Sunday, September 7, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Myth of Redemptive Violence

MATTHEW 18:15-20
15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

So Jonah turned 5 last Sunday, and many of you all were there to witness the event. He had a great weekend, although Dan and I are still trying to recover, trying to get the house back together, trying to hide all the extra fruit snacks and Capri Suns from his party, trying to find a place to store all of his new toys. 

He got a whole slew of Ninja Turtles from his grandma and aunt. Yes. If you can believe it, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are still around, and they’re still so. cool. And Jonah is all about them.  He calls them his ninjas. 
I’m not exactly sure what the attraction is for him. But I must admit, they’re kind of awesome. I mean, they’re turtles, but mutants, so like, BIG, and they’re teenagers, so that’s cool, and they’re NINJAS, and that’s just plain awesome.  
Pretty much take everything that’s amazing to a five year old and put it in one and you’ve got Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Rafael.  You can tell which one is which by two distinctive features: 1. by the color of masks that they wear, and 2. by their chosen weapon.

Needless to say, I’m quite uncomfortable with the whole weapon/fighting/enemy thing. 
Sure. Alone, it’s pretty harmless. Afterall, there’s no such thing as giant turtles who are also ninjas living in the sewers, and, to their credit, they are lead by an equally giant rat who is also their father and who teaches them about how to use their skills to help others, and to use violence only as a last resort. So Zen single-parent mixed race dad trying to raise his minority kids to be kind and smart and thoughtful and to avoid using violence when at all possible? I’m all for it.  
Unfortunately, in the stories, it seems as though violence is required quite often for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

And if it were the only case that my son encountered, it wouldn’t be so bad. But violence is pervasive in our culture, even in our 5 year old son’s culture. Every toy comes with a gun. Every show seems to be about overcoming evil or laughing at Captain Hook’s clumsiness or making fun of Spongebob’s starfish friend Patrick, or fighting back the evil kraang. 

It’s just a small reflection of our larger culture. Our culture is one of zealous individualism and relentless “might makes right” attitudes, language and actions.

Everywhere we turn around, we are using violence as an answer to some problem. Think about our iconic stories: Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Indiana Jones, Cowboys and Batman and Spiderman and Superman and all the other “mans.” Our military strategy. Our parenting styles. The NRA. And all the wars on poverty and drugs and obesity. Violence even becomes the answer to our unlikely fears: gather more guns, keep them under your pillow, weave the keys between your fingers in one hand and your mace ready in the other. 
We teach our children that violence is always the answer. It’s in our humor. In our dramas. In our answers to complicated questions.
We call it “just war” or “lesser of two evils” or “speaking softly and carrying a big stick.” 
But it’s everywhere.

It seems like we live in a Post-Jesus world. 
ISIS has murdered another innocent journalist, and the United States is responding with more air strikes.
Our police officers are being equipped with military grade weapons.
We’re teaching nine year olds to fire Uzis
And we’re giving teachers guns to keep in their desk drawers next to the sticky tac and the paper clips and the “great job!” stickers.

It seems like Jesus is gone, or if he is still there, he’s still hanging on that cross, still as a response to and a result of our violent world. 

And most scholars argue that this passage for today is a “post-Jesus” passage. It’s what scholars call a “redacted” or edited passage - a passage that reflects the voice of Matthew the Gospel writer more than it preserves the voice of Jesus himself.
Most Biblical Scholars would argue that this particular prescription for what to do when a brother or sister sins against you is not original to the Historical Jesus, but has developed as a result of conflicts encountered by the early church. This passage sounds more like something from the Early Church Fathers than from the mouth of Jesus himself. 

But it addresses a question, an important question in the life of the early church, and in our lives today - what do we do now, when there is conflict? When we’re trying to live together in a family and we’re all trying to get along but we inevitably hurt each other? What do we do when we hurt each other? 

Jesus is gone - For the early church during the time of Matthew’s writings, and for us too. Jesus is gone. At least, sort of. At least, Jesus is physically gone. Sucked up to be with God the Father in Heaven. And so what do we do when we are trying to keep going in his absence? What do we do when we’ve been left to be his hands and feet? His Church? The body of Christ? And when we hurt each other?

We still have this obsession with violence. As much as before and during Jesus’ life. I’m convinced, we would still find a way to string Jesus up, to hang him from a tree, or send him to a firing squad, or waterboard him, or knock him out with a simple, detached drone strike. 
And yet, we have also been changed, we, who carry with us the resurrected Christ, the one who overcame violence and death and pulled all the power out from under it like the magician’s tablecloth? 
We carry both in us. The violence of a crucifixion. And the resurrected body.

How do we live in a world where we are changed, but where we still await the rest of the world to catch up?
How do we live in a world where we wait for ourselves to catch up to being who we wish we could be?

We keep reading this passage about Jesus telling us what to do about conflict with the lenses of our culture. We’ve read this passage with the lenses of Individualism and Violence, drawing lines of who’s in and who’s out, all the while using the church to bully and advance the interest of those in power. 

I’ve had friends who have had people tell them they are not welcome at the church because they won’t/can’t change their sexual identity. I’ve had friends who have been forced out of doing good Christian work because they smoke cigarettes. I’ve known friends who have been confronted because of the choices they have made in their personal lives. I’ve been told that the depression I’ve struggled with my whole life comes from a lack of faith. And all of these folks who have been these voices of criticism and “speaking truth in love” have used this passage to back them up, to make them feel like they are doing the right thing.

