An Encyclical and a Massacre

fra-angelico_christ-crowned-with-thorns
An Encyclical and a Massacre
Brian Zahnd

Lord Jesus, help me to be a voice of peace, drawing your church in America away from its idolatrous allegiance to nationalism, militarism, consumerism, racism, violence, guns, and war. Amen.

I pray this prayer everyday. I’ve done so for years. It’s part of my morning liturgy of prayer. Praying this prayer has formed me in a certain way. (The primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what we think God ought to do, but to be properly formed.) This prayer has influenced me to write books about forgiveness, beauty, and peace. My target audience is the evangelical church in America. My people.

I also pray the Confession of Sin from the Book of Common Prayer. I always pray it in the plural…

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you…

I pray this prayer in the plural because I know I am complicit in sins I have not personally committed. I know I benefit from sinful structures for which I’m not personally responsible. I benefit from an economy originally founded on stolen land and slave labor. I didn’t “do” these things, but still people like me benefit from them. I know this. So the very, very least I can do is pray, “Father, forgive us our sins.”

I prayed these prayers today. Like I do everyday. But today is different.

I’m reading Pope Francis’ encyclical and grieving a massacre. First, the encyclical…

LAUDATO SÍ (Praise Be To You) opens with these words…

‘Praise be to you, my Lord’. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. ‘Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs’. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’ (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”

Amen and Amen.

I haven’t always held a position of Christian nonviolence. I tell the story of my journey into the gospel of peace in my book A Farewell To Mars. But I’ve held a position of Christian environmentalism since I was a teenager. It’s always been obvious to me that those of us who call the Father of Jesus the Creator of the heavens and the earth should treat the gift of creation with sacred reverence. To pollute and pillage the planet for the sake of rapacious greed is a form of violence directed not only against creation, but the Creator. I was glad to see that in the fifth sentence of his encyclical, Pope Francis connects environmental exploitation with our addiction to violence:

“The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” –Pope Francis

After beginning to read the Pope’s encyclical, I heard about the horrible massacre at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. A twenty-one year old white supremacist entered the church during a time of prayer and Bible study where he sat next to the pastor, Reverend Clementa Pinckey. After about an hour the assailant said, “I’m here to shoot black people. I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. You have to go.” The gunman then killed the pastor and eight other worshipers. The gunman’s words are a bitter distillation of the racist rhetoric that fuels white supremacist ideology. (Here is a profile of the nine victims.) This massacre occurred in a church that was once burned to the ground because its members had worked to end slavery. Now their suffering continues. The saints of Emanuel A.M.E. have entered fully into the sufferings of Christ.

In response to the massacre, President Obama said, “I’ve had to make statements like this too many times. At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this kind of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”

Of course, the President is right. This kind of (now common!) mass violence does not happen in Canada or the UK or Australia or Germany or France, or any other developed Western nation.

But America is different. America is violent. America was founded upon violence, it is addicted to violence, it sanctifies the capacity for violence. The twin original sins of America — indigenous genocide and African slavery — have still not been fully owned and confessed. (The government sponsored eradication of Native Americans is virtually never mentioned — mostly because the genocide was so effective.) We keep hoping that someday we can just forget about this sordid past. But we cannot. We cannot because it is still with us.

We are a violent people. Violent in our history, violent in our rhetoric, violent toward the other, violent toward our planet. We are a violent people. Me included. I too am complicit. I too am a sinner.

It could have been me put the thorns in your crown
Rooted as I am in a violent ground
–Bruce Cockburn, Dweller By A Dark Stream

I don’t know where I’m going with this. I don’t have a “tidy” point to make. But I had to say something.

Lord Jesus, help me to be a voice of peace, drawing your church in America away from its idolatrous allegiance to nationalism, militarism, consumerism, racism, violence, guns, and war. Amen.

BZ

(The artwork is Christ Crowned With Thorns by Fra Angelico.)

  • Kyle Ray

    While I can’t that I am a complete non violent pacifist Christian. However, I am coming around quite a bit to certain aspects of it. And, even though I kind of come from a Libertarian-Conservative background. I will say that we as a nation and we as Christains have become extremely bloodlustful. This needs to change. I do believe a lot of well meaing Christians who support the war efforts oversea’s, with a kind of rooting for a sports team type enthusiasm. I believe this shooting in Charleston, is a by product of that metality.

  • Lyn

    Not exactly correct, other countries do have massacres, here’s are recent examples.

    Germany: Winnenden school shooting March 11, 2009, 16 dead 9 injured

    France: 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre, dead 11 people and injured 11 others

    UK: 2 June 2010, Cumbria shootings, 12 dead, 11 injured. A killing spree/murder–suicide by Derrick Bird.

