FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus, you are the city that shelters us, the mother who comforts us. With your Spirit accompany us on our life’s journey, that we may spread your peace in all the world, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” Luke 10:3.
We in the United States live in a culture steeped in violence. The culture of bloodshed permeates our popular literature, entertainment networks, advertising and, increasingly these days, our politics. The attack on our Capital following the 2020 election was not, as some would have us believe, an anomalous bleep on the radar. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, an expression of our national character. Our national creed is well expressed by Wayne Robert LaPierre Jr., CEO and executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (NRA) who famously reminds us that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Not to be out done, Colorado Republican congresswoman Lauren Boebert told an audience of conservative Christians that if only Jesus had had an AR-15, he could have prevented the Romans from executing him. Perhaps Boebert’s comment was only a lame attempt at humor. But that she felt comfortable making light of what to Christians is (or should be!) the central tenet of their faith to a Christian audience speaks volumes.
Into this increasingly violent culture, Jesus sends his disciples as lambs among wolves. That registers as lunacy to a people steeped in the myth of redemptive violence and the firm belief that, when push comes to shove, a violent response to evil is finally unavoidable. In the words of Kenny Rogers, “Sometimes you have to fight to be a man.” I was recently in a discussion with a fellow Christian who said to me, “those who beat their spears into plowshares wind up plowing the fields of those who keep their swords.” When I pointed out to him that his clever remark was actually mocking the words of the Prophet Isaiah, he was, to put it mildly, chagrined. This little interchange demonstrates once again that American Christians are typically more American than Christian. How else can you explain Christians supporting “the right to bear arms” while claiming to follow the one who tells his disciples to “put away the sword?”
Yet disciples are distinguished by the conviction, lived out by their Lord, namely, that it is better to die than to kill. It all comes down to this: there are evils in the world that seem to cry out for an immediate remedy and nothing is more immediate than a bullet. Our temptation is to address such evils with appeals to some noble end justifying violent means. There can be no clearer example of such self justifying violence than the war in Ukraine where unspeakable carnage continues to be fed by a seemingly endless supply of weapons from NATO countered by a Russian arsenal of nearly equal magnitude. Of course, both sides are armed with weapons that could plunge civilization into new dark age if and when one gets the upper hand and the other’s security seems genuinely threatened. This is the dead end to which Mr. LaPierre’s philosophy finally leads.
To be a disciple of Jesus is to refuse, along with our Lord, to get caught up in the cycle of retribution; to reject the notion that the use of violent force is inevitable; and to be prepared to suffer death rather than to inflict it. It is to be sent as a lamb into the midst of ravenous wolves. To be a disciple of Jesus is to recognize that the ends never justify the means because we cannot know what the ends will be and whether they are the ends toward which God is working. The ends cannot justify the means because unjust means will always infect the ends. We cannot control the ends to which our actions bring us, but we can control the means by which we act. To do that, we must sometimes resist the temptation to bypass the peaceful way of our Lord to achieve some noble end or avoid some unspeakable evil.
Here is a poem by Dudley Randall illustrating that, whether we put our lives on the line to confront evil with a potent witness of peace or whether we simply gather to pray for peace, violence is still able to reach us. No greater juxtaposition has ever been seen than that of the ongoing courageous and peaceful struggle for racial justice in our land and the violent and ruthless opposition to it.
Ballad of Birmingham
(On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)
“Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”
“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children’s choir.”
She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.
The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.
For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.
She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”
Source: Cities Burning (c. 1968 by Dudley Randall; pub. by Broadside Press, 1968). Dudley Randall (1914-2000) was an African-American poet and poetry publisher from Detroit, Michigan. He founded a pioneering publishing company called Broadside Press in 1965, which published many leading African-American writers. Randall’s poetry is characterized by simplicity and realism. Randall became interested in poetry at an early age. His interest stemmed from his father taking him to hear prominent African-American writers and artists speak, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter Francis White, James Weldon Johnson and others. Randall worked on the floor of a Ford Motor plant, as a postal clerk and served in the military during the Second World War. He earned a master’s degree in library science and served as a reference librarian at University of Detroit where he was also named the University’s Poet-in-Residence. You can find out more about Dudly Randall and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.