Violence; A Rising National Epidemic
Lent 2 Luke 13:31-35, Jeremiah 26:1-5
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem. Killing the prophets and the messengers that God has sent to you.”
Jeremiah 26: 5 “The Lord God says that if you will not listen to me and my ways and walk in my law, I will make this house like Shiloh and I will make this city, this civilization, a curse.”
Today, we the community of Des Moines are stunned. We are dazed. It seems as if we are all in shock.
This past week, police officer Steven Underwood was shot and killed up on Highway 99. Steve was a fine young man, a loving husband and father, a good son. He was a consummate police officer and the many stories that I heard this past week about his life told of what a fine policeman he was. We grieve for his family. His father, Dick, is a member of our congregation. We, the whole community of Des Moines, reach out to his family, his wife and son with love and support. As a community, we are still stunned and are still in shock. Earlier this morning, the whole family attended our previous worship service. They came to grieve and pray.
As we all know in this sleepy little community called Des Moines, two days Officer Underwood was killed, the police discovered four bodies of people who had been murdered in one house. A grandfather, a grandmother, a grandson, and his girlfriend. We thought that these things didn’t happen in our little town. The grandson who was murdered attended confirmation classes here at Grace years ago; his mother also had come to our parish. Pastor O’Neal, my colleague, has been involved with this family during their enormous painful crisis, where a mother lost her father, her mother and her son in one fatal murder. We are shocked; we are stunned; and we grieve for the family and their horrendous losses. This family is also connected to members of our congregation.
This past week, in a Federal Way, a school had a bomb scare. All the kids were paraded out into the grounds. It was frightening. Many of these students belong to our parish.
This past week, on Fat Tuesday, there were riots in downtown Seattle and the violence got out of hand. We have seen on TV the brutal beatings by thugs in the middle of mobs. We have seen the video TV clips over and over again of a beating of a young woman, of another violent beating of a young man. We all thought: not in Seattle.
We know that next month is the seventh anniversary of Waco; the sixth anniversary of Oklahoma City; the second anniversary of Columbine. I do not need to tell you the stories about Waco, Oklahoma City and Columbine because those words symbolize the violence found in our American society. Columbine was the seventh school in less than a decade to experience mass murders, and now we have more schools to add. We are afraid that the name, Des Moines, can be added to the list of violent places. Today, we are more keenly aware that we live in a culture of violence.
Three young people were shot last night in a neighboring community of Burien, and we have almost become numb and desensitized to the shootings.
In l984, Dr. Everett Koop was Surgeon General of the United States. You remember the fellow, the Surgeon General with the chiseled gray beard and old-fashioned face. In 1984, he said that the number one health problem in America was the rising epidemic of violence. In years past, the United States had faced other epidemics e.g. small box and diphtheria, and these past epidemics had to be contained and controlled. Dr. Koop felt the same way about violence in America. Violence had reached epidemic proportions. Of course, almost nothing was done about this rising tide of American violence, and since 1984, we have learned new names like Waco, Oklahoma City, and Columbine. And now Des Moines?
Dr. James Gilligan has a fascinating book and study. The title of his book is VIOLENCE and the subtitle is: A RISING NATIONAL EPIDEMIC. Dr. Gilligan works at the Center for the Study of Violence and that center is located at Harvard University. Dr. Gilligan’s primary thesis is that our culture has become addicted to violence. Just as individuals can become addicted to heroine or cocaine, so also cultures also can become addicted. He cites the evidence that among the industrialized democracies of the world, the Unites States has two to twenty more times the rate of violence than these other advanced nations. He asks the question: Why? What is America so violent? His answer: we have become addicted to violence. And what is the first reaction to an addict on being confronted with his or her addiction: denial. “That’s not me. That’s somebody else.” I believe that we are a society that has become addicted to violence, have become desensitized to violence and deny our cultural addictions. Why is it that we watch TV new and programs that are interlaced with violence? Because of our addictions. The reasons for a high degree of violence on TV news and programming is that because violence sells in America to a society that is addicted to violence.
As I read Dr. Gilligan, I thought of another book by Will and Muriel Durant, THE HISTORY OF CIVILIZATION, and I thought of their remarks about Seneca. Seneca, a Roman philosopher, was born in 4 BC, the same year that Jesus was born. Seneca is remembered for many of his sayings e.g. “all gutters lead to Rome.” But I am recalling his contrast of the games for Athens, Greece and the games for Rome, Italy. The Athenian games featured great athletes throwing the discus, the javelin, and the hammer. These great athletes were running and jumping, in Olympian style. Whereas the games in Nero’s Rome in the year 65AD featured 400 wild bulls, wild elephants, and wild tigers thrown into the same ring, and they would fight each other until there were pools and rivers of blood and the last animal standing would win. The crowd went wild in their cheering. Here was a culture of the distant past that had become addicted to violence just as our current American culture is addicted to violence. Like most addicts, we deny how extensive this addiction is and how it is ruining our lives.
