Taking Our Pulse the Day After
I cannot make myself feel good today. A heavy weight just won’t let me. Our church has screaming happy kids in it for VBS… but I’m… stuck. Yesterday our world was shaken once again and I just don’t want to “move on.” I feel a need to wallow a bit. I feel a need to confess that its wrong that I can just go on while others are looking around corners and locking doors and feeling once again how unsafe their life is, unsafe because they have a big giant target on their back. And it isn’t of their making. I made it… or folk so much like me it might as well have been me. And I haven’t figured out how to get it off yet… and maybe that’s because I just haven’t tried very hard.
This is what is in my head when these words from scripture come to mind:
1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke13:1-9)
What we have here is a little trinitarian moment, 3 stories and one message.
A group recounts to Jesus an act of political violence committed by Pilate. Pilate appears to have killed a group of Galileans in their place of worship. The event lacks historic attribution outside of scripture and yet many other such acts by Roman power, including Pilate, towards the Jews are elsewhere noted. We don’t hear how they present this information to Jesus but based on his response it seems that rather than defend their own they turn on them. This group that was killed must have done something bad. They want to frame this in a typical, “if they died they must have deserved it” theology that undergirds the myth of redemptive violence. Redemptive violence promotes the idea that we can fix the world’s problems by killing the people promoting the problem. If we kill enough, and threated death enough… people will be good and peace will result.
Jesus does as Jesus does: he ignores the idea of providing an answer and asks a deeper question. Do you really think those that died are any different than you? This is the type of turn I love about Jesus. Because he always makes it OUR PROBLEM. (Hold on to that thought for later.)
Jesus has been talking about judgement in the lead up to this interaction. And yet… He is unwilling to judge the Galileans. He isn’t even willing to judge Pilate. Instead he looks at those who, perhaps, sought to deflect judgement from themselves and says, “unless you repent (turn around the way you are living your life), you will perish as they did.” You will perish. Unless you change the direction we are all headed. Now I think we tend to hear this as divine redemptive violence. You will be killed for being a sinner too. But I think we read Jesus and God as issuing imperative commands where they intended indicative statements of cause and effect. In a world that promotes violent means toward the goal… we will all perish in the end. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves… let’s hear Jesus out.
Jesus immediately recounts another incident. The falling of a tower at Siloam. (Another incident lacking in historic reference outside of scripture… but again, the event wouldn’t have been rare. In fact ancient historians talk about the over-crowding in ancient cities that often resulted in habitations falling in on themselves under the weight of its occupants. Usually this would have been the dwellings of the urban poor… and while we don’t know anything about the tower at Siloam such a reading would make this not simply an act of random tragedy, but a consequence of economic injustice.) Again Jesus says, “did these too deserve to die? (more than you). Jesus doesn’t give an opportunity to breath… No. No they did not. But if we do not repent (turn around and change the structure of how we live together) you too will perish.
And then a parable. About a tree… because, #Jesus.
A tree that year after year doesn’t produce (doesn’t repent and change direction). A tree that is you, and a tree that is me. Because remember this is Jesus we are talking about and for with Jesus he is ALWAYS going to make this about us. People are dying. They are dying at the hands of political power, and systemic sin, and redemptive violence… people are dying and we haven’t produced any fruit to make it stop. So should the tree get cut down?
Because #grace. Because #novengence Because #noredemptiveviolence
Let me, the gardener says, work on it for another year. Give it another chance.
Actually, a group of pastor colleagues of mine (I’ll risk breaking some confidence here) recently noted what he really said was… let’s poor some shit on it. And let’s sit there in the shit for another year. And see what comes of it.
Well friends. We have shit. A lot of it. We have political violence, we have sexual violence, we have homophobic violence, we have religious violence. And far, far too often we have a belief that somehow the victims deserved it. We are as steeped in the myth of redemptive violence and victim-blaming as anything from the ancient world. And we have proved just as unproductive at turning around and bearing fruit.
Yesterday I sat thinking about the violence that tore apart Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando, as many of us did. Today I’m taking my pulse… because I’m wondering how to live in its wake. Many of us are. Again. We talk about a nightclub shooting, but I heard it as a church shooting, because often enough nightclubs are the only sanctuaries our gay friends and neighbors have available to them. We have shunned them from all the more typical places to gather. We have heaped shame on their shoulders to make it hard to be who they are in public. They have needed to create and seek out their own sanctuaries. And two nights ago one such sanctuary as that was ripped apart by violence and the blood of a 100 people mixed together in their place of sanctuary. Did they deserve it?
The victims of Orlando were people of color, were gay, were seeking sanctuary and safety in a world that has denied it to them. It isn’t their fault. Its mine. Its ours. It’s the world that has shunned people and made them targets. It’s a world that has made it “ok” to treat women as sexual objects, and gay men as “outsiders and enemies to our righteousness.” It is also the fault of a world that thinks the problem is Islam, or terrorists, or mentally ill people. Rather than a world that has taught that value of redemptive violence, take what you can and if you are strong enough to hold it against others than you were meant to have it, and marginalizing certain outsider groups as easy targets to power-needy individuals and systems. Whether it is the Jews or Muslims, women and children, or gay and queer and transgender strangers we constantly put a target on someone… someone else we can blame. Someone else… so that it isn’t our problem.
I do not image that I am capable of creating a world without violence. But I certainly have proven capable of providing targets for that violence. Every time we “other” someone. Every time we set apart a group as outside our circle of care, or even welcome. We are creating targets. We are justifying that they “deserved” it more than me. So for today… for this year. My fruit is this: we need to take the targets off people. And we need to recognize that every single one of us needs to participate in the corporate act of repenting and changing our direction… or we will perish at the hands of one another.
Too many years now the tree has born no fruit. Far too many years. The gardener is weary. It is time and past time. So do not look for people to blame here. Look to yourself and ask: what can I do different, how do I need to change, what fruit can I bear that will take targets off of people. Because we are all sitting in the shadow of the tower of Siloam. We put ourselves there, we built the tower… and its up to us to put it right.