violence

Christmas 2014

Throughout world history and over all the earth, there is nothing to compare to Christmas. No individual’s birth and no religious holiday is accompanied by music conjuring such depth of meaning or magnitude of expression. Look to the carols—both religious and secular. Whether hearing angels from on high on a silent night, or convening people to come and adore, or listening to silver bells on a white Christmas, these songs proclaim a worldwide longing for peace.

But with annual repetition, it is evident that mere musical sentiment does not, indeed cannot, advance the peace and equality proclaimed in song. In fact, if anything this celebration betrays a hypocrisy, if not a schizophrenia throughout most of the world. Historic battles have seen the calling of a one day truce on December 25th, only to resume killing on December 26th. And then there is capitalism.

It is too simplistic to say that Christmas has been commercialized. Many people who lament that reality are unwilling to give voice to the deeper analysis and uncomfortable truth that Christmas was not created to serve or advance a market economy. Such language is deemed politically incorrect. And sadly, many Christians have shown themselves all-too-complicit as monetary concerns have usurped values of peace and goodwill. It is not the ringing of bells, but of cash registers and Wall Street trading that measure the success of the season. How can world peace compete with world banks?

At its core Christmas is an unfulfilled vision, a promise of hope and peace that always remains just out of reach. Perhaps this is because the holiday is not really about mundane endeavors or economic profit. It is about an unanticipated bond between the human and the divine—a presence not recognized in its nativity and adamantly rejected in its adulthood. Christmas is about God becoming human in Jesus. The very idea strains the imagination. It is only approachable and acceptable through faith. At the same time, belief must find expression in action.

Christians, both as victims and perpetrators, have failed the message and mission of Jesus. As perpetrators, they have foisted violence and war on those of different faiths, cultures and political systems. Sometimes even invoking the name of the Prince of Peace. As victims they have refused to embrace the sacrifice of the Cross, instead, forsaking forgiveness and choosing revenge and retribution even at the cost of civilization. It is a disturbing paradox that the followers of Jesus can intently and successfully articulate reasons for war but remain impotently mute when it comes to peace.

So once again we find ourselves celebrating the birth of Jesus, the humbling and undeserved presence of God among us. As we invade and empty the plethora of stores in our shopping malls, even as we clog traffic on the world wide web from our homes, we will be engulfed in the sounds of Christmas.

Since hope springs eternal, this may be the year everything changes. Maybe this feliz navidad will be what the first noel was supposed to be. On this holy night the stars will shine bright, the earth will receive its king, and there will be joy to the world because this child was born. Maybe.
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The Messiah?

Every belief system requires a certain leap of faith. By its very definition, faith is not something that can be proved. At the same time, it must be reasonable. Karl Marx remains famous for calling religion the opiate of the people. And Nietzsche may be most remembered for his statement that God is dead.

This may seem an odd beginning for a Christmas blog. But it is precisely because so many people get lost in the romanticism of Christmas, that it becomes an escape, rather than a time of reflection, thus given some credence to the remarks of Marx and Nietzsche.

Whether or not faith can be proved, a pre-requisite for religious belief should be its rationality and whether or not it holds up to investigation. For example, Jews believe that Moses parted the Red (or Reed) Sea during the Exodus from Egypt. Christians believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Mormons believe that Jesus appeared in ancient America.

Let’s dismiss the most silly of these claims. There are no serious scholars, even among Mormons, who accept the belief that Jesus appeared in ancient America. One reason for discounting that tenet is that there is absolutely no archeological evidence of such an event. It would be irrational to continue to hold to that belief, thus raising echoes of Marx.

The Jewish belief (also shared by Christians and Muslims) in the parting of the sea is also subject to investigation. There are a number of scenarios whereby the land beneath the sea was, indeed, dry enough to cross. It was a periodic occurrence. So subsequently, the waters that had receded returned, thus miring Pharaoh and his army in the mud. There remains a reasonable miracle here, in that God intervened to assure the timing of the event. The art of storytelling simply embellishes the crossing with the image of water walling up on the right and the left.

