The following homily was delivered by Leora Weitzman at Sunday Assembly on May 15, 2011. The lectionary readings for the day included Acts 2:42-47, 1 Peter 2:19-25, and John 10:1-10. Leora Weitzman is a former philosophy professor and musician and an oblate at Holy Wisdom. She currently practices and teaches intuitive bodywork and loves “listening” for things that you have to be very quiet to hear.
Here in Wisconsin, cows are more common than sheep, so let’s leave the shepherds alone for a while and talk cowboys.
The cowboys featured in Westerns are a good example of what Walter Wink calls “the myth of redemptive violence.” Even those of us who don’t know many Westerns know the typical plot: peace-loving heroes are confronted by such dangerous and destructive forces that eventually they must fight to protect the innocent. The acts of violence they are driven to are framed as necessary and redemptive. The idea that violence is ever redemptive is what Wink wants us to see as a myth. In a book called Nonviolent Story, Iowa priest Robert Beck applies Wink’s insight by interpreting the Gospel of Mark as a sort of anti-Western—a story in which redemption occurs through the refusal to meet violence with violence.
The refusal to meet violence with violence is featured in today’s second reading: “When [Jesus] was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten.” Such a response can come from either weakness or strength. The myth of redemptive violence would have us see it as weakness, as a concession to unjust evil.
The myth of redemptive violence is everywhere, from foreign policy to the smallest subtleties of our daily interactions. For example: I’m at work giving a massage, and the music and conversation from the next room are too loud. I get more and more angry but don’t have the guts to let the next-door therapist know. When I run into her afterward, however, I explode. I explode quietly—I am trying to be seen as having the moral high ground—but my body language and words are shaming.
If I’m honest, I have to admit there’s a part of myself that takes pleasure in the explosion—that hunts for opportunities to be visibly right where someone else is visibly wrong, that looks for justifications to commit veiled verbal violence. And it seems that when things reach a boiling point inside me, I can always find a justification. Derrick Jensen (in A Language Older than Words) documents how abusers justify the abuse in order to be able to live with themselves/ourselves and continue to abuse… resources, or the earth, or farm or lab animals, if not actually other people.
Changing my pattern of exploding at co-workers took two things. First I had to see and own up to what I was doing. The temptation then was to beat myself up for it, but that wouldn’t solve anything. As the letter of Peter says, if you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, Big deal.
What made the difference for me was a co-worker’s response the next time I was beginning to explode about something. Although I wasn’t fully in control, I expressed my desire to have it go differently. Although she was angry too, she didn’t explode back. She listened, and she let me know when I slipped into shaming, so I could change course. It wasn’t perfect; both of us slipped momentarily into abuse and blame. And both of us pulled back, each moved by the other’s willingness to endure the death of a part of the self… the part that wants its shot at “redemptive” violence.
I don’t believe we created this miracle by ourselves. Jesus broke the cycle and created the path for us, “leaving us an example” of responding to abuse without acting like a victim, either a helpless one or a vengeful one. “By his wounds, we were healed.” We can now follow in his footsteps… all the way to community, in which “I” gives way to “we” and it is natural to share all things in common, as the early disciples did. [first reading]
So where do the sheep come in, and Christ as the sheep gate? Just for fun, let’s picture the sheep as words coming out of our mouths and going into each other’s ears and hearts. They may be led by their true shepherd, through the gate of Christ’s love—or they may be driven by a thief, a part of the ego trying to get away with harm. When I exploded at my coworkers, my words would not have made it through the gate of Christ’s love. I was more like the thief breaking in to kill and destroy. When we made peace, we respected the gate, and our words gave us life, and gave it abundantly.