Another person who is meaningful to me is our judge, the honorable Judge Darrell Phillipson who is a member of our congregation. When perplexed, I often approach Judge Phillipson for his judgments and wise observations. In the middle of all of this, I talked to him again. He explained to me that rates of many crimes in America are going down such as larceny and robbery. For many crimes, America is as safe as any time from the 1950s. But the rate of any crime associated with drugs is going up. He says that there are two drugs in particular that are destroying our society: crack cocaine and methamphetymines. Crack cocaine is the drug of preference for the black culture; methamphetymines are the drugs of preference for the white culture. These drugs are lethal. These drugs are associated with paranoia, agitation and then violence. It takes twelve to eighteen hours for a person to come down from their drugs highs, and when a person comes down from these drugs, that person is very dangerous. It is like they have no conscience. They become more violent. They will kill a grandma to get these drugs. They often begin to drink alcohol as they come down from their drug high, and so the public may see them fighting or boozing but the real culprits are the drugs. Judge Phillipson says that the tragedies of the brutal beatings on Fat Tuesday night, the death of Officer Underhill, and the brutal murders of four people in one house have a similar origin: crack cocaine and methamphetymines. We don’t clearly realize it but the tragic deaths in ourcommunity this past week are all drug related. … These drugs are highly dangerous; if you use them one or two times, you are hooked for life. There are no known cures. The physical synaptic responses in the brain are altered, and it takes 40-50 years to get this drug out of your system. Such drug users usually die by the age of thirty-five. … Now, in our society with our automatic sentencing for drug users and dealers, there is much talk about getting drug people out of expensive prisons and into treatment programs. But the judge says there are no successful treatment programs for these two drugs. You can treat a cocaine user and get that person off cocaine in nine months but it takes 40-50 years to get them off crack cocaine. These two drugs are enormously dangerous and contribute to the rising tide of violence found in American society.
It seems as if we should ask teenagers directly why there is so much violence in their society. Studies have done that. The study that I am referring to asked teenagers what were the causes of the violence found in their young culture. What was their first answer, way at the top? Their number one answer was the availability of guns. 86%. Number two at 84% was the Internet and its violence. Number three, at 75%, were parents that were not home. When you bring together these three factors, easy availability of guns, the Internet, and a disintegrated family without responsible adults, this is a recipe for violence and our increasing violence in America. You will notice that all the drug deaths in our community this past week were the result of guns.
After an earlier service this morning, a school social worker approached me after hearing this sermon. In the past week, three students have come to her telling of their desires to shoot another student. A fourth student told of wanting to kill a teacher. She was stunned and numbed by the degree of potential violence in her small school.
What I am suggesting to you this morning is that Dr. Koop was right in 1984 when he said that we have a “number one” health problem in America and it is the rising epidemic of violence. I agree with Dr. Gilligan that our culture has become addicted to violence and we are into denial about the extent of our addiction.
Jesus, weeping over what was once the holy city, mourned, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning the messengers from God. Behold, your house is forsaken.”
We can imagine Jesus weeping over our city, over our nation, over our world which is deeply addicted to violence as a means of solving conflict. Our city, our nation, our world has this deeply ingrained tendency to silence the messengers from God who clearly tell us about our addictions to violence. Jesus still weeps over our city as we attempt to ignore God's messengers of truth. God's messengers are truthtellers about our society, and our society silences them.
Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and a world addicted to violence as a means of solving conflicts.
Jesus looks at Jerusalem and ponders its future pain and his own. Jerusalem becomes a symbol of a city or civilization that rejects and ultimately kills the messengers from God.
It is with these illustrations that we approach one of the great prophets from the Old Testament, Jeremiah, and the Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah 26. Jeremiah was one of the great Old Testament prophets who was filled with the Spirit of God. He listened to the heart of God and then spoke God’s message to the particularity of the problem that his nation was facing. Like the other prophets, Jeremiah spoke in sweeping, grandiose allegations, often seemingly overstating his case for God’s anger. What made him mad was the particularity of three sins: against the orphans, the widows and the strangers.
This is what I think Jeremiah would have sounded like centuries ago. “You people of God here today. You don’t give a rip about the poor orphans and widows here among us. You could care less about the poor kids. All you truly care about is your materialistic lifestyle and keeping the good life as long as you can. You haven’t done one thing to reach out to poor kids. And the same is true of the widows. Those widows are living on nothing, barely keeping their noses above water. And you? You could care less. The same is true with the immigrants around us. They are essentially cheap labor for you, doing the jobs that you and your kids would never do. But you don’t like those strangers, those immigrants in your midst who speak a different language, who have different colored skin, and have a different religion than you own. And what galls me the most is that you come to church and thereby think you are religious. What galls me about you is that you use church attendance as a substitute for genuine love for the poor. What galls me about you is that you use church attendance as a substitute for justice and true spirituality. God is going to shatter this temple, this nation, this people. God is going to shatter this nation unless you repent and turn your lives around to God, listen to God and obey his voice.”
