Sunday, July 25, 2021

Bitter Words Like Arrows

When the knock came at the door, Balaam “the divine seer” had been having quite the array of misadventures – if you believe his tall tale, that is. Visions in the night of the gods (or, at least, spirits who said they were gods), claiming that the other gods were preparing to consume the world in darkness and drought. In the wake of that vision, Balaam had fasted and wept. When his friends asked him what was the matter, he chanted of the council of the gods, the command to sew up the skies like the flap of a tent. But then, drying his tears, Balaam had risen up and begun his incantation. He was a man whose words made things happen – for good or for ill. The visions the spirits conjured before him – well, with perseverance and repetition, he saw his words tipping the scales, striking down the threat. And through his words, he told himself, the world had been saved that day.1

But now, to that knock at the door. Balaam answered it, and it was the princes of a distant country called Moab. Their king Balak was summoning Balaam, desiring his services for gold and silver. The princes explained. You see, Balak was terrified – quaking in his boots – about a troublesome nation of nomads passing through his land – Israel, they were called. They and their God had toppled the people of Arad, they had overtaken Sihon of the Amorites and Og of Bashan, and they'd been overheard singing taunting laments over Moab. No wonder Balak was worried. So Balak wanted to hire Balaam, the man whose words made things happen. “Come now, curse this people for me... He whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6).

The journey there was a challenge – visions in the night again, this time of Israel's God; harrowing near-death experiences on the road – but he made it. With repetition and perseverance, he hoped to earn his pay. He stood atop three peaks in succession – first Bamoth-baal, then Pisgah, then Peor – and tried to do his job. Balaam's fame was in sweet-talking, cajoling, and arm-twisting spirits and gods to give him the answer he wanted, to let him speak the word of his will. And he was determined to pronounce a curse over Israel, as he'd been hired to.

But it doesn't work. The LORD, God of Israel, intervenes and prevents Balaam's words from being weapons. The LORD will not be sweet-talked. The LORD will not have his arm twisted. Not even by Balaam. Forever independent, God “would not listen to Balaam,” but instead “turned the curse into a blessing” (Deuteronomy 23:5). God beats the sword of Balaam's tongue into a plowshare, takes the spears of speech and makes them be pruning hooks (cf. Isaiah 2:4). Try and try again three times over, Balaam simply can't curse Israel. The LORD has preempted every incantation. The only things that roll off Balaam's lips are words of life. His death-dealing decrees are frustrated on his tongue. His quest is distant from him, he has no idea how to deliver any oracle to Balak other than the LORD's blessing for Israel, and no incantation can get it under control.

So Balaam does the next best thing. Rather than pay back the fee of his hire, he speaks words of evil advice to Balak on his way out the door. Balaam “taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:14; cf. Numbers 31:16). And with those clever words, Balaam might as well have cursed Israel. Those words of war set in motion a domino effect that ended with 24,000 casualties in Israel (Numbers 25:9). Deadly words indeed.

Fast forward a number of centuries. Israel's tribes have warred and made peace, watched judges rise and fall, begged for a king and gotten Saul, then rejoiced under David. But David is on hard times. His son Absalom has swept Israel's hearts away and staged a coup in Jerusalem. David is off the throne and on the run. Fleeing his city over the Mount of Olives toward the Jordan River, David and his entourage pass a village where one of Saul's close relatives, a man named Shimei, lives. Shimei has, for decades, been resenting the loss of power and life for his family. So Shimei is delighted to see David suffer like Saul. He comes out and chases the group, mocking and cursing David, assailing him with insults. “Get out, get out, you man of blood, you worthless man! The LORD has avenged on you all the blood of the house of Saul (in whose place you've reigned), and the LORD has given the kingdom into the hand of your son Absalom. See, your evil is upon you, for you are a man of blood!” (2 Samuel 16:7-8). David's friend Abishai sees this as an attack: Shimei throws stones and curses alike, and the words are the more malicious missile. Abishai wants to put a stop to it, to behead Shimei. But David says no – no, with everything going on, Shimei might just be right. God might be inspiring these curses. Only time can tell that – it isn't yet clear. And bearing with Shimei's verbal violence may be something God will reward, something that can expunge David's guilt that landed him here (2 Samuel 16:9-14).

Time does tell. The LORD was not placing those curses on Shimei's lips after all. It was only his own violent tongue. Once Absalom is dead, David is on his way back, and as he reaches the verge of Jordan, who should appear but Shimei. Shimei hurries to fall in the dirt in David's path, admitting he was wrong, begging for mercy from the king. Abishai argues for merciless justice. But David chooses mercy for all who come, even Shimei – he says Israel has seen enough death for one day (2 Samuel 19:16-23). Shimei gets a reprieve. But then, one day, David is old and on his deathbed. He tells his son Solomon of Shimei and his murderous tongue. “Don't hold him guiltless,” the elderly David whispers. “Bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol” (1 Kings 2:9). In due time, Solomon reminds Shimei of how violently Shimei had treated and spoken to David when David was at his lowest. “The LORD will bring back your harm on your own head,” he announces (1 Kings 2:44). And at the hand of his executioner Benaiah, Shimei meets his end (1 Kings 2:46).

Now, here's my question this morning: What do these two stories from the Bible have in common? And here's my answer: They both debunk a popular children's rhyme. Do you know that one? “Sticks and stones may break my bones, / but words can never hurt me.” It's quite fashionable today to insist that words are ultimately harmless and powerless, that they can never hurt, can never be violent. We have to tell ourselves that, if we want to be absolutists for free speech. We tell ourselves this rhyme to deny fault for our undisciplined tongues. Otherwise, we'd have to change. And we all know (and maybe are) those whose mantra is, You can't tell me what to say!  I just tell it like it is!  I don't sugar-coat things!

Except the Bible reminds us that, yes, sticks and stones can break our bones, that's true – but words can hurt me. Words can break a soul. Balaam and Shimei both knew how to do exactly that. It's not just that speech can be forceful. It's that speech, used wrongly for the unjust harm of others, can cross the line into constituting what God calls 'violence.' One psalmist complains that his enemies “make their tongue as sharp as a serpent's, and under their lips is the venom of asps” (Psalm 140:3). In other words, the psalmist is saying that his opponents are people with violent, harmful mouths. Their words carry venom. Such speech can intoxicate and sicken those it's aimed at. And such people are explicitly described as “violent men who plan evil things in their heart and stir up wars continually” (Psalm 140:1-2), whose words are like the cords of a net being woven to trap their target (Psalm 140:5). “Let not the slanderer be established in the land!” the psalmist cries (Psalm 140:11).

In another psalm, the psalmist laments, “I lie down amid fiery beasts: the children of man, whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords” (Psalm 57:4). Spears, arrows, swords – that's weaponry, that's an arsenal. None of us go through life unarmed. The dread power of language is armament enough, and when we use it in beastly ways, savage ways, we might as well be a verbal berserker. Another psalm objects to “the throng of evildoers who whet their tongues like swords, who aim bitter words like arrows, shooting from ambush at the blameless, shooting at him suddenly and without fear” (Psalm 64:2-4). Again, in none of these psalms do the evildoers lay a hand on the psalmist's body. Their snares secretly work their injustice through inflicting social harm, mental harm, emotional harm (Psalm 64:5-6).

Solomon, collecting his proverbs, observes that there are people out there “whose rash words are like swords” (Proverbs 12:18). Words aren't only weapons when they're used in conscious malice. Sometimes, they're like a loaded gun being juggled by a fool: it's liable to go off. And sometimes our mouths just go off – not because we mean harm, but because we're not taking common-sense precautions to not do harm. Irresponsibility with our mouths can be just as deadly. When we speak rashly, when we flail our tongues without common-sense control, then rash words can be like a juggled gun or like swords swung wildly.

But not all violent words seem as obvious as swords and arrows. There's another psalm talking about an enemy whose “speech was smooth as butter, yet war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords” (Psalm 55:21). In other words, even words that seem gentle, seem smooth, seem so butter-like and so oily, can merely be masking the danger they carry. Their politeness is a facade, and behind the facade lurks danger waiting to strike. These Trojan-horse words, unwittingly brought within the city walls, contain violence within themselves – just you wait 'til nightfall, you'll see.

And, of course, from the New Testament, who can forget that vivid passage from James? “The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our parts, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire wheel of birth, and itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). The human tongue “is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:7). One minute we're using it to speak God's praises, and the next moment we turn it to “curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9). Not only are our words poison darts or arrows or swords, they can be spewed like a flamethrower, burning away at the delicate and oh-so-flammable social fabric on which all human community hangs, and without which we can know no peace. It brings hell to earth. Verbal arson is, in God's eyes, a serious crime. And note that James roots the wrongness of verbal violence in the fact that the targets of its harm are “people made in the likeness of God,” In Genesis, that's how God explains murder's evil to Noah on the same terms: murder and physical violence are attacks on God's image (Genesis 9:5-6). James now reminds us that verbal violence can be an attack on the very same image.

