Here are the words from Malachi:
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me,
and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.
The messenger of the covenant
in whom you delight –
indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.
Well, that’s great news, right? But then there’s this reversal, this new direction:
But who can endure the day of his coming,
and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire
The messenger is like someone who melts things down
and like fullers’ soap;
The messenger is like a fuller, like someone who scrubs and shapes and bleaches cloth. (If any of you are fans of the King James translation, you may remember that, at Transfiguration, Jesus’ “raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.”) God’s messenger:
will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,
and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver,
until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.
Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
God will be pleased with us. But not before we pass through fire. Not before we are scrubbed down and bleached. Not before we are transformed.
In the past two weeks, the news has brought us two more stories of staggering violence on our own soil, two more instances in which individuals have succumbed to alienation and rage and, taking a gun, have chosen to kill. In the now familiar aftermath of the violence, we have heard the now familiar arguments. Arguments about guns and gun control and freedom and mental health and prayer.
I have been struggling to figure out what to say and do in response; how I am called to respond as an individual and how we, together, are called to respond as church.
There are a couple of well-worn paths available to us, and both of them are pretty seductive. Probably the most well-worn path available to church is to say, “This is hard and we need to pray about it.” That is the church’s way of saying “no comment” or “I’d rather not talk about this” while still sounding pious.
The other path is to simply to take a pre-existing argument from the evening news or Twitter and dress it up in theological language, to go fetch the Biblical proof text that establishes that, yes, my political beliefs are backed up by Jesus. Thus, we can enter into the national shouting match (it is too generous to call it a debate) with the sanctimonious knowledge that God is on our side.
Neither of those paths is particularly helpful. The first is unhelpful because it contributes nothing, because it is cowardly. And the second is unhelpful because it represents a decision to pour more kerosene on an already raging fire, because it add nothing new to the conversation, and because it ignores the possibility that we might have something to say as church.
What I want to suggest is that as people of faith, and as followers of Jesus in particular, we can offer an insight about stories, about myths.
In a lot of popular parlance, a myth is a falsehood, a misconception, perhaps even a dangerous superstition. There is a TV Show, for instance, called Myth Busters. But this morning, I would like to use the term myth is a more neutral sense, I’d like to use it refer to a meaning-making story, a story that tells you who you are and whose you are as a person, as a member of a family, as a member of a country, and so on. Myths can be good and freeing. Or they can be draining and limiting.
Let’s choose a local example. “Keep Portland Weird” is a myth. And it’s probably a good one. It says that our city has room for creativity, for diversity, for inclusivity, for eccentricity. How about a national example? “America is the greatest country in the world” is one of the myths upon which this nation is founded. And I would say that is mostly a good myth, that it infuses this country with energy and optimism and a can-do spirit, a deep sense that we are chosen and beloved by God. Although that myth sometimes does make us reluctant to listen to the experiences of our neighbours from elsewhere in the world, reluctant to acknowledge that they, too, might be chosen and beloved by God. How about personal or family myths? “I’m good at making friends” or “Nobody in my family does well in school” or “It’s really important to go to college” or “The most important thing is to work hard.” Some of these myths are freeing, some of them limiting, some of them a bit of both. I bet that you can think of your own examples of myths good, bad, and in between.
I want to suggest that the sort of violence that we witnessed in Colorado and San Bernadino – and that much of the response to those shootings – is predicated on an old myth. And that is the myth that God is a God of violence, a God of anger, and a God of exclusion.
That myth is limiting and destructive. This myth is a lie.
Now, if you want, you can back up that myth, that lie, with scripture or other holy texts, you can back in up with the Old and the New Testament alike. That myth is absolutely attested in the Bible: as Richard Rohr has said, the Bible keeps on taking three steps forward into compassion and generosity and then two steps back into xenophobia and hatred. In that respect, the Bible is a lot like humanity in general.
But here’s the critical thing: while scriptures journey to wholeness is slower and more painful than we would like (again, a lot like our own journeys), there are more steps forward than back, scripture does keep on getting closer to compassion and generosity and love all the time. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that the arc of history bends towards justice. Well, so does the arc of scripture. So yes, you can use individual passages to make the case for God as God of violence. You cannot use scripture in its entirety to do so.
