Violence, Faith, and Reconstruction

Posted: August 31, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 13C, 2016 Luke 12:49-56

Violence, Faith, and Reconstruction

Last week I think I argued for a need to revisit our concepts of life, of Religion and of God and I think I suggested that we should examine our assumptions and the limits of our imagination. I think I also suggested that our obsession with reason and belief as primary modes of engagement with truth could be questioned. I don’t think I left much untouched and maybe left you with a world too complex to deal with. I don’t think that feeling is anything new but rather just the normal human response to the future. It is always more complex, more detailed, and more confusing than the present, let alone the past. No wonder we prefer things the way they were. It was easier, more certain, and simpler or so we think. I am not sure my parents didn’t say the same about the future in their perspective.

Just taking a look at the present as people who call ourselves ‘Christian’ we might suggest like Sam Harris does in his book ‘The End Of Faith’; that; “The greatest problem facing civilization is not merely religious extremism: rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself. Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed” (Sam Harris. End of Faith/45).

Harris is here placing the world we have today in the hands of the religious moderate and I for one found that hard to take. I place myself among those moderates because as a liberal and inclusive and peace advocating person I according to Harris have allowed scriptural literalism to flourish and religious violence to have legitimacy. This is an interesting challenge in that some in the progressive movement in NZ are trying to find a place for dialogue with the Presbyterian Fundamentalists and I hope they don’t compromise the progressive position in the interests of harmony. The theological difference is crucial real and needs to be as our text suggests.

Our text for today tells it how it is. In the words attributed to Jesus we hear of the struggle to deal with the realities of being human in an environment where violence is a legitimate response. Hey, look he says; My task is to stir you up and disrupt your world, turn it inside out in fact. The disruption will be transformative of your very familial system, of all your assumptions about what’s right and wrong!! This is huge when we realize that the familial system is at the very root of the society they know. Why can’t you see this he says; It’s as plain as the nose on your face.

We read the text;

49 ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: father against son    and son against father, mother against daughter    and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law    and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

Interpreting the Time

54 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

When we read this Lucan story and really hear the words we have to admit to getting a bit of a shock.  This isn’t the gentle and long-suffering and peaceful and approachable Jesus many of us have traditionally come to expect. This sounds like a harsh, despairing outburst from someone near the end of his tether. And it is a text with a deeper message we have to dig out?

Hearing the story again, we can still feel somewhat anxious, because it paints such a dark picture, and then we realize that it is a dark story because history has proved it true in so many ways. When we take the ‘peace and conflict’ bit we find that the scholars belonging to the Jesus Seminar in their notes on this story, write that “Jesus is the kind of sage that did introduce into family relationships, the suggestion that followers should forgo obligations to parents in order to become disciples” (Funk & Hoover 1993:343).

Immediately we begin to wrestle with the idea of a peaceful existence being the result of familial breakup. It make sense because we know that not all families are good places to be and we know that some of the most bitter rivalry exists in families, Not all marriages work and not all families are good places to be when siblings differ in their wants, needs, and world views. About now I hear the West Australian theologian Bill Loader saying; “This is not a text one would choose for a sermon on ecumenism…”

But then he goes on to say, “…or is it?  ‘Harmony’ is one of those soft words which people sometimes use to plea for peace.  The peace is often a shallow calm of suppressed fears and conflicts which are bound to emerge from under their marshmallow captivity.  Orderliness and harmony were great Stoic themes.  At worst it meant everyone in their place, an unchanged and unchanging status quo.  For many people Christian peace is still seen as that kind of harmony, if not achievable outwardly, then at least achievable inwardly.  The gospel then takes up its stall beside all the others offering serenity of life and ‘feel good’ spirituality” The gospel becomes an unworkable dream or aspiration at worst and a simple human feel good therapy at best. Maybe that’s what our text is on about?

It is also true that Religion has been the cause of many wars and conflicts, and has divided families. The most long running one for many of us is the Northern Ireland conflict. It seems that even though we think we have reached a lasting peace it still goes on at some levels, not unlike that of the women’s equality enterprise or the racial questions in the States.

The text seems to make sense in this so-called reality we know yet in another way we can find this story… comforting. Comforting that Jesus not only knew what stress was, but that he responded to it in exactly the way human beings have always responded to it. Despite his regular habit of going into lonely places to pray and to restore his own space and equilibrium, he still experienced stress and tiredness and perhaps a degree of depression, and he reacted to it.

And again as I suggested last week some of us will find these words difficult to hear… and that’s maybe, because we often tend to see Jesus as not really a real human and so it isn’t always easy to realize how his chosen way of action, must have got Jesus down at times.