So it may be odd for us to get our American minds around – hence the need to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2) – but when it comes to God's commandment, “Thou shalt not murder,” which forbids all sorts of unjust violence, we really can offend against this commandment without so much as lifting a finger. We can break it just by how we talk. Ancient Jews had no problem with this concept. One wrote about how the command against murder extends to cover all kinds of “insult.”2 And Christians down through history have seen the connection, too. One Scottish preacher in the 1600s declared, “This command is broken by injurious words... O what guilt will there be found to have been in imprecations, cursings, wrathful wishes, disdainful and passionate speeches, when Christ will call men to an account for breach of this command?”3 Even in our own century, one theologian observes how clear the Bible is that “our words can be used as murder weapons. What we say can be deadly at home, on the job, and in the church.”4 Modern commentators observe how “Jesus extends the sixth commandment beyond physical violence to include verbal abuse.”5

Are we getting the picture yet? The commandment against murder can be broken by words that are cruel to people. A rushing torrent or even a steady drip of insult. Reviling. Cursing. Bullying. Lashing out with our words, spoken or written, in such a way as to overwhelm someone's defenses and, intentionally or negligently, deal harm to his or her heart, mind, or soul. And maybe, indirectly, harm to his or her body, too.

In January 2019, a 13-year-old girl in Texas opened a closet door and found something that will likely never leave her. This girl's little brother Kevin was in the fifth grade. For months, Kevin had been bullied by his classmates. It wasn't just the one time things turned physical. It was the daily verbal assaults. It was the schoolmates writing on his tablet, “You don't belong here.” It was day after day of them telling Kevin, “Kill yourself.” And so, after the school's repeated insistence to his mother that they found no evidence of bullying, Kevin listened to his classmates. His big sister opened the closet door and saw her brother's body hanging there. His story stopped in fifth grade. The cruel violence of his classmates' words had a fair deal to do with it.6 Words can kill. It isn't for no reason that a Harvard study in 2007 found that, as far as childhood trauma goes, frequent verbal abuse has the same sort of serious long-term effects as physical abuse or even sexual abuse.7

And our culture is awash in verbal violence. It fills our airwaves. The more we tell ourselves words can't hurt us, the more we feel free from constraint to use them against others. In just the last ten days, looking at responses to a certain politician on social media, I've seen people decrying him as 'evil' and a 'liar' and a 'cheat,' accusing him of being a Nazi or guilty of genocide or terrorism, comparing him to excrement, cussing him out, calling damnation down on his head from heaven, and employing various sorts of crude language I can't possibly summarize for you in any decent way. Now, each of us is of course free to maybe like or maybe dislike that politician.  But is this healthy, is it good, this way we as a people behave? This culture of letting insults and curses fly, on the cheapest pretext we can find?

There's a lot of verbal violence on those streets – and in schools and jobs and homes. And we might at times be tempted to join in, to defend ourselves or our interests, when we live by fear. But the very psalmists who cried out against verbal violence show us a better way. In each psalm from earlier, the psalmist has an answer. In Psalm 140, he prays about it: “Let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them” (Psalm 140:9). In Psalm 57, he's already past the issue, so he can praise God that the verbally violent, having tried to trap him in a pit of their words, “have fallen into it themselves” (Psalm 57:6). In Psalm 55, betrayed by a close friend, he's confident: “I call to God, and the LORD will save me. … I will trust in you” (Psalm 55:16, 23). And in Psalm 64, he foresees how “God shoots his arrow at them,” bringing verbally violent people “to ruin, with their own tongues turned against them,” leading to shame for them (Psalm 64:7-8), relief for their target (Psalm 64:10), and glory for God (Psalm 64:9). Met with the verbal violence of the world, we pray and trust like the psalmist; we bear it like King David bore with Shimei; we even look for God to turn violence into blessing, like he did on the lips of Balaam. But we're scrupulous about not joining in, no matter how tempting.

And in that, we have the example of Jesus, great David's greater Son, whom Balaam unwittingly foretold as a star and scepter (Numbers 24:17). We know Jesus could be very hard on the self-righteous among the Pharisees and scribes. But though he was forceful, he was never verbally violent. The Sons of Thunder wanted to breathe down fire on the villages that turned them away; but Jesus denied them their wish (Luke 9:52-55). And Jesus warned his disciples to be very careful, because to insult our brother or sister puts us in danger of judgment here and now, while to speak contemptuously of our brother or sister hangs us over hell's flames (Matthew 5:22).

Jesus' word is a sharp sword, sharper than all the tongues of the violent, sharper than Balaam or Shimei could have dreamed. It's “sharper than any two-edged sword.” But it's wielded only in justice, and with a precision and care befitting a surgeon's scalpel, “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow” (Hebrews 4:12). The sword of Jesus' speech never flinches, never flexes, so much as an atom away from where he intends it to land – and that intent is never to do harm to any soul. Because Jesus came to give life, to speak life (John 10:10). His words are themselves “spirit and life” (John 6:63). Every word he utters is aimed toward helping the world attain to the praise of God, peace with God, and health in God. So he didn't open his mouth to lash out when he was battered with insults and mockery, the verbal violence of Roman soldiers (Mark 15:18-20). He didn't lash out in judgment when the priests and scribes and Pharisees and common-folk insulted him and assailed him on the cross (Mark 15:29-32), like bulls and lions and dogs gnawing and roaring (Psalm 22:12-13, 16-17, 20-21). He endured their verbal violence as one more suffering, like a sheep silently surrendering to its shearers (Isaiah 53:7). “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return. When he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to the One who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:22-23). He died with their insults ringing in his ears and battering his broken heart. But that broken heart died with complete trust in his Father that he'd hear a better word summoning him back to life. And with that trust, he felt no need to open his own mouth and lash out to shield his vulnerability.

And we are called to be like him. We must discipline our mouths to not curse or revile. We must drain our lips of their venom. We must never unleash bitter words like a volley of arrows into the ears of anyone, nor may we swing the swords of our tongues incautiously. For words are not toys. They can do violence. They can hurt. They can kill. And though sometimes we must justly lament, challenge, and rebuke, we need the skill of a surgeon. For we must not kill, must not hurt, must not surrender our mouths to violence. So let us wield our words soberly and with caution, bearing the command of God in mind and the example of Jesus in our heart. For his Spirit is a gentle voice indeed. Amen.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Choose Life

The time: February 18, 2010, eleven years and five months ago today. The place: a 66-minute drive from where we are today. It was a medical clinic on Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia. Authorities had no idea they were about to confront a serial killer. They thought they were just uncovering prescription drug abuse. But by accident, they uncovered horrors they'd never imagined. You see, this medical clinic was, by and large, an abortion clinic – the clinic of one Dr. Kermit Barron Gosnell, M.D. Having opened up shop in his old home neighborhood even before Roe v. Wade, he bought this clinic in '79. But the health department didn't come check in on him for ten years after that. He got site reviews again twice in the early '90s, but each time, the inspector chose to ignore visible violations of the health code. In 1993, officials in the state administration decided that “inspections” of abortion clinics, treating them like other medical facilities, “would be 'putting a barrier up to women' seeking abortions,” and so they gave a secret directive to exempt abortion clinics from inspection.1 Even when complaints were made, they were ignored. The Pennsylvania Department of State did they same – even when confronted with details of the violations, their Board of Medicine refused to visit the facility or review any records, lest the results reduce access to the services of an abortionist.

So when authorities finally did raid the clinic, they were astonished to see firsthand what all the complaints were about: the unsanitary conditions, the stench, the flea-ridden cats, the corroded medical tubes, the broken-down equipment, and – eeriest of all – a shelf with a row of specimen jars, each containing a trophy: an itty-bitty foot.2 It was then uncovered, you see, that Dr. Gosnell's preferred method for larger babies was to have his staff induce labor, let the children be born alive, and then take scissors to their spines to finish the bloody job.3 Ultimately, he was put on trial and convicted, and is imprisoned for life at the state correctional institution in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania.

