Among the very moving collection of pictures in the All Souls ofrenda here behind the altar, none was more touching to me than a newspaper clipping placed there about the burial of Lilly Garcia. It has been a little over two weeks now since this four-year old girl was shot dead in a road-rage incident on our city’s streets, and while we are surrounded almost daily by such incidents of violence, her death seemed to touch an especially raw nerve for many of us by its shear insanity.
Now I’m skeptical of saying that we live in a particularly violent age, for the record of human history would suggest that violence is endemic to our nature. Yet I’m also skeptical of writing off violence as a problem we can’t engage, simply because it is so pervasive. Violence in all of its forms—physical, mental, and spiritual—is the most fundamental human problem, and we are called to confront it by the simple fact that the crucifix, the image of Christ crucified, reminds us of the price of violence, and its terrible distortion of the human person.
What, then, can we say—holding the image of Christ crucified in our mind, while also turning our attention to a four-year-old girl shot dead for no other reason than uncontrolled anger?
Rowan Williams, in a little book called The Truce of God, offers an extended meditation on the prevalence of violence and how Christians are equipped to respond to it. He first locates violence (among all of its complex causes) in the anger that comes from a loss of a sense of human freedom. When we feel threatened, hemmed in, unable to control our own destiny—our innate response is to react violently against those inhibitors which we perceive to lie at the cause of this restriction of our freedom.
The recent stabbings in Israel are a prime example: faced with a sense that they have no rights, no hope, and no freedom, some Palestinians have turned to random killing as an expression of their despair and frustration.
Similarly, the terrorist turns to violence as means of resistance to a perceived threat from an alien culture, power, or ideology that threatens to encroach on his sense of place in the world.
These more societal manifestations of violence are, in some sense, relatively clear instances of how a perceived loss of freedom is a source for the impulse to violence. But what about the violence we have recently experienced closer to home—the shooting of a school girl, or a city cop? How are we to account for that?
Williams would have us to wrestle with the possibility that such random violence likewise exhibits a reactive response to a perceived threat to individual freedom that manifests itself as anger. But this is not just an issue for certain unbalanced individuals: we can’t absolve ourselves of responsibility by saying “it’s someone else’s problem.” As Abraham Heschel put it, “Some may be guilty, but all are responsible.” For the predilection toward violence has its roots in deeper cultural biases which we all share and nurture within ourselves.
Williams argues that as a culture, we are nourished with a sense of entitled exceptionalism that trains us to think that we are somehow exempted from the patterns of accountability and responsibility that govern an authentically complex and global society. We assume, for instance, that we can consume, whatever we desire. We assume that we have a unique claim on personal safety and security that protects us from the unpredictability and conflict under which most of the world lives. We assume that when another human being gets in our way, we have the right to remove them from our path, whether off the road or across the border. And so goes the list … and it results in a virile perception of individual invincibility and independence that makes us quick to respond angrily and defensively to any threat against us—both as individuals and as a nation.
When a Christian confronts this pattern of angry defensiveness, however, Williams argues that he or she must place it in the context of the self-critical repentance to which Jesus continually calls each of us. The dynamic of such repentance is not just one of feeling guilt—for that would only lead us further into a despairing cynicism. Rather, just as one who grieves must reawaken hope in order to move forward, so too must we who are made to feel helpless in the face of cynical violence learn to rekindle hope. And in the Christian reckoning, the engine for such hope is being able honestly to name first what is wrong, to seek God’s forgiveness for it, and then to be given the possibility (the hope) of doing better. To find hope, in other words, is to reclaim an authentic sense of our ability to influence the course of our own lives.
So naming violence for what it is, and taking responsibility for the place each of us has in perpetuating its cultural roots, is the first step toward resisting its prevalence and reforming its casual acceptance in our society. As Williams puts it, “To resist this destruction is to affirm a faith in a human future; and the Gospel, by driving us to repentance, grounds this affirmation of the future in the loving will of God, remaking us through our conversion.”1
So in the face of the uninhibited violence of our age, the mission of the church becomes nothing less than modeling the conversion of the human heart. We are called, therefore, as a religious community to ask deeper and harder questions than either our power-driven political leaders, or our entertainment-driven media, are capable of. In the church’s own pattern of repentance and renewal—the very thing that we are doing here today—it must represent for society the fundamental process of dismantling the structures of violence through the recovery of freedom and hope. What we are doing around this altar thus becomes of supreme importance: it is nothing less than our answer to the scourge of violence, by proposing an alternative vision of human community.
But conversion to what, you may ask? Here I am put in mind of another powerful little book, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, written by a certain William Hubert Vanstone. Vanstone—who died only a few years ago—was a brilliant theologian who declined numerous academic offers in Britain’s most prestigious universities, to serve instead as a parish priest in the housing developments of Lancashire. Throughout his ministry, he wrestled with the central question which he framed as, what makes the church of “supreme and unconditional importance,” as opposed to the seeming indifference he found toward it in the suburban housing estates in which he ministered? (Or, put more simply, why does the church still matter?)
The answer that he worked out in this little book, published only toward the end of his life after decades of personal struggle, was that above all, the church is the unique channel through which we human beings respond to the reality “that all being depends upon [God’s] love expended in self-giving, wholly expended, without residue or reserve, drained, exhausted, spent.”2 The church in other words makes of itself an offering—its life, its worship, its buildings, its activity … all are offered to God—as the means by which the one inescapable and ultimate reality of divine love is made manifest in the world. Vanstone once compared the church to a swimming pool, “in which all of the noise comes from the shallow end.” To make of ourselves an offering to the divine love, however, is to move to the spiritual deep end, and it is only there that the church’s authentic mission is to be found.
Our conversion as Christian people, then, is to this same pattern of self-giving, self-emptying love as we move from the shallow to the deep end: we must learn to love with the love God has for us, wholly expended, without residue or reserve, drained, exhausted, and spent. For the redirection of our violence-producing anxiety and fear can only be into the self-emptying act of love, which is the corrective antithesis of the self-centered nature of violence. The church offers its life—and by implication, we as members of the body offer our own—as an alternative vision of hope and concern in the midst of anxiety and cynical indifference.
And here we come at last to our gospel story of the widow’s mite. Jesus affirms the value of the gift this poor woman makes of her worldly resources—“everything she had”—because he sees in it an offering not just of two copper coins, but an offering of her whole life as an image of the self-emptying nature of love. She has moved to the deep end, and unlike the scribes and Pharisees who are chattering away in the shallow end, she opens in herself a small space to contribute to the world’s redemption, because through her act of generosity, she has pointed beyond the tragedy of her own poverty, to the triumph of love, wholly expended. It’s the same kind of moment as when two people say to one another in a marriage service, “with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you,” as Bob Bowman and Jack Knight did together here last evening (the first-ever time that we have been able to witness and bless the marriage of a same-sex couple in this church). That is a supreme moment of self-emptying love, and the widow likewise embodies such a moment in exactly what Vanstone names as the ultimate mission of the church: to occupy the meeting point between God and humanity, where God’s most passionate longing evokes and embraces our deepest piety.
I offer these thoughts in memory of Lilly, and all those whose lives have been touched by the scourge of needless violence. May they rest in peace. In the name of the Father … Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2015
1 Rowan Williams, The Truce of God, 2nd ed. (Eerdmans, 2005), 21.
2 W. H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavor, Love’s Expense (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1977), 115.