With Christ in My Heart and the Courage to Forgive, I Live Without Fear.

This morning’s homily is the result of much thought and prayer to a post an acquaintance of mine from High School posted on his wall last week. It is written in the form of an open letter which I have sent to him privately through Facebook.

Dear Friend,

This week I have spent a great amount of time reflecting on your post from last Saturday. I have been especially focused on the lyrics you posted which stated, “ I have a gun in my truck and I am still a man.” It is hard to fathom that we were raised in the same community and graduated from the same high school and yet have very different understandings as to what manhood may look like.

Don’t worry, I am not about to write a diatribe on the evils of guns. In fact, I am a firm believer in our second amendment right to bear arms, but I do not believe having a gun in the trunk of my car makes me anymore of a man or makes me feel any more safe or more empowered.

I have many clergy colleagues who own guns, I know this, not because they ever discuss having guns, but because they talk about the joy of living in Central New York and the vast opportunities for hunting wild life.

Maureen, my wife of nearly twenty-eight years, has an uncle who retired as a Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Police Department. I know for a fact Uncle Jimmie carried a side arm throughout his career and, when off duty, his gun was stored at his house. But he never mentioned it or discussed it in my or anyone else’s presence. And I believe having his gun in the house was more of a burden than a privilege. According to Maureen, as soon as Jimmie would arrive home from work, he immediately went to his bedroom, took off his sidearm, locked the trigger and then put the gun in a lock box. With that kind of security, I doubt the gun allowed him to feel more secure in his home.

In the thirty plus years I have known Uncle Jimmie, he has never talked about having to use his weapon. What he seems most proud of from his career was the work he did in community relations. He loved to talk about the clergy and community leaders he met and worked with to develop trust between the communities he served and the police department in an effort to prevent crime and avoid the need for force to ensure safety. Jimmie believed the best way to empower others to prevent violence came through trust and cooperation, not the use of force or fear.

But then again, the discussion our nation is having around guns has little to do with safety and more to do with the need for power as individuals. As I read about last week’s mass murder in California and compared it with what I remember of other similar situations, one of the common themes on the part of the killer is a sense of powerlessness.

Somehow power and the ability to instill fear in others has become synonymous in today’s culture. Through my study and faith as a Christian, I have found the opposite to be true.

Soon after I was born, my parents, through the sacrament of Baptism, committed my life to God in Christ. As a young man I re-affirmed this commitment through the sacrament of Confirmation and then as an adult found a calling to lead others who wished to live in accordance with what it means to accept Christ as Lord and Savior. For me this means living my life based on what Christ taught and how he lived his life as an example for us all.

It seems what Jesus taught is counter intuitive to what we believe empowers us today. In the Sermon on the Mount, the largest collection of his teachings, Jesus not only told his followers to turn the other cheek, but to actually love our enemies, to pray for them. He told us to forgive others 70 times 7 times. And he tells us if we are to follow him we must be willing to pick up our cross (the symbol of torture and death) and then follow. His teachings on love and forgiveness were nothing new. The prophets Isaiah and Micah proclaim the following,

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 
3 He shall judge between many peoples,
   and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more; 
4 but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
   and no one shall make them afraid;
   for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.

What makes Christ a wonderful and authentic teacher is how he lived what he taught. In Matthew 26 we are told at the time of his arrest, the crowds came after him with clubs and swords, one of his followers drew his own sword and cut off the ear of a slave. Jesus’ response was not to thank him, instead he commanded his follower to put away his sword, for those who live by the sword, die by the sword. Before Pilot, while being questioned he chose not to defend himself, but quietly frustrated the prefect by showing no fear and by not cowering to his authority. As I have studied the trial through the years, it has become clear that Jesus held the power despite Pilate’s earthly authority. Then in the final moments before his death, Jesus taught us his greatest lesson, what forgiveness truly looks like. “Forgive them Father for they do not know what they are doing”

Being able to live a life of forgiveness is perhaps the most difficult part of following Christ. Even as one who is ordained, I struggle with the ability to forgive every day. There is something soothing and justifiable about anger that makes us want to hold on to it. However, as hard as it is to believe, being able to forgive is more empowering than being angry or seeking revenge. Dr. Marie Fortune in her research with victims of sexual assault discovered that until a victim could forgive his or her assailant, the assailant continued to hold power over their lives. Forgiving, she says, allows the victim to let go of the past, the anger and to move from victimhood to survivorship and the ability to move beyond the abuse of the past.

