Luke 16: 19-31
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Woke up this morning to find on AOL: Louisiana pastor killed during sermon. It happened Friday evening while preaching during a revival. A man came into the church, shot Pastor Ronald J. Harris, Sr, and then fled – the shooter later turning himself in. In the comments that followed, a dangerous place to look to be sure, were reactions ranging from “there must be more to this story,” to “no doubt the NRA will argue that had more people in the congregation (good people) had guns this could have been prevented.”
For me this of course brings up memories of that day in May 2012 when my two closest working colleagues at Saint Peter’s, Ellicott City, Maryland, were shot and killed in the church office. And later that year the shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. People think of, or at least used to think of, churches, synagogues, temples, as safe places – refuge from the storms of life, sanctuary, a place set apart from the violence that surrounds them on all sides. Now such sanctuaries seem to be nothing more than a part of the greater terror landscape that accompanies a society seemingly obsessed with guns, violence, violent “games,” etc. In a couple of weeks I will be filling-in for a colleague at a nearby church for Sunday services. Should I fear for my life?
Was it something the pastor did or said, some people were asking online? Does and answer to that really change the framing of the problem? I find myself thinking back on the Hebrew prophets, not always a popular bunch, who like Socrates were constantly challenging the status quo. They put Jeremiah in the bottom of a well to silence him, to leave him to die, for challenging the status quo. What status quo was he challenging: the right to self-defense. Jeremiah advocated a non-violent solution to the pending invasion of the Babylonians. The town-folk appealed to the king that it would be heresy not to defend themselves. The tradition honors Jeremiah. It’s all in Jeremiah chapter 38.
Back in the 1990’s there was a surge of violent behavior in churches across the land – a backlash against clergy of all denominations, of all kinds of churches. It was thought to be a reaction to a downturn in the economy – people were being downsized or pink-slipped across the board. People felt helpless to act against their employers, the government, banks, or whatever institutions they felt were responsible for the downturn in their personal life. Churches, it was felt, were safe places to act out anger, fear and aggression – after all “the church” has to forgive me, right? Ironic isn’t it? The church once a sanctuary from violence now viewed as a safe place to act out violence one cannot act out anywhere else without reprisal. The church, among other venues, becomes the one safe place you can be assured of killing one or more innocent people to assuage your anger.
Jesus tells the story of a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus – no relation to the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany. The gist of the story is that people have become disconnected from the Word of God – disconnected from the ethical demands of being a faithful person – demands such as to love and care for one’s neighbor. The rich man learns that for ignoring the ethical demands of the Ten Commandments life after life is not going to go so well. Accepting this, he pleads for someone from the dead to return to warn his sons, family and friends so they will not make the same mistakes he has. The story concludes: “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Admission: I grew up and card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association, and spent many Saturday afternoons at the local police firing range earning my medals up through Sharpshooter Bar VII. I cannot in good conscience be a member today. There are no more fundamental commands in Holy Scripture than the Sixth Commandment against killing or murder; and the command of Jesus to love your neighbor, and even to love your enemies. Despite the millennia-long existence of Just War Theory in Christian theology, that has always applied to government regulated armies or militias, not individuals. Further, the origins of Just War Theories of self-defense and proportionate response were conceived when people were fighting from chariots and horses with hand-held variations on a club or at best a spear or a bow and arrow. Even the NRA has its origins in responsible use of rifles – it is not the NHA, National Handgun Association, after all.
I admit I have never been much of an advocate for the kind of WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) jingoism that has seized much of what passes for Christianity these days. Nevertheless, this morning as I pray for Pastor Ronald J. Harris, Sr, and his alleged assailant, Woodrow Karey, and the witnesses in the congregation who I now know for a fact will never be able to forget the nightmare that unfolded before their eyes, WWJD might not be a bad place to start. His story about the richman and Lazarus is at one dimension a venting of his frustration as he tries to challenge the status quo of a society seemingly gone off the rails. Just as Jeremiah was venting frustration as his people were facing exile at the hands of Babylon. No one was willing to engage in any sort of meaningful listening to warnings they were issuing.
Walter Brueggemann has always been fond of asking the key questions in our time. One of which might be: How much gun violence does a society have to endure before it admits it is already in exile? Jesus is no doubt correct on this one: we have been told and told and told again what life is meant to look like. Even if someone were to return from the dead to warn us today, would we even bother to listen? Or, are we so distracted with protecting our so-called “rights” that we would not even hear a word he or she might say to us?