Whether or not Jesus is the Messiah is a little more complex. There is no question that Jesus existed as a real person. His life and death are not the invention of sacred writing. They are also mentioned in non-biblical documents. But is he the Messiah?

The Old Testament writers left us numerous ways to identify the Messiah upon his arrival. One of the principle Messianic promises was peace. So, how does this fit in with the story of Jesus?

The Roman Martyrology of the Catholic Church includes a Proclamation of the Birth of Christ. In very brief and poetic language, it traces the passage of time from the creation and biblical events, through Greek and Roman civilization, to the arrival. Of particular significance is the situating of Jesus’ birth in real time:

“The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus; the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ…was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary.”

Setting aside the fact that the phrase “the whole world” is a touch Judeo-Roman-centric, the real issue is the question of peace. Since Christians already believed that Jesus was the Messiah at the time of its composition, it is understandable that an observation of peace would find its way into the Christmas Proclamation.

It is also true that at the time of Jesus’ birth, the Roman Empire was not engaged in an ongoing war. Still, Rome was a foreign power that controlled ancient Palestine. Since peace is not just the absence of war, it would take a Rowlingesque imagination to observe occupying forces patrolling the streets and deem that reality as peace.

It is understandable that many in ancient Israel, as well as many today, find it difficult to recognize Jesus as Messiah. Peace was not only absent at the time of his birth. Christianity, itself, has been darkened with war and other forms of violence throughout much of its history.

It might be too simplistic to reject Jesus due to the absence of one Messianic promise, even if that promise is as significant as peace. At the same time, that very absence might serve as motivation for those who really do believe in Jesus.

At the core of the Gospels and of authentic Christian Faith, is a peace that is rooted in forgiveness and love. The absence of peaces is not just a historical issue surrounding Jesus’ birth. It is an existential issue that questions the authenticity of believers today.

If the Christian Faith is to circumvent the condemnation of Marx and not serve as a collective drug; if it is to counter the declaration of Nietzsche and keep God alive and present in our world today, then “Peace on Earth” cannot be just decorative phrasing on a holiday card or sentimental lyrics in a Christmas song. Peace must drive who and what we are. War is not only
not the answer, it cannot even be part of the discussion.

Maybe peace really is that important. I, like millions of others, believe in Jesus. However, until peace defines the followers of Jesus, there is not sufficient reason to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
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The Death of Bin Laden—A Second Look

There is, of course, no picture of Osama Bin Laden in this blog. It would serve no purpose other than to further agitate the distorted intellects of conspiracy theorists who are already frenetically claiming Bin Laden’s death is a hoax. Still, if a picture paints a thousand words, then moving pictures sketch a dictionary. While photographs possess the power to entrance, often leaving us wanting more, moving pictures transport us to the very heart of action itself, exhausting and exciting our emotions whether for good or for ill.

Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, people all over the world were stunned and alarmed. Not only did we watch in horror while planes flew into the Twin Towers, we were also dismayed at the level of destruction as the towers collapsed with mini mushroom clouds vainly attempting to shroud the ruin. To make matters worse, the world was subjected to videos of cheering crowds dancing and celebrating these unprovoked acts of death and destruction.

For almost ten years Osama Bin Laden, the founder and leader of al-Qaeda, had eluded the combined efforts of the world’s most sophisticated intelligence organizations. Though he never faded from memory, most people had understandably begun to wonder if he would ever be caught, if justice would forever be denied.

Then, on Sunday night, May 1st, President Obama announced a successful intelligence operation that ended with the death of Bin Laden. The President delivered the announcement with cultured elegance. It is difficult to imagine the emotions he must have been feeling. There appeared to have been excitement in his eyes—resulting as much from the magnitude and impact of his speech as from any possible joy or satisfaction. Obama pronounced a verdict of justice with sedate solemnity, and his words were filled with gravitas as he reaffirmed the perilous milieu of terror that still grips our world. Through it all, Obama was profoundly presidential and resolutely restrained.

