The myth of redemptive violence

A sermon for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year A Proper 22) – October 8, 2017

No one can steal the inheritance of God. No one can take away the hope that has been instilled in us by faith in Jesus. No one, and nothing – neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The tenants of the parable believe that they can steal and kill their way into owning the vineyard which they occupy. They are so removed from right relationship with God and with the world that they see others only as economic variables; they think that they can do violence with impunity; and when the landowner’s son comes to sort them out, they say, “Let us kill him and get his inheritance.”

They think that they can murder, mayhem, and steal their way into the kingdom of God.

We have tended – Christians have tended – to read this parable as a judgement against anyone we think got it wrong – Pharisees, by any other name – and a justification of ourselves. God will smite those former tenants, we declare, leading to all kinds of anti-Semitism, by the way; and we, the true and deserving people of God will inherit the vineyard.

Whenever we imagine God smiting someone else, we are on dangerous quicksand.

From the first chapters of Genesis, we find that God doesn’t operate on our economy of vengeance. When Adam and Eve (as the story goes) become disobedient, God hand-stitches them clothes to wear outside of the Garden. Even when Cain murders his brother Abel, and is sentenced to wander the earth, God places a mark on his forehead, to warn others not to harm him, to protect him from their vengeance. God does not give him up altogether.

When someone cuts off the ear of a servant sent to help arrest Jesus in another Garden, Jesus rebukes him, heals the man, and reminds everyone that had he wanted he could have called down legions of angels to decimate the forces of violence lined up against him. When he is resurrected, he does not stride into Pilate’s palace to terrify his tormentor, but sets up a barbecue on the beach for his friends.

The idea of redemptive violence, of using violence to remedy the record or reset justice is at odds with what we know of God in the Bible and in Christ Jesus. The myth of redemptive violence is one that we sell to ourselves to excuse our own inclination to revenge; to protect ourselves from the gospel that demands total love for God, and total love for our neighbour.

We cannot protect the social status of violence without becoming subject to it. We cannot promote the myth of a good guy with a gun without causing a stampede, an arms race; because we all believe we’re good guys, often with good reason. The myth of redemptive violence allows us to structure a society ready at a moment’s notice to open fire.

The first tenants of the vineyard were wicked men. They tried by murder and mayhem to steal the fruits of the vine and turn the deed to their own name. But the second tenants do not restore the landowner’s son to life, they do not undo the evil that has already happened, and they do not inherit in place of the one who was murdered. They are still and only tenants.

This parable is not the story of our salvation. It is a story about our stewardship of the grace that God has given us, in leasing to us this life, this world, and one another. What harvest will we return? What fruits will we offer back to the Landowner?

The fruits of the Spirit of God stand in stark contrast to the myth of redemptive violence. As Paul writes to the Galatians, such things as anger, enmities, and strife are not the fruit nor seed of the kingdom of God. But the fruits of the Spirit, sown by God and rendered as fruit by faithful tenants of the vineyard: those things are love, peace, patience, faithfulness, self-control, and so on. We know the lists and we see the difference. We have a choice as to what kind of tenants we want to be, cultivating our own crop of weeds, or working on the seeds God has sown, in order to render to our Landowner a good and plentiful harvest.

Love, joy, and gentleness: those fruits of the Spirit take work to cultivate. That’s why they are sown among patience, and self-control. It takes constant vigilance to weed out the temptations to slip back into anger, fractiousness, and despair.

I have heard a lot this week from people who despair of changing our trigger-ready culture of defensiveness. Sales of bump stock – the device used by last week’s Las Vegas murderer to upgrade his semi-automatic rifles to fire like full machine guns – those sales are said to have spiked since his attack, and rumours that they may come under legislative scrutiny; and so there are those who have some reason to say that the forces promoting gun proliferation and the myth of redemptive violence in this country are too strong for us.

But as a follower of Jesus Christ who overcame even death and the grave to bring us to something better than crucifixion, I have to disagree. We can be good tenants, promoting the health of the vineyard, and weeding out weaponry, and the destructive myths we use to render violence. We can move mountains, if our thoughts and prayers for the latest victims of violence are backed by faith in the one who loves us, rather than the myths sold us by our gun suppliers; if we remember who is was that sowed the Garden in the first place, and placed us in it.

Standing at the foot of the cross, we are bound to remember that its violence was redeemed not by vengeance nor by a continued economy of violence, but by the irrepressible forces of life, of God’s love, which endures all things, through which all things were made, in heaven and on earth.

For no one can steal the inheritance that we have from God. No one can kill the faith that we have in Jesus, to bring us hope. No one, and nothing in heaven or on earth can separate us from the singular and enduring love of God planted within us by Christ Jesus our Lord, and watered by the Spirit.


About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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