Sunday, November 11, 1991

Location - Newtonville
Bible Verses - Genesis 6:1-13
Matthew 6:36-54

Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword, shall perish with the sword. - Matthew 26:52

There is nothing new about violence. When I was in my teens, I knew an elderly woman whose voice would crack uncontrollably. I learned only a couple of years ago that this was because she had been hit in the throat by her father when she was a child. It had happened in a small New England town, and probably everyone knew about it, but no one talked about it. But that is recent history. We can look back and back and back, and find violence sometimes glorified, sometimes taken for granted as a way of life, but never far away. The Bible has images of violence in the time of Noah, when ¡°the earth was filled with violence,¡± and in fact sets the first murder, the first instance of domestic violence, in the second generation of the human race.

We would not take this literally, but the import is still clear. The picture we are given is that violence has been resident in the human heart since very early in our history. I want to spend our time this morning first trying to understand this in the light of our theology, and then looking at some very down-to-earth things that we should be doing.

The first and in some ways most important point is that we tend to resort to violence when we are afraid. It is not just a matter of something called ¡°anger,¡± but of anger with the specific component of fear. It might seem as though there could be no fear on the part of the abusive parent or husband, but this is only a superficial appearance. As children grow in independence, there can be a definite fear on the part of their parents that they will lose control. It might seem as though there could be no fear on the part of a two hundred pound husband facing a one hundred pound wife, but this is only a superficial appearance. To be rejected by a woman can be a mortal blow to a man¡¯s self-esteem. In fact, whether we are male or female, young, middle-aged, or elderly, the more fragile our sense of worth is, the more likely we are to resort to violence, provided only that we think we have the physical strength to succeed. Otherwise, the physical fear is likely to outweigh the deeper fear.

There is a very pertinent bit of wisdom in Jeremiah (9:23f.):

Thus saith the Lord, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches:

But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the Lord.

The basic message is straightforward. All our efforts to impress ourselves and others by our intellectual ability, our physical strength, or our wealth not only miss the point but actually distract us from it. The point is that we are valued by the Lord; and once we become convinced of this, we have no further need of bolstering our egos. We have no inclination to resort to verbal or physical or economic violence, because we are intrinsically secure.

Not only that, we are secure in a Lord whose primary characteristics are lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, and we will prize those qualities above all others. When Darwin or his successors portrayed the fundamental law of nature as being the survival of the fittest, and construed this into a kind of ¡°eat or be eaten¡± philosophy, it marked the formulation of a philosophy of violence. It is only recently that biologists have paid attention to the fact that a species must contribute in order to survive--that the surest road to extinction is uselessness.

Darwin advocated the principle of natural selection because he was looking for a way to account for the facts ¡°scientifically¡±--that is, in terms of observable causes and effects, without falling back on any notion of purpose or providence. Everything had to be accounted for in terms of the past. One could not say that a particular development happened, say, in order to prepare for the development of human beings.

Swedenborg would not for a moment take the creation account literally. He is far more at home with the notion that creation took a long time, and that the human race came into being gradually. But he would insist absolutely that there was a divine purpose behind the long process--a Lord who exercises lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness. That is the central question, and in the debates that sometimes break out between scientists and theologians, that is the point that really makes a difference. It is Einstein¡¯s question--¡±Is the universe a friendly place or not?¡±

It matters, it really makes a difference, because of the universe is not a friendly place, then there is no real reason why we should be friendly. Someone coined the saying, ¡°Just because you¡¯re paranoid doesn¡¯t mean they aren¡¯t out to get you,¡± which catches the point very nicely. If the universe is intrinsically violent, or intrinsically unfeeling, or intrinsically haphazard, then the course of wisdom is surely to grab for whatever we can get when chance offers it to us. If we have to use force, then all we need to do is to make sure that we do not overmatch ourselves. We had better not get caught by anyone or any organization stronger than we, such as the police.

When there is no sense of an underlying benevolence to our world, no sense of a higher purpose to our existence, this is the way things feel. There is a radical insecurity, and in the face of a hostile or uncaring universe, fear is the only sane response. Of course we fight back.

The most obvious forms of this are physical, and here men have, by and large, a decisive advantage over women, and adults a decisive advantage over children. It is estimated, for example, that in this country, every fifteen seconds a woman is struck by her husband or partner. That is four every minute, or some forty since I began talking. The number of children who suffer physical abuse is equally appalling, and here the mothers do not emerge as blameless.

We need also to be aware, though, that verbal violence can devastate a child¡¯s spirit as surely as physical violence. I suspect all of us have seen parents speak to children in public in ways that made us wince. There are adults who still cannot believe that they are intelligent or that they are worth anything at all because they were told over and over again that they were stupid or worthless. There are people who believe, deep down inside, that it would have been better if they had never been born, because they have been told so.

What does out theology say? It says that every individual who is born is designed by the Lord. If we cannot see the purpose for that individual, it is because we are not very good at seeing. It says that we should be trying to see, trying to discover what the Lord has in mind. In doctrinal terms, ¡°The good in the neighbor is the neighbor to be loved.¡± We do not understand anyone until we begin to glimpse the distinctive ¡°good¡± within.

Fundamentally, though, we are told that we are profoundly interdependent creatures. We need each other, and our lives will become richer as we let go of our efforts to control everything and trust the Lord first of all and then each other. This is no blind or naive trust, no denial that people can be untrustworthy. It is rather the firm faith that in the struggle, the strongest force is goodness. The more real the Lord¡¯s lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness become to us, the greater is our sense of security, the less we are prompted by fear, and the less likely we are to resort to violence, whether physical or verbal.

This thought may serve as a kind of bridge to the down-to-earth things I promised to end with. The very first is to carry into our lives this recognition that outward violence is a sign of inward insecurity and fear. People who are inwardly secure, people who have an abiding sense of their own worth in the Lord¡¯s sight, are not inclined to violence. So in dealing with any violence we meet in others, or in ourselves, the first question we need to ask is, ¡°What is the threat?¡± What is this other person, or what am I, trying to ward off?

That, I think, is an absolutely necessary approach if we are not to wind up meeting violence with violence. Still, it is only partway ¡°down to earth,¡± and I should like to get more specific.

The victims of violence are often afraid or ashamed to tell anyone or to ask for help. This means that if anyone does say or even hint that he or she is a victim of domestic violence, we should take it very seriously indeed. We may know the person who is being suspected of violence as a charming and delightful individual in public, but we must not let that persuade us to forget about the whole thing. For every non-victim who claims to be a victim, there are probably hundreds of victims who remain silent.

If we have anything to do with children, we should be alert to unexplained injuries or absences. Again, it is very unlikely that the child will admit that there has been abuse.

Third, we should become familiar with the resources our communities have to offer, which range from the obvious one of the police through various social services to shelters for battered women and programs run by churches. The issues in any individual case are complex, and situations are likely to be explosive. Our own amateur efforts to help may do more harm than good.

It is no light matter to call a social agency and say that we have reason to suspect some form of domestic violence. Usually, the wisest course of action when dealing with an adult is to encourage and support the adult to get professional help. If we are dealing with a child, some kind of reporting may be the only avenue open, and then it becomes absolutely vital to stick strictly to the facts--this is what we observed and when we observed it. An unfounded accusation can play havoc with the life of an innocent person.

Strange as it may seem, we may be grateful that our society is beginning to pay attention to domestic violence. What we do in our private lives makes a great deal of difference to those nearest to us; and here above all, our religion should be our guide. Amen.

contact phil at for any problems or comments