On this Third Sunday of Easter, we find the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, trying to sort their way through the day’s events and the conflicting stories they had heard.
But their story on the road was one of shattered hopes: “…We had our hopes up that he was the one to redeem Israel…” But there was the glimmer of new possibilities, especially in the story of the women who went to the tomb and who heard from the angels that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
But the disciples didn’t seem to buy into this story. They seemed to be stuck living in a Good Friday world: the world of the reality of power. Good Friday, with its scourging and crowning with thorns and spitting and slapping and beatings and crucifixions (times three), with its raw demonstration about how the Roman Empire used its power.
And when Rome flexed its muscles, it was time to get out of town…and off to Emmaus.
Palm Sunday through the Easter season is the time of year when I reflect on the use and abuse of power, particularly in a couple of conversations I had about how we as a nation use our power:
The first is one I had with one of my Kiwanis pals as we were driving the truck around town. This was just at the time when the pictures from Abu Gharaib had been released and we were being told a little about some of the torture we were inflicting on the Talibanis.
He said that we have no choice; we have to torture; it was necessary for law and order. For the integrity and stability of the country. To keep our children safe.
I said that this wasn’t something I found in the Bible—as I read it, but he reckoned that this activity was fully in accord with the Principles of the Just War Theory.
An earlier conversation was with a group of officers on the Plans and Policies Division of the Joint Staff at the tail end of the Elder Bush administration, as we were discussing how to respond to the events unfolding in Somalia.
The guiding principle on the Joint Staff had always been that, given our limited resources, we would only deploy our armed forces when grave national interests were at stake. But, at the same time, some argued that we also had the obligation to use our forces in support of human rights that were being abused by a repressive series of local warlords.
The consensus of the group: “We only care about human rights when they are in our own national interests. Why would we waste our military power protecting human rights around the world?”
But ultimately, it was decided that the Horn of Africa and its proximity to shipping lanes was of vital national interests, so we might have an interest in human rights after all.
How did we come to this? How did we become so fascinated with power and our fear of losing power?
How did we come to the point where we could burn 75,000 people to death in one evening of fire bombing over Tokyo? Or kill 45,000 people with one bomb over Nagasaki? Not to mention what’s gone on in all the wars since.
We as Christians didn’t start that way. For the first three centuries after the death of Jesus, the church seems to have been a pacifist church.
The most clear and unambiguous teaching of Jesus was the rejection of violence and the love of enemies. We were supposed to take this seriously.
And we have these great stories like that of Martin of Tours, the soldier in the Roman army who cut his cloak in half to give to a beggar on the road, who converted to Christianity and presented himself to his superiors and asked for a discharge from the army, “I am a solider of Christ,” he said, “And it is not lawful for me to fight.”
But this message became garbled when Constantine gave approval to the church. And with that the Church accepted the ethic of a "just war."
And Christians became involved in war, and then in starting wars - first for the state and then for the faith.
And over time, all of the major branches of Christianity modified Jesus’ teachings, and—over time—all three were able to justify doing what Jesus rejected: Engage in revenge, murder, the pursuit of power,
All in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And, Jesus Christ help me, I bought into it.
For 1,700 years the Catholic Church had refined and enhanced the Just War theory to the point where I never questioned whether or not this would result in anything other than the never-ending cycle of violence.
How can we escape this cycle of violence?
One suggestion was made by Fr. George Zabelka, who served as a Catholic chaplain with the Army Air Force during WWII at Tinian Island, as the pastor for the men who dropped the atomic bomb.
Fr. Zabelka reached the conclusion that the use of violence under any circumstances was incompatible with his understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He suggested that, even though he knew that this proposal was hopelessly out of touch with reality.
He proposed (in 1972) that there be an immediate call for an ecumenical council for the specific purpose of clearly declaring that war is totally incompatible with Jesus’ teaching and that Christians cannot and will not engage in or pay for war from this point in history on. That would, he said, have the effect of putting all nations on this planet under notice that from now all they are going to have to conduct their mutual slaughter without Christian support, either physical, financial, or spiritual.
Why should we bother holding ecumenical conclaves about apostolic succession or the meaning of the Eucharist, when what is truly destroying the church’s credibility and God’s world is the continued participation of Christians in and their justification of violence and slaughter.
I would like to buy into that, but I find that very difficult to do… as the apostles said upon occasion, “This is a hard saying…” Because deep within my psyche, I agree with Fr. Zabelka that this entire concept is out of touch with reality as we know it.
The world will never change.
And that is one of my biggest sins: the sin of pride - that is, I think I know better than God. That is, it is my way of saying: “God does not have the power to change this world!”
And what a dark and dangerous thought that is, far darker than death. It puts me on the Road to Emmaus with the disciples who had given up hope:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken us to live in a world that cannot be changed? In a world that cannot come to life?
And that is the world of Good Friday, that is the world in which we find the disciples getting the heck out of town, on the road to Emmaus, with their dashed hopes of Jesus being the one who would redeem Israel.
But then Jesus appears, and that changes everything
What the disciples failed to realize at that time is that God is greater than their imaginations. And even though Jesus had always surprised them: healing the sick, calming a storm, curing the blind, raising the dead. They should have expected the unexpected. But they didn’t.
They didn’t recognize Jesus, they didn’t recognize the possibilities that God provides.
And how often do I live in a Good Friday world rather than in an Easter morning world?
Despite the fact that I see miracles in my life and have seen God’s actions in Anacortes, I often forget that I am dealing with a living God, who is active and working all around us.
The same God whose angel said to Mary at the annunciation, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”
God keeps reminding me, again and again, that what is impossible for men and women is quite possible for God if only people would use their freedom to work, even just a little, with God.
So I have a plan: to start a letter-writing campaign in Anacortes, by which the churches and people in town would send a letter to the Pope, the patriarch of Constantinople, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Presiding Bishop, the Presidents of the United Church of Christ and the Southern Baptist Convention, calling upon them to speak with one voice for a council on ending Christians’ support of war.
Who knows what would happen if we were to call for such a thing?
Would Jesus be happy if his church were again unequivocally teaching in the 21st century what he unequivocally taught in the 1st?
We all know, deep in our hearts, what the answer would be.