Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Killing Perpetuates Killing

Killing Perpetuates Killing

A sermon given in St. John’s Episcopal Church, Williamstown, MA
December 31, 2006
The Rev. Peter Elvin
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
--John 1:1

Each time I have the privilege of reading that Gospel portion, the opening verses of the Gospel of John, our patron saint, I feel lifted off the floor, transported into the cosmos. It’s as if my eyes meet John’s words, my vocal chords vibrate with his thought, and I am released from the moment into a timeless realm where infinitely important things are happening.

I read those opening words, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” and I’m floating in the primeval stew of dust and gases that represent—however you picture it—the beginning, the creation of a living universe. And dancing there in this limitless nursery brilliant with light are God and the Word, the primary players, birthing the universe with the sparks of their passion.

What a distinctly different way to begin a Gospel—by comparison, say to Luke, who tells the story of the holy nativity that we heard on Christmas Eve, a story that expects us to look up to see sparks flying in the heavens, but to have our feet firmly planted on those hills where shepherds were keeping watch over their flock by night. That’s a flight of imagination we can handle. But John’s Prologue is extra-terrestrial, his opening shot has us on a space walk, weightless. Luke introduces us to Jesus, causing us to feel awe and face mystery; but John lifts us out of history, way beyond the influence of Quirinius, Governor of Syria, and Herod, Tetrarch of Galilee.

After a brush with the daily news, we may want to be lifted out of history. But we understand also the urging of Swiss theologian Karl Barth: Read your Bible with your daily newspaper, read the news with your eyes of faith. This weekend, history has been made with the execution of Saddam Hussein, a tyrant much in the mold of those Herods we encounter in the Gospels, dictators who never hesitated to use violence as their chief political tool.

As I preach today, I need to keep the Bible and the newspaper side by side.

In these past three years our country has overthrown Saddam’s regime, hunted him down, kept him in American custody until the very end rather than remand him to an international war crimes tribunal, and instead coached and supported an Iraqi court to administer Iraqi justice.

I wonder if you think that his execution is a good outcome?

When the verdict was announced, I was relieved. It stirred my heart to hear the words that he was being held responsible for the murder of innocent civilians in brutal retaliation for some expression of opposition he could not tolerate. Thank God, I thought. This says that vicious intimidation must end. They’re choosing to stop the spiraling by which an eye for an eye escalates to whole villages and neighborhoods being slaughtered.

Then, when I heard the sentence of death, I lost heart. It felt to me as if the moment had been lost. Couldn’t something new and stunningly counter-cultural in that land of revenge have been uttered, other than a death sentence? Could this have been a moment when the grinding routine of bloodlust was interrupted by some finer impulse that might have caught the attention of Shiites and Sunnis alike? Could some word have been made flesh, other than retribution?

Perhaps I’m showing how naïve I can be. Iraq is not South Africa. What took so long to happen in that crazy courtroom in Baghdad was decidedly not what happened in so many courtrooms across the long seasons of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings. There, under the eye of Archbishop Tutu, mature wisdom required that all parties in the nation willingly suffer openly and non-violently by daring to tell their truth to one another in heartwrenching exorcism of a nation’s demons, victims and victimizers telling their stories, hearing one another, addressing one another. They worked out their anguished history by allowing the word to become flesh among them, one painful story at a time. By comparison to what we are seeing in Iraq, what we saw in Desmond Tutu’s courtrooms was grace and truth.

Saddam Hussein was a villain. By his choice of violence as a political tool, intimidating everyone around him, he deserved being vilified. What he did to the Iraqi people was vile.

But to vilify someone can be a perilous thing. The aim is to disgrace and degrade this person in order to make of him an object lesson to all who come after: Saddam was wrong, wrong to use killing as his constant answer to opposition and offense, and wrong in thinking that he could get away with it without one day answering for it. He deserved to be vilified.

And when someone stands vilified, it is a very short step indeed to get rid of him. Why allow someone that morally vile to live? Why not kill him? That would show what is deserved by one who behaves as he did, what the penalty is for such wrong. And one hopes to prevent that wrong from happening again.

But to vilify someone can be a perilous thing. We may demonize the villain, locate every trace of evil in him; we may isolate his responsibility for evil and then we may be tempted to stop paying attention to all other evils that have contributed to what we find so vile. We may be deluded by the thought that only the villain has evil about him, only he has responsibility. He’s bad, we’re good. That’s an appealingly simpler world than the actual complicated one we inhabit.

Archbishop Tutu recognized this danger, that to let Lady Justice keep her blindfold on, to press for the full extent of justice deserved, could have tempted South Africans to choose a brutal future. He prevented that. He led his people to a mature grasp of evil, then to a rediscovery of the personal power of mercy and pardon, and on to the reconciling of victims and victimizers who must learn to live together in one land. He also understood that the heritage of decades of oppression is a great blurring of the boundaries between victims and victimizers. In the face of tyranny, all may be victims and all may become victimizers.

To all who receive such wisdom, such truth, is given power to become—to see and treat one another as—children of God, born not just of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

The Episcopal Church has consistently expressed opposition to capital punishment. While it is an ancient choice, and by custom a familiar choice, our Church teaches that it is the wrong choice to put anyone to death as a form of punishment. Killing perpetuates killing.

Those three words could be the epitaph on the tombstone of the nation of Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s execution may incise those words yet more deeply.

God has given into our constant care the making-flesh of his Word. We must read the Bible and the newspaper, faith seeing the world, the world asking of faith “What is the Word? How does God speak to us now?”

The nations know how Herods and Saddams rule by death. How shall the nations see such vindication as we heard the prophet Isaiah promise, to show all kings a glory worthy of life?

All are imprisoned and guarded under the law, said the apostle Paul today, until faith is revealed by God’s making-flesh of such love in human hearts as will teach all people to know God as Abba, Father, Ammi, Mother. How do we show this love and assert its primacy over law?

Luke’s familiar Christmas story helps us appreciate who Jesus the Son of Man is. John’s cosmic Christmas story shows us what it means to call this Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. In this opening portion of his first chapter, John tells why he writes his Gospel: To all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God.

Isn’t that wonderful, that to tell his version of the coming of Christ John shoots us to the stars to gain the big picture of what God is about, then showers stardust on us, returns the story to the universe of our own hearts, and invites us to receive Jesus Christ, to believe in his name, to take our place in the nursery of light as children of God so that we may grow into the full stature of Christ.
Let’s stay up among the stars long enough to take a good look at this fragile earth, our island home, a precious gift that the human race does not know how to share with justice and peace. Long enough to keep alive the image of one miracle, this planet shimmering with life, and to make room for another miracle, the new light of God’s incarnate Word kindled in our hearts to shine clearly in our lives, the power within us to care for the precious gift of our lives, and all life, the power to make-flesh God’s Word to God’s world.