Sensibilities often determine the language games we play. Growing up in the late 60’s and 70’s certain words ruled the day when it came to ethnic references. Move some years down the road and those words have changed. Growing up in a fundamentalist religious context meant being accustomed to talking about the "atonement" in ways now deemed "violent." I realize it is very simplistic to suggest death on the cross is indeed violent. I also understand the intention to talk about the "atonement" in other language due to the ways in which the actions of some adherents to a form of Christianity exerted themselves throughout history – Crusades and "inter-Christian" persecution.
There is a bit of irony at work when we underscore the peace wrought in the Incarnation, Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus and look for ways to talk about it without any reference to violence. There beliefs I held with certainty. Many of these beliefs were handed down in neat and tight packages that seemed to be air tight. No debate. In fact, maybe for some of you a silly one, was my understanding of eschatology.
I recall talking with my college roommate after we reached Revelation in "Introduction to the New Testament." He heard a view described other than the populist dispensational version he grew up with and declared he had now found a way to understand Revelation. He could not abide the current version and so it was now settled with this new picture. While I had already found cracks, it was difficult for me to get past all those charts and diagrams giving me the definitive picture of just what things will occur and when if only the "rapture" would occur. Which had I thought about it then meant little to me what would happen under the former framework because I allegedly would not be here so it was really much ado about nothing as far as my personal position was concerned but you could not convince me of that then.
Years lated I have been able to wrest this notion from my mind. But, it was not without "violence." it literally ripped my understanding of what kind of project God was about and left me to wonder, search and study. The implications reached further than "what is going to happen" kinds of questions. I had to come to terms with a wider implication for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It would have been much easier to leave that alone.
Enter the texts from the Revised Common Lectionary for this past Sunday from Malachi and Luke. Reading Malachi for example led me to wonder just what prompted the declaration God would keep his promise and send this tender shoot that would "burst" onto the scene. Issues of justice and confusion about what God required seemed to rule the day (a quick look at the end of chapter two may help here). While it may be overly simplistic, it appears Malachi at least had the job of saying to the people the way you are thinking about being the people of God and the promise of God is desperately in need of an overhaul. Convinced they could presume upon the grace of God that had neglected spiritual things in favor of their own pursuits (check into Malachi’s contemporary Haggai).
A hard charging prophet living in the legacy of those who had gone before announcing, as Brueggemann suggests, the end of the world would require people living in that day to cash in their firm understanding of just who they were. No small request. You could say the suggestion did violence as it subverted their certainty God would act for them in a particular way.
Fast forward to the role John would play as the "forerunner" of Jesus filling the role highlighted by Isaiah. The idea of preparing seems to take in the image of clearing. When you read the prophetic words painting the picture of road work you immediately know the building of a road may indeed mean violence to the earth. We use phrases like, "cut a road." Or, we may note the need to "scrape a hill." Felling trees and burning brush to make way for a road easily conjures pictures of violence.
Announcing the need to change one’s mind about the way of the Kingdom would mean cutting across long held convictions, scraping the lingering vestiges that keep one from seeing, felling lofty notions based on the presumption of the grace of God, and burning away the insensitivity to the work of the Spirit. Sure seems like something of violence to me – and much needed violence at that.