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Sunday 20th October 2019 – Choral Evensong
Nehemiah 8:9-end John 16:1-11
18th August, 1572. Paris. A royal wedding’s about to take place. The political atmosphere in the city, though, is febrile. Margaret, sister of the young French King, Charles IX, a Catholic, is to be married to Henry of Navarre, a Protestant. The country’s deeply divided and on the verge of civil war. The Huguenots have been in the ascendant for a while, and many have infiltrated the royal court, most prominent among whom is Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, who has the King’s ear. Many see the Huguenots as a threat to national unity and on 18th August 1572 a large number of Protestant aristocrats have gathered for the wedding, which the King hopes will broker peace.
Four days later, on 22nd August, an attempt is made on the Admiral’s life, sanctioned, many think, by the Cardinal of Lorraine. The King visits Coligny on his sick bed but angry Huguenots storm in on the Queen Mother having dinner, demanding justice. Coligny’s brother’s camped outside Paris with a 4000-strong army of Protestants. On the evening of 23rd August, the King and his mother discuss what’s to be done and between them the decision’s made that the Protestant leaders must be eliminated.
What follows on 24th August, the Feast of St Bartholomew, has been described as the bloodiest of all massacres during the Reformation era. Estimates of the numbers killed vary, but the likelihood is that somewhere in the region of 3000 Protestants were killed in Paris and some 7000 in the provinces. Many Catholics believed that by disposing of Huguenots in this brutal way, they were fulfilling their duty not only to the King, but also to God. The most dangerous threat to the cohesion of French society, so they argued, was the cancerous and pernicious heresy of Calvinism, and heresy had to be stamped out. In perpetrating bloody violence they were, they claimed, carrying out the will of God. On hearing of the massacre, Pope Gregory XIII ordered the celebration of a Te Deum of Thanksgiving in Rome, and many French Protestants concluded that Catholicism was a ‘bloody and treacherous religion.’
I mention all this not because I want to demonise Catholics – far from it. The most significant influences in my own life, both personally, spiritually and intellectually, have been Catholic. No. I refer to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre because it illustrates what is perhaps the most serious mistake, the deepest travesty and betrayal that lies at the heart of the Christian faith and just about every other religion, namely, that violence is associated with God and, more than this, the belief not only that God sanctions violence, but also that God is a violent God.
Absurd, ridiculous, outrageous, you might retort. The God revealed in Christ is a God of love and compassion. Absolutely right. Time and time again, though, that insistence that God is love and compassion has been denied and ignored. It runs right through the Bible itself. How many times have you heard readings from the Bible, in which God’s portrayed as commanding the slaughter of this people or that, and you’ve winced and not known quite what to do with it other than to ignore it? There are deeply uncomfortable passages in the Bible, which we have every reason to question. And the association of God with violence is presented to us in this evening’s second lesson:
‘I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me.’
Jesus unequivocally rejects violence here. Killing others in the name of God is a sure sign that those who do such a thing don’t actually know the God of Jesus. What lies behind this passage is almost certainly the bitter disputes between the early Jewish Christians and other Jews, who believed that those following Jesus were themselves heretics from a Jewish point of view. Sometime during the latter part of the first century, Jewish Christians were expelled from the synagogues, and the bitter atmosphere in which this was carried out left a lasting legacy of hurt among the early Christians.
It’s a curious thing, isn’t it, that Jesus completely turned his back on violence and laid it upon his followers to do the same, and yet in all of the gospels we find a rhetoric of invective directed towards opponents of the followers of Jesus. Verbal violence characterises some of the debates in the early Church. More than this, though, the early Church sometimes enlisted a violent Jesus in support of its own cause. Take the Book of Revelation, for example, the subject of much of the Great East Window. In this last book of the Bible, a picture’s presented of the fulfilment of God’s purposes as a marriage between God and humanity celebrated in a wonderful wedding feast. In order to get there, though, there’s a terrible conflict in which Jesus himself is enlisted to unleash violent forces of destruction. In chapter five, Jesus is depicted as the sacrificial lamb who has been killed, but then in the next he’s the one who opens the seals, from which come horses whose riders are permitted to slaughter, to kill and to wreak havoc on earth. Note that it’s Jesus who’s portrayed as initiating this.
Surely something’s gone wrong here, for if Jesus had believed that God was a violent God his manifesto for action would have been aimed at overthrowing the Roman occupiers of his country, presumably by military force. This he rejected out of hand. Instead, he revealed the nature and character of God as one of love, which absorbs and takes violence into itself. ‘Those who live by the sword will die by the sword,’ he declared shortly before his arrest, and to demonstrate what it looks like to reject violence as a way of living, he willingly accepted the gruesome brutality of crucifixion. On the cross there’s no rhetoric of invective, no call on his followers to rise up and overthrow the Romans, not even an expression of anger and hurt on the part of Jesus, but infinite love and compassion, which understands and somehow embraces and contains the violent tendencies, motives and distortions of the human heart that have put him there.
It is, of course, extraordinarily difficult to live this; some would say impossible. The instinctive response to being hurt is to hit back with a desire to wound. That’s partly what explains the bitterness we find in the gospels among those who were expelled from the synagogues. We’re all aware, too, that the instinctive response to threat and aggression is fight or flight. That’s partly what explains the decision to attack, which led to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. So, too, in the Book of Revelation, there’s an understandable longing to be vindicated and for evil to be overcome. We all want to be proved right, but we can never be proved right through violence. And in a world in which fallen human beings have mixed motives, violence may need to be contained and peace defended, but violence can never bring about the transformation we all need. Most of all, though, a violent God can’t achieve this with and for us, for violence only begets violence. The only thing that works in the end is what we actually see in Jesus: a non-violent God of love and compassion. It’s this God alone who has the power to transform and to fulfil the gospel of love embodied and enacted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
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