Put away your sword
Hespeler, 9 April, 2017 © Scott McAndless – Palm Sunday
Isaiah 51:9-11, Matthew 26:47-56, Colossians 1:13-22
few weeks ago I watched a movie you may have heard of. It was called “The Magnificent Seven.” It was a remake of an original 1960 western (which was itself a remake of a classic Japanese film), so I am betting that most of you have seen this movie in some form or another at some point in your life. That’s why I feel as if I am not going to spoil the movie for anybody if I give you a quick recap of the plot.
The story went like this. A very bad man got a bunch of very bad people together and they hurt and shot and killed some innocent people in a town. A group from that town went to get some help and found seven people (who were all magnificent) and they came and killed the bad people in the town. Those who were left alive all lived happily ever after.
I really enjoyed watching it. It was a great movie. And it made me think of another great movie I’ve seen recently. You know the one – that movie where there is this really evil gang who do terrible violence and destruction and then the good guys come in and put things right with lots of death and destruction. Oh, what was the name of that movie? (John Wick) No, that’s a good one but not the one I was thinking of. (Dredd) Yeah, that is the plot of that one too, but I wasn’t thinking of that one either. (Avengers) No. (Batman vs. Superman) No. (Lego Batman) Yes, that’s it.
But, you know, now that I think about it, there are an awful lot of movies that kind of have the same plot, aren’t there. The bad guy or the bad woman or group hurts or threatens innocent people with violence and the good guy (or Gal Godot or team) comes in and saves the day with more and better violence. It is what is called a happy ending. Do you realize that if that basic plot did not exist, Hollywood would produce about half as many movies a year as they presently do? It is just a story that we keep telling over and over again. The characters and the setting may change, they may throw in a few twists, but it is all just basically the same story. Why do we do that?
Well actually, it is something that human beings have always done. One of the things that distinguishes us from all the other animals is that we tell stories. Telling stories is what we do to make sense of the world and figure out where we fit into it. These stories may not be true in the literal sense – in fact they are usually not. There was never an actual group of seven gunslingers who saved a town in the old American west, for example. But on another level, we keep telling them because we see them as true in the sense that they are telling us true things about the world and how it works. Stories of this sort are called myths.
I realize, of course, that most of the time when modern people call some story a myth, they simply mean that it is not true. But that is not the classic definition of a myth. A myth is a story that is probably not literally true but that speaks of a truth that is widely accepted.
And one of the oldest recorded myths goes like this: there was once an evil dragon named, in some cultures, Tiamat (though in the Bible they called her Rahab as we read this morning). Tiamat was a monster who was only interested in bringing death, chaos and destruction. But then a hero, called by some people Anu, came and fought against Tiamat with all of his might. The struggle was long and hard but eventually he defeated the monster and out of her destroyed corpse, created the world as we know it today.
That is a myth that human beings have been telling since before recorded history – a story of an evil destructive monster who did violence and was destroyed by the better violence of a “good guy.” It is, I would suggest, a story that we are still telling today – not only because that myth is the plot of every other movie but also because we all still seem to believe that basic premise.
After all, when something goes wrong in this world, when some evil is done or somebody is a victim of violence, what is our first reaction? The first thing we always say is, we’ve got to fight back. We assume that the only way to defeat violence and destruction is with more violence and destruction.
We have actually seen that very thing played out in the last few days. Assad, the President of Syria, carried out an appallingly evil attack against a town in an area occupied by his enemies. The unspeakable violence was an attempt to destroy his almost equally evil enemies. And then, as we all heard, the United States responded with overwhelming violence through a targeted bombardment by 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on an airbase. That is how we do it. Evil and violence, we assume, can only be countered by more violence. It is what makes the world a better place today – at least, that is what the myth promises us.
It just seems that we have yet to come across a problem that we are not willing to solve by shooting something, stabbing something or declaring war against it. Perhaps no one puts this myth better or more succinctly than American National Rifle Association when they say, “the only person who can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
Because the basic assumption of this myth is that violence is the best way – maybe the only way – to make things better in this world, it is sometimes called the myth of redemptive violence. And I suggest to you that, at some level at least, we believe this myth. We must believe it. Otherwise we wouldn’t cheer when the Magnificent Seven come riding into town with their guns blazing. Otherwise we wouldn’t always be so ready to go to war when we see evidence of evil in the world. That is the power of a myth. It makes us believe it even when we may not want to.