Well, the people, the prophets and the priests didn’t like Jeremiah’s message very much. He was not elected Mr. Popularity, Mr. Congeniality, or the King of the Senior Prom. No, not at all. The People, the prophets, and the priests all hated Jeremiah for his message. They wanted to kill him so they could silence his words.
Jeremiah? He walked through the city stark naked and said, “God will strip you of all clothing when you are in slavery to the Babylonians, unless your ways.” He also wore a yoke around his name as he paraded through the city shouting, “You will have a yoke of slavery on your neck unless you repent and change.” He also took a large clay pot, lifted it up above his head and shattered it on the stones before him (as was done in the children’s sermon today) and said, “God will shatter your lives unless you repent and change your ways and walk with God.”
Jeremiah was a genuine prophet of the Lord whom God sent to a particular historical situation and he spoke the message from God. What he said came true. The nation of Babylonia attacked. The city, the temple, the nation was destroyed and the people were led into captivity in Babylon.
God has always raised up prophets through the centuries, those men and men who have been full of God’s spirit and justice and spoke God’s word to the particularity of their moment in history. The prophet I am thinking about today is Charles Phinney, the father of revivalism. I want to talk with you about Charles Phinney because I believe his word has relevance for us today in our culture of violence.
Charles Phinney lived in the 1820s when the nation and churches were divided due to slavery. Half of the Christians owned slaves and half didn’t. Within the church, there was no consensus, no unanimity, no agreement about the morality or immorality of owning slaves. Nor was their any agreement how to interpret those Scriptures about slavery. There was great division in the church in the 1820s. Young Charles Phinney, a bright young lawyer, went to a religious revival one night, and was converted. His heart was changed, right on the spot. The next day, he walked into his law office and resigned, telling the law office that he had a new retainer and that he was now going to plead the cause of Jesus Christ. Phinney became a famous evangelist and also a professor at Oberlin College. His favorite and famous word was “revival.” His purpose was not to be an evangelist or missionary and reach to people outside the church. His purpose was to be used by God to revive the spirits and souls of Christians who were inside the church and whose hearts and minds had become complacent. Complacent Christians were all wrapped up in their daily lives and affairs and Phinney was pressing for genuine renewal from these individual Christian and their relationship with Jesus Christ. He was pushing for revival of the Christian spirit, for a renewal of commitment from individual members of churches. God made Phinney good at it. … At the same time he talked about the need for personal revival, Phinney was pressing for reform of the nation and its institutions. He was preaching, not only for revival but for reform of the culture. It was called, “reformism.” That is, at his revivals he also spoke clearly against slavery and owning slaves. He made it clear at his revivals that no Christian was to own a slave. He was the kind of man who could even refuse Holy Communion to people who owned slaves. This preacher was serious. I have often wondered what would have happened to Thomas Jefferson if he had heard someone like Phinney. As you may know, Thomas Jefferson, the great writer of our Declaration of Independence, was an owner of slaves. We also know from recent DNA testing that Jefferson is the father of Sally Hemming’s children. Sally Hemmings was one of his black slaves. We also know that Jefferson died penniless and in debt and he sold his slaves rather than giving them freedom, except of course, for the family of Sally Hemmings and his secret children. Jefferson’s genetic flesh and blood were given their freedom, his only slaves given freedom. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Thomas Jefferson would have heard the Word of the Lord from Phinney that it was immoral for him to own slaves.
Another evangelist at this time and a little earlier was George Whitefield. He was great Christian orator and 30,000 could hear his booming voice without a microphone. Benjamin Franklin thought he was such a good speaker that Franklin warned people to hang onto their wallets when Whitefield was speaking. He was eloquent. He was famous. He was Christ centered. And people flocked to hear him. But not once did he mention slavery. Why? It is simple. Because, Whitefield owned slaves, that is why. His Christianity was compromised at the core, and like so many of us, he didn’t realize it.
Phinney? He was God’s prophet for the specific moment in history. The specific challenge at his moment in history was slave trade. There was great division in the church and culture; there was huge denial that this was a problem. Phinney pressed for revival and reform. You can’t have one without the other. Revival and reform always belong together.
The years have passed and we need Charles Phinney to preach to our nation once again today. We need to hear his call for revival and reform within the church. In the time of the rising epidemic of violence, we need a particular Word from the Lord for the particular issues of our time.
