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Journey on Holy Ground Pre-9 11 by Daniel Buttry

JOURNEY ON HOLY GROUND

 

 

TEXT: Exodus 3.1-10

 

The theme of this consultation is “Grounded in Hope: Discerning God’s Presence Amid Conflict and Violence.”  In his message in the consultation brochure Hector Cortez writes about the holy ground we can find amid settings of conflict and violence.  Some Mennonite conflict resolution practitioners have spoken of conflict itself as Holy Ground.

                         

Tonight I would like to work on that theme of holy ground, particularly bridging the sub-

themes of today and tomorrow, namely roots of violence and redemption.  My unique perspective to bring to bear on this consultation is that from my experience.  I bridge the global and the local in terms of conflict and violence.   I have worked on issues of local violence, particularly urban violence.   I have also worked on issues of international violence and civil wars across the globe.  So allow me to bring that global perspective to bear on our journey together. 

 

Violence may be part of the American lifestyle according to Jesse Jackson, but violence

is not American.  I have seen the horrors of violence on every continent, witnessed it’s scars upon people of many different cultures and countries.  Violence is a human phenomenon, something that should not surprise us as Christians rooted in the biblical story.

 

So let us take a journey to Holy Ground.  I’ve been on Holy Ground.  I’ve experienced it.

I’ve been to places that speak as archetypes of violence in our world.  Every place was a place of conflict, awful, dreadful conflict.  But in each place I sensed I was on Holy Ground.

 

Holy Ground.  Ground Zero.  As I stood in Hiroshima's Peace Park looking at the stark ruin of the domed building over which the Bomb exploded I sensed a bit of the horror of that August day in 1945 when nuclear weapons were first used against other human beings.

 

There is a statue of Sadako Sasaki, the girl who died from leukemia following the bombing.   Thousands of brightly colored paper cranes lovingly laid at the base of the

statue commemorate her prayer for peace and healing.   A mass grave with the ashes of ten thousand people stretched my imagination beyond its capacity to grasp meaning.    

The most emotionally ripping moment for me was to look at a burned empty school uniform, knowing in an instant the terrible fate of the child who put the uniform on that morning.   As an American walking through this Japanese park grief and tears were my

constant companions.  I was on Holy Ground.   

 

Holy Ground, Yad Vashem.  Yad Vashem is the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

The eternal flame burns over a stark black surface with the names sculpted in metal:  Auschwitz, BergenBelsen, Terezen Stadt, Babi Yar, Dachau, Treblinka, Ravensbruk, Buchenwald.  Six million Jews perished in an extended and systematic act of genocide, but each one was a person with a name.  Each one was a person with people who loved them.   Names are important at Yad Vashem, part of the remembering.  There was a special place for families and friends to list the names of their loved ones in the memorial.  The pictures in the historical museum were familiar to me, but it was the art

which revealed the heart of both the horror and the determination to survive.  "All That Remained" is the title of the work that tore my soul:  A sculpture of a pile of shoes, women's shoes, men's shoes, children's shoes.  All That Remained.  In the museum a single shoe of a child made the work of art even more graphic.  That shoe was not a work of art, but an artifact, the shoe of a real child with a real name who vanished into the ovens.  The shoes had been removed not in respect of God but in brutal violation of God's

image in Jews and the millions of others viewed as unfit to live by the Nazi regime.  For all it’s horror, I was standing on Holy Ground.

 

Holy Ground.  The Lorain Motel.   I entered the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.  As you first step in you are greeted by a massive work of art, ebony as the people it celebrates in their struggle for freedom.  You look at the newsreels, the photos, hear the sounds on the tapes.  You step on a bus.  It’s all another museum till you enter an ordinary motel room, like so many I’ve stayed in.  Bed, nightstand, low dresser, bathroom to the side.  But you are drawn to the open door at the balcony.  You remember the photo of men pointing to a distant building while at their feet Martin Luther King, Jr.’s lifeblood poured onto the concrete.  Holy Ground.   

 

These places, and so many others like them, are holy ground.  For from these places there is an echo heard from an ancient patch of soil.  From these places we can hear the blood cry out even as the blood cried out from the ground when Abel had been murdered by his brother Cain.  The Holy Ground cries out with the blood of the slain.  These places, places of conflict, places of violence, places of death are also places of Holy Ground because here God’s image is seen.  God’s stamp has been placed upon our humanity.  It is the essence of our very being as humans.  And so when violence seeks to erase a human being by acts of murder, what God has put upon us, that divine stamp, that divine image, that divine reflection of the glory of the Creator cries out.  God’s image within us will not be silenced no matter what Cain and all his violent progeny may do.  Holy Ground.  

