ’s life: “Killing for Christ will be a big business through the centuries… You’re dying, your agony will give them another reason to kill and torture each other.” (Satan says these things as visions of the Crusades and World War I appear behind them.
We know this to be true; killing for Christ has become a big business! Jesus’ death and agony have given humankind other reason to kill and torture. But the reason is not, as Satan claims, the fault of God in Christ Jesus. No, it is our fault; it is our sin, our greed, our selfishness, our failure to recognize our own faults and to accept others who are different from us.
Just thing for a moment of all the killing that has been done and continues to be done in God’s name–the Holocaust; the lynching of black men, women and children during the 50s and 60s; the Jim Jones massacre; the war in Iraq; the genocide in Darfur; the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts; the Serbian conflict…
And if we’re not killing and violently harming others in the name of God, we’re doing it with no regard for God and the world God created. Just this week alone:
two women were killed in deadly workplace shootings in Georgia and Washington state
a woman was shot and stabbed by her estranged husband at a fast food restaurant in Louisiana
a 2-year-old girl was killed in a drive-by shooting in Kansas
a 40-year-old woman was killed in a drive-by shooting in Prince George’s County
11 plant workers were killed by a gunmen in Northern Iraq
a woman in the United Kingdom had her ear bitten off by her abusive boyfriend
And if we’re not acting out in violence, we’re endorsing it, even and maybe especially Christians. Often we hear preachers and church members of various denominations talk about Jesus vanquishing the unbelieving infidels of other countries with a sword or god dishing out wrath in the forms of tornadoes on “sinful communities” or deadly diseases on “sinful people.” Look up images of Jesus on the Internet, and you will find several depicting Jesus carrying a .35 on a street corner or holding a rifle in a desert landscape.
How quickly we forget why Jesus came in the fist place. How quickly we forget that Jesus came to spread God’s love rather than to justify our hate. The disciples, after sharing a last meal with their teacher, also quickly forgot the reason why Jesus is there among them. Not long after Jesus shares bread and cup, symbols of the suffering he will endure for humanity, a disciple breaks the body of another–draws his sword and cuts off the ear of one of the Roman soldiers who has come with Judas to arrest Jesus. The disciple is likely wrapped up in the idea that Jesus will be a king who violently overthrows the Roman oppressors.
But Jesus, who has spoken constantly in his ministry about resisting evil and the desire to do violence, says to the disciples (in the reading from Matthew’s Gospel): “Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus utters the same command but with the following addendum: “Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me.”
The disciple, while rightly angry at the soldiers and protective of his teacher who is about to be arrested, beaten and crucified, has forgotten Christ’s words at the table. Although drawing the sword may be justifiable in this situation and the easy way to get out of this mess in the garden, it is not Jesus’ way. Jesus tells the disciple:
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 this way?
Jesus, who is both human and divine, has all the power and right in the world to call upon God to send down armies of sword-carrying angels to wipe out the Roman Empire. In an instant, Jesus could’ve made it happen. He could’ve–as Satan tries to convince him in the TV film I mentioned earlier–ended it all by asking God to take him up to heaven from the garden of Gethsemane.
But Jesus doesn’t appeal to God to send armies of angels nor does he forget how God’s purposes must be fulfilled. Jesus knows his cup can not pass before him, that it must be drunk and spilled for the love of humanity and the freedom from sin. Jesus says int he film, shortly before he is betrayed by Judas, “I’m in the hearts of man and I will die for the everlasting kindness of the human heart created by my Father so men will make God’s image shine once again.”
In the betrayal scene from the movie Color of the Cross, which we viewed clips of during the Agape Meal we partook in earlier this evening, Jesus says to the disciple who cuts the ear of the soldier, “The prophecy must be fulfilled. I will come quietly.” Jesus then bends down and heals the soldier’s ear as it is recorded in Luke’s Gospel.
The prophecy must be fulfilled God’s way, Jesus’ way–the loving, suffering, non-violent way, the only way. A way vastly different from our own. And the way begins at the table and with the words of Christ who tells us that his body will be broken for us and his blood will be spilled for us. Not the blood of others, but Jesus’ blood. And it is at this table that we acknowledge and proclaim, not death’s victory over Christ, but God’s nonviolent victory through Christ’s death. Biblical scholar Walter Wink reminds us:
The last supper celebrates Jesus’ nonviolent breaking of the spiral of violence by absorbing its momentum with his own body…Jesus clearly rejected the military option as a way to redress Jewish grievances. He refused to lead troops in war against Rome, or defend his own cause by violent means… Throughout the history of his people’s violent and nonviolent struggle for survival, Jesus discovered a way of opposing evil without becoming evil in the process.
Let us come to this table on the night of Jesus’ last meal, Jesus betrayal and Jesus’ nonviolent resistance to those who arrested him. Let us come remembering and celebrating Jesus’ nonviolent breaking of the spiral of violence that humanity has committed, is committing and will commit after the bread is broken and the cup is poured. Let us come knowing that the spiral, no matter how dizzying it becomes, has been broken, is broken and will be broken by Christ’s suffering and death so that the world might be whole again.
In the name of the suffering and broken servant Jesus Christ our Lord who says it can only happen this way,
“Color of the Cross,” 2006
“The Powers That Be by Walter Wink, 1999
“Lanham Woman Hit By A Stray Bullet Mourned, Funeral Held,” March 24, 2007
“Man Bites Off Partner’s Ear,” April 4, 2007, NW Evening Mail
“Man Accused of Killing Wife At Job,” April 4, 2007, KATC 3 News
“Girl Injured in Drive-By-Shooting Dies,” April 5, 2007, Kansas City Star
“Workplace Shootings,” April 5, 2007, CNN.com