Homily 9/11/11 (24 th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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1 Homily 9/11/11 (24 th Sunday in Ordinary Time Today is the 10 th anniversary of the tragedy of 9-11 when thousands of people were killed in planes, in the twin towers in New York and at the Pentagon in Washington. Anyone who lived through those events can probably remember where you were and what you were doing when you first heard what had happened. You can probably also remember the flood of emotions that might have overwhelmed you as the hours and days slowly revealed the depth of the tragedy, its incomprehensibility, and the political reactions that began to set in almost immediately. The time in which we live has been irrevocably shaped by that day of Remembering the past, even at the best of times, is a rather complex affair. It s not straightforward or obvious for two reasons: 1) First, we often remember what we want to remember because we know what we choose to know. 2) Second, we often do with our memories what we want to do with them because the memories themselves do not dictate to us what ought to be done with them. In addition to this basic human problem that surrounds human remembering, we Christians are also attempting to remember in a particular way- we are trying to remember Christianly, so to speak. The fact that we are Christians, disciples of Jesus, must surely make a difference in how we struggle to remember the past, to remember even the evil and tragedy of what has taken place. Here, of course, is where the rubber hits the road, where we are tested as to what impact the Gospel has made, or is making, in the way we see things, reflect on things, and journey through life. 1

2 What I will say from this point on reflects my own struggle with some of the immense issues inherent in trying to make sense of being a Christian in a world where force and violence and terror are what often seem to have the upper hand. My primary teacher in this regard is a theologian by the name of Miroslav Volf, but my goal in this homily is certainly not to give you answers. It is simply to encourage you to engage in your own struggle to listen to what the Gospel is saying, to what the Cross of Jesus implies, and then to follow where Christ is calling you. I ll make only four points, and then leave it at that, without any kind of therefore, you need to... First, the events of 9-11 remind us that consistent non-violence and non-retaliation may be impossible in the world of violence. Tyrants may need to be taken down from their thrones, madmen may need to be stopped from sowing desolation, and measures to prevent others from inflicting devastation and death may need to engaged in. Dietrich Bonhoeffer s famous decision to take part in an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler should remind us of this dilemma and the possibility of good people using violence to stop even further violence. But if one decides to put on soldier s gear instead of carrying the cross of non-violence, one should not seek legitimation in the religion that worships the crucified Messiah. There are Christians who have a hard time resisting the temptation to seek religious confirmation for their (understandable) need to take up the sword. But they should forego trying to make the Cross of Jesus complicit with violence. A Christian Jihad is simply a contradiction in terms, as attractive as it may at times seem. 2

3 Second, remembering 9-11 brings us face to face with the very problem of evil, violence, and justice. I must admit that I find it much easier to believe in Jesus than to believe in His ideas and in the way He lived life. I much prefer Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords, and as the victorious Rider on the white horse in the book of the Apocalypse than as the man standing helpless as a lamb before Pilate, bound, beaten, scourged, refusing to fight back, refusing to repay evil with evil. At a deep level my gut response says: without Caesar s sword, truth and justice cannot reign; violence is necessary. And what does the crucified Messiah have to do with any of this? At the same time, I also know that it is the sword that establishes my truth, my justice, and that we all can be so easily caught in a vicious cycle of competing truths and competing justices, and this competition so easily calls forth violence. And violence, in turn, enthrones the truth and justice of those with the biggest weapons. Third, remembering 9-11 forces me to ask myself whether or not I actually accept and want to live by the Cross of Jesus. In the latest issue of Time magazine, there is the most amazing and haunting picture taken just as the south tower of the World Trade Center is collapsing. The blackened Cross of St. Peter s Lutheran Church is in the foreground and serves as a kind of lens for looking at the devastation that is taking place just behind it. Is that my lens? Is that our lens? And if it is, what does it mean? What does it imply? Whatever else the Cross of Jesus does, it certainly reminds us that violence is the backdrop for much of the New Testament narrative, that the drama of salvation starts and ends with violence, and that within this framework the crucifixion of Jesus challenges violence. The cross breaks the cycle of violence. Hanging on the cross, 3

4 Jesus is the ultimate embodiment of his own command to replace the principle of retaliation (an eye for an eye) with the principle of nonresistance (if anyone strikes you on the right cheek turn the other also). Jesus refused to be sucked into the automatic response of revenge (he asks God to forgive those who are doing him evil). The cross lays bare the mechanism of scape-goating, it reveals our tendency to find someone upon whom we can place all the blame and fear and anxiety that we hold inside ourselves ( it is better, Caiaphas the High Priest says, for one man to die than for the entire nation to be destroyed ). The cross of Jesus is also part of His own struggle for God s truth and God s justice, part of His active battle against the kingdom of deception and oppression. When Jesus is crucified, He is not simply a passive victim, but He is actively engaged in confronting the powers of destruction and evil. At the same time, this is the very means by which God reaches out and embraces precisely the deceitful and the unjust. The cross of Jesus tells the truth about the world and about human beings, but doesn t leave it there. God through Jesus embraces the perpetrators of evil and violence and deceit ( Father, forgive them, because they don t know what they are doing ). If all of this is going on when the crucified Messiah is working out our redemption as He accepts the pathway of non-violence and non-retaliation, what does it mean for us to whom Jesus said, pick up your own cross and walk after me? How do we hear those words from Sirach: Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer the LORD's vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven? 4