This week I had the opportunity to read, Left to Tell, a memoir by Immaculee Ilibagiza. It is her story of survival and faith as she endured three months in a cramped 4X6 bathroom hidden with seven other women from the Interahamwe, the foot soldiers of the Hutu forces in Rwanda during the genocide of the Tutsi’s. Her primary message to fellow survivors is that they need to forgive in order to live again. Many times throughout the book she writes that it was only when she was able to find forgiveness for those who killed her family and wanted her dead that she found freedom and hope while confined in the bathroom and ultimately the courage to continue living.

After returning to her home and learning of how cruelly her mother and brother had been tortured and dismembered before being killed, Immaculee writes the following.”

I tossed and turned for hours, I knew the devil was tempting me- that he was leading me away from the light of God, from the freedom of His forgiveness. I could feel the weight of my negative thoughts dragging me away from the light that had guided me through the darkness. I never felt lonelier than I did that night. God was my truest friend, and these feelings were a wall between us. I knew that my thoughts caused Him pain, and that knowledge tortured me.

I rolled out of bed and got down on my knees. “forgive my evil thoughts, God,” I prayed. “Please. . .as You always have, take this pain from me and cleanse my heart. Fill me with the power of Your love and forgiveness. Those who did these horrible things are still Your children, so let me help them, and help me to forgive them. Oh, God, help me to love them.

A sudden rush of air flooded my lungs. I heaved a heavy sigh of relief, and my head dropped back on the pillow. I was at peace again. Yes, I was sad-deeply sad- but my sadness felt good. I let it embrace me and found that it was clean, with no tinge of bitterness or hatred. I missed my family desperately, but the anger that had gripped me like a returning malignancy was gone.

The people who’d hurt my family had hurt themselves even more, and they deserved my pity.

As I read this passage I was reminded of another great man, St. Francis of Assisi, in his early years he served as a warrior for the Assisian Army and later found greater power by following Christ and living a life of prayer and forgiveness. In his most popular prayer he writes, “Lord make me an instrument of your peace, where there is hatred, let me so love, where there is injury, pardon, where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith.”

On Sunday, June 1st, I will be baptizing a man and his three daughters. There is nothing more wonderful than to witness an adult commit his or her life to Christ. George is someone I have known for nearly two years. If he has a gun in his trunk, I do not know about it and if he does, it does not seem that important to him. What George seems to value the most are his children and his family, he works hard to be a good provider and a nurturing father. Like all of us, he struggles with his own demons, but what he seems to have found these past two years is, following Christ somehow makes the struggles a little easier and worth fighting.

In closing, my friend, as I think about the lyrics you posted last week, I would definitely rewrite the words. My words would be something to the effect of, “with Christ in my heart, I have found the courage to forgive and to live without fear, and I am still a man.
Sincerely,

Craig Swan+

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Dorothy pierce says:

    Pretty sobering words. Hope forgiveness is always a huge part of what any one of us is left to tell about our Christian, most human, faith.

  2. lwk2431 says:

    “Jesus not only told his followers to turn the other cheek, but to actually love our enemies, to pray for them.”

    First off, I can relate to much you said. This is not meant to be an “attack” comment.

    I have owned guns most of my six decades plus on this earth and I have a concealed carry permit in the state of Texas and carry a loaded handgun in public every day.

    I have spent a lot of time studying the New Testament where Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek. Jesus also said that he came not to overthrow the Law, but to fulfill it, and in my view that Law justifies killing in self defense. The commandment, correctly translated from Hebrew is “Thou shall not murder,” and not “Thou shall not kill.” There is a big difference between “kill” and “murder.”

    Also there is an implied context in Jesus instruction to turn the other cheek. You no doubt have heard the idea that Jesus was referring to a custom of striking a slave or inferior one way and an equal another. What I hear Jesus saying in this context is that if a man slaps you as a slave or inferior, turn the other cheek and invite him to at least strike you as an equal, to appeal to his humanity.

