A high school classmate messaged me on Saturday, asking what she promised was not a snarky question: How will I preach a “normal” Christmas sermon in the wake of Newtown? It’s a good question. There are parents like myself who are trying, perhaps in vain, to protect our younger children from the news—certainly the grisliest details. More deeply, though, she wondered how we can celebrate in the face of this kind of tragedy. (To make matters worse, did she see that I was preaching on A Charlie Brown Christmas? Would a children’s cartoon not be hopelessly beside-the-point at such a time? If you attended my church service yesterday, I hope you saw that it wasn’t.)
Regarding this deeper objection, however, I reminded her first that Christians ought to be the most realistic people on the planet about evil—its reality, its pervasiveness, its intractability. This is the very evil, after all, that God sent his Son into the world to defeat. That this victory remains elusive to us is also no surprise: the world in which suffering, death, and evil will no longer exist is discontinuous with our own. Our faith is eschatological: Christians don’t share the burden, under which our modern-minded friends labor, that our world is or should be making “progress.” As David Bentley Hart said in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami many years ago, our Christian faith sets us free from optimism and teaches us hope instead.
We celebrate Christmas in the wake of Newtown because Christmas teaches us hope.
Besides, at the very center of the Christmas story is another Newtown: King Herod, hearing reports of a rival king born in Bethlehem, sent soldiers there to murder every boy two-years-old and younger. The first Christmas proclaims hope in the midst of tragedy and suffering and unspeakable evil. Try naming any Christmas since then in which that wasn’t the case.
In yesterday’s pastoral prayer—after referring with great circumspection to Newtown—I directed our attention to a future beyond our present world, when “the blood of all your beloved children will be avenged.”
Avenged. Some Christians bristle at the idea of God’s vengeance. Isn’t that an Old Testament idea? they ask—as if they never read Revelation, not to mention the four gospels. If so, I would point them to something that Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, who lived through the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the ’90s, wrote in Exclusion & Embrace. He said that those Christian traditions (Anabaptists, for instance) most committed to non-violence and pacifism are also most comfortable with the idea of God’s vengeance. We should learn from them, he writes.
My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.†
In yesterday’s sermon, I said the following: “Among other things, Christmas means that there will come a day when the Herods of the world will face the justice they so richly deserve.”
It’s perfectly appropriate, as we reflect on the events of last Friday, for us to look forward to that day.
† Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 304.