Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Terrorism of the Righteous: Disarming the Violent Heart; a reflection on Luke 9:51-56
What would you call a threat or an act of violence used to intimidate or harm people that you considered enemies? Wouldn’t you call it “terrorism”? Is “terrorism” an appropriate term to describe the intended actions of James and John, two followers of Jesus? Were there followers of Jesus who were terrorists? Terrorism doesn’t sound like something we would associate with Jesus’ followers. Well, the truth is, James and John threatened to command fire to come down from heaven to incinerate the civilian population of a Samaritan village. In our day and time if someone from the Middle East threatened to send fire from above on an enemy, they would most likely be arrested as terrorists. How is it that those who claimed to follow Jesus could be considered in the same category as terrorists?
Since 9/11 terrorism has brought insecurity and fear into the hearts of many people not only in the United States, but all over the world. Terrorism and the fear it has produced in the American people played a small role in the recent presidential elections, as it has to a greater degree in the past. We are so fearful of that day when terrorism again strikes within our nation that we were willing to spend billions upon billions of dollars on a pre-emptive war and on national security in order to avoid the possibility of another first-hand experience of terrorism. Terrorism is considered by some to be an effective form of threat and intimidation for political and religious ends. Whether or not it is effective, there are those who would justify terrorism or the use of violence simply because it has a “righteous” cause. The biblical text from Luke 9:51-56 challenges Jesus’ followers to question terrorism and any form of violence as a means to some “just“ or “righteous” end.
Terrorism will be part of our national agenda for a long time to come. There is a need for Christians to move beyond an understanding of terrorism as only something that “others” do against “us.” Terrorism, understood as the use of threat, intimidation, or violence against civilians, is not something limited to one particular people, religion, or so-called “righteous cause.” Terrorism has many faces in many cultures. Jesus calls his followers to self-reflection amid cultures of blame. Jesus calls his followers to be peacemakers in the midst of terrorism. Jesus calls his followers to disarm their hearts of violence. Jesus’ way stands as a rebuke to anyone who would justify their own brand of terrorism or violence based upon the “righteousness” of their cause.
In Luke’s gospel Jesus had his face set towards Jerusalem, the city of destiny. The city represented the seat of political and religious power. Jesus’ was determined to go to Jerusalem and confront the “principalities and powers in high places” and the fate lying before him. Before they set off for Jerusalem the disciples got into an argument over who was going to be greatest in the kingdom. I can imagine they were thinking of God’s kingdom as an empire that would overthrow the Romans and install Jesus and his disciples as heads of state. They wanted to know where they ranked in the political hierarchy. President. Vice President. Congressman. And on down the line. They didn’t get what Jesus was all about. They never seemed to get it!
As they made their way to Jerusalem, Jesus sent a couple of his disciples ahead to prepare lodging in a Samaritan village. Maybe it was the Holiday Inn. The Samaritans didn’t seem to be too hospitable, though. They didn’t put out a welcome mat. Maybe it was because Jesus had his face set toward Jerusalem. So, the Samaritans treated Jesus like an American in France. You see, the Jews didn’t call Samaritans “good” in those days. They were miffed at each other. Different histories. Different cultures. Different religions. Past conflicts. You know how it goes. I wonder if the Jews poured Samaritan wine in their streets, refused to eat at Samaritan restaurants, and changed the name of Samaritan fried potatoes to “freedom potatoes” or “kosher potatoes,” something like that. The Jews and Samaritans were at odds with one another and shunned public association.
Jesus challenged the social boundaries that separated Jews and Samaritans. He once spoke to a Samaritan woman in public place (John 4). Risky business, Jesus. He told a parable in which a Samaritan was the “hero” of the story, kind of like telling the story of the Good Muslim (Luke 10:39-37). Watch out, Jesus. He even healed a Samaritan leper and recognized his faith (Luke 17:11-19). O, my God, Jesus affirmed the faith of someone who wasn’t a Jew or a Christian! Ouch! It’s interesting to note that the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts place a special emphasis and positive light upon the Samaritans.
In Luke 9, the insult from the Samaritans incited the anger of James and John. For this breach of hospitality these disciples suggested to Jesus that they collaborate, work together on a common project---not in an act of peacemaking and reconciliation, but in a miracle of vengeance. That would show the Samaritans where they ranked in God’s kingdom! James and John wanted to execute revenge upon the Samaritans by calling fire down from heaven to destroy the village, kind of like old prophet Elijah (1 Kings 18:20-40). Elijah called down fire from heaven before the priests of Baal to consume an animal sacrifice. He did it to prove that his God was the real God and the god of Baal was big fake. Forget that religious tolerance nonsense. Elijah had the priests of Baal slaughtered. Jesus refused to be a prophet like Elijah. He was not going to call down fire from heaven to slaughter the Samaritans. Rather, Jesus rebuked James and John, like he had earlier rebuked an unclean spirit. He would have nothing to do with their “theology of vengeance.”