    Immediately following that instruction are two others, both which are trying I think to reinforce the same principle. There was a law that allowed a Roman solider to make a Jew carry his pack for a mile. By carrying it voluntarily another mile one was appealing to the soldier to see one’s humanity.

    Some have told me that Jesus was instructing us to be pacifists, that being the meaning they took from the instruction to turn the other cheek. In full context I don’t believe that could be true otherwise Jesus himself would be a condemned hypocrite in my view.

    In one place in John I believe Jesus comes into the Temple and is greatly angered by the moneychangers. What does he do? He goes out and finds the means to createa whip out of cords. Then he returns to the Temple and immediately inflicts violence on the moneychangers. I don’t think a pacifist would have done that (or told his disciples to buy some swords, although undersanding the meaning of that verse is not abundantly transparent other than to fulfill prophecy).

    When Jesus was taken before the high priest he was asked a question and when the answer was taken as offensive to the high priest a man struck Jesus. He did not then turn the other cheek, but instead questioned the man who struck him.

    Here is what I take from the teachings of Jesus. Yes, love your brothers and forgive them, even your enemies. Turn you cheek when it serves a purpose, but when someone comes to kill you, or your loved ones you acting morally to take his life if necessary to save life.

    regards,

    lwk

    1. frcraig1 says:

      “I do not usually post comments from people who do not use a full name. LWK has shared with me his full name and made some changes to his original post to where I feel comfortable sharing our conversation.”

      Dear lwk

      I have read your response and spent time in prayer as to how to respond to the whole of your comment before writing. I will meet you half way and consider posting your comment over your initials but would ask you to remove the picture of what appears to be a semi-automatic.

      First, I am not sure you are getting the whole of the meaning of turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, etc. You are correct they are a response to Roman rights of owners and Centurions to punish and force labor from non-Roman citizens. However, Jesus advising to go beyond the limit of the law has more to do with showing the individual “while they may have authority over me, I will not give away my personal power or cower to them in fear.” This is what Jesus did so artfully in front of Pilot. What frustrated Pilot on the night of the trial is how Jesus did not cower to him, did not show fear, or hand over his personal power to Pilot. What one can assume from the Gospels is that Pilot was hoping to get Jesus , “the Son Of God, King of the Jews” to beg and grovel for his life. Jesus refused to do this or show any sign of acknowledging Pilot as powerful. In many ways Jesus’ message to Pilot was “you can kill me but you cannot defeat me.” What Jesus does acknowledge is Pilot’s authority which was only given to him by man, not divine right.

      Over the years, the one thing we have learned about terrorists is how their goal is to instill fear in the populace. The true aim of terrorism is not the body count, but the fear it instills. What frustrates a bully the most is not being able to get a response out of his or her victim. At the trial Jesus does just this with Pilot. He may have lost the battle, or so it may seem, of his life, in death he won the war.

      Second, you discussed Jesus as a hypocrite because of the actions he took in the cleansing of the Temple. There is no way to refute the force John indicates in the fourth gospel. But were his actions about defending himself and inflicting harm or was it about making a point?” The latter is most likely the answer. While the incident is a vehicle of Jesus being fully human and prone to acting out of anger, the action was not predicated out of fear. John and the other three writers use the scene to make the point of Jesus’ mission to reform Judaism. It was also an act of social justice. You see all were required to make sacrifice, all needed unblemished animals and no animals would be accepted from outside the Temple. To purchase animals, Roman money had to be exchanged at a premium and then the animals bought at a premium. Both the animals used for sacrifice and a portion of the proceeds from the exchange of money and purchase of animals went into the pockets and dinner table of the priests who made the sacrifices on behalf of the people. The poor were being extorted by both Rome and their own leaders. Jesus turning the tables and driving the money changers out was an act of protest on behalf of God saying there was no place for this sort of commerce in God’s house.

      From my perspective, to use this incident as a means to prove Jesus either a hypocrite or not a pacifist is a stretch and a misuse of the story especially in the light of the Passion Narrative.

      In your comment, you mentioned that you have carried a concealed weapon every day in public for more than fifty years. I find that sad and an indication you live your life in fear. I guess that is where we are very different people. I have never felt a need to carry a weapon. For several years I worked in the projects of New Haven, Meriden, and Bridgeport, CT as a social worker for children’s protective services. Working the streets of some of the most dangerous areas of CT, I was never afraid, probably because I have no fear of death and felt carrying a concealed weapon was only a magnet for trouble. This is not to say I looked for trouble or didn’t worry about safety. I knew when not to go into the neighborhoods and when not to go alone. I also knew to bring the police along when removing children to be assured of keeping the peace. I guess a good offense is better than a good defense.

