Reading: Mark 8:31-38
We live in a violent world, that much we already know. We see it on our screens, in our books and in the papers we read. People resort to violence, physical or verbal to get what they want, to seek revenge, to assert power or because they just love the sport.
How can we think the world has got all the answers when we watch in horror as 17 school kids are killed in America, just going about their day to day lives? When we see the violence in Syria, and the millions of refugees fleeing in fear, or the bombs exploding in the market places of Kabul?
And while we condemn America for its gun culture what about the high rates of domestic violence in this country, particularly in our indigenous communities and the violence against children?
It seems never ending, without any great solutions. Yet, I wonder?
I was going to open this sermon with a review of a movie, which itself was violent, but then it occurred to me, why have a fictional story when the truth is much more surprising and uplifting!
I was having lunch with Tamara and Sandra the other day, and we were talking about some incredible kids` books that my Patrick has read and Arlno is reading now. Set in WW2 they are based around a Jewish boy and how he survives the war after losing his parents. Through the help of various brave and ordinary people. They are books that will make you laugh and definitely cry. When I was reading them to Patrick I had to hand the book to him as I couldn`t keep going. He on the other hand maintained a stiff upper lip and forged on. Anyway while discussing this Sandra realised she did not know much about the war, and about the holocaust, and so we gave her a bit of a history lesson. She could not believe it, over 6 million Jews, killed by the Germans. It does beggar belief. Such horrifying systematic violence. The problem is, Sandra knows only too well herself this type of violence, coming from the Congo where militias and the government raid and kill villagers randomly and without compassion.
Anyway through this I began telling them about the story of the Denmark Jews, which is incredible and a light in the darkness of that time. Let me summarise if you haven`t heard it before, and I purposely name some of the people involved (Thanks to the site, `The Holocaust`, for the details.)â¦
It`s one of the great untold stories of World War II: In 1943, in German-occupied Denmark, the Danish people find out that all 7,500 Danish Jews are about to be rounded up and deported to German concentration camps. Danish citizens spontaneously make their own decision: it`s not going to happen. And it didn`t. Risking their own lives, the Danes quickly rallied round to save their fellow citizens, and almost all of the country`s Jews were able to escape and find refuge in neutral Sweden.
How did they do it? Through nonviolent action, through love of another. And incredible bravery by many, many ordinary people. Sounds like the books.
In 1941, in the midst of World War II, the Germans began their `Final Solution` for the Jews. At that time there were 10 million Jews in the countries of German-occupied Europe. By 1945, less than half of that number were left alive. The Nazi goal was to exterminate the Jews and rule Europe via an ethnically pure German empire.
Denmark was a small idyllic country of 4 million people, with a history of taking in immigrants from countries such as Germany, Holland, Sweden, and Poland. Before the war, Denmark`s small Jewish population was well integrated into the community.
On April 9, 1940, Germany attacked Denmark. From then until 1945, Denmark was under German occupation. Most Danes were pro-British and anti-Nazi, but they were also aware of the need to adjust to living in a German-dominated Europe. Danes and Germans quickly worked out the terms of occupation. King Christian X remained in Denmark, unlike his fellow monarchs in Norway and the Netherlands who fled to escape the Germans and establish resistance movements in England.
By the following year, however, a Danish resistance movement had begun, but it made little headway until 1943. Then the mood in Denmark began to change. German military targets and businesses working for the occupiers were hit by a wave of sabotage actions. There was also labour unrest, with massive strikes - widely supported by the populace - in many Danish cities.
King Christian X became a prominent figure for the real views of the majority of the Danish population. The King made it his practice to ride his horse alone through Copenhagen every morning to underline his continuing claims for national sovereignty, unarmed and without escort. He became a national symbol for rich and poor alike, a positive contrast to German militarism and to the cult of the Fuhrer. In fact, King Christian rejected many aspects of the occupation, made speeches against the occupying force and became known as a protector of the Jews.
In August, 1943, a state of emergency was declared in Denmark, and the Nazis decided that they could now move against the Jews. The Nazis were preparing to deport the 7,500 Jews, starting at 10 PM. on October1, 1943 but Georg F. Duckwitz, a German maritime attachÃ©, leaked out the order to Hans Hedtoft, a Danish Social Democrat, who in turn warned C.B. Henriques, the head of the Jewish Community.
