Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Good Shepherd Confronts Violence

The Good Shepherd Faces Violence
by Paul Bresnahan

As we recoil in horror from the events of the Virginia Tech slayings, we find ourselves glaring into the tempestuous abyss of chaos itself. It is as though we were there the day creation began, when "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep" (Genesis 1:2). The Hebrew word for the "formless void" is a word that can be rendered "chaos" of the sort that is active and leads into the abyss.

In the next verse, God spoke and said, "Let there be light."

Thus we come to Good Shepherd Sunday, and a story emerges of a holocaust survivor who put himself between a crazed shooter and his students. Some managed to escape through the windows of a second floor classroom, and the professor gave his life so that others might live.

As much as we try to make sense of what happened on that day in Blacksburg, Virginia, we are left only with a doleful lament over the senseless loss of life of those who had so much life yet to live.Perhaps it is time to turn to the Savior and find safe pasture. I believe with all my heart that as I find that safe pasture, Jesus will not lose even one of all that has been given him. It may require that I give my life for others, as did a devoted college professor just a few short days ago, but I will find eternal life when I do.

Let's explore what it means to "brood over the waters" and hear the Word of God who says, "Let there be light."


In the wake of an experience of the Absurd, such as we confronted just a few days ago in a small town in southwestern Virginia, many wonder how God can "allow" such senseless deeds. Nothing happened -- there was no intervention from above, no savior, not so much as a whimper from heaven. Those who have championed the notion of The God Delusion seem to have more and more evidence to support the notion that there simply is no God.

There are those who would throw up their arms and say indeed that seems to be the case. There are wars, there is genocide, there was the Holocaust, the whole creation groans under the weight of exploitation that seems to be leading it toward an apocalypse of a manmade kind... and God simply isn't doing anything about it.

We stare into the abyss.

We wonder.

And then somebody like Dr. Liviu Librescu kindles a flickering candle of hope. Here is a man who, looking into the abyss, recognized it for what it was, and immediately renounced it. He threw himself into the way of a hopelessly deranged young man and screamed for his students to seek safety in the few moments he was able to give them. Several were able to get to safety by jumping out of the second story windows of that classroom. He gave them what he could. He gave them his life.

Here is an example of the Good Shepherd -- he knew his students by name; he called them by name; he laid down his life for them.

The world is awash with violence these days. There are cities where the murder rate is again climbing alarmingly. On the other hand, there are stories of ministers and pastors who take to the streets to protect their neighborhoods. Thus there is the darkness and the abyss, and on the other hand there are those who light the candles of hope.

When God confronted the abyss in the very beginning, God did what only God could do and said: "Let there be light." For those who say there is no God, there is no hope. It is as though the logic of that proclamation leads only to the abyss and an endless descent into the Absurd. I renounce that.

I would rather embrace the Good Shepherd who first embraced me. I hear his voice with church-bell clarity. I hear him call my name. He gives me eternal life, the kind of life that is worth living and if necessary the kind of life that is worth giving away for others. I am absolutely convinced that nothing can snatch me away from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with me. Absolutely! I claim that faith. It resonates deeply in my soul. Nothing can separate me from Jesus. Thank God Good Shepherd Sunday came when it did this year -- it came just in the nick of time.


The image of the Good Shepherd comes to us particularly in the 10th chapter of John's Gospel. It is a powerful image of warmth and affection that is often enshrined in Christian art and in some of my favorite stained-glass windows. I see a lamb in the arms of Jesus, and something child-like in me feels so safe. Amazingly, Jesus knows every sheep by name, he knows the quirks of my personality, and loves me with all my faults just as I am. For no good reason that I can figure out, and certainly not for anything that I have done to earn it, he gives me eternal life. And then it just goes on and on and gets even better than I can ask or imagine. And to prove it, to demonstrate how much he loves me, and not just me but everyone, he takes the sins of the whole world on himself, he dies on the cross and rises again to his Easter triumph! And that is just a child-like image.

