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.

To Cherish What’s Old

I like old things. Sometimes I like to think maybe it’s because I inherited all my grandfather’s old war stuff, but the truth is, I’ve always loved what’s old: an antique store with everything under the sun in it or the smell of old paper bound to a book of poetry or walking around in a cavernous, quiet museum surrounded mostly by the sounds of footsteps and slow breathing that echo off the emptiness.

I’ve made an effort lately to frequent my grandfather’s farm and rekindle that love of what’s old. While I’m there, I like to think I take “Pop” on a little in the farmer’s stride I inherit when I saunter around his place in Chester County, Tennessee – one hundred fifty-seven acres of pristine field and forest sandwiching Turkey Creek. The farm is one of the most sacred places on earth to me. I write about it frequently. I even wrote a novel set there. It’s been in the family for over a hundred years, and no matter how many hours I walk around exploring, I almost always find something new in the midst of all the old. I think that’s what I love the most about “old things”: they give us a chance to confront our lives and recall that those who came before us once faced the struggles we do and overcame them despite the odds – golden years refined by the tests of flames.

There are three barns on the farm that used to house chickens and horses and tractors and old milk crates, and nowadays they’re mostly in ruin filled with remnants of the past – rusted metal thingamajigs and corn husks, really. Beside a logging trail that runs by the first and second barn is a ravine covered in leaves from winters past, and underneath the leaves is an old garbage dump where my grandfather regularly threw out the family trash. This week, I decided to rummage through the old garbage dump kicking around old leather shoes that took my grandfather, I imagine, many miles by foot, Coke cans from what had to be days when Coke had just started using aluminum, and an old glass ketchup bottle that was begging to be made into a candle holder. Digging through all the junk, now treasure, I had flashbacks to my time in Israel rummaging through some four thousand-year old “trash” on an archaeological excavation back in 2008. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my grandfather’s trash told some great story of American culture and history. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my own trash, my own junk, were I to toss it out, might one day do the same.

Ketchup Bottle

The people of our past have given us their trash and their treasure. We’ve been handed the very difficult task of distinguishing between what’s worth cataloging, worth cherishing, and what belongs back in the heap of nonsensical junk we may as well forget, forgive, or toss aside. When and if we honestly try to be people of faith or hold dear a sense of spiritual self, I think a lot of what we’re really doing is the hard work of excavating our pasts and determining what of that story must be told. In that journey, a lot of the trash that we often want to throw away is actually treasure we’ve got to learn how to carry proudly into the present. That’s no small task. It’s one that I suspect takes a lifetime to get right, and then – maybe – when we’re dead and gone, somebody else comes along, picks up our story and starts to ask the same questions of themselves we once faced.

Or, at least, that’s what I really like about old things – that they connect us to a thousand lives before and a thousand lives to come.