On September 29th, two days before the projected round up on the Jewish New Year, Dr. Marcus Melchior, the acting chief Rabbi of the Krystalgaade Synagogue, implored his stunned congregants and the whole Jewish community to go into hiding immediately.
The word was passed and many Danes offered their support, conveying warnings and finding places for the Jews to hide. Danes felt that persecution of minorities was a breach of Danish culture and they were not prepared to stand for it.
From all strata of Danish society and in all parts of the country, clergymen, civil servants, doctors, store owners, farmers, fishermen and teachers protected the Jews. A United Lutheran Church openly and persistently challenged the German offensive. Dr. Koster, who was in charge of Bispebjerg Hospital, was instrumental in arranging for hundreds of Jews to be hidden at the hospital before they made their escape to Sweden. The psychiatric building and the nurses` quarters were filled with refugees, who were all fed from the hospital kitchen. Virtually the entire medical staff at the hospital cooperated to save Jewish lives. Once it became known among Danes what the hospital was doing, money was donated from all over the country.
The Danish police and coast guard also took sides with the oppressed by refusing to assist in the manhunt. Not to mention the Wehrmacht soldiers, some of whom looked the other way - moved by either compassion or bribes.
To make their escape, many refugees were driven to the coast in ambulances belonging to the hospital. Local fishermen agreed, for a price, to transport them to Sweden. About one fifth of the Danish Jews escaped to Sweden via a small village called Gilleleje with train connections to Copenhagen and a large fishing harbour. Fishing boats as well as coastal freighters from the harbour took part. A committee of local people were quick to initiate rescue aid, helping to find hiding places and food.
Over the course of a few days, more than 7,000 Danish Jews reached safety in Sweden. Only 481 were captured and sent to a Nazi prison at Theresienstadt. Conditions there were hard, but it was not a death camp. And the Danes continued to protect them there.
Almost all of the Danish Jews in the camp survived through the help and support of the Danish civil service and church organizations. Month after month, the Danes sent over 700 packages of clothing, food and vitamins to the Jews in the camp.
Finally, once the war was over when the Danish Jews could finally return, 99% of the population who had been in Denmark, discovered that their homes, pets, gardens and personal belongings had been cared for by their neighbours. Which was very different elsewhere in Europe. A last act of love and compassion.
What a story. An amazing story! But sobering. What would we have done?
Returning violence with violence is a pathway to destruction. Returning violence with love is the pathway to redemption, to life. For the Jews of Denmark and for us.
Martin Luther King knew it when he said â¦
`â¦. Returning violence for violence multiples violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.`
I feel Iike calling out to those in America and those here. There is only one way to survive and thrive, and that is through love.
So what has the story of the Denmark Jews, got to do with us and the way we live? What has it got to do with our faith? Well, everything. It shows us what is possible, it surprises us with what people are capable of, what we are capable of with love and compassion. With courage.
For society expects a certain pattern of behaviour and our faith, and Jesus offers, demands another.
When we read and think about Jesus going to the cross we realise it was an unexpected and in fact horrifying end for Jesus and for those witnessing it. But as Walter Winks says, `the irreducible fact about Jesus is that he was executed`. What, executed! That is not how the story is supposed to go! The cross we see hanging up here, in Mark`s day, represented that terrible form of capital punishment reserved by imperial Rome for political dissenters. It applied to Jesus because his story was one of confrontation with the authorities, declaring justice over injustice, love over hate and peace over violence.
Bill Loader has said, `To be an agent of God is to be a lover, not a winner`. Jesus gives himself over to the violence and power of others without compromising his vision of love. He offers an alternative to what had gone before, what people expected of him and what people expected of God. The cross ends up being a symbol of sacrifice, not to save us from our sins but to provide a light away from them. Instead of redemptive violence we get redemptive love.
The reading today is really setting the scene for this ending, much like our story set the scene here. Initially we find Peter having a problem with the ending. He responds to Jesus` words that he will suffer, be rejected and die but will rise again, with outrage. While many debate whether these words are original or added later, the message is clear, the vocation of Jesus will inevitably clash with the powers of the day. Peter is probably shocked and maybe even frightened, because, as we have heard many times, he thought of Jesus as a Jewish messiah, who would come and conquer and overturn things with might and glory.
Yet we know that Jesus was not that sort of Messiah. Peter rebukes Jesus, but Jesus lets him know pretty plainly, that `he is setting his mind not on divine things but on human things`.
