Sermon: What I Learned on My Late Summer Vacation

09.21.2014     Preaching Text: “They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ear, so that it does not hear the voice of charmers or the cunning enchanter.” (Psalm 58:4-5)

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from a visiting Presbyterian pastor who had attended our 8:30 service earlier that morning.

Specifically, he complemented my sermon while saying he disagreed with it! (You may be surprised to know that, in general, I welcome such “negative” feedback, in part because I don’t always get feedback but also because it can be helpful in knowing how I’m being heard.)

In any event, he said my words had inspired him and helped clarify his thinking. “I don’t go to church to agree with the preacher,” he wrote, “but to worship God and be prompted to think. You helped me to do both. Thank you, and God’s blessings on your ministry.”

As it turned out, I had a similar experience this past Sunday while still on my (late) summer vacation. Attending a church here on the Cape, I heard a sermon with which I mostly disagreed, yet I was impressed with the thoughtful and effective way it was presented.

The message had to do with the anniversary of 9/11 and what the Christian response to it should be. The preacher argued, in effect, for a pacifist position, even going so far as to say that the U.S. decision to go to war in its aftermath was based solely on the desire for vengeance and retribution.

Now I would be the last person to deny that human motivations are rarely if ever pure, or that the sinful desire for revenge was entirely absent in the days following 9/11. I’m not even saying that the decision to go to war was the right one either. In that I believe reasonable and faithful people can disagree. Nevertheless, there was one important word that I found missing in that sermon: justice.

Oh it’s true we human beings often tend to justify our actions, clothing our less than noble desires in elaborate and ornate finery. No doubt about it. Then again, was the moral, dare I say it, godly, demand for justice entirely absent, or irrelevant?

During the church’s earliest years there existed the fervent belief that Jesus, once resurrected, would return at any moment. Which is to say that the earliest Christians believed that Christ would usher in the promised new age within their lifetime.

After several hundred years, however, as the church came to terms with the fact that Christ had not come again, and perhaps especially after Constantine decreed Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 A.D., Christians came to realize that some accommodation with history was necessary. No longer could the Christian be unconcerned about the structures of our world while still seeking to effect the good demanded of his or her faith. Since Christ’s return had been delayed, the demand to live out one’s faith within society became important, even necessary.

The church was forced to develop a considered response to the ongoing reality of evil in a world that for Christians “is but is not yet.” Christ had come to initiate God’s salvation, but this same salvation was not yet complete, not yet fulfilled. Thus in this “in-between time” the church was forced to seek ways to honor Christ’s mandate to love while seeking to effect that love in a still-broken world where sin, injustice, and evil yet rage and lust.

Along these lines, Augustine, arguably the greatest of the early church leaders and thinkers, was among the first to assert that a Christian could be a soldier and serve God and country honorably. This understanding eventually led to a developing tradition that has come to be known as the “Just War Doctrine.” Within this doctrine, the church admits that peacefulness in the face of a grave wrongthat could be stopped only by violence is a sin.

Augustine, having cited Romans 13:4, writes: “They who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with [God’s] laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’” (Murder being the more accurate translation of the Hebrew word than the word kill.)

The tradition of Just War Doctrine sets out a series of criteria by which war might be deemed moral. Each must be met before any war is “just.” The doctrine includes two sections, the first having to do with the “right to go to war” while the second relates to the “right conduct in war.”

Without going into a lot detail, a “just war” must be based on a just cause, meaning that the reason for going to war cannot be solely for the purpose of recapturing things taken or punishing people who have done wrong; innocent life must be in imminent danger and intervention must be undertaken to protect life.

Other criteria include comparative justice (meaning that while no one party is ever sinless, the injustice suffered by one side significantly outweighs that suffered by the other), competent authority, right intention, probability of success, war as the last resort, and, finally, proportionality.

Clearly, these criteria require spiritual discernment and, as such, can easily lead to misuse. Nonetheless, earnest, faithful Christians are permitted to disagree as to whether these exacting terms have been met.

The pastor last Sunday, however, would have none of this. He praised the old bumper sticker that reads, “War Is Not the Answer.” War is never the answer, he said, never justified, adding that, as far as he’s concerned, it never solves anything or brings about any good.

As one who has walked into the gas chamber and crematorium at Auschwitz, I’m remain unconvinced. Besides, the question of God’s justice was never referenced.

In contradistinction, the church has the invaluable witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famed German Lutheran pastor and erstwhile pacifist and perhaps the greatest Christian ethicist of the 20th century, who, through much prayer and anguish of soul, eventually joined a group of dissidents plotting to kill Adolf Hitler. Their attempt, which almost succeeded, led to Bonhoeffer’s arrest and imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp where in 1945 he was executed, two weeks before soldiers from the United States liberated the camp.

In his famous “Sermon on a Psalm of Vengeance,” written on July 11, 1938, Bonhoeffer pronounces the righteous wrath of God, a righteousness that, he maintains, demands justice. Against the deathly swagger of evil, he posits a God who cannot but right the wrong.

Itself a meditation on the unsettlingly angry and vengeful words of David in Psalm 58, the sermon first insists that the desire for vengeance cannot be uttered by any human being, for we are all culpable in wrongdoing. Instead, Psalm 58 contains the words of the only true innocent; the words of Jesus Christ!

“[Sinners],” he writes, “are not praying this song of vengeance; innocence itself is praying it. The innocence of Christ steps before the world and accuses it. We do not accuse it,” he adds, “Christ does.”

He continues: “It is an evil time when the world lets injustice happen silently, when the oppression of the poor and the wretched cries out to heaven in a loud voice and the judges and rulers of the earth keep silent about it, when the persecuted church calls to God for help in the hour of dire distress and exhorts men to do justice, and yet no mouth on earth is opened to bring justice.”

“When the mouths of the world’s rulers remain silent about injustice, their hands invariably commit acts of violence.”

He then quotes these challenging words from the Psalmist:

4 [The evildoers’] poison is like a serpent’s venom;

   like a deaf adder that stops its ear,

5 So that it does not hear the voice of charmers charming ever so                      skillfully.

Here Bonhoeffer likens the skillful charmer to Christ who seeks to charm the sinner away from evil and toward the good. But the deaf and hardened soul will not be charmed; will not be dissuaded from its evil task. Indeed, Bonhoeffer says, it cannot.

In the end, the biblical witness, both Jewish and Christian, insists on a just God, a God who cannot and will not overlook evil and injustice. Indeed this same God is a vengeful God, a God of wrath, a God who insists that evil be defeated.

As I walked to the car after the service last week, I asked myself whether Christians should demand that all police departments be eliminated. Why not, I thought, remove all resistance to evil so that it might otherwise be charmed and dissuaded?

Carrying it a step further, I wondered if all violence is morally equivalent, as the preacher seemed to imply. Is it ever moral to enlist any kind of counterforce, as the strong inveighs against the innocent and the vulnerable? Amen.