Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pentecost's Miracle (5/27/12)

Pentecost’s Miracle
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Pentecost Sunday
May 27, 2012

Acts 2:1-12; 2:43-45; 4:32-35
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’

…Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

…Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

In March 2011 the Jesus Seminar concluded a ten year study on the book of Acts. For ten years the fellows of the Acts Seminar have been sifting through Acts to separate the historical from the legendary. They will publish their findings in early 2013. The Jesus Seminar is not a particularly speedy bunch.

They did come up with some interesting conclusions regarding Acts from which we get today’s story of Pentecost. Acts has been understood and read as the history of the early church.

“Is it history?” asked the scholars of the Jesus Seminar. Answer:  Probably not.

It is fiction.  If the word fiction sounds too dismissive, John Dominic Crossan suggests "parable."

Jesus ascending to heaven?  Parable
Twelve (Male) Apostles? Parable
Receiving the Spirit at Pentecost? Parable
Preaching of Peter? Parable
Conversion of Paul? Parable
Journeys of Paul? Parable

The Acts Seminar concluded that Acts is a second century work, perhaps as late as 130 CE. One of the Fellows, Dennis Smith, presented a paper, "Top Ten Accomplishments of the Acts Seminar." Here are those top ten accomplishments:
  1. The use of Acts as a source for history needs critical reassessment.
  2. Acts was written in the early decades of the second century.
  3. The author of Acts used the letters of Paul as one of his sources.
  4. Except for the letters of Paul, no other historical source can be definitively identified for Acts.
  5. Acts can no longer be considered an independent source for the life and mission of Paul.
  6. Contrary to Acts 1-­7, Jerusalem was not the birthplace of Christianity.
  7. Acts constructed its story on the model of epic and related literature.
  8. The author of Acts created names for characters as a storytelling device.
  9. Acts constructed its story to fit ideological goals.
  10. As a product of the second century, Acts is a historical resource for understanding second century Christianity.

If these scholars are correct then virtually nothing of what we read in Acts comes from historical memory. It is all a fabrication, drawing from available literature and legend to create a story of origins that suited the ideological interests of the author.

I think this is a big deal. I think it is a big deal for Christians to come to terms with their texts. I don’t think what I have said is particularly earth shattering to this group. You know how to separate legend from history. You know the difference between watching the news and the sci-fi channel.

Even though we may not know what exactly to do with these stories and with our entire tradition once we look behind the curtain, nevertheless, looking is liberating. When I grew up in church we needed to swallow this stuff. Christianity was based on believing six if not a dozen impossible things before breakfast.    If you didn't believe these things the problem was with you and your lack of faith.  Everything needed to be taken at face value from Adam and Eve to Jesus rising from the dead, ascending to heaven, and returning in the rapture, who knows, maybe this afternoon.

I don’t believe any of that anymore and I don’t think I am the worse for it. In fact, I think it is far more interesting to read these texts critically and try to find out what was behind them.   That allows us to connect on a human level with those who wrote these texts and understand why they wrote what they did. 

According to Acts, on Pentecost the twelve males were in a room and a tongue of fire lands on each one’s head. They begin speaking not in their own language but in the languages of everyone from every nation.  First the Jews then the Gentiles are part of this new, universal community that is based on sharing.  So goes the story.

One reason the author tells this story 100 years later is to show that Christianity is a gentile religion.  One of the messages is to assure the Romans that unlike Judaism, the Christians won’t be starting any apocalyptic revolts.

There had been revolts in 66-70, 115-117 and the big one between the years 132 and 136 was the Bar Kochba revolt. Simon Bar Kochba believed by many to be the messiah, the Christ, led a revolt against Rome to restore Israel. This revolt did not end well. The Romans crushed it killing over half a million Jews, almost decimating the entire population. It is not a surprise then that the author of Acts wants to distance the Christian movement from the apocalyptic revolutionaries.

One way to do that is to show that the apocalypse has already happened and that the messiah has already come. In chapter two of Acts, the author includes in the form of a sermon from Peter an apocalyptic text from Joel regarding the last days when the sun will be darkened and the moon turned to blood. The author has Peter say that this text has been fulfilled at Pentecost. The fulfillment is the speaking of all the languages of the world in a universal message.

