Just when things appear to calm down in Gaza it looks like problems are growing in Egypt. Ending Hosni Mubarak’s reign two years ago has plunged the country into turmoil that always straightens out temporarily before falling into strife again. Now it looks like they might be headed for Sharia law in sweeping reforms planned for the constitution. I have friends in the Middle East and they have not been affected by the violence in either of these troubled countries but they are certainly aware of the precarious position they hold: as foreigners, as women, as Christians. As I’ve been thinking about the various situations, I keep coming back to something a professor said rather recently.
About a month ago Ethan and I had the opportunity to attend a lecture at a DU (a university in Denver) where a partnership between their seminary and undergraduate program hosted Hector Avalos, a professor and philosopher (if one can use that term rather broadly). Avalos spoke regarding his book Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence. I do not have the time to give a summary of his book/discussion except to say that he suggests religion creates scarce resources by designating who is “in” or “out” and who can interpret the word of God or lay claim to authority. While the book is, apparently, about Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Professor Avalos made a more specific attack against Christianity as he gave a sweeping overview of Biblical texts and persons, ending by calling Jesus Christ the most hateful person who has ever lived.
Dr. Richard Hess was on a panel of two speakers who were given about ten minutes to respond to Prof Avalos. The first speaker, whose name I do not recall, posed a few questions and ambiguities in Avalos’ argument. Dr. Hess, on the other hand, had a fully outlined response that included explanations of those texts which Avalos had reinterpreted outside context (both linguistically, culturally and canonically) as well as an alternative view.
Hess admitted that often in her history the church has responded to various things through violence, just as Avalos claimed. This, however, is perhaps what Jesus called his people to, according to Hess. Instead, he shared two stories of Christians that he believed exemplified the call of Jesus. The first was of a man during WW2 in a concentration camp who was but into a barracks with ten other men and left to starve. He led the men in mass each day, prayers and singing as they died off, one by one. Instead of the usual fighting among those imprisoned, Fr Martin brought them to their eventual end with peace and hope. In the end, he was the last to die and willingly accepted death at the hands of the Nazis. The second story was of two Amish girls in Lancaster, PA. When their school was invaded by an armed gunman, two young Amish girls asked to be killed first in an attempt to delay the man from executing the others and provide a chance for them to escape. Dr. Hess choked up during this story as Lancaster is his hometown and the story was close to his heart.
This, he said, was the alternative to religious violence: absorbing evil.
Jesus, on the cross did not condemn his killers or promise retribution. Instead, he looked down, begged the Father to forgive them and then died for the sins of those inflicting his death. Instead of causing violence and evil, Dr. Hess pointed to this ultimate example of accepting and absorbing evil into ourselves.
As we watch the Middle East in turmoil, I wonder what our part is in the midst of this? I think we stand for the oppressed, the ones who cannot stand for themselves. I think we do that by forgiving those who hurt us, by speaking out on behalf of the broken, and then instead of reacting in like manner, we take in the violence, the evil, the sin and we put it to death by refusing to return an eye for an eye.
I don’t live in Gaza or Egypt, and it may seem easy for me to say that behind the walls of my apartment, where Christmas lights glow merrily and Ethan’s iPod plays banjo music at my side. But I don’t think my distance makes it any less true.