 

But there is a shadow over Holy Ground.  These holy places are not pure places.  The shadow comes not from the violence that shed the blood but from the human beings

much like us who raised the memorials.

                         

Holy Ground.  Ground Zero.   At Hiroshima twenty thousand Korean slave laborers perished in the bombing.  Japanese racism toward Koreans had led to invasion of the Korean peninsula, the exploitation of Korean people, and the sexual enslavement of tens of thousands of Korean women.  Thirty thousand Korean laborers worked in Hiroshima that August in 1945, and twenty thousand of them died.  Following the bombing of Hiroshima, the Korean dead were not buried but were piled up to be left as carrion for the birds to devour.   When the Koreans wanted to build a memorial for their dead in Hiroshima, it was not included in the Peace Park itself, but is across a river from the park.  

Though the intersection is on the  tourist maps and many less significant points of interest are noted, there is no indication of the Korean memorial on any of the guide maps.  The shadow of racism has crept into the holy ground where a hundred thousand human beings were slaughtered by the Bomb.

                         

Holy Ground.  Vad Vashem.  The historical story of the Holocaust in the museum at Yad Vashem concludes with the achievement of independence by Israel.  The awful story of genocide against Jewish people finds its ending in the establishment of their own homeland.  But there is silence on the cost of Israeli independence for Palestinian people.    

Palestinian villages were razed, hundreds of thousands fled into exile or into refugee camps.  Massacres took place to create the "empty" land into which Jewish settlers

could move.  None of this is mentioned at Yad Vashem.  For many people it seems the power of the Holocaust memory drives the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, an occupation that continues to see Palestinians driven from their land, imprisoned without charge, tortured, and killed, an occupation that still covers the majority of Palestinian territory.   Yad Vashem speaks eloquently of the horrors inflicted upon Jewish people in Europe, but for Zionists seeking to expand Israeli territory the memorial feeds the current horror inflicted upon Palestinians.  There is a shadow over this holy ground.

 

Holy Ground.  The Lorain Motel.  Since 1968 the Lorain Motel fell on hard times.  It became a seedy home for those one razor-thin step up from homelessness.   Jackie Smith lived there.  She lived there till the day all the residents were forced to leave because

construction on the new civil rights museum was going to start.  She refused to leave, so the police carried her out and dumped her on the street.  Jackie set up a pup tent on the sidewalk, refusing to budge.  Friends and supporter’s brought her food.  After a year of housekeeping on the sidewalk, the city of Memphis passed an ordinance banning tents on the sidewalk.  So Jackie set up a chair with an umbrella to keep off the hot sun and the

rain.  I met her and talked with her.  She spoke movingly of Dr. King’s love for the poor, for people like her.  “Dr. King would never throw me out of my home,” she protested.  So she refused to leave.  Last I heard Jackie was still camped there, only she had been forcibly removed to a spot across the street from the Motel, reopened as a museum.  But right there she continues her nonviolent action, her solitary witness for justice for the poor.  At the Lorain Motel where we honor that great martyr for the poor and oppressed,

a poor woman was losing her shelter.  A shadow over this holy ground.

 

What do these shadows over holy ground say to us?   What do these places in their complexity tell us about the roots of violence?  We want the roots of violence to be like a dandelion root, one big long taproot that may be deep and tough, but you can dig it out, yank it out with one big pull.  We want to identify the evil ones, whether great historical figures like Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and Idi Ami, or our local figures of evil, the gang-bangers and muggers and wife-beaters and rapists and killers in our schools.

                         

Newsweek magazine had a recent cover with a picture of Slobodan Milosevic with the

title, “The Face of Evil.”  Don’t we just wish it was as simple as that.  But as we look at the shadows over holy ground I see a far more complex picture.  Rather than a simple taproot for violence, I see a massive tangle of roots reaching in so many directions into our souls and our society.  The roots of violence are entwined around so much, not just what is blatantly evil, but also around much that we hold in high esteem.

                         

Let’s look again at this cover from Newsweek.  It’s true that Milosevic is The Face of Evil.  But it’s also true that Milosevic is The Image of God.  We could write that right across this photo and be theologically correct.  Are we not all made in the image of God?