Why did Jesus even need to rebuke his own followers? Hadn’t they learned anything from him? His disciples should have known that Jesus wasn’t going to buy into any of that Kill-a-Commie-for-Christ or Jihad-for-Jesus nonsense. What were James and John thinking? Where did they get their “moral values” anywhoo? Surely not from Jesus. Maybe they were just good old boys who loved their leader and his kingdom. If someone insults your leader or your country, you don’t turn the other cheek. You label them “unpatriotic.” You call them “Samaritans” with a sneer. You call down fire from heaven in a pre-emptive strike. Lord, have mercy.
Maybe James and John missed out on Jesus’ new disciples class. I wonder if they were off golfing in the valley when Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount? Maybe they were in the back pew and couldn’t hear him when he said, ”Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth” Who knows. Maybe James and John were fiddling with their bulletins and missed it when Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God?” Possibly they were discussing what they were going to have for lunch when Jesus taught them…Do not resist an evildoer…turn the other cheek…go the second mile. Could James and John have dozed off during the part of the sermon when Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”? Come on. You can’t expect Jesus’ followers to remember everything they hear in a sermon, can you? Most likely they were utterly convinced that they were still following Jesus when they asked him to send fire from on high upon those poor, unsuspecting Samaritans.
I wonder if James and John would have wanted to send fire from heaven if they had really spent some time looking around that Samaritan village? Meet some of the people. Look into their faces. See how much they were alike. Could they have commanded fire from heaven if they had walked through the village and had seen the two giggling children playing tag on a dusty road? Would they still have been so callous if they had looked into the eyes of the old Samaritan woman with her tooth missing selling fruit in the marketplace? Would they have wanted to firebomb the village if they had heard the pregnant woman humming a tune while cooking for her husband, who was coming home from working in the olive orchards? Fire from heaven? God forbid! Who do you think you are, James and John? Who are you following? Who made you Judge and Ruler of other peoples and places? Who made you Lord of life and death?
James and John wouldn’t have been able to see the victims of their violence because of their distance from the village when the fire rained down from heaven. They wouldn’t have had to hear the screams of the pregnant woman. They wouldn’t have had to taste the tears of the husband returning from the olive fields to his demolished home. They wouldn’t have to see the charred bodies of the children. Distance has it’s advantages. I wonder whether Jesus pictured the faces of the Samaritans in his mind and heart when James and John called for the fire? I wonder.
The word “terrorism” is an incendiary word. It sparks the flames of fear. It kindles deep emotions. And it ignites frightful images. Collapsing towers. Car bombs with black smoke rising up into the air. Crimson-spattered bodies being carried away. Videotaped beheadings. Our eyes have been seared with a barrage of images of terrorism. Even though we try to remind ourselves that not all Muslims are terrorists, the image of the terrorist that has been etched in our brains is the image of a radical Muslim. But, is this the only image we can conjure up that fits the word “terrorism”? This inflammatory term raises many questions that need to be addressed, lest our vision be obscured from seeing the whole truth.
A U.S. Army manual defines terrorism as “the calculated use of violence or threat of violence against civilians in order to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature... through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.” If that is a correct definition of terrorism, then what would you call the threats, intimidation, coercion, torture, drowning, beheading, and burning at the stake of sixteenth century Anabaptists? What about the Christian Crusades against the Muslims and the intimidation and assaults on Jewish communities throughout history? Could that be called “terrorism“? Can we talk of the conquest of America and white European treatment of Native Americans as a form of “terrorism”? What about the Puritan witch hunts in the early colonies? Was that a form of terrorism against women? Or the Jewish Holocaust? How about slavery, Southern apartheid, and Jim Crow in the United States?
I wonder. Is “terrorism” a term that only applies to our contemporary world? If that is the case, then does the term fit the racist ideology and activities of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups who have committed repeated threats and violence against African-Americans and Jews? Was Timothy McVeigh the “Oklahoma City bomber” or an “American terrorist“? How about those extremists who threaten or kill abortion doctors or those who verbally threaten or physically attack gays? Are they terrorists? Have you ever noticed that we never hear of “white” or “Christian” terrorists in the media?
Our definition of terrorism raises more questions. Is terrorism a “weapon of the weak,” as some have described it? Or can it be used by powerful states? The word has never been used to describe the military violence of Israeli forces against Palestinians, though it has been pointed in the other direction. What do we call U.S. acts of aggression and violence against innocent civilians? Some call it “collateral damage” or “low intensity warfare.” But, what about when civilians are the direct targets of threat, intimidation, and violence? What do we call Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Does our continuing use of nuclear threat against other nations and their civilian populations fit the definition of terrorism? What about when the U.S. “rained down fire from heaven” on villages in Vietnam or backed paramilitary groups who terrorized and slaughtered civilians in Central America? Is that “terrorism” or simply the unfortunate byproducts of war? Who’s in charge of making that distinction? For God’s sake, will someone let me know.
The questions begin to form a stockpile. If a dominant power forces its political and economic agenda upon a people and they fight back, is their counter-violence considered “terrorism” or “resistance”? It probably depends on who is using the terms and whose political or religious ideology is being supported. For instance, Nelson Mandela’s African Nationalist Congress was once labeled as one of the world’s worst terrorist groups. Were the acts of the ANC “terrorism” or was the apartheid system and its violent enforcement in South Africa itself a form of terrorism? How we answer all these questions will determine how and why and for what purpose we use the word “terrorism.”
