Jesus said, “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time came, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally, he sent his son to them. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. Matthew 21:33-46, NRSV, edited
We live in a pleasant vineyard here in America, don’t we? We take for granted things that are often luxuries in other countries like clean water and healthy food, or a decent education. We enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, and of religion. On top of all that, we have access to pretty much anything we could possibly want 24/7. It’s good in this vineyard. But we’ve made a mistake in thinking that we are the owners of this vineyard. Really, we are only tenants. When God sends prophets to ask what good fruits we’ve created from this vineyard he’s given us—justice, equality, abundance for all?—we refuse to listen to them at best and kill them at worst. So when the owner of the vineyard comes to collect, what will he do to us, the tenants?
Our Violent American Heritage
Like the Pharisees, Jesus is speaking about and to us. This parable could be the history of America, beginning with the violence we perpetrated on the Native Americans to get and keep the land we wanted. Then there was the violence we perpetrated in enslaving African Americans to wring every last dollar out of the economy that we possibly could. Then the violence we continue to perpetrate on impoverished citizens with our over-aggressive policing and criminal justice system. And now the violence perpetrated on Americans from all walks of life, black, white, rich, poor, by our absolute refusal to change gun policy. Regardless of our political will and enlightened choices, we’ve all enjoyed the benefits we’ve received in this culture of violence. Jesus holds up a mirror, inviting us to question if what we’re getting for our pleasant American lives is truly worth all the violence it’s built upon.
Something important to remember about the Pharisees is that they thought they were the good guys. They kept Jewish laws and teachings alive in the face of potential cultural obliteration by Rome. They were pious, erudite and admirable in many ways. But the apparent good guys were blind to the dysfunction and oppression perpetrated by their well-intentioned policies.
Violence Can Be Perpetrated by Anyone
Perhaps the most unsettling thing about last month’s mass murder in Las Vegas is that there was no discernible motive. Presumably the shooter was mentally ill. But friends described him as kind, low key, having a good sense of humor, etc., qualities that could describe any of us. We’ve long known that being a random victim could happen to anyone. This makes it seem that becoming a random perpetrator could happen to anyone as well. Anyone can be suddenly seized with the desire for violence. The only thing standing in the way is our ability to carry it out, i.e., how many weapons we have access to.
This event could not have been prevented by fighting an enemy or an ideology. It could not even have been prevented with bystanders being armed to take out the shooter. In light of this, I’ve become convinced that pacifism is the only correct moral choice for Christians. Pacifism is not popular with most Christians, conservative or liberal. Conservatives feel it is anti-military. It is not. Laying down arms is the ultimate end if pacifism is taken all the way to its conclusion, but there would be many, many steps before arriving anywhere near that outcome. Meanwhile, the military are by no means the enemy, but our protectors. We’ve seen multiple examples of this in the past few months as military personnel have helped with search and rescue and relief efforts after several hurricanes.
Liberal Christians find pacifism too separatist, that it removes us from full, engaged participation in culture and society. But pacifism is an important part of our Christian heritage. Tertullian said that when Jesus disarmed Peter in the garden of Gethsemane, he forever disarmed all Christians. And this was the understanding of the early church for centuries. When Constantine had his soldiers baptized as Christians, they held their swords out of the water so that none of the pesky baptism would get on them, and their swords could not be held accountable for the sinful actions they would undertake.
We Must Do More Than Change Laws
This is what we’ve chosen to do as a nation: hold the benefits we receive in this culture of violence outside of our faith. But we must no longer be content with tinkering around the edges of gun control. Getting rid of bump stocks like the shooter used (an idea which appears to be DOA anyway) would have done nothing to prevent the shootings in Orlando, or Columbine, or any number of future mass shootings. Rather than tinkering around the edges, we must rethink our whole relationship to violence. We must devote ourselves to cultivating peace within ourselves. If you are not taking time every day to experience peace within yourself, whether through meditation or prayer or other means, you are letting the forces of violence win.
This culture wants to keep us fearful and anxious—our fear and anxiety are what most drive the economy. Do not let those forces own your soul and prevent you from achieving serenity. That is the most tangible way that we resist evil and achieve results. Work for gun control, absolutely. But by making ourselves into peaceful people, we help inoculate ourselves from becoming perpetrators of violence as our ancestors have been and some of our fellow citizens still are.
I don’t want to be like the Pharisees who think they are in the right, but are actually blind to their own sin. I want to be like the crowds. They know Jesus as a prophet. Jesus prophetically invites us to reject absolutely violence in all its forms. If we cultivate our natural desires towards peace, we can be the tenants who produce the fruit that God wants to see: the fruit of justice and love, of a people without fear and a nation without violence. For this hope, let us work and pray tirelessly.