Notes from the sermon by Heston Groenewald – 3 May 2020. You can see the service on in this post. Heston tries to answer the question about “God and violence” Our readings were from Deuteronomy 7:1-6 and Matthew 5:43-45
We humans are a violent coercive manipulative species! Although we work hard to hide that from ourselves and others, we don’t have to look very deep inside to find the truth. And if God is going to deal with real human beings in the real world (that’s what Love does) then ideas about God and ideas about violence are sometimes going to clash.
Does human violence originate in God? And did/does God command violence and even genocide?
In Jesus, God has ‘come out’ as complete and utter self-giving love. Love is patient, love is kind, love does not insist on its own way. Which means God is patient, God is kind, God does not insist on God’s own way. (God doesn’t ‘command’ anything.) God loves all of creation- and God invites all of creation to live in that love. That’s the clearest revelation of God that we have- God is as God is in Jesus.
But we human beings are painfully slow to grasp wonderful divine realities like this. St Paul was 100% right: we see God as through a glass darkly. Thousands of years after Jesus, we’re still struggling to live as though ‘God is love’. And if we still haven’t- the ancient Israelites never stood a chance.
Let’s turn back the clock to centuries before Jesus- to a dark primitive dangerous time. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, full of violence and tribal warfare, where only the strongest survive. If you want your family or nation to stay on top of the tribe next door, you need bigger weapons than them, and stronger gods to lead you into battle. That’s how you’ll win when you fight them- and you will fight them- often- because that’s how the world works.
So now imagine with me, that you are YHWH the God who is Love. And you want to create a ‘new normal’ in this world full of violence. Where on earth do you begin?! Well, the Jewish-Christian story goes, you start small: you invite one family to live differently. You meet them on a mountaintop in the desert, and tell them not to fight their neighbours- instead to love them and bless them and seek their good.
That’s quite a mindbender for these poor Israelites, after escaping the violent oppression of Egypt. They find themselves surrounded by enormous empires- Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians- who rule the world thanks to their powerful armies. Which must also mean thanks to their powerful battlechief gods. It’s easy to see how this violent cultural context would CLOUD the Israelites’ ability to see that God is love- through a glass darkly.
And as they came to enter this promised land, it’s easy to see why they would be tempted to do things the way empires do- invade with an army and take no captives. They would naturally assume that their god was going into battle with them- to bless their weapons and be their commander-in-chief. And when they won battles, that’s how they would tell the story:
Moses said: When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess, he will drive out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.Deuteronomy 7:1-6
The Israelites entered the promised land with an army. And it worked! So when they told the story, it said, God was with us in battle helping us to win. That’s what gods did and that’s how the world worked.
If you’re God and you are love, you must be sickened by all this. But you love this world and you’re committed to changing it for good, starting with this nation. And so you roll up your sleeves, and work with the reality before you. The Israelites have entered the land, and so you invite them to build a ‘Jubilee’ society based on freedom and equality and generosity- Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and care for the refugees, orphans, and widows in the land.
But wealth and power are timeless temptations, and again it CLOUDS their vision of God who is love. Violence is particularly cruel when it’s inflicted on your own people during peace time. (See if any of this sounds familiar- from today’s news!) Under Solomon and the kings, the Israelites became arms dealers, and the urban elite viciously taxed the subsistence farming masses to channel the nation’s wealth into the pockets of a few. The people of God became a carbon copy of the empires surrounding them- almost completely CLOUDING out God’s vision for their society: to do justice and righteousness, and care for the refugees, orphans, and widows in the land.
But God broke through the clouds- warning through the prophets that their violence and oppression would lead to their own violent downfall:
For the sins of Israel, I will not relent.
They trample on the heads of the poor and deny justice to the oppressed…
Therefore thus says the Lord: I am going to send for King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, and he shall turn this land into a ruin and a waste, and this people shall serve the king of Babylon for seventy years.
They refused to change their ways, and as promised the Babylonians smashed up Jerusalem and carried its people off to exile. The Persians subsequently conquered the Babylonians and sent the Israelites back to Jerusalem to rebuild their national life- but as subjects of the Persian king- and in turn as subjects of the Greek and Roman rulers. Which brings us to the time of Jesus- and we read in the gospels about Israelites desperate to take arms against the Romans and conscript YHWH into this ‘holy war’. (Judean People’s Front!)These were the Zealots and interestingly one of them became a disciple of Jesus (Inclusive Church!)
In this violent cultural context, God’s voice breaks through in Jesus: You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…
In his own teaching and life and death, Jesus broke the cycle of violence which we all live and breathe and perpetuate so naturally. In the middle of a violent world, Jesus’ life served as a ‘space’ where God could finally be seen clearly- God is love.
And God invites us to create the same sort of space in our own lives- to break free of violence and manipulation and jealousy. Let it all stop with you. Turn the other cheek. Forgive. Do good to anyone who harms you. It’s still crazy talk, isn’t it! Even the NT says so- this idea is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to everyone else.
How foolish are you prepared to be?? Some people are prepared to refuse violence altogether- Pacifists like the Quakers are a thorough inspiration. But not everyone is prepared to turn the other cheek when violent bullies are terrorising the world. So Just War proponents argue that injustice needs to be resisted- and this might sometimes require the use of force. War can be justified under certain conditions, and Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer can plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.Matthew 5:43-45
Of course God doesn’t command violence. In the real world where violence is a reality, God invites us to UNCLOUD our lives, to see God clearly and to undo violence through love.
Politically, that means resisting the violence of Empire which surrounds us every day- violence inflicted as ever on the empire’s most vulnerable citizens: workers, sick, poor, elderly, orphans, widows, refugees.
As a church family and individually, God invites us to undo our own internal violence through love. This is why we usually start worship with confession:
we have used our power to dominate
and our weakness to manipulate;
we have evaded responsibility
and failed to confront evil;
we have denied dignity to ourselves
and to our sisters and brothers,
and have fallen into despair.
Jesus invites us to live in the image of God who loves ALL creation: the Israelites AND the Hittites, the Brits AND the foreigners, the Christians AND the non-Christians (which we’ll explore next week).
Are you/we ready to accept God’s invitation? And to slowly slowly align your desires with God’s desires – to desire the good of ALL, and to stop living as though we’re in competition or at war with people who aren’t ‘us’ – and indeed to start living as though we’re outrageously ‘for’ people who aren’t us.
Jesus said, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.