We Will Overcome But, Not By Taking Up Arms
"You're going to go out there and beat his ass or I'll beat yours."
One of the older neighbor kids held my arms and legs down as another one pummeled me, I was 8 years old. As I got up and dusted myself off I remember not being in pain but I was full of dread. I had to go home and face my dad and for that, I was truly terrified. My dad was a tough factory worker who was a regular bar fighter when he lived in Texas during his 20's. He was not one to coddle us boys in our times of emotional distress. Slowly, I made my way up the front steps of our small bungalow and I distinctly remember pressing the handle on the screen door. I stood there paused as I gained the courage to walk inside.
This was the moment that I first wrestled with violence. My head hurt from getting punched and my sides hurt from the small kicks but what hurt most was my heart. There was a feeling shame that came over me because if I tried hard enough I could have fought back. I just couldn't bring myself to fight. I didn't attempt to do much more than block my face as blow after blow came down. I couldn't wrap my mind around why we had to fight just because an older kid said so. I wish I could say that I went on to be a peaceful non-violent person after that moment but, I couldn't stand on the porch forever.
When I walked into the house my dad said he had watched the fight through the front window. In a surprisingly tender moment he put his hand on my shoulder. As it turns out, he wasn't offering comfort that day. That's when he told me to go back out and fight or else. I pleaded with him. I didn't want to fight, I just wanted to go in my room and play video games. That's when he did it. He raised his hand high into the air and struck me in the face. As I gathered myself off the floor I remember him looking me directly in the eyes and saying:
"Don't come home until you kick his ass. I mean it".
I didn't cry. I didn't feel much of anything. Some say it's being tough but, I'm positive it was shock. I wasn't welcome home unless I harmed someone? My father didn't want me unless I was violent? I became overwhelmed with anger and since the only way to get some peace was to go fight I did just that. After wrangling my bike from the garage I rode it down the street, did a ghost rider into him from behind and dove on top of the neighbor kid. Tears flowed from my eyes as blood flowed from his nose and lip and I swung. I swung until I was exhausted. When I was done I rode home and my dad welcomed me on the front porch with a high five. Something changed in me that day. I became bitter and truly felt that violence was the way to love and acceptance.
It took me 21 years to figure out that violence creates more violence but, if I peacefully resist I can stop the cycle. Most of my life was fighting at the park after school, trash talking in the cafeteria or imposing myself onto others with a hyper masculine persona. This continued even after I came to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ! I figured if God the Father would send people to hell and would crush Jesus on the cross then violence was permitted. This was all ok so long as nobody got severely injured in my warped understanding. After turning 18 I stopped using my fists since I could go to jail but, the verbal and misogynistic violence continued. Sure, I stopped hitting people but my words and entrapping actions were no better.
What made the change?
On December 14th, 2012 a man named Adam Lanza opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut. He killed 26 people with most of them being children. All day I kept hearing in the back of my head the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:6. That's when I realized it. My whole life was filled with violence because someone lead a little one astray. As I reflected on the brutal murder of these holy innocents my heart cracked. Enough was enough. My world could no longer live in the justification of violence. Since that time, there has been terror attack after terror attack, Shooting after shooting. Yet, peacefully I've learned to pray for my enemies and those who harm others. I could no longer contribute to the violence in the world so I resolved to be a peace maker.
Please don't take this as a dismissive or pacifist stance on violence. Harming others is wrong. What my life through Christ has become is instead a mediator between conflict to resolve violence before it starts. If violence is inflected on myself then I will defend and leave the situation so that hate doesn't corrupt me. If a loved one or my neighbor is attacked then there is a personal responsibility to intervene by standing in the gap. How easy it is to love those who love us but how much greater is it to show love and kindness to those who hate you? Kindness in the face of violence is like hot coals on the head of the aggressor. It's the glimpse of God in the love that's shown when those who hate you come near that allows the Holy Ghost to draw them near. Jesus wasn't condemning people in Matthew 18, he was reminding them that we are not to corrupt the humanity in each other. That it's better to cut off our fist than to strike our neighbor. If our eye causes us to look upon the violence of the world without creating peace it's better we never had them in the first place.
This past Sunday I watched as a child held onto the cross around my priest's neck. He held it in awe and with comfort. There was a calm and peace over him as he listened to the blessing being spoke over him and the other children. What possibilities we have when the ultimate sign of violence, the cross, is in the hands of Children? Are the words of Jesus to become like children and enter the Kingdom of God something our world needs to pursue more diligently? When I think back to my own lack of a desire to fight as a child I know that Jesus' words were meant to keep us whole. Jesus' hope was that violence might never come into our hearts. Now through Christ we understand that truly those who live by the sword die by the sword. Guns and weapons don't make us safe but instead it's the blessed assurance that Christ still gives life. For the Christians, violence is never the answer but the hope of the resurrection is our guiding light. We will overcome by the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony.
I leave you all with this hope: One day our swords will be beaten into plowshares. We will harvest the love that brings us all to the table of the Lord. A table where the lion of Judah lays down with the spotless lamb of God in the person of Jesus. I ask you to take heart, peacefully we will overcome the world.