The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.

[Chalice] Violence and Christian Doctrine [Chalice]

Presented March 31, 2002, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

I hope you all read the cover article in this month's UU World Magazine about the relation between Christian doctrine and violence. The article was largely excerpted from a book by two women ministers, one a Methodist minister and one a Methodist minister turned UU minister, Rebecca Ann Parker, who is now (heaven help us all) the president of the UU Star King School for Ministry in Berkeley, CA. Their book is called Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us.

I can't even tell you how many times and on how many levels this article irritated me and sent me on ego-fueled flights toward disdain and dismissal. But that is not important. What is important is that the article gets us to think about something we all need to think about more, which is the relation between how the Christian story is told and retold and violence, and especially domestic violence, and violence by men toward the women they supposedly love.

The article centers around the tragic murder of a woman named Anola Reed. She was a parishioner of Rita Brock's and was repeatedly abused by her husband. She thought about leaving him but stayed through the beatings, willing to suffer just as Jesus suffered on the cross. Her minister told Anola to leave, but she thought it her duty to stay, and she was stabbed to death by her husband. The minister Rebecca Parker consoled her friend the minister Rita Brock at the time by saying: "Pat, the only way you could have helped Anola more is if the whole Christian tradition taught something other than self-sacrificing love. If it didn't preach that to be like Jesus we have to give up our lives in faithful obedience to the love of God." And Pat replied: "But this is what the church teaches. I can't escape the feeling that her husband would not have had the chance to kill her if the church hadn't taught Anola that your life is only valuable if you give it away."

Whatever inadequacies there are in the article-and they are maddening-really mean nothing next to this real life tragedy and this terrible possibility and momentous question: What is the effect on people's lives of the Christian story? How is the Christian story told? Has it changed, that telling of the Christian story? Have most American Christians this week, through Holy Week, have they been immersed in a story that goes like this: Jesus was God's son who knew that someone would have to pay for all of the sins of the people, that his loving Father required this. And Jesus willingly submitted himself to this death, willingly took this terrible suffering upon himself; on our behalf. This was all God's plan, and Jesus had to have the strength to deal with it, to take all that suffering upon himself, knowing that good things would come out of that suffering if he just went all the way with the suffering and didn't give up and check out. Does that sound like the version of the Christian story that was taught to you and that you think is being celebrated today? And do you know people like Anola? Do you know people/women who have endured and suffered when they should not have because they were trying to be like Jesus, inspired by him to suffer patiently hoping that something good for others might come out of their suffering? Do you think that this Christian story still makes people less resistant to violence and more willing to allow themselves to be abused and suffer violence? If you know people like this, what do you say to them? Do you have anything theological to say to them? Anything Christian? Any other type of Christianity or other way of thinking the Christian story?

Jesus willingly suffers violence and Anola and others willingly risk suffering violence. But this is just the beginning of thinking about the relation between violence and Christianity, or violence and religion. If there's a parallel between Jesus and Anola, isn't there a parallel between God the Father who requires the life of the Son and the violence of the husband who takes the life of Anola? If the Son's death is what wins salvation for us, then isn't in some way violence the answer? Isn't this God of Christianity in a certain way endorsing violence? Showing that this violence toward his son got something done? The other night I attended mass on Maundy Thursday, the night of the Last Supper. The service starts with a reading from the Old Testament, the Passover reading because that is what Jesus as a Jew was celebrating at his last supper. So the reading from the Old Testament is about how God slew the first born sons of all the Egyptians but the angel of death passed over the houses of the Israelites, marked as they were with the blood of the lamb. No one seemed to be bothered with the thought of God killing all those children, and then we moved on in the service to Jesus living out his tragic but triumphant destiny as the lamb of God. As much as Christianity protests that it is the new covenant and that the God of the New Testament is the God of love as opposed to the God of wrath of the Jews, there does seem to be a tie between the God who slays children and the God who requires the death of his Son, and that tie is violence. In both cases God resorts to violence; violence is the way things get done. And in case you are thinking that this God who sanctions violence is only a Jewish-Christian thing, as un-PC as it might be to say, there is a great deal of violence in the Koran as well. Allah in the Koran constantly endorses violence.

