By Bishop Peggy Johnson
It seems that the world has gone crazy with a series of hate-related mass murders recently. In New Zealand, Muslims were killed while worshiping. Then there were bombings in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, where many Christians were murdered and wounded. And now we grieve a shooting in a Jewish synagogue near San Diego, Calif. These senseless atrocities have become a constant, tragic reality in our troubled world.
Christians need to acknowledge the persecution of the church that is a part of that sobering reality. There are more Christian martyrs and people incarcerated for their Christian beliefs than ever before in the history of our world. According to some researchers, one in 12 Christians live where their faith is “illegal, forbidden or punished” (2018 World Watch List from Open Doors). That comes to about 215 million Christians facing persecution.
It is not limited to Christians of course: Muslims, Jews, and religious sects of all kinds face persecution and death, depending on where they happen to live, including people in the United States. Humans are killing and harming each other for sectarian religious reasons, for racial bigotry reasons, for reasons of fear, for reasons of ignorance in an endless wave of malice and misery.
We decry this! We are jarred into responsive action with every horrible news account and the details that emerge. Sometimes, some of us even become numb because it is so overwhelming.
We engage in sending help for the victim’s families, rebuilding damaged houses of worship, launching street protests, going to Congress to testify, and calling for more restrictive gun laws. We organize talks about racism and building healthy relationships with the “other.” We teach and preach about inclusivity and tolerance.
We have candlelight vigils and calls to prayers and calls to action. We encourage people to speak out and write to lawmakers. We do, do, do all of this, at least for a while; and sometimes it all gets too hard and overwhelming, and the passion dissipates. Then there is the next explosion, the next shooting, the next suicide bomber; and it starts all over again. What can stop this endless cycle of evil and violent inhumanity?
An important answer is right here in The Book, the Word of God, found in the “Sermon on the Mount,” what I lovingly refer to as “Jesus’ Greatest Hits.” The Gospel says in Matthew 5:21-24,
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment: whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Jesus is meddling here, getting personal. That is why he is so hard to hear. It is not the mass murderers “out there” that he is admonishing. He is talking about us, with all of our interpersonal rubs and “sides” and strife and jealousies and bigotries and impatience and selfishness!
Jesus is saying that anger in our hearts against our brothers and sisters is the same as committing murder. The seeds of anger bloom into murder. It all begins in the heart, in our hearts. Every one of us has been guilty of anger against our fellow humans. Every one of us has at some time spoken disparagingly about someone with whom we disagree.”
If we really want to do something about the violence and evil in the world, if we really believe in doing what the Word of God says, we need to work on ourselves first. Go to the lawmaker of your soul and ask God to ferret out the places where you are holding hatred. Go write a letter to yourself about why you don’t like this person or that group. Hold a candlelight vigil in your prayer closet and ask God to help you devise a plan to build bridges of understanding and respect instead of erecting walls of schism and hatred. Confront your personal demons with confession and repentance.
Then go out and make peace with the people with whom you are in disagreement. There is a lot of demonizing going on in this world and in The United Methodist Church. Take personal responsibility to understand, respect and speak kindly to your opponents. As the familiar hymn admonishes us: “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me!”
If you do these things, the words of Isaiah 58:8 and 12b will come to pass “Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your real guard….You shall be called the repairers of the breach.”