Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Violence Begets Violence

This article was featured in today's parish newsletter at St. John's in Decatur, AL. If you would like to read the whole newsletter, please click here.

A few weeks ago—before Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri—I heard an interview on NPR of R. Gil Kerlikowske, Commissioner of the U. S. Customs and Border Patrol, who spoke about the recent use of deadly force in his agency. The part of the interview that really caught my ear was his recollection of a mistake he had made while serving as Chief of Police in Seattle, Washington. Having heard from his officers that they had felt underequipped during a hostile protest on the first anniversary of the World Trade Organization demonstrations, he went against his instincts and allowed them to “harden up” with full riot gear during a Mardi Gras celebration a few months later.

When the alcohol-infused crowd became raucous, things escalated more quickly, and a young man was killed. Of his decision, Kerlikowske said, “Well, to tell you the truth, it makes it pretty difficult, when you're talking from behind a face shield with a gas mask, to engage with the public and say, ‘Look, let's, let's tone this down. Let's calm things down…’ It's pretty hard to engage in those discussions when you're hardened up. I regret that today.” In other words, the crowd’s violent tendencies were exacerbated by the police, who, because of their riot gear, added to the tension rather than deescalated it.

Recently, I have read several pieces that clergypersons have written about the shooting of Michael Brown, the police’s response to the incident, and the community’s outrage over the death. Some of them draw clear conclusions about what happened and who is at fault. Others are more speculative, exploring the societal implications of the death of a young unarmed black man at the hands of a white police officer. My tendency is to trust that in time the truth about what happened eventually will come out, and thus far I have resisted the temptation to decide who is to blame, but I confess that I have already reached one conclusion: the violence will not stop.

In Matthew 26, we read that, after supper, Jesus and his disciples had gone to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. That night, Judas led a great crowd armed with clubs and swords to that place so that they might arrest Jesus. When confronted by the authorities, Peter took out his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. But his attempt to defend his master was thwarted by Jesus himself: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew makes it clear that a victory by force was within Jesus’ power—“Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”—but that was not the means by which God’s triumph would be declared. Instead, Jesus submitted to the violence that awaited him so that, through his death, God’s real victory might be achieved.

We live in a world where the powerful rule by force, but we worship a God who reigns through the power of peace. On the playground, bullies get their way by scaring the other children. In the streets, gangs control the community through intimidation. On the world’s stage, developed nations exert their will through economic and military might. But, in God’s kingdom, the meek inherit the earth; the righteous turn the other cheek; and the peacemakers are blessed.

In a bible study yesterday, someone asked that we pray for an end to the violence…and then he paused, not knowing how to put into a few words the long list of places where peace is absent. Indeed, violence seems to rule the day. We pray for peace in Ferguson, where protesters clash with police. We pray for peace in Gaza, where civilian casualties are mounting. We pray for peace in Syria, where fighting knows no limits. We pray for peace in Iraq, where religious militants are taking over parts of the country. We pray for peace in Ukraine, where nations seem ready to spill innocent blood. We pray for peace around the world—in every country, in every city, in every household.

Peace begins with us. We worship a God who demonstrated his might by choosing death on the cross, and we are called to take up our own cross and follow him. His example must be the pattern for our lives. The cross is not a weapon but a symbol of submission. If violence will ever cease, it must begin with us. We must put down our guns and knives and swords and clubs and tear gas and stones and instead wield the symbol of our faith as a sign of strength through weakness, power through powerlessness, and victory through defeat. Peace is not the business of diplomats or far-away governments. It is not the work of mediators in war-torn areas or negotiators in riotous communities. It is the work of the church. It is the work of the faithful. It is the work of you and me.

No comments:

Post a Comment