Written by Max Harwood
“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”
Violence has been with humans since the beginning: Cain killed Abel. It continues today. There have been many different responses to violence and this morning I want to speak about one of them. This response is attractive because it does not undervalue violence or see it’s typical bloody manifestations as complete. In other words, when Cain killed Abel he twisted a force that was originally meant to power something good, something that was meant to lead us to God. I want to speak about how violence is underestimated, twisted, and redeemed.
- (Not underestimating violence)
When many of us hear of violence in the world, or read about violence in the Bible, we are tempted to think of it as sub-human. When we see “civilized” nations go to war it is easy to say they have slipped into barbarism or fallen back to a pre-historic era. We are then tempted to say that war is good for nothing: it solves nothing, produces nothing, and can achieve nothing. This response is understandable. We think that by downplaying violence as sub-human we have a better chance of not giving into it. We hope that our verbal denunciations of violence create some kind of mental road-block against it. And since around the time of the Reformation, we have been taught to think this way.
Yet, violence does solve something: The problem of meaning. Violence, and specifically war, is able to offer people a reason for life that is powerful and attractive. Many people have found this to be so. Chris Hedges, a seasoned war correspondent, wrote, “I would have rather died than go back to routine life. The chance to exist for an intense and overpowering moment, even if it meant certain oblivion, seemed worth it in the midst of war. I do not miss war, but I miss what it brought.” And the former U.S. Navy Seal Chris Kyle, author of American Sniper, repeatedly said how much he loved being at war, that being a Navy Seal provided him with an identity.
The meaning violence offers is easy to understand. The goal of life is to gain victory, to destroy the enemy, to achieve glory and honour by fighting and not giving into cowardice. The importance of human life becomes secondary—the lives of the enemy aren’t important but so too the lives of the combatants. As Milovan Djilas, a soldier in the Yugoslav war, wrote, “[During the war] dying did not seem terrible or unjust. This was the most extraordinary, the most exalted moment of my life.” Violence may cost us everything, but it offers us a powerful meaning in life—that’s a trade many are willing to make, because we need meaning.
Sometimes we think that if we have happiness we have everything. Yet it is precisely in our current society, where we have so much in the way of material comfort, and in many respects are very happy, that we are facing a problem with meaning. Many feel that their comfortable lives are shallow, or hollow. They feel they are gliding through life without any profound purpose. For these people—many of which are young—violence is attractive because it is able to offer them a meaning in life they do not currently have.
So, while our intentions may be good, to class violence as sub-human is too easy. And to say violence solves nothing is false. Violence is able to solve the problem of meaning, and we need meaning in life to be human. It’s in that sense that someone could say violence is a step towards being human, even if the step is a twisted one.
2. (Violence has been twisted)
What does it mean that violence is twisted? If violence is the twisting of something, then what does that thing look like when it isn’t twisted? This sort of question is very Christian, because Christian’s believe that God made everything and everything He made was good. Therefore, evil is not an absence of good—as if evil, like God, could also create—but the twisting of good. Fundamentally, this world is very good. But there has been some severe twisting. That concept is one reason why Christians should have a basically positive view of the world: the good runs deeper than the evil.
So, in what specific way is violence a twisted form of good? Violence is a force that causes us to forget about the preservation of life and careful management of resources. Instead, it shifts all resources towards victory. Money, status, family and even life—the normal things we value—all become temporary and means to an end in a violent struggle. The only thing that matters is victory over the enemy, whatever the cost. There is a certain tunnel-vision quality to violence. There is a singleness of purpose.
This singleness of purpose tends to blind us to the nature of the actual conflict. The same traits we praise in our commanders during war time are what we condemn in the enemy. The action our side commits is labelled as “tactful” where the exact same action committed by the opposing force is labelled “savage” or “malicious”. This is one of the reasons many detest war, our sight becomes so skewed during the conflict and there seems to be no measure of right and wrong aside from us-against-them.
But if violence were un-twisted, if it were set right, what would it look like? It seems possible that the same force that drives violence was originally created to drive righteousness, and that the restoration or un-twisting of the drive is possible.