The real Messiah, says the author of Acts through Peter, is Jesus who “you Jews” crucified. The author of Acts blames the Jews not the Romans for the crucifixion of Jesus. Talk about revisionist history. Peter goes on to say that God raised up this true Messiah. The book of Acts is a conflict between the followers of Jesus and those who the author calls, “the Jews.”This is all fiction.  Obviously Jesus was a Jew as were his early followers.   It has had unfortunate consequences regarding Jewish-Christian relations up to the present time.

But what Acts is saying through the fictional character Peter to people in the second century is that revolution against Rome is a mistake.  Don’t follow these Messiahs. The true messiah, was killed, raised and his spirit is with us. By the time Acts is written, Christianity has become a gentile religion. Its message is one of accommodation to Rome as opposed to resistance.

According to the author, after hearing Peter’s sermon, everyone who “welcomed his message was baptized” and they shared all possessions, which is, of course, the real miracle. You get the sense in reading Acts that the author is writing about a time in which miracles of healing and raising to life, of sharing possessions, is long past. At the same time, this miracle of community and empowerment still yet can happen and indeed does in some degree in these house churches even in the author’s present.

This is survival literature.  How do you live under the shadow of empire?  How to live when occupied?  One choice is apocalyptic revolution. You see this present in the Apocalypse to John or Revelation, which is Christian apocalyptic literature. There were a number of apocalyptic sects, Christian and Jewish. The various Jewish revolts of 66-70, 115-117, and 132-136 form not the background but the foreground for this complex literature and the movements this literature reflects.

Acts took a different turn. The author of Luke-Acts downplayed the apocalyptic and had the fiery apocalyptic texts, like Joel, be fulfilled in the forming of the community. This fictional story of beginnings ended up becoming history. It paved the way several centuries later for Christianity to become the religion of the Roman Empire. One Empire. One God. It is the Luke-Acts narrative that forms the calendar for the church year, from Advent to Christmas to Lent to Easter to Pentecost to Advent again.

Of course there were many other movements that didn’t ultimately survive. If we want to know the diversity of origins we need to look at those movements. In June during our Thursday study group, we will be looking at those texts by watching a DVD series by Bart Ehrman entitled, Lost Christianities. That will begin Thursday, June 14th.

What do I take away from this?

I think it is good to look at our literature without necessarily having to believe it or praise it. We can seek to understand the authors of the literature to try to figure out what it was they wanted. For what did they dream? For what did they desire? To what did they commit their lives and hopes?  What was their struggle?  Then from that variety of literature, what can we take and use for today?

I have been a reading a book by John Michael Greer called Apocalypse Not: Everything You Know About 2012, Nostradamus and the Rapture is Wrong. The author traces what he calls the apocalyptic meme from the Zoroastrians to the present. Meme is a word coined by biologist Richard Dawkins. Like a gene in biology, a meme is a cultural unit that survives and spreads. The apocalyptic meme, according to Greer, is a posture that takes many forms, but the basic meme is that the world is evil and an age is coming in which it will be made right. Whether by God, or humans or a combination, this bad age will be overthrown, usually violently, and a golden age will come.

That meme certainly has found a host in Christianity. Not only in Christianity, other religions, including secular movements have been invaded by this meme. Everything from the Crusades to Marxism to Nostradamus to the Mayan calendar to UFOS to the rapture to people storing weapons waiting for the collapse of civilization to the New Age change of consciousness is a result of this meme. The basic meme is 
  1. the world is bad, so
  2. a new age is coming in which the bad whether they be political leaders, sinners or whoever are thrown out and
  3. the good folks will emerge and bring a golden age.

Greer thinks this is not reflective of reality but of an interpretation of reality.  It is the apocalyptic meme.   One thing that is true about all apocalyptic movements, religious and secular, is that they are all wrong. It would be good for us to recognize that. Greer writes his book in the hope that…
“…there’s at least a chance that the upcoming failure of the 2012 prophecy might encourage people to take a hard and skeptical look at the apocalypse meme itself, to recognize that longing for the annihilation of most of humanity has no place in an authentic spirituality, and accept that our happiness as human beings depends on how we choose to live our lives here and now, in this beautiful world on which we each dance for so brief and precious a time.” P. 178

With that in mind I read this text in Acts and celebrate Pentecost in a small way.   This passage is an exaggeration, a legendary, poetic, parabolic expression of the truth of our common humanity.   That is something to appreciate.  The image of hearing a common humanity in our own language and sharing what we have may not be something that happens suddenly or in the future or in a big dramatic fashion.  Perhaps  Pentecost happens in small ways each day as we open our own lives to the Sacred Spirit of life in and around us.

