Originally posted Sept. 13, 2012, at Pursuing Peace. Republished with permission of the author.
The past few days have left the world once again gawking at images of violence, fear and death. Consular offices in Egypt, Yemen and Libya overrun, and diplomats dying as the cycle of violence turns again. Someone who is afraid or ignorant, or both, made a film that communicates violence. People who are afraid or ignorant, or both, resorted to violence. Pondering the images of violence, the powerful rushed to speak an aggressive word of condemnation. The cycle continues.
For centuries, Christians have contemplated the image of the crucifixion as a way to wrestle with the dissonance that comes from the real presence of violence, being so closely related to the mystery and message of God’s reconciliation in Christ Jesus. What do people who profess to follow Jesus do or say when we see the reality of death, suffering and the concomitant feelings of fear and confusion? The first disciples surely asked that question as they contemplated the innocent suffering of their friend, Jesus.
Bernard of Clairvaux asked the same question 800 years ago. He is credited with the original poetry that gives shape to the Good Friday hymn, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” As he contemplated the violence of the cross and the suffering, sacred body of Christ, he did not respond with a word of condemnation against those who brought violence against the innocent Jesus. Instead, he asked a question — “What language shall I borrow …” to speak about Jesus’ non-violent act of redemption? As we contemplate these most recent images of fear, innocent suffering and the cycle of violence, what language shall we borrow?
Part of my call to serve in the global mission of the ELCA is in the area of Christian/Muslim relations. While there are clearly differences between the Christians and the predominantly Sufi Muslims of West Africa, there is a common language that has historically bound the francophone Christians and Muslims of Senegal in peace. So, I am currently in Besancon, studying French for my studies and in preparation for my ministry with the Lutheran Church of Senegal, along with our Muslim friends in Senegal. Here in France, Natalie and I have classmates from Germany, Sweden, China, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Libya.
My friend from Libya is Abdul. He is my age. He is a professional, like me. He is married and has two children, just like me. Like me, he has come to France to study French for the sake of his life’s work. Each morning I normally greet Abdul with “Asalaamu Alaykum, Cava?” Being a bright, gregarious man, he normally replies, “Alaykum Salaam, cavabien!” (“I’m doing well”) But today, Abdul’s language was noticeably different. When we met in the hall, he didn’t make eye contact. And he replied to my greeting with a glum face that almost whispered, “Cava mal.” (“I’m doing poorly.”)
Here we are — two expatriates — two fathers — two husbands — a Christian and a Muslim, half a world away from the U.S. and Libya, who met on common ground for a common purpose. Perhaps Abdul just had a cold, but I could tell that his quiet was a response to that fear and ignorance that imposed itself between us. When faced with that reality, what language shall I borrow?
From the U.S., we hear all sorts of language. Many of the responses are bellicose and vitriolic. They ring with all sorts of empty phrases that are punctuated with words like “justice,” ”principles,” ”respond,” ”all options,” ”resolve,” ”rights,” and ”condemn.” These are strong words, even though they are made from a couple thousand miles away from the facts on the ground. Some responses are more measured and speak of ”responsibility,” ”respect,” even ”patience” in the absence of facts. These two opinions, dutifully shared in the heat of democratic zeal, quickly devolve into process debates about what kind of response or reaction is appropriate, or how swiftly we should speak. What language shall we borrow?
But today, as I contemplated the dissonant influence of violence and violent communication in our world, Bernard’s old question rang out in my mind: As Christians engaged in the task of ministering to the reality of the peaceable kingdom, what language shall we borrow to help speak God’s gracious word of peace or reconciliation into being?
In the 52nd chapter of his book, the prophet Isaiah reminds us that as we contemplate suffering, sometimes the way of God’s servant is to not speak at all. When contemplating the suffering servant, Isaiah demands that kings and princes, yes, legislators might shut their mouths and open their eyes to the realities of injustice and violence. Jesus, following in this holy way shows us that often the right reaction is not to open your mouth but open your heart to the guiding wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
When confronted with the brokenness of the woman at the well, Jesus asks to share her water. When contemplating the sinfulness of the woman caught in adultery and the cyclical violence of her would-be executors, he draws in the sand. When faced with the death of his friend, Lazarus, he weeps. When faced with the outcast lepers and possessed, he does not recoil in fear and speak from a safe distance. Rather, he reaches out to touch their eyes, to ask their name, and to help them rise up from their brokenness.
All of these prophetic sign acts were wordless preludes to healing that bridged the gulf of violence in ways that words often cannot. This is the message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Non-violent direct action is the true language of reconciliation and life that can bridge the gap of brokenness, ignorance and fear. Today, I strove to follow the Way of Christ, and to borrow a phrase from the grammar of his life and ministry.
That meant shutting out the loud and sometimes hollow rhetorical language of the politics of identity that is frought with verbal temptations to double down on words of mutual condemnation. That meant bearing my responsibility to first open my heart to the Holy Spirit, take the hand of my Muslim neighbor, and only then try to speak a word of peace and understanding into our broken reality. So, I maneuvered a seat next to Abdul in my language lab.
“Abdul, do you have family in Benghazi?”
“Are they OK?”
“Yes, but there are some crazy people in Libya who will use any excuse to do these things.”
“Yes. But, there are some crazy people in my country who will use any excuse to keep believing those things about Islam.”
I reached up and put my hand on his shoulder. I told him, “Abdul, that’s why people like us have to work hard to share languages and common understandings of each other, so we can heal these things and make some new, peaceful ways.”
He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You’re right.” For the first time this morning, Abdul smiled at me. I told him, that’s what I’m doing, as a Lutheran pastor. I’m going to learn from our Christian and Muslim friends in West Africa how they strive to live in peace. He said he was glad for that, but maybe we should stay in France where it’s calm and peaceful.
“No,” I said. “We’re here studying together, and that’s why we need to go.”
Abdul reached out and shook my hand.
“Cava?” I asked.
He said, “Cava bien. Ma Salaam,” (I’m well. Peace.)
I left with, “Ma Salaam, mon ami.” (Peace, my friend.)
What language shall I borrow? At times like these, standing at the foot of the cross, we should shut our mouths to the language of principalities and politicians and speak the grammar of Christ’s way of peace. I invite you to raise a hand of peace and take up the responsibility to speak our word of hope into life.
Find a link to Chad Rimmer’s blog Pursuing Peace at Lutheran Blogs.