The Vice of Revenge

Gary Younge’s recent editorial in The Guardian looks back on collective American attitudes and behaviors since September 11, 2001.  Many of the points he makes are strikingly similar to those I made in a sermon on September 11, 2005, despite the fact that six years separate the two commentaries and that his betrays no religious conviction.  His piece leaves me wondering whether my 2005 sermon is still applicable today and if so, why.  The following is an abridged version of the sermon, preached at a United Methodist Church in central Virginia.  No homily I have delivered before or since has provoked as much congregational response as this one, which offers a distinctively Christian vision for active nonviolent responses to injustice.

There is a lot of wisdom in never saying anything political from the pulpit.  You can keep congregations happy if you always tell them what they want to hear, or at least tell them what they already believe.  But we disagree so much on politics that there will always be at least one person who doesn’t care much for the political stance of the preacher.  And to be honest, I do not think that it is appropriate for me to stand up here and put forth my political views.  This is not my soapbox; this is Christ’s pulpit.  But herein lies a problem, because the gospel of Jesus Christ is inherently political.  Most scholars and historians agree that the Romans executed Jesus because his political message threatened the established order of the day.  Today we will be talking about an appropriate Christian response to the world-changing events that took place four years ago today.  Today religion meets politics, as uncomfortable as that makes all of us.

For my generation, the most life-altering moment to date has been the terrorist attacks in the eastern United States on September 11th, 2001.  As I am sure is the case with most of you, I remember exactly where I was when the catastrophic events unfolded.  I was in college at the time in upstate New York.  When my clock radio turned on early that Tuesday morning, I was more than half asleep through the newscast.  Someone said something about a plane having possibly crashed into one of the buildings of the World Trade Center.  I pictured in my mind a small single-engine plane that had wandered off course and wrecked against the side of the colossal, indestructible building.  I didn’t think much of it as I stretched, yawned, and got ready to make the trek to campus.  As I approached I began to hear the chatter.  Something big had happened.  I ran to the student center, where there was a large television room.  I walked in to find several hundred students already there, eyes glued to the television.  I stared at the screen and saw an enormous fireball on the side of each of the Twin Towers.  Within seconds of my arrival, the first tower lost its structural integrity and disintegrated into a nothingness of rubble and death.

Something about that collapse triggered an emotion in me that I have rarely felt.  I was enraged.  I was blinded by bloodlust and the overwhelming desire to see this calamity visited ten times over on those who had perpetrated this murder.  O, how very powerful is the human instinct to avenge our injuries.

I will say right away that my understanding of history and warfare is limited to what I can read in books and what has taken place during my own lifetime.  I cannot pretend to know how I would have dealt with, or preached about, the great American conflicts of the past through which many of you have lived and suffered.  Today I will only be speaking about the global response to September 11th.

Please also do not misconstrue any of my comments as treasonous or anti-American.  I am a firm believer in the constitutional ideal and in the transcendent multiculturalism in the American spirit.  I have twice taken an oath to protect the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  I am an American through and through and find a lot of hope in America’s potential in the world.  But I do not speak from this pulpit as an American; I speak as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  And when my loyalty to Jesus conflicts with my nationalist and imperialist urges, I have no choice but to take the Christian stance.

Our scriptures today both discuss the consequences of shedding human blood.  Let us look at them again.  Our Genesis story takes place when Noah and his sons begin to repopulate the land following the great flood.  God speaks to Noah about the sanctity of life.  Noah is told that humans may eat meat if they would like, but they are to regard all life as sacred.  Then God expounds upon the consequences of taking human life.  Each living thing, human or other animal, that takes the life of another will be accountable for that killing.  God states emphatically, “I will require a reckoning for human life.  Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.”  When I was a child I frequently got in trouble for breaking the plants in my mother’s garden with golf balls, horseshoes, and soccer balls.  The plants were not mine in the first place to toy with, so when I killed them, I was destroying something with which I had no right messing.  God says that human beings are made in the image of God, not the image of more powerful human beings.  So when more powerful human beings kill less powerful human beings, they trespass against God.