That is the miracle.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Just War Is An Oxymoron (5/13/12 Mother's Day)

A Just War is an Oxymoron
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 13, 2012

Roman 12:1-21

I feel sadness today. I have been drawing ideas for my sermons this Spring from Walter Wink. Walter Wink died this week, Thursday, May 10th, peacefully at home at the age of 76. Part of the sadness comes from the vacancy, a looming black hole, that is left when a person who has lived a magnetic life dies. Wink was magnetic in many ways. He drew me in by the way that he was able to articulate concepts of the Bible in a modern idiom.

He showed that the wrestlings of our ancestors continue in us. The principalities and the powers or the powers that be, were as real in the time of Jesus and Paul as they are today. He ruined almost every movie for me with his analysis of the myth of redemptive violence. Every time I cheer for the hero to beat the bad guy into a bloody pulp I know I am participating in the myth that violence is good, just, and redemptive.

He calibrated the propaganda meter in me so that I’ll never be able to hear a president, congressperson, corporate executive, media pundit, religious leader or military general speak without knowing that it is more blasphemy from the Domination System. This system of rules written and unwritten, bureaucracy, public relations, power and influence seeks to delude us into thinking that its way is the eternal way, the way that is non-negotiable, the way, the truth, and the life.

He drew the connections between all forms of oppression including racism, sexism, economic exploitation, militarism, and heterosexism. These forms of domination including domination of Earth are pervasive at the corporate and individual level. We are all complicit. There is no escape into self-righteousness. We have to do the work of engaging the violence and deception within as we engage the violence and deception without. In other words his ideas were not just ideas, they were commitments to ways of living that we can choose or not choose to engage.

The larger sadness I feel is that with his passing I realize that I have not engaged the powers nearly enough. I have hesitated, hedged, sought self-justification, and have been too concerned with position and reputation to commit to giving myself fully to this domination-free order, this way of distributive justice, this way of peace. That is what happens when magnetic figures pass. You recognize your own shortcomings in light of their accomplishments.

Finally, I feel sadness because I wish I could have done better with these sermons. I haven’t done him justice in my feeble explanation of his ideas that are radical and yet simple. As he wrote in his chapter, “Beyond Pacifism and Just War” in The Powers that Be:
But the church’s own witness should be understandable by the smallest child: we oppose violence in all its forms. And we do so because we reject domination. That means, the child will recognize, no abuse or beatings. That means, women will hear, no rape or violation or battering. That means, men will come to understand, no more male supremacy or war. That means, everyone will realize, no more degradation of the environment. We can affirm nonviolence without reservation because nonviolence is the way God’s domination-free order is coming. P. 144

Walter Wink affirmed that the ways and the means must be consistent. If our hope and our goal is peace, the way to peace must be peace. If we wish to hope for and work for a domination-free order, we are invited to live it now.

Since starting these sermons I have received some good comments.

One person asked me if my sermons were directed at men more than women. While I didn’t really think about it that way, I think the questioner, who happened to be a woman, had a point. While women are capable of violence, it has been the men that have done the lion’s share. Why might that be? Is it genetic? Are males naturally more violent than females? It could be. I might defer to our evolutionary biologists for that.

Whether men are or are not biologically set up for aggression more than females, it is true that the domination system enculturates violence in men and targets men and boys for violence. It may be true that boys and men have a natural desire to blow up stuff, but that desire is reinforced, mythologized, and honored in our culture. Under the values of the Domination System, to be a man, to be masculine, is to be violent. The myth of redemptive violence is particularly targeted towards men. For men, violence is sexy. Part of our task is to sever that connection between violence and manhood. Transforming aggressive tendencies into nonviolent resistance and constructive peacebuilding needs to be a central part of the agenda of a domination-free order.

