There’s a lot of violence in today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 11.11–15). Jesus talks about how the Kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, since the time of John the Baptiser…and now, he says (with John in prison) the violent take it by force.
I wonder if you’ve ever contemplated how much violence surrounds the Christmas story. I’d like to take a few moments to ponder that with you. But first of all, it might be helpful to define what the word ‘violence’ means. It is essentially the forcing of one person’s will on another, by the threat or actual use of physical coercion. It can also mean the forcing of the will of a group of people on another group of people, by physical means. Terrorism is an obvious type of violence. Blowing people up, to force your view of the world onto them, is about the most violent thing you can do. As is military conquest of one nation over another. But there are other forms of violence too – verbal violence, emotional violence, even intellectual violence – which means the forcing of a particular idea onto others.
Ultimately, violence is about the use of power. Violence is the way that power relationships go wrong. When one person (or one group of people) use violence to impose their power onto another, we can usually judge – pretty clearly – that the power-relationship has gone sour.
So what did I mean, just now, when I said that violence surrounds the Christmas story?
Well, first, there is the violence of the state of occupation into which Jesus was born. The Roman Empire was in control – through violent military conquest. Their powerful control of the land of Israel was so complete, their threat of violence was so great, that Joseph of Nazareth had no choice but to force his heavily pregnant wife onto the back of donkey, to trek for many days across barren lands, and to have her baby in a barn. I’m sure that there were countless times along that road that Mary cried out “Why couldn’t we just stay in Nazareth?!” But the political violence of Rome drove them in another direction altogether. Violence surrounds the Christmas story.
Then, there is the awful violence of King Herod. Fearful of losing his power as vassal King over Judea, he plots and schemes to find out where the new ‘King of the Jews’ will be born. He attempts to manipulate the visiting wise men into being his spies – and when that scheme fails, he slaughters all the male babies in Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary are forced to flee for their lives into Eqypt to escape the rampant violence of Herod’s henchmen. Violence surrounds the Christmas story.
Those are the obvious examples – but there is other, more subtle, violence too. Take the Shepherds for example. Now when I say the word ‘shepherds’, I imagine that most of us have a lovely pastoral picture in our heads. We imagine a bunch of hearty old men with tea-towels on their heads. We hear the west-country tones of countless Nativity plays. “Ohh – let’s go to Bethlehem to see this thing which ‘as come to paaaass!”.
But this is to miss one of the central themes of the Nativity story.
Why Shepherds? Why are Shepherds the group of people specially selected by God to be told the news of the arrival of Jesus. God could have sent his Angels out to knock on the doors of the ordinary people of Bethlehem - “bang bang bang! Wake up – and go down the street to the barn!”. The Angels could have sung glory in the highest heaven in the local taverns, or over the palace or temple in Jerusalem. But they didn’t.
God chose the Shepherds precisely because they were outcasts of their society. They lived on the edge of towns – they weren’t citizens like everyone else. They were rough and ready, and they probably stank from all those sheep, their overnight bonfires, and a lack of running water. Worse still, they didn’t obey all the religious laws – not least the law about not working on the Sabbath…because sheep still need looking after, even on a Sabbath. So, in religious terms, they were considered unclean and unholy. Society in general had done violence to them, by essentially excluding them. They were shut out. They were deemed ‘unclean’ – which is a kind of religious violence done to them.
You see? Violence surrounds the Christmas story.
So what is God’s response to this violence? How does he seek to intervene in the violence that humanity does to itself – or in ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ as the old Book of Common Prayer has it?
If I was God, I think I would have been very tempted to use my almighty power to just sort them out! But I am not God. God knows that the answer to violence is not more violence. No. God’s answer to the violence of human beings is to send his Son into the world in the most fragile, dependent, UN-powerful form possible…a new born baby. And not just a baby – completely dependent on his parents for everything – but a baby born in the most humble of circumstances imaginable. Not a palace. Not even a house. A barn. A stable. An animal’s food trough.
The answer to violence is not more violence. To quote the great Mahatma Ghandi – “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. The answer to violence in the world today is not more violence – it should be bridge-building, understanding, mutual respect and tolerance. The answer to the violence of terrorism all across the world is not more violence in return – it should be the seeking of understanding, and the addressing of the kinds of basic injustice which drives terrorists to do terrible things. Education, social justice, the fair and equitable sharing of the wealth of our planet – these are the things that will overcome the violence. If only we would give them a chance.
The babe of Bethlehem teaches us by his gentle presence in the midst of the violence of his time that there is another way. And for that simple, profound lesson, we should surely say with all the angels of Heaven, “Glory to God in the Highest, and peace to his people on earth!”. Amen.