Removing Roadblocks #5 - From Action to Expression

October 18, 2020

Series: October 2020

Speaker: Rob McClellan

 Today's Scripture

Psalm 137

1 By the rivers of Babylon—

   there we sat down and there we wept

   when we remembered Zion.

2 On the willows there

   we hung up our harps.

3 For there our captors

   asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

   ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

 4 How could we sing the Lord’s song

   in a foreign land?

5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

   let my right hand wither!

6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,

   if I do not remember you,

if I do not set Jerusalem

   above my highest joy.

 7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites

   the day of Jerusalem’s fall,

how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!

   Down to its foundations!’

8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!

   Happy shall they be who pay you back

   what you have done to us!

9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones

   and dash them against the rock!


Today's Sermon

“Violence:  From Action to Expression”

            Maybe one of the most troubling aspect of the Bible is violence.  We depart this week from the article which suggests passages we should try and defend as Christians, because that article takes shots at what it sees as trivial. Violence is not trivial.  The Bible is replete with violence, seemingly ordained violence.  There’s the conquest of Canaan.  There’s God’s wrath enacted or threatened on people for their unfaithfulness.  There’s the subjection of the ancient Israelites to the violence of their captors, and there’s the ancient Israelites singing and praying of a day when they can exact vengeance on their oppressors.  “O God, break the teeth” of our enemies says our reading for today, “…let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime…The righteous…will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked” (Psalm 58).  “Happy shall they be who take your little ones (your children) and dash them (their heads) against the rock!” (Psalm 137)  What happened to “love your enemies” or “love your neighbor as yourself”!?

            The classic move of Christians is to “blame” this violence on the Old Testament, particularly when it comes to the violence of God.  However, I’ve said many times, God in the Older Testament is far more merciful than violent, and more merciful than we recall, while God in the Newer Testament is far more wrathful than we’d like to admit.  If you don’t believe me, just reread Matthew 25 and then tell me about the warm and fuzzy “New Testament God” who separates the metaphorical sheep and goats, the gnashing of teeth and eternal punishment. 

            If you’ve listened to me for any length of time, you’ll know my commitment to nonviolence, though that is far from universal in the faith.  A teacher I follow says that when he travels the world, people often ask him how Americans, who report to be Christian at high rates, seem to have totally forgotten a central teaching of Jesus, nonviolence.  Gandhi reportedly once said “Everyone knows that Jesus taught nonviolence…except Christians.”[1]

            Given how I have defended the Scriptures in this sermon series, you don’t suppose that I am, then, going to offer a Christian defense of violence?  There’s a long history of Christian employment of violence, from the conquests and crusades, inquisitions and colonialism down even to the present day.  Every time we enter a war, we seem to rally with religious fervor around “our” cause.  I don’t intend to defend Christian violence.  I do want to deal honestly with the violence we encounter in today’s psalms without simply dismissing these texts out of hand.

            You’ve probably heard some version of Psalm 137 in popular song:  “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”  The people are weeping over being forced from their homeland and are fantasizing about getting revenge by dashing their captors’ children against the stone.  They wish violence against their oppressor in prayer, “in prayer” being the operative phrase.  We are taught, are we not, to bring everything to God in prayer?  Isn’t that how the hymn goes?  Don’t we teach that God knows what’s on our hearts anyway?  Why not share it?  Yes, we don’t want to cultivate hate, vengefulness, retribution – even an eye for an eye was meant to limit retaliation not license it.  But perhaps it’s precisely in giving voice to what we’re thinking and feeling, offering those things to God in prayer that those things can be healed and transformed in God’s hands. 

