Have you ever seen violence? I mean real violence. The kind that disturbs. The kind that stays with you tacked securely onto the bulletin board of infamy in the hall of your memory.
I am thankful that in my life I have not seen much of violence, and that the little I have seen was not of the intimate variety (intimate violence is the violence that occurs within your own circle–your own family and friends). I have witnessed no murders, or tortures, or wars, only the random violence from the occasional loss of temper.
I remember once seeing an argument between two men. One of the men swung a firm quick fist and connected with the other man’s head. The hit man went down hard. Things happened quickly. People moved in. The fracas was broken up. Shouts went back and forth. The hit man lay motionless on the ground.
I had goose bumps for a while after I saw it. It is not something I am steeled to. The scene replayed in my head. I saw the tense bodies and taught faces. I saw the flame of hate burning hot in the aggressor’s eyes. I saw the act, over and over again. Fist clenched, arm swung, head hit, neck snapped back, body limp and falling. When I closed my eyes that night for bed I saw it all again. Every time my mind reconstructed the scene a cold evil chill ran across the hairs on my arm and the goose bumps returned. Even witnessing the violence of strangers puts undue hurt on my heart.
I have always had this low tolerance for brutality. When the news warns me that some of its content might be graphic or cruel I turn the channel or leave the room. When historical movies recount humanity’s worst moments I surf on over to a happy sitcom, or a silly cartoon, or a formula driven Hollywood script too good to be true. When I judge someone to be aggressive or prone to strong reactions I avoid their company. I want nothing of violence.
I recently visited my mother and father in Vermont. Knowing that I had a six hour ride to their home I went to the library on Higbie Lane and selected an audio book to accompany me. My choice was A Long Way Gone; A Memoir of a Boy Soldier. The memoir followed the life of Ishmael Beah who at twelve years old was swept up into the civil war in Sierra Leon. He became a boy soldier, a fate he could not escape. He recounts firing on other boy soldiers his own age, killing them, and while their blood drained from their bodies rifling through their possessions to eat whatever food might have been in their packs. I was not off of Southern State Parkway before I turned off the book, sick in my heart. I want nothing of violence, and yet I find myself in a world where violence plays a steady and morbid note in the symphony of life. I plug my ears.
Do you know how many acts of violence humans have committed? Gross and disgusting acts. Selfish and gluttonous acts. Savage and barbaric acts. Thankfully we do not know. Do you think our hearts could take it if we put all those acts on a reel of film and sat ourselves three rows back in the theater and watched one after another for hours, and days, and weeks, and lifetimes. How mad would we be if we saw how mad we really are? In no time the most hardened of us would scream for relief. Save us, we would say. Deliver us, we would cry. Have mercy on us, we would plead banging on the locked doors of the theater. Even if we were only asked to watch the violence of just one day–if at eight o’clock tonight we were asked to watch in succession all the ways one human harmed another on this day, none of us could do it.
Thankfully we only have to see the violence we happen upon, and so we can imagine it to be an aberration, an entirely unnatural act, a thing foreign to us. Our great ignorance of all the violence that goes on the world is a mercy gift from God.
Sometimes we forget what it means to be God. Do we understand that unlike us God sees it all? God sees it all. Every act, every day, every year, every generation, every century, every millennium, for all times and forever more. God has watched that violent reel over and over again. God does not have a cosmic remote control to allow him to channel surf when things get to gory on station earth. He can’t pop the CD out at the end of Southern State Parkway and listen to latest ‘Linsanity’ on sports radio. When tensions flare in the city streets God can’t flee for the white picket fences of the sleepy suburbs. God can’t close his eyes, or dull his heart, or callous his mind. I see one act of random violence between people I don’t know and I shudder all day and can’t sleep at night. Yet every minute God sees his own children kill or maim each other. For God all violence is intimate violence, and from it there is no relief. No relief. It is steady, on-going, relentless, inexorable, ruthless, unyielding. If you understand the archetypal stories of old, stories meant to tell us something of God and his relationship with humans, and the histories of all peoples and all places since, then you know that from the fateful day when one brother struck down another brother in cold blood there has been no break, no stoppage, no cease fire.
