Monday, December 27, 2010

The Third Day of Christmas/ the Feast of St. Stephen (transferred): December 27

Then the spirit of God took possession of Zechariah son of the priest Jehoiada; he stood above the people and said to them, "Thus says God: Why do you transgress the commandments of the LORD, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the LORD, he has also forsaken you." But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him to death in the court of the house of the LORD. King Joash did not remember the kindness that Jehoiada, Zechariah's father, had shown him, but killed his son. As he was dying, he said, "May the LORD see and avenge!"
-    2 Chronicles 24

While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him.

-    Acts 7
Today is the feast day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The readings for the day portray two different stonings: the stoning of Zechariah in the Old Testament and the stoning of Stephen in the New.

Clearly the two readings are aligned in the lectionary to show a contrast. And it’s an important one. As Zechariah died, he begged God to avenge his death. As Stephen died, he begged God to forgive his killers. This is one of the main differences Jesus made: he modeled self-sacrifice. Jesus himself begged God’s forgiveness for those who crucified him. Stephen picked up the theme.

Down through the ages, martyrs have forgiven their killers. In 1980, days before his murder, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador told a reporter, “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish."

One of my favorite movies is the 1991 film Boyz N the Hood. As difficult as it is to watch, I love what it teaches us about the cycle of violence and how to break it. When warring sides are killing each other, the violence escalates. Revenge killings grow in number. Is there any escape?

Yes. The only way out of the cycle of violence is to be the one who chooses not to strike back. Revenge only leads to a greater escalation. Somebody has to be willing to be the first to appear weak by refusing to fight.

Will this solve the problem? I don’t know. Maybe it does sometimes, and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe sometimes the one who appears to look weak is then further victimized.

I have a lot of questions about the applicability of refusing to fight back, especially on an international scale. When I was in the 7th grade, during the height of the Cold War, I wondered, “What if one side launched its nuclear arsenal, but the other side refused to launch back?” The one side would be destroyed, but the other would not, at least not right away. Those who survived would have to deal with the guilt of what they had done even as the radiation spread across the planet. But there would be no blood on the hands of those who refused to fight. What would be the consequences for the future of humanity?

On the other hand, “the future of humanity” is a vague concept. In day-to-day life, what matters are people—individuals, and small communities of people. What about women whose husbands abuse them to the point of death? Should they not fight back? If someone attacked my family, would I dare not to fight back? How could not fighting back possibly be acceptable?

This is one of the biggest human conundrums. From home break-ins to the current standoff between North and South Korea, from inner-city gang violence to the intractable situation in Israel/Palestine, humans seem bent on doing violence to one another. Few really want this violence. But there are certain things everybody does want: food, shelter, dignity, security, a better life for their children. People will always be willing to fight and die for these things. How can we work to provide these things in advance, so that nobody has anything left to fight for? And how will we keep in check those few who insist on fighting for the things they don’t need: more money, more power, more control?

I recommend the movie Boyz N the Hood. I also recommend the 1989 film Romero. It appears that the entire film Romero is available on YouTube in ten-minute chunks, but it is also available through Netflix to those who have a subscription. Witness the example of this Roman Catholic Archbishop, who discovered for himself that the Kingdom of God is not out beyond death, but right here in the midst of life, in the form of human dignity.

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