Doing Violence from a Distance
June 16, 2013
Shortly after the bombings at the Boston Marathon this April, a picture went viral on social media. It was a picture of men and boys from Syria, holding a banner with a message. The message said: “Boston bombings represent a sorrowful scene of what happens every day in Syria. Do accept our condolences.” It was signed, the Syrian Revolution KNRC, Kafranbel, April 19th, 2013. The image was quickly paired with a picture of a return message, a diverse group of folks from Boston holding a banner, written in Arabic and English saying, “Friends in Syria – We too hope for the safety of your families and for peace. Love, Boston. April 20th, 2013.”
This global sense of loss and condolence was moving for many people. It highlighted how connected we are but it also painted a dramatic picture of how disconnected we are from what happens around the world. Quite often, we only feel the pain of violence close to us. We are only gravely troubled by violence that happens to people who are like us.
Think about your emotional response to the Colorado movie theater shooting last year or to the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre or to the Boston bombings themselves. Now think about your response to news about a bombing in Iraq or Syria. How are they different?
For my own self, I felt extremely unsettled (not necessarily afraid) and shaken with the Boston bombings. I had just run a big city marathon a few weeks before here in DC, I could picture the experience of coming up to a finish line, could imagine the chaos and terror and pain. When I hear of attacks in Nigeria at EYN churches or places I have been, the sense of sorrow is very great. With violence in Iraq or Syria, it is unlikely that I will be quite as moved. Violence feels especially troubling when it happens to people you know or in settings that are familiar to you.
What is violence? When we think of violence, we usually imagine gun violence or terrorism, something uncontrollable, quick, physical; something done by individuals or specific groups. Violence can also be slow and done by institutions or social structures. It can be intentional or unintentional. The laws and procedures that govern a society can do violence. Violence is anything that causes physical, social, or emotional wounds to individuals, families, groups, communities, and societies.
Violence may be distant because it is done far away; violence can also be distant when it is not done by a person but by a law or a process. We as bystanders do not sense the wounds as much when the act involves pushing a button or enforcing a law. We do not see the immediate effects up close.
As followers of Jesus who are called to be peacemakers, to be ministers of reconciliation, we have an ontological call to understand and examine violence in the world around us—that which is readily seen and that which is blurry because of its distance from us. Violence occurring at a distance makes it difficult for us to serve as God’s agents of reconciliation because we do not easily see that it exists.
As Christians who seek to be God’s children, we are called to examine our world for violence so that we might know how to proclaim the good news of God’s reconciliation—to prevent harm and build building peace and wellbeing. As Brethren, we have strong resources within our faith heritage to examine, address, and speak out against violent acts—those which are easily seen and those which are done at a distance.
Our two passages today shed light on two forms of distant violence occurring today.
In our Old Testament passage, violence is done with the nod of a head, with a signature. In our gospel passage, violence is being done in the form of societal exclusion and unforgiveness.
1 Kings 21 tells the story of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. During the time when Israel and Judah were divided, Ahab ruled over the northern Kingdom. He married Jezebel, a Canaanite princess, and together they lured the Israelites away from worshipping Yahweh and towards worshipping Canaanite deities. Elijah spoke out against Ahab and Jezebel and they threaten to have him killed. Ahab and Jezebel lived extravagant lives and built a palace in Jezreel, away from the northern kingdom’s capital of Samaria.
This palace, as we learn from the text, bordered the vineyards of Naboth. In our story, Ahab completely disregards God’s covenant with Israel and instructions regarding land inheritance and ownership. He tries to by Naboth’s vineyards. This is no ordinary real estate offer – Naboth’s vineyards were his inheritance as an Israelite, as one who worshiped Yahweh. Possession of the land was part of God’s covenant with the Israelites. Land was to remain with families—or to be leased out for a certain amount of time—so that no person would be dispossessed of their wealth and ability to provide for their family. Ahab whines and moans and doesn’t eat after Naboth refuses his offer. Jezebel then urges Ahab to use his power and force as king to take what he wants.
Ahab and Jezebel proceed to conduct violence from a distance. An Executive Order is issued to stage a plot for death. The King and Queen are not present when Naboth is falsely accused. They do not physically cast the stones which pelt Naboth’s body, the rocks which strike his head, and cause him to hemorrhage inside and out before dying. No. Ahab and Jezebel do violence to Naboth from afar—with a word and a stroke of a pen.
Isaac Villegas, a pastor of a Mennonite church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, describes the parallels between this ancient near eastern context and our own today:
“This story is about engaging in violence while staying far away from the conflict zone, murdering enemies without having to watch them die. Our world echoes the world of Ahab and Jezebel. In theirs, they kill from a distance with a letter. In our computerized wars fought by weaponized drones, a president can kill from his house with a telephone call” (Villegas, 2013, p. 20).
Drone violence happens from a distance. We do not see the wounds which scar individuals, families and communities. We do not see the victims of a secretive drones program which operates in the name of our safety. We do not see the people whose lives are affected, whose hearts and minds are terrorized.
A recent article in Sojourners magazine describes the impact of drone warfare: “U.S. covert drone strikes have killed more than 3,000 people since 2004, in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Of that number, nearly 1,000 were civilians—including an estimated 200 children. (The U.S. military has also used drones in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars [and numbers from those countries are not included in these statistics].)” (Holt, 2013, p. 20).