I think Julia Ward Howe put it so well in 1870 when she sought to transform Mother’s Day into a day of peace for humanity. These are powerful words of resistance:
Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.

Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy, and patience.

We women of one country will be too tender of those of another to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.

She called for a congress of women. She was ahead of her time as is often the case with prophets. Perhaps now after 140 years of the deadliest violence Earth has witnessed, that such a congress will happen.

Another asked me to clarify whether or not violence is innate to the human species. Our brains do have aggression centers that have been necessary for survival. We have evolved for fight or flight. So, violence is natural. Some might argue that because violence is natural, nonviolence will never be effective.

Human beings have the capacity to transcend and to control biological urges at least some of the time. Even though our bodies crave and store sugar which is an important thing to do when sugar is scarce, now, knowing that, we can make decisions about diet including sugar intake and find other ways to transform those biological cravings into healthier ways of living in the present. In other words, human beings have evolved decision-making capabilities that allow us to manage to some degree what we have inherited from our ancestors and to survive changes in our environment.

Since the dawn of civilization, tendencies toward violence because of biological aggression have been exploited by the Domination System. The mythology of war, masculinity and redemptive violence rather than curb biological aggression has nurtured it. Rather than provide ridicule and shame to those engaging in violent behavior, including so-called just war, we have instead in the words of Julia Ward Howe, provided “caresses and applause” to those “reeking with carnage.” Change the myths and we can change behavior.

Those writing in biblical times knew this. Genesis chapter 4, written around 1000 BCE in the time of the height of the Israelite monarchy, the Domination System was in full swing. At that time this story was placed in the founding chapters of its mythology of the human being. The myth of Cain and Abel wrestles with the question of whether a violent end is our fate. These words were placed in the mouth of the Lord to Cain who was about to slay his brother:
“…sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
The sin is of course, violence. The key here is that the human being can master it. Cain did not. But he could have, and that is the hope that drives the entire biblical tradition. Violence does not have to be our fate. It could be. But it doesn’t have to be. The open ended question is directed at us. What will we do to stop that cycle?

Another comment I received is also insightful. Most of us don’t see ourselves as Clint Eastwood types just looking for hoodlums to make our day. We are instead more like Gregory Peck who is true and good and abhors violence, but at the last resort engages it because only a coward lacking morality wouldn’t fight for the good against evil.

The question is this: is there a way not to be cowardly and not to be violent? The myth of redemptive violence says no. That is why at the end of the day or at the end of the film, Gregory Peck has to give in to violence. That is why in every war every country convinces its people that its war is just, necessary and one that Gregory Peck (or a comparable hero) would fight.

Since the time of Augustine, coincidentally when Christianity and the Roman Empire united, a theory of just war was needed. Among these criteria are:

• The war must have a just cause.
• It must be waged by a legitimate authority.
• It must be formally declared.
• It must be fought with a peaceful intention.
• It must be a last resort.
• There must be reasonable hope of success.
• The means used must possess proportionality to the end sought.
Also, three conditions must be met...
• Noncombatants must be given immunity.
• Prisoners must be treated humanely.
• International treaties and conventions must be honored.

We might ask if recent wars initiated by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan meet these criteria. Those who like these wars will say yes and those who don’t will say no. The Just War criteria is embedded with the myth of redemptive violence. Because of that, virtually any war can be excused as just.

That said, the Just War criteria can and should be used to evaluate, mitigate and reduce levels of violence. I quote Walter Wink: 
“I propose that we terminate all talk of ‘just wars.’ Even as the word ‘pacifism’ sounds too much like ‘passivity,’ ‘just war’ sounds too much like ‘war is justifiable.’ The very term is saturated will illusions about the rightness of war that are no longer acceptable. Those who regard all wars as criminal can scarcely use these helpful criteria when they are forced to discuss them within a framework that is basically inadequate.”
“…Instead, I suggest we rename the just-war criteria ‘violence-reduction criteria.’ that is, after all, what most of us are after. We are not seeking a rationale for legitimating particular wars, but ways of stopping warfare before it starts, and of decreasing its horrors once it begins. Perhaps both just-war theorists and advocates of nonviolence can find common ground for attempting to restrain bellicosity in the phrase violence-reduction criteria.” P p. 139-140
From Wink’s perspective which is a good third way, we can use the just war criteria not to justify whatever skirmish the Powers want us to fight, but as violence reduction criteria before and during the wars themselves.