If that myth of God as a God of violence is indeed a lie – if scripture is telling the truth, if John is right when he says that God is love – then what does that mean for shootings and our response to them?
Well, I’ve got four possible answers. Let’s start somewhere easy and work our way to a place that is harder. Here’s the easy beginning: it means that the shooters at Planned Parenthood in Colorado and in San Bernadino profoundly and disastrously misunderstood who God is, what God hopes for them, and what God hopes for the world. The notion that God’s justice, that the coming of the Kingdom, can ever look like releasing a hail of bullets or setting off a bomb or waterboarding a prisoner or driving nails into a cross is a perversion of faith. Scripture demands that we reject such an understanding of God, Jesus demands that we reject such an understanding of God.
Let’s go somewhere harder. If God is love, then we are called to reject any effort to solve the violence that we witnessed in Colorado and San Bernadino with violence of our own. The lament that we hear after every shooting – if only the victims themselves had been armed, then they could have defended themselves – is itself a symptom of the lie that God is in the violence business. It is a symptom of what the late theologian and philosopher Rene Girard called the Myth of Redemptive Violence, the notion that there is violence that can bring goodness, that if we just got the violence right, that if we just fine-tuned the violence, we would be good and safe and whole. The notion of Redemptive violence is lodged deep in the human psyche, it is attested in just about every Western and every Action movie ever made, where you know that you’ve reached the happy ending because the villain is face down in the dust. But that myth is not of God.
I’ll just come out and admit that I believe that we are called to work for a society with fewer guns: it is not a coincidence that mass shootings are a rarity in countries where guns are harder to get are where assault rifles and high capacity magazines are prohibited. But that’s not all that we are called to do. Because having fewer guns is treating a symptom rather than the cause of the disease, it is a technical fix to a spiritual problem, it is a technical fix to a broken myth. We need to proclaim an alternative myth to redemptive violence. An alternative to the myth that the world is made of bad guys and good guys and that it is the job of the righteous to take the bad guys out, an alternative to the myth that God is in the violence business. We need to tell a myth in which God is in the healing business, in which God is in the reconciliation business, in which God is in the love business. That, by the way, is the myth that Jesus tells throughout the Gospel.
Let’s get harder. If God is love, then we are called to a wild and radical empathy, a wild and radical inclusion. We are called to withhold our empathy from no one. That means rejecting the temptation to mock or exclude those with whom we disagree.
I don’t understand those who reject any limitation on gun ownership, who insist that unlimited access to guns is indivisible from freedom. But I want to understand. I don’t understand those who figure that barring the gates of our country to refugees fleeing from terrorists will keep us safe. But I want to understand. I don’t understand those who lampoon people of faith for praying after tragedies such as these. But I want to understand. I don’t understand those who waste no opportunity to connect the San Bernadino shooters with radical Islam but are unwilling to connect the Colorado shooter with radical Christianity. But I want to understand.
And so, with God’s help, I commit to refusing to reduce such folks to caricature, to refusing to make their arguments into straw men which I can effortlessly knock down, to refusing to shun such folks by unfriending them on Facebook or by avoiding them at Christmas dinner. I begin – however halting and incomplete my efforts may be – by insisting that such people are my neighbours, that they have the same longings and fears and hopes as me.
Let’s end in the hardest place of all. If God really is love, then the radical inclusion and empathy that I just spoke of must extend to the perpetrators as well. The deep temptation is to make the shooters into devils, into evil incarnate. As opposed to human beings deep in the sway of a broken myth, a myth to which you and I are vulnerable. This is the radical inclusion that Jesus models on the cross. Father forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.
There is an old aphorism that goes something like this: God loves you and me just the way that we are. And God loves you and me too much to let us stay that way.
Malachi proclaims the hard and beautiful and good news that God wants to remake us, to refine us, to clothe us in shining new garments, to transform us. And John – perhaps the messenger of whom Malachi speaks – proclaim that we are participants in the work of transformation. We shall not sit by passively while God changes us, while God changes the world. We shall be full participants in the refining, full participants as God tells a new myth. A myth not of violence but a myth of wholeness and of reconciliation and of love.