Text: Mark 1:1-8 (John the Baptist prepares the way)
Peace begins with us, it is often said. And I am sure there is truth in that statement. The more each of us can adopt a peaceful attitude in everyday life, the more peaceful our families, communities and the world will be. The other side of this states that when bullying or violence erupts around us, we are likely to suffer more inner conflict.
The first statement describes a virtuous circle: inner peace leading to less violence, leading to more inner peace. The second statement describes a vicious circle: external violence leading to inner conflict, leading to more violence.
So here is some good news on this Second Sunday of Advent. Some analysts suggest that violence is less prevalent today than at others times in history. Despite continuing brutality and war, the number of victims of war is relatively low and in decline. And violent crime in countries like Canada is also on a long and steady decline. It could be that we are living in some of the most peaceful conditions people have ever known.
This relative decline in violence, does not mean, of course, that all war or violence has disappeared. For instance, there will be approximately 500 murders in Canada this year. But the rate of murder and other violent crimes has been decreasing for decades now in Canada . . .
One thing that struck me when I moved to Borderlands five months ago was the lack of concern about crime here. We usually don't lock our houses or cars, and crime rarely makes it into the local papers.
But although we feel quite safe in southern Saskatchewan, our province does have the highest rate of violent crime in Canada. This fact might be connected to another one, that Saskatchewan also has the highest proportion of First Nations people of any province. I hasten to add that I do not believe that First Nations people are more likely to commit crime than other groups. I say it simply to point out there is often a connection between social misery and crime.
And as the news reports this past week about the terrible living conditions in the northern Ontario First Nation of Attawapiskat this week highlight, First Nations people continue to live in conditions that are much worse than those of many other groups in our country.
Housing and health conditions like the ones in Attawapiskat reflect not only the legacy of the defeat and conquest of First Nations. They also reflect ongoing racism and social barriers faced by native people, I believe. The news this week from Attawapiskat also reminds us that violence not only takes the form of crime and war but also that of social inequality and lack of opportunity.
Nevertheless, crime rates continue to drop everywhere in Canada and in much of the world. These declines lie behind the controversy about the federal government's new crime bill. All the crime experts that I have heard speak on the issue fear that this new law might increase crime rather than decrease it even as it will greatly increase the amount of money the state spends on courts and prisons.
But despite what the experts say, our government forges ahead to build more prisons, increase sentences, and focus more on punishment than on crime prevention. And since the government now has a majority of seats in parliament, this new bill will become law next week . . .
The decline in military violence came to my attention in a Remembrance Day sermon I read by Vancouver minister Rev. Bruce Sanguin. His sermon centred on a new book by Stephen Pinker called "The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined." Pinker presents statistics that show the percentage of people who are now victims of war is lower than at almost any time in history. And other forms of violence, such as police brutality, torture, and domestic abuse, are also lower today than in the past.
Of course, it would only take a "minor" war involving nuclear weapons to overturn Pinker's statistics. Nevertheless, I was cheered to learn of his book.
War does continue, of course. There is continued fighting in Afghanistan. Israel threatens to attack Iran. There are several bloody conflicts in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. And massive resources continue to be poured into the military worldwide. Canada, with its impending order of 65 fighter jets at a cost that may approach $50 billion, is no exception.
As well, state violence such as arbitrary arrest and torture continue in various countries. We pray for democracy across the Arab world after this year's uprisings even as we watch in dismay as people continue to be killed in substantial numbers in countries like Egypt and in huge numbers in countries like Syria and Yemen.
We are often told that the main ingredient of democracy is free and fair elections. But perhaps an even more important factor is human rights. A country can only be considered democratic if demonstrators are not shot, journalists are not arrested, and torture chambers are closed. We pray and work for this reality to spread to Egypt and all countries in the world even as we mourn the current victims of state violence.
And even as family violence rates decline, I am still struck by how many of us come from backgrounds scarred by minor or major neglect, abuse or bullying. The numbers of us who struggle all our lives with the legacy or present reality of emotional or physical abuse remains far too high.
