The Readings: Psalm 5:1-12; Isa. 59:1-15; Rom. 6:3-4
Today I want to lift up a biblical theme that has not received the attention it deserves. It is the powerful theme that violence finds refuge in falsehood. I myself first became aware of it through Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian novelist. In accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, Solzhenitsyn included these words:
Violence, less and less embarrassed by the limits imposed by centuries of lawfulness, is brazenly and victoriously striding across the whole world, unconcerned that its infertility has been demonstrated and proved many times in history. What is more, it is not simply crude power that triumphs abroad, but its exultant justification. The world is being inundated by the brazen conviction that power can do anything, justice nothing. …
But let us not forget that violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood. Between them lies the most intimate, the deepest of natural bonds Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his METHOD must inexorably choose falsehood as his PRINCIPLE. At its birth violence acts openly and even with pride. But no sooner does it become strong, firmly established, than it senses the rarefaction of the air around it and it cannot continue to exist without descending into a fog of lies, clothing them in sweet talk. It does not always, not necessarily, openly throttle the throat, more often it demands from its subjects only an oath of allegiance to falsehood, only complicity in falsehood.
This connection was undoubtedly one that Solzhenitsyn learned to make from bitter experience. But since he is a Christian, he would also have learned it from Holy Scripture. Today we saw it ourselves in Psalm 5: You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful. … For there is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction; their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues. (Psalm 5:6, 9).
It was also evident in the reading from Isaiah: For your hands are defiled with blood … your lips have spoken lies. … Their feet run to evil, and they rush to shed innocent blood. … The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths. … Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands afar off; for truth has fallen in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter. (Isa. 59:3, 7, 9, 14)
When we turn to the New Testament, we find this theme appearing in Rom. 3 at the very end of Paul’s long and searing indictment of human sin. Paul seals his case by quoting from God’s word: Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive. … Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery are in their paths. (Rom. 3:14, 16.)
Let me give one last example. Just before Peter was to lie by denying Jesus again for the last time, we are pointedly reminded by the Gospel of John that Peter had previously resorted to violence by cutting off a man’s ear with his sword (John 18:26). The clear implication, I think, is that Christ himself is denied whenever our lies lead us into violence, and whenever our crimes of violence are covered up and denied by lies.
In his famous essay on “Politics and the English Language,” written in 1946, George Orwell was incisive in making the same connection:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties.Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.
Orwell then gave examples of how political speech becomes a cover for violence:
Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
And what about today? What phraseology do we need if we want to name things without calling up mental images of them? Perhaps it would run something like this:
An invasion is engineered on false pretenses, hundreds of thousands are killed or maimed, no one is safe in the streets; homes, hospitals and mosques are blown up; water, electricity and other services are cut off; civil society is destroyed, half the population is left without means of livelihood, prisons are filled with people picked up off the streets, detainees are tortured and humiliated, cities are targeted and destroyed, and the insurgency is blamed on outside elements. This is called “bringing democracy to Iraq.”
“Political language,” concluded Orwell “— and with variations this is true of all political parties … — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.“
Dear friends, you have all been baptized (or nearly all of you). Do you not know that when you were baptized you were baptized into the death of Christ? As a great theologian once said, the death of Christ was the death of death. Do you not know that you have died to death — and to all the things that make for death? Come to the water! Do not choose death but life! And do you not know that when you died to death you died to falsehood — and to all that falsehood teaches? Come to the water! Do not yield yourself to falsehoods, and do not go along with those who do — even when they hide their falsehoods under a show of piety. Of all bad men, said C.S. Lewis, religious bad men are the worst. Come to the water! And do you not know that when you died to falsehood, you died to brutality and bloodshed? Insofar as it depends on you live peaceably with all. Come to the water! Live in conformity with your baptism into Christ! Choose life, choose truthfulness, choose peace — and the things that make for peace!
I would like to conclude with a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans,
many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.
Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.
I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me
Shall you be overcome.
Dear friends, we face difficult days ahead, and one day you shall die. But let that be all that you shall do for Death. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.
George Hunsinger is the McCord Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary (N.J.)