The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: Choose Life

Presiding Bishop Preaches in Youngstown, OH

St. John's Episcopal Church

by Katharine Jefferts Schori


There are questions and anger and grief in Youngstown after the shooting at a student party last week. It makes little sense, even though some have tried to make sense of it by saying that it had to do with an argument among several guys over a woman.

Most human violence has its roots in a desire for possession, whether it's another person, or what that person has, or even the idea that you're right and your opponent is wrong. Sometimes the violence seems mindlessly random, the result of profound mental illness, yet even that is another kind of possession - the kind that Jesus answered by casting out demons. The urge to control somebody else or other peoples' goods can backfire, and get turned around: we can be owned by our possessions.

The words of Jesus we heard in the gospel are mostly about possession - who owns what - or what owns us: "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder'; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment..." If we hang on to a sense of violation by staying angry we ultimately give over control of our lives to whatever prompted the anger in the first place. This isn't a directive to never be angry, but it is a caution about stewing in our anger - or drowning in it.

Anger is a necessary part of grieving. We're very appropriately angry about the deaths of young people whose lives have been cut short. We should also be angry that those who choose violence don't have the capacity to find another way to settle their differences. Some of us are undoubtedly angry that young men still think they have a right to possess a woman, rather than assume that her decision in the matter should end any rivalry. Some of us are angry that guns are so readily available, and that they're so often used in wretchedly wrong ways.

What Jesus is challenging us about is staying angry, without seeking some kind of resolution or healing. That anger can be a gift, not just a curse, but only if it's used constructively. It has to contribute to healing in some way.

What sort of healing response might come out of this latest violence? Where or how might we expect to find resurrection?

Maybe it's helpful to look at other outbursts of violence, as well as some of the roots of violence in our own lives. Violence emerges in the face of disordered desire - wanting things that won't satisfy, or thinking there's no other way to get what's wanted. The violence that killed Jesus came from a Roman desire for peace - Jesus was interrupting the official Roman plan for enforcing a quiet and submissive population. The violence in Egypt in recent weeks comes from a similar clash between official quashing of protest and a popular desire for greater freedom.

In this part of the world, the lack of concrete hope for young people has something to do with why boys' desires for a relationship with a particular girl might get to seem so central to life. If that's the only part of life where there seems to be any choice, it looms a lot larger. At its roots, it has something to do with economic and social chaos and disintegration. People aren't caring for each other in the same ways they do when life is more predictable, or when there are deeper relationships in the community. Everyone is concerned about employment, and paying the bills. People are afraid they're not going to make it. Many people have left this valley in search of employment, and relationships are destabilized.

So what do we do with a cauldron of anger like that? It's not a new problem and the violence is not new behavior. Paul's letter to the Corinthians is about similar behavior, even if it is a little less charged. The folks in Corinth, all those supposed followers of Jesus, are choosing up sides, and deciding which gang they belong to. He chides them about their jealousy and quarreling - like those guys at the fraternity party, who are afraid they won't get what they want.

What is Paul's answer? ‘Remember that you are servants, and that you're supposed to work together.' That's a central part of the answer to violent behavior anywhere - focus on a larger vision, remember that we're all connected, and challenge people to see the abundance all around us.

Several years ago, I heard about a town where it was illegal to skateboard anywhere on the street or the sidewalks. Guess what all the kids wanted to do. The city authorities treated them like criminals. A new pastor in town noticed the abundant space behind her church, and turned it into a skateboard park. The kids discovered community, the parishioners discovered youth weren't inherently scary or violent, and the town found a much greater degree of peace and even joy, simply because somebody heard the lament and responded.

Jesus is asking us to respond to violence with peace-making, by letting go of retaliation in favor of more effective responses. Take the energy behind that anger and use it productively. Love that neighbor, don't hate him or her. Hanging on to that hate or anger is, as some wag put it, like drinking rat poison and expecting somebody else to die.

I had a revealing conversation yesterday morning about Kent, Ohio. I heard something of the history of that community, its older roots in farming, the centrality of the 100-year old flour mill, and the ongoing deeply-buried anger over the events of Kent State in 1970. Many of you will remember that the National Guard was called up to quell student rioting over the Viet Nam war, and the mayhem that had gone on for days, and that a number of students died.

Some residents of Kent were afraid that a communist revolution was about to be unleashed. Some were sure that the students built a big bonfire right outside the old flour mill intentionally, hoping it would explode. At one point the mayor dragooned many men in town, armed them, and posted them at critical pieces of infrastructure, like the power station. Those guys spent the night terrified that they might have to shoot somebody.

The anger in Kent over the chaos and destruction of those days hasn't healed. Forty years later, the town and the university are still pretty divided. The anger remains - it has possessed the community. Something similar could have happened in South Africa over the end of apartheid, but it was forestalled by Desmond Tutu's insistence that the stories of violence had to be told. Telling the story is connected to what Jesus says at the end of that gospel: "Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes' or ‘No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one." We have to tell the whole truth of what we know - hiding it only leads to deadened hearts and spirits. Choose life. Start exploring the roots of the anger and violence. Invite a cross-section of this community to tell the stories - and go looking for partners to help provide a safe space for doing that.

Which will you choose? Life or death, blessing or curse?

Choose life. Choose life. Choose life.

[Taken with permission from the website of The Episcopal Church.]