By. Rev. Paul Graves
It was a short year ago that I offered a column about violence, asking the rhetorical question: “Is Violence a Christian Value?”
Apparently, I was wildly naïve when I said, “No.”
And apparently, there are many people who identify themselves as Christians who are very OK with violence being an option when they don’t get their way.
I’m gobsmacked – but not shocked anymore. Example: Lauri Carleton was shot and killed on Aug. 18 because she was flying a Pride Flag at her store in Lake Arrowhead, California. Her alleged killer, Travis Ikeguchi, was then killed in a shoot-out with police. Among other things, Ikeguchi claimed himself to be a Bible-quoting Christian.
I’m stunned at how some professed Christians can display their “faith” as justification for violence. Wow! What a betrayal of the Jesus they claim to follow!
Let’s listen in on some words of Jesus on the cross.
Here is a man who was the “ultimate victim” of a ruthless system, dying a most cruel death. Yet he’s overheard to say: “Father, forgiven them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
It seems two basic things are happening at that remarkable moment. One, Jesus’ dying words reflect love, not vengeance; forgiveness, not retribution. Two, Jesus’ invisible power turns our understanding of being a victim totally upside down. He doesn’t spew hatred and retribution when he’s wronged. He reflects a deeper power we could rightly call compassionate courage, loving forgiveness, even forgiving love.
Together, they transform our usual compulsion to strike back, to hurt back. He’s not a victim destroyed. He’s a victim restored to his fullest depth of humanity. So, here’s the Gospel version of a victim turning violence inside out, upside-down.
What are we supposed to do with that in the cultural climate we live in today?
Violence shows up “out there.” But it begins as an inward erosion of the soul. Do you feel like a victim? I personally don’t. But I admit to some level of helplessness in the face of exaggerated violence-bent attitudes. How can we hold ourselves in forgiving, compassionate ways before the self-loathing of others who want to spew their spiritual pain out onto others?
We can “push back” in verbal ways, but it seems likely our efforts are dismissed. Push back anyway. We can find loving ways to respond to someone’s anger, to someone’s scapegoating us or an “other” person they don’t like. Find those loving ways anyway.
Are you confronted by a person professing Christian faith but speaking in hateful terms and dismissing the forgiving tone of Jesus? Speak your own truth that affirms a forgiving Jesus, then walk away.
I regularly need to remind myself of Jesus’ central words to “love your enemies.” Almost every time, I ask myself: “How can I do that with a depth of love that I don’t feel?”
I must remember love is not a feeling, but a choice. Someone’s hateful language, someone’s fearful presence, does not make me a victim. In my victim-feeling moments, I can remember I am more than a victim. I’m a human being trying to understand another hurting, fear-driven human being. That may be a fool’s errand.
But when I try to understand, when I try to be compassionate, I’ve done all I can do.
How the other person responds is out of my control. My speaking out – and my efforts to listen to another person – are all I can do to re-affirm my strong conviction that violence in word and/or action are not the way of Jesus. His is a better way, a healthier way, for us to live together.
The Rev. Paul Graves is a retired elder member of the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.