There is a reason those in power, the powers that be, lead us into wars, and spend our capital on so-called defense.  That reason is connected with national political and economic interests.   The reason for war is not because our enemies are bad and evil and we have to kill them with our weapons and our sons and daughters bodies as a last resort.  That is the myth that justifies our violence.   The glorification of violence and war perpetuates that myth.  The so-called morality of war, the "just war" perpetuates that myth.

Wink put it clearly:
Violence is contrary to the gospel. But we are not always able to live up to the gospel. I am embarrassed at how easily I can lash out at anyone who makes me angry (it is the lashing out, not the anger, that disturbs me). Even so, when as individuals or nations we are unable to act nonviolently, we are not excused for our actions, nor may we attempt to justify them. P. 140
In 1870, Julia Ward Howe also put it clearly:
We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy, and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth, a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, disarm!
Happy Mother’s Day.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Nonviolent Army (5/6/12 Pluralism Sunday)

A Nonviolent Army
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 6, 2012
Pluralism Sunday

Ephesians 6:10-20
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of God’s power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

The questions that I am asking during this series of sermons are these:
Is it possible for human beings to be nonviolent at all levels of interaction?
Is violence a permanent and fated condition of our nature?
Are we able to outgrow or transcend violence?

The goal of this series of sermons is to provoke thought and conversation on these matters. More than that, I personally hope that these sermons will inspire a heartfelt commitment to nonviolence. I have an answer to those questions. It is an answer that comes from my personal faith, meaning that I hope and trust in the possibility even as it might seem to push the limits of credibility.

A source of inspiration for these sermons comes from biblical scholar, Walter Wink. We are reading his book, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium in our Thursday reading group. The reason for a number of sermons on one person’s thought is again personal. For me, Wink is one of those people who provided challenge and change for me. Phrases and concepts that he coined and defined such as engaging the powers, the domination system, and the myth of redemptive violence helped me see things I hadn’t seen before in society and in the faith tradition. With Wink and others, the Bible took on a new relevance.

The Bible is the product of and is embedded in western civilization.  At the same time it is a critique of western civilization. If we want to know who we are, a good place to start is the Bible. It grew up with us. Everything we think of as normal, perhaps even natural or indispensable such as literacy, government, law, money, standing armies, religion, science, a concept of God, patriotism, family and all of our institutions are all rather recent in terms of the human species. Civilization has been around for only a few thousand years. Thanks to agriculture and the domestication of animals between 8,000 and 5,000 BCE we drive cars to church today.

Compared to when homo sapiens came on the scene around 250,000 years ago and our ancestors of the homo genus about 2.5 million years ago, the start of civilization, 10,000 years ago, is a recent development.

It is with the rise of civilization and agriculture that we get all the good stuff, plus the inequities and the institutions required to protect those inequities including myths of and rationalizations for violence as both redemptive and necessary. I am not saying that prior to civilization our ancestors lived in a non-violent Eden like state or that they didn’t need to fight for their survival.

I am suggesting that civilization brought with it a level of violence and a rationale for it, including myth and religion, that made it seem like violence at an organized level was natural and inevitable to the human experience. In its simplest form, the surpluses brought on by agriculture, led to inequities that led to the evolution of domination systems that needed to keep these inequities in place.

Eventually you get kings, priests, gods, and myths and rituals that justify the order of things. The myth of redemptive violence justified the domination system by stating that humans are naturally violent and must be controlled by violence. Therefore violence is good and redemptive when used by the one who is divinely appointed to rule. When the good guys use violence, violence is good. We learn it. We teach it. It is everywhere.

It is the reason we might answer the questions with which I began this sermon…
no, human beings cannot be nonviolent at all levels of interaction,
yes, violence is a permanent and fated part of our nature, and
no, we will never outgrow or transcend violence.

That is the legacy of the myth of redemptive violence. This is why otherwise good, peace-loving people allow our leaders to talk us into one war after another. We have been thoroughly indoctrinated by the myth of redemptive violence.

Maybe we can learn and teach something else.

I think we must.

