This reflection is written against the backdrop of the release of Pope Francis’s third encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,“ on Oct 4, 2020, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. The focus of this encyclical is “fraternity” and “social friendship.” In his encyclical, where the Good Samaritan is a key figure, Pope Francis decries violence and war, saying: “Never again War!” (FT, 258). Meditating on this document and Sunday’s Gospel reading (Mt 21:33-43, the Parable of the Tenants), the focus of my reflection is the theme of the prevalence of violence. In the parable, a landowner leased his vineyard to tenants, who, when the time of reckoning came, beat, stoned, and killed the landowner’s servants and even his son.
This was the third consecutive Sunday in which the Gospel reading has been a parable about a vineyard. In this week’s parable, however, there is a surprising new element—violence. In many ways, this parable summarizes the entirety of salvation history. More importantly, it is a clear reference to Jesus’ life and ministry as it played out in human history: Jesus became the victim of the most brutal violence.
As Christians who understand the implications of institutional, coordinated, and senseless violence against Jesus and the early Christians, it’s possible to imagine we have a special distaste for violence. But do we?
Violence in the Bible
Unfortunately, violence is weaved rather tightly into biblical history. Very early in Genesis, Cain’s violent murder of Abel (Gen 4:8) serves as a forewarning that the rest of the story of humanity is not going to be very peaceful. And the warning rang true. Sometimes because of the violence done to God’s people and sometimes because God’s people initiated it, Judeo-Christian scripture is punctuated heavily with violence.
The Exodus story and story of the final arrival of the people of God into the Promised land is steeped in violence. I have to admit, that each time the story of the death of thousands of Egyptians is read at the Easter Vigil, I cringe a little. It’s not that I do not rejoice that God’s people were spared, but the story edges on the glorification of violence. Often, it is easy to lose sight of the story behind the story and begin to condone and justify violence.
In contrast, the New Testament story makes me very proud of my faith. While violence figures prominently in the New Testament story as well—in Herod’s massacre of the children, in Herod’s beheading of John the Baptist, and in the violent death of Jesus Christ—Jesus and his followers never resorted to violence. The one time that Peter drew his sword, Jesus rebuked him to put it back in its sheath (Mt 26:52). Until the conversion of Constantine in the year 312 and the ultimate amalgamation of Christianity and the Roman Empire around 380, there is not one instance where, in spite of the persecution and violence against it, Christians either gathered armies, manufactured arms, or waged war against their enemies—not even in self-defense. The New Testament story is a story of love, peace, compassion, nonretaliation, and goodwill.
God’s Vision is Peace
While violence—both against God’s people and by God’s people—figures prominently in the Bible, there is ample evidence that a violent world was not God’s original or ultimate vision for creation, for the world, and for those who dwell in it. Sunday’s first reading from Isaiah, for example, ends with these words: “The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished plant; he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! for justice, but hark, the outcry!” (Is 5:7). God’s vision is for right judgement and justice, not bloodshed and outcry. We cannot forget that famed passage from Isaiah where God’s promise of the Messiah lays forth this vision: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again” (Is 2:4).
Yes! God’s vision is for a world where, “The wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall graze, together their young shall lie down; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the viper’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair. They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea” (Is 11:6-9). Isaiah’s promised Messiah is called “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Is 9:5). Jesus did indeed come as the Prince of Peace; not just for human beings but all creation. “Glory to God in the highest,” the angels sang at his birth, “and on earth peace on those his favor rests” (Lk 2:14).
The Catholic Tradition
The Catholic tradition on war and peace has been handsomely built on the Gospel of Peace. Augustine, and later Thomas Aquinas, developed the Just War Theory in order to limit the ravages of violence and war rather than promote it. Throughout the 1960s, Popes John XXIII and Paul VI proclaimed in Pacem in Terris (1963), Gaudium et Spes (1965), and Populorum Progressio (1967) that peace cannot exist where there is injustice, inequality, thirst for power, arms race, pursuit of endless profit. Wherever there is disregard for the commandment to “love our neighbor” we cannot rightly be said to have peace—certainly not the peace God intends for us. More recently, Pope Francis has emphatically reminded us again that caring for Creation and cruelly destroying the resources of poorer nations and communities also stands in the way of true peace.
Is it not true that we Christians imagine heaven as a state of eternal peace? Each time we pray “Thy kingdom come,” is it not a yearning for the justice, love, peace, and goodness of heaven to be present on earth? The violence we see and experience in the world and our nation today is radically contrary to the Gospel of Peace and the prayer for the coming of the kingdom of God.
The Prevalent Violence
When future generations read the history of our present as recorded by historians, what will they find? Will the 21st century read like the 19th and 20th? In the history of the last few centuries, we read about the violence of slavery, violence against women, the rise of fascism, anti-Semitism and the resulting two World Wars, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the violence of ethnic cleansing, and the often-violent end of colonialism in various parts of the world. Yes, there were some sparks that lit the hope of peace: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and global nuclear peace treaties. However, we repeatedly fall into a pattern where any progress we make is squandered soon after. The renewed nationalistic and fascist movements across the globe threaten to undo whatever steps we have made toward peace in recent years.
Today, not even a global pandemic that has affected 30 million people and killed more than a million, has had the ability to bring humanity together. Violence against nature and creation, violence against innocent human life—even in the womb, violence against immigrant families, violence against women, institutionalized racial violence, futile wars, gun-violence, and politically motivated violence continue to ravage our world and our nation.
The Catholic Stance
What does a follower of Jesus do? Too often I see Christians and Catholics openly and willingly compromising the Gospel of Peace and succumbing to the politics of hate, violence, and war. Why do we need any other ideology when we have the Gospel? It seems that many Catholics want to serve two masters: the one who hangs on the cross and the one who crucifies others. Too often we see Catholics and other Christians wear a cross around their neck while also holding a gun in their hands.
Thinking and praying about our present situation, I allowed my imagination to run wild. If Jesus lived in our world today, what would he preach? What would he say? How would he live? How would the Parable of the Tenants play out today? My fear is that we would crucify him yet again. I say this because in spite of the violent death of Jesus, the world —including many Catholics—have not renounced the kind of violence that killed him. Every act of violence that harms, destroys, or kills another is the violence done to Christ himself; and it still does not deter us!
The Parable of the Tenants invites us to reflect on the violence done not only to Jesus, but the violence that continues to plague our society and our world. Pope Francis says in Fratelli tutti, “Every war leaves our world worse than it was before. War is failure of politics, and humanity, a shameful capitulation, stinging defeat before the forces of evil” (FT, 261). This is not the time or the place for Catholics to sit idle as violence and war—institutional or personal—are proposed as answers to the world’s and our nation’s problems. Instead, I urge all Catholics everywhere to categorically eschew the politics of division, hate, violence, and war. Rather, let us radically and uncompromisingly follow the Christ. As Pope Francis says, “Sincere and humble worship of God ‘bears fruit not in discrimination, hatred and violence, but in respect for the sacredness of life, respect for the dignity and freedom of others, and living commitment to the welfare of all’” (FT 280).