Contrast the President’s demeanor with the throngs that gathered outside the White House, in New York City and elsewhere—chanting masses that seem so eerily similar to the cheering crowds of 9/11. It is tempting to dismiss this reaction as Schadenfreude. The truth is more sinister and therefore more difficult to correct.

Certainly there is a mix of emotions welling from within, most uniquely from within the hearts of those who have lost family and friends to the violence of al-Qaeda. From those whose loved ones have been ripped from life, we expect to find relief, gratitude, closure, perhaps even some sense of peace. No one can sit in judgment on how any individual who has suffered such tragedy should feel or react. Indeed, there probably is no “should”.

At the same time, a desire for understanding and compassion must not deter anyone from probing deeper questions of response. Specifically, what is an appropriate collective reaction when a perpetrator of mass violence ends up the prey of violence, himself? There is simply no triumph or honor in the ability to kill. That was what Bin Laden stood for; it cannot define us, also. There is something terribly obscene about watching people celebrate any death, even the demise of Osama Bin Laden.

Whether in the Middle East or in the United States, such assemblies demonstrate a depraved indifference to life and exhibit a duplicity that is beyond the pale of reason. If all human life is of value, then every human life is of value. For believers there is also a religious component. After all, even the Osama Bin Laden’s of the world are created in the image of God. Although they betray that image by acts of violence, we also betray that image--and our faith--by celebrating their executions.

In the United States today, perhaps in every country, we cry out for leaders, for men and women to serve as examples the rest of us can admire and emulate. It was evident on Sunday that we have at least one politician who understands what it means to lead and to inspire. President Obama did not taunt the enemy in his Sunday address. He spoke with candor about justice, but his words did not evoke revenge.

Public displays of emotion, even those that originate from conflict, are not inherently perverse. Innumerable photos and newsreels abound of citizens from various countries celebrating the end of World War I & World War II. In those pictures we see men and women rejoicing, not because someone has died, but because the specter of violence has ended. They celebrate in the hope that perhaps no one else will have to die by bloodshed. They celebrate a peace that was won with incredible sacrifice.

While that hope certainly surfaces with the death of Bin Laden, the mobs we have seen in the streets of America are not celebrating peace. As the president stated, the fight against terror goes on. No, the mobs are celebrating violence itself, and that kind of rejoicing debases us all. However difficult it may be, we must reach deep within ourselves to embrace the more courageous and truer principles of peace. We must be better than Osama Bin Laden was.
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9/11--A Day of Remembrance and Forgiveness

The 20th Century has often been cited as the most violent in human history. The two world wars, coupled with seemingly unending civil conflicts; military coups and repressive dictatorships; genocide in all regions of the globe; the rising specter of street violence and escalating terrorist activities; all these succeeded in nearly numbing the world to the horrors of violence. It is almost surprising, then, that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 should have so stunned the sensitivities of the world, that for a brief moment there arose a renewed sense of humanity and common purpose.

More than stunned, the world found itself in a state of shock. Partly because nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in a matter of minutes, partly because more than 70 countries lost citizens in the attacks, and partly because this all happened on U.S. soil--a land often thought to be immune from such foreign violence. For almost everyone, the attacks shattered the routine of a tranquil September morning. As we look back on the past nine years, we find so much to commemorate on this anniversary, the most treasured being the lost lives--not only of innocent workers and travelers, but also of the heroic emergency personnel who risked everything to bring others to safety.

Few, if any, experiences in life are as emotionally draining as the death of a loved one. When that death is caused by unprovoked violence or terrorism, the bonds of love only grow stronger. In the process, the human heart is stirred to canonize the memory, and the will is driven to avenge the lives of those so unjustly reduced to an untimely death. In reality, however, that stirring of the heart and driving of the will are polar opposites that cannot coexist in any kind of peace or harmony. The bonds of love that are sealed in the heart end up shattered by the pursuit of vengeance. The memories of loved ones lost are betrayed in a relentless desire for retaliation. Such is this tragic polarity that the same pain that tears us apart ends up being inflicted on other people, who also lose innocent loved ones, thus creating a spiraling cycle of violence from which we can rarely extract ourselves.