            This is not to say that we are to put with all sorts of unjust, cruel, or abusive situations.  Just pray and put up with it because we’re powerless.  No, in fact this kind of raw and honest prayer can, in fact, be empowering.  According to womanist theologian Neichelle Guidry, who has written on subverting rape culture, wishing evil or curse upon your enemies, what’s called imprecatory prayer, which is found throughout the psalms, this can be a tool of resisting evil.[2]  In other words when you are subject to the horrors of abuse, personal or communal, your invoking God’s wrath against injustice can be a path to your or your people’s liberation.  It doesn’t mean you commit the violence.  You are summoning divine and human power to defeat the violence being forced upon you.  It’s easy for those who reside primarily in positions of power and control to critique this.  People in war-torn countries, those in abusive relationships, may have a very different perspective.  I have a friend who pastors in a Midwestern city.  After one of the police shootings of a black man this year, his crosstown black church colleague said, “I don’t want to hear one more prayer for peace and calm out of the white church.”  In other words, when we get killed and you pray for “calm” it makes us question whose side you’re on.

              Violence, though?  We don’t want violent protests though, do we?  Well before I answer that, let me point out that the same people who often condemn violent protest seem not to quibble with the violent revolution that founded this country, the violent war that held it together, the one that defeated the Nazis, or the wars in more recent times.  They all had “good reasons.”  Consider how we ritualize our violence as sacred, as not only acceptable but ordained by God, before we criticize our ancestors for theologizing their own histories or those who feel they have to fight for equality today. 

            I do not, in the end, defend violence, protest or otherwise.  I actually don’t think the Bible does either.  One of the passages that often gets mistakenly held up is Ecclesiastes 3: “To everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:  a time to be born, and a time to die…a time to kill, and a time to heal… even a time to love, and a time to hate, a time for war, and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 2, 8).  What gets missed is that this passage is descriptive in nature, not prescriptive.  It tells us how life is, not how life is necessarily to be, how it could be if God’s dreams come true.  The Bible often does this, reflects back to us how life is in its fullness, its suffering and its joy, its triumphs and defeats, the beauty and frailty of the human character. 

            Pastor and author Brian Zahnd says simply and profoundly, “Yes, the Bible is a violent book, but not because God is violent; rather the Bible is violent because we are violent, and the problem of violence is unflinchingly depicted in the Bible.”[3]  Zahnd reminds us that the early church’s belief was that Jesus tries to pull us from this violent tendency.  He recounts the early tradition that when Jesus disarmed Peter, who struck the ear of one of Jesus’ captors with a sword, Jesus disarmed us all forevermore.  He reminds us that, as a result, for generations thereafter to be Christian was to refuse participation in the military out of this conviction.  It was only when Constantine and others used the cross as a recruitment tool, when Christianity achieved political status, that Christians began to see violence as an official power of the church.  This would have been anathema to Jesus. 

            Stanley Hauerwas, Christian Ethicist out of Duke, and militant pacifist, I think it’s fair to say (violence comes in many forms), says, “Being a Christian and being a pacifist are not two things for me.”[4]  Hauerwas doesn’t hold up nonviolence as tactic; it’s an ethic.  He isn’t committed to nonviolence it because it’s effective, though we’ve seen it be so in India and during the Civil Rights movement here.  He’s committed to it because he believes it’s the most faithful way to follow Jesus Christ.  And yes, it was the centurion, a Roman soldier, who upon witnessing the crucifixion, presiding over it, proclaims, “Truly this…was God’s son” (Mk. 15:39).  The paradoxes abound.  Those who think this is some superficial attack on those have worn the uniform have missed the proverbial forest for the trees. 

            What Hauerwas says is that “Peace is a deeper reality than violence.”[5]  Violence is a part of us, but it is not the deepest part of us.  Violence believes the narrative that we are fundamentally separate, rather than we are fundamentally one.  Yes, Jesus said love your enemies.  He said love your neighbor as yourself, not as much as yourself, but as yourself.  He said these things because he recognized the distinction between you and they is not the deepest reality, oneness is.  Violence is real, but peace is more real.  Amen. 


[2] Guidry’s comments on imprecatory prayer were cited by Nadia Bolz-Weber:



[5] Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child:  A Memoir, p. 231.

Quotes, Questions & Prompts for Reflection, Discussion, and Prayer

“Peace is a deeper reality than violence." - Stanley Hauerwas

1. How do you wrestle with the violence of the Bible?

2. What connections do you see between biblical violence and the violence of our contexts?

3. Does God change? How?

4. What do you do with the vengeance that appears in today’s psalms?

5. How does power play into these texts?