Violence and Peace
May 16, 2004
Over the last number of months, we have become accustomed to the sad news of injury and death coming out of Iraq. Both American and Iraqi lives have been lost in the unfolding of this war. But over the last week our sadness has been compounded as we have faced shocking photographs that capture sexual and psychological abuse exercised by Americans upon their Iraqi prisoners.
I trust that these terrible actions are limited to a handful of individuals. I know that the vast majority of American servicewomen and men continue to serve their country with honor. Yet these shocking pictures have undermined our moral authority in the world, have shaken us personally, and have invited further reflection upon this war in which we are engaged. This homily is aimed to be a contribution to that reflection.
I do not aim to make political judgments or attempt to place blame. I certainly do not seek to analyze strategic or military options. All of these matters are well outside of my competence, and settings other than this Eucharist would better serve as an forum for such discussions. But what is appropriate to this setting, to this Eucharist at which we gather this morning, is for us to ask ourselves, “What spiritual insight, what moral lesson can we derive from these sad circumstances?”
To me, one is obvious: violence begets violence. It is easier to start a war than to end one. It is easier to unleash violence than it is to control it. Once the bombs begin to fall and the blood begins to flow, once the shock and awe rolls out, there is no guarantee that we can make the violence that we begin do our bidding or limit its impact only to our noblest intentions. To quote a famous American general, “War is hell”.
Now the Christian tradition has always recognized this truth. From the beginning of our history there has been a grave suspicion over the use of violence. Jesus refused to let his disciples to take up arms to prevent his arrest. For the first couple of centuries of the Church’s life, serving in the military and being a Christian were seen as incompatible. Over time, the tradition came to recognize that there are circumstances in which violence can be justified. But it has always maintained that those circumstances are limited, and violence can only be employed in self-defense. This deep suspicion of violence is what motivated John Paul II and the American bishops to join their voices to many other religious leaders over a year ago as America considered entering this war. They raised grave concerns, asking whether the threat to American safety was real and imminent enough to warrant the invasion of Iraq. They knew that violence begets violence.
The question for us today is whether we know and appreciate that truth. There are many voices in our society that would present violence to us as a solution, and an easy one at that. Look at the films that entertain us. Routinely a violent enemy is eliminated by a hero using an even greater amount of violence. When is the last time that the plot of a major American film was resolved by negotiation? In business it seems to be more and more acceptable to use coercion and manipulation to make a profit. As long as we can produce a successful outcome, the means are not that important.
Yet violence is not a solution, certainly not an easy one. Rather, it is a dangerous option that is just as likely to undermine us as to save us. Violence begets violence, even if its aim is to achieve peace.
That is why Jesus’ words in today’s gospel should ring in our ears with authority. For Jesus says that he has a peace to give us that is very different than the peace that the world would seek to establish. Those words remind us that our attitudes should be distinct, different from the cultural values of our society. We should direct our lives from the gospels, rather than from the opinion polls that regularly guide our country’s course.
To follow Jesus is to be a people who carry a deep suspicion of violence and who refuse to use violence in our personal lives. We should reject strategies of manipulation and coercion in our workplace and in our families. We should struggle against the cynicism that advises that the only language people understand is force. We should not suppose that simply because we have power, we have the right to use it in any way we choose.
War is still hell. The disturbing pictures we have seen this week are a small reminder of how all sides can be corrupted by its influence. In a world of increasing violence, you and I are called to follow the Prince of Peace. Violence begets violence. What do wisdom and patience and love beget? A peace that only Jesus can give.
Trusting the Spirit of Love
May 13, 2007
Mothers are not perfect. That might seem like a rather blunt and negative way to begin a homily on Mother’s Day. But it is not my intention to single mothers out for any kind of criticism. I can just as easily say that fathers are not perfect, sons and daughters are not perfect, pastors are not perfect. None of us are fully the people we need to be. Each one of us, at one time or another, gets things wrong, makes a bad decision, and ends up hurting the people close to us. To be human is in some sense to be flawed, and those flaws invariably cause disappointment, regret, and pain in our lives.
Now this is nothing new. Today’s first reading makes it very clear that there were plenty of flaws in the early church. Just a few years after Jesus’ resurrection, the church was already deeply divided over the issue of whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised or not. The apostles were at odds with each other. Peter and Paul and James clashed and insisted that the others were being stubborn in their opinion. So from the very start the church, like every other human institution, was marked by disagreement, disappointment, regret, and pain that flowed from its all too human members.
The same is true for us. We are not perfect, and yet we are called to love one another. We are not perfect, and yet we are expected to be family and friends and community. So how are we to negotiate this loving across all the flaws which characterize every one of us? There is no simple answer to that question. There is no single formula of loving that will fit every situation. When someone disappoints us, when somebody makes a decision with which we do not agree, when someone hurts us, what should we do? Should we bite our lip, say nothing, and let things slide? Sometimes. Should we stand up, object, and demand that things change? Sometimes. Should we make a decision that the relationship is so flawed, so painful, that we cannot continue in it? Sometimes. Each one of us must discern and decide on a case-by-case basis how we can negotiate loving others who are all as flawed as we are.
Jesus knows we need that kind of freedom. We need that flexibility in loving. Jesus commands us to love one another, but he is not specific on what love looks like in each situation. When it comes to loving, Jesus does not give us a blue-print, he gives us a person, the Holy Spirit. Jesus says in today’s gospel, that an advocate, the Holy Spirit, will be sent to us to teach us everything we need to know, to show us how we are to love in a flawed world. That Holy Spirit is with us and guides us. That spirit is always active, prompting us to be realistic and to be brave.
The Holy Spirit asks us to be realistic in loving because we are all flawed people. Therefore in loving we have to be willing to make allowances, even when other persons are not who we want them to be. Even when they disappoint us and hurt us, the Spirit of God asks us whether our love can be of such a kind to overcome those faults and disappointments. If any of us will insist that we have to be loved perfectly, then lasting human love is impossible. So the Holy Spirit asks us to be realistic, to make allowances.
The spirit also asks us to be brave. When we have tried over and over again to love and have not been successful, when our efforts in loving are not helpful but harmful, then the spirit asks us to speak up and to ask that things change. The spirit may even ask us to consider whether a particular relationship should come to an end. It is never easy to speak up, to insist that another person needs to change. Nor is it easy to live with the consequences of such a decision. But at times it is necessary. And when it is necessary, the Spirit of God asks us to be brave enough to make that choice.
Jesus asks us to love one another, to be mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and partners in life. But none of us is perfect and that makes loving difficult. That is why Jesus gives us his spirit to lead us and guide us. That is why we have an Advocate who leads us to be realistic and brave. Let us follow the spirit that we might love—if not easily, honestly; if not perfectly, in such a way that is real enough that we can be family and friends and community to one another.