Thoughts on recent world events and what it means to followers of Christ. Jumping off from John 18:33-37.
Over the course of the past couple of weeks, events in Paris—and, as many of us discovered afterward, also in Beirut—have grabbed ahold of our minds and hearts. This week we add to it Mali, a country I’d suspect most of us couldn’t place on a map unless we have visited West Africa. Additionally, we have the Syrian refugee crisis and our own hyper-politicized run-up to a presidential election next November adding to the frenzy. Fear and bombastic rhetoric and calls from varying positions on how to respond have flooded the airwaves and the web. The noise is overwhelming, and the issues are reduced to snappy soundbites.
What’s a faithful Christian to do? How do we follow Jesus and think about these complex issues in a way that reflects Christ’s kingdom?
Today we celebrate the Last Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Christ the King Sunday or simply The Reign of Christ. We’ve reached the very end of our Church year and next Sunday we’ll be flipping the calendar to begin again with the First Sunday of Advent. On this Sunday we focus on the future hope that we have when Jesus reigns forever, and how we can embody that kingdom in the here and now. We’ll be reminded in the weeks ahead about what Jesus’ first coming looked like as we welcome him again.
Our Gospel brings us to the very end of Jesus’ life. He’s standing before Pilate with maybe an hour or two before his crucifixion. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks him. “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
If Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world, then our mindset of what a kingdom looks like must at the very least be questioned. Jesus gives us a big hint in his response of what makes his kingdom different: “If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting.” Violence marks and mars the kingdoms of this world. But Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” (Matt. 5:9)
We unfortunately know about violence, you and I. It begins with fear, of course, and, as Yoda reminds young Skywalker, it is the path to darkness. Fear crushes us. Fear about the future, about the unknown, about possible violence. When we become constricted with fear we become blinded. We try to control our uncontrollable world. And when this blindness clouds our judgment, we believe power holds the key to controlling others.
Which is why we in America spend so much on our national defense; this fiscal year it’s some $610 billion. That is, as you probably know, more than the next 7 countries combined: China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the UK, India and Germany together spend $601 billion. [ref]http://www.pgpf.org/chart-archive/0053_defense-comparison[/ref] In a 2007 survey, it was estimated there were 270 million firearms owned by civilians in our country, nearly 1 per person.[ref]http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2015/08/graphics-americas-guns[/ref] More recent estimates—due to laws around registration of guns, the number cannot be exactly determined—puts the number over 1 for each American citizen regardless of age.[ref]http://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/2015/07/dean-weingarten/how-many-guns-are-there-in-america/[/ref] In our own Commonwealth, with some of the strictest gun laws in the country, a provision in a bill limiting the purchasing of firearms to one a month got struck down at the Boston statehouse, because 12 firearms a year per person is too few.[ref]https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/07/09/mass-house-lawmakers-approve-gun-bill-aimed-toughening-state-laws/GzW9QWNOLmFszWf2wPLyNI/story.html (hat tip to Bp. Doug Fisher, Diocese of Western Mass. for mentioning this in a sermon recently[/ref] Many Americans own firearms for protection; we are afraid of what may happen to us or our loved ones. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:28-30)
Fear causes us to become people we were not intended to be. It makes us imagine our neighbors as enemies. It limits the grace we can both give and receive. It crushes us under its insidious power. If anyone claims to have never experienced this, they are not human. Of course when situations like the ones the past two weeks happen, we become afraid and our imaginations run wild. At our basest levels, fight or flight kicks in. We circle around our own and determine who’s any enemy and overgeneralize to make it simpler. It’s simply a part of our instincts when we live in this world of ours. If we were bitten by a dog at some point in our lives, all dogs become suspect. We do the same with people based on their ethnicity or where they live or how they dress or where they’re coming from. We’d rather be safe then sorry.
But this sort of thinking has significant consequences. A Syrian refugee family this week, who has spent the past few years being vetted, was turned away by the governor of Indiana even though they had been scheduled months ago to settle there. Connecticut’s governor, Dannel Maloy, working in concert with Episcopal Migration Ministries, welcomed the couple and their four year old son to his state. In an interview with The New York Times, the family recounted the past four years. (Initials rather than names are used since the couple still have family living in Syria.)
“The family was living in the Syrian city of Homs when the civil war broke out. A.’s used clothing store was destroyed. ‘We had to move from street to street to avoid the bombs,’ he said. Finally, after seven months of dodging bombs and bullets, they fled to Jordan in December 2011. They were, A. said, among the last Syrians to cross the border before it was closed and people had to be smuggled out.”
“In 2012, they registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Jordan and sat for two interviews. After a wait of more than a year, they had four interviews with international and United States officials where they were asked to show documents proving their identities, to be fingerprinted and to explain why they had left Syria.” [ref] Liz Robbins. “Syrian Familiy Diverted from Indiana Feels ‘Welcomed’ in Connecticut,” The New York Times. November 20, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/21/nyregion/syrian-refugees-come-to-the-us-to-find-a-place-they-did-not-expect.html?_r=0[/ref]
More details are shared, and then the article ends with these remarkable words: “’One person’s decision, the governor’s decision, doesn’t reflect all of Indiana’s decision,’ A. said. ‘Maybe the governor is going to reflect and find in himself that he had made a mistake and come back and see the light.’ It was much like a husband apologizing to his wife for making a mistake, A. explained. At that, his wife laughed and turned to him in mock indignation, saying: ‘What? You never apologize!’ She added seriously of Mr. Pence[Indian’s Governor]: ‘He’s going to recognize that people come from Syria all the way here to live securely and not to commit violence. They are escaping violence. We went through a lot, it was difficult, we went through trials and tribulations to find a future.’” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matt 25:40)
Fear, anger, hatred and violence are not the signs of Jesus’ kingdom. We know all too well, however, that they frequently define the kingdoms of this world. “Love your enemies,” Jesus said “Do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27) Honestly, it would be so much easier to ignore these words. To respond to violence with violence. To imagine that God hates the people that we hate, and retaliate in kind. But that is not the way of Jesus.
I cannot tell you or anyone else how to respond to these troubling events; I cannot control your thinking, that would only add to the violence done to you. I cannot stop the fear of real or imagined events from consuming you. I can only point out the markers identifying Jesus’ kingdom and remind you that in a few days we’ll begin our journey with another young Middle Eastern couple looking for a safe place to sleep. In a month we’ll hear those familiar words of the angel to some frightened shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people, for unto is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10) May his peaceable kingdom come into our hearts. Amen.