Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
October 10, 2017

Two events occurred last week, which I instinctively knew to be connected, though at first I couldn’t see exactly what the connection might be. As I pondered the question, my mind was flooded with a cascade of old memories and fresh reflections, which only added to my bewilderment. It was like dumping the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle onto a table. You know there is some kind of order to them all, but at the moment all you’ve got is a meaningless jumble of color patches. At this point, I think I’ve got the border pieces of my puzzle in place, but that’s about all. Maybe you can help me finish it.

The first event was the shooting in Las Vegas, the latest in the grim series of mass murders and terror attacks that have plagued the world in recent years. I won’t rehearse the details, and indeed, I have avoided learning them, as I have come to believe that the frequency of these mass murders is partly due to the horrified fascination that the media expect us to take in them. “If it bleeds, it leads,” as the newspaper editors say. Potential killers know before they strike that they will be the center of the world’s attention for a few days, and if the reason you want to kill people is that you feel ignored by the world, then the very act of killing dozens of them at once will solve your problem. Of course, you might commit suicide or get bushwhacked by a SWAT team before you get to see the story of your carnage on TV. But at least you will die knowing that you will soon be famous, and that the media pundits will spend far more time speculating about your motives than anybody ever paid to you before. In an op-ed piece a couple days after the Las Vegas shooting, syndicated columnist Ross Douthat wrote: “Mass killings are a form of social contagion, whose perpetrators copy their predecessors and seek to construct what Ari Schulman, the editor of The New Atlantis, has described as ‘a crafted public spectacle, a theater of violence in which we are the unwitting yet compliant audience.’”[1] Keep that description of the recent massacre in mind: it was “a crafted public spectacle, a theater of violence.”

The second event occurred two nights later in my Global Christian Heritage I class. We were studying The Martyrdom of Polycarp and The Passion of Perpetua. Here are an aged bishop, who has served Christ for eighty-six years, and a young mother, who has only recently undergone baptism—and both are publicly executed by the state for their faith. I’ve always regarded these stories as immensely moving narrative icons—and so did several of the older students in the class. But several of the younger students thought otherwise. They saw them as little more than crass displays of “Christian machismo” in response to Roman sadism, stories that glamorize state torture as a way to valorize human suffering. And since they are quite sure that suffering is something that must never be valorized, they could not accept the possibility that these two martyrs had been sanctified by their sufferings. Tertullian tells us that “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church,”[2] but my younger students wanted no part of any church for which blood had to be spilled. Why not? Perhaps because they have seen all too much innocent blood spilled in “crafted public spectacles” like Las Vegas and Orlando and Sandy Hook. Of course, in those cases, the victims did not voluntarily sacrifice themselves for any worthy cause. They were gunned down remorselessly to play out some dark fantasy in the mind of a killer. Polycarp and Perpetua were also victims of “crafted public spectacles,”[3] but only after due judicial process, and only for reasons of state security, and only after state officials had tried their best to get them to recant. They died because they believed that rendering unto Caesar that which Caesar demanded of them, namely a pinch of incense and the recitation of a slogan, was impossible if they were going to render unto God that which God demanded of them—and which God had given them in the first place—namely their very lives. But as far as our younger seminarians were concerned, there wasn’t much difference between the voluntary self-sacrifice of the martyrs and the slaughter and maiming of hundreds of innocent people. I want them to see the difference, but I can’t blame them for being sick of all ritualized public bloodbaths.

As I wracked my brains for a way to help my students see the difference between sacrifice as icon and violence as spectacle, I remembered an experience I had almost forty years ago. I was on retreat at a Trappist monastery near Dubuque, Iowa, and was taking a walk with a member of that community, Brother Gilbert Cardillo. Suddenly he stopped and said, “Rick, my conscience is troubling me. May I share my problem with you?” So there I was, a visiting Methodist preacher, hearing the confession of a Trappist monk while standing in a hayfield. And I said the appropriately priestly thing: “Fire away, Gil.” “Well,” he said, “as you may have noticed, we recite the Psalms a lot around here. But there’s a lot of stuff in those Psalms that is just horrible—dashing babies’ heads on the rock, and so forth. When we come to those verses, I just clam up. I won’t say them! The world doesn’t need any more negative energy! But I feel guilty, because they are Scripture, and they are part of my community’s prayer life. And I just wanted to tell somebody.” I grinned, and offered him the Methodist equivalent of sacramental absolution. Then he grinned, and we continued on our walk.

Brother Gilbert was referring to Psalm 137, a lamentation by the Jewish Exiles over the recent destruction of Jerusalem. That event, too, was a “crafted public spectacle,” the culmination of the siege and sack of the holy city by the Babylonians. Here is their song in full—their song about their inability to sing songs any more:

By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down,
and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

Psalm 137 has three interlocking themes. First, it expresses the Exiles’ fierce determination to remember their glorious heritage and its most impressive public symbol. Second, it expresses their grief and horror over the recent destruction of that holy place “down to its foundations.” Third, it expresses their fantasies of vengeance, if not against their captors themselves, before whom they are powerless, then against their captors’ innocent children.

Maybe Psalm 137, read Christianly, holds the clue to my puzzlement. I want my students to imitate the Exiles’ admirable determination to remember their heritage. I want them to honor the deaths of the martyrs, the deeds of the saints, and the humble, daily sacrifices of the plebs sancta dei, the holy common people of God. And to do that, I must tell them the old stories, those narrative icons in which faith in Christ transforms the cruelties of fate into the splendors of destiny, in which terrible loss is sanctified by generous self-relinquishment. Christ’s own death on the cross is the paradigm of that theme, and although I try to abstain from glorifying his sufferings as such, I cling to the goodness of Good Friday. I also want my students to imitate the Exiles’ practice of lamentation when calamity strikes. I want them to follow their own deep moral insight, which my old friend Brother Gilbert also expressed to me so long ago, that our culture’s addiction to spectacles of violence is doing irreparable harm to our souls. I do not want my students to imitate the Exiles’ fantasies of vengeance against the perpetrators. Christ’s words from the cross expressly forbid that, but in any case I don’t think our students are in danger of it. Indeed, I think the danger for them is to overcorrect in the opposite direction, to deny the very possibility that innocent suffering and voluntary self-sacrifice can sanctify. That dimension of the Gospel is unfathomably mysterious, scandalous to human reason, and extremely difficult to present without seeming to glorify suffering itself, and thus to provide unwitting justification to those who cruelly inflict suffering on others, or who unjustly demand sacrifices from others. I frankly do not know how to proceed here, but I do believe that the integrity of our faith demands that we find a way. Amen.




[1] Ross Douthat, “Why gun control loses,” Seattle Times (October 5, 2017), p. A13.

[2] Apologeticus 50.

[3] See Keith Hopkins, “Murderous Games,” in Death and Renewal: Sociological Studies in Roman History, Volume 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 1-30, and an excerpt published under the title, “Murderous Games: Gladiatorial Contests in Ancient Rome, History Today 33/6 (June 1983) keith-hopkins/murderous-games-gladiatorial-contests-ancient-rome, accessed October 6, 2017. Hopkins focuses on the socio-political function of Roman gladiatorial games as such, not on the martyrdom of Christians which sometimes took place during those games. Nor does he take not of the fact that when Christians were martyred in the arena, it was usually only after they had been subjected to a formal judicial persecution and found guilty.

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