Dr. Gosnell's methods were a bit much, even for 21st-century America. He would have fit right in, though, in the slums of ancient Rome. Because many of our assumptions about the preciousness of children, or of life in general, were not widely shared in the ancient pagan world. One second-century witness tells us that “among [pagans], I see newborn sons at times exposed to wild beasts and birds, or violently strangled to a painful death; and there are women who, by medicinal drafts, extinguish in the womb and commit relative-killing on the offspring yet unborn.”4 What's he talking about? A Roman father was thought to have absolute authority in his family, including authority in that first week or so to decide whether an infant child was worthy of acceptance into the family. If not, if for whatever reason he didn't like the look of the baby, he might simply kill the child himself; or, if that was too emotionally difficult, the parents could leave the child somewhere outside the city walls. They'd tell themselves they were innocent of blood-guilt because there was a chance that the child might be rescued, if the gods willed it; and then, if they wanted, later on they could reclaim the child if they so chose. Of course, for whatever reason, a Greek or Roman woman also had various methods – usually dangerous to herself as well – of inducing an abortion, either with a physical regimen or with a variety of drugs. And as the Stoic movement gained influence in the Roman world, it spread the idea that a “well-reasoned suicide” was a wise choice when faced with some problem like “unduly severe pain or... incurable illness.”5

That was the world into which Paul and others were traveling with the good news of Jesus Christ. Christians, the very first Christians, were completely united with their non-Christian Jewish neighbors in seeing the biblical witness against participation in this kind of culture – it was inhumane and ruled out by the word of God.6 As we explored last Sunday, God's commands prohibit murder because they come out of a vision of human life as created by God in his own image – as representing the extent of his empire throughout the earth, and thus each and every human life is sacred, and violence to human life is an attack on God, a sacrilege. Wrongful human death defiles, stains, pollutes the world's moral fabric and endangers the ability of a community to thrive and grow in God's gracious presence. And when Roman-era Jews and Christians alike looked out at the world, it was obvious to them that if human life is made in God's image, then that includes human life at its oldest and its feeblest as well as human life at its youngest and its least-formed. After all, the Bible's inspired language assumes that when a mother conceives a child, she conceives the same 'me,' the same personal self, who later lives as an adult member of the community (Psalm 51:5; Jeremiah 1:5). The Gospel of Luke outright uses the same word, 'baby,' for both the unborn and the newborn (Luke 1:41, 44; 2:16).

So the first generations of Christians were not on board with the prevailing Roman attitudes towards vulnerable human life. The oldest Christian writing outside the New Testament, written while the apostles were still alive, contains a description of how Christians were taught to live. It says, “You shall not murder a child through abortion, nor kill it once it is born.”7 After that, the first Christian attempt to picture hell, in a text written only a century after Jesus was crucified and rose again, pictures flashes of lightning being inflicted by aborted children (brought to life again) against those who aborted them.8 Twenty years later, a philosopher from Samaria who became a Christian and was killed for his faith in Rome – he told the emperor that Christians believe that “to expose the newborn” to the elements is “wicked,” because if they die, “that would make us murderers.”9 After that, an Athenian philosopher who became a Christian also wrote to the emperor to explain what Christianity is all about. He mentioned to the emperor that those “who practice abortion are murderers and will render account to God for abortion.” He said that Christians sincerely “regard what is in the womb as a living being and, for that reason, an object of God's concern.” He insisted that Christians are “the same and unchanging in every way at all times” when it comes to the defense of human life.10 And at the end of the second century, a Carthaginian lawyer who also converted to Christianity likewise insisted that destroying the unborn in the womb “is murder. It makes no difference,” he said, “whether one destroys a soul already born or interferes with its coming to birth: it is a human being...,” and so in the eyes of Christians, “murder is forbidden once and for all.”11 So this stance is not some new idea, invented by a few people in the church to address a modern issue. From the very roots of our faith, Christians have been horrified by practices that attack human life at its edges where it's most vulnerable, even when those anti-life practices are protected by the laws of a corrupted world.

From the Bible, from their living tradition, they knew that a healthy culture is one that treats every human being as having intrinsic value, value in him- or herself, not just because of what somebody can do or what somebody can accomplish or where somebody is on the social totem pole, but simply for being human, for bearing God's holy image – that is enough to be valuable, that is enough to be a neighbor whose life cries out for love and protection in his or her growth from conception to infancy to adulthood to old age to eternity, being no more finished in the tomb than in the womb. 

And so the Christians of the early church were resolute in choosing and defending life. They challenged their pagan neighbors to reconsider their own hypocrisies. They found and adopted exposed infants (not as slaves, as was common among even pagans, but as cherished loved ones), raising them to be part of the next Christian generation,12 until finally, the Church was large enough to effectively disciple emperors into legally recognizing the value of human life. It was a revolution of love. The world has been vastly better for it ever since.

Today, socially, that revolution is unraveling. We now know scientific facts that ought to make it easier for the public today to recognize human life, full human life, in marginal situations – easier than it was in the Roman world. Today's embryology textbooks are emphatic in teaching medical students that, from conception onward, there exists “a new, genetically unique individual,”13 a “single cell” that is, in itself, already a new human “life.”14 Already in the first days of his or her existence, a human embryo is actively in control of his or her development – an immature but complete human organism. Human life beginning at conception is a scientific fact, and the same is true of its continuance even in the absence of some of the brain's higher functions.  We know all this now better than they did then.

In spite of that, abortion is nearly as fully legalized in America as it was in ancient Rome. Since its legalization nationwide by Roe v. Wade in 1973, an estimated 62 million abortions have been carried out. In 2018 alone, it's estimated over 620,000 children had their lives intentionally ended before birth. As of 2019, Pennsylvania itself had over 31,000 abortions per year, and while our county has no abortion clinic, 535 of those 31,000+ abortions were performed on expectant mothers from our county, our communities.15 Not only is abortion a legally protected form of killing human life, but our federal government is presently weighing a drastic expansion in the way that our tax dollars can be used to fund it. Increasingly, abortion is defended not as a necessary evil for rare occasions, but as a cherished right and positive benefit in today's death-hungry culture.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the life cycle, we see that physician-assisted suicide is legally provided for in ten states (ours is, thank God, not one of them). Under the pretense that we are masters of our fate and can gain dignity through grasping for control, medical professionals in those states are empowered to equip the hurting with the tools to do ultimate violence to themselves. For a glimpse where these trends might head, in 2016 in the Netherlands, there was an infamous case of a 74-year-old woman afflicted with dementia, whose family held her down while she struggled for her life against her doctor, who administered a lethal injection to her. Wherever death is an option and the lives of some are seen as inconveniences, there will be pressure from the strong for the vulnerable to 'choose' death for themselves – and sometimes, if the vulnerable won't choose death, those with power will make that choice for them. In the face of all this, one modern philosopher warns us:

Every previous division of humankind into two classes by versions of functional evaluation in which one half was permitted to dispose of the other at will – men exploiting women, whites selling blacks, the young dispatching the old, the rich utilizing the poor, the healthy overpowering the sickly – are nearly universally recognized as evil. Do we really have reason to believe that, for the very first time in human history, we are justified in treating some human beings as less than fully persons? Or will we be judged by history as just one more episode in the long line of exploitation of the powerful over the weak?16

The question cuts to the heart of the modern world. We'd like to think our nation is a great influence for good in the world. But consider all the Old Testament prophets who warned the nations about God's judgment and laid out the reasons why – all the social injustices allowed in their midst. In light of the injustices allowed in our own midst, can we be so sure America would be left off their list? Ringing in our ears are the words of God to Cain: “What have you done?” (Genesis 4:10). What have we done?

The church is called to respond now much as she did in the days of ancient Rome. And that means five things. First, it calls for a clear-sighted lament over the violent ways of the age. Friends, when we think of the number of vulnerable human lives attacked in our land and around the world – the elderly, the disabled, the unborn – we should be heartbroken. We do not, must not, cannot pretend that these practices are anything other than a culture of death that esteems some real human lives as being – to use the phrase invented a century ago in Germany – “life unworthy of life.” We have to see clearly and say clearly that this is violence, and that with such violence we cannot make our peace. We can never regard it as a matter for agreeing to disagree – not when lives are on the line. Violent injustice cries out to heaven for redress. We cry out with it.

But our response has to go beyond lament and outcry. The second thing it calls for is repentance – repentance of our complicity with the conditions that enable such callousness. Surveys suggest that among the top reasons why abortions are sought in the United States include people feeling financially unprepared to raise a child, that they don't want a child with that particular partner, or that they worry they'll limit their job opportunities if they have a child.17 Among other implications, that means we've built a culture where family and work are pitted against each other, where social ties have grown so thin that people don't know where to turn when they're in over their heads, and where those who have much might have very much and those who have little might have very little. To whatever extent we've contributed to such a culture, of course we must repent. To whatever extent we've spoken ungraciously, ignoring the conditions that make violence thinkable, we must repent. To whatever extent we've been more concerned to judge than to help people thrive, we must repent. And to whatever extent we've allowed our hearts to grow hard to the needs and infirmities of others, we must repent.

The third thing it calls for is forgiveness – the embrace of forgiveness for those who've broken God's commands in any and every way. We have to outline the road of grace and penance that heals souls as they uncover their own woundedness. Think about it: Given how common abortion, infanticide, and exposure were in the Roman world, and the fact that Paul suggests many of his converts had backgrounds of typical pagan morality (1 Corinthians 6:10-11), I'd bet that the earliest churches had their fair share of members who had taken part in those practices. There were likely early Christians who, in their pagan past, had aborted children in the womb, or abandoned them when born, or had aided in suicide for the sick or disgraced. And yet the repentant were welcomed into the holy church with open arms, given full cleansing in baptism.

By the fourth century, we even hear church leaders discussing the road of penance that might provide healing for the soul from the harm done by involvement in practices like abortion. It wasn't an easy road. It took work – the early church never believed in cheap grace. But it was worthwhile work. And that there was such work made it clear that they found even the most serious sins forgivable in this life. It wasn't a foregone conclusion that it would be so. There were loud voices in the church screaming that nobody would take the church seriously unless she cracked the whip, shunned her fallen children, and denied second chances to those who'd crossed the clearest lines, such as Christians who'd committed murder. But even there, even when it was hardest, mercy won out in the ancient church.

So must mercy win out among us. While being clear about sin, never should we give the world the impression that sin is anything but the sinner's enemy – and an enemy that can be beaten, once grace enters the equation. Forgiveness and healing must always be our loudest word. For too long and too often, we've trained people to expect us to condemn, to shun, to smugly lecture about personal responsibility and suffering the consequences. We have not as often trained people to expect serious forgiveness, serious help, and serious healing at our hands. But that's what we have to offer. “Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10). We live the command by raising up those who've fallen afoul of it, if they're willing to accept the loving hand of the church as the loving hand of Christ.

The fourth thing the situation calls for is living in a new way – a way that values life all the way to its utmost edges. The early church was so unsettling and so appealing to the Romans because they just didn't fit in. They could be mocked as lunatics, but there was just something about these Christians. The church was radical because it, it alone among popular movements, dared to see human life with the eyes of Jesus. Not only did they think it and say it, they actually lived it out, treating their neighbors and even enemies with compassion, caring for them when they were sick, providing for them at their own expense, rescuing children abandoned to die. On the pagan world's terms, none of this made any sense. It was disturbing, often infuriating, to see that people could really live like that. But by God (literally!), they could and they did.

And if the church wants to be faithful today, we need to rediscover that too. For too long, American Christians have had vastly more in common with non-Christian Americans than with non-American Christians. We have not shown the world a real difference that we're serious about living. (And if we aren't prepared to start, then we might as well just give up and stay home.) But by God, we can live in ways that disturb, ways that might even infuriate our neighbors. We can treat them with unearned compassion. We can go out of our way to love when it hurts. We can be foolish in the eyes of the world, so extreme can we be in embracing those otherwise cast off by society. We can be a living sign of contradiction. As one theologian is fond of saying these days: “In a hundred years, if Christians are known as a strange group of people who don't kill their children and don't kill the elderly, we will have done a great thing.”18

And finally, the fifth thing we're called to do is to issue a prophetic challenge to our surrounding culture, much as the spokesmen for the early church did to the Roman culture. We can challenge them, first of all, on terms they can understand. They don't want to hear about so-called 'religion'? Fine: To whatever extent they believe that any human life has value, we have an opening. We can gently cut through the rationalizations used to avoid the real heart of the question. And we can do it in accordance with the law already written in their hearts (cf. Romans 2:15). We can explain, without even mentioning reasons they'd recognize as 'religious,' why, if human life has any value, then every human life needs protecting, including the most vulnerable people of all, those most readily and tragically discriminated against: prenatal persons, unborn human life.19

But then, to the extent our neighbors are willing to listen, we can also issue that challenge in the name of Jesus. We can boldly proclaim Jesus Christ as “the Author of Life” (Acts 3:15), the One who shelters all life under his wing, the One who gives each and every life as sheer gift, who stamps every human life with his image, calling it toward a destined fullness far greater than eye can see or ear can hear or mortal mind can ever imagine. For this very Jesus came, not to kill us or to destroy us or to judge us or to condemn us, but to give us life; and not only life, but life to the full, life abundant, life overflowing, life running over the brim of the cup, flooding out from the heart of his Church to all creation (John 10:10). He laid down his human own life so that our lives might be filled with his life, might be reshaped and re-patterned by his love. He took his human life up again so that we might learn how to cherish life (ours and others') and yet be unafraid to die – for the sake of living, especially for the sake of others' living.

In Jesus, through Jesus, life itself has become a message of good news. Every spark of conception – good news. Every first heartbeat (and latest heartbeat) – good news. Every first breath (and latest breath) – good news. Every being – good news. Life is become good news. In all ways, let us choose it. Let us choose it for our neighbors, for the youngest and the oldest and all who live in between. Let us choose it for those who cannot yet or cannot any longer speak for themselves. Let us choose it for ourselves. And best of all, let us choose it for eternity. For Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). Glory to the Life! Let us speak the Life's truth and live the Life's way of love. Amen.


Lord God of Life, you are Love, eternally complete.  Knowing all things before, you did not make death, nor do you rejoice in the destruction of the living.  Rather, you fashioned all things so that they might exist, and the creatures you made, they are good.  Fearfully and wonderfully have you made each one of us, weaving the fabric of all our days.  It was our wickedness that then invited death into the world.  Lord, have mercy; Lord, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.  Forgive us our wickedness, Father, for your Son's sake.  You set before us Jesus (who is Life) and all things outside of him (which are become death), and you bid us to choose life or death, blessing or curse.  Turn our wills unceasingly to Jesus, unceasingly to grace and to blessing, unceasingly to life and to love.  Make us fearless to bear witness to life's goodness and to the good news of eternal life for those forgiven who endure in your grace.  Cause our cups to run over with life, that we might taste and know that you are good beyond every created thing, yet your goodness is reflected in the being of each created thing.  Reshape us to live in this world like Jesus, and fit us for deeper union to Jesus beyond this world.  In his name we ask for life, for ourselves and for all.  Amen.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Murder Most Foul

1916 was not an easy Christmas for Rosa Spangler of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It's not just being in the hospital – though that was irksome. No, the reason was the headline on the front page of Christmas morning's paper. Her second-cousin John W. Rudy was dead. And it was a grisly and tragic tale. That tale takes its beginning twenty-seven years earlier, in December 1887. Back then, John was a 29-year-old married (but separated) father of four, working as a carpenter in construction at a home along the Philadelphia Turnpike east of the city. On the night of Sunday, December 4, a local dog howled uncontrollably in the dark. The next morning, after a heavy midnight rain, came the worst of discoveries: a body in a nearby field. Someone had been murdered – hacked and beaten in the back of the head, then dragged 25 feet away from a bloody stone that used to prop open the stable door. And the body was none other than that of John's own father Christian Rudy. Living across the street in the county poorhouse, Christian had been partly paralyzed since 1875, able to walk only with a cane; he got his exercise coming for regular visits with his son John at the nearby job site. Some said they'd seen John there just the day before, around sundown, though John had no business there on Sundays.

It was John who claimed to have first discovered the body that Monday morning, shouting at 9:30 that his father had surely been killed by other poorhouse residents intent on picking his pockets for tobacco. That was John's story. But people had questions. The tobacco and a coin or two were still found in the body's pockets. John had seemed awfully anxious that morning. Not long before the alleged discovery, John had been seen dragging something through that very field, and acting secretive if he felt anyone looking at him. And before that, not so long after sunrise, John's boss had caught him, “trembling and pale,” scraping furiously at the stable floor where spots that looked like clotted blood were found – and John had had a key to the stable over the weekend. Blood residue was indeed later recovered from the stable and from John's hatchet.

So for all John's protestations of innocence, he was promptly arrested, charged with his father's death, and put on trial in June of '88. It took the jury just a few hours to reach their verdict: “Guilty of murder in the first degree.” John's appeal was rejected, and in January '89 came sentencing. Death by hanging. The judge told John, “Look at once to the gracious and forgiving mercy of God your Creator, who alone can remit the guilt of your atrocious crime.” John's lawyers circulated a petition, calling attention to another local murderer who'd gotten his sentence commuted. By April 1890, the petition had over eight thousand signatures, including eleven of the jurors who'd convicted John. That July, the Board of Pardons gave in, sparing John the death penalty. The sheriff admitted he'd always believed John would get his sentence commuted. He'd been assigned a lucky noose, you see. Woven by the mayor of Philadelphia himself, every inmate sentenced to hang from it had escaped that sentence of death so far – John was the third in a row.

On the platform to catch a train to Philadelphia, John was smiling, surrounded by well-wishers coming to shake his handcuffed hands. Once he was admitted to Eastern State Penitentiary, his wife Caroline wasted no time filing for divorce. She remarried later that year. No member of John's family ever visited or wrote. John would spend twenty-three years in the penitentiary, fourteen of them in solitary confinement. But he was a model prisoner, once even risking his own life to rescue a guard from another convict's violence. After a long battle, John got a pardon. Released in January 1914, John caught a taxi to a church to give thanks, and that evening he took a train to Lancaster. John's first night out of prison was sleepless – too much space, hard to adjust. His ex-wife refused to see him. It's said he briefly met his children, all now grown. By this time, John was grandfather of 11. John soon settled on a farm in Christiana, getting work as caretaker of a bungalow on the Octoraro.

But the next two-and-a-half years would not be easy. He struggled to rediscover a sense of independent agency. Nothing quite fit. For a while, he relied on a cousin who owned a hotel. He tried starting over in New Jersey, then bounced back to the county. In September 1915, John took up lodging with another cousin – Rosa Spangler – while he got work as a tobacco packer. But he grew increasingly restless. Rumor had it he was making trips back to the penitentiary gates, asking to be readmitted. Rosa admitted John would “sit around and brood for hours” and “mumble to himself.” In the week before Thanksgiving 1916, he abruptly moved out, without explanation. He threw himself deeper into the bottle. People said he'd turned resentful over gaining his freedom, even wanting revenge on those who'd helped him. Rosa started getting threatening letters day after day. Neighbors saw him lurking around the neighborhood.

On the afternoon of December 24, 1916, around 4:00pm, Rosa heard a knock at her door. John was there. He wedged his foot into the doorway, and when she tried to shut him out, he pushed through, barging into the hall, breathing out the telltale signs of rum. With a bandaged right hand, he reached into his pants and drew a five-shooter Smith & Wesson revolver. As he aimed it at her head, Rosa grabbed his wrist, shoved his arm aside with all the adrenaline-fueled strength she had, and tried to wrestle his gun away. During the scuffle, as she repeatedly batted his aim away from her head or heart, at last he pulled the trigger. A .38-caliber ball shot from the barrel through her right forearm. With her left hand, she wrenched his arm down as hard as she could, and as a second shot fired, the ball grazed her leg, and the discharge at such close range set her skirts afire. Rosa screamed for help, shoving John back and slamming the door on him as he staggered out.

While Rosa ran to her kitchen to extinguish her burning clothes, John – hearing the door lock against him – backed up onto the icy sidewalk. Having failed, John pressed the revolver to his own head, in full view of the next-door neighbor. Over his ear, John pulled the trigger twice in quick succession, and two balls lodged into his brain. Collapsing on the ground, onlookers quickly gathered around his bleeding body, furiously grousing that they'd lynch him if he weren't so clearly already dying. An ambulance was shortly on the scene, taking him to St. Joseph's Hospital. And there he lingered six hours after the deed, until – at 10:20pm on Christmas Eve – John Rudy's suicide at last took full effect, releasing his soul to face its judgment.1

Now that makes for a bad Christmas. There's a reason, you know, why God says what he says. And what God said from Mount Sinai – words John Rudy just couldn't seem to abide by – was, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13) – or, depending on the Bible translation you read, “Thou shalt not kill.” God said it to Israel, but virtually every society in human history has known that this is one of the foundational rules of morality. In Hebrew, it's just two words, lo ratsach. It's narrower than 'kill' but broader than 'murder.' Don't go murdering or manslaughtering, and take care not to kill negligently either. That's what God warned in the desert.

When God spoke to Israel from the mountain, he didn't have to tack on an explanation. He'd already explained long before. In the early part of Genesis, God blotted out humanity in a flood, he said, because “the earth is filled with violence through them” (Genesis 6:13). And no sooner does the flood set its survivors on terra firma than God makes an everlasting covenant with them. He reminds Noah that he is himself the source and author of life. He alone has absolute authority over the life and death of all creatures, and the unilateral right to decree when and how life should be traded for death. Therefore, he demands an account from man and beast alike for life and death, and he sets clear boundaries over the lifeblood of every creature (Genesis 9:4-5).

The Lord assures Noah that, in this new world, he and his family – the whole human race – still carry the image of God throughout the world. For “in the image of God he made man” (Genesis 9:6). And that's a significant line. It means that human beings are to God what statues of the king were to the king of most ancient countries: a visible reminder of the extent of his empire. Those statues represented the king's authority. And just so, being like living royal statues, each human being is a representation of God's authority, a visible reminder of God's kingdom over all the earth. Doesn't matter whether the person is a prince or a pauper: God's image is the same.

And because of that, God takes seriously how his image is treated, because mistreatment of his image is an act of rebellion against him. Murder is an offense against God's image, an attempt to destroy a living emblem of God's very presence. That makes it “a sacrilege, and the worst of sacrileges.”2 To claim authority over one of God's living images, authority to destroy it in murder or even deface it with violence, is treason, is rebellion, is rising up against God himself. To murder another human being, any other human being, is as if it's an attempt to destroy the Lord and bring his kingdom to ruin. As Israel inherited this understanding, it's why they alone took no care whether the victim was prince or pauper: the crime is the same against each, for it attacks God.

What's more, God warned Noah about the significance of bloodshed, for blood is the same as life (Genesis 9:4). When human blood is spilled, when innocent life is taken, it defiles the land. The blood cries out from the dirt for redress. So God will tell Israel that “innocent blood” should not be “shed in your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 19:10), “for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it except by the blood of the one who shed it” (Numbers 35:33). Spilled blood is like a kidnapped power, raging to be free, crying out to God for rescue. It jeopardizes the community's well-being. It could lead to famine, to exile, to God's presence quitting the land, if it builds up. And so, as God's living images, humans are charged with responsibility to defend the earth from defilement, for “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6).

Building on this, God sketched for Israel a legal system to deal with crimes against this commandment. Murder was carefully defined: it was killing with an iron tool or a stone tool or a wooden tool, or shoving someone with malice, or striking someone down intentionally with your hand, or throwing an object at somebody, or any of the other ways of premeditated killing (Numbers 35:16-21). That was slightly different from impulse killing in the moment, where the victim is “pushed suddenly without enmity” or has anything “hurled” at them but without the killer “lying in wait” to do so (Numbers 35:22). And then there's accidental killing, like somebody tossing a stone and not seeing that a person's there until it's too late (Numbers 35:23). A determination of murder required the evidence of multiple witnesses to be established (Numbers 35:30), but if it was, the execution would be carried out by a strong relative of the victim, who bore the title “redeemer of the blood.”

But even someone who killed by accident had blood-guilt, and was in danger from the victim's blood-redeemer. So an accidental killer had an option. There were six 'cities of refuge,' all in different tribal territories for fair access: Bezer, Ramoth, Golan, Kedesh, Shechem, and Hebron (Joshua 20:7-8). All these cities were property of the tribe of Levi, inhabited by Levites. A manslayer being chased by a blood-redeemer was supposed to flee to the city of refuge and “explain his case to the elders of that city” (Joshua 20:4). Once he was safely inside, the blood-redeemer couldn't get him, and then a trial could be scheduled to decide whether the killer was legally culpable. He would “stand before the congregation for judgment” (Numbers 35:12), to “judge between the manslayer and the blood-redeemer” (Numbers 35:24). If they decided that it wasn't an accident after all, they'd “hand him over to the blood-redeemer so that he may die” (Deuteronomy 19:12). If they decided it really was an accident, then the killer would remain confined to the city of refuge until the stain of blood defiling the land had been expunged. Leave before that, and the blood-redeemer might still be waiting (Numbers 35:26-27).

There were three ways to purge the stain of innocent blood from the land. The first way was only an option for an unsolved homicide – a body's found with signs of foul play, but nobody can find witnesses or a suspect (Deuteronomy 21:1). In that case, all that can be done is for the regional elders to measure out which settlement is closest to the body, so that responsibility can be assigned (Deuteronomy 21:2). Then that city's elders would take an unworked heifer into uncultivated country – both symbolizing innocence – and would break its neck over running water, which would wash the bloodguilt back to God's hands (Deuteronomy 21:3-4). Then, with priests as witnesses, the elders would wash their hands of responsibility over the heifer (Deuteronomy 21:5-7), asking God to accept this heifer's life as atonement to “purge the guilt of innocent blood” (Deuteronomy 21:7-9), with the priests presumably answering on God's behalf that the defilement had been lifted.

