“The End of Violence” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune

Listen to the sermon from Sunday, November 13, 2016 titled “The End of Violence” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox… They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD. – Isaiah 65:25

In the 1820’s the American Quaker Edward Hicks painted 62 different versions of The Peaceable Kingdom depicting Isaiah’s vision of God’s goal for the earth: a new creation of cooperation instead of competition reaching to the root of nature, where predator and prey live together in peace.  In many of these paintings he included the scene of William Penn making a treaty of friendship with Native Americans, as you see here in the distance on the left side.  Ironic, since we all know how Native Americans and other minorities were treated by the dominant powers up to this day.  God’s peaceable kingdom includes human mutuality, too, across all divisions and distinctions.  This is the vision of wholeness biblical Christians proclaim, embody, and strive to create.

After an ugly election we woke Wednesday morning to a new reality, an almost apocalyptic shift in our country.  Personalities aside, the verbal violence towards vulnerable minorities and marginalized Americans was frightening, and yes, deplorable.  I couldn’t find words to describe the grief I was feeling until my friend Kyle Childress recalled Walter Brueggeman’s description of the dominant feeling of apocalyptic: “‘disorientation’ – where much of our assumptive world is upended and what will happen next is up in the air.”  I think the whole country is experiencing disorientation now, especially those on the losing side.  For many, anxiety has displaced hope about the future.

The election revealed all the fissures in American life, those who feel anxious, angry, dispossessed, and disregarded, as well as the deep abiding layers of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and religious bigotry that abide in our society.  And in the rancor of debate, it is always tempting to take up the weapons used against you so that you become a carbon copy of the opponent by demonizing, degrading, and verbally abusing those with whom you disagree.  This is not the way of Christ, who spoke his truth with love, and calls his followers to eschew violence, even of the verbal variety.  Verbal violence too easily escalates to other forms of violence, and we are addicted to violence in ways that betray God’s call to the peaceable kingdom.

One of our abiding core narratives contradictory to the call of Christ is “the myth of redemptive violence,” which perversely prizes violence as a primary means for resolving conflict and creating good.

I grew up on Popeye cartoons where the hero took just so much grief from Bluto until he ate his spinach and trounced his enemy.  This was a children’s cartoon!

But the adult movies like the old westerns presented the same myth.  The good guy resisted violence, but finally had to blow away the bad guys, ending their evil.

With each movie Hollywood has increased the body count, made the explosions more spectacular, and made murder as commonly acceptable as driving a car.  We enjoy it as long as the bad guys lose and the good guys win.

Even our visions of the future glorify war and define peace as the annihilation of the enemy.  The myth of redemptive violence permeates our culture with a dangerous permission to do damage in the name of good.  It is a false, simplistic, and ultimately self-destructive myth.  It is the polar opposite of God’s vision.

In the real world, you won’t find most veterans glorifying war or rejoicing in violence.  They know the shock waves of trauma it sends through lives and families and communities that last far beyond occupations and peace treaties.  They know violence begets more violence and each conflict spawns the next.  In “‘Star Wars’ and the Fantasy of American Violence” Iraq War veteran Roy Scranton writes: 

The real (military-civilian gap) is between the fantasy of American heroism and the reality of what the American military does, between the myth of violence and the truth of war. The real gap is between our subconscious belief that righteous violence can redeem us, even ennoble us, and the chastening truth that violence debases and corrupts. 

We don’t need to glorify violence to honor our veterans for the high price they pay in our behalf.

The foundation of the myth of redemptive violence is the simplistic, systematic demonizing of the other.  We dehumanize the enemy as utterly evil and see ourselves as utterly good.

The truth, of course, is that every human being is a mixture of good and evil, making choices daily between the two in patterned ways.

And that truth calls us in Christ’s name to work for mutual redemption and reconciliation, to own up to our responsibility for conflict and seek mutually beneficial solutions.  This is the way of Christ and it takes hard work: truthful self-awareness, intentional self-discipline, principled resistance, and a commitment in every level of relationship to wage peace.

It takes courage, and the willingness to sacrifice as we absorb the wounds of those who choose the way of violence.  The cross of Christ is not celebrated as redemptive violence, but as a picture of the length to which God is willing to go in loving us.  The cross calls us to the same kind of loving way in the world, trusting in the God of resurrection.

So what now?  We are disoriented.  Everything has changed.  Yet nothing has changed.  In the midst of increasing Nazi violence in the 30’s and 40’s, German theologian Karl Barth insisted Christians do theology “as if nothing happened.” He was not saying nothing had happened or that Christians should ignore it, but that our calling in Christ to love God and love our neighbor has not changed. We still have the same work to do.  We still affirm that God is ultimately sovereign over history.  Faith is hardest when faith is needed, and this is a time for faith in God.


It is also a time to support one another, to turn to and not on one another, as distressed people often do.  Let us comfort one another, especially those who have the most to fear in the wake of this election’s hateful rhetoric: women, immigrants, the disabled, racial, religious, and sexual minorities.  They need to know, we stand with them in the name of Christ.

But listen!  Let us draw strength from the centering rituals of prayer and worship.  We are a congregation long experienced in standing together against the popular tide, in standing with the marginalized, in supporting people regardless of their race, gender, orientation, nationality, religion, or economic status, and in embodying the love of Christ.  It may be harder, costlier, and take more spiritual strength now than it has before.  But has it ever been so important for us to be that church?

Then stay calm, and trust in God.  Resist the temptation to mirror those who disagree with us with verbal violence, but let us take up “the weapons of the Spirit” Andre Trocme urged upon his congregation in Le Chambon sur Mer the day after France surrendered to Nazi Germany.  As my friend Peter J B Carmen wrote this week:

How we live is as important as what we do! In keeping with our commitment to personal witness and shared work:
We strive, following Jesus,
to listen with openness,
speak with conviction,
resist evil,
receive hostility and return love,
break silences which harm,
resist cooperation with structures that
cause hardship and suffering,
practice healing,
mend creation’s wounds,
offer hospitality to the refugee and the sojourner,
insist on human rights,
love friend and stranger, ally and enemy:
and point with our words, attitudes and actions
to the acceptable year of God.”

God’s peaceable kingdom will come.  God guarantees it.  Whatever else is happening in the world, we will live towards it.

So let us join with Christ and one another in communion today, reoriented by God to the good work given us for our time.  Faith.  Courage.  Patience.  Love.  These “weapons of the spirit” will see us through – together.  Can I get an “amen?”  Let us pray.

O God, hear our grief and heal our anxious hearts.  You are still God.  But renew our strength to love all people as you have called us in the way of the cross. Amen.

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