5 Fourthly and finally, if we accept this challenge of the cross as opening the doorway to a new way of living, a new world, in which we, like Jesus, struggle to break the cycle of violence by refusing to be caught in the automatic response of revenge, we must still deal with one huge problem: even if the costly act of non-retaliation can become a seed from which peace can grow, it cannot be denied that the prospects are good that by trying to love our enemies, we too may end up on a cross. To pretend otherwise is delusion. As we look at the biblical story we are also confronted with something which makes many of us feel a little uneasy. The final victory of God is described in the biblical book of the Apocalypse and throughout the gospels in violent terms- as God s vengeance, His anger and wrath, as the Rider on the white horse with a sword coming out of his mouth, who uses violence without any thought of embracing the enemy. A nice God is often a figment of liberal imagination, but we must still ask: How does all of this fit with the open, embracing arms of the suffering Messiah? If we are being called to live the Jesus Way, we must still face the possibility that 9-11s can happen, that belief in the infectious power of nonviolence- that sooner or later the path of non-violence will be crowned with success and everyone will be won over- can smell a bit like the sweet aroma of suburban Christianity- a wonderful idea so long as I m sitting in my living room with a nice cup of coffee. And if history is any guide, the prospects are good that nonviolence, the way of Jesus, will fail to dislodge violence and evil and oppression. 5

6 Underlying all the scriptural images of God s anger and wrath and His final act of violence and destruction in the Apocalypse is the acceptance that nothing in this world is powerful enough to force change on those who insist on remaining evil and violent, and that finally God must deal with that reality. The Cross is about God setting aright the world of injustice and deception; the Apocalypse is also about God setting aright the world of injustice and deception. The God of the Cross and the God of the Second Coming are the same God. The violence of the Rider on the white horse, and so many other images of God s anger and wrath in the scriptures, are, it seems to me, the symbolic portrayal of the final exclusion of everything that refuses to be redeemed by God s suffering love. And there will be an exclusion. We must not shy away from the unpleasant and deeply tragic possibility that there might be human beings, created in the image of God, who, through the practice of evil, have immunized themselves from all attempts at their redemption. They are untouched by the lure of God s truth and goodness. They are ensnared by the chaos of violence which generates its own sense of reason and goodness. Only this can explain how someone can scream God is great just before he flies an airplane into a building filled with thousands of people. For the sake of the peace of God s good creation, we can and must affirm God s non-acceptance of this kind of human behavior. Here we must affirm God s divine anger and His divine violence in finally putting an end to our evil, so that the creation can be renewed. At the same time, we can hold on to the hope that in the end, even the flag bearer in the enemy camp will desert the army of evil and deception that wars against the Lamb. 6

7 God s patience in dealing with this blight of violence within His good creation is certainly costly, but the day of reckoning must come, not because God is blood-thirsty, but because every day of patience in a world of violence can mean the perpetuation of more violence and evil. The key question, though, for us is whether it is our job to help God along in this reckoning process, to imitate God by inflicting violence on evil-doers. And I think the answer is NO. Our first duty is to allow God to be God, to not want to be God, to allow justice and judgment to be His, to allow God to hold the monopoly on judgment and anger and wrath. Our task as Christians is not to take up the sword, gather under the banner of the Rider of the white horse, and identify our own acts of violence as being the justice of God. We all too often have done that very thing in the past with our inquisitions, our crusades, and our interminable wars. Our task, according to Jesus, is to take up our crosses and to follow the crucified Messiah, and to allow God s rightful anger at injustice and deception and evil to work itself out. The divine system of judgment is not the flip side of the human reign of terror, as some have suggested. It is the necessary condition for human nonviolence. The certainty of God s just judgment at the end of history is what made it possible for Jesus- and so for us- to renounce violence in the middle of history. The only way to expel the violence that we are all inclined to engage in one way or another is by insisting that it does not belong to us, that it is legitimate only when it comes from the One who sees and knows perfectly the hearts and souls of all people. Until then, as that Time magazine photo so hauntingly portrayed it, we need to look at life, even the great tragedies of life, through the Cross of Jesus. 7

8 Further reading: Miroslav Volf: Exclusion and Embrace. A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (1996) The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (2006) 8

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