But what they’re really saying is, “unless you’re a Christian like me, you’re doing it wrong, and you’re not welcome here.”

BUT we’ve all sinned, and we’ve all been sinned against. We are all victims of and perpetrators of sin. We’ve all played the violence game. We’ve all drawn a line in the sand and said, “you’re not welcome unless you’re on my side.”

We need to read this passage with new eyes. 
Because if we put this passage on the long line of Judeo-Christian narrative, we see a dramatic shift. We see story arch that bends, not only towards radical inclusion, but also towards a radical form of peace and reconciliation. No longer are we supposed to be an “eye-for-an-eye” culture as in the Hebrew Scriptures - which in and of itself was a dramatic step away from the myth that violence fixes everything, and was actually meant to suppress violence - but now we have entered into a new worldview, a new paradigm - one in which the sinner isn’t punished, but seen and cared for.

If a brother or sister has sinned against you, go and speak to that person.
And if reconciliation cannot be found, then bring a few people along to help.
And if reconciliation cannot be found even then, bring the church alongside you, and make amends then. 

And if that doesn’t work, treat them like you’d treat a Gentile or a tax collector.

I think, that was supposed to mean to treat them like outsiders, like folks who didn’t belong, but I wonder, did the the writer of Matthew stop to think about what this means when put in the mouth of Jesus?

Jesus, who healed non-Jews and touched the leper and spoke with bleeding women and Samarian prostitutes getting water in the heat of the day and ate with tax collectors in their homes. Matthew says that Jesus tells us to treat those who have hurt us and refuse to change to treat them like that? Does Matthew really know what he’s saying?

We’re to keep working on reconciliation. Keep reaching out. Keep trying. Never giving up. Embracing and healing and caring for and eating with the Gentiles and the Tax Collectors and the folks who have hurt us.

So much easier said than done. And it’s not even that easy to say.

Like the Israelites in the desert, like the speaker in the Psalms, I’m a kid, a kid who just wants to believe in things like Ninja Turtles and superheroes and the infallibility of police officers…
Kids need to feel in control, like they have some power, because they really aren’t in control at all. The world is so big and they are so small. This is how we should read those Psalms and demands for violence in the Hebrew Scriptures - from the perspective of a powerless little kid who doesn’t know how else to feel safe but to talk big talk.

I have been weighed down by the news of this world. All the victims. All the despair and the hate and the viruses and the fear. All the feeling like there is nothing else that can be done but bring on more airstrikes and gather up your artillery and batten down the hatches with cannons loaded. 

I feel like a helpless kid. Like a tiny country of people who keep getting pushed around and dragged through the desert and tortured and killed and abused and turned into slaves. 

So I want to get out my nunchucks and put on my mask and just start thwacking at things. To feel big. To feel like I have some power. To think that I have some control.

I can see why those Ninja Turtles are so attractive to my 5 year old son.

But who is it that I will strike?

Jesus says, “you can’t hate what has a face.”
“Go. Go and see their face. Go to them. Talk it out. Tell them about your pain. Go and see their face.”

And sometimes you need a little help. Sometimes you can’t forgive alone. So bring a couple of folks with you. Sometimes you need the whole darn church to help you forgive. Sometimes the pain is so big and the hurt is so deep that you need a whole lot of help in order to see the face of the other.

This isn’t about punishing the sinner. It’s about reconciliation of the entire body of Christ. 
And this isn’t a case where, so often, the Church has told us to go back to our abuser. It’s giving us the opportunity to do the hard work of reconciliation. To bring light into the darkness. And if the abuse keeps coming, then we put on armor - defensive armor - not of iron or steel but of light. Because the day is near. Because the darkness will end and we’ll be able to see again. Because if we’re all parts of the Body of Christ, we need that eye or that finger or that hang nail or that pinky toe in order for us to be whole again. We need that sinner. And we are that sinner. 
And it’s giving us the opportunity to remember that even though it feels like we’re living in a post-Jesus era, we are really living in a resurrection era. An era of light in the darkness, life after death, forgiveness after a horrific crucifixion. And this reconciliation enables us to remember that wherever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, there he is in the midst of us. Giving us light, showing us his face, helping us to see his face in the Other. 

But this ain’t easy.
Like how I shifted all my anxieties about having kids into a $400 car seat, I want to stuff all my anger and pain and helplessness about the violence of the world onto ISIS and these horrific murders of the American journalists. The Ebola virus and the police brutality and the gang violence and the “accidental” death by a nine year old with an Uzi and the increase in US airstrikes are all just too much. So I stuff all my hatred onto these ISIS guys and their black masks and their big knives. 
And maybe it’s easier to do this because I can’t see their faces. I can’t humanize the face I cannot see.

But try, Jesus says. Try to find the face in the Other, in the one who has hurt you. Try to see them as a part of the Body of Christ. Try to see their face. You cannot hate what has a face. 

The mystery of the incarnation is that Jesus came to give God a face. And to give us a face. 

O God, help us to have faces. Help us to see you, who took on a face, so that we all could have faces.

Thanks be to God.

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