What Are We Willing to Die For?

Imagine for a moment that I walked into your house and murdered one of your children. That would test your ability to remain peaceful. Even if you were able to avoid retaliating against me, you would at least be able to understand why someone would retaliate or why anyone being harmed in that way would respond with violence. That’s really simple logic, actually: hate makes hate.

Whether it’s instinctual or learned over time, it just doesn’t seem today that we know how to respond to violence without wanting to become violent ourselves. I speak from personal experience there, though most of the ways I’ve been hurt are particularly benign. But we’ve all been hurt in some way or another, by somebody; we all understand the desire for vengeance, if not blood. So, if we agree that hate makes hate, then we can see how it would be a cycle. You harm me; I retaliate. You retaliate, I harm you again. The only way the cycle is ever broken is when someone decides to break the cycle and respond to violence without becoming violent themselves.

None of this is rocket science, and most of us get the logic. Some respond breaking that cycle would be nice but since we don’t live in a world of ideals, sometimes a violent response may be understandable if not even necessary. I’ll concede the point here that I would love to believe I could hold myself to an ideal of nonviolence but that I don’t actually know if I could. I confess, and my friends will tell you sadly, that I am a violent man. That doesn’t stop me from striving for nonviolence, for recommending it, believing in it.

Of course, I suppose you may not even buy my argument that breaking the cycle is wise. “It’s weak to let people just walk all over you, which is exactly what they’ll do if you let them,” you might say. “In some cases, we have to show strength which is might and force.” That sounds decidedly American today, especially in light of how to deal with terrorism. This ‘wisdom’ hinges, though, on how you define strength and weakness, as well as how you define your purpose in life. In other words, it depends on what you’re willing to die for and whether you believe there are some principals or values that are more important than life itself. I’m of the mindset that we’ve had so much luxury in modern society that we’ve lost sight of what we’re willing to die for, in part because we haven’t been asked to die for anything. We’ve only been asked to live, and that terrifies us to death as it is. We kill, scared for our own lives, never once considering what might be greater than our lives. Or in other words, we haven’t faced, most of us, a situation that demanded we determine what life and death are worth.

History, though, can help us here. To whatever degree I’m an armchair theologian, I try to draw a lot from Christian history, though I think the lessons are relevant beyond Christianity. From the time Christ dies to the time Christianity becomes the ‘official religion’ of the Empire, some 280 years pass. Christianity in that period, without the speed of modern infrastructure or the internet, manages to spread its message the world over “conquering” without ever resorting to violence. Think about that for a second: wars were historically fought, yes, to gain land but also with the goal of conquering the hearts and minds. Christianity does both without a single war. Constantine, of course, changes that, which is a conversation for another day, but I want to focus for a moment on the reality that a religion spread its viewpoint the world over without resorting to violence. How did they do it?

They didn’t just stop the cycle and take a beating. You might be right in saying that would be “weak.” Nonviolent resistance is not passive, however. It’s in-your-face aggressive. Pacifism would be letting the conqueror beat you up while you say nothing. Nonviolence gets in the conquerors face, taunts them to be violent, then having taken the beating, gets back in their face and taunts them again without ever taking a swing. In this regard, nonviolence is indeed very bloody and very violent. It’s a form of in-your-face martyrdom, and that’s how Christianity “conquered” the world without responding to violence with violence. Why? Because everyone saw that these so-called Christians were willing to die for something but not without first speaking their truth. Their truth, in fact, was in their willingness to die. And people so yearned for that sense of purpose that the movement, instead of being squashed out despite attempted genocide only grew and grew.

Take for example the early Christians a hundred years before Constantine – Perpetua and Felicity: A young woman of noble birth and a pregnant slave who knew they faced certain death but, to everyone’s surprise, welcomed martyrdom and left behind a ‘diary’ of sorts for the world to know that they would rather die than renounce their faith. Their willingness to die – and even the death itself – becomes a powerful message that resonates beyond anything the gun or the bomb can do.

And it’s not just a matter of “breaking the cycle of violence;” it’s exposing those who choose violence for who they are and in the process showing you’re better than them, more at peace. You don’t need the strength of “might and force.” You have the strength of truth and the resolve of peace within. And that – and only that – can flip the oppressors on their head. Oh, sure, to respond with violence may, indeed, win you temporary peace but only at the cost that you were willing to become the aggressor yourself. And when you become what you hated, it’s only a matter of time before the same fate that befell your aggressor also befalls you or your loved ones.

