It’s time for a pop quiz in honesty: Who here has ever been in an argument? I better not see a single person with both hands down right now. We’ve all been there.
Further question: Who here has ever won an argument?
For extra credit (points for honesty): Who here has ever won an argument and felt really bad about it?
Parents of small kids know exactly what I’m talking about here. My kids are really small, so I presently have the advantage of being both bigger and smarter than them (something that will not be true for very long), which means that I am pretty much able to win any argument, either by logic (which doesn’t always work with kids) or by physically picking them up and moving them to wherever I need them to be.
This arrangement works pretty well for me, except that my superior strength and intellect (words I don’t get to use very often) mean that I literally have to be the bigger person in an argument with them. The job of parent is to help shape them into the people they will become, not just win arguments against them. That’s easy to forget sometimes, especially in the heat of the moment.
All parents (even good ones) have said something to our kids that was harsher than it needed to be: they push our buttons and test our patience, so eventually we snap. We forget that we need to be the bigger person; we forget that our goal is to shape the future, not just win an argument. And we may win the fight, but the victory is anything but sweet. Winning doesn’t give us that deep sense of satisfaction we were going for, because we know that on a deeper level (the one that really matters), we’ve lost.
The American Myth of Violence
As it is with parenting, so it is with the rest of life, in our conflicts with partners, colleagues, neighbors, and nations: Winning isn’t everything. We can win all our battles and still lose in what really counts.
This is a hard truth to understand in our America today because we have built our culture around the myth that violence solves problems. This myth goes all the way back to the story of our founders: the Revolutionary War. This myth has been reinforced time and again by those who claim that the only way to defend freedom is by picking up a gun. We even see it in our entertainment: is there anybody here who would pay ten bucks to see a movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger in group therapy? Probably not. If his name is on the marquee, we want to see explosions.
That’s the American myth (although it’s by no means unique to America): Violence is strong and manly. Violence solves problems. Winning is what counts.
Kinds of Violence
There are many different kinds of violence, but they’re all connected. Violence can be personal or institutional; it can be physical or psychological.
One form of violence that we’re all familiar with is physical violence on an institutional level, otherwise known as war: two or more groups of people trying to kill each other in an orderly fashion. That kind of violence is fairly self-explanatory. But then there’s psychological violence on an institutional level: the unconscious systems of unjust privilege, prejudice, and oppression that destroy the souls of the people involved, even if their bodies are left intact. I’m talking about racism, sexism, and homophobia, just to name a few.
On a personal level, we see physical violence every day with reports of crime headlines in the news. We wonder, “What is this world coming to?” I asked myself that question this week as I saw somebody get jumped in the park on my way home from work.
There is psychological violence on the personal level as well. The old saying goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That’s a lie. Sticks and stones may leave scars, but words leave open wounds that bleed for years (sometimes generations) after they have been spoken.
When psychologists voice concern over the problem of bullying (kids or adults at home, work, or school), they are not primarily worried about peoples’ physical safety; they’re worried about what’s happening inside the person who is being so humiliated and dehumanized by another person’s words. That’s psychological violence.
Another form is gossip: tearing somebody down behind their back, whether it’s true or not, whether they deserve it or not. There’s a reason why they call that character assassination. It’s a kind of violence.
The last kind of violence I want to mention is probably the most insidious and overlooked kind of all, but I believe it lies at the root of all the other kinds we’ve mentioned: psychological violence done to oneself. This the negative self-talk that we all do from time to time. Do any of these sound familiar?
“I’m so fat/stupid/weak/ugly/old. I’m such a loser/failure/screw-up. If people really knew me, they would never want to hire me/love me/be my friend, etc.” This is the violence of silence. These are the things we think about ourselves when no one else is around.
It seems private, but it’s anything but. This kind of internal, personal violence fuels every other kind of violence we’ve just mentioned. To ease the pain of these secret insecurities, we tear one another down, psychologically or physically, personally and institutionally, so that we can feel better about ourselves. The lie behind the myth of violence is, “Enough violence will eventually make those voices of insecurity go away.” But it won’t.
We’ve heard it again and again that “hurt people hurt people.” We’re trying to exorcize or own demons. Biblically speaking, we’re “casting out Satan by the power of Satan” and it doesn’t work. The cycle of violence is self-perpetuating, driving us deeper and deeper into death and self-imposed destruction.
We’ve forgotten that winning isn’t enough by itself: there’s a deeper meaning and purpose to life. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that Jesus Christ shows us another way to live that is not the way of violence.
We heard about this new way of life in this morning’s reading from the first letter of St. Peter. Talking about Jesus, the author says that Christ “did not return abuse when abused” and “did not threaten when suffering.” He also says that we have been left “an example so that we should follow in the footsteps of Christ.” And sure enough: following in Christ’s footsteps, saints and martyrs throughout history have suffered and died, standing up for what they believed without fighting back.
Awareness of God / Returning to the Shepherd
What was it that gave them such supernatural strength to overcome the human instinct to return violence for violence, to fight fire with with fire? Peter gives us a hint in the first sentence of this passage: they were “aware of God.” the full sentence reads, “it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure suffering unjustly.”
What was it exactly about God that we are supposed to be aware of? I think we get another hint in the very last sentence of the passage when the author refers to Christ as “shepherd.” Again, the full sentence: “you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
I think it’s significant that we have these two phrases about “being aware of God” and “returning to the shepherd” sandwiching the beginning and end of this passage while, in the middle, we have this discourse about practicing nonviolence, not returning abuse when abused, and following the example of Christ.
I think Peter is saying something about the nature of God: God is the gentle shepherd who (as it says in the psalm) leads us to lie down in green pastures by still waters, who restores our souls, who comforts us with the rod and staff: not to beat us into submission, but to gently guide us back to safety and fight off the predators that would attack us. God is the gentle shepherd, therefore the gentle shepherd is the foundation of reality itself.
We are not left alone in a barren wasteland where “survival of the fittest” and “might makes right” are the only laws. No, we are instead connected to a reality that includes each of us, yet is greater than all of us. We are loved, we are held, and we are led by the voice of the gentle shepherd whose intention is for us to “have life and have it abundantly.”
Listening to the Shepherd’s Voice
Our invitation to discipleship this morning is to pay attention to this shepherd’s voice, to live with an awareness of God as found in scripture, sacrament, service, and prayer.
If we can do that, we will understand what life is really all about: that livingis more than just surviving. There is a larger purpose at work.
We know from experience that we can survive without living and still lose, even when we win (remember what we said at the beginning about fighting with our kids?). What Christ the Good Shepherd reveals to us is that there is also a way to live without surviving and still win, even when we lose.
This is what Jesus called the Way of the Cross. It’s is one of the mysteries of our faith. It doesn’t make much sense to the rational mind. We can only understand the truth of it once we’ve practiced it and given ourselves to it in faith. Believing is seeing, when it comes to following Jesus.
But the promise of Christ is this: If we take up our cross and follow in faith where Christ leads, we will discover an Easter Sunday on the far side of Good Friday; we will find a resurrection after each crucifixion; we will find a larger Self in which we can rest once the hectic demands of our ego are quieted down.
This week, when this world’s shouts of violence threaten to overwhelm you, when you read headlines about war and crime, when your neighbors annoy and insult you, and even when the voices of violence seem to be coming from inside your own head: listen in that moment to the voice of the Gentle Shepherd, who did not return abuse when abused, who came that you might have life and have it abundantly, who loves us out of violence and into life, saying to us every moment of every day: “I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Be blessed and be a blessing.