Death or Peace – Standing at the Crossroads

BREAKING THE RULES
June 28, 2024
Scapegoating Jesus
July 4, 2024
BREAKING THE RULES
June 28, 2024
Scapegoating Jesus
July 4, 2024

Like many people, I have been spending time reflecting and praying about our voracious capacity for war and our calls for peace.  I am concerned about the escalation of divisive and abusive rhetoric and the willingness to break our individual and community relationships violently and take revenge.  As fear rises collectively and individually, whipped up by those who are frightened and greedy, by nihilists and anarchists, by oligarchs, populists and tyrants, so does the demand for power and wealth grow at all costs.  We see a shift and loss of human compassion among leaders and the would-be powers and principalities of the world, as we seem to be sliding into a despising contempt, cynicism, rage and anger, a rejection of relationships with those who make us feel uncomfortable with no effort made for reconciliation and restoration, no tolerance for ambiguity or the unknown, and an increasing list of scapegoats as the rejected ‘others’ are profoundly, brutally, blamed, vilified and crucified. 

We are desperately concerned for humanity in how we are living and dying.  Yet, the description just laid out is not true for most people.  We care about those on the front line of wars, both innocent civilians and the soldiers; we are increasingly aware of how the world is convulsing with violence as unmoral untruths are perpetuated.  And in Australia, we are not immune or safe with the level of terrorism inflicted through family and domestic violence in our own homes; and, the centuries old, undeclared war with the First Nations People, never acknowledged, never ended. 

As Christians we are always invited to take a different path in peace, but it is one that challenges all of us and mostly we fail.  After watching the horrific images in the news about children being killed and traumatised, and our leaders continued apparent reluctance to say ‘enough’ for all deaths, we acknowledge our political willingness to see death as collateral damage in achieving our own nationalistic, or racial, supremacist desires or because of simple human selfishness caught up in an endless loop of despair.  In such reflections I remembered these words from Richard Fidler who described what the violence in the world looked like in his book ‘Ghost Empire’ in 2016:

Death demands more death, and a moral threshold is crossed.  This is one of those moments in history when psychopathic leaders gain the upper hand, and the normal human sanctions against killing disappear: the Jacobin terror of revolutionary France, Indonesia’s year of living dangerously, the Kristallnacht of the Nazis, the Rwandan massacres.  In such moments, death becomes as commonplace as eating and drinking.  Passionless political killing mutates into casual murder for pleasure, and something unravels as the sight of helpless people invokes not pity, but its opposite, a kind of smiling contempt.  The killing picks up momentum and corpses pile up until death has had its fill and can consume no more.’  (p.212)

Into this grim description which resonates loudly at this time, we remember with relief Jesus does not model such passivity as described by Fidler, that is complicit in unjust violence, either against Jesus or against other people.  Jesus’ own death is inherently unjust and violent.  Jesus chooses carefully, and strategically, to respond non-violently to the violent powers of religion and state.  His death is the inevitable consequence of him speaking truth to power.  However, Jesus does choose what will happen and when on his own terms.  He submits himself to the dreadful logic of Roman peace.  He absorbs the ferocity of human violence on the cross, carrying it all into his death where it is ended, rather than forever, being worked out through violent vengeance.  Jesus’ own power of love guides him, (Wood 2022:84) as he says:

I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it up again.  (John 10:18).

We are able to see this power of love being exercised by Martin Luther King Jr.  His teaching about nonviolence during the American Civil Rights movement captured and engaged many millions of people.  Inspired by Christ, protesters learned how to expose themselves strategically to violence without retaliating.   It required prayer, discipline and training to develop the courage and skills to do this. 

The same movement was evident with Gandhi in the long walk to independence for India. 

Mandela’s 27 years of imprisonment and commitment to forgiveness and nonviolence transformed the hearts of millions and helped avoid a bloodbath of retaliatory violence in the immediate aftermath of the pulling down of apartheid.  

Takashi Nagai was a Japanese doctor who became a Christian before WWII. After the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, his response to this horrific act was an extraordinary expression of faith.  Tens of thousands of people were killed including Takashi’s wife Midori.  Takashi, who was the Dean of Radiology at Nagasaki University, served and cared for the countless victims of the bomb explosion, even though it meant his own exposure to radiation which eventually led to his death. 

About three months after the explosion, Takashi Nagai organised a funeral mass in the ruined Cathedral in Nagasaki, and he was invited to give the address.  He told the people to offer their dead to God as a whole burnt sacrifice.   Many were shocked and hugely angered, but he urged people to stop the steady collective response of violence against one another, escalating and increasing the demands for death and vengeance. 

We can see the transformational power of this kind of nonviolent response from all who offer us examples, is a gift of the Spirit.  The peace of heart Takashi experienced by letting go the desire for death and vengeance as a Christian response to the violence, led him to this call.   

Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it and find rest for your souls.  Jeremiah 16:6

Nagai, standing at the crossroads of death, believed this interpretation with the fruits of the Holy Spirit, would bring great peace.  He said, ‘through this great sacrifice, peace was granted to the whole world and religious freedom to Japan.’  His act of forgiveness, restoration and peace, enabled the Spirit to transform the community through the crucifixion, God’s divine love was invited into the world, overcoming the evil of rivalry and death.

I was also reminded of the story of the Amish community, which on 2 October 2006 experienced a terrible tragedy.  Ten Amish girls were shot in their school house.  Five died and five survived – and in the hours that followed, their families bestowed their forgiveness. 

Public accounts tell how Charles Roberts, 32, a non-Amish local resident and milk truck delivery driver, entered the Amish school on the Monday morning, and after the teacher went to find help, he ordered the boys to leave and after threatening the girls with sexual violence, he shot the girls and finally turned the gun on himself.

The way the Amish community expressed forgiveness towards the killer and his family continues this gifting of the Holy Spirit. The Amish community donated money to the killer’s widow and her three young children.  Many members of the Amish community went to the killer’s burial service at the cemetery, and although they had just buried their daughters the day before, they hugged the widow and other members of the man’s family. 

The killer’s mother said:  I will never forget the devastation caused by my son.  But one of the fathers said to me, ‘none of us would ever have chosen this.  But the relationships we have built through it, you can’t put a price on it.’  Their choice to allow life to move forward was quite a healing balm for us.  I think it’s a message the world needs.’

The bereaved parents started to look at forgiveness as ‘the one good thing that can come out of this tragedy’.  With Charles Roberts dead, there was nowhere for the anger to go.  There had been no foreshadowing of his ghastly act.  He was known only as a loving husband and father, a good neighbour.

The Amish, as Christians, believe harbouring anger and resentment is not Christ’s way, is not holy and does not lead to peace.  They believe forgiveness must become part of each person’s character and way of life.  It is not something done only once.  In these circumstances they have discovered it’s a lifelong process, as grief catches up and the mourning weighs heavily.  The decision to forgive this terrible action was collective; the people involved chose to give up their vengeance and ‘selfish desires’ to God.  Instead, they have allowed their lives to be shaped by God, choosing to live in hope and deny violence its own response.

Each of these individuals take us back to the invitation by Jesus, to be peace makers in Jesus’ way.  We all know this Christian work of peace in communities is confronting, difficult, full of suffering and often leads to death, one way or another.  Paul talks about the body of Christ as a communion of different gifts. But it is also a communion of differing politics, strong options and perceptions for things about which people care deeply, and diverse cultural backgrounds and assumptions about race, sexualities and genders, about faiths and nationalities. 

Rabbi Johathan Sacks reminds us God has gifted us with the dignity of difference.  However, people will never always think like me or you, and each of us brings our own perspectives, ideas, priorities and experiences into the mix.  The Church though, has the potential to practice such work and to commit to and engage in, always, the difficult work of peace. 

We must always, in all places with everyone, discern Jesus in the midst of our differences. 

We must do so with humility, gentleness and patience, ‘bearing with one another in love’.  Eph.2:4-7

We must be imitators of God and live in love as God loved us. Eph.5:1-2

We must always be practicing and working for peace with God’s justice and righteousness, for wholeness and restoration; and with God’s love.  We must understand too how we also have been colonised to see particular perspectives and look for Jesus beyond such constraints, and remember how each person is unique in the eyes of God, created specifically by God, for God’s purposes and our destruction of their lives removes a unique part of God’s desire for the world and for us and we are diminished by this.

God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.  May we rekindle the gift of God within us.  Amen.  (2 Timothy 1:6-7)   

References

Fidler, R. 2016.  Ghost Empire. HarperCollins Publishers, Australia Pty Ltd.

Glynn, P.S.M.  1988.  A Song for Nagasaki.  Catholic Book Club of Australia Marist Fathers Books, Hunters Hill, NSW, Australia

Sachs, J.  2003.  The Dignity of Difference.  Bloomsbury Continuum Publishing Group.  UK.

Wood, M.J.  2022. Practicing Peace.  Theology, Contemplation, and Action.  Wipf & Stock.  Eugene, Oregon, USA.

The Holy Bible.  1989.  New Revised Standard Version.   Cokesbury, Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

Amish Story references:

https://www.npr.org/2007/10/02/14900930/amish-forgive-school-shooter-struggle-with-grief

https://www.npr.org/2016/09/30/495905609/a-decade-after-amish-school-shooting-gunman-s-mother-talks-of-forgiveness

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/02/amish-shooting-10-year-anniversary-pennsylvania-the-happening

Lucy Morris
Lucy Morris
Anglican Priest, International Speaker, Published Author, Social Justice Advocate and Activist.

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