Finally, there is popular culture. It continues to trade heavily on depictions of violence. Can we imagine a culture in which the latest CSI episode showed police officers waiting in boredom because there were no murders to solve? Or can we imagine a first person shooter video game in which the protagonist searched in vain for a monster or bad guy to attack? Unfortunately, I find it hard to imagine such things happening anytime soon.
So even as crime, war and family conflict decline, our world has a long way to go before all of us can live with the security, freedom, and peace that we want.
Perhaps there is not a lot any one of us can do about war, brutality or violent crime. We can and do pray for peace with justice. We can and do speak out for nonviolent conflict resolution between countries. We can and do strive for a world order that is based more on cooperation and human rights than on competition and war. But our efforts as individuals only take us so far . . .
Our Gospel reading from Mark this morning points towards God's Holy Spirit as a key resource for peace in the world. In the reading, John the Baptist proclaims that when Jesus comes, he will baptize us with the Holy Spirit. Mark says that this is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
So even as we try to turn towards God's light this Advent, our reading reminds us that we have already been baptized into new life with Christ. And all of us continue to be supported by God's Spirit in any moment of crisis.
One of the many fruits of baptismal life in Christ, I think, is greater inner peace. Baptism helps to lift the burden of positive or negative judgement from our shoulders. When life disappoints or hurts us, Christ's solidarity with our suffering means we do not need to label ourselves as bad. Likewise, when life pleases us, our life in Christ means we do not need to label ourselves as good. In happy times, we can give the glory to God in Christ. Likewise, in painful times we can leave judgement to Christ our Saviour.
Of course, none of us lives fully into our baptismal status every moment. We often do judge ourselves or others as bad or good. And while such positive and negative judgements are a mistake, in my opinion, personally I have found it very difficult to tame my inner judge and turn it into a more honest and Christ-like voice.
In any life, there will be things, events and people that we like; and there will be things events and people that we do not like. And while likes and dislikes often lead to us to judge, this leap to judgement is not a necessary one. I try to not judge, though often I don't succeed. Still, I try. I see it as a spiritual practice that might help tame my inner critic. Instead of judging, I try to always keep my reactions at the level of likes and dislikes.
Judgements are debatable while likes, dislikes and feelings are above debate. Take the simple example of a movie. One person may like it. Another may dislike it. Neither reaction proves that the movie is good or bad. They simply tell us something true about the two people. Tyring to go further to agree on the so-called objective value of the movie is neither necessary nor desirable, in my opinion.
I hope that by only speaking about likes, dislikes and feelings in little things like movies, I might also remember not to judge myself or others in bigger things.
When we leave judgement to God, we relieve ourselves of the need to bolster or attack our egos. Long ago, we were baptized by the Holy Spirit into life in Christ. This new life in Christ means that our identity is found in Christ and not in our egos.
In moments when we feel secure and happy, we can give thanks to God and enjoy inner peace. In moments when we feel under attack or in pain, we can try to leave judgement to God. And with God's help, we can try to maintain inner peace as we work toward a resolution to our problems.
Christ lives in us. Christ is in solidarity with us. And so we are freed to live with self-respect even when our circumstances are difficult or oppressive.
And what about those times when we forget our baptismal status? In such moments, we may judge and perhaps get caught up in conflict. Well, the good news is that the Holy Spirit is always present to wake us up again to the reality of our life in Christ.
These wake up calls restore inner balance even when we are in conflict. In such moments, the Holy Spirit helps us move from the vicious circle that spirals downwards to violence and back to the virtuous one that spirals upwards to peace . . .
This Advent as we wait and prepare for Christmas, we give thanks for the relative peace that reigns in our families and in our world. We also pray and work to end all bullying, all crime, and all war.
God's light is about to enter the world again as the Christ Child in Bethlehem. The Holy Spirit helps us turn towards this light and reminds us that we have been baptized into new life in Christ. In this new life, we are freed from the judgements of our egos and opened to the peace and justice that is our birthright as children of God.
And so this Advent as we continue to hope and pray for peace, we say again . . .
Come, Lord Jesus, come.