3. (Violence Redeemed)
This brings us to the question of how violence might be redeemed, which brings us to our text: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” Many of the Church Fathers understood “the violent taking the kingdom by force” as a reference to the kind of exertion needed to become a righteous person. There has to be a singleness of purpose if we hope to triumph over the evil that lives inside each one of us. And in that striving we may lose much, the journey is very costly, as Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” There is a singleness of purpose in this journey, as Jesus says elsewhere, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
And so we begin to see the parallels between twisted violence and redeemed violence. Both are very costly. Both have a singleness of focus. Both offer profound meaning. Yet one focuses on made up enemies, while the other focuses on the real. Because what will it profit anyone if they kill those outside themselves, who they think are enemies, while ignoring the true enemies inside: lust, greed, vengeance, and so on. It is when we focus on the fake enemies that the real enemies spread, as the previous example of praising our side’s action and condemning the exact same action that the enemy commits—we praise hate in our forces and condemn it in the opposition; we kill another human but feed the rage inside us. As Paul said “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
This redefinition of violence gives us a new way to read some of the violent texts of the Bible. When we read of Joshua conquering the promised land and establishing the kingdom of God by killing all the Canaanites, including women and children, we can remember that Joshua and Jesus share the same name (Joshua is the Hebrew form and Jesus the Greek) and that Jesus also establishes the Kingdom of God by killing those who oppose him. But this kingdom is not in the world out there but in the world in here. Not in the external world but in the internal, as Jesus said “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.” And so, Jesus makes war within us, and fights to win our souls from the clutches of evil. The gates of hell that have been erected in us—the real Jericho—will not prevail. And those creatures living inside, the vices and wicked ways, will all be destroyed. Even their children, the inklings of evil, will be removed, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” The rock is Christ, for he defeats evil. This severe stance towards evil is seen when Jesus says “if your right hand, or foot, or eye causes you to sin, cut it off.”
Thus we come to the picture printed on your bulletin and projected behind me. A monk is pictured, crucified and surrounded by demons who have pierced him. Written above the demons are the various names of the vices: greed, lust, envy, and so on. The monk has triumphed over them, but he has paid dearly for it, it cost him his life. And yet to die to the vices is life, whereas living for the vices is death. So the monk, in a very real way, has been victorious over evil. And this kind of death—or should I say life?—this kind of violent struggle is what we are all called to as Christians. It offers us a deep sense of meaning, where we are striving towards perfection, the destruction of evil in ourselves. This is a path out of the shallowness of life, a path out of the headlong and stifling focus on mere human flourishing to something beyond human flourishing—something beyond and greater than happiness. This is the violence you were created to take part in: a violence against evil, primarily in yourself. And to begin with ourselves is right, as Saint Seraphim once said “acquire a spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved.” We will never have peace in ourselves if the evil within us remains, just as the Israelites had no peace because they refused to remove all the Canaanites from the land. So we must strive.
Wars are often said to begin with words—the various sides begin speaking about the others as savages, or evil, or whatever. Those kinds of words are often false, yet we too must begin the war in ourselves with words. We must admit and label the things inside us that are evil as evil. We cannot slip and slide in our definitions, making countless excuses. Instead we must make an honest assessment and begin the fight, rather than harbouring evil.
Speaking of evil and its location, our struggle is not against flesh and blood. Generally speaking, the other person is not the problem—the problem is inside us. And even when someone else seems to be the problem, the real problem is behind them—powers, principalities, and forces that are greater than any single person, even though they are capable of operating through people. So to blame others for the evil we are struggling with will only weaken our attempts to become righteous—it’s another example of focusing on a fake enemy. And besides, the only battle we can fight is within ourself, not within their-self. When we realize this, and live by it, we are able to be far more gracious to people. As Jesus said when being crucified, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” May we, knowing that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, also be able to say about those who wrong us “they do not know what they are doing.” And may we then turn to focus all our energy on what we can change by God’s grace: ourselves.
When we compare the violence outside us to the violence that must take place inside there is one great difference. Violence outside, in the world, is often noisy, chaotic and very fast paced. The inner violence we are called to is different than this. To destroy the vices we need silence and solitude, simplicity and fasting. Monks and nuns are the best examples of those who have mastered inner-violence, those who have mastered how to kill the vices. And so we have a picture today of a monk who has triumphed over the vices, through death.
Jesus was also nailed to a cross and suffered from violence. He was insulted and remained silent, tortured and remained still. He knew that the true enemy was not flesh and blood. And so he descended to the realm of the dead, and defeated the power of death, proving his victory by coming back to life. The great enemy of all time, death, has been defeated. With the decisive battle against evil won, we are able to combat evil knowing that it will not, and cannot, ultimately win. The good runs deeper than the bad, and what is twisted will soon be straightened. As Isaiah proclaimed “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
May we take part in the redeemed violence of God, destroying the strongholds of evil within us and acquiring a spirit of peace. May the peace of Christ be with you.