The second way to purge the stain was for the murderer to be put to death by the blood-redeemer (Numbers 35:21). That does the trick: one blood cleanses what the innocent blood defiled. And so, where other countries might call for different family members to be substituted – you kill my kid, I kill your kid – Israel says no: “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son” (Ezekiel 18:20). Nor, like in other countries, could a rich murderer just buy his way out of trouble: “You shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death” (Numbers 35:31).

But we need a different way to purge the stain, the land-defilement, for the blood of accidental killings where it wouldn't be good to have the killer put to death. And the solution here is that the killer stays imprisoned in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest: “He shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil” (Numbers 35:25), “but after the death of the high priest, the manslayer may return to the land of his possession” (Numbers 35:28). The killer can't buy his way to early freedom (Numbers 35:32) – he has to stay until the stain is dealt with. But the high priest's very job and office was all about absorbing and carrying the guilt and sin of all Israel. So once the high priest dies, his death itself abolishes the bloodguilt from the land, setting the killer free to return from exile and go back home.

Later Jews, and Christians too, saw in the commandment a ruling also against suicide. For while nothing could legally be done about it, still, none of us has authority to destroy God's image, not even in him- or herself. And so “no human being may take his [or her] own life,” because God here “forbids self-destruction.”3 Just the same, they saw that under the heading of 'murder' “come all the laws... about violence.”4 For don't the psalms tell us that the LORD rejects “the one who loves violence” (Psalm 11:5)? Doesn't God command us unambiguously, “Put away violence and oppression” (Ezekiel 45:9)? And so murder, suicide, violence – all are here ruled out.

And then we come to today. John Rudy is hardly the last man of murder, violence, or self-destruction that our country has seen. The murder rate in the United States has gone through its high periods and low periods, and thankfully we've been in a low period since the mid-1990s,5 but even so, across the whole United States, it's estimated the murder rate in 2020 may have been 25% higher than the year before, one of the sharpest jumps in our national history; and in at least some cities, rates have continued to climb so far in 2021. When was the last time you picked up a newspaper with no murders noted on its pages? In just the last week, internationally we've heard of the assassination of the Haitian president, we've been updated on a serial killer caught in Delaware and a murder-suicide in Mount Joy last month, and we've been reminded of 36 unsolved homicides in this county from the past thirty years. Some of us here may well know what it's like to lose a family member to murder.

As for suicide, we know those rates have been climbing nationwide for the past couple decades, with a 35% rise in suicides from 1999 to 2018. While the past year or two seem to have granted an overall decrease, they've been particularly bad years for soldiers and veterans – for them, suicide now takes four times as many lives as combat. Even the death of one of the past bishops of our church was ruled a suicide. Try as we might, we can't ignore it. Some of us here may well know what it's like to lose a family member to suicide, and all the pain and grief and anger and confusion that can leave behind for a lifetime.

And while we'd like to think of our county as a fairly peaceful place, the last month's worth of police logs and other articles have recounted several shootings, three stabbings, one fistfight, five face-punches, seven incidents of strangulation, two vehicular assaults, a string of arsons, a woman assaulting her children and their father, a man chasing a woman around with a knife, and one dreadful tale of a man entering another's house, beating the homeowner, and finally breaking his skull. That's all in just the last month around just this county! And all of it – every bit of that – is an offense against this commandment.

That's terrible, because God warns, in the Bible's final book, that “as for... murderers..., their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8). Those who don't want their violent impulses to be held in check, well, there's a place where all restraints on violence are removed. It's called hell. And the more this world is filled with violence, the more it resembles hell. How do we respond?

Our answer is Jesus, “the Author of Life” (Acts 3:15). In him, the Eternal Image of the Father – the Word of God, the very Divine Speech that said not to murder – became written not merely on a stone tablet or on the page of a Bible but onto human flesh and human blood. Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience to the command. He could be forceful, but never for even a moment was he ever violent. Never was he life-stealing; always was he life-giving. He was gentler than a summer breeze. He was peaceable in the face of the world's violence. He warned, though, that the generation that rejected him would be held guilty of the bloodguilt of all the prophets and holy ones murdered since the very beginning (Luke 11:49-51). And in response, the world's violence took hold of him. They chose to spare an actual murderer, Barabbas, but bring innocence incarnate to execution. As Stephen put it, “of the Righteous One..., you have now become betrayers and murderers” (Acts 7:52). Jesus – God – was himself made a murder victim. And in so doing, God took his stand with every murder victim from Abel to the last, everyone unlawfully killed – God stands with them, among their number, in solidarity.

And here's the good news in the tragedy. The blood of Jesus “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24). Where spilled blood usually cries for satisfaction by death, Jesus' blood cries for satisfaction by life. His blood, the lifeblood of God, is the final purgative against defilement, to free from sins (Revelation 1:5), to purify the conscience from the works of death (Hebrews 9:14), to sanctify the people (Hebrews 13:12). Better than a blood-redeemer chasing down a mortal murderer, he came as the blood-giving Redeemer chasing out the Devil who was “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44), avenging on the spiritual powers of sin, death, and hell every one of their crimes against life. And he's also the sacrifice, he's our heifer broken over the stream of the Spirit in the wild country of the earth to purge all guilt of innocent blood away. So too is Jesus the Great High Priest whose death dissolves the bloodguilt of a guilty world and sets the captives free.

And the blood that Jesus bled, the blood that Jesus offers, the blood that Jesus pours out on us, is so powerful that even murder can really be forgiven. (Even John Rudy could have attained forgiveness and purification and holiness in his last hour, and I hope he did.) Some of the greatest saints had murderous backgrounds. From a Saul “breathing out threats and murder toward the Lord's disciples” (Acts 9:1), he made an apostle and martyr who offered up his blood as seed for the church's growth. Some of the very people who'd taken part in his own murder, Jesus welcomed into his body, inviting them to commune with his blood. And down through the ages, murderers and people of violence have often repented and been transformed from guilt-stained criminals to glory-crowned peacemakers. For Jesus declares there is healing in his blood, cleansing from all guilt, from all defilement. There is no life so shameful, no world so dirty, that the blood of Jesus cannot purge it clean.

And not only that, but up from the grave he arose! Jesus lives ever to pronounce the words of absolution, to assure us that defilement is ended wherever his death and life are shared, wherever his blood is applied in faith and repentance. And, having risen again, Jesus shouts a resounding 'Yes!' to God's promise of resurrection. For just that reason, he assures us that we need not fear those in our world who go around harming bodies or even killing bodies, because what murderers and people of violence can do to us, it can't touch our souls, so of them we need have no fear (Matthew 10:28). And Jesus promises hope for every body, too – especially those bodies in which the Spirit of Resurrection has dwelt (Romans 8:11). Every murder will one day be undone. Life will one day be given back. All the scars and bruises of violence will one day be wiped away or, better yet, transfigured into beauty and light.

And so the early church could testify that the grace of Jesus, poured out through his Holy Spirit, was enough to “bind peace to the hostile” and “give rest to the violent.”6 Whatever we've done or whatever we've endured, we can receive Christ's gift of purgation and promise. And even while still living in a world with violence, we are set free to step fearlessly forward as the bearers of peace, as spokesmen and spokeswomen for the vulnerable and downtrodden of the earth, confident that the murderous rampages of deadly devils will be brought to nothing by the Lord of Life. Secure in Christ, we fulfill the commandment as we follow him, sent out in Christ's own image “as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3), as peacemakers redeemed by his holy blood.  Amen!

Sunday, July 4, 2021

When You Go Out to War...

“Our subject teaches us how much we should deprecate the calamities of war, especially those of a civil war, the most awful of any, if it could be avoided. And oh, what an awful dark cloud, pregnant with all the horrors of civil war, hangs now over this whole continent of British America!” lamented the preacher.1 It was Sunday, the fourth of June, 1775. It had been a month and a half since the shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, and a siege was underway of Boston. But this was nowhere near there. This was Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And 21-year-old militia captain James Ross sat in church, together with his company of men. James' family had a lot to do with current events: his father George was one of Pennsylvania's eight delegates to the Continental Congress, while his cousin John had a clue yet how famous his wife Betsy's flag-stitching work would one day become.

