Tuesday, December 26, 2017

God's Response to Murder, from Abel to Zechariah ... and Beyond

Today in the Daily Office we read in 2 Chronicles about the killing of the prophet Zechariah. King Joash has him killed in the court of the temple, of all places. The account says, “As he was dying, [Zechariah] said, ‘May the LORD see and avenge!’” (24:22)

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus refers to this incident specifically during a prolonged rant against lawyers:

Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them. Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering. (Luke 11:46-52)

When he says “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah,” Jesus gives us English speakers an extra-special gift: here is the history of murder in the Bible covering our own alphabet from ‘A’ to ‘Z.’ Of course, the main point is that it covers the sweep of Scripture from its first book to its last: the Jewish canon begins with Genesis and ends with 2 Chronicles. Jesus charges “this generation” with the murder of all prophets ever, a category he then places himself at the end of with the fat exclamation point of his own crucifixion.

But whereas Zechariah, in his dying, cries for the LORD’s vengeance, what does Jesus cry out? Luke’s gospel contains the disputed verse, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34). Many early church fathers quote this verse, including Ignatius, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Hippolytus of Rome. But it appears only in Luke’s gospel, and early manuscripts from a wide distribution of geographical areas omit it. This prompts a crucial question: is its omission because it was never there in the first place—meaning that a later tradition added it? Or was it omitted later by those who did not believe it belonged there?

Leaving this mystery unsolved for the moment, we can wonder on whose behalf Jesus prays for forgiveness. In the immediate, obvious sense, it is directed at the soldiers who are nailing him and two other convicts to crosses. The soldiers are the ones most directly guilty of murder, carrying out the state-sanctioned violence that will shortly end these men’s lives. They are just following orders, of course, and they do this all the time. They are paid executioners in need of forgiveness.

Of course, the main point is the stark difference between Zechariah’s dying words and those of Jesus. Zechariah begs God for vengeance, while Jesus does precisely the opposite. Jesus has not stopped the sorry practice of murder that we humans find so necessary; he simply changes the response to it. And then he turns and forgives the repentant criminal hanging alongside him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (11:43).

Rembrandt, The Stoning of St. Stephen
There’s one more murder to look at it right now: that of Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, whose feast we celebrate today. The sequel to Luke’s gospel, from the same hand, is the Acts of the Apostles, where we find in 7:54-60:

When [the assembled mob] heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 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.

The received Greek text doesn’t actually say that Stephen “died,” but that he “fell asleep,” reflecting the young Church’s new understanding of death as a temporary state that is not to be feared. And Stephen himself asks God to forgive his own murderers.

So back to that disputed verse at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion: Did he actually say it? I’m inclined to say yes, because Stephen was apparently aware that his Lord had done so. At the very least, Luke sets up an intentional parallel. In response to Zechariah, Jesus suggests a new course of action, and Stephen picks up on it.

But please note that these are not paid executioners; they are an angry mob. So to insist that Jesus only forgave the soldiers because of their role and their ignorance is short-sighted. Stephen clearly saw the need for a wider application.

If Jesus said it, and Stephen picked up on it, then the later manuscripts that exclude Jesus’ forgiveness betray an intentional removal of the sentence. Why? I don’t think that’s a difficult question to answer: there will always be those who think forgiveness is an improper response. It’s obviously not justified. It’s one thing for the punishment to fit the crime, but what happens when the punishment is revoked completely? What of justice and future deterrence? If we all just forgave murderers, wouldn’t the murder rate skyrocket?

(For the record: while it's a discussion worth having, I don’t think that “slippery slope” argument holds water here.)

During the heyday of state executions at the Tower of London, there was a tradition that the executioner would ask forgiveness of the doomed one. In our own times, we have numerous examples of Christians forgiving those who have murdered their loved ones, whether in shootings in American schools and churches or through the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa. I cannot imagine how I would react in any of these situations, but I doubt that forgiveness could possibly be my first inclination. 

But I keep coming back to Jesus on the cross, having just recently recounted the entire history of murder from Abel to Zechariah. Even in the agony of his crucifixion, Jesus has the ability to say, “We’re going to do this differently from now on.” He demonstrates for all of us, for all the rest of human history, that God’s response to sin is simply to forgive it. Jesus does indeed charge “this generation” with the blood of all the prophets … but then, in his dying and rising, he revokes the charges.

What of the Revelation to John, the Omega of the Christian Bible? Do we not find vengeance there? Many would like to think so, and you’ll certainly find a lot of frightening, violent imagery to support their case. But the overall thrust of the book is of justice restored to an oppressed people. It does not deny that the history of murder will continue, but it concludes with the restoration of all things in Jesus Christ:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. (22:1-3a)

The tree of life makes its first appearance here since the Garden of Eden. Whether all the accursed murderers are banished or redeemed, those who suffer persecution are assured that all shall be well. In general, it's safe to assume from all this that our idea of vengeance looks very different from God's.

None of this is accomplished by our murdering each other, of course. Unfortunately, many people still need to learn this; there is a whole branch of radical Christianist thought that wants to stoke the forces of war, specifically in the Middle East, in order to actually bring about Christ’s return. Think of them as the Christian version of ISIS, just not yet living out the violence they dream of.

But more importantly, God’s goal is restoration, not “getting even.”

Whether we like that solution or not, we are left to wrestle with it as the history of murder continues.

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