Stations: Malchus

So the mob moves in and panic erupts and Peter draws his sword and suddenly the servant of the High Priest is clutching his ear. First blood spills and Malchus screams and Peter prepares to strike again, because let’s face it, he wasn’t aiming for an ear, he was aiming for Malchus’s head and missed.

It’s not an unusual scenario, lashing out when angry and cornered and scared. Every fist fight, every beating, every glassing in a pub car park,  every shot fired in panic, every indriscriminate carpet bombing… Someone lies bleeding on the ground, someone else vows revenge. Violence never ends anything.

Jesus, of course, calls for this to stop, tells Peter to put away his sword; they haven’t needed weapons in the three years so they’re not going to start now. After all, when Jesus rode into town a week earlier, he did so on the back of a donkey,  not waving from the back of a tank.

But it doesn’t end there, can’t end there. Jesus cannot leave Malchus bleeding in the grass, moaning with pain. The Cross inaugerates a Kingdom built on peace and grace and defeats the violence of the world. For this to be true, Malchus cannot be mutilated in the name of Jesus; the Cross of Christ can’t give his followers an excuse to crucify everyone else.

And so Jesus reaches out and Malchus is made whole again. And Malchus fades from view at this point, but this is an invitation to reflect on how he felt, how he responded to an act of grace from the revolutionary he was there to arrest. In the light of one last miracle on the road to the Cross, does Malchus see the sword swinging down, only to be replaced by an act of compassion from an enemy and a rewriting of all the rules, even as Jesus is dragged away towards trial?

Who Gets to Turn the Other Cheek? (Matt 5:38-42; Luke 3:7-20)

Gustave-Dore-Jesus-Preaching-the-Sermon-on-the-Mount-620x320“Turn the other cheek.” It inspires an almost visceral reaction. Images of the Civil Rights movement dance with fears of persecution.  I never knew what to do with this teaching – it seems too passive, reminds me too much of the time a dangerous, bullying classmate publically and repeatedly called me a fat b*****d and I had to stand there and take it because I was scared of what would happen if I didn’t.

I’m grateful for those who’ve taken the time to unpack this bit of the Sermon on the Mount, who’ve shown how Jesus confronts day to day acts of physical and social violence and offers ways in which those on the receiving end can reassert their dignity without perpetuating a cycle of violence. This makes sense, because we see how badly a violent revolution in that time and place would go in 70AD (TL;DR – Rome really knew how to slaughter a rebellious populace). Besides, Jesus is the Prince of Peace, right? That’s why he inspired non-violent revolutionaries like Martin Luther King and Gandhi.

Problem is, we seem to have limited this to the people who want to protest and revolt and throw off the shackles of social or economic oppression. We take the words of the Prince of Peace, words intended to inspire and craft a vision of a better word, and use them as a way of keeping people in line.

This is why you can’t take these things out of context. Jesus seems to be speaking to an audience who might find themselves getting slapped by a social ‘superior’, who might get sued for the clothes on their back by those with the means to take them to court, who a passing Roman soldier might intimidate into carrying his kit bag, and so he gives them ways to reassert their humanity in the face of those who’d take that dignity from them. But who’s pushing this gospel of peace to those soldiers, to the litigants, to those doing the slapping?

Well, Jesus certainly has plenty of run-ins with the establishment, and a couple of transformative encounters with local corruption. But the example that springs to mind is in Luke 3:7-20 – John the Baptist yelling truth to power. Here a bizarre, liminal figure, last of the prophets, tells tax collectors not to extort more than they’re supposed to collect. He tells soldiers to be content with their pay and to stop making false accusations. He calls out the king over his evil actions.

In other words, he’s railing against the violence of the elite. That’s partly because that seems to be his audience (he almost seems to end up becoming something of a jester figure to King Herod, weirdly enough), but also because that’s the only way to end a cycle of violence. We can’t expect the victims of violence and oppression to accept high-minded appeals to peace and non-violence without making the same calls to those in power; to use a current example, don’t expect Black Lives Matter protestors to following Martin Luther King without insisting that police are held accountable when the next person ‘accidentally’ dies in custody and have rigorous, ongoing training in peaceful conflict resolution.

This may sound like I’m making a political point, and I probably am, because our theology and spirituality has to be lived out in a political and social context. Jesus wasn’t just preaching hypotheticals – he was speaking to people who were getting punched in the face and getting their clothes stolen, and our discipleship is incomplete if we’re not going to condemn those doing the punching and the stealing, if we’re not expecting the privileged and powerful to hear the words of the Prince of Peace as well. Don’t go shaming a teenage girl who’s gotten pregnant and then make excuses when at least 400 church leaders sign up for Ashley Madison.

