So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

            —Seamus Heaney, “The Cure At Troy” [1]

Only by choosing not to return evil for evil will we heal the ills of our world.

578540236On the Thursday of the Republican National Convention, a six-year-old sang a medley that began, “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.”[2] I won’t pester you with my thoughts about political conventions. But that little girl vocalized a longing of mine.

In less than two months we have witnessed a cataclysm of deadly violence. It has surged through the news so rapidly that I cannot keep track.

As the floodwaters rise, I flirt with cynicism. I question whether calls for systemic change will help. I doubt whether “thoughts and prayers” matter. I wonder whether naming our problem as sin (sin that only Christ can redeem) is instead just a dodge from getting involved. I wonder whether humanity can change.

For deadly violence is very old. Within five generations of Cain’s sin, escalating hostilities led to murder (Gen. 4:23-24). Less than two chapters later, “the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11; see also Ezek. 7:23). So I despair that anything might make a difference.

But if I were to indulge my despair, wouldn’t I simply be practicing the sin of indifference? Giving up is a convenient enough option for a middle-aged white man who, relatively safe in his suburban home, could ignore all the sorrow and simply ponder puzzles of church polity (see Amos 6:4-6).

And wouldn’t my cynicism suggest that God does not intercede to change human hearts? Wouldn’t it deny God’s call to be agents of redemption in a deeply wounded world? But if I am to be an agent of redemption, how?

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Elie Wiesel’s death this past month reawakened the question of God’s activity in a violent world. As his Night insists, an all-loving, all-powerful God ought to have done something more to stop the Jewish Holocaust.

Wiesel impressed me as a modern-day Job.[3] They may have fought against different simplistic answers, but both refused to believe in a God who could be rescued by shallow theology. Only a God who could answer the fury of a deeply personal faith deserved to be its object. 

And Wiesel eventually did return to faith—not to faith in an easily-explained God, but in one who steadfastly outwaited his angry silence. This is the God we proclaim, this powerfully patient God, who stands staring at the horizon, waiting for a sign of the prodigal’s return (Luke 15:20).

We trust not in a God who overcomes our hostility in an instant, as though by magic or “divine fiat.” We confess instead a God who in Jesus Christ overcomes our hatred and wrath in his person and patiently, graciously replaces it with his righteousness until we are the very righteousness of God (II Cor. 5:21; see also Rev. 13:8, John 1:29).

We not only proclaim. We follow. Perhaps this is the answer both to Wiesel’s challenge and our responsibility.

For if God does not respond with divine fiat, then neither can we create peace by force of will. Perhaps the Cross is not just what Jesus did. Perhaps every real solution to human sin, including violence, will also take the shape of the Cross.

The idea took shape when I read recently about police officers trained to de-escalate situations of domestic violence.[4] When pushed (literally), they did not respond with the force they were authorized to use. Such an act, it occurred to me, embodies the Cross (see Phil. 2:5-8).

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Manual Cinema

And once I read of their choice, the examples flowed in:

* A woman at a dinner party offered a glass of wine to an armed robber, and after a surprisingly pleasant exchange the man declared, “I think I’ve come to the wrong place.”

* Danish police officers targeted prospective ISIS recruits, not to detain them, but to provide them with education, housing and even psychiatric care—and ISIS recruiting rates declined.

* Most recently, the local police and Black Lives Matter leaders held a cookout together rather than a demonstration in Wichita, Kansas.

One journalist has called these actions “flipping the script.” They sound to me like living according to the Way of Christ (Mt. 5:43-48; Mark 8:34-38; Lk. 6:27-36; Rom. 12:9-21). Over against my despair at the seemingly endless violence, I find hope in such choices.

I don’t place much stock in saying “the problem is human sin” if doing so only explains away undeserved deaths—or worse, suggests that conversion without repentance is good enough. Neither am I impressed with symbolic acts that satisfy our longing to do something but accomplish little. And while I do believe we must work hard together unto “the promotion of social righteousness,” it too is not enough.

All of these are worthy beginnings. But if the Savior of the world has nail-pierced hands and a wound in his side, then we will not further his redemptive work without our own sacrifices. Without the eyes of faith, the road to true victory may very well look like a series of retreats.

Somewhere along the Way—

Forrest

[1] With thanks to Grant Oliphant for introducing me to Heaney’s poetry.

[2] Many of my observations and examples for this column come from friends’ posts to Facebook. I am grateful to the contributions you have made to my own thinking on the events of the last weeks.

[3] I’m sure someone of greater prominence has already made the comparison. But I honestly don’t know whom to credit. I welcome your enlightenment.

[4] The example is under the section titled “Guiding Principles” near the end of a longer article from the Washington Post.