Jesus says something similar in our familiar passage from Matthew 26.  He is counting down the final hours of his life, having just emerged from his gut-wrenching experience in Gethsemane.  From the early morning mist emerge scribes, priests, an armed mob, and Judas Iscariot.  Judas approaches his master and gives him the kiss of death; the guards move forward to arrest Jesus.  One of the disciples is carrying a sword, and realizes that this is not a moment for pacifism.  This is a moment for action; the entire course of Jesus’ cause rests upon someone doing something to prevent this defeat.  If Jesus is arrested and executed, then the whole movement has been for nothing, thinks the impulsive disciple.  So he draws his sword and swings it viciously at the oncoming enemy.  He catches the high priest’s slave on the side of the head, cutting off his ear.  But before the apocalyptic fight gets a chance to go any farther, Jesus puts an end to it.  Apparently, he does not want to be rescued.  The gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus now performs the last miracle of his life – he heals the servant’s ear.  Then he makes clear his stance on violence.  “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?”  Jesus found victory in surrendering his life to his enemies, not in attacking them or even in defending himself.

Jesus’ disciple did not understand the way of the cross; he only understood the way of the sword.  My sisters and brothers, Christianity is about taking up one’s cross, not about taking up one’s sword.  And the two are mutually exclusive.  In fact, in the early Church, if a Roman soldier wanted to become a Christian, he was often required first to quit his job.  I dare say that most of us, myself included, prefer the way of the sword to the way of the cross.  But for Jesus Christ and the Church, victory is found in nonviolence and meekness, not in war and dominance.  We are victorious in God’s eye when we turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us.

But how did we as a society respond to September 11th?  We acted on that primal urge for revenge, for justice, for retribution.  We rained fire down upon the people of Afghanistan, then leveled our sights on Iraq.  We as Christians largely bought into the rhetoric of justification.  First we were told that Saddam Hussein was tied to al-Qaʿeda.  And we believed it.  Why?  Because we wanted a fight.  When that turned out to be a faulty premise, we were told that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.  And we believed it.  Why?  Because we still wanted a fight.  When that also turned out to be untrue, we were told that we were had a moral duty to liberate the Iraqi people.  Well, sure, I believe in democratic ideals.  I certainly do not think that Hussein was fit to rule that nation.  But the problem is that we as a church believed that violence and warfare were the solution.  We confused democracy for the gospel and the American flag for the cross.  Memorial Day blurs with Good Friday.  And as the United States brought the sword to the Iraq, most Christians did very little to oppose it.  In fact, many Christians endorsed it.  Now, four years after September 11th, the only thing that we have learned is that it is better to kill than to be killed.

Most of us are at least vaguely aware that more than two thousand coalition troops to date have perished in the Iraqi conflict.  And we are pretty much all aware that untold thousands of resistance fighters also have been killed.  But how many of us knew that the invasion has caused the death of more than twenty-four thousand Iraqi civilians?  The military has a term for this shedding of innocent blood.  They call it “collateral damage.”  We shrug it off as the natural consequence of war: innocent people die.  Well God cautions us in our scripture today that we who take life, whether it be innocent life or culpable life, are eternally answerable for that slaughter.  And Jesus urges us to consider the Christian way of doing things.  War only begets war, violence only begets violence, and bloodshed only begets bloodshed.

When we buy into a rhetoric of nationalism, when we support and encourage military aggression, and when we fail to take an active, Christian stand in the name of peaceful alternatives to war, then we are complicit in our nation’s violence.  We are both Americans and Christians, but we are fooling ourselves if we tell ourselves that there is no difference between being a faithful American patriot and being a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.  As we conclude today, let me make this absolutely clear.  Revenge is not a Christian behavior.  Turning the other cheek is.  Preemptive striking is not a Christian behavior.  Giving others the benefit of the doubt it.  Spreading national ideologies is not a Christian behavior.  The love of Jesus Christ is the only thing that we spread to the corners of the earth, and this can never be done through any kind of violence.

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2 thoughts on “The Vice of Revenge

  1. We may share some conflicted feelings, although I come from a very different perspective. Surely non-violence is a basic human ethical response that requires no ancient book to justify. Reason, common sense, an interest in doing good. . .I would hope we could share these qualities. I wonder what you might make of my “Nine Eleven Eleven” piece I posted here:

    1. Hi Chris,
      Thanks for your offering; it is very moving. I particularly like the ecological motif which you weave through your piece. Yes, multiple traditions have a hunch that non-violence is ethically upright, which does suggest that it is a shared human instinct. I welcome the possibility of people with different creeds and worldviews working together — from their particular philosophical vantage points — to resist hegemony, exploitation, and injustice.

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