Sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Lent (21 February ) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Lent (21 February ) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

The Dean examines violence in our culture - and our lives

Last Wednesday we remembered the martyrdom of Janani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda, killed by Idi Amin in 1977 for confronting his tyrannical regime: one of countless numbers of Christians who have suffered and died for their faith in the last fifty years.

If last Sunday evening your TV viewing included the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, you’d have seen the film The Revenant receive several awards. It’s about an American pioneer who is left for dead and takes revenge on his tormentor

Last month the columnist Carole Cadwalladr described The Revenant thus. ‘[It’s] an empty, violent movie [that] will scoop up awards. What does that say about society and our attitude to violence? Ritualised brutality. Vengeful blood lust. Vicious savagery justified by medieval notions of retribution. We all know how dark the world can be these days. A world where men are garrotted and impaled. Where they’re speared and disembowelled and have their necks slashed and their genitals sliced off. Where they’re killed for no other reason than revenge.

'This isn’t Raqqa, though, it’s The Revenant: the hottest blockbuster of the season… nominated for 12 Oscars'.  And she goes on to ask why our film fantasies of violence are rewarded when at the same time we rightly condemn the similar realities of awful brutality when done by Daesh in Syria and other groups around the world

Violence is at the heart of too much of our culture

I had an email last week asking for comment on the new film London Has Fallen, which contains scenes of childish cartoon violence and destruction including St Paul’s Cathedral (though it wasn’t filmed here).  It’s like the destructive impulses of adolescent vandals who enjoy the adrenalin rush and sense of power that destroying things and hurting other people can give. Violence represents the intense exercise of power.

Why talk about violence on the second Sunday of Lent? Because our Gospel reading from the end of Luke chapter 13 refers three times to killing. Jesus is travelling towards Jerusalem and local religious leaders warn him that King Herod, the son of the Herod we remember at Christmas-time, wants to kill Jesus.

Why? Because Herod is an insecure tyrant who sees Jesus as a threat to his power and control over others. ‘Get out and go!’ the Pharisees say to him. So Jesus is threatened by violence: how does he respond?

Jesus puts the threat of violence into context

'Tell that fox’ he says of Herod – a fox being a relatively powerless animal of low cunning – ‘tell him my concern is with deliverance and healing, and I’m only passing through, because Jerusalem is where I must face a violent death.’ Jesus intends to confront the whole Jewish and Roman establishment in Jerusalem with God’s call to repentance and peace – a confrontation in which Herod the fox will play a very minor role.

Jesus says he will care as tenderly as a mother for the people of Jerusalem, yet knows how they reject such love and their violent response to those speaking to them in God’s name. ‘See your house is left to you’ he says, literally ‘your house is abandoned’ referring to words of Jeremiah the prophet: he means that spiritual worship at the Temple in Jerusalem has been neglected and so God has abandoned it to its fate.

Jesus brushes the threats of Herod aside because he knows where God is leading him; he knows his calling to confront with love not violence, and how he will receive violent death in return.

The myth of redemptive violence as the means to solve our problems isn’t new

Throughout history human beings have thought that beating or killing the people whom they see as their problem will make their own lives better. And people have then had to choose how to respond to violence: although there have been many who have confronted violence peacefully, many more have responded violently in turn. And that’s because of an underlying assumption that violence is a normal way to behave, an assumption which violent films and books and games reinforce in us. Bomb your enemies, get rid of the competition, eliminate other human beings who think differently from you. It’s in all of us – the impulse to rage against bad drivers and evil terrorists, to knock down things which offend us and ride roughshod over people who get in our way.

Violence is an expression of the desire for power over others, justified by the belief that violence will make it better. Despite the history books and recent experience in the Middle East, we human beings of all faiths and none can still believe in violence more than in God, and think that bombing and war will accomplish what only changing hearts and minds can do. Even if we’re not pacifists, we need to recognise that violence is always a signal of failure, always an evil, never a good thing.

All of us have the capacity to be violent; and all of us are called by God to a better way, in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. When threatened with violence, Jesus does not fight back, but continues with his mission from God, knowing what will happen. When threatened with violence, Janani Luwum continued to be faithful to God and to confront the evils done by Idi Amin. The threat of violence is something Christians do not need to fear, for God walks with us no matter what men do to us, in life and death.

And what of the violence within ourselves, our temptation to think or speak or act with violence towards others? Let’s be aware of our inner violence, and ask God to walk with us in peace this Lent: to fast from violence, to love not hate other people however awful they may be, and to avoid films or books or games which celebrate the power of violence and treat other men and women as less than human.

Next Sunday it’s the Oscar film awards. Will it celebrate films like Spotlight or Carol, without violence, where uncovering the truth is the way to redemption? Or will once again the cruel shortcuts of violence that leave us empty of our humanity win the day?

Thirty years ago in a prescient book about evil called People of the Lie, the psychiatrist Scott Peck said: ‘It is tempting to take hold of some seemingly simple solution – such as “what we ought to do is just bomb the hell out of these people”. And if our passion is great enough, we may even be willing to blow ourselves up in the process… [but] if we kill those who are evil, we will become evil ourselves; we will be killers. If we attempt to deal with evil by destroying it, we will also end up destroying ourselves, spiritually if not physically. And we are likely to take some innocent people with us as well…

'We must begin by giving up the simple notion that we can effectively conquer evil by destroying it…It is in the struggle between good and evil that life has its meaning – and in the hope that goodness can succeed. That hope is our answer… evil can be defeated by goodness. When we translate this we realise what we dimly have always known: evil can be conquered only by love.’

In the face of violent power, Jesus Christ calls us this Lent to turn away from our violence, to take up the cross, and to follow him in the way of love.