    Canada: Edmonton killings, December 29, 2014, Edmonton, Alberta, 52-year-old Phu Lam shot and killed his wife at a house in south Edmonton and then killed eight other relatives, including two children, and drove to a restaurant in Fort Saskatchewan that he owned, and committed suicide inside it.

  • Pat

    Brian, my problem with your current views is that they are more humanistic than Christ-centered. As this country and the world sink deeper into chaos the answer does not lie in pacifism, environmentalism, gun control, or any other ism du jour. it lies in the power of the Gospel to change the human heart.
    Only Jesus. Only Jesus. Only Jesus.

    You used to know this.

  • Now list the mass shootings in the United States.

    (2000–2013 there were 121 mass shooting in the U.S.!)

  • No. They are Christ-centered, Christ-informed thoughts derived directly from the life and teaching of Jesus.

  • John Michael Crofford

    Jesus didn’t come to solve our problems, he came to help us solve our own problems. Jesus, like the love that he preached, was active. Changing the human heart is not the endgame, it is a catalyst for right thinking and action to help mend Creation.

    Chaos is what a country sinks into when a Christian majority is more concerned with “fixing” other people’s hearts than with acting out love.

  • Jesse Ireland

    Dear Pat,

    Please take a look at the Sermon on the Mount. It lays out in great detail what disciples of Jesus look like. It really boils it down to who we are, our identity. If who we are does not match what is laid out there, then we are not following the true Jesus. As for Brian’s views being humanistic, let’s not forget what the real reason Jesus came for. It wasn’t to tell us what to do, where we are going, but rather to show us who we are. Blessing my friend.

  • Pat

    Jesse, I am a longtime student of the Sermon on the Mount. My point was a lack of prioritization on evangelism…..which has been our great commission clearly given by our Lord. In a world of increasing unbelief, including a whole lot of “Christan atheists”, how can love not compel us to win souls and disciple new believers with great passion and zeal?

  • I compel and win people to Christ week after week.

  • Bryan Brown

    Brian,

    I appreciate the content of this article and it has been a breath of fresh air to hear a white pastor articulate these points so well. Brian, I have never been to your church, I don’t know how you run your staff or how you as a body reach out to the neighborhoods of people who don’t look like, act like, or think as you and the majority of your congregation. But this I will say, I do not despise the day of small beginnings, when pastors of prodominately white churches speak out in such demonstrative ways. You have the ability to influence a portion of white Christian America and you are doing it for the better. This thought must also be put into action as the Lord leads, but today I simply say thank you.

    Tyler your points are valid and as an African American believer I appreciate your passion for accountability in both speech and action but your delivery feels more like that of an accuser rather then an advocate. It would speak a better word if you encouraged Brian to embody these words, rather than expose areas where he may be weak and publicly insult him and his congregation. Your words are sharp and cutting, though your content true; I’m just not sure it’s the best way to handle a brother in Christ who is attempting to do something to dismantle the mental strongholds that are plaguing our country and many of white Christian America.

    The two of you together could do major damage to the kingdom of darkness.

  • Zach

    Really???? You are going to take the “popes” view of the world’s new age movement and twist it into the wicked evil mind of what happened in Carolina? I really don’t see the connection. I did read the entire article. Here is the correlation this author tries to make between the two. Pope Francis’ encyclical and grieving a massacre. First, the encyclical…

    LAUDATO SÍ (Praise Be To You) opens with these words…

    “‘Praise be to you, my Lord’. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. ‘Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs’. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’ (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”

    Amen and Amen.

    I haven’t always held a position of Christian nonviolence. I tell the story of my journey into the gospel of peace in my book A Farewell To Mars. But I’ve held a position of Christian environmentalism since I was a teenager. It’s always been obvious to me that those of us who call the Father of Jesus the Creator of the heavens and the earth should treat the gift of creation with sacred reverence. To pollute and pillage the planet for the sake of rapacious greed is a form of violence directed not only against creation, but the Creator. I was glad to see that in the fifth sentence of his encyclical, Pope Francis connects environmental exploitation with our addiction to violence:

    “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” –Pope Francis. What a pathetic form of worldism from a supposed religious leader.
    Yet alone this author’s twisted thoughts of trying to unite the two. We all where born into sin from Adam an Eve. No changing that. Psalms 26. Psalms 94. Proverbs 4. Romans 1.

