Some years ago, theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas published a sermon titled “Living the Proclaimed Word of God: A Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount,” based on Matthew 5:21-26, in which he implored the Christians of the world to agree to stop killing each other. The particulars of the sermon were about the implications of Jesus’ command not to kill.
Hauerwas put on notice the Christian world, noting the far, far too many Christian wars that have been chronicled in world history. Never one to soften biblical blows, he acknowledged that the Sermon on the Mount was written to believers who cannot seem to stop killing each other.
“Pick a side on any polarizing issue and someone will invoke the Bible.”
Would it be too much to invoke the spirit of Hauerwas’ words to ask that Christians in America do the same – stop killing each other – either with physical weapons or with weaponized words? If COVID-19 and the latest murders of African Americans have taught us anything, surely we can learn from them that pandemics, like earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes, are no respecters of persons. Even so, racism is murderous, and people continue to die because of it.
These different horrors strike liberals and conservatives alike with or without warning. When catastrophes come, Christian people rightly rally to help others in need without asking about their political positions, party affiliation, race or economic status. News reporters don’t ask those who have been rescued, or their rescuers, who they voted for in the last presidential election. As good and noble as these reactions often are among Christians, they are not enough.
Rather than react, surely the church can lead the way in promoting Jesus’ ethic to stop killing. Unless, that is, those who claim to be “People of the Book” are just all talk and no do. To be sure, the “Book” is quoted (and sometimes held aloft) in self-defense by those of the “left” and the “right.” Pick a side on any polarizing issue and someone will invoke the Bible. However, at the end of the day (never mind the agenda or the tactics), there is no difference between those who kill or how they do it.
Words continue to be as deadly as physical weapons. Death is death whether caused by conservative or liberal speech or liberal or conservative actions or inactions. Murderers disregard all lives as if the only life that really matters is their own. Victims are victims, and death is death. Kill a person softly or kill them viscously, kill them quickly or kill them slowly, they are just as dead. A murder will have occurred, even if the murderer remains “at-large.”
Jesus, always the one to whom we should turn, identified the root of this systemic problem. He said that killing is a matter of the heart, plain and simple. Unaddressed, unchecked anger that lurks in the heart always leads to murder.
Each of us knows what it is like to be the recipient of someone’s anger. We also know what it is like to be angry at someone or at something. We know how to use words or physical weapons against someone, and to have them used against us. Whatever the trigger, whether personal or circumstantial, we know that life does not play fair, nor do people. We know how it feels to be “wronged,” and we know how it feels to “wrong” someone.
Question is, what will we do with the anger? Will we, or will we not, continue being angry? Will we or will we not embrace our sisters and brothers, the “other,” someone of this or that political party, this or that race, creed or color?
“The schisms continue to take their toll, leaving behind far too many casualties.”
Of course, we may choose to deny that the “other” is a sister or brother. We may even suppose that we have gotten ourselves off the theological (“God-prescribed”) hook, but not so fast. We can even make monsters of the “other” and callously break Jesus’ commandment (and his heart) just the same.
The so-called divide between Christians sits right in the crosshairs of our post-biblical (“now”) moment and Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount. This biblical text, originally focused on Christian people living in Rome’s empire-dominated culture, is just as relevant today in our polarized nation. Jesus instructs God’s people to stop the name-calling and to be reconciled before asking God to accept either our offerings or our worship. Otherwise, rather than becoming friends, we will remain accusers, judges and prisoners where no one wins, everyone loses and only anger prevails.
From every indication, angry hearts on opposing sides are reaping the whirlwind of precisely what we have sown. The schisms continue to take their toll, leaving behind far too many casualties. Christians are both victim and perpetrator and often combatants among themselves.
Jesus knew that it must stop.
No matter who started these fights (they are as old as Cain and Abel), I wonder who or what will end the killing? Actually, I do know. Jesus prescribed an end to the killing by looking deeply into the source, the heart. For us, it is simply a matter of whether we will or will not invite God to change our hearts.
Alas, even in the few minutes of writing these words, I feel myself getting angry. I’m angry at the angry people doing angry things. I am just as angry toward the people who do nothing more than listen to – or, worse, repeat – what they hear coming from other angry people. Does this mean that my anger excuses me and gets me out of the crosshairs? Hardly!
Maybe I should stop reading and listening to these voices – and getting angrier in the process – and instead start listening to and living again the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:21-26.
What a different world ours would be today if we heeded his proclamation.