Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Broken Reeds

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

Isaiah 42:1-9

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.


Josh said...

Great sermon, Aric. I'd like to read more about the response of Muslims to the recent violence in Egypt. Can you provide a link?

Aric Clark said...

Sure Josh. Here is where I first learned about it. If you google it you'll find the same story at a bunch of blogs and religion sites. It made NPR, but otherwise was almost entirely ignored by the mainstream media.

Nick.Larson said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Aric. I agree that it's frustrating to see the "reeds" pile up. I love your sentiment and thanks for sharing about the Muslims and Copts.

In case you haven't seen it, I loved the Daily Show's take on this too. I really enjoyed that he just stated it doesn't make sense to try to make sense out of senseless. Just like you pointed out to try to make peace out of violence.

Nick.Larson said...

Here's the link for those who haven't seen it.

Craig said...

"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."

Not really sure that anyone quite knows what Jared thought he was doing. Maybe we'll find out that your early conclusion was right.

I'm glad to see Muslims standing against attacks on Christians. It's a small positive step in the right direction.

Aric Clark said...

@Nick, I'd seen Jon Stewart's speech and it was definitely better than anything else out there in the pundit-sphere. I think he soft-balled it a little, though. Good comments about senselessness and grief and not blaming political rhetoric anymore than heavy metal music - all true, but no commentary on violence in our society? No awareness of the fact that a lone muslim does something violent and it is immediately called terrorism. A lone white guy and we all want to talk about mental health suddenly? I was hoping for something with more teeth from Jon.

@Craig - you're absolutely right that no one really knows what was going through Jared's mind, but I'll bet you my right arm that in whatever twisted way his thoughts were working he had justified the violence to himself - believed himself just in doing what he was doing.

Craig said...

I'm sure he did justify it to himself, but it seems as stretch to conclude he thought it would lead to a better and more just future.

Doug Hagler said...

@ Craig: I'm curious - can you think of an act of violence, apart from interpersonal between people who know and hate each other, that isn't motivated by the belief it will bring about a better and more just future? Is there another motive for political violence you can give an example of?

To me, that pervasive false belief accounts for every assassination, war, terrorist act, genocide and attempted genocide, that I've ever heard of. The only other motivation I can think of is vengeance, which is just the personal version of the myth of redemptive violence.

Josh said...

Thanks, Aric.

Craig said...


I saying that it is impossible to know someones motivation for any particular act, absent an explanation from the person. That also assumes the explanation is genuine and truthful. I'd not say that your assumption is necessarily wrong, just premature in this case.

Doug Hagler said...

I think you're misinterpreting what we're saying here - we're not speculating on the motivation of one particular person - we're commenting on the fact, that I haven't seen you refute, that violence is either 1. personal or 2. based in the belief that violence brings justice. It doesn't really matter precisely what Loughner's motivation was - just that it was one of those two things, and in the second case, demonstrably as wrong as it is pervasive.

Craig said...

"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."

When I read the above quote, it suggests to me that the writer believes that "Jared Loughner" believed that he was "contributing to a better and more just future.".

Now, maybe when you say "Jared Loughner" you mean that "we're not speculating on the motivation of one particular person" although "Jared Loughner" does seem to actually be "one person" and trying to impute reasons to his actions is not "speculating on the motivation of one particular person"

So, while I have no argument with either of your possible reasons for why one might engage in violent acts, there has not been adequate foundation laid to ascribe either of your tow possibilities with any accuracy.

Based on what his friends have said about Jared, I would think that there could be other possibilities as well.
1. Some degree of mental illness.
2. Nihilism.
3. Drug use.

Again, no one knows for sure what his motivations were (we may never know), time may prove you right. But it still seems a bit early to make these kinds of judgments.

Nick.Larson said...

@Craig -- I think the argument here isn't what was his motivation for his actions, but rather what he thought his actions would accomplish.

While I can't ever know for sure what his motivations were for that action, I can postulate and extrapolate what groups of people who act violently hope to happen. The argument here is that people falsely believe that we can solve anything by violence.

Can I raising my fist (or insert violent act here) against another make the world a better place? I believe that it can not. I believe that it is a lie within our own minds to believe any different and I think that disillusion is exactly what violent people act upon.

My fellow friars here were stating that violence is either revenge (personal) or to try to "change" the world into something more like what that person wants. The assumption they present is that most people think those results will be "better and a more just world" (regardless of their political or social positions).

Craig said...

"The assumption they present.."

Thank you for making my point. What they present is an assumption. It may turn out to be correct, but it remains an assumption, despite the apparent certainty with which it was presented.

Aric Clark said...

Craig, this is a sermon I preached. It was written in an hour and a half before church on Sunday because I scrapped the sermon I had prepared after the events of the week persuaded me I needed to speak on the topic that would be on everyone's mind.

You are nitpicking in an irrelevant and obnoxious way stating the obvious - that I can't read Jared Loughner's mind (or anyone else's for that matter).

I have attempted to give a theological explanation of the sources of political violence and a Biblical response. Do you have something interesting to say on that subject? Would you like to help us clarify how or why political violence is caused and justified and what God would say in response?

Craig said...


I actually made 2 points in my first comment.

One was a was a polite suggestion that maybe you had been hasty in assigning motives to Loughner. The second was, that it is refreshing to see Muslims coming to the the defense of Christians being persecuted. Your colleagues have repeatedly tried to justify or excuse your hasty judgment. I apologize for responding to follow ups directed at me.