And you can take my photo and write across it with equal truth, The Image of God and The Face of Evil.  Our fallen humanness is the mix of both, the glorious image of God stamped upon our very being, but it is cracked, marred, distorted by the evil of sin.  This is true of Slobodan Milosovic and Daniel Buttry and each and every one of us.   

 

The root of violence grows though when these two labels are ripped apart.  Milosevic is only The Face of Evil.  The forces of NATO, the United States, are the divine agents of God’s justice, the image of God on earth.  That is the violence of denying the image of God in another human being.  It is the first act of violence.  We create the enemy, and the enemy is not fully human.  The enemy has lost the stamp of God, leaving them subhuman or demonic.  So we can give them names:   The Face of Evil--how can we allow such evil to continue?  Call someone different a name:  It’s so much easier to grease a gook than

kill a human being.  If you call a woman a bitch then what’s so bad about slapping her around as if she’s just a dog?  We create names and stereotypes and distorted images that erode or even expunge the image of God in the other, at least within our own minds.   And that’s where our violence begins.  Once we have separated the image of God and the face of evil, and we have slapped that label of evil upon our enemy, what are we left with?  Why, we are the image of God.  We are righteous in what we do.  Because of the evil of the other and the rightness of ourselves we are justified in the violence we do against the enemy.  I have removed the humility that comes with seeing my own propensity to evil and all I’m left with is the arrogance of playing God.

                         

So the role of divine judge is one I am justified to take up.  We can nuke the Japs because they bombed Pearl Harbor.  We can gas the Jews because they are vermin controlling our money.  We can gun down King because he’s a commie agitating nigger.  We can bulldoze Palestinian homes because they’re terrorists.  We can throw the poor on the street because they are crackheads and welfare cheats.  We can kill gays because they’re perverts.  We can slam kids into lockers because they are geeks or goths.  We can shoot classmates because they are dumb jocks.  We can execute criminals because they are cold-blooded killers.  We can do whatever we damn well please because we are justified by our own righteousness in the face of the evil of our enemies.

                         

Do you see the root of violence?  Some violence is sporadic and personal.  One husband beats one wife.  One kid mugs one pedestrian.  One person with a gun kills one, two, five people.  Some violence is organized and political.  Serbs drive Kosovar Albanians from their homes, massacring people indiscriminately.  Americans bomb Serbs apologizing for the collateral damage of daily civilian casualties.  Bombs level embassies in Kenya and Tanzania for causes in the Middle East.  But here the roots of violence show their extensive and tangled nature.  For some violence, much violence is structural and endemic.  The violence of racism is seen in hate-crimes, but is hidden in the hopeless

eyes of those who have been locked out for so long.  We may see the violence of despair in criminal violence and gang violence.  But what about the violence that creates that despair, the violence of  racism and poverty and joblessness and illiteracy?

                         

What about the violence of a system that spends more for prisons for the poor than for schools for the poor?  Jackie Smith outside the Lorain Motel raised a solitary voice against the violence of an economic system that marginalizes the poor and leaves people with no place to call home.   She raised her voice at the site where Martin King gave his life while serving garbage collectors seeking a livable wage.

 

Speaking of garbage collectors!  I spent a day working on a garbage truck here in the Boston area.            I was taking the urban plunge for an urban ministry course in seminary.  

We had to survive on the streets for three days with only 50 cents, in January.  I got a job at the day labor pool working on the garbage truck.            After sleeping in a shelter I found myself picking up suburban trash in the snow.  But what struck me was the system.  The trash haulers, reputedly tied to organized crime, hired only the drivers.  The two guys on the back were hired only on a day-by-day basis.  There was a whole fleet of trucks, all needing three men every day, but only one was hired with benefits.  The rest where picked up from the hoards of desperate, hungry people who wouldn’t complain about low wages or take sick days or vacations.   And they would always be there.  Maybe a different face tomorrow, but somebody would always be there willing to work for dirt-bottom wages.  So real jobs weren’t created, instead the system depended on there being a pool of the unemployed, allowing someone else to get rich and to keep taxes down in the suburbs.  Is that structural violence?   I felt it when I was cold and wet and on the streets again that night.

 

Archbishop Dom Helder Camera of Brazil speaks of the spiral of violence.  Violence #1 is the institutionalized violence in society which is wielded by those in power.  Structures are set up to maintain unjust conditions that grind many down while others prosper.   Violence #2 is the violence of the oppressed, responding in anger to the violence of the institutionalized injustice.  This can be revolutionary violence or it can be the despairing criminal violence which just lashes out at any victim.  Then Violence #3 completes the circle as the violence of repression in the name of law and order is utilized by the state.

