Thursday, July 26, 2007

The myth of redemtive violence

Sermon for Sunday July 29, Colossians 2:6-15,(16-19), Luke 11:1-13

“He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”

I speak with you in the Name of God. Amen!

As many of you may have guessed, when I was a teenager, I was a bit of a dork. Three of my favorite things, were comic books, cowboy movies (especially John Wayne) and, I must confess, professional wrestling—though down south we called it rasslin’ instead of wrestling. Anyway, if you think about it, the story line of every comic book, cowboy movie, and rasslin’ match is pretty similar. There is a good guy and a bad guy. For the majority of the story the bad guy is winning, and just when you think there is no hope for the good guy, by some extraordinary use of violence the good guy prevails and every body lives happily ever after. However, here’s the rub: everyone does not live happily ever after, because in the next issue, or movie, or match. Either there is a new bad guy to over power, or by some fluke the previous bad guy survived and the whole story gets repeated again. A classic example of this pattern, as New Testament scholar Walter Wink points out, is the comic strip and cartoon “Popeye the Sailor Man.” Wink writes,
In a typical segment, Bluto abducts a screaming kicking Olive Oyl, Popeye’s girlfriend. When Popeye attempts to rescue her, the massive Bluto beats his diminutive opponent to a pulp, while Olive Oyl helplessly wrings her hands. At the last moment, as our hero oozes to the floor, and Bluto is trying, in effect, to rape Olive Oyl, a can of spinach pops from Popeye’s pocket and spills into his mouth. Transformed by this gracious infusion of power, he easily demolishes the villain and rescues his beloved. The format never varies. Neither party ever gains any insight or learns from these encounters. They never sit down and discuss their differences. Repeated defeats do not teach Bluto to honor Olive Oyl’s humanity, and repeated pummelings do not teach Popeye to swallow his spinach before the fight.

Wink goes on to describe this as the myth of redemptive violence, the myth that things can be accomplished and that evil can be vanquished by overwhelming force, the myth that might makes right. Furthermore, there is evidence of this formative myth operating in every culture and in every age of human history at least since the agricultural revolution occurring about 3000 years before the life of Jesus Christ.

Speaking of the life of Christ, this myth of redemptive violence was most certainly active back in Jesus’ day. The Roman Empire had made quite a compelling argument that they were rightfully the rulers of the world because they had the military might to destroy any opponent. The Roman legions massed for war, cresting a hill set for conquering, were the ancient equivalent of Shock and Awe. Now here is where things start to get really interesting. In our reading today from Paul’s letter to the Colossians he writes, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” Now, imagine with me for a second that we had no knowledge of the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Imagine if we only had this letter to the Colossians and read about Jesus’ triumph over the ruling authority. We would probably assume that he had won some great battle, that he had marshaled forces and succeeded through the physical and moral destruction of his enemies. For indeed this is almost all we have ever seen. Be it a popular election, a spectator sport, or a war we have rarely if ever seen anyone triumph in any other way.

But, and it is a big ol’ but, we do have knowledge of the gospels. We know the story of Jesus and there isn’t a army that marches off to war with Jesus in the front brandishing a sword in any of them. Even in the apocryphal gospels that are not part of scripture there not a story of Jesus bringing down the powers that be, the Roman Empire with military might. Something radically different occurs the narrative of Jesus. He does not develop new strategies for the destruction of his enemies, rather commands us to pray for those that persecute us. He does not amass a tremendous fighting force backed a military-industrial complex, rather the anointed one walks unarmed, penniless, and alone to the cross. He does not call fire from heaven down upon his executioners, rather he prays, “Lord, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He does not seek revenge for the violence done to him, rather he rises from the grave without bitterness or malice forgiving and says peace be with you. In the gospel of Jesus Christ—in the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah—we are a long way away from Popeye and Bluto, a long way away from the myth of redemptive violence. We are rather in the midst of the myth of redemptive sacrifice, redemptive love, redemptive forgiveness, and redemptive grace.

The gospel passage proclaimed today is Luke’s rendition of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ instructions to the apostles and us on how to pray. The formative narrative of redemptive sacrifice and forgiveness is enmeshed within this prayer. Jesus tells them and us to pray for God to provide daily bread. We are not instructed to pray that we have more bread then everyone else, more riches then our neighbors; rather pray for our daily bread, a sufficient amount to get through today. Furthermore we are told to pray for God’s forgiveness as we forgive those that trespass, sin, or are indebted to us. In other words, we are not to pray for the destruction of those who harm us, or that we are able to maintain a position of power over those less fortunate then us. No, we are to pray that we have the will and ability to ensure that all enjoy the providence and abundance of God’s creation like we have. We are to pray that we are able to pass on the graciousness of God to those that sin against us even though they do not deserve it, for indeed we do not deserve it either.

As you are aware, the Lord’s Prayer is a major part of our Anglican style of worship. We say it during every Eucharist celebration, as well as every morning, noonday, evening prayer, or compline we do together. The importance of this repeated practice of prayer is almost to great for me to articulate. For indeed the myth of redemptive violence is told over and over again in almost every context of our lives. From James Bond movies to spectator sports, from history books to, yes, even in organized religion, we formed by the narrative of dominance. However, it is not all that we hear and see. Whether it is Gandhi’s Satyagraha form of Non-Violent Resistance, Martin Luther King’s Soul Force, Dorothy Day’s Hospitality Houses and Catholic Worker Movement, Archbishop Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation commission, Mennonite pacifism and yes even our simple repetition of the Lord’s Prayer, the narrative of forgiveness is told and is a part of our being as well.

Our job, our formation, our action plan, must include getting to know this different story well. Immersion in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, knowledge of those who followed him and lived the new story and attempting to live it out in our own lives is a start. We must also, proclaim this new story in every corner and crevice that the myth of domination has seeped into.

Jesus proclaims today that if we ask we shall receive. I invite you to this altar today, not merely so that things can carry on as they have, but hoping that you will join me in asking God to transform us, to form us by the narrative of Grace, to empower us to triumph as he triumphs and live our lives, “rooted and built up in [Christ] and established in faith.” Amen!

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