We forget that huge chunks of the Bible are written by the oppressed, the exiled, the occupied and the enslaved. For those of us who read it with a certain level of privilege, it’s easy to forget that it’s navigating a world where those within its pages need to figure out how to be faithful to God when the power structures of the world are against them, and while part of that is attempting to live peaceably but not passively, another part of it is refusing to accept the systemic evil that surrounded them. Heck, Jeremiah got both barrels for daring to condemn child sacrifice of all things. What sort of world do we tolerate when telling the oppression to stay peaceful while cheerleading the use of violence by the powerful?

“Turn the other cheek” is a beautiful teaching. But when we abuse that beauty to prop up evil, we commit a heresy of the powerful; we beat another nail into the hands of the Prince of Peace.

Swords into Ploughshares (Isaiah 2:3-4; Micah 4:3)

20130121-051014.jpg“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Martin Luther King

Sitting on a mountainside one day, Jesus wove a story of love for enemies and turning the other cheek, a picture of a world dominated not by the sword of Rome but the love of God, a vision that engages with two ancient prophets who saw swords beaten into ploughshares.

It’s easy to get caught up in the majesty of this vision and not think about the implications. There’s an obvious contrast between war, which brings death, and agriculture that produces life, the warrior and the farmer, but let’s not stop at imagery and metaphor. There’s a practicality to this message.

The current budget of the British Armed forces is £37.5 billion; in 2012, the military budget of the US was around a trillion dollars. Isaiah’s vision effectively sees all this pumped into feeding people; Micah’s messianic world completely rewrites the economic rule book. And yes, this is a future age, not tied to the structures and brokenness of our world, but what if we prayed till our knees bled that we’d see just a taste of this, a foreshadowing, instead of school shootings and wars? Is it possible that, despite the visions, despite the commands of Christ, we don’t really believe that such a world is possible?

“Swords into ploughshares.” It’s a phrase that shatters one of our most ancient idolatries. In Isaiah 31, he warns us not to put our trust in chariots horses, in Predator Drones or aircraft carriers. We think they make us strong, but let’s not kid ourselves, their power pulls us away from the Lord; it becomes easier to trust in our arsenal and not in our God. We’re called to take our idols and turn them into something more productive. We’re called to take our resources and use them as a blessing, not as tools of intimidation, fear, violence, anger. And that’s way bigger and more spiritually demanding than just the percentage of our taxes that goes on defence or the money a shooting fan may spend on their hobby.

This demands a change of heart; it’s not just about an absence of weapons, it’s about an absence of the desire to use them. And maybe that’ll be easy to achieve in the future messianic age, but achieving it now, in a society that seemingly loves to turn us against each other? That’s when we see the true power of this idea.

Today is Martin Luther King Day, on which we celebrate a man faced with a choice – to lead a revolution open to the idea of violence, or to inspire a movement driven by love and non-violence. Given how African-Americans were oppressed in the sixties, it would have been simple to do the former; instead he chose the latter and created a legacy of non-violence that persists to this day. King was rooted in these biblical ideas, with his own dream of mountains, unity and peace.

It’s a dream of wholeness and shalom, living in a fundamental, divine state of grace. And in the now-and-not-yet Kingdom of God, Christ’s call to turn the other cheek tells us to live like this now, in a world where conflict is real and recourse to weapons – words, guns, ‘God Hates Fags’ banners – is still an instinctive reaction. What if we took all the effort and resources we put into those weapons, into all that spitting hatred, and used it to feed our ‘enemies’ instead, to invite them to a banquet? To take seriously the words of Jesus and actually love our enemies, both real and imagined?

There’s a beautiful article over at SheLoves about a woman who has seen the power of taking this literally; today we celebrate a man who did this too, even under a starless sky. Dare we take these example’s of Christ’s love in action and use them to look at our weapons, to see how we can transform them into tools of radical blessing? Maybe that’s why the farming metaphor is so potent; tied up with ideas about the healing and restoration of the world, it invites us to share its produce with those around us, mending communities and forging fellowship as we do.

One future day, when war and death are broken, swords will be beaten into ploughshares. Let’s be revolutionary and begin this transformation today.

Update: It turns out that someone has coined a name for a gun that’s been transformed into a guitar – Escopetarra. Invented by Columbian peace activist Cesar Lopez, there’s a video of his work over at Cultures of Resistance.