But this Sunday morning, James and the men of his company had urgently asked a visiting preacher, 46-year-old John Carmichael, to come to Lancaster's Presbyterian church and give them a word in this trying time. The militia men had never imagined they'd be on the brink of war, and though they'd volunteered for this militia association, their consciences were troubled by their Mennonite and Amish neighbors who said that taking up arms would be little different from murder. Rev. Carmichael put his finger on the issue when he preached:

You are sensible, my hearers, that there are some Christian people in the world, and some of them in these parts, who... maintain it, as a sacred conscientious tenet not to be dispensed with, not to go to war or take up arms on any occasion whatsoever. … As far as these sober people make use of the Bible to found their principles on, they rely on such passages as these: Genesis 9:6, “He that sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed”; and Exodus 20:13, “Thou shalt not kill”; and in the New Testament, “But I say unto you, love your enemies...; if any smite thee on the one cheek, turn to him the other also...; for all they that take the sword shall perish by the sword,” Matthew 5:39,44, and 26:52 – hence conclude, though I think falsely, that all war is unlawful...

Confronting the fears and concerns of the militia men, Rev. Carmichael laid out an argument that the pacifists were wrong, that the Bible couldn't be condemning military service. He outlined instructions for just how these militia men could face off against the 'murderous' redcoats sent by Parliament. And he insisted to them:

We have truth and justice on our side! … Courage, then! Courage, my brave American soldiers! If God be for, who can be against you? … Go forth in the name of the Lord of Hosts, and may he protect you, bless you, and succeed your very laudable and grand undertaking in connection with all the militia of North-America; and may God grant that, out of these present tumults, disturbances, and commotions, a great and mighty empire may rise up in this western world for King Jesus...

So preached Rev. Carmichael, readying Capt. Ross' volunteers for the battlefield. Ten days after that sermon, the Continental Congress established the Continental Army; the next day, they appointed a commander-in-chief, a Virginian named Washington. A civil war in the British Empire, a revolutionary struggle by thirteen colonies, was underway. Rev. Carmichael, and countless preachers like him, assured troubled troops that, when the Lord thundered from Sinai, “Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shalt not murder,” the things they did on the battlefield need not be in view of that commandment.

But three stories from those years raise a question. The first scene is September 1779. Col. Durbin's men are marching through western New York, part of Sullivan's expedition against Native Americans allied to the Crown. Ignoring Durbin's orders to spare one old woman they find with a disabled child, two soldiers hang back. They lock the woman and boy inside a house, and then set the fire. The home burns with the civilians trapped inside, and by the time other members of the company realize what's happened and run back to try to rescue them, it's too late. What the arsonists did, burning those two to death – was it war, or was it murder?2

Then we go to North Carolina, February 1781. A young Continental soldier named Moses Hall tells the story. In the wake of a battle, he and his fellow Continental troops had taken some Loyalists prisoner. Suddenly, some soldier mentioned a story from the prior year when Continental soldiers trying to surrender were stabbed to death by their opponents. In vindictive fury, Moses' comrades repaid the atrocity on these six Loyalist prisoners of war: they drew broadswords and hacked the men to death. Witnessing it, Private Hall wrote, “Returning to my quarters and throwing myself upon my blanket, I contemplated the cruelties of war until overcome and unmanned by a distressing gloom.” But his experiences the next day, of seeing a boy dying of a bayonet wound, hardened Pvt. Hall's heart, until he said, “I desired nothing so much as the opportunity of participating in their destruction.” What he saw – was it war, or was it murder?3

Finally we come to Ohio, March 1782. There's eighteen months of war to go, and a unit of Patriot militia from Pennsylvania has gone rogue. They march west toward a neutral village established by Moravian missionaries for some of the Lenni Lenape natives who have received the gospel. Not a person in the village is a combatant in the war. But the militia march on the village. As their commander disavows responsibility, the men take a vote on what to do. Sixteen or so men vote to relocate the natives; the rest vote for execution. And so they strike down and scalp the men, women, and children who are singing hymns with their dying breath. Benjamin Franklin, hearing about it, denounces what happened there as “abominable murders.”4

Now, of course the story of the Revolution can be told by highlighting the just and virtuous conduct of the other enlisted soldiers or militia men. It would also be just as easy to recount atrocities, violations, and murders by the British. But however we tell it, we cannot avoid the truth that war can be an ugly thing, a playground for the devil who was “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Are our Mennonite neighbors right, or is there a way to pursue justice while taking up arms in the time of war? Is there a way to live as a disciple of Christ when the fight is on? Rev. Carmichael himself said that a war “must be a just war, conducted in a lawful, righteous manner, for the legality of the action will never justify the illegality of the manner of prosecution.” In saying that, he was following the continual witness of generations of Christians down through the ages who maintained that “even in the business of war, it's considered necessary to assess whether a particular war is just or unjust,”5 and that “good faith and justice need to be respected even in war.”6 It took a while for the Church as a whole to reach a certain position: the early Christians wrestled back and forth for centuries on how to handle members and prospective members who were part of Rome's military machine.7 But in time, the Church came to a consensus on how to evaluate wars so that they don't fall afoul of this commandment.8

The first question the Church asks about a war is whether it was declared by a legitimate authority. For instance – if I go around and tell my neighbors it's time to finally grab our pitchforks and torches and march against New Jersey, should anybody go? No! It can't be a just war. And how do we know that? Because I have not been authorized by God to lead troops into battle. God has not given me authority to declare a war. Who does have that power? Those Paul calls “the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), the “rulers” (Romans 13:3), those to whom God has entrusted “the sword” (Romans 13:4), who have special rights and responsibilities. Those who hold governmental power at a certain level have God-given authority to declare war under the right conditions. Rev. Carmichael thought there was legitimate authority for the Revolution in “the final determination of all America agreed to in the Continental Congress.” Whatever was true then, in the United States we know there's a military chain of command headed by the president as commander-in-chief, while declarations of war are constitutionally required to come from Congress. Outside of that, our people may not wage war. So the Church would warn us that no soldier should fight unless they're acting within a military chain-of-command that's empowered by a legitimate governing authority to whom God has entrusted the power to send troops to war.

The second question the Church asks about a war is whether it has a just cause – whether the cause is right. For instance, if Congress declares war on Japan because we want to annex Mount Fuji and make it American soil, no one should go: that's not a just war, there's no injustice done by the other country. Or if the president orders troops to attack another country because that country's head of state pushed our First Lady down some stairs, again, no one should go: an injustice was done, but it's not enough to start a war.

Paul reminds us that there has to be a real and serious injustice that's the specific reason to go to war, the cause for war. Governing authorities are only allowed to wield the sword of military force, he says, as “an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4), being “a terror to... bad conduct” in the world (Romans 13:3), bad conduct serious enough to justify a military response. Following St. Paul, one ancient Christian explained that “a just war is justified only by the injustice of an aggressor.”9 Rev. Carmichael insisted that the colonies met this standard, preaching about “the certainty we have for the justice and goodness of our cause.” Documents like the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms (July 1775) and the Declaration of Independence (July 1776) were basically attempts to spell out publicly what the Continental Congress believed added up to a just cause for a war of revolution – what injustices warranted a potential military response from the colonials. Whether they were right or not, we leave for now to the debates of historians and ethicists.10 The usual examples of just causes would be repelling an unjust attack that's already underway, recovering people or territories that were unjustly taken, or restoring moral order to the world. But it's always about pursuing the common good, not just what's good for one side. And the Christian tradition insists that soldiers should not fight in a war whose cause they're can see is unjust – in that case, it's time for selective conscientious objection. But the same tradition understands it can be hard sometimes for us to make that call – the average citizen or soldier doesn't have all the facts – so while a soldier is responsible to use due diligence and think about it, the government gets some benefit of the doubt to at least try to make its case.

The third question the Church asks about a war is whether it was entered too hastily, or whether – as is right – war was a last resort. For instance, say another country takes hostages at our embassy; suppose that, without even picking up a phone to negotiate the hostages' release, we just send our planes and start dropping bombs. That would not be a just war. For all we know, we could have resolved the crisis without violence, with no loss of life! “If possible,” Paul reminds us, “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). Rev. Carmichael believed the colonists had met that standard: “We have tried every lawful, peaceable means in our power, but all in vain.” (Again, whether he was right is a question for the historians.) But the Christian tradition insists that war is a last-resort measure, available only after all other workable options for dealing with the injustice have been exhausted. When the other party remains open to good-faith negotiations or third-party arbitration or diplomacy, it isn't time for war. That gives us all reason to push for peaceful measures first.

