What do we do with the violence within us?
What do we do with the violence within us?
Readings: Monday of Week 11, Cycle 2: 2 Kings 21:1-16; Matthew 5:38-42
What do you do with the violence that is inside you? You may have seen yesterday on Television the sad story of a famous tennis player who did what all of us have nearly done: he missed a shot, and in anger kicked an advertising hoarding, which fell and seriously injured a touch-judge; his opponent was in consequence awarded the match. And in connection with that, the BBC showed a very young Tim Henman being similarly punished after he had unwittingly hit a ball hard into a ball-girl, after missing a shot. And I recall as a schoolboy being astonished when playing Squash against one of our teachers. He became so angry at his own play that he solemnly and repeatedly banged his racquet against the wall until it was shattered. Then he went to his bag and got another, with which he continued the game. And it is no good you tut-tutting like that; for you have done, or at least been tempted to do, precisely that. Do you remember your thoughts about that driver who cut you up on the motorway last week? And what about the tourist who pushed you off the pavement on St Aldate’s? You will know the old story about Mrs Tutu (actually it is told about many people, but it fits that great lady well enough), when she was asked “Have you ever considered divorcing him?” and replied “Divorce? Never. Murder, though, frequently”.
Even Campion Hall is not immune: there is in our mythology the tale of the Formal Guest Night when two guests almost came to blows on the finer points of Catholic Sexual Morality; and that other story of the eminent church historian who was laid out in the television room in the course of a discussion of Scottish Rugby.
So the question remains: what do you do with the violence that is in us? Or, a less discomfiting question, what do you do with the violence that is in the Old Testament? In chapter 6 of Timothy Radcliffe’s latest book , which you must certainly read, he offers a persuasive history of OT violence, seen as a gradual process by which the non-violence of God was uncovered. We are all slow to learn: the Catholic Church was of its time in being hesitant to renounce burning at the stake as a way of coping with heterodoxy. Violence is there in us all. It is said that the reason that Rugby got established in the British independent school system was that 30 instead of 22 boys would be exorcising their demons of violence on a football field at any one time, and that Rugby proved much better at disposing of surplus energies, which made adolescents more tolerable and amenable to instruction on a Friday afternoon.
Today’s readings both deal with this violence that is in us. In the first reading, Ahab makes what seems a perfectly sensible suggestion to Naboth “it would be so much nicer for me, and you will be compensated”, if only I could have your charming vineyard and put it next to my garden. Naboth however relies on ancestral custom (which enshrined in Deuteronomy, so he is quite within his rights) and refuses the regal offer. Ahab’s response deals with this non-compliance by sulking, and lapsing into depression, which is of course violence or aggression turned inwards, turning his face to the wall and refusing to eat. Jezebel, loving wife, has no hesitation (“Who’s King round here, anyway?”). She organises perjury and murder to get rid of Naboth. And we notice that she give it a religious covering, telling her accomplices to “proclaim a fast”, to give the illusion that this might be what God wants. The reading then ends with Ahab on his way to take possession of the vineyard. But we know that cannot be the end of the story. Tomorrow’s first reading will give us the prophet’s response to this violence.
In the gospel for today, we are in the “antitheses” from the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus offers a re-reading of the Jewish Law, making it even more demanding. Here he likewise teaches that violence cannot be the end of the story: he quotes the Lex Talionis (“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”). Now it is important to recognise that even this law was intended to limit, not encourage, the shedding of blood. Then he offers some teaching on violence, and it is very startling indeed
First, he says, “Don’t resist the Evil One” (which might be just what you thought we were supposed to be doing. Then, he tells us, “Whoever slaps you on one cheek, turn the other”. Well, just try it! Next, he says: “If they take you to court for your chiton, give them the himation as well”. The chiton is the tunic, and the himation is the cloak, the only garments that a man would wear; so Jesus’ teaching is that if they try to sue you, just stand there naked. That is of course one way of dealing with violence. Then he uses the technical language of Roman imperial colonialism. The verb he uses is a technical term for “conscripting”, and then he employs the Latin word for a “mile”: so is he saying “go along with political oppression” or “give them more than they ask for, so as to make them look ridiculous”? Then it gets worse, for he continues, “Give to those who ask”. And that includes including the beggar you passed on the High St this morning. If you muttered to yourself “he would only spend it on drink”, then you might remember the words from the sermon of a recent Regius Professor in this university, who said “in that case, at least give him what you have spent on drink in the last week”. That would be an interesting way of coping with the inner violence that makes you reject that beggar as “the other”. Lastly, Jesus says, “and don’t turn away the one who wants to borrow from you”. And, like another violent tennis player, we clamour, “Are you serious?” Well yes he is – and that is the way that Jesus embraced the Cross. That acceptance of undeserved violence turned out to be the victory of love which makes sense of us gathering here as a Eucharistic community tonight. So let us notice the violence that is in us; let us observe our own desire for power. And let us, finally, handle it, not in our own way, but in God’s way.
Fr Nicholas King SJ
June 18th 2012