What keeps you whole when life’s shockwaves hit? As crazy as it sounds, I sit down and write sermons. Writing one gives safe boundaries to my wrestling with evil and sorrow and sin, like having painted playing field lines and rules of engagement. It also generates some kind of access in my heart to feel held by that which is greater than me, as I completely lose myself in the creative process.
Here’s what came out of my recent weekly wrestling with the violence and political grandstanding that has cut me off at the knees lately, to say nothing of the hellish thoughts of Margaret Atwood’s The Handsmaid’s Tale coming to life in 21st century America. The two texts used are the narratives that sit together in the center of the gospel of Mark 6: The Beheading of John the Baptist and The Feeding of the 5000.
The things that stands out to me the most today when I read this chapter is the juxtaposition of the middle two texts: the beheading of John the Baptist and the Feeding of the 5000+ people. In the first, Herod responds to a challenging situation by resorting to violence. In the second, Jesus responds to a challenging situation by using creative nonviolence. And it is Jesus’ way of creative nonviolence which leads him, I believe, into the amazing ability to continue to forgive, in his full humanity, the frustrating misunderstandings and rejection he faces again and again—not just throughout this chapter, but throughout his entire ministry as recorded in this gospel. It is what some call The Way of Unity.
Creative nonviolence is not a phrase we often hear. I’ll explain in a few moments how Jesus puts this into action in the feeding of thousands with a wee bit of bread and fish. When Jesus asks his disciples to find a way to feed the crowd (disciples who have on the previous page just successfully cast out demons, by the way), he doesn’t respond to their bafflement in the aggressive and passive-aggressive ways that might be typical for many of us: i.e. belittling and scolding the disciples for their lack of ambitious thought, nor rolling his eyes and withdrawing from the problem altogether, sulking in self-pity for the dunces he has as disciples.
Jesus engages in a response that has the potential to transform lives (not just appetites) for this is what creative nonviolence always does. MLK Jr. is a contemporary of ours who understood the value of creative nonviolence, as he learned it from the life of both Jesus and his own contemporary, Mahatma Gandhi. MLK’s and Gandhi’s actions and words transformed lives on a huge scale, because they were willing to do their own inner work on their own minds and hearts. And we can do the same, with God’s help. Goodness knows, today’s world could really use a few more MLKs and Gandhis.
Let me give you some clearer teachings about creative nonviolence from the Engage: Exploring Nonviolent Living,* book I’m currently working through this summer, and a family-friendly book by Dennis, Sheila, and Matthew Linn**, from which I found this easier-to-share version of the following true story:
One December evening in 1993, the Schnitzer family was preparing their home in Billings, Montana for Hanukkah. They taped a yellow plastic menorah to the window of 5-year-old Isaac’s bedroom. That night the window was suddenly shattered by a cinderblock thrown by members of a neo-nazi hate group that had been terrorizing minority groups in Billings for the past year. The next morning the FBI advised Tammie Schnitzer to remove all signs of Hanukkah from her home. But Tammie decided that if she backed down in the face of terrorism, neither she nor her family would ever be safe. The Schnitzers taped the broken window and left the menorah up; then Tammie called the Billings Gazette to report what had happened.
A day later, Marge MacDonald, director of the Montana association of churches, read about the attack on the Schnitzers’ home. She decided to put a menorah up in her own window, as a sign of solidarity with them. Marge called her pastor and that Sunday he urged the congregation to take home color-in pictures of menorahs, color them in as a family, and hang them in their windows. The idea spread like wildfire throughout the whole community.
On the 8th and last night of Hanukkah, Tammie and Brian Schnitzer drove their children around Billings. Menorahs were everywhere. Isaac said, “I didn’t know so many people were Jewish.” His mother answered, “They’re not all Jewish, but they’re our friends.” Since then, terrorist attacks against minorities in Billings have stopped and Christian families still display their menorahs at Hanukkah each year, in solidarity with the Jewish community. Creative nonviolence.
