Holy Week and Violence
Yesterday, Palm Sunday, is also known as “Sunday of the Passion”. It is a day on which we are asked to live with the terrible paradox that the people who welcome Jesus into Jerusalem as their king on Sunday will be the ones who shout for his execution at the hands of Roman authorities on Friday. It is a day, in other words, when we are asked to look the terrible paradox of human nature full in the face.
Two things are true about us. We are capable of enormous amounts of compassion, generosity, and love. We are capable of awful depths of violence, destruction, and hate. Christianity’s claim to truth lies in its willingness to hold on to both of these ideas at the same time.
As we enter Holy Week in 2012, it is hard not to do so (as theologian Karl Barth advised all preachers to do) with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. It is hard to ignore the biblical story of boundless compassion met with oppression and hate. And it is hard to ignore the recent spate of deaths by gun violence in our world just this last month: 16 Afghan villagers shot (allegedly) by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales; 7 French people (children, a rabbi, policemen) shot apparently by Algerian extremist Mohammed Merah; a young black man, Trayvon Martin, in Sanford, Florida, admittedly shot and killed by Neighborhood Watch patrolman George Zimmerman. March’s unseasonably warm weather brought a renewal of gun violence among teenagers in American cities. There are times when turning on the news or picking up the paper just makes you weep.
As tempted as we are to turn away from the recent incidents of terrible violence in our world, the logic of Holy Week suggests another way through them. Again and again in the scriptures we read of women, children, and men victimized by hatred. Though he is our prime example of suffering love, Jesus is by no means alone in the biblical story of innocent pain and death. What makes biblical religion credible to me, though, is the way it faces into these realities. We live through Holy Week (with its Old Testament resonances of Exodus and Exile) because we understand that God is uniquely present in the kind of suffering experienced by Jesus. God does not visit pain and death on you and me human creatures. But God does take our pain and death and turn them into something else. That is what resurrection is all about. Hate is transformed into love. Death is transformed into life. The miracle of Christianity is the way it points us to a God who always means to take the world’s ugliness as the starting point for the creation of something beautiful.
I don’t plan to get up in the pulpit on Easter Day and remind everybody about Trayvon Martin, the sixteen Afghan villagers, or the seven French children and adults killed in recent weeks. Nor do I plan to remind us of the unreasoning hatred and blind rage that led to their deaths. But as I make my own way through Holy Week, these people will be in my mind and on my heart, just as the thousands of people killed each year by gun violence in our cities and towns will be.
As tempting as it is to make Easter a spring festival, it is not primarily about the return of flowers and leaves. Early European Christians saw in the return of spring an analogue of God’s resurrection of Jesus. Just as plants and animals renew themselves, so God raised Jesus from the dead. But to experience Easter joy, we need to remember where it comes from. Jesus is dead. His movement is over. The Roman thugs have won. But then everything changes. Jesus is alive. His movement renews. Rome and its pretensions are shown up to be fake. Easter is about God’s bringing life out of death, hope out of despair, joy out of pain, love out of hate.
We preachers always say this, but it’s no less true for being oversaid: you just can’t get Easter without Holy Week. God really is remaking the world and transforming you and me. God really is bringing life out of death. God really is taking the ugliness of hatred and turning it into the beauty of love. Come to as much of Holy Week as you can, and keep Trayvon Martin, the sixteen Afghan villagers, the seven French people and our urban kids in your hearts. While you’re at it, keep their killers in your hearts, too. And then see what God will do with it all as we gather at Jesus’s table in the feast of the resurrection.