America strongly felt the deaths of three people in Boston – but the mothers, fathers, and children killed as a byproduct of the drone program barely make the news. They almost certainly are not mourned by us—they who are in a distant land, far away, different from us—if we hear about them at all.
While the aim of President Obama’s drone warfare campaign is to kill presumed terrorists, the impacts are felt beyond the lives of the targeted individuals. Drone warfare affects families, communities, and whole countries.
“Beyond civilian death and injury, tens of thousands of people report hearing drones humming high above their homes 24 hours a day. They live in constant fear of being the next victims. Testifying in April before a Senate subcommittee on the legality and impact of Obama’s targeted killing drone program, Yemeni youth activist Farea al-Muslimi made a chilling statement about the psychological effects of drones in Yemen: ‘Women used to say [to kids], ‘Go to sleep or I will call your father.’ Now they say, ‘Go to sleep or I will call the planes.’” (Holt, 2013, p. 22).
With the callous way it disregards the lives of those who end up as “casualties”, I think that drone warfare denies that all people are made in the image of God and are worthy of preserving. The US drone program values the potential lost lives of Americans over those of innocent Yemenis, Pakistanis, and Somalis.
What does this distant violence mean for us as Christians? As followers of Jesus, as a church, what are we called to do in face of this? Some would say we are not called to do anything. Yet I think that we are called to question drones and all of our society’s values and ways of doing things—to see what corresponds with Jesus’ teachings and what does not.
In Romans 12:2, the apostle Paul taught the early church to question the values of their Roman society. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” When we hold political stances, do we do so because of a secular realism—what is best for the nation state—or because we believe they fit with the life and teachings of Jesus? We are called to discern together about the world’s values and activities to ensure that our lives and actions reflect our primary identity as Jesus followers.
Our faith heritage as the Church of the Brethren stresses that theology is not done in a vacuum or by us as individuals. As Brethren, we believe that the Spirit moves and we learn about God best when we are together in community around the Bible.
In regards to drones, some of this discernment is already happening within Church of the Brethren. In March of this year, the Mission and Ministry Board (a governing board of the Church of the Brethren that is called to help lead and support the denomination) held its quarterly meeting and approved a resolution against drone warfare. The document resolves to call the church as a whole—districts, congregations, individuals—to study the issue in the context of the Brethren history of peacemaking and a Biblical understanding of peace. It acknowledges the need for continuing analysis of our society’s actions and values, “so that [we as] Brethren may continue to be dynamic and prophetic peacemakers in a world riddled with violent behavior” (Annual Conference Booklet, 2013, p. 224).
The Resolution Against Drone Warfare urges us to pray and work for peace, and to advocate to our national leaders for the drone program to be halted and given strong oversight. This Resolution will be brought to the delegate body in just a few weeks at this year’s Annual Conference. Delegates from congregations will be given opportunity to study and discuss the position of the church on this issue, before deciding whether to affirm the Resolution.
This overall approach of analysis and discernment together as a community is fruitful for guidance on the drone issue and also for other examples of distant violence. One issue that is both near to us but far from our minds is the issue of mass incarceration in the United States. As of 2010, “2.3 million people [were] in prison or jail in the U.S.—and one in every 33 adults [were] behind bars or on parole” (Araujo, 2012).We live in a society that is concerned primarily with retributive justice, with revenge. Crimes are done not against individuals or communities but against the state, the government entity. Most effort is made in locking away the “wrongdoers” rather than bringing healing and restoration to the individuals involved and the communities which are wounded as a whole.
US imprisonment rates are skewed racially in favor of white people and against persons of color. For many of those who were imprisoned at some point, society is unforgiving. Millions are locked up and then, when freed, “ relegated to a permanent second-class status—denied the right to vote, barred from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, education, and public benefits” (Alexander, 2012).
I am not saying the people shouldn’t make amends for their crimes. I do believe that a system which is racially biased and which excludes the possibility of a new start is a form of violence done by an institution. This structural violence causes wounds which scar individuals, families, and communities. Yet for many of us, the issue of imprisonment is one that is distant. Many times, our society has the view that those people—those criminals—deserve to be locked up, marked for life in shame over the things they have done. Yet Jesus, in our gospel passage, demonstrates a different way.
When Jesus sees a woman who is labeled a sinner, whom her society says should be labeled as no good for the rest of her life for whatever crime (social or religious) that she has done, Jesus chooses reconciliation over estrangement. He chooses healing and forgiveness over permanent exclusion from society. We see from Jesus’ actions here and elsewhere that we as a church are called to restore rather than exclude, to redeem rather than wound, to bring healing rather than revenge.
Some Christian sisters and brothers are gathering here in DC to understand how mass incarceration is a New Jim Crow, an institutionalized form of injustice that disproportionately affects the lives of people of color. They’ve been holding monthly meetings since April, rotating between different churches (including our neighbors at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on East Capitol St) to worship, pray, teach from Scripture, analyze the issue, and mobilize for action.
In our society, it is not always easy to see how Scripture can speak to the modern world. Analyzing one’s culture and societal values takes an intentional effort, a stepping back to determine motivations, intent, and meaning. Thankfully, as the church, we are not called to do this alone. We are called to gather together around God’s word, guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
In a world filled with violence close at hand and violence far from our sights, may we as the church be empowered to watch, listen, analyze, gather, discern, pray, and act for justice and peace. Amen.