All of that, of course, is said in the context of a President-elect who wants to solve our problems with violence. It’s said in the context of an America that has bombed its way through our history and left an ugly stain on almost every nation-state we’ve touched. It’s said of a day and age when long-gone is the Christianity that was once so faithful in its resolve of what life is worth and its trust in something greater than death that “love your enemies” has become meaningless and the Babylonian “eye for an eye” has been embraced as a replacement for most of Jesus’ message. We have an opportunity to reclaim that with the conviction of a love built on faith and not on fear. And the next several months will certainly test how serious we are about such matters.

Some Thoughts for a Good Friday

The world has become ugly and dark. Terrorist groups slaughter. The wealthy grow wealthier as the poor remain poor. The planet itself is slowly but surely dying off, we’re told. Our most precious resources are grown increasingly scarce. Our politicians follow the money instead of the heart. And for most of us that’s just the stuff we read about but don’t actually endure. What we do endure, we are stricken by our own ugliness: a broken friendship or lost love, self-doubt and indecision, self-righteous certainty in the places we actually should’ve been doubting, a fear of others or of self that cripples us or grows our hatred. These are the voices shouting at us from our computer screens and televisions to our parents and loved ones to our friends and enemies to our innermost thoughts plaguing us, weighing us down. It is a world without silence, these days, without respite. Instead, today’s world is one of loud extremes. There, on the fringes, voices from a small handful have pushed the moderate many to their own extreme – a world now of false dichotomies no one seems to notice – and the cycle only repeats. Honest concern with nuanced perspectives are lost to sound bites and memes that appeal instead to our emotions. Ideologies are dwindled down to 140-character barking – all context and concern washed out by our desire for the quick-and-the-easy.

And yet, perhaps, seventy years ago in the midst of world war, the same could have been said: the world was dark and ugly then, too. Another seventy or so before that, and we were a country divided – family against family – an unquestionably ugly time in our history. Trace back through humanity’s short breath on this “pale blue dot,” and it’s always there: fear and hatred and war and the loud, powerful few who long for control. We were bombarded, then as now, just by a different medium. Is it that we think we’re special that the world is just now unbearably bad? Is the fact – if it’s a fact – that it’s “always been this way” meant to reassure us with hope that we are not alone in our suffering or sink us into some despairing fatalism that there is no cure for the human condition but death?

Maybe that’s why I relate so strongly to Good Friday. It is not the story of resurrection. Don’t be fooled by the fact that we think we know the ending. Easter morning is not yet come. It is instead a story of wondering, of questioning. It’s a story of seemingly intense abandonment, of scattering, of hiding away in denial. And it’s the story of that which we inevitably face – the death of those we love and of our own end. In a sense, it’s a story still being told, repeated daily on our screens and in our heads and in our exchanges. That same ugliness – from Rome to Flanders Field to Normandy Beach to modern Syria and Iraq to Capitol Hill and into every major corporation – it does not go away.

And yet in the midst of that, the hope we do manage to conjure up as human beings – when we can – is the best kind of hope. Because we don’t yet know how it ends, just that it will. And to say that there is hope in the face of this unending uncertainty that so surrounds us is to participate in something near miraculous: Against all the odds, against our own history, against our guaranteed nature, even against our guaranteed deaths or in spite of them, we conjure up sometimes something good and try to live into our best selves no matter what the next day or hour or minute could bring or brought before it. For all the voices shouting and pulling and drowning out our common space, it’s on that note, when that happens – that hopeful harmony – that “resurrection” arrives, that something wholly good is able to conquer our cynicism. It’s when we whistle walking through the dark house or hum a beloved tune to calm ourselves – hours before the choir exclaims any joy at all. And so, we wonder, can we bring nuance to the conversation, silence to the constant noise of the day’s desire to pull us in a thousand directions, peace to a world in terror, sustenance to a planet hungry for new life, wealth free of want to the wealthy and trust again in our leaders? Judging by our history, the answer is no, probably not. But we’ll hope anyway, be our best selves anyway, drip our drop in the bucket anyhow, and if we fail at those great endeavors, we’ll still have succeeded, somehow in the most important way possible. Happy Good Friday to you and yours.