A sermon exploring violence, masculinity, and religious belief, and a way we can break the pattern of bloodshed, tyranny, and harassment.
Genesis 9.8-17 / Mark 1.9-15 First Sunday of Lent 2018
Today is the first Sunday of Lent—a weekend marred once again by a tragic shooting in an American school. On a weekend like this, in the midst of a troubled world, our readings offer astonishing and timely wisdom.
The text from Genesis is the conclusion to the story of the rise of violence, the Great Flood, and God’s rescue of Noah and the creatures. And here at the end of the story, God makes a covenant with the Earth, never again to destroy life on the planet. God says, “I have hung up my bow”. God hung up his bow—the bow, a symbol of warfare and violence and killing. “I have hung up my bow in the clouds,” said God. Whenever we see the rainbow in the clouds after a fearsome storm, we can remember the day God said, “never again shall I destroy what lives on the Earth.”
The mythic tale of the primeval, destroying Flood was the way the ancients described the terrifying, cleansing response of the divine to the rise of human evil. But then, rising from the tale, comes this astonishing high-water mark in human understanding of God. It’s the moment in human history when some priest or prophet realized that a violent, angry God would be of no lasting help to life on the planet. This moment of insight is especially remarkable in light of the ancient religious context from which it comes.
In almost all ancient religious systems, the world is ruled by a powerful, often unpredictable, and often violent male figure. In ancient Mesopotamia, the supreme deity was Marduk, who reigned after slaying the monster Tiamat. In the ancient Mediterranean, the great god, Zeus, along with his siblings, Poseidon, Hera, and Hades, were Cronus’ and Rhea’s children. Cronus, in typical supreme-tyrant fashion, was afraid that his children would overthrow him, and so he decided to devour his children at birth. But Rhea hid Zeus and fooled her nasty husband, Cronus, by giving him a stone wrapped in a blanket instead. Zeus, then, grew up in secret until he was old enough and mighty enough to rise up against his father and overthrow him.
Almost all supreme gods were male, bearded, and associated with thunder, storm, and the use of lethal force to rule the Earth. Marduk, Zeus, Odin of the Germanic peoples, and Yahweh of ancient Israel, all fit this pattern.
The pattern ought to make us pause and wonder about the way belief in a violent male God leads to societies that are ruled by violent men.
What makes this text so astonishing is that it breaks the mold of the gods of the ancient world. It reveals to us the fact that someone came to realize that a society’s worship of an unpredictable and occasionally violent male deity would lead to governments ruled by unpredictable and violent men. Someone realized that what we worship shapes the way we live in the world.
So, here in Genesis, the ancient religious pattern is broken. The male deity changes his nature—or more likely, our understanding of the deity changes—and we have a story of the time God puts away his weapons and says, “never again.” It was a high-water mark in the ancient Hebrew understanding of God and could have had far-reaching effects on human life and our planet had it lasted. But it didn’t. Men may have seen the bow hung in the clouds after a storm, but even if they had remembered the story of the time God hung up his weapon in the clouds, they didn’t hang up theirs; they continued to be as violent as ever, and their worship of an unpredictable, violent, and male deity justified their violence—for if God could use violence, then so could they. They found it useful to worship a God who, every time there was a conflict, could pull a weapon out of a closet or drawer or missile silo and used it to bring an opponent into submission.
It’s easy to miss this moment, for the insight doesn’t see the light of day for long. For just a moment the text of Genesis reveals to us that some religious person came to their senses and envisioned God in a new way. Then, as quickly as it appeared, it slipped away and human beings slipped back again, stuck in old ways that perpetuated old patterns of domination, violence, and war.
I wonder where we’d be today as a race, as a planet, had our ancestors embraced this leap in the understanding of God, taking seriously this moment when God put his weapon away and practiced what we might consider the first instance of unilateral disarmament. I wonder where we’d be today if God’s “never again” had become our “never again.”
Maybe no parent would be afraid to send a child to school. Maybe none of us would fear a terrorist attack or nuclear bomb. Maybe our world would not be ruled by unpredictable, violent men.
But that high-water mark of religious revelation—that brief witness to a vision of the divine as committed to non-violence, decidedly anti-war, one who made a covenant, wrote legislation, to “never again” use the threat of force to bully, intimidate, or harass—that vision of God was ignored by men in every age who could see no other way to rule or lead than by threat of force and violence.
There’s a universal pattern at work here—this progression leading to revelation leading to regression—and I see it not only in religion and politics but also in our personal lives.
