What would Advent be without John the Baptist and his heralding the coming of the Messiah, the one who would free humanity from all those bondages that enslave us?
John was not a politically correct kind of guy. He wasn’t concerned about the filters that civilized society uses to keep our most abrasive comments at bay. John told it like it was, often getting himself in trouble and ultimately costing his life. Today’s gospel passage from Luke ends just short of those outrageous unfiltered comments.
In verse seven, when the high mucky-muck Jerusalem elites came to the wilderness where John was preaching and baptizing to check him out, he rails at them saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Nothing endears one more to people than calling them a brood of snakes! John spoke truth to power, boldly confronting those systems that abused and harmed people, regardless of the personal cost.
In reading the Bible, matrix (or context) matters for a deeper understanding of what is taking place. In describing John’s proclamation of the baptism of repentance, Luke quotes the prophet Isaiah who lived six centuries earlier:
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'
The matrix that Isaiah was operating in when this passage was written refers to the Babylonian exile of the Hebrew people. In the year 598 BCE, the Babylonian Empire ravaged the Kingdom of Judah. The Temple, which was the center of Jewish life, was destroyed and the political, religious and economic elite of Judah was sent into exile in Babylon. Everything of importance was eradicated by Babylon to eliminate Jewish culture, a cataclysmic event for the remaining peasantry left in this desolate land.
Sixty years later, a Messiah figure in the guise of Cyrus of Persia, conquered the Babylonian Empire. Cyrus freed the exiled Hebrews, allowing them to return to Judah. He also supported rebuilding the temple, and returned the precious temple vessels the Babylonians had looted sixty years earlier.
Isaiah regards Cyrus as the Lord for whom people will make the paths straight, the valleys filled, the mountains low and the rough places plain. They will do this because it is by Cyrus’ actions that they will be freed from the bondage of a brutal oppressive empire and realize justice in their lives. Therefore, they are to do everything possible for redemption.
Luke uses the Isaiah matrix in his gospel, yet he refers to the Roman Empire as the brutal oppressive regime keeping the people in bondage. For Luke, Isaiah, the Babylonian exile and Cyrus’s redemption are the prototypes for John the Baptist, who called the people under similar duress to prepare for the Messiah who would free them from the bondage of the Roman Empire. This time, Jesus would be the redemptive Messiah.
In the case of both Isaiah and John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord is not a literal one, in the sense that it’s not an excavation of topography and the building of roads. Preparing the way is a call to do the interior preparation of the soul, which leads to amendment of life. It smooths the rough places of sinful behavior we engage in.
Both Isaiah and John the Baptist believed that brutal empires could only subject people to bondage when they turned away from their relationship with God, which is sin. Isaiah and John call us to repent from the sinful life of violence and injustice that empires call us to, and urge us to turn toward God’s way of life – the way of nonviolence and equal justice for all people.
We are living in a new matrix in 2015, yet it is rooted in those of Isaiah and Babylon, and Luke and Rome. The new matrix we live in is dominated by the empire of wanton gun violence; an empire that has put us as a nation in bondage to a way of life that is steeped in violence and injustice. With each passing day, we feel the increasing brutal heel of gun violence’s oppression in our lives, as more people are mowed down in cold blood.
Instead of a Babylonian king or Roman emperor, the ruler of this empire of gun violence is the National Rifle Association. It is also the feckless political leaders in our federal and state governments who enable the NRA in its rule of violence and injustice; leaders whom it has financially co-opted, if not outright blackmailed, to do its beck and call.
Meanwhile, the American public sits immobilized, shackled like conquered peoples, fearful of the brutality but lacking the will and determination to address our own enslavement. Our current circumstances are no less cataclysmic than the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Hebrews.
How many times do we need to hear distorted interpretations of the right to bear arms by “a well-regulated Militia,” provided for in the Second Amendment, to rationalize 300 million guns including assault weapons, in private hands? How often will co-opted judiciaries and legislative bodies misconstrue the Second Amendment – so deep is the pernicious influence of the NRA - that they will not even allow for a cursory background check to ensure that a gun buyer is not a criminal, a terrorist, or a person with a history of mental illness? How many cheap, empty platitudes do we have to hear cross the lips of political leaders after yet another shooting, offering their thoughts and prayers for the victims of mass gun violence, as they simultaneously vote down even moderate laws for gun control with the one hand and take NRA campaign contributions with the other?
As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff wrote in his New York Times op-ed piece, On Guns, We're Not Even Trying, “It’s not clear what policy, if any, could have prevented the killings in San Bernardino. Not every shooting is preventable. But we’re not even trying.”
We’re not even trying. We live in the exile of denial. The NRA, our new Babylon, has put us there and paralyzed us with fear. And like all empires, it does this so it may wantonly engage in its ongoing reign of terror through subterfuge, intimidation, manipulation, dishonesty and the threat of even more violence.
We are complicit in this. Our exile of denial allows our elected leaders to speciously deny the reality and pernicious effects of the violence and suffering that results from gun violence. In that denial, we endanger a frank and authentic response to this social crisis.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The Biblical tradition, with its ongoing dialogue with God and trust in God’s justice, can and does overcome the maliciousness of human behavior exhibited in the ways of empire. Out of each of the two matrixes I mentioned comes a messiah, a savior figure, who offers the way to redemption.
In his book, How to Read the Bible & Still Be a Christian, John Dominic Crossan writes that the world’s empires work to convince us to believe that violence is an inevitability in human life. But Crossan says this is not the way of God, who asserts repeatedly in the Bible that we humans can and must overcome violence. Crossan writes, The normalcy of human civilization (which is escalatory violence and retributive justice) is not the inevitability of human nature. Because non-violence and distributive justice are the character of God, as creatures made in the image of God, they are to be our nature as well.
This is the message of God’s truth that needs to be proclaimed to the power of the gun violence empire. We – you and I - are called to be Isaiah and John the Baptist: the voices crying in the wilderness of the gun violence empire. Like John, we must speak truth to power, boldly confronting this empire of gun violence that abuses, harms and kills people. And we must do this regardless of the personal cost.
We can do this. We can make the rough places plain and the crooked paths straight. We can achieve God’s reign of nonviolence and justice, freeing ourselves from the bondage of fear and the exile of our denial.
But we must act. We must say no more:
No more wonton death.
No more distortions of the Second Amendment.
No more co-opted leaders.
No more innocent blood flowing in the streets.
No more cheap platitudes.
We must do this for ourselves and for our children, like Lauren, Lilah and Grayson. We must do it for one another and for our nation. We must do it because it is what God calls us to do.
Babylon and Rome fell. So too will the empire of gun violence fall, if we stop being shackled to our fears. Freedom is ours if we want it. And when we do, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” and nonviolence and justice will prevail.