Jesus uses poor Peter as his fall guy, dismissing his response in the passage with scorn. `What, you still don`t get it?`. The problem is, getting it means getting something much bigger and much more costly. And it could equally apply to us today.
Because in the reading we then hear Jesus speaking of the cross, tying it to discipleship. Let me read what it says again (Mark 8:34-36). But what does it mean to deny oneself. It certainly does not mean we restrict our food or chocolate intake as many during Lent will be doing. It is to turn towards life and light. It is to turn towards God, and all that Jesus represented.
To deny oneself is to offer an alternative model for living; it is to admit political and social and personal alignment with Jesus, leaving behind those things in society which do not conform to his message. It is to deny the safe and easy option, for one which is costly and may inevitably lead to suffering and death but which ultimately leads to life. Not a life in another place but fullness of life here and now. And conversely, to deny Jesus is to forfeit true life and purpose. Bill Loader summarises it beautifully, `In Mark`s context it is to choose to be faithful followers of Jesus and not to renege on all that he stands for when faced with pressure and persecution to deny him. Being true to him, to God and to ourselves`.
So the cross represents a dying to the conventions of the world, of rising to a new identity, and a new way of being. Not easy!
So we return to where we started.
For one of the greatest conventions of our world, greatest con, is that violence is the answer to everything.
Redemptive violence is the overall motto of our day. It is the myth that order and chaos can be beaten by violence. That might is right. No matter where you look, whether in make believe or in real life redemptive violence is presented as the answer, that violence will deliver us from whatever it is we are trying to escape from. If you doubt it look at what is happening in our world, both in the way people respond to each other to how nations respond. Conflict and confrontation is everywhere, often leading to a violent outcome. I was shocked, as many were, to hear President Trump advocate concealed carryon weapons as a legitimate answer to the mass shootings in America, which means arming teachers, so that the violence escalates. Yet we know violence begets violence.
When we think of Peter and his denial, I think of the most radical message of Jesus, and it is reflected in the cross. It is its symbol of nonviolence, and call of discipleship as a vocation of nonviolent resistance to the powers of the day. A symbol so shocking to many early Jesus followers, including Peter, who expected their messiah to be all powerful, and could not fully grasp its meaning.
At this time in our history, maybe this is the most radical call we have to respond to.
Even the church for centuries has whitewashed the message, such that the idea that nonviolence can work, can transform and give life, is watered down, because it is too shocking, too difficult.
I want to read something on this from Walter Wink, an incredible peace activist and writer, for he writes better than I do:
`No doubt the objection may be raised that affirmation of nonviolence by the churches would be simplistic, that ethical judgements in the real world are far too complex to adopt a fixed ethical stance. This objection, I must confess, was one of the main reasons I resisted committing myself without reserve to nonviolence for so many years. I have slowly come to see that what the church needs most desperately is precisely such a clear cut, unambiguous position. Governments will still wrestle with the option of war, and ethicists can perhaps assist them with their decisions. But the church`s own witness should be understandable by the smallest child. We oppose violence in all its forms. And we do so because we reject domination. That means, the child will recognise, no beatings. That means, women will hear, no battering. That means, men will gradually understand, no more male supremacy or war. That means, everyone will realize, no more rape of the environment.
The church must affirm nonviolence without reservation because nonviolence is the way God`s domination free order is coming.`
And if you think it can`t work, look at the Denmark Jews, look at places like South Africa, Poland, the reuniting of Germany and even the Philippines. The civil rights moment and the defeat of apartheid. Think of those who have gone before us.
As Wink writesâ¦
`Jesus` way of nonviolence is not the least utopian. It does not require people to have achieved exceptional heroism, or a new humanity, or a high level of intelligence, or spiritual enlightenment. It can be, and has been, enacted by common people numbering in the millions.`
In the end we can find strength in the truth of Jesus` message. God gives life and this life involves peace and justice and nonviolence. Violence only leads to heartache and pain and darkness and death, as so many others have discovered. As Christians, our call to carry the cross of Christ is a call to carry the cross of nonviolence and love. It is a call to be co-creators with God and with Jesus into a new way of living. A way which involves practising justice, service and conflict resolution in our daily lives, and empowering others to engage in peacemaking as an alternative vision for the world.
We start with one another, with our children and our communities.
We and our society may be surprised at the ending!!!! By the way of love.