Last week, I worked with a young couple whose love for each other was beginning to open both of them to new experiences of themselves and each other. Feeling safer and more secure with each other meant they were beginning to risk greater vulnerability and the kind of intimacy both yearn for. But just as they were beginning to lower their defenses and come closer to each other, the walls went back up again. Both had grown up in families where any expression of vulnerability was interpreted as weakness and opened them to ridicule by parents and older siblings. Just as they began a new way of relating—without ridicule, manipulation, and power struggles—the window slammed shut again, leaving both of them feeling isolated again.
This pattern is just as common in peace talks between nations, budget talks between Republicans and Democrats, and legislative maneuvers over gun control. We make progress, there’s a moment of insight or revelation, and just when we might break through to some new way of relating to one another, we snap back into that old place—we regress.
This could be discouraging, for it means that people and societies are often stuck in conflicts that wound and inhibit us. But there’s something hopeful hidden in the pattern too. The pattern—progression/revelation/regression—isn’t merely linear. In the long sweep of time, it’s cyclical, iterative, and more like a spiral than a line.
A few years ago, I was reading about evolutionary biology when I noticed a pattern that came to me like a revelation. It gave me great hope for the individuals I work with, the congregation, religion, politics, the planet.
In 1967, a young biologist named Lynn Margoulis published a landmark paper. She argued that billions of years ago, single celled organisms began cooperating with each other rather than competing with each other. What they produced was an entirely new life form—the eukaryote, the first nucleated cell. This eukaryote became the basis for all advanced life on this planet. Margoulis’ theory, which she called, “symbiogenesis,” was a watershed moment in the study of evolutionary biology; it shifted conversations in science and culture from a focus on competition to an awareness of cooperation in the unfolding of all that exists.
And, here’s where things get really interesting…and, for me, hopeful.
A decade or so ago, another evolutionary biologist, Elisabet Sartouris said:
“The tiny archaebacteria, with their specialized lifestyles and technologies, created the most dramatic event to occur in Earth’s evolution since their own initial appearance out of the Earth’s mineral crust. The nucleated cell—an entirely new life-form about a thousand times lager than an individual bacterium—formed, as the bacteria took on divisions of labor and donated part of their unique genomes to the new cell’s nucleus. Thus, the nucleated cell—the only kind of cell other than bacterial ever to evolve on Earth—represents a higher unity than the bacteria achieved after eons of tension and hostilities as they engaged in successful negotiations and cooperative evolution . . .
Did you catch that? “After tension and hostilities, they engaged in successful negotiations and cooperative evolution”. This is where the hope breaks in . . .
“This process,” she continues, “whereby tension and hostilities between individuals lead to negotiations and then ultimately to cooperation as a greater unity—this is the basic evolutionary process of all life forms on our planet.”
We may feel stuck in the midst of tension and hostilities in our personal lives, at work, California in the midst of a housing crisis we don’t know how to fix, a political system that’s broken, loggerheads over reasonable ways to control guns, religious extremism and violence, climate change, and nuclear war. These threats and quite overwhelming. But the point I want to make is that the way we’re wired—the way the world is wired—what evolutionary biology teaches us—is that some of the greatest catastrophes in our planet’s history have spawned the greatest creativity. Billions of years ago, a single celled organism took a risk on something new; it joined with others and life as we know it burst into bloom. And it continues to this day.
The strain and stress we’re all feeling in one way or another as fearsome and destructive actually spins the evolutionary wheel. It will not be the end of us.
We are living through another season of crisis. We experience it acutely in our bodies, our minds, our souls, our relationships, and in our societies. It is frightening, and the fear can cause us to put up walls, to regress, to miss the insights coming to us. But history shows us that something new will emerge. Not all will embrace it, but it will come—come hell or high water, it will come.
Long ago, it was revealed to a priest or prophet that a violent, male God decided to hang up his bow on a rack in the sky and said, “never again” shall I deal in violence against all that lives on the Earth. That vision of God, that change in understanding God was largely ignored—for such a God was threatening to the men who ruled the world. Ignored, but never completely forgotten.
One day, another prophet and teacher—a man the Gospels call “The Son of God”, the new man, born of the Spirit, fit for a new era of Earth’s emergence—stepped out of the waters of the River Jordan. Baptized in the newness of God, Jesus began to proclaim a new understanding of God at yet one more season of Earth’s life when the world was ruled by unpredictable, violent men who were wreaking havoc on all that lives. Jesus showed the world another way to be human; he showed men another way to be a man. “The time has come,” Jesus preached, “the Commonwealth of God is upon us. Hang up the old ways and step into the new!”
The time has come again. We are in crisis again. But we are not without hope. Tension and hostility spin the spiral toward cooperation and emergence. Both scripture and science declare that change is inevitable, and that a new era of cooperation will come out of this season of discord and death and birth something new.
But we can break the old, worn patterns that hold us captive now . . . if men change what they believe about God . . . women and children too.