Police violence, prisons, judicial executions are the weapons of violence #3.

 

In analyzing the roots of violence it is so easy to just see criminal violence and rail at the dynamics for why one person would do such a thing.  We can see violence #3 and justify it because we are afraid of violence sweeping our communities, our schools, our streets.-

But violence #1 is so much harder to see.  We all benefit by this violence, at least each of us here in this room.  We haven’t all benefited from it equally, but we all have access to

resources and education and opportunities which identify us among the more well-off in the world.  Maybe you never thought of it this way, but coming to a consultation like this is definitely a luxury beyond imagining for most of the people on this planet!   Some of our prosperity comes from the hideous conditions in which others live.  So no matter how righteous we may feel, there is a shadow over this holy ground, too.  We are all entwined in the roots of violence.  None of us are pure.  None of us are without sin.   

 

So where do we turn?    

 

Holy Ground.  A hill called Calvary, Golgotha, Place of the Skull.  Holy Ground.  At the foot of a cross, soil soaked with the precious blood of Jesus.  He is the sinless one, the spotless lamb of God.  He is the Son of God, God in human flesh, the Word come among us.  He is dying, a victim of violence, but not a victim.  Yes, Roman might drove those nails in his hands and feet; but Jesus said his life would not be taken from him.  He lay it down of his own accord.  This was a sacrifice of redeeming love, willing love, love that poured itself out.

 

Holy Ground at the foot of the cross where we have all knelt.  Holy Ground that is shadowed, too.  For that cross has been the excuse for fathomable slaughter.  The cross was the emblem on the shields of Crusaders who massacred Muslims and Jews and even countless other Christians.   It was the rallying symbol for holy wars across Europe and Inquisitions and the genocidal conquest of the Americas.  It still to this day is a symbol for people to attack people of color or gays and lesbians or Jews or Arabs.  It’s not a shadow from Jesus but a shadow from those who lift up the cross to assault others in his name.

                         

Yet no matter how much that nonviolent act of self-sacrifice is blasphemed by those who may raise the cross in violence, there is a redemptive power that comes from that Holy Ground.  Paul, who as Saul was a wielder of violence in the name of God and God’s

righteousness, who was disarmed by the grace of the one he persecuted.  Paul wrote:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” (Romans 1.16)    In Jesus at the cross the cycles of violence are broken.  

In his broken body peace is made between me and my enemy.  The walls of hostility are dismantled.  The way is cleared for repentance and reconciliation.

 

So how do we find the way through all the violence and shadows to the Holy Ground

where repentance and reconciliation and healing and justice and peace can grow?  I find the answers along the way of our journey.

 

Holy Ground.  The Maruki Gallery.  The Maruki Gallery is a small art gallery outside of Tokyo.  Iri and Toshi Maruki are a couple, both artists.  The grounds of the gallery include both their home and an exhibition of their work.  The major exhibit is a collection of fifteen wall-sized paintings on folding screens of the experiences of those in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.  The Marukis traveled to the smoldering city a few days after the bombing to search for missing relatives.   Their paintings capture the horror, the disorientation, the anguish of the people of Hiroshima.  But two paintings brought in a theme absent from the peace park.  One depicted the crows feasting on the piles of Korean dead left unburied.  The other portrayed the fate of American POW's who survived the bombing only to be torn limb from limb by their enraged captors.   The Marukis' poetic comment beside the painting said, "Our hands tremble as we paint."   In an adjacent room was yet another large painting, this one of the "Rape of  Nanjing,"  recalling the terrible three-day orgy of violence where some 300,000 Chinese people were slaughtered by Japanese.  The Marukis vividly presented the suffering caused by the bomb, but they also could recognize with profound grief the violence in which their own society had played the leading role.  Their sorrow did not blot out the sorrow of other victims, including those labeled as "enemies."  

                         

Here is the beginning of the path to hope and redemption.  We can begin to pull out the tangled roots of violence only when we all recognize the other side's suffering and our own complicity in evil.  When we have learned the humility to bring together those two labels, Image of God and The Face of Evil, both for ourselves and for our enemies, then we restore our full humanity.

                         

For us as Christian we can only find the grace and strength for this redemptive step

through the mercy and grace we receive from the crucified Jesus.  This is part of the holy ground Christians find at the foot of the cross.  There the face of evil in us is seen, is known, and is forgiven.  It is covered with grace.  There the image of God is restored and purified and refined by love.  Every time we create an opportunity for people to understand the suffering and pain on the other side we help this redemption to unfold.    