Well that’s not entirely true. According to the archetypal stories there was one time it stopped. There was one time God was allowed a moment’s rest. There was one time the film tore and the clicking reel spun round and round and the projection bulb shined forth nothing but a white light on the movie theater screen. There was one time that God freed himself of the horror of his creation. Do you remember?
It was the 40 days that the rain pelted the earth in driving torrents, and the days that followed the rising waters and the thrashing floods, when eight people were in the world, hand selected by God for preservation–it was then that was God spared the pain of human violence. We call it the most violent of all stories in the Bible. And yet it was the only time humanity did not have its foot pressing hard on its own throat.
How could this archetypal story present a God who could do such a thing, we ask. It is an ignorant question. Mortal, you have no idea what God has seen. But people who have been through hell–wars and pillages and rapes–people who want to bash their enemy’s baby’s heads against the rocks, people who saw their homes ransacked, and their cities burned, and their children tortured, those people have no trouble writing the archetypal stories of a God who’s had enough.
The flood said enough is enough. Read it carefully. It wasn’t God playing the role of vengeful deity, or ruthless enforcer, or angry sovereign. The text says that the “Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” God did not lash out in wrath and hate. God cleansed in deep regret.
Yet even in his one moment of rest, even in the deep cleansing afforded a world covered in life giving water, God knew the seeds of violence, which would once again rip through humanity like a fast moving uncontrollable black plague, rested as stowaways in the eight hearts floating aimlessly on the cleansing waters. God knew the film would be spliced, and taped, and re-spun on the reel, and the lights lowered, and the violence would once again dance across the screen in an endless montage.
That is what makes the post-flood conversation of God with Noah and his prodigy, so astounding: “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And then God laid down his bow. God hung the piercing weapon of war up in the sky for all to see, a brilliantly colored symbol of prevenient grace. The rainbow, with its peaceful blend of colors and its rounded smooth shape, is what nonviolence looks like. And from that moment God set about the rest of events that would point to our future redemption through the sacrifices of the one who said “put down your sword” and who asked forgiveness for his torturous, murdering enemies.
Nowhere in the story did we triumph. Nowhere did we come of age and figure it all out. Nowhere did we cleanse ourselves, or purify our intentions. We did not extricate ourselves from the horrors of being human. Don’t be fooled. I think some of us feel as though we are decent folk caught up in a world of violence we did not create. Noah too was a decent man, and his wife, and his three sons and their wives. They were good suburban folk, with nice lawns and SUV’s, and were members of benevolent volunteer organizations. They represented everything God thought was good enough about humanity to save. This is the way we think. Good vs. Evil. Violent people and peaceful people. We are all the Noah’s of today!
But this is not right. Noah will not last a season before rebellion returns to the story of humanity, and violence with it. The story of Noah, and his post deluvian failures, reminds us that evil is a universal blight. The story of the flood is not about a world being cured forever, but of a world being cleansed for a time, and then being polluted once again. The story if not about the few good people being saved from the countless bad ones and living happily ever after. There is, as of today, no happy ever after. Noah, his wife, and his three sons and their wives will again let the seeds of violence take root in the world. There will still be hostility. Eight lives were saved, and because of it every life that ever came from them also needed saving.
The story is not about the goodness of Noah. The story is about the goodness of God who loves the unlovable, even after seeing violence upon violence.
Be invited by the story of the flood to see this God! And in this season of Lent, when we take inventory of the seeds of destruction inside all of us, when we confess our sins, and we ask for forgiveness in our prayers, consider the God who has no break from witnessing human violence, but who lays down his bow and covenants with us and thus preserves our future.
Let us bow before this God, and plead for his forgiveness, and cry in our sorrow for all we have made him watch. Let us look to the Christ, who loved his enemies and repaid evil with good and let us see in him our future. For one day we will all be like him. This is God’s doing. This is the cleansing the waters bring about, for all those who call upon his name and plead for a clean conscience. It is symbolized and enacted in Christian baptism. It is our hope. And with it we are saved from the violence that disturbs, floating as we are, safely in the ark of our salvation.