There is one intellectual who has been preoccupied with the reality of the constant tie between violence and religion, and that is literary critic born French but who has had his academic career here in America: Rene Girard. In his two books Violence and the Sacred and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World Girard has pointed out over and over again the tie between primitive and foundational myths of a society and violence. Sometimes it is the rape of a woman which founds the society, sometimes the murder of a brother or father, but over and over again in world mythology there is violence at the foundation of things. And as Girard explores more and more about mythology, a very strange, surprising thing happens to him which you would never expect. He converts of all things to Christianity. Now how in the world does that happen? Why does a man who has devoted a large part of his professional life to making us aware of the complicity between religion and violence end up becoming a passionate Christian of all things? It works like this. Mythology often involves violence, often a violence that goes uncriticized and because it is violence toward a being or a person to whom is attributed blame and fault, i.e., a scapegoat. For Girard, the figure of the scapegoat is the quintessential way in which mythology is intertwined with violence, and the quintessential way in which society accepts this and takes it as the norm. Acceptable violence, or violence as something acceptable, then comes to be at the foundation of human societies. So what about Jesus? For Girard, the tragic murder of Jesus reveals to us our eternal human tendency to do this, to resort to violence, to have scapegoats, to think of violence as the first resort and as an acceptable answer. Jesus for Girard is obviously blameless. He is nothing but a victim, a victim of the human tendency to resort to violence, to have scapegoats, to put blame on someone else. To Girard, the story of Jesus and his violent, useless, unnecessary death shows us the tie that always is between violence and the sacred, between violence and order in the world. Girard's favorite line from the Gospels is where Jesus says: "I will teach you things hidden from the foundations of the world." To Girard, this tie between the foundations of the world, the foundations of human society, and the scapegoat, and violence, has been hidden until Jesus the obvious victim makes it obvious. His death as pure victim does teach us how violent we are and always have been; his death as pure victim does teach us this horrible fact we have hidden from ourselves since the foundations of the world.

For Girard, this interpretation of the Christian story and of Jesus as victim saves Christianity for him. It makes him a very devoted and convinced Christian. I wonder if you would feel this way? Could you buy this version of Jesus and of Christianity? Are you looking for a way to save Christianity? Are Christians, the ones crowding Christian churches today, looking for a way to save Christianity for themselves? Or are they convinced by the version of Jesus as the lamb of God who willingly sacrifices himself for us? Or by some other version of the story? Or do most of them not really care? I taught Girard recently to one of my classes. Most of the students who thought of themselves as devoted Christians hated it. A couple of liberal-minded Christians really liked it, and most couldn't care less. Jesus as lamb of God slain for us, Jesus as pure victim who teaches us the violence hidden from the foundations of the world, who cares? What difference does it make?

I'm drawn to but also wary of Girard's interpretation of Christianity. But I'm convinced that he is right about at least one thing: that there is violence at the foundation of the world. Violence does seem to be within the fabric of everything and always at our disposal. Violence seems to be something like our first resort. Most people, or at least most men, when they are threatened resort to violence. Violence never seems to be very far away from us as a solution. To two men who get into a heated argument, violence is always near; and violence is just as near between peoples and nations. Our country's reaction to September 11 proved that about our own Christian country just as much as any other country. And I don't know if Christianity is to blame for that, if Christianity provides a myth that is simply itself within the cultural logic of violence as the answer, or whether Christianity provides an antidote that people just don't take seriously. But I do know the cultural problem, our culture's problem and probably the human problem, is how close violence always is to us as something like an acceptable answer. Our inability to reject this and come up with better answers is the secret hidden since the foundation of the world.

There's a terrible example of this very problem deeper in the pages of the same issue of the UU World Magazine. It seems that on December 2 of last year in a UU church in Vermont a man unknown to the congregation took over the pulpit just as the service was to start. The man was in a panic and said that the police and CIA were after him. He would not calm down so members of the congregation called the police. The man took out a pocketknife with a four-inch blade and threatened to kill himself, pointing the knife at himself. The police several times ordered him to put the knife down; he didn't so they shot him 5 times and killed him right there by the pulpit in the UU church.

The article goes on to reassure us that later that week the church sponsored small support groups so people in the congregation could talk about their feelings, and the state police have made a counselor available to the congregation. And other UU congregations have sent letters of support to this congregation, and one even sent to the congregation a whole box of origami paper cranes as a sign of support. There was even a nice picture of some of the paper cranes in the article. Really, we UUs have to guard against being a mockery of who we are, of being other people's stereotype of who and what we are. Who cares about the paper cranes? What about the fact that the police couldn't find any way to deal with this situation other than lethal violence?

Why did the police in this situation find violence so ready to hand as a solution to this problem? Why do we still find violence always ready to hand as a solution? And does this fact have anything to do with the fact that long ago we humans told ourselves stories of a God who resorted to violence to get those Egyptians, or stories of a Father God who required the violent death of his Son, and that we still do tell them, these violent sacred stories?

©2002 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2002. Violence and Christian Doctrine, (accessed July 13, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.