Then in adulthood the imagery transforms itself into something deeper and even more abiding. Everyone knows the words "the Lord is my shepherd" by heart. They are words of such compelling power that priests, pastors, ministers, and parishioners in moments of extremis still find in them comfort of a sort that transcends the most excruciating suffering. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death." We find that even in funerals, especially in funerals, hope is kindled like a candle in the face of the Inevitable. "I will fear no evil, for thou art with me." Even those who have their doubts about this whole enterprise find their eyes filled with tears they cannot explain sometimes when they go to "pay their respects" to a dear old friend. Deep down, those with little or no faith at all have to wonder in moments like this, "maybe there is a God."

Then routine returns to us all and chaos returns. Life surrounds us like a swirling tempest. Senseless decisions, expectations, and conflict again return at work, sometimes in our homes, and often in our churches. And again we wonder. And that is when we open the Book and read those amazing verses: "the breath of God brooded over the waters of the deep." And God said: "Let there be light." As God speaks, do we not also want to speak such words with the actions of our lives? Isn't that what we want to say with God and become partners with God in holding back the abyss? I hope so.


As hard as we might try, we won't make any sense of it. CNN, FOX News, Larry King, and others can run scores of special reports, interviews, and reflections, and we'll still be left with the question "Why?" There will not be a satisfying answer to that question. There may be some frail attempts at explanation, but they will all be little more than frustrating platitudes. We flip on the news and we are left merely to recoil in horror as we often have before: JFK, RFK, MLK, Kent State, Waco, Oklahoma City, September 11, Columbine, and now this! The darkness is winning.

Or is it? Out of the above initials there came the Peace Corps and civil rights struggles, and generations of people saw their lives touched by hope and justice. From these dreadful disasters there came the stories of heroic figures that were the first responders in times of peril. And time and time again we hear of someone who stood between menace and a hapless victim. The Good Shepherd wins again!

I cannot help but think of the Good Shepherd. His whole life was dedicated to folks like the ones many of us have served all our lives. They were fishermen, farmers, homemakers, children, the sick, and the outcast. And he became their shepherd. He defended them. He healed them. He taught them the path to eternal life. He was and still is their companion along the way.

When sin had done its worst and darkness again had its hour, he came to the defense even of those who came to arrest him and said no more violence! He allowed himself to be put through an unfair trial; he was accused and scourged, convicted, and died. He put himself between the madness of oblivion and me. He even forgave the ones who did their wicked deeds and said: "Forgive them, for they know not what they do."

This Good Shepherd has come to my defense. He blocked the doorway for me so I could live. He died for all my sins and me. The Good Shepherd has faced violence and he became the conqueror. He faced suffering and made it redemptive. The two greatest monuments to our struggle for meaning are met in Jesus. Jesus faced the violence of Rome's might and he became the victor. He faced the horror of the violence of religious fundamentalism and loved his way to the resurrection.

We face nothing new in these days. It may feel new, but the terrorism of military might and religious extremism is not new to the earth. Jesus took it on 2,000 years ago and confronted it with the love of God. By offering his life on the cross he gave it meaning, and now we are invited to take up our cross and follow where Jesus led the way.

What gave the church her power in her early days was that her leaders were willing to give their lives as a ransom for many. They literally took up their crosses and followed Jesus. The Easter victory of Jesus was so vivid to his people that they were willing to say no to violence. They too confronted it with the same courage as Professor Librescu. Jesus and the professor have given us much to ponder. They invite us to live the Easter message of the love of God, which has the courage to face violence and suffering with a commodity that is rare now as it was then.

Thankfully, we do not always have to give of "the last full measure of our devotion." More often, we can face violence by searching for justice. We have a myriad of opportunities to minister to the sick and the dying. Like God brooding over the waters of chaos, we can employ our creative gifts and make "something beautiful for God." We can become "something beautiful for God."

In the Eucharist it is no mere accident that the words "lift up your hearts" are said. In the middle of our worship as we make our gifts to God, we are encouraged to be "lifted up" out of the chronic epidemic of the depression of our times. The word "encourage" literally means to "take heart." Thus we take communion and receive Jesus into our lives as we do in both the Word and in the Sacrament. We have so much to live for. Jesus has gone all the way to the edge of the abyss itself and found joy in making his gift to God. It is as though we stood there the day creation began and God said "Let there be light!"

O God, make my life a candle in this dark world.

1 comment:

Chuck said...

Thank you, Father Paul. Thanks be to the Good Shepherd, and the light he brings to us.