The problem with this myth of redemptive violence is all the destruction that it causes. When, for example, a government tries to stop the terrible violence being planned by a group of terrorists by ordering a drone strike on the terrorist compound, that sounds, to us, like a smart thing to do. Surely the violence of the drone strike is the only thing that can prevent a greater evil. But it that doesn’t always work out that way in reality. In reality, what happens is that some people are killed – some of them with evil intentions, no doubt, but also some who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In reality, all the people who are killed are all connected to other people who then hate you and probably vow to kill you in vengeance. In reality, you often only manage to create more chaos, more hatred and more death.
There may be cases where a better world has been created by means of violence. I will admit that. But I suspect that more often it has quite the opposite effect. And yet we keep on believing in the myth of redemptive violence. Why? Probably because we think it’s the only answer that there is to what goes wrong in this world. But what if it isn’t?
As Christians we believe that Jesus came into this world because God loved the world so much that he wanted to save it. Jesus came as the response to all that is wrong with the world. There were people who seemed to recognize that about him right away. When he arrived in Jerusalem, for example, people turned out en masse to welcome him as the “one who comes in the name of the Lord” – the one who would set all things right. But how do you suppose that they thought that he was going to do that? Since they, just like us, had lived all their lives believing the myth of redemptive violence – believing that the only way to counter the unjust violence of the world was with more violence – you can just imagine how they thought that he was going to do it.
You don’t really have to imagine it, though; you just have to read what happened when everything finally came to a head. All week Jesus had been causing unrest in the City of Jerusalem by stirring up the crowds and the authorities had been trying to get rid of him but dared not make a move for fear it might provoke a riot. But finally, on Thursday night, they caught up with him while he only had a few followers with him in the Garden of Gethsemane. They made their move and at least one of Jesus’ followers decided that this was the moment to set everything right.
And how do you set everything right? According to the myth of redemptive violence he knew exactly what to do. He “put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.” He thought he was starting something – that his first blow he would set in motion the events that would put everything right again. That is how it is supposed to work according to the myth of redemptive violence. And if that had ever been Jesus’ intention for accomplishing the work he had come to do, that would have been the moment to do it – the spark that would have ignited the flame of violence in order to set everything right.
But what did Jesus do? “Put your sword back into its place;” he cried. He immediately rejected the possibility of putting things right through violence. Not only that, but he exposed the myth for what it was: a lie. “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” He was not only saying that violence doesn’t make anything better. He was saying that it only makes things worse – that violence only leads to more violence until the world spins completely out of control taking with it all the people you hoped to save by resorting to violence in the first place.
Jesus makes it clear that he isn’t saying this because he has no means of winning through violence. He has more power at his fingertips than the world’s worst tyrant could muster: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” It is just that Jesus knows that such an approach can never work.
But this is not just a matter of Jesus rejecting violence under these specific circumstances. There is something much more important than that going on here. You see, one of the big problems in our world is, in fact this myth of redemptive violence. Because we believe this myth, because we don’t think that there is any other way of creating a better world than according to the dogma of this myth, the world is caught in a web of despair. So long as the myth of redemptive violence rules in our hearts, it will force itself upon us and will drive us deeper and deeper into the endless cycle of violence and hatred answering violence and evil until we have all died by the sword.
Jesus came to expose the myth as a lie. He did that, first of all, by always demanding a better world – a world where the poor, the meek, the weeping and the hungry were blessed – and yet by refusing to take up violence and extremism in order to make it happen.
But he did even more than that. This coming week we will have the chance to review the story once again of how, in response to Jesus’ demand for a better world, the world refused. The world resisted what Jesus was asking for because it was unwilling to change. And so the world responded to Jesus in the way that it always does to anything that threatens what it values. The world responded with violence because it believed the myth of redemptive violence that this would make everything better.
But Jesus, by becoming the ultimate victim of the world’s violence, by accepting the consequences of that violence without complaint and without condemnation, finally proved the myth of redemptive violence to be a lie by turning it on its head. On Good Friday, violence won and asserted its power over Christ fully and completely. And the God turned that defeat into a victory.
That is one of the things that we mean when we say that the death and resurrection of Jesus changed everything. It destroyed the power of a myth that has held sway over this world for many centuries and caused endless destruction. Jesus showed us a better way. Now if only we could learn to live out that truth in all our reality.