Sunday 17th March 2019
Hate speech, violence and counting lives Sue Wilton
Do you think that because these Galileans who were slaughtered by the Romans and had their blood mixed with the temple were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
Do you think that those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?
Do we think that that the woman who got cancer when she was so young, or the man who seems to have one tragedy after another in his family were failing in their faith or were less worthy of a rich and fulfilling life?
Do we think that the 50 people who died when they had come to prayers in their Christchurch mosques were in some way undeserving of God’s loving protection?
Of course we all know that is not true. As we all heard the news on Friday from New Zealand, the full horror of the violence and hatred present in such an act that resulted in the loss of so many lives was hard to take in.
But as I revisited my sermon and read again the Gospel for today fresh from hearing the news, it was hard not to see the parallels.
The text refers to an horrendous incident where apparently some Galileans were visiting Jerusalem and offering sacrifices in the temple. Pilate had sent in his soldiers to a group of people who had come down to Galilee and, in the context of sacred temple sacrifice, had them brutally killed. There is no historical record of this incident, but there are records of Pilate ordering similar acts, including sometimes sending his soldiers in amongst crowded gatherings in civilian clothing before suddenly drawing their swords and murdering large numbers of those gathered. It makes you wonder what the Roman leaders would have done with modern artillery.
The weapons may have changed, but apparently people have not. There are still those prepared to visit violence on the innocent and to decide that those
of a certain group- whether the category be race, religion, gender or sexuality are in some way less human than themselves. This dehumanising shows up in subtle and unsubtle ways, in our language, and in our political rhetoric.
Like those asking Jesus about the sinfulness of those Galileans who died, we still have those who blame the victim for the violence.
We have seen this since Friday with an Australian senator declaring, despite the arrest of an Australian for the crimes, that “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.”
Two thousand years ago, faced with the violence perpetrated on visiting Galileans, some have come to Jesus seeking clarification. If the sacrificed animals in the temple had been part of the ritual for the atonement of sins, then maybe, some wonder, the magnitude of their sins had something to do with their fate.
We so often want to see cause and effect when faced with an incomprehensible universe where towers fall down and God is apparently not able to protect people from random acts of violence. Sometimes it can feel safer in an unsafe world to imagine that there was some divine will at work after all.
To that we can have the assurance that Jesus gives an emphatic “no”. There was no good reason for some people to die and others to escape. It was not that some were sinners and others were not. There is no comfortable falling back on platitudes like “it was all part of God’s plan.” Jesus calls a halt to that way of thinking.
But this is one of those encounters in the gospels when you realise how dangerous it could be to engage Jesus in conversation.
Those who raised the question thought they were asking about others, when suddenly the conversation was turned back on them. Unless you repent, says Jesus, you will all likewise perish.
You can imagine the questioners suddenly running for cover. They were comfortably analysing events that had happened, finding apparent meaning and uncovering the workings, they believed, of the mind of God. And then
Jesus goes and directs the searchlight into their own lives, suggesting that the will of God is not something imposed from without, but lived into from a life in right relationship with God. It is so easy to make our religion a religion of the head- analysing situations, judging others, evaluating everyone’s contributions and remain untouched by the Spirit whose call on our lives is for transformation at the deepest level of our being.
And this is why Jesus’ teaching moves into the imagery of the fig tree. Where we are experts in other people’s need to change or in tracking the will of God for the world in events around us, we are a like a barren tree unable to bear fruit. Our attention cannot be directed outward towards others if we are to see change, and this judgemental mind leads us to blaming, shaming and othering. Transformation only can occur from within the heart of each and every human being. The will of God is present and active through the lives of those whose hearts are turned to God and who allow the very ground of their being to be turned over and cultivated by the Spirit.
This is vulnerable work- it is small wonder most of us avoid it for as long as we can, and remain in our analysing, judging mind.
The vulnerability lies in the reality that we cannot work our own way out of our barrenness. The truth is that we can never create anything salvific and lifegiving for the world unless we put down roots to the source of life and love.
The good news is that when we turn and surrender to God, the Spirit can bring forth fruit from our lives that we could never have produced on our own. Fruit of love, of reconciliation, peacemaking and nonviolent response to a violent world. God does not work like a great puppeteer, manipulating world events; miraculously saving one man here, letting another woman perish there, healing this child and turning away from another. God is love, which means God cannot act in any way contrary to love. And this love is always extended to each and very life, bringing healing and wholeness through wills surrendered and hearts turned to God- transforming the world one life at a time.
To turn to God also brings the fruit of lament. The Lenten season provides the space for lament, for recognising the suffering and groaning of our planet and of a humanity divided from one another. It is a time, surely this weekend, not to analyse, but to cry out ‘Lord have mercy’. It is a time to stand in solidarity with those who have been dehumanised, oppressed and violated. It is a time to not think of mass murder in one collective number, but to lament… as we count each life.
The Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama has lived and worked in Northern Ireland. At various times he has reflected on the troubles there and the power of words to increase fear when different groups are demonised, or else to inoculate us against the horror we should feel. He wrote this poem called, The Pedagogy of Conflict.
When I was a child,
I learnt to count to five:
one, two, three, four, five.
But these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count
Because each time is the first time that that life has been taken.
has sixteen letters
Our lament needs to open us up to see clearly the human origins of suffering and the part we can play in healing our world. A phrase like “legitimate target” makes of the human being a statistic just as surely as phrases like “Muslim fanatic” dehumanise and generate hate.
There are no easy answers to the problems of pain and violence in this world, but Jesus makes clear that just as he came bringing healing, so are we to be agents of God’s grace. We are to count lives as we walk this earth- by one encounter, one conversation, one compassionate intention, one act of forgiveness, one generous gift, one extension of hospitality and friendship- at a time. This is the fruit of our lives that grows when we are planted deeply in
God’s love, opening ourselves to the attentive, tender mercy of the gardener of our souls. And where we have lives transformed by love, there the world will know peace.