      It saddens me that you live in fear, afraid to make known who you are on WordPress and afraid to leave your home unprotected. I guess you have become a slave to fear. I am sorry this is true as the evil and terror of this world has defeated you. As my brother in Christ, you will be in my prayers in hopes that God will help you find a way to be released from the chains that bind you in fear.

      In Christ,

      The Rev. Craig Swan

      1. frcraig1 says:

        lwk’s response via email on 6/2

        Hi again,

        I changed the image – it was a rather stupid (but amusing to some) picture of a handgun with about a gadzillion accessories that would be meaningful to other people knowledgable about guns (a comment on the ridiculous extremes some people go to).

        My real name is
        “your comment, you mentioned that you have carried a
        concealed weapon every day in public for more than fifty
        years.”

        Hmmm? What I meant to convey is that a) I have been around or owned guns most of my life, and b) and I have a concealed carry permit in Texas. I did not mean to imply I have had a concealed carry permit that long. They only became available in Texas in 1995.

        The “shall issue” concealed carry movement is a relatively recent innovation.

        Let me say this, I don’t see a lot to disagree with your view about Jesus. My argument about hypocrisy was _not_ to show that Jesus was a hypocrite. I most certainly do not see it that way. My argument is that a totally “black and white” belief that Jesus was commanding pacifism is not logically consistent with the entire picture presented in the scriptures. Did he demonstrate courage and dignity in the face of things that would make many cringe and beg for mercy? Of course he did.

        I was attempting to show that the argument that Jesus was for uncompromising pacifism is not entirely consistent.

        “were his actions about defending himself
        and inflicting harm or was it about making a
        point?”

        I don’t think there is any doubt that he was making a point. And I am in no way condemning him for what he did. In my view he inflicted appropriate violence limited to what was necessary to make that point.

        “Jesus advising to go beyond the
        limit of the law has more to do with showing the individual
        ‘while they may have authority over me, I will not give
        away my personal power or cower to them in fear.'”

        I don’t think we are too far apart on that. But I think I see it more as appealing to the other person to see you as a human being, and not a thing. But I think we both agree there was higher meaning than just the concrete examples he gave.

        “For several years I worked in the projects of
        New Haven, Meriden, and Bridgeport, CT as a social worker
        for children’s protective services. Working the streets
        of some of the most dangerous areas of CT, I was never
        afraid.”

        I think that you are making an assumption that a lot of folks make. You are assuming that carrying a firearm is necessarily a symptom of crass fear. There are times and places where if people aren’t a little afraid they are probably not aware of all that is going on around them.

        There is a short story I read in my youth, think it was by Joseph Conrad, but was not able to find it when I looked for it a couple years ago. The story is about an old and highly experienced sea captain in the South China Sea. He had heard about typhoons but in all his years had never personally experienced one. He had heard stories in the bars but thought they were just exaggeration from too much liquor. He thought that until he actually had to face one. The story is about his survival in part, but probably more importantly about his mental state as he went from one perception of reality to another.

        I have been through a typhoon in the South China Sea and I have seen violence that wasn’t on TV. I know many people who have not experienced or seen violence close at hand and the possibility of it happening to them is very remote to their concerns. I understand that. But I know they are like the captain in that story that didn’t believe in typhoons.

        If carrying a concealed handgun turns out to be totally unnecessary for what remains of my life I will be very happy. I don’t expect to need it but if I did, I am too old to run away any more. And my wife can’t run as fast as I can and I refuse to let her be a victim.

        Those are my motives. I will not say that I have never been afraid. That would be a lie. My recollection though is that when I have been afraid in this life I had pretty good reason to be.

        regards,

        lwk

  3. Lynn Milller says:

    I am a few weeks behind reading your homilies, Craig….but I think you wrote beautifully and responded in a heartfelt manner. Your writing has matured over the decade I have known you, and your wisdom increased. Tough issue, this, but you framed your response not in a political way, but one backed by scripture.

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