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So It Goes...

April 15, 2007

Clay Nelson

Easter 2     John 20:19-31


One of the many things I love about New Zealand is that you are a nation of readers with perhaps more bookstores per capita than any developed country in the world. That may be because you didn’t get television until 1960 and then you only had one channel. But whatever the reason, you read. So, I expect you already know that an icon to my generation died this week: Kurt Vonnegut. He was 84. He published 14 books in his lifetime, several of which became modern classics.


What made him important to me, a child of the Sixties, is that he was one of our voices that objected to the war in Vietnam. I liked him for his off the wall sense of humour that he used with the canniness of his idol, Mark Twain, to tackle questions of human existence: Why are we in this world? Is there a presiding figure to make sense of all this, a god who in the end, despite making people suffer wishes them well?


As a soldier in World War II he was taken as a prisoner of war after the Battle of the Bulge. His POW camp was outside Dresden which put him in a front row seat to witness its fire bombing by the RAF, what was perhaps one of history’s greatest war atrocities, superseded only by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Afterward, he and his fellow prisoners were assigned to remove the dead. “The corpses, most of them in ordinary cellars, were so numerous and represented such a health hazard,” he wrote “that they were cremated on huge funeral pyres, or by flamethrowers whose nozzles were thrust into the cellars, without being counted or identified.” He recounted his experiences in his cult classic Slaughterhouse 5. He concluded that novel with these words from the character serving as his alter-ego, “Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live in all year round was shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes.


“Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes. And every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam. So it goes.”


Vonnegut, shaped by the horrors of war, used his literary gifts to counter the dominant culture of violence he saw all around him. Like all counter-cultural figures he wanted the world to reflect vaues he held. But like his hero, Mark Twain, he was a pessimist. “Mark Twain,” Vonnegut wrote, “finally stopped laughing at his own agony and that of those around him. He denounced life on this planet as a crock. He died.”


Reading the New Zealand Herald these days would seem to confirm Twain and Vonnegut’s dark view that a culture of violence cannot be changed.


Dame Margaret Bazley’s report on a culture of sexual misconduct and abuse of power in the NZ police force is both embarrassing and tragic. Even the police were apparently embarrassed as they tried to impede the work of her Commission. The most tragic indictment she made was not about what has happened, but her doubts that the police culture that has permitted such violence against women by those who have promised to protect us can change. So it goes.


Another news story that is unavoidable in New Zealand is the debate over what the press has deemed the “anti-smacking” bill that is before Parliament. All the bill does is remove from the criminal code the ability of child abusers to use the defence of reasonable force for their violent actions. What seems to me a rather sensible community decision not to condone violence against the smallest and weakest is, according to the polls, vehemently objected to by 80% of all New Zealanders. As a newbie Kiwi I find this attitude very confusing. I have found most of my new countrymen and women respectful, gentle and kind. I admire our historic resistance to nuclear proliferation. Our refusal to build a military designed for aggression. How does a peace-loving nation reconcile that attitude with its resistance to changing the culture of violence surrounding our children? I am very curious to learn if our elected leaders will have the political will to take this admittedly small step towards changing the culture against the desires of the vast majority. Like Twain and Vonnegut, I’m not optimistic. So it goes.


These are only two instances from the press. I could dwell on others, the violence used in Iraq purportedly to bring a culture of democracy to a culture that believes fundamentally that no one has authority over God’s word. Or I could go on about the significant resistance I hear on talk radio and read in the opinion pages to stopping the violence we are doing to Mother Earth. Who by an abundance of indicators is going to bite us – or our grandchildren in the bottom with disastrous climate change. I could but I won’t because I need to answer the question you must be asking by now, “What does any of this have to do with Jesus’ two resurrection visits to his frightened disciples?”


I need to begin by saying it is one of my favourite Bible stories. It has so many levels of meaning and contains enough material for thousands of sermons. Thank God, because it has to be preached every year on this Sunday.  But if you hear me preach on it for a thousand years you will never hear me use it to prove a bodily resurrection. Or that Jesus, like Casper the friendly ghost, slips through locked doors one moment and the next has enough physical substance that Thomas can overcome his doubts by touching his wounds. Nor will you ever hear me suggest that there is any historical basis for it. But it is a great story full of truth. The challenge for the preacher is determining what truth?


Vonnegut, who in one of his books founded the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, wrote in Slaughterhouse Five, “What the Gospels actually said was: don't kill anyone until you are absolutely sure they aren't well connected.” So it goes, he might have added.


It occurs to me that this is one of the truths this story holds. Jesus and Vonnegut may agree on this point.


Let me tell the story in a slightly different way. Jesus decides to make an Episcopal visit to the first church formed after his death. It isn’t a pretty neo-Gothic stone building with beautiful bits of stained glass. It is a new church start up after all. They haven’t had time to establish a building committee. The membership isn’t very large. There are only eleven of them and one only attends occasionally. However, they did establish the tradition of locking the church doors out of fear that just anybody might come in. What if women or homosexuals should come check them out. Besides the world out there is violent and dangerous. Look what happened to their teacher, the object of their devotion, who was only trying to make the world a better place. The doors were locked by unanimous consent at the Annual General Meeting. Then, as if in reprimand, the Teacher just shows up in their midst anyway. In his sermon to them he agrees with them that yes, the culture is violent. He carries the wounds to prove it, but you can’t hide from it. If you want the world to be a better place you must seek to change it. Not by violence but with the love that connects us all. That love which could not be killed in him is what makes us all well-connected. To do violence to anyone, no matter how worthy the cause, is to do violence to all. It is not an easy thing I ask of you. You are likely to suffer. But not to do it, is not to live at all. Stay in touch with the love you have for me and the culture of violence will be that much less violent.


Vonnegut, who described himself once as “an atheist (or at best a Unitarian who winds up in church quite a lot),” would’ve liked Jesus’ sermon even on one of his more despondent days.


If he were to here today to welcome with us George John into a loving community on the occasion of his baptism, he might’ve quoted himself to him, “Hello, George. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, [kid], you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of… ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”


So it goes.

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