I will not defend violence in any form for whatever political, religious, or ideological reason. But, as you can see, the use of the term “terrorism” can be selective and itself be used as a rhetorical weapon in an ideological war. To project the image of “terrorism” upon those we label as “enemies,” while absolving ourselves of any association with the word, is to be dishonest. It becomes an attempt to manipulate language in order to rid ourselves of the evil connotations associated with the term. They are “terrorists.” We are “freedom fighters.” They use “terror tactics.” We use “military strategy.” But, here’s the problem when we tell the truth about what we do in the name of our nation or our God. The word “terrorism” can become a rhetorical weapon whose barrel can just as easily be pointed back at us.
The evil, horror, and pain of terrorism is real and not simply rhetorical. For that reason, we must be truthful about violence, regardless of who uses it and for whatever political, religious, or ideological purpose. To try to absolve ourselves of the term “terrorism,” while we commit acts that fit the definition, is a futile attempt to wash our hands of our own violence. Truth and honesty calls us to take a second look at what we define as “terrorism.” We need to scan our own histories and place in the world to form a clearer and truthful perspective about the acts of violence we have committed as a people. Before we would judge others, we can check our own eyes for those logs that might obscure our vision. It seems like I once read that kind of advice from a wise teacher, who had to rebuke a couple of his own followers.
Behind Jesus’ rebuke of James and John was Jesus’ whole way of life. When he was born the heavens rang with the message of “Peace on earth.” God was in Christ reconciling the world. Do we really believe that? Through Jesus flowed God’s love for the whole world----Jew and Samaritan, male and female, rich and poor, old and young, well and sick, friend and foe. Jesus defined the center of his mission as bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, and liberation to the oppressed. Jesus welcomed the stranger, the foreigner, and the marginalized. He ate with tax-collectors and sinners, society’s rejects, those we label as “second-class citizens.” Jesus included into his circle the outcast, the leper, the impure and poor, the helpless and hopeless. Jesus resisted the devil’s temptation to become a Messianic ruler of a conquering empire that would subdue all the nations of the earth, even when it meant for God’s own interests. Jesus taught his followers to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, bless those who curse you, love your enemies, no exceptions. Ephesians says that Christ came proclaiming peace to those who are near and those who are far off. But, his word could be sharp. Jesus said that we will be judged not by our political affiliation or national loyalty, not by our doctrine or moral values, but by whether or not we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.
When Jesus finally reached Jerusalem, the city of destiny, he rode through those gates, not on the horse of a conquering king, but on a lowly donkey to dramatically fulfilled Zechariah’s prophecy of a peaceful ruler.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you…
humble and riding on a donkey…
He will cut off the chariot…
and the war horse…and the battle-bow…
and will command peace to the nations. (Zechariah 9:9-10)
Jesus’ followers have no other ruler than this Prince of Peace!
When captured by the Roman soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter grabbed a sword to fight off the enemy. Again, Jesus had to rebuke the violence of a disciple. His words to Peter echo across the sands of time, “Put away the sword.” Rather than call down the armies of heaven to defend himself, Jesus died on a cross, like many Jews who resisted the oppressive regime of the Roman empire. The cross was a means of threatening and terrorizing God’s people. Shamed, humiliated, spat upon, insulted, and mocked with a crown of thorns, he did not call down fire from heaven on his enemies. Instead, on the cross he spoke a word of forgiveness----“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Risen from the dead Christ breathed on the disciples, those who did not always understand his way of peace. From his lips he breathed the essence, the spirit of his life with the words, “Peace be with you.” And before he ascended to heaven, Christ sent his disciples into the world not as conquerors, not as terrorists, not as the world’s police, but as ambassadors of reconciliation. To this day Christ’s followers confess “Jesus is Lord!” That was the earliest and most basic Christian confession. It was a pledge of allegiance for citizens of God’s kingdom that stood over against the pledge of allegiance to the Roman empire----“Caesar is Lord.” Jesus followed God’s way of healing and wholeness, reconciliation and peace for the whole world all the way to his death, even death on the cross, that ancient instrument of terror.
Therefore, God has highly exalted him,
and has given him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus,
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth
and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God!
Instead of fire from heaven, Jesus offered a new word, a new way, a new world. We read in the gospel of Luke, chapter 10, that right after the incident with James and John, Jesus sent his disciples out into a violent world. He described the disciples going out with an image that is strikingly similar to an image from a recent political ad on T.V. In that political ad our world was portrayed as being threatened by wolves, which could symbolize terrorists. Jesus sends his vulnerable sheep into this world full of wolves. Lord, have mercy. And they are to simply go forth with a word, a message----“Peace to this house.” And when they come upon someone who shares that peace, it will rest upon those who welcome the message. So, go forth, followers of Jesus, with this same word of peace. May we welcome the word. And may God’s peace rest upon us all, until the day when that new world comes, when the wolf shall live with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6).