A Nonviolent Army–A Sermon

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.

Amen.

Originally posted on Shuck and Jive.

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