I find it interesting that I have suggested other possible causes, as well as the fact that your hasty assumption may be correct, yet these comments are ignored and the focus stayed where it did.

It seems that, despite the coverage, it may even be premature to refer to this as "political violence". I've repeatedly stated that you could well be correct, only time will tell in this case.

Nick Larson said...

I wasn't trying to do anything but expand upon a thought that was developing and hopefully help to clarify it.

I think your original assertion was good, and as you can see I agreed with you about it being an assumption. I thought that was a good contribution to this thread.

Where you comments still confuse me is that you seem hung up on the idea that "political violence" means something more than the idea that he would want to shift the landscape to match something in his own head. At least for me, "political violence" is a fairly broad term. And for me the fact remains that he targeted a political person, hence I feel like one can assume that in his mind it was something other than personal and hence the point that he was trying to use violence to further his political agenda (which again we assume is a "positive" step towards his worldview). This is where the real crux of the sermon stood. Do we as believers assert that violence can bring about good. That's where I loved the use of scripture to speak to nonviolent action being "Irresistible in its graciousness, and so gentle that not even a bruised reed was broken."

Aric Clark said...


My judgment was not hasty. In my immediate reply to you above I said that you were right and no one knows exactly what was going through Jared's mind. I said exactly this in the sermon as well.

What I also said is that whatever his specific reasons it is probable that he had justified it in his own mind. Your proffered explanations in no way conflict with this. His justification could have stemmed from a skewed view of right and wrong stemming from mental health issues, or a commitment to nihilism, or a drug addled brain - but he still probably convinced himself he had good cause to behave as he did. That is a statement about human nature for which I don't need to know anything about Jared in particular. People tend to do things because they believe them to be right at the time. By believing them to be right they are also saying they believe they will lead, ultimately, to good consequences however they imagine them. This is not a crazy or speculative statement. You've made way too big a deal out of this.

Furthermore, this is patently political violence whatever Jared's motivations. It targeted an elected representative in the very action of democratic political engagement. It has already had political repercussions for many people. It's political. That doesn't mean it is partisan (as it seems not to be).

Steve Schuler said...

Nice sermon, Aric!

And that is a compliment coming from a 'non-believer'. I do believe in Peace, Love, and Understanding and appreciate like-minded folks, whatever their faith. I had not heard about the Muslims in Egypt protecting their Coptic countrymen and I find that to be a very encouraging event and wish that it had received more widespread media attention. Thanks for clueing me in!

On yeah! Craig, I think you are picking nits and that you owe Aric an apology. You've made some valid points, but still...

Steve Schuler
Oklahoma USA

Craig said...


I'm not prepared to confidently agree with your assertion at this point. I'd prefer to have some more information. Having said that, you could well be right.

Aric Clark said...


Thanks man. I hope you increase the amount of peace, love, and understanding in the world.


I didn't intend to neglect your comment that it is refreshing to see Muslims coming to the defense of their neighbors. I agree. I wouldn't phrase it the way you have. I'd disagree with your characterization of it as 'small' - risking your life for a stranger isn't what I would call small, let alone when done by thousands in direct response to recent violence and threats. I'd say that is the definition of 'big', but yes it is very uplifting.

Doug Hagler said...

@ Craig: I haven't been following this thread closely, but - SMALL!?? Are you insane!? What do you think it would take for tens of thousands of American Christians to risk losing their lives in a bomb attack in order to protect their Muslim neighbors? Or, hell, any of their neighbors? Or people from any nationality, any religion, to do something like that? Can you even imagine that happening?

It is an act showing more courage than I have ever shown in my entire life, an act that involved everyone from regular folks to celebrities and the children of the Prime Minister of Egypt! How far do you think we are from the children of the President risking death to protect a hated minority in our country?

Man, I think this is an Epic Viewpoint Fail. I get the impression that, for whatever reason, you're just not understanding this sermon.

But small? You've got to be kidding.

Craig said...


I would agree that someone putting his/her life/limb on the line is a big deal in the specific context. When I said small it was in reference to the larger picture. As you may know we are seeing what appears to be an increase in persecution of Christians by Muslims. In that larger context this story is a relatively small step in the right direction.

Craig said...


I would agree that someone putting his/her life/limb on the line is a big deal in the specific context. When I said small it was in reference to the larger picture. As you may know we are seeing what appears to be an increase in persecution of Christians by Muslims. In that larger context this story is a relatively small step in the right direction.

Maybe you should have asked for clarification before assuming what I understood or didn't understand.

Doug Hagler said...

Yeah, I probably should have, but still. I think that the 'increase in persecution' is kind of a broad generalization, and I think that if you put concrete numbers to that generalization, the actions of thousands, tens of thousands, of Christ-like Muslims in Egypt would remain staggering in scale.

The thing is - the whole world is ceaselessly aflame with vengeance and hatred. We are continually devouring ourselves, and always have been. Do these acts overturn everything? Of course not. Do they utterly humble me; do they overwhelm 99.99% of what we dare call following Christ? Absolutely.

Craig said...


I'm not disagreeing with you on this. As I said in my first comment, it is a good thing. But, no matter how good it is, it is still a beginning. There is a long way to go. But it is an inspiring beginning.