From Engage I learned: “We have a tendency to divide our world into victims and oppressors. Creative nonviolence dissolves this easy trap our minds like to play by helping us to become one with our oppressors and to not identify as victims ourselves”.
When King Herod in our scripture today was trapped by the devious quick wit of his wife and daughter, asking for the head of John the Baptist, what creative nonviolence might he have employed? What if he had said that anything served on a platter in his kingdom was required to be eaten, and so unless Herodias was willing to eat the flesh of John the Baptist, he could not oblige. By non-violently offering the way of unity, Herod would not have found himself as a victim pushed into a corner, and may not have driven an even larger wedge between himself and his family.
When Jesus was faced with a food shortage that day in the countryside with 5000+, he made himself one with the people around him. He trusted the process of sharing the truth, like Tammie Schnitzer did when she told the local paper what had happened. The Light of Love is present in all of us, and with grace, can be activated. Jesus activated it by asking for the food at hand, and then publicly blessed it with such grace and generosity that people felt sincerely seen and loved. And when we experience belonging that big we can’t contain it.
Those who had snacks for their children tucked away may have pulled them out to share with other children whose families didn’t have enough. And others, instead of having enough food for a meal that day for themselves, may have been moved by the abundance of grace on that hillside to forego a bit of hunger themselves to share their unity with complete strangers…and, as if we needed an exclamation point to remind us that living from a place of divine abundance offers us more than our self-protecting ego’s notions of scarcity, the text reads: “And there were 12 baskets full of broken bread and fish left over after every one had eaten.” Creative nonviolence.
Gandhi says that to practice this way of living in the world “we must recognize that no one possesses the entire truth. Rather, each of us possesses a piece of the truth and the un-truth.” To find Jesus’s way of unity we must first be willing to accept the pieces of the truth of both parties. Take the overturning of Roe v. Wade. There are some here today celebrating this event and others deeply distressed—“opponents” by the world’s terms. But what if everyone sat down to identify 2 things about their opponent’s view that they actually agreed with. Just 2 things. Might it allow us to see a bit more of the whole truth than just the part that resides in ourselves? Might we discover an iota of an answer to Jesus’ prayer that we might become One, as he and the Father are One?
We read in Ephesians 4 that in our growing Christ maturity we will be able to choose non-cooperation with systems of evil, like the notion that there are people on the other side of the aisle we should demonize, like the political culture would like to trick us into believing: Verse 14 says, “We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ. He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.”
This past Wednesday I was moved to paint the rock in Chelsea with a paraphrase from someone else’s wise words: In nonviolence our opponents are left more whole and better off than we found them.
Shelly Douglas, longtime peace and justice activist who practices creative nonviolence, says: “Noncooperation may include marches and vigils…but it includes an inner dimension: the refusal to allow our minds to be manipulated, our hearts to be controlled. Refusing to hate those who are identified as enemies is also noncooperation.”
Friends, how can you refuse to cooperate with hate and anger for your adversaries today? How might you choose to explore the parts of truth that are indeed present in your opponents’ views, so that a fuller picture of our collective goodness might emerge? In what situation in your own life today might you ask God to show you Jesus’ peaceful way of unity?
Holy One, we are sometimes afraid to turn on the news to hear what new shockwave is being felt by our world—or we find ourselves unable to pull our eyes off the screen, as what seems like inevitable doom draws nearer. Help us to face each shockwave as only one part of the truth. You are the undergirding reality holding this beautiful world together. And you believe in us as the little incarnated miracles you made us to be. May our rest in you be the foundational strength for our next act of creative nonviolence. Amen.
*Engage: Exploring Nonviolent Living–a study program for learning, practicing, and experimenting with the power of creative nonviolence to transform our lives and our world, 2005. L. Slattery, K. Butigan, et al. Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service.
**Don’t Forgive Too Soon: Extending the Two Hands that Heal, 1997. Dennis, Sheila, and Matthew Linn. Paulist Press.