We need a revival within the Christian church today. Yes, we have talked about evangelism. Yes, we have talk about missionaries and world missions. But what is really needed is a revival within the church of complacent members, who are members of a congregation more than they are disciples of Jesus Christ. We need a revival of our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We need a revival of the people who are seated here in the pews today, so that our faith in Jesus Christ is authentic, real, deep, and affects our daily attitudes and habits so that we do not run away from problems within our culture or bury our heads in the sands.
Yesterday morning, I had an unusual conversation with the Chief of Police here in Des Moines, Chief Obermiller. His whole police force is stunned by the murder of their fellow officer. We were sitting there in the waiting room across from my office, chatting about what had happened. I have watched this police chief for the past couple of days and I have seen first hand how his heart is so deep and compassionate. He quietly spoke of “wanting the gospel to be preached at Office Underwood’s funeral.” I was surprised at his choice of words and I asked him what he meant. He said that the murder was awful, but that he thought that perhaps good could come from it. He said that he wanted all his offices under his command to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; to not merely believe in an intellectual concept of God, an intellectual concept that had no power in their daily lives. He wanted his officers to have a personal relationship with Christ, with all its power and wisdom. He spoke in such quiet tones. He knew that his wish was a fantasy, but he still wished for it the same. Here was a man who did not leave a Bible sitting on his desk to demonstrate his inner core beliefs; but his officers know the chief’s inner heart.
Earlier yesterday, at the men’s breakfast, a guest spoke about this issue of violence in our society. He said that “it” happens one at a time, that one at a time a person comes to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and in that personal relationship with Christ, there is no violence or murderous rage. “One at a time,” he kept on emphasizing.
I believe that the examples of the Chief of Police in Des Moines and a guest person at the men’s breakfast are saying what Phinney would be saying to us today if he were with us: the church, those who are here this morning, needs a revival of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we are given the peace of God, a peace that passes all understanding. In Christ, we are given a peaceful spirit, not a violent spirit. Christ is peace and the opposite of violence.
But Phinney would not stop there. He would say more. He would say that our culture of violence needed to be reformed in our nation, that we as a nation will be shattered if we don’t change and come to grips with addiction to violence in all of us.
I believe that he would talk about our drug culture, and how we need to address crack cocaine and methamphetymines. We need to specifically address the violence associated with these drugs. In particular, we need to address these two drugs, why they are used, and their terrible consequences.
We need to talk about race relations and the hidden and not so hidden conflicts between blacks and whites. I have heard many racial comments this past week, as people focused on the blacks beating up on whites in the TV clips. We read that 31% of the male black population has been in jail or is in jail, most related to the violence induced by a drug called crack cocaine. Much of the male black culture has been decimated by drugs. We also read that in recent DNA studies that there is no “black gene” or “yellow gene” or any race gene. Blacks and yellows and whites are cultures that have been created. Nowadays, many people do not like the poorer black culture that we in America have created. It is like not liking one of your children for what they are doing, but your child is a creation of you. Sometimes, we don’t like what a black, cocaine culture is doing, but that culture is a creation of us. It is not genetic. It is a cultural creation. … Yesterday, I was visiting Al Lamb who is dying of cancer and his two daughters were there. The one daughter told me about an article she had read in the newspaper yesterday. It was from the redheaded young woman who was beaten up on Fat Tuesday. We saw that video over and over again, as she was being beaten by black hoods. She said she would not be alive today except for two men. Those two men saved her. And who were those two men? Two black men. Two black men saved her. But on television we focused on the beatings by blacks thugs. We didn’t see the TV clips of the two black men who saved her. … Jesus envisioned peace between the races and we need to work for a greater peace between the races today.
We need to reform our schools whereby the core values of society are taught clearly. At the same time, we realize that teachers cannot be a substitute for parents who have taught those values at home.
We need to reform our families that have been battered. There are so many one-parent families that are barely hanging on emotionally and economically. There are so many families where the parent or parents are almost dazed by the poverty they live in.
We need to reform the church. Where does one begin with this? When churchianity is a more potent force in the congregation than Christianity. When membership is more important than discipleship. When maintaining one’s middle class lifestyle becomes a more important god than God.
We need to reform the media which reflects our cultural addiction to violence. We need to reform our gun laws. Guns are easily available to a society that is addicted to violence but denies it.
Jeremiah was a great prophet of the Lord. He listened carefully to the voice of God within and walked according to the Voice of God within. He thundered with his sweeping allegations, about poor orphans, widows and strangers. He thundered about the temple, the city and the nation being destroyed. And when we finished his message, the people of his church wanted to silence him and kill him. That is the way it always is with the true prophets of God who call for repentance and turning our lives around individually and collectively. Many people want kill the prophet and his message so they can deny the reality they are living in.
Jesus said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem. Killing the prophets and stoning the messengers that the Lord God has sent you.”
(As always, this sermon was given orally, with very few notes. It was not read. Later on Sunday, this sermon was typed into the computer.)
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