  • Gebre Menfes Kidus

    Great thoughts dear brother. I would like to see you add abortion to your morning prayer litany. Abortion is the logical result of our nation’s violent foundations. How can we collectively repent of genocide and slavery while we remain complicit or apathetic about the legalized slaughter of the most vulnerable and helpless among us? My favorite passage from the Pope’s encyclical is this:

    “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism is one way of refusing to face the issues.” ~ POPE FRANCIS ~

    And here are my own brief thoughts in response to this recent tragedy:

    I guess I’m supposed to give some sort of social commentary
    on the senseless, tragic murders of the nine innocent people in Charleston, SC.
    But what can I say other than what I say almost every day? Until we renounce
    violence and killing as the answers to our problems – until we condemn and
    reject warfare, abortion, and capital punishment as the evils that they are –
    then we will continue to reap the horrific ills of the violence we embrace. We
    take up the sword to slay the wicked, but somehow it’s the innocent who always
    end up being cut down. Perhaps that’s one of the many reasons why Jesus said, “Put
    away thy sword!”

    Let us pray for the victims who were slain. Let us pray
    for the comfort and healing of their loved ones. Let us pray for the tormented soul
    of this depraved murderer. Let us pray for the spiritual annihilation of racism
    and hate. Let us pray for justice, mercy, forgiveness, and grace to permeate
    our society and our world. Let us just continue to pray. And as we pray, let us
    remember that it is better to enter heaven with bullets piercing our bodies and
    prayers filling our hearts than to enter hell with bloodstained souls.

    “Lord have mercy.” +++

  • Gebre Menfes Kidus

    Amen Brian! Dear Pat, this isn’t about “isms.” The Gospel commands peace. It is not an option. The Sermon on the Mount was not a parable or a suggestion. And when Christ said “follow me” and then died forgiving His murderers rather than killing them, then He means for us to literally do the same. The problem is not with Brian’s understanding of the Gospel; the problem is with those who have conflated the precious Gospel with nationalistic and political aims based on Machiavellian principles rather than Christian imperatives.

  • andre_lefebvre

    Why can’t we just stay focused and ponder in silence the few words calling us to consider the spirit of which we are? Words that challenge our understanding of Who God could reveal His heart and soul to be in this situation, both for the victims and the murderer? There is a whole lot of cliches flying, stones (pre-engraved with pet accusations) that are picked from the tables of the temple’s merchants. If we quiet our thoughts, what is the Holy Spirit telling each one of us? Do we always need to retreat into slogans and flags to signify where we stand? Can’t we accept to be troubled and without “answers” or explanations? Will finding out details by the hour affect our posture? Or can we see Jesus standing with all of us through the night, and speak in a way that reveals Him when dawn comes and a new News cycle starts? At the end of the day, we are called to follow Him, even when He walks into the prison cell of this demented young man to reach out to him…

  • Jesse Ireland

    The issue is that Jesus didn’t go about trying to win souls. He went around demonstrating self emptying love, mercy, and forgiveness. When he did that people were drawn to him for who he was. Jesus calls us to be the same. If we do that people will be drawn to us. Yes we should tell others about Jesus, but it should be about his love, not trying to win their soul for heaven.

  • And any coupling of Christ to an “ism du jour” is just the sectarian way of never letting a tragedy go to waste.

  • Bill Brown

    If human hearts, on any large scale, we’re really being changed by Christ in this nation today, it would be a radically different society than it is. The American church as a whole is not leading people into a deep, transformative union with the Living God.

  • Sorry, Justin. If you can’t bother to read the article you don’t get to comment. Pretty basic. *Deleted*

  • Justin Summerlin

    I think you misunderstand. I read YOUR article. It was the article that I linked that I didn’t fully read because I only needed the chart that was listed in the article. Thanks!

  • Bill Brown

    Meant to say “were being changed…” not “we’re…”

  • petervandever

    I really respect you, BZ. However, violence is hard from an American problem. I live in a country that is “western” and developed (depending who you ask) but gun crime is a way of life in the Philippines.

    The problem I see here is we need restore our fundamental values as a nation.

  • Erik

    Brother Brian, thank you for this article, thank you for the courage you display in preaching the living Christ and not just a status-quo-approving tribal american deity. I pray you won’t be discouraged by what I assume is a constant barrage of insults and criticism for what you do.

  • Thank you, Erik.

  • Brian,

    This is excellent. Thank you for pouring out your heart about this. While I am Canadian I keep up with American news and politics since I lived in Florida for 4 years. I can see many political reasons behind the arguments surrounding guns. There are many logical things that would lend to their defence. Especially in a society that does have so many mass shootings. It only makes sense to arm yourself in defence. But, the more I read the Bible, the more I realise that Christ was never an advocate of violence and he never encouraged his followers towards violence either. The Bible is counter-cultural. It is clearly standing against the culture of violence that is sweeping the globe.

  • Sand Krof

    Amen Brother. When it’s spoken this well you just have to applaud and cross yourself. Peace be with you B Zahnd and Gebre Menfes Kidus. I heard about this shameful, atrocious act as spoken by the Father at a Sunday mass. I don’t watch TV but no matter where I go, man’s inhumanity to each other, the planet and a complacent disregard for the will of God is everywhere.