This was the sermon I preached this last Sunday, January 9th. I had written an entirely different sermon focusing on the Baptism of Jesus in Matthew, but following the events of the week felt compelled to rewrite. Hat tip to George Macdonald whose ideas these were before they were mine
The words God spoke to Jesus at his baptism are echoed in many places through scripture including this passage from Isaiah where God says “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.” Justice to the nations. As Jesus was being ordained, commissioned by God through John and the water of the river Jordan for his ministry of salvation this thought was reverberating in the background – that he would bring justice to the nations. And not just any kind of justice but one that is described as being so gentle it would not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick.
This morning I ask you to meditate on justice. Justice is an ideal everyone will commend and everyone claim to desire and to serve, but I want you to consider whether we have any idea what justice is, in light of recent events in our society.
Yesterday a young white man of 22 years, Jared Loughner, walked into the middle of a meeting in Tucson, Arizona and opened fire on a group of people gathered there to meet their congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords. Representative Giffords was hit in the head and at first believed dead, but is now known to be alive and in intensive care after surgery, and is under sedation as they wait to see if she will survive. Others were injured and six were killed outright including Gabe Zimmerman, an aide to the congresswoman. US District Judge John Roll. Dorothy Morris, 76. Dorwin Stoddard, 76. Phyllis Scheck, 79. Christina Greene, a child of 9.
People are rightly shocked by this horrific violence, which unfortunately is only exceptional in that it targeted a political figure. On the same day 27 people were killed in the ongoing drug war in Mexico. There are 16 casualties on average every day in our conflict in Afghanistan. There are 11 or 12 deaths each day due to violence in Iraq. Given national averages, in our own country, 45 other murders occurred in America yesterday which received no national media attention.
Regardless of the circumstances, the attack on Representative Giffords yesterday was a travesty. We should lift up our prayers on behalf of all of those injured, the families of those murdered, and the whole of our nation as it reflects on the complex dynamics that lead to violence.
We must also pray for Jared Loughner, the man who decided to take a gun and point it at another human being and pull the trigger repeatedly. There will be a lot of over-analysis focusing on young Jared in the media in the coming days. His internet profile will be delved into. His personal life will be examined. His friends and family and acquaintances will be interviewed as everyone tries to come up with some explanation for why he chose to do what he did.
Some people already are blaming the political rhetoric in our country which has gotten so intemperate that attack ads regularly indulge in violent metaphors “targeting” their opponents. We have reached a point where we no longer distinguish between political adversaries and enemies. The hatreds and divisions along ideological lines are stark these days much to our shame. That climate may have contributed to this attack, and it is definitely deplorable behavior, but Jared was still the one who pulled the trigger.
Others will blame this attack on mental illness. They will say that Jared Loughner is a disturbed young man. A lone bad apple. Psychotic. Crazy.
It is probably true that he is suffering from a madness, but if so it is a very mundane, even commonplace madness. It is a delusion that most of humanity suffers from – the delusion that retributive violence is a mechanism of justice.
The servant of God is coming to bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.
Though we do not yet know the specific reasons Jared Loughner did what he did it is guaranteed that in his mind it was justified. He almost certainly did not fire that gun believing himself to be doing evil. He probably believed at the time, and perhaps even now, that his actions were in some way contributing to a just result. A righting of wrongs.
This hysterical delusion has gripped humanity from our beginnings and though we have shaken it in rare and beautiful occasions, too often it has ruled the day. Our courts, our prisons, our armies, our security, our governments, our identities are built on the illusion that evil can be defeated by force, that wrongs can be righted by punishment.
But punishment and retribution have no power to make things right. Violence can never establish peace.
Consider a very basic example. If you have stolen something from me, how can this injustice be made right? If you are caught and sent to jail does this fix my injury? Even if the stolen object is found by the police and returned to me, has justice been accomplished? Won’t the lingering wound of having my privacy invaded, my trust violated remain? How can your punishment fix that? It doesn’t. There is only one way for amends to be made and that is for you to repent and come to me asking for forgiveness. That is it. No judge, no court, no police officer, no lightning bolt from the sky, no punishment of any kind can ever fix my injury. Only the one who injured me has the power to right the wrong. Only I, by forgiving, have the means to restore peace.
But instead of repenting and seeking forgiveness, and instead of offering it to those who have wounded us we keep seeking justice through retribution. We keep hoping the proper application of punishment will heal our wounds. In our personal relationships this is deadly, and when applied to society as a whole, extrapolating our own grievous injuries onto the body politic it results in a massacre. Every time we turn to the sword for justice we end up with broken reeds scattered across the floor. Shattered lives, wrecked hopes, and dismembered dreams are all that remain of our quest for justice.
We must conclude that we know nothing about the nature of justice, least of all God's justice which comes at the hands of one so gentle it does not break even a bruised reed. Justice, as Christ administers it, is not something opposed to forgiveness, not a force tempered by mercy, but mercy itself, forgiveness itself, reconciliation itself made concrete between victim and perpetrator so that not even a smoldering wick would be quenched by its arrival.
Since humanity could reason we have always reasoned the costs of retributive violence justified. They are not, and never can be. No matter how we will it, or legislate it, or excuse it violence will never bring us either justice or peace. It will only heap more broken reeds on the pile.
But there is a way for us to act justly toward one another. There is a way for us to make peace.
In Egypt there is a sect of Christians, the Copts, who are a very small minority in that mostly Muslim country. Furthermore, the government of Egypt has not been protective of their rights, but has too often turned a blind eye to violence and persecution committed against the Copts by others. Recently the violence has been particularly bad with extreme Islamist groups attacking Coptic Christians in their churches. A car bomb just over a week ago on New Years Eve in Alexandria killed 21 Copts. 21 broken reeds. 21 lives cut short. No doubt the bombers believed like Jared Loughner and like all people who have ever committed violence for a cause that they were contributing to a better and more just future.
But a movement sprung up in the wake of this latest bombing. Some Muslims began to say that they would not tolerate the violence. They would not tolerate the attacks supposedly made in their name against their fellow Egyptians. "An attack against one is an attack against us all," they said. Banners went up throughout the city of Alexandria showing a cross inside a crescent - symbolizing the unity of all Egyptians. A plan was formulated. Coptic Christians follow a different calendar than us in the west. Their Christmas holiday is on January 7th. During the mass to celebrate that holiday when Copts would be gathered in their churches and more attacks were feared Muslims began showing up at the doors and outside the churches holding candle-light vigils. They would be human shields, risking their lives, so that if any violence were attempted against the Copts it would kill Muslims too.
Thousands. They stood up by the thousands willing to take a bullet for people very different from them. People with no political power or importance. People their own government wouldn't protect. They arrived like God's justice- quietly, but formidably. Irresistible in its graciousness, and so gentle that not even a bruised reed was broken.
They proved conclusively by their actions that violence can never establish justice. But love can.