Throughout the Bible including in the teachings of Jesus, the possibility and hope of nonviolence is offered as a possibility if human beings will take it. In one of the earliest stories of the Bible, in Genesis, Cain is about to seek vengeance on his brother. The Lord speaks to him,
“…sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

This is the first use of the word 'sin" in the Bible. You don’t find the word “sin” in the Adam and Eve story. You find it here. For this author, violence is the “original sin.” Whoever wrote this believed that violence could be mastered. It wasn’t inevitable or natural. It crouched at the door as an outsider.

As we know from the story, Cain did not master it. He killed his brother. The implication is that he could have mastered it. The possibility is held out for the human species that it can master violence.

The prophets held out the possibility that we could forget how to learn war. From Isaiah 2:4
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more…

Jesus held out the possibility that people might love enemies and not return evil for evil.

Other authors such as whoever wrote this letter to the Ephesians also held out the possibility of turning the energy of war to peace. It is disputed whether or not the author was Paul, probably not. Regardless, this author created a metaphor of the nonviolent soldier. This passage is a spoof of military imagery.

The belt of truth.
Breastplate of righteousness. A better word for that is justice.
Shoes of peace.
Helmet of salvation.
Shield of faith.
Sword of spirit which is the word of God.

The point of the text is that this is how you fight the powers. How do you fight the powers that be, such as say the Roman army that has real soldiers with real weapons? You don’t put on weapons at all. The armor of God are all the tools of nonviolent resistance. Truth, justice, peace, salvation (another word for that is wholeness or healing), faith or trust.

Those are all the defensive things. What is the one offensive weapon? The sword of Spirit or Word of God. You confront the powers of violence with trust in the Divine Presence. You resist. You stand firm. You don’t give in. You don’t acquiesce. But you don’t use violence.

Illustrations of this would be black and white students who sat at segregated lunch counters resisting non-violently to violent attacks and therefore exposing the violence and injustice of segregation. In a calculated way they used their bodies to communicate justice, peace, truth, and healing, and a faith that this would work. They were nonviolent soldiers.

Nonviolence is not weakness or cowardice. It taking the anger that wants to lash out violently, (the sin that crouches at the door and desires us is the lashing out), and instead turns that energy toward creative nonviolent resistance that ultimately leads to reconciliation.

Ghandi said that he didn’t want anyone in his nonviolent army who wasn’t able or willing to use violence but saw nonviolence as a better way. Ghandi didn’t want people to simply act nonviolently out of passivity or weakness.

This is not easy. There is no question that this is difficult. If we aren’t careful and vigilant we can project our own violence onto others with words and deeds thinking we are acting on behalf of peace. This is the occupational hazard for those of us involved in various social justice struggles. I find myself building up my defenses and they aren’t necessarily truth, justice, and peace. Nonviolence requires inner work. It requires brutal honesty about our own violence, our own vulnerabilities, and woundedness.

Nonviolence requires training. It requires the humility to take correction from someone you can trust to see your shadow better than you do. It also requires you to forgive yourself when you give in to the violence crouching at the door, and keep at it. Don’t give up on nonviolence.

I hold out the hope of nonviolence and peacebuilding because I see people doing it. At all levels of human interaction I see people learning the skills of assertive communication and attentive listening. I see people developing skills to be self-aware of their feelings, observations, thoughts, and wants and being able to communicate these in peaceful ways.

We are also learning and teaching ways to build peaceful and just communities and societies. I see people learning and teaching about living sustainable lifestyles, about distributive justice, about living equitably. We are learning this and teaching this.

I celebrate movements for liberation and courageous people who put themselves out there for others. Think of the movements we have seen in the last century regarding race, gender, and sexual orientation. We have dreams of possibility.

These efforts to achieve these dreams are often small and sporadic. But it is really just a matter of degree. As more and more people learn these skills, the more these dreams will become reality.

Those questions I asked at the beginning are
Is it possible for human beings to be nonviolent at all levels of interaction?
My answer is yes.

Is violence a permanent and fated condition of our nature?
My answer is no.

Are we able to outgrow or transcend violence?
Yes. Of course.

The real question is will we? Will you? Will I?

Will we join a movement that has been active long before we were born?

As I look around this congregation, I think we have already joined.

Let us live it and watch it grow.