In his short few years he set out to change the socio- political, and religious worlds. Is it any wonder he needed time out occasionally or that he lost his cool sometimes? We often tend to think of Jesus as some superhuman being who doesn’t feel things. But here in today’s story is a very human glimpse of a very human being. Someone who’s exhausted, frustrated, and who suddenly erupts in an angry outburst. Even if it is a fictional story made up by the storyteller we call Luke it speaks to us of a very human Jesus and of the lifelong nature of the world changing task we are called to embark on.

The truth is that the world we live in, like the so-called ‘biblical’ world of the prophets and apostles, can be an angry and violent one. For us today our world is a world that is often rocked with religious violence. A world where people bomb and kill other people all in the name of God. Yes we know that media plays a huge role in placing the blame in the hands of the religious but in the end we allow that. I am aware that moderate Muslims in NZ are afraid to speak out because of fear of being put upon by fundamentalists and even though the media might be caught up in terrorists causes by accepting their claims to be Muslim or Christian Militia, or a particular movements recruits, all this seems supportive of the claim that moderate’s allow this violence to continue. The question we are left with is whether or not there is there something in our religious tradition that encourage acts of violence? And if there is, what are we doing about it?

Even moderates do not believe that it is God’s will for hundreds of people to die in the bomb explosions and even if we think that the horrific attacks on people and property are wake up calls for us to realize just what our alliances are perpetrating in the name of control and even peace. And to ask ourselves just what our responsibility is, to remain true to our progressive journey in faith we cannot and do not want to say that this violence is from God.

While our text is a reality check as a reminder that our decisions and what we support matters it is not a claim that we need to have the violence of God in order to hear the ‘good news’?

But let’s just wrestle with the so-called ‘reality’ for a bit. Does it make any difference if the ‘fire’ or ‘conflict’, is for the so-called ‘bad people’ rather than the so-called ‘good people? Is the reality about the fact that bad people get their deserts or is it rather that the ‘good news’ itself is a lure to see the inadequacy of our ways, whatever they are, and change them? Here I think of the difference between retributive justice and distributive justice, revenge and justice or the world’s justice and God’s justice perhaps.

Continuing this line of thinking process theologian Rick Marshall, asks: “Why do many Christians, pastors, and churches support the use of violence?” He then answers his question. He says “… is it that the King of Peace is not as appealing as a King of War who uses coercion and violence, revenge and retribution to do God’s will?  Maybe the image of Jesus the Messiah embodying persuasive power is not ‘strong enough.’

Here again we return to the discussion last week where we talked about the anatomy of power. We ask “What kind of power does God have?  Is it coercive and manipulative, or persuasive and loving?  Is it power found in some sort of power over or a power found in weakness, a turn the other cheek, love your enemies sort of weakness? What kind of power should the church emulate, embody, and deploy in service of the Kingdom of God?  Another question might be: What does it mean to win or conquer?” Can both parties win?

The truth is that we don’t need to be university historians to know of the triumphal Christian church behind Constantine’s sword “the bloody Crusades in which Roman Catholics slaughtered Orthodox Christians and Jews as well as Muslims, and the use of Christian just war doctrine to rationalize countless conflagrations, including politicians justifications of the war in Iraq” (McLennan 2009:115-16).

So how can we hear the words of Luke’s Jesus, today? Rex Hunt has a couple of suggestions. He says: First, we need to hear them in context. And that context seems to have been an expectation, wrongly, that the world was coming to an imminent end.

With an imminent end coming people were required to live ‘in the proper way’ even when parents or friends or one’s spouse may have held a different religious orientation.

Second, we need to hear these words within the dominant Jesus message, usually summened up in what we now call the Sermon on the Mount.

Third, we can listen to the critics of religion.  And listen well. Sam Harris says there is ‘good religion’.  He writes: “We must find ways to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity – birth, marriage, death – without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality…  Jesus and the Buddha weren’t talking nonsense when they spoke about our capacity as human beings to transform our lives in rare and beautiful ways” (Harris 2006:88, 90).

Sallie McFague in her book Models of God, has suggested that each age must look at how its images for God function. And if some images work for death, it is appropriate, even necessary, to find the new ones that work for life.  All of life. I think this is what undergirded my sermon last week about the need for our concept of God to be real to where we are at in our world view.

It is also affirming of my claim last week that thinking theologically, is more than just interpreting our given ‘orthodox’ biblical tradition and creedal statements. It also means being willing to think differently now than in the past. To reconstruct, rather than just restate. The challenge of today then, is to get on with that reconstruction journey. Amen.


Notes: Harris, S. 2006.  Letter to a Christian Nation. New York. A. A. Knopf. Harris, S. 2004.  The End of Faith. Religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York. W. W. Norton. Wm Loader. “First thoughts… Pentecost 12C”. McFague, S. 1987.  Models of God. Theology for an ecological nuclear age. London. SCM Press. McLennan. S. 2009.  Jesus was a Liberal. Reclaiming christianity for all. New York. Palgrave/Mavmillan. Rick Marshall.   <; Susan Nelson.  <

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