Violence and the Kingdom of God

I had just gathered a group of girls to practice a praise dance for Sunday when they decided they’d walk to their friends’ house to recruit more dancers. “Okay, walk over together and come right back,” I told them. They ran away giggling.

Just a couple minutes later I suddenly heard a series of “pop, pop, pop.” Gunshots. I ran outside wildly looking around, trying to guess which direction the sound came from. Was it a couple blocks away? It sounded further away, right? The girls walked west. Did it come from the west?  

My heart was pounding, especially since this was a week after I’d had my own life threatened by bullets. There was nothing to do but walk back inside and wait for them to return. Except there was one other thing to do. I sat in the Sanctuary and I prayed. I heard the sound of ambulance sirens, and I prayed.

When the girls returned, safe and sound, breathless to tell me about the shots, I hugged each one of them. I got them into a circle. We held hands and prayed again. I thanked God that they were okay. I prayed for those who had been shot, and I prayed for the shooters. We said, “amen.”

And then we danced.

 

We all want safety. We need safety. We need to be safe in our homes. We need to be safe on bus stops and in grocery stores. We need to be safe in churches, mosques and synagogues.

“Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” Jesus says. A powerful statement that does not guarantee that those who don’t live by the sword don’t die by the sword. Jesus died by the “sword.” Early Christians died by the sword. Our safety is not guaranteed when we follow Christ. Our safety is not guaranteed as human beings in this world.

And yet we need safety – violations of our safety have lasting effects on us.

As people of faith, how do we respond to a world so broken that our safety is not certain?

Questions like this arise in faith communities when events like the recent Pittsburgh shooting occur. Should we have armed guards? Should we lock all our doors? Should we ask ushers to keep an eye on strangers? How do we respond to violence?

In Chicago, there is a group of mothers who responded by pulling out lawn chairs and sitting on corners of streets that have the highest incidents of gun violence. In Pittsburgh, Muslim leaders raised money and volunteered to escort those in fear. In Charleston, clergy linked arm-in-arm to face white nationalists openly carrying weapons. My girls and I held hands and prayed together.  

Here is what I first believe: We respond together.

We do this together, because safety is for all of us. Safety is for my family. Safety is for my neighbor. Safety is for my Muslim siblings and my Jewish siblings. Safety is for those who are marginalized. Safety is for the inner city and the suburb. Safety is mine when all are safe.

But even more so, as Christians, we respond by continuing to live out the Kingdom of God even when the kingdoms of this world threaten to break us. We take Jesus’ words to be “peacemakers” seriously. We speak out, together, against words of hate and fear. We welcome the stranger even when the stranger frightens us. We take the hand of the sibling next to us and we pray. We worship God even in the places where we are least safe. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness;” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This is not easy. This does not come with an instruction manual, but we are siblings in Christ called to figure out what this kingdom-living looks like. Because of this, I do not support arming ourselves in church or treating visitors with suspicion. The need to take precautions for the sake of our safety is important, but I believe that our precautions cannot become barriers to the calling that Christ gives us. Kingdom of God living comes first. And safety isn’t guaranteed.

So, how do I respond to a shooting in a place of worship? I am convinced that I must walk the way of the cross, the way of Christ, for the sake of my neighbor and for my own sake. I must love where there is hate and I must make peace where there is violence. I must put myself in positions where I am actively seeking peace, justice and safety for all. And while this may not guarantee my safety, I am guaranteed that my life and death is held by my Savior. In him, I seek to put my trust.

My hope today is that this reflection engages your own reflections. How is Christ calling you to respond? Together, may we pray for the families of Tree of Life synagogue and all those who suffer from violence – maybe you too are one who has suffered. And then, may we pray with our feet. May we go and live out the Kingdom of God. May we dance.

Peace,

Pastor Liz

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