The fourth question the Church asks about war is whether there's a reasonable chance of success. For instance, if the country of Luxembourg declared war against the United States, well, its soldiers shouldn't go. No matter how we upset them, it wouldn't be a just war. Why? There's just no reasonable chance that Luxembourg can achieve its military goals against such a mismatched foe. To wage war like that would just be to throw human life away. Jesus asked, “What king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace” (Luke 14:31-32). Rev. Carmichael thought the colonists could meet this standard, because “if God is on our side, we need not fear what man can do unto us. … God will never forsake his own side of the question.” But generally, that isn't how we're supposed to think about it unless God gave a specific verbal promise. The Christian tradition insists that if a war can't be won, it shouldn't be started, and if it was started and now can't be won, it should be stopped, whether by negotiation or by surrender, and its cause should be left in God's hands.

A fifth question the Church asks about war is whether there's a right intent – what's the motive, what's the intent, what's the spirit lurking behind it? For instance, say we lay out a declaration of war and have just cause for it, but the actual motive is to conquer territory or get our hands on a natural resource or get revenge for something in the past, or just because we hate the other country's ethnicity. That would not be just! Bad intentions, bad attitudes, bad motives – these render a war unjust, and we know that God's word is “discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12), “for from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts [and] murder...” (Mark 7:21). Rev. Carmichael thought the colonists were acting with right intent, since at that stage they didn't seek independence, but only “desire to be as we were in the beginning of the present unhappy reign.”

The Christian tradition tells us that a soldier can't fight justly with bad motives or bad intentions. He can't fight justly if he's motivated by racial hate, or fueled by greed, or driven by revenge, or callous to the preciousness of human life. Like St. Augustine said, “The desire to do harm, cruelty in taking vengeance, a mind that's without peace and incapable of peace, fierceness in rebellion, the lust for domination, anything of that sort – these are the things that are rightly blamed in wars.”11 “War is waged to gain peace. Be a peacemaker, therefore, even in war, so that, by conquering them, you bring the benefit of peace even to those you defeat.”12 The Christian way of viewing war insists that when Jesus tells us to love our enemies, that has to happen on the battlefield too, else we'd best get off the battlefield if we can't obey him there. Combat is as much an arena for discipleship as anywhere else. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink … Overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:20). Love, mercy, and forgiveness must be how a Christian behaves in wartime.

So a soldier who fights justly is one who fights for the common good, including the good of the enemy. That means the soldier is never hoping to cause death, even when he has to use lethal force. The soldier is aiming, out of love, to render the enemy incapable of continuing in injustice. The soldier regrets any life lost on either side, and is ready to stop the fight when the enemy yields or repents. He's fighting out of a determination to press them to repent, because repentance is good for them, and he loves them enough to want the good of repentance for them. The soldier's intention is to redress or prevent injustice but also to bless the enemy by bringing about a just peace. The soldier is fighting for the day when he can sit at the same table with the people fighting now on the other side. He's fighting with compassion and with a readiness to forgive the evils of war. That is a soldier who's fighting justly, with right intent, with right motive.

The sixth question the Church asks about war is whether the soldiers are fighting discriminately. The examples mentioned earlier from the Revolution – the old woman and disabled boy burned to death, the prisoners-of-war chopped up, the neutral village executed – those are clearly murders, and it's because not everyone, everything, in war is a fair target, and not every weapon or tactic is lawful. Soldiers and civilian contractors on the other side have, while on duty, assumed responsibility and risk that their wives and children haven't. As Jesus warns, “Those who've taken the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). On the other hand, those who pose our soldiers no threat aren't fair game. That's why the Israelites, even in a brutal world, were warned to spare women, children, and livestock (Deuteronomy 20:14). This rules out things like bombing cities, exterminating villages, mistreating prisoners, and so on, because God expressly says, “Do not kill the innocent” (Exodus 23:7). And Rev. Carmichael was worried about this, saying that “as soldiers carry with them the instruments of death, they are too prone to conduct themselves towards the defenseless with pride and insolence.” Ever since the Middle Ages, the Church has worked out lists of people who shouldn't be harmed – like women, children, clergy, the disabled, and prisoners-of-war – and places that shouldn't be harmed, like religious sites, cultural sites, or the infrastructure that civilian life relies on. And even today, this living Christian tradition insists that soldiers have a responsibility to actively protect non-combatants from foreseeable harm.

And then the seventh question the Church asks about war is whether the force is proportionate, measured. For instance, suppose an army only needed to capture a base, but instead it bombed the base into oblivion. Or suppose their soldiers were equipped with frag grenades made of materials designed to be hard for doctors to detect and remove. Those aren't necessary – they add no military advantage, they just increase the harm. Moses tells us that the guilty should be punished “in proportion to the offense,” and the same rule applies in war: force is applied in proportion to what's necessary to address the injustice, but nothing more than necessary. That rules out overkill. On this one, Rev. Carmichael said that after the Revolution is won, “the Christian soldier should lay by the sword and disband the army.” The Christian tradition is clear that force has to be kept within bounds. Lasting harm, total destruction – those are off-limits to the disciple of Christ on the battlefield.

The Church knows, as it asks all these questions, that doing justice is a hard thing, a risky thing, a costly thing. Following Jesus tends to be that way. But doing justice, even in war, is part of what it means to follow him.

At this point, we might ask, why does all this matter? Why bother talking about it here, at this church? Isn't this question about the commandment irrelevant to us? No. First of all, while we have some members here who come out of 'peace church' backgrounds, we also have members who have seen service in one military branch or another. And whatever your background, you need the clarity that these church teachings provide. Second, some of us here have sons who came through military service, faced the serious moral quandaries it poses, and may have lingering pains and questions to work through. And third, some of us have grandchildren currently enlisted in the military, who may one day enter combat; and if they do, they need the church's help to shepherd them through the moral and spiritual demands of that service.

In recent years, military psychologists have finally discovered that post-traumatic stress disorder isn't the only kind of lasting non-physical injury soldiers can sustain. There's also something called 'moral injury.' One doctor defines moral injury as when people are “damaged in the cores of their personhood by life experiences that violently contradict deeply held, and deeply necessary, beliefs about themselves and the world.”13 In recent years, one officer has lamented the destructiveness of encouraging those suffering moral injury to stay silent,14 while a Marine captain has written about how the VA's mental health system is “confronted all the time with veterans who are struggling, searching, digging, aching to know whether their personal actions and their wars were just or unjust,” and the VA clinicians aren't generally equipped for that.15

And here we find the church's calling.16 The church is called to train her children in the character, attitudes, and virtues needed if the summons to military service should one day come – and in the assurance needed to know when and how to say yes, and the courage needed to know when and how to say no. The church is called to guide and counsel her children when they enlist, listening patiently and lovingly to their hopes and worries, challenging them with the commandment of God, and praying for them earnestly. The church is called to take advantage of her freedom to speak a voice of conscience to the state, reminding the public authorities that she speaks in the name of the One without whose blessing they have no authority to wage war or govern at all. The church is called to welcome back soldiers by reintegrating them into a life of peace and pointing them toward reconciliation with God and man. That's why, in the Middle Ages, soldiers returning home from battle were set aside by the church to undergo a forty-day season of confession, fasting, prayer, and penance as they processed together, under church guidance, all the things they'd seen and done, whether the war had been just or unjust; and then, at the end, they'd be reconciled with the peace of the community and welcomed back in.17

The church is called to invite veterans to bring any scars and wounds of war into the open, to share their stories, and the church helps them sort through the burning questions that may linger – or, sometimes, should linger. The church is called to confront veterans, soldiers, and civilians alike with the word of God, to convict all of sin, to call all to repentance, to hear confessions of rights and wrongs, to prescribe medicine for the healing of the soul, and to lead all to the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ who offers a grace greater than all our sins and a peace deeper than all our wars.

And the church is called to remind us all that, far more than the military engagements of worldly forces (whether just or unjust), all of us have been enlisted as Christian soldiers in the army of the Lamb who himself “judges and makes war” (Revelation 19:11); and that we are equipped with “the weapons of our warfare” that “have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:4), first and foremost the strongholds within ourselves – all that stands between us and doing justice, us and mercy, us and forgiveness, us and love of every neighbor, including those who treat us as enemies. Let us so use whatever freedom we have. “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another,” whatever army or country that 'one another' might be in. I close today by offering that preacher of the 1770s, Rev. John Carmichael, the final word:

Let all then be exhorted by a sincere, unfeigned repentance, for past sins and reformation of life and manners, to fly to the Lord Jesus Christ by faith as a hiding place from the storm and a covert from the tempest. Be much in prayer to God to overrule these unhappy disturbances for his own glory and the best weal of Zion. … It is our duty to be both frequent and very fervent in prayer to God for the spiritual kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, which consists so much in peace and love, to come with divine power and energy to check and stop these evils that now rage in the world... Glory shall be given to his holy name, now and forevermore. Amen.