Every time we create a safe place for people to begin to unwrap and grieve over their own complicity in violence we help this redemption to unfold.    

                         

Holy Ground.  A modest apartment of a rabbi in Jerusalem was holy ground to me.    

The apartment is home to Rabbi Isaac Newman and his wife.  Rabbi Newman is the chair of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel.  Out of the fundamental values of the Jewish faith, the Rabbis for Human Rights have resisted the abuses of Israeli authorities against Palestinian people.  They speak of God's sovereignty over all humankind, of Abraham's legacy of compassion and generosity, of the Levitical concern to show love and respect to "the stranger" and of the infinite worth of every human life.  These tenets of faith are fleshed out in acts for justice and human rights for all people, but in their particular situation most especially toward Palestinians.  During the Intifada, when the Israeli government deported over four hundred Palestinians accused of being Muslim extremists, Rabbi Newman and other Jewish Israelis joined Palestinian people in an act of prophetic solidarity by living in tents pitched in front of the Knesset building for a couple months.      

Yad Vashem honors those few Gentiles who sacrificed to save Jews during the Holocaust by planting trees along "The Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations."   Rabbi Newman is one of the righteous among the Israelis who is sacrificing to save Palestinians facing their own historical travail. 

 

Rabbi Newman is exhibiting the kind of "greater love" Christians honor in Jesus.  To take the road of redemption we must move to action.  The love of God took shape in the incarnational solidarity of Jesus leading to his self-sacrifice for our salvation on the cross.  We need to flesh out the tenants of our faith in acts for justice and human rights.  We need to stand in solidarity at the places where violence is taking place around us.  We can’t do everything, but we can do something.  Here at this consultation we are sharing models of ways to constructively deal with violence and overcome it.  There are stories that can be shared in our own communities and models from the experiences of others that can spur our own creativity in shaping plans for action.  Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13.34) And again:  “...the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”  (John 14.12) Our love needs to take shape in actions of self-sacrificing love which breaks cycles of violence and opens the ways to genuine reconciliation.  The Holy Ground of the cross extends in the holy ground of our action to redeem people and communities from the grip of violence.

                         

Holy Ground.  The Freedom Monument in Riga, Latvia.   At the monument commemorating Lenin setting the Baltics free.  Lenin had said the Baltic Republics would be free forever, cutting them loose from former Czarist Russia.  Then in 1940 Stalin conquered them and brought them into the Soviet Union.  But winds of change were blowing, and tens of thousands of mostly young people were gathered around the Freedom Monument to demonstrate for independence.  I was talking with Baptists in their 20s who were dreaming dreams of freedom and wondering how to engage in their struggle.  I passed out booklets of the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. to teach these Latvians the principles of nonviolent struggle.  An assassin in Memphis thought he could silence the visionary prophet with a bullet.  But his holy incendiary dreams continue to ignite fires of freedom, including helping that growing freedom struggle on the other side of the globe.  This nation keeps trying to domesticate Martin Luther King, giving him a holiday to talk about a dream of all getting along, but his voice keeps breaking free.    

                         

The Civil Rights Museum in Memphis teaches us the story and the sacrifice.  Jackie Smith reminds us, she demands that we hear afresh his cries for justice.  And his teachings have spread to distant peoples and inspired their struggles for freedom and dignity and justice.  As Martin King said:  “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness in a night already devoid of stars.  Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”  Jesus is the light of the world, but Jesus also said we are that light.  Martin Luther King’s light is still driving out the darkness of hatred and violence as his teachings and story are spread around the world.  We have a ministry of teaching, to undo the forces of violence by giving substantive instruction on the ways of love, including how to resolve our conflicts peacefully, how to engage in struggle nonviolently, and how to make loving our enemies a practical agenda.    

 

Holy Ground.  There are so many places of holy ground hallowed by the suffering of the victims of violence.  They are places hallowed because Jesus on the cross suffered with those victims and for them.  We too can hallow that ground by how we journey with our Lord through this suffering around us.  If we recall our own complicity in evil so that all we do comes from a humble spirit that recognizes our common bond with all human beings, even with our enemies, then we will hallow this ground.  If we live in solidarity with those who are oppressed by violence, joining in their struggle, doing the things we can do, then we will hallow this ground.  If we lift up the vision of nonviolence, light the ways of justice and peace through ministries of education, education in our streets and battlegrounds and communities, then we will hallow this ground. 

 

Let it be so, Lord, let it be so.

 

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