The Violent Take It By Force
And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. — Matthew 11:12
I am not a violent man. I have never been in a fight. Not a real one anyway. I suppose there were hockey skirmishes and the ordinary fraternal conflagrations of childhood, but these little irruptions don’t really count. I was invariably terrible at violence. At heart, I am a peacemaker, if of a conflicted sort.
Each week at the jail, I sit across the table from violent men. Men who have sometimes done things that I can scarcely imagine. Men who have had things done to them that make me want to weep. Men who brutalize and are brutalized in a grim cycle that can often seem to admit of no escape.
Yesterday as I was driving home from the jail the verse above from Matthew’s gospel came to mind. As it happens, it was where the lectionary had (arbitrarily) cut off the previous Sunday’s gospel reading. I had just heard another terrible story, of violence upon violence upon more violence. Violence in response to violence of all kinds. Physical, spiritual, sexual, relational. What would you do if you were in my shoes, if you had seen what I’ve seen, if it happened to someone you love?
Often the violence of men has nothing ennobling about it. It’s just a pathetic attempt to stake out territory, to prove oneself, to put someone in their place, to lash out in the face of insult and provocation. But every once in a while it’s in defence of the weak, the helpless, those who exist in the shadows, those who are alone and vulnerable and have nobody to protect them. I know the bible says that I’m supposed to leave vengeance to God, preacher… I read that thing cover to cover last year… So why doesn’t God do anything? What am I supposed to do, just stand by and watch? Sometimes people need to do evil things to defeat the bigger evil. God doesn’t do anything…
And so, the violent take it by force. Justice. Vengeance. Retribution. The righting of wrongs that do such extraordinary damage. The violent take these things now because they seem to be too slow in coming. The violent sometimes have a more urgent timeline than those of us for whom “waiting for God” can be an undemanding bit of comforting theology before Christmas. God will make all things new. Yes, this we gladly confess. But some of us can afford to wait a bit more comfortably than others for this newness to make its descent from heaven to earth.
And so, the kingdom of heaven suffers. It suffers our impatience, our apathy, our resignation, our demanding that it come on our terms. It suffers our addiction to violence, our lust for power, our preoccupations with ourselves. It suffers our lack of imagination, our fragile attachments to faith, hope, and love.
I wonder if the kingdom of heaven also suffers the grief of watching those who lash out in desperate and confused longing for thy will to be done on earth as in heaven. Those whose have been crushed in cycles of violence and dehumanization and often seem capable of doing little more than reproducing them. Those who cling to God in their own way but can’t figure out why he won’t do something. Those for whom “waiting” in Advent takes on a few more desperate tones.
Sometimes when I sit across the table from violent men, I think, “You know, this is when a good preacher really ought to mention Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek and loving enemies and praying for those who persecute you.” This occurred to me again in a recent conversation. Surely, I should say something to make it clear that I don’t condone all this violence. But somehow it felt like the wrong move.
So, I did what I often do when I don’t know what to say. I asked a question. I picked up the bible in between us and said, “So, you read this whole thing last year? That’s amazing. That’s better than most preachers. What’s your favourite part?”
He paused for a while, looked down at the table. Then he looked up and said, “Daniel. I like Daniel. There’s these three guys thrown into furnace. And an angel comes to rescue them from the fire. I like that story.” “Yeah,” I said, as I thought of the hellish contours of this man’s life, the flames he surely felt like was walking through, had been walking through for some time. “Me, too.”
Bruce Cockburn’s song “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” comes to mind.
I think you hit the nail on the head relating impatience and violence. Certainly waiting in advent reveals the restless desperation underneath my anger with the lack of justice I see. Thanks for this one!
Thanks, Sharon. Good to hear from you!
Maybe a little more, Jordan Peterson and a little less, Ryan Dueck, would be helpful. 😀