St Matthew And Global Conflict

September 23, 2001

Ian Lawton

St Matthew, Apostle, Evangelist     Psalm 27


Today we celebrate our festival of St Matthew. It's a day to reflect on the distinctive focus of St Matthew in the Bible, St Matthew in the City as a church with a proud history of activism, and St Matthew in the midst of a world in crisis.


Matthew had a distinctive teaching. He above all the gospels broadened out the God focus from one nation to many peoples, even the outcast. His was a gospel with a keen eye for historical detail, and Christ as the culmination of this history. Therefore for Matthew God could no longer be called on for nationalistic favours. This prejudiced God is for Matthew unthinkable.


Yet when it suits our world don't we fall back on this God. I know from friends that in America last weekend Psalm 27 was quoted in many churches-


Psalm 27:1-4

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the defense of my life; whom shall I dread?

When evildoers came upon me to devour my flesh,

my adversaries and my enemies, they stumbled and fell.

Though a host encamp against me, my heart will not fear;

though war arise against me, in spite of this I shall be confident.


An unthinkable connection, between attacks on America and the favour of God.


Matthew's interest in historical detail is for a purpose. The Jesus story is not told in isolation, rather it is connected with the story of Israel. The violent reaction to Jesus was in part because of his radical challenge to the super power of his day, his move away from nationalist fervour, partly because his was a world still caught up in the violent world order of the prophets and the exile and partly because he pushed too far and too hard and would not relent.


And Matthew shows us Jesus teaching on life and faith matters; a reworking of old faith concepts. Where before eye for an eye was the standard, now Jesus reframes this as a universal call for non violent solutions to conflict.


It was Ghandi who said 'An eye for an eye will leave the world blind'. Our world leaders stand at a crisis point where they will have to make a decision to fight fire with fire, or to seek a new way, a non violent way, a way which breaks the cycle of violence.


Matthew tells an intriguing story of a fist fight. Jesus paints the scene of a person being punched on their right cheek. The obvious options are either stand and deliver, or give in to the onslaught. Rather he suggests a third way, what I would call creative and non violent resolution. He says offer the left cheek. Think about it; this is brilliant.


If a person attempts to hit the left side of a person's bent face with their wrong hand, they will be forced to shame themselves. They will either have to resort to a punch which is weak and ineffective, or a back handed slap which is similarly weak and more importantly in that world was a shameful act. Either way they would lose face and be forced to re think their strategy.


It is a story which has intriguing application for personal, social and global conflict. If by pacifism we mean being walked over, this is impractical and in my view not the Christian approach.


Far better is to change the focus, creatively shift the energy.


Last week we witnessed a terrorist attack on the most public symbols of western power and economics. Of course it was a counter attack, and of course the US has terrorised other nations and bombed buildings which were only smaller than the WTC because the countries could not afford to build WTC's of that size.


Who started it? Well it is clearly a spiraling violent mode of living. Far better to ask who will end it and how will it be resolved.


The battle lines have been drawn, an eye has been taken, the right cheek has been hit, however you interpret world events of the past decades. The response could be stand and deliver, fire with fire. This response will exacerbate the violence spiral. Eye for an eye. The world may well go blind. Another response could be to stand back and allow tyrants to have their way. This too is inadequate.


Far better to take a step back and say that this was not an act of war. It may suit some causes if it was called that. Yet in reality it was not. It was a criminal act and an act of horror. Yet not an act of war. Rather than respond with war, respond with the good will of most nations to stamp out such illegal actions, work with the UN and other human rights groups. Approach it as a crime to be punished; people to be brought to justice.


At the same time address the foreign policy of the US. Re visit the connection with Israel. Face up to some tragic power plays of the past and present and vow to do better, act more justly and less violently. To do so would be to disarm the forces of terrorism, expose their crime without glorifying their deeds, and refuse to play their game.


I declare myself an advocate of non violent response. World peace may seem unattainable. Yet it can begin with the US right now, as they make a choice which will shape the world we all live in. Play the violent games of the terrorist and watch it spiral. Shift the focus and we can find a better way.


St Matthew in the Bible offers us the God of all nations and all peoples, without prejudice. It offers us the creative and assertive way of non violent resolution to local and global conflict.


St Matthew in the City offers us the inspiration of those who have gone before us; activists in their own rights. Leaders in breaking down the nationally limited God of the past. Leaders in creative problem solving, and social change.


St Matthew in the world has had the opportunity for leadership already as we opened our doors to grieving and anxious people. Now we can offer leadership in calling for a just response and outcome to all acts of terrorism, however they are justified and whichever nationalistic God and cause is being invoked at the time.


I finish with a quote about peace from Dorothy Thompson


'Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict -- alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence. '


Today, as every day, here and throughout our world peace be with you, peace be with your loved ones, peace be with the people of America and the people of Afghanistan; peace be with world leaders and ordinary people alike.


To innocent victims of violence, rest in peace
to those anxious about future violence, live in peace
to those who lead our world, respond in peace. 
Go in peace, live in peace, respond in peace.


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