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In the Midst of Violence
Br. Geoffrey Tristram
I picture the disciples after the terrible, terrifying experience of seeing their dear Jesus crucified. I imagine how they must have gathered together in lockdown as, shocked and anxious, they surely stayed off the streets. “The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear,” we read in John (Jn 20:19). No doubt the disciples kept describing again and again to each other what they had seen – the scene on Calvary: his words from the cross, his final giving up of the spirit. They were shaken and, I imagine, shaking still, with the violence they had witnessed, and which they worried might be coming for them next.
Violence can tear, break, and shatter not only individuals but whole communities. Think of all those whose lives have been shattered by violence during this last year. Individuals and whole communities in places such as Syria, Ukraine, the Holy Land, but also in Maine, Alabama, Maryland, California – and even closer to home, the senseless murder of children and teenagers here in Boston, in Lynn, Brockton, New Bedford. The violence which is everywhere in our country, and our world, profoundly touches all of us.
In some of these places, lockdown is a daily experience: places where at night, and even in the day, you lock your doors and don’t go out. Violence can kill individuals, but it can also deaden whole communities, when fear locks down their spirits, and imprisons their hopes and dreams. That is especially tragic for those who are young.
In my meditations on such violence, I’ve been reflecting on a scene from John’s Gospel, one of a succession of confrontations between Jesus and the religious authorities. These confrontations take place, symbolically, at a series of Jewish festivals, and at the climax of each confrontation, there is such anger that stones are picked up to throw at Jesus. He escapes each time, but there is a growing sense that they will eventually get him, as they make their plans to put him to death.
By the Feast of the Dedication, the level of impending violence and hatred surrounding Jesus has gotten very high. John, with consummate skill, simply and laconically states: “It was winter.” Jesus was walking up and down in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. His opponents were waiting for him. John says, “They gathered around him” – like a gang. “Are you the blessed?” one says. “You’re a blasphemer,” says another. “We’re going to stone you,”says another.
Imagine how frightening it must have been for Jesus. But Jesus looked deep within them – and saw their wintry, frozen hearts, full of a violence which froze out God’s love. His voice could not penetrate the hardness of their hearts. Yet with great courage, Jesus confronts them with a highly provocative word of truth: “You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
“No one will snatch them.” The verb used here is the one used for wolves, who creep up and snatch a vulnerable sheep. The wolves are always seeking an opportunity; but, so too, the good shepherd is always looking out for his sheep, and they are always listening for his voice, because they know and trust his voice to guide and lead them.
That seems to me a powerful metaphor for so much of the violence that is happening in our nation, especially among young people. What is happening when mainly young men are shooting people dead in schools, in movie theaters, in our inner cities, on Boylston Street?
What voices are they listening to? Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd and my sheep hear my voice.”
But there are many, many other voices, loud, strident, persuasive voices in our society – voices of violence. And these voices can snatch our young people away, like a wolf does. Violence in our movies, violent games and websites all over the internet. Gun laws in this country which are so lax, but which, for political reasons, scandalously cannot or will not be reformed. Violent voices, violent organizations, take root especially where there is little family support, high unemployment, and poor education. In such places especially, it is our responsibility as Christians to stand up in Jesus’ name and speak with his voice of peace. We must counter those voices of violence that speak so loudly.
We must counter those voices of violence
that speak so loudly.
When I was ordained a priest the following words were spoken to me by the bishop, and I think they are true for each one of us who are called to live the way of Jesus:
“You are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom you are sent. You are to tell the story of God’s love. You are to search for his children in the wilderness of the world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ forever.”
These words have always been close to my heart. They say to me now, “How are we being asked to actively face up to the voices of violence in our land, and witness to Jesus’ voice of peace, in our cities and beyond?”
When Jesus set his face to Jerusalem on that final journey, for the last confrontation on the Jewish festival of Passover, he walked right into the heart of darkness. The voices of violence surrounded him on every side: “Crucify him, crucify him!” But in the midst of the violence and terror, Jesus’ gentle voice, the voice of the Good Shepherd, spoke: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
We who love Jesus are called to speak courageously with Jesus’ voice, to bring hope and peace to places filled with violence and hopelessness. What part will you play?
The voices of violence may seem loud and overwhelming, but we are a resurrection people. “Fear not,” says Jesus, “for I have overcome the world.”
What part will you play?
What voices of violence and evil do you hear and witness in the world around you? How are you hiding in fear in the face of them?
Where do you hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling to you?
How might you actively embody Jesus' voice of peace for others in the face of fear and despair?
Take concrete action to speak a word of hope and peace in places filled with violence and hopelessness.
Visit or call someone who might be facing fear or destruction in their own life. Write or call an elected government official about a cause of violence in our world that moves your heart.
What part will you play?