Following Jesus In a World Where Violence is Stylish

“Sex and violence are the only two things that never go out of style.” I read this line in the Miami Herald last week. It was spoken by Dhafir Harris, a man in Perrine, Miami, who hosts UFC-style fistfights in his mother’s backyard. With spectators paying a $20 entry fee, he’s convinced that these bloody backyard brawls are going to make him rich.

Well, he’s certainly right about one thing: violence does seem to be quite stylish. Our film and entertainment industries are saturated with violent images; street crimes and police brutality plague our cities; “bullying” is a growing phenomenon in our schools; and never has there been a time when we were more militarized.

What does it look like to follow the Prince of Peace in a world where violence is so stylish?

I’ve just returned from Mexico where I gave a teaching that deals with this very question. I spent two months there in a monastery learning Spanish; then at the end of my time I gave a two-part teaching to the monastic community about what the resurrection of Jesus means for how we respond to violence. (For my Spanish-speaking friends, the teaching can be read here.)

There are very few questions more important for the church to be asking than how to live peaceably in a violent world. Yet we seldom touch upon this topic in our sermons and bible studies. I think there are three reasons why.

First, the majority of us have become desensitized to stories and images of violence. We see so much of it on the screen and in the news that it hardly grabs our attention any more. Second, many Christians feel a sense of hopelessness because of how widespread violence is – especially on the larger structural and political levels. We begin to think the conflicts in the Middle East are “never-ending” or that demilitarizing the most powerful and expansive army to ever exist (the US military) is impossible. And the third reason why so few Christians are passionate about peacekeeping is that we’ve been taught an overly-spiritualized gospel. We think the good news is mostly about having our inner lives rearranged.

He Came Preaching Peace

I’d like to respond to this last one. If asked what the gospel is, most American Christians would say it’s forgiveness of sins. This is an important part of the gospel – I thank God that he has made it possible for sinful humans to be forgiven and in relationship with him. But the gospel doesn’t stop there. In Mark 1:14-15, Jesus tells the people of Galilee that the good news of the euangelion (gospel) is that the kingdom of God is finally breaking into the world. The Galileans would have known what this meant. They knew the prophets had looked ahead to a time when God was going to not only forgive people for their wrongs but also restore shalom and justice in the world and heal the cosmos to its very edges.

Jesus is announcing that this long-awaited time has come – and as proof, he forms a community around himself to live in the rhythm of the kingdom and embody the good news of the gospel. This community includes both rich and poor, both slaves and former masters, both men and women, both Jews and Gentiles – and by so doing, it overcomes all the social, economic, ethnic, and emotional brokenness of the old world. Where there once was hostility, now there is peace. These people begin to pray for their enemies. When wronged, they forgive. When persecuted, they bless. The church is a visible sign of the peaceable kingdom.

So why isn’t this the case today? Paul says of Jesus in Ephesians 2:17, “He came preaching peace.” So why don’t we hear the church preaching peace today?

Markus Barth, biblical scholar and son of the theological giant Karl Barth, wrote during the darkest days of the Cold War that “to propose in the name of Christianity, neutrality or unconcern on questions of international, racial or economic peace – this amounts to using Christ’s name in vain.” In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. said the same thing but put it more strongly: “I’ve chosen to preach about the war in Vietnam because I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”

It’s time we realize that peacemaking is not secondary to what the gospel is “really all about,” nor is it something that some Christians can choose and others not. Peacemaking is our birthright as followers of Jesus. Christ came preaching peace and so must we.

And it’s important we know this is not a passive sort of work. Jesus doesn’t say blessed are the peace-keepers, but goes a step further: blessed are the peace-makers. The very word implies active engagement in creating peace where it does not exist. When people ask if I’m a pacifist, I answer yes but then make sure they know what exactly this word means. It’s a shame that “passivism” and “pacifism” sound so similar in English (as well as Spanish) because they actually come from two completely different Latin roots. “Passivism” means to accept what happens without resistance, whereas “pacifism” means to bring peace where there is conflict. The way of Jesus is not passive acceptance of evil but active protest against it – yet always without violence.
Now back to Dhafir Harris and his backyard brawls (and $20 tickets). Here’s the full quote from the Herald: “We’re starting a movement here in Perrine. Why? Because sex and violence are the only two things that never go out of style.” Dr. King also spoke of a movement, but of a completely different sort. He called for a “movement of the maladjusted.” So many Christians, both then and now, are well adjusted to injustice. But the goal of Christian discipleship is to become maladjusted to injustice, violence, and greed.

A Parable of Peace

I close with a small parable about the peaceable kingdom. Three girls from the community I belong to here in Miami live together in a small house in West Coconut Grove, one of the rougher parts of the city. They spend time with the neighborhood kids after school and often throw parties for them on weekends complete with water slides and BBQ. Needless to say, they’ve developed some great relationships.

A few weeks ago their house was broken into and their valuables stolen. One of the girls came home while the robbers were inside, but was able to get away before they could do anything. This was a frightening and unnerving experience for them, and people react in all sorts of ways when violated or threatened by violence. So how did they respond?

They called the community and invited us to come to their house the following Saturday for breakfast and worship – and added that the worship would be outside in the front yard! Instead of retaliating by hiding themselves away indoors, they opened their doors and invited others in. Instead of buying a better security system, they bought breakfast for others. On the morning that their house was broken into they had had a conversation about the risks involved in being ambassadors of reconciliation. They decided that despite these risks they’d continue to give witness to the peaceable kingdom.

This sort of active peacemaking speaks volumes to their neighbors, but it also creates shalom in the neighborhood that would otherwise be absent.

Of course, I’m not expecting the Herald to write a front-page story about this. Violence is still much more stylish. But then again, I’ve never followed the Prince of Peace because it’s fashionable. I follow Jesus and belong to his community because it’s the deepest, rawest, realest way to live. It’s life in the rhythm of the kingdom.