Memorial celebrations, museums and monuments are a necessary part of collective therapy. War is not. Retelling stories of life, and remembering heroic acts inspire admiration. War does not. Embracing and supporting one another strengthens the spirit and initiates healing. War cannot. War is simply the most powerful, organized and hypnotic example of a violence unleashed in response to a violence perpetrated.

Let me be clear. People who execute the kind of violence we witness in acts of terrorism must be held accountable and brought to answer for their actions. But our responses are often out of proportion and far beyond reason. It is no accident that the decision to go to war in Afghanistan was made with haste in the midst of the confusion that followed 9/11. And given that the entire country was in the grip of fear, it is no wonder that few sane and thoughtful voices were to be found opposing the war. Even religious leaders from a variety of traditions capitulated to the seduction of violence. It is also a little ironic that our political leaders would ignore a guiding principle of counseling, namely, not to make any major decisions while in the throws of emotion. Such is the power and effect of this kind of violence. It is called terrorism for a reason: It strikes fear and terror deep into the psyche of even the most thoughtful and peaceful people.

So if war is not the best response, what is? I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine in which we were discussing forgiveness. During our exchange he told me that he could never forgive the terrorists who organized and carried out the 9/11 attacks. I believe that to be a common, perhaps near universal feeling. It also is quite understandable. It is far easier to give into the desire for retaliation, as happened nine years ago. Learning to forgive takes repeated effort in a myriad of situations. In any given circumstance it also takes time.

Immediately following 9/11 I did not feel like forgiving any more than others did. But consider what resulted from an unwillingness even to try to forgive. The United States has spent nearly a decade waging war in Afghanistan. In the process, the goals advanced to justify the war have not been met. We have failed to capture Osama Bin Laden, and countless innocents have lost their lives in this conflict. We have even managed to use video games (drones) far from the battle field to kill innocent Afghanis while protecting American soldiers.

Add to this the corrupting influence of vengeance and its unquenchable thirst for violence. This corruption distorted our thinking to the point that we launched a second, illegal and immoral war--one not even connected to the terrorist attacks. That war cost many more billions of dollars, more than 4,000 American lives, hundreds of allied casualties and another countless number of innocent Iraqi deaths. On balance alone, these two wars cost more than the 9/11 attacks both in terms of money and lives. The second war also squandered the goodwill of a world community that was willing to seek the common good. Instead it reduced the United States to the same level as the terrorists themselves.

This was the fear that gripped me immediately after 9/11. The attacks took place on a Tuesday morning. In my preaching the following Sunday, I took direct aim at the words and actions of our political leaders. In my homily I challenged the United States as a nation, and my congregation as believers, to step back from the violence and seek a truer, more peaceable path.

As a Christian I look to Jesus for inspiration and strength of purpose. But I also hope this blog will reach people who are not Christian. So, while Jesus places before us the awesome challenge to love our enemies and pray for those who do us harm, I would like to suggest that for the non-Christian or the non-believer, forgiveness is not just some spiritual exercise. To rise above the destructive forces that tend to overwhelm us; to seek a good in people that they themselves have cloaked in darkness; to forgive the most grievous offenses committed against us; these enable us to tap into what poets call our better nature. That is where we discover the truth of who we are. That is where we learn to call out the best in ourselves and in others. That is where we develop the skills to work together to build a world of justice, of equality, of peace.

Today we remember, we weep and we celebrate those many loved ones who died on 9/11. Perhaps the greatest way to recall the joy they brought into our lives is to forgive those who took those lives away. War and violence will neither give us an internal calm nor bring the world a lasting peace. But if the love that causes us to remember also enables us to forgive, it can overcome violence and establish that elusive, lasting peace that we all claim to desire.
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