As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
We had thought that ISIS could not do anything worse to horrify us and shock us, after all that they have already done. But who was not taken to a whole new level Friday by what they did in Paris? And that was just two days after the bomb they blew up in Beruit that killed over 40 people.
We stand with the people of France today. We stand with the people of Lebanon. We stand with all of the victims of violence. We stand with the millions who have uprooted their whole lives and families to flee from violence in the quest of a place of refuge.
Today also, we stand with the countless number of Muslims who have publicly denounced ISIS and their violence. It is not true, as some media outlets have falsely reported, that Muslims are not speaking out. They are. Here are some examples given by an article in Belief Net:
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has said that ISIS has “Nothing to do with Islam,” but has committed crimes “that cannot be tolerated.”
Arab League: “Strongly denounced” the “crimes against humanity” carried out by the so-called Islamic State.
Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, the country’s top religious authority, said that terrorism is anti-Islamic and said that groups like the Islamic State which practice violence are the “number one enemy of Islam.”
Yes, it is true that Islam does have an eschatology, that is, a version of the end times, that includes an apocalyptic battle. It is also true that the vast majority of Muslims do not believe they need to do anything at all to start that battle.
It is also true that many Christians today believe the eschatology of the “Left Behind” series of books, which understands Revelation literally, and think that our world will end with an apocalyptic Armageddon.
And yet, thankfully, even the benighted people who read and believe those books, and buy their literal version of Revelation do not think that they need to go out and start the battle. Some versions of Islam and some versions of Christianity are eerily similar in this respect.
Revelation does use battle imagery. The wrath of God get poured out and people die. There are four horsemen of the apocalypse, there are plagues, earthquakes, and a huge final battle.
I am, like so many people before me, including Calvin and Luther, uncomfortable with the book of Revelation and its violent imagery. Even though it is completely understandable that the struggle between good and evil, that Revelation describes, seems like an eternal war, and even though evil feels like an enemy that must be put to death, nevertheless, attacking violence with violence is deeply problematic.
All of us share the same conflicted sentiment that we find in the book of Psalms. We cry out against violence done to us, to our people, and we condemn the violent people like ISIS for being violent. “How long, O Lord?” we pray. But there is, within us all, a vengeance-bone that wants to fight back, to return blow for blow. An eye for an eye. Violence for violence. “Execute vengeance” we pray.
Brain scientists and evolutionary biologists can tell us where these violent urges come from. We evolved to survive. Survival meant fighting off predators that we could not flee from. The urge to be violent is now in our instincts. It comes from our “lizard brain.” It is primitive. It comes from a place in our brains that has nothing to do with reasoning or judgment. It is simply reactive and impulsive.
It is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that people accept a violent response to violence as a given. The ones calling us to reason, that is, to use a place in our brains that has the capacity to make moral judgment, seem to be the odd ones. But they include the likes of Jesus. And it is Jesus whom we seek to follow.
You could be forgiven for imagining that Jesus lived in bucolic settings and in peaceful times. But nothing could be further from the truth. In Roman-occupied Palestine, many people were actively preparing for revolution.
They had plenty of reasons. The Romans were brutal. They crucified people by the thousands if they resisted. They could be like ISIS on steroids.
But Jesus was completely opposed to the Jewish rebel struggle. Jesus rejected violence as a solution to violence.
By the time Mark wrote down the story of Jesus’ life, some scholars believe, the revolution had already begun. It has been suggested that Mark wrote his gospel in a year of pause in the fighting.
The Roman general, Vespasian, who had been sent to crush the Jewish revolt in the year 66, had to rush back to Rome because of the civil war going on there. When the dust settled in Rome, Vespasian was the new emperor. His son Titus finished the job of subduing the Jewish revolt in the year 70. Hundreds of thousands died. The temple was destroyed.
So, in Mark’s story of Jesus, we hear him say, as he looks at Jerusalem and the temple, from across the little valley, from the Mount of Olives,
“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Jerusalem had its “great buildings” – the palace, the temple; king Herod had spent years on renovations. They were lavish. And all of them were going to be rubble after the revolt.
Perhaps Jesus had a kind of prescience, but really, it did not take a prophet to see what the Romans would do in response to revolution; they would do what they always did.
But Jesus had an entirely different vision that guided him. He did not believe that Moses’ ethic of “an eye for an eye” was the last word.
Jesus never used the term “cycle of violence” but he intuited its meaning. He believed violence would continue unless and until someone stopped responding violently. He said, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword,” – violence in return only returns more violence. Unless and until someone stops the cycle. Jesus said,
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matt 5:9)
“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” (Matt 5:38)
“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt 7:12)
Martin Luther King Jr. learned non-violence from Jesus, saying,
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Called to Non-violence
I believe we are called to practice non-violence. This is not an exclusively Christian calling. Hindus and Buddhists call it Ahimsa, and place it at the very core of all yoga philosophy and practice. For them, it derives as a necessary corollary from the essential unity of all being.
Though our narratives differ, Christians trace all that exists back to one common source, God the creator. Our creation story in Genesis begins with human beings made in God’s image. The New Testament’s Gospel of John begins with the logos, the divine Word which is the source of everything.
Remarkably, and nearly unbelievably, this one Logos, John says, took on human flesh and dwelt among us. The idea that God could so embrace humanity as to share human skin and bones says that to God, humans matter. Life matters. It is no small thing to do violence to a human.
The vision of the Gospel is a vision of shalom; a world reconciled. It is the vision of the prophet Isaiah, of “swords beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.”
Even Though it Works
Nonviolence has always been a hard-sell. Even though Grandi was successful in convincing enough people to use it, that the British eventually left India, the brutal war that followed, as Pakistan broke away, showed how strong the urge to violence is, even in people who had seen non-violence work.
Even though the civil rights movement here in America produced so many positive results as Dr. King led non-violent sit-ins, boycotts and freedom riders, people still resort to violence.
Even though the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ended the cycle of violence the Apartheid system had created in South Africa, avoiding a massive race war, people still today treat advocates of non-violence as soft-headed, impractical dreamers.
I confess, I have no ready solutions to the violence of ISIS. But I do know that each time we try to bomb our way to solutions in the middle East, things only get worse.
I do know, however, that violence begins on a personal level. Each of us has that lizard brain that loves to fight, that enjoys vengeance, that responds instinctively to threats with counter-threats.
So, though I do not have a global strategy, I do have a personal one. I believe we are all called to seek a non-violent path of life. Because this is not our instinct, we have to learn non-violence. We have to be spiritually formed in the practices that promote non-violence.
Personally we believe in being practitioners of the Jesus way. That means we believe in the necessity of practicing forgiveness, just as we have been forgiven. That means that we turn the other cheek when we are wronged. That means that we practice personal disciplines that enable us to grow in peacefulness, like meditation, contemplative prayer, yoga, and mindfulness.
We pray for our enemies, as Jesus taught us. Our goal is not vengeance, it is rather reconciliation. Justice, for us, is not retribution, but restoration. We long for the world of shalom, the peaceable kingdom in which the lion and lamb lie down together. We long for a world that is not us or them, but us for them, as Gungor’s song proclaims.
This is the vision that this community gathers to proclaim; that the God who made us calls us to love each other the way God loves us. Our prayer is simply, may your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth. God’s will, is peace.