• Matthew Jones

Is Violence Our Story?

The ancient world that the Israelites inhabited had many stories of how the world came to be. One of them, the one that the Babylonians told—remember, the Israelites were deported from their homes and forced to live in subjugation in Babylon in 597 BCE—went like this.


Marduk is the greatest of all gods. In order to establish himself, he agrees to kill Ti’āmat, the mother of many gods who turned on them (for a variety of reasons) and created all kinds of sharp-toothed monsters to do them harm. Marduk, however, attacks. The story is preserved to this day, and the climax of the battle unfolds in the following lines:


“Ti’āmat and the champion of the gods, Marduk, engaged,

were tangled in single combat,

joined in battle.

The lord spread his net, encompassing her;

the tempest, following after,

he loosed in her face.

Ti’āmat opened her mouth as far as she could;

he drove in the tempest

lest she close her lips.

The fierce winds filled her belly,

her insides congested and (retching)

she opened wide her mouth:

he let fly an arrow, it split her belly,

cut through her inward parts

and gashed the heart.

He held her fast, extinguished her life.”


Evidentially, the Babylonian gods didn’t observe Mother’s Day, because Marduk’s act of violence against Ti’āmat earns him the right to be king of the gods forever, and he will later establish Babylon as the seat of his throne. Before that, however, he has an idea. Why not use the carcass of Ti’āmat to make something useful? This is exactly what he does, and out of her body he makes the cosmos, the universe, our world. He does so by splitting her in two (finishing the job of the arrow he shot down her throat) and using one half to make the heavens (the sky) and the other to make the earth—her eyes become two great rivers, her head is covered with a mountain, her “udders” also become mountains that each have rivers flowing from them, and her tail is fashioned into the Milky Way.


But he doesn’t stop there. He decides he needs some workers to do everything he doesn’t want to do, so he comes up with another plan.


“Arteries I will knot

and bring bones into being.

I will create Lullu, “man” be his name,

I will form Lullu, man.

Let him be burdened with the toil of the gods,

that they may freely breathe.”


But since Marduk already used up all of Ti’āmat’s corpse, he follows the advice of Ea (his father) and gets a bunch of the gods together and blames the whole Ti’āmat fiasco on another god Kingu. At the will of Marduk, Kingu is killed.


“They bound him, held him before Ea,

inflicted the penalty on him,

severed his arteries;

and from his blood he formed mankind.” [1]


We need, at this point, to do a cosmic double take. It is absolutely vital that we understand the implications of that last bit.


Humanity’s composition, the stuff out of which it is made, is the blood of a murdered god. This is actually quite common of all kinds of ancient creation narratives, and it holds significance for our understanding of the universe we inhabit today. So at risk of being pedantic, I will repeat myself once more. This story tells its hearers that:


Humanity is made out of violence.


And not only in the sense that humanity is the result of violence, but also that humanity is comprised (at a cellular level) of violence. This story says that if you put a drop of our blood under a microscope you will find egotistical power-plays, selfishness, anger, vengeance, corruption, and yes, ultimately, violence. Put your ear to our heart and you will hear the rhythm of a war drum, signaling the organization of violence. Look into our eyes and see the greed of Marduk sentencing Kingu to death for crimes he did not commit, see the echo of plots and plans to use others as commodities and disposable resources, see the violence etched into every part of our existence.


This story’s gospel might sound like this:


And violence took on flesh, and became… us.


But, the Israelites who found themselves living in the land of this story as a result of the Babylonian’s violence told a different story to their children. Their story went like this:


“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’


So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” [2]


The Israelite mother who held her children close at night might have told them not to believe the stories about Marduk that they had heard from their Babylonian neighbors, because they knew a different story, one that subverts Marduk’s at nearly every turn, not least of all the anthropology (the understanding of humanity) presented by the narrative.


Marduk creates humanity to do all the work he and the other gods don’t want to do, but the God of Israel creates humanity to be God’s ambassadors and partners in tending a garden (which they will actually do together for a bit, when God joins them in the cool of the evening). Marduk makes both the cosmos and humanity out of violence for his own pