There are those who snatch the orphan child from the breast, and take as a pledge the infant of the poor… From the city the dying groan, and the throat of the wounded cries for help; yet God pays no attention to their prayer. (Job 24.9,12)
Dedicated to the memory of hundreds of murdered children and those who loved them.
During Advent our pastor asked a question that has haunted me ever since. “Can we continue to idolize violence and still believe the Gospel’s message of love?” She paused to scan the congregation. With a catch in her throat that fueled the fire of her insistence, she said, “The answer just has to be, ‘No!’” By idolizing violence, she meant faith in hostility and death over love’s decisive power to sustain life. This violence runs much deeper than movie mayhem and gangsta rap. It drills down into the marrow of our social and spiritual beings.
We participate in a culture that places nearly all of its confidence in aggression and retaliation. It’s not enough to resolve our differences in a loving, peaceful manner—in part, because doing so requires tremendous effort and sacrifice on all sides. No, we opt for the inferior alternative: settling scores. This compulsion takes root long before we reach for physical weapons. It’s the product of low biology—what the New Testament calls “the flesh”—that obsesses about survival and perceives every life challenge as a potential threat. Darwin optimistically framed this instinct as “survival of the fittest.” But, at its core, it’s a kill-or-be-killed mentality that goads us to take preemptive strikes and meet violence with violence. Thus, violence is an attitudinal issue that, if unchecked, becomes a behavioral problem. Its primary weapons are hearts and minds; fists, guns, knives, and—most commonly—words are merely hardware.
Violence always carries hidden costs that ultimately discredit its effectiveness. Years may pass before the bill comes due. But the instant our hearts and minds turn to violence—whether physical, verbal, emotional, or spiritual—the invoice is in the mail and it will arrive bearing interest. And violence doesn’t care who pays the tab, as long as it’s paid. So when excess pride in our children causes us to instill in them a ferocious competitive streak, we shouldn’t be surprised when its attendant anxiety and selfishness erupt in rage. When paranoia about safety and loss of “what’s ours” compels us to attack others, we shouldn’t be perplexed when we become targets of hostility. When fear of losing respect breeds disrespect for others, we shouldn’t be shocked when what we’re determined to preserve evaporates. Faith in violence doesn’t just look ridiculous. It is ridiculous.
Because violence can’t coexist with love, it provides no brakes to stop our slide down the slippery slope. The gaps between “venting” and berating, “defending” and bullying, “winning” and humiliating are not as wide as we imagine. If we listened more closely to how we talk, we’d get this. We talk about “letting people have it” and “crushing the competition” and “butting heads.” Even when we’re on the losing side, we glorify the violence we suffer, saying we’re “floored” by what was said to us, or “blown away” by another’s actions. Kids and sports fans have a term for our use of violent speech—“talking smack,” which gets to the nub of the issue. Saying leads to doing, and with so much of our language devoted to violence how can we not admit to its prominence on the altars of our hearts?
Giving violence different names or redefining it to highlight its extremes won’t remove its place of idolatry. When violence becomes the thing we rely on for protection and the thing we most fear, it is our god. What else but a god could persuade us to wage war in the name of peace, to assert the sanctity of our land by invading and occupying another, to exhibit self-worth by diminishing the value and rights of others? These are not instinctive responses to fear and threat; they’re conscious acts that constitute wholehearted worship of violence. And don’t be deceived: this god is a filthy liar. Nothing it promises ever pans out.
In the 24th chapter of Job—which some scholars believe is the Bible’s oldest volume—the hero’s complaint about the violence of his day reads like our daily news. Evildoers scam widows out of their property. Poor parents scavenge to feed their children, while thugs seize fields and vineyards. (Job’s loathing for this crowd is so vehement that he accuses them of not having enough sense to come in out of the rain.) Murderers kill the poor and defenseless. Women are routinely abused. And several times, Job’s focus turns to children born into a world consumed by violence. “There are those who snatch the orphan child from the breast, and take as a pledge the infant of the poor,” verse 9 says. These baby snatchers place no value in human life. Nor do they bow to the God of love. The violence they worship deadens their senses to the agonies they cause. “From the city the dying groan, and the throat of the wounded cries for help,” Job tells us. “Yet God pays no attention to their prayer.”
That last sentence troubles us, as it should. It certainly vexes Job. The entire chapter begs the question, “Why would God allow this?” It’s the same question we ask when reading reports of children gunned down in drive-by shootings and we’re gripped with grief by grade-school massacres. Where is God? The answer may be simpler, and closer to home, than we think. We’ve replaced the God of love with the god of violence. In Matthew 6.24, Jesus explains, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.” A society—including its religious right—that looks to violence to solve its problems has cast God from its presence. Before God can intervene, idolatry of violence has to be torn down. Then the love of God will return and that, in and of itself, will be the answer to our prayers.
Holy Week starts early for me this year, as Walt and I and members of our church join thousands of Chicagoans for tonight’s CROSSwalk, a sacred processional honoring the memory of over 800 young humans sacrificed to violence since 2008. Although the demonstration will be peaceful, it is intended to confront the idolatry of violence that plagues our city with baby snatchers, abusers, murderers, and war-makers. It is a fitting start to Lent’s closing act, when God’s love will challenge violence’s power and rise from death in decisive triumph.
This evening, as we hear the names of our lost called out—as we ponder the horrors of homicide and baby-snatching—we’ll want to ask, “Where is God?” But the answer to that won’t satisfy, because it’s the wrong question. With repentant hearts, we need to ask, “Can we continue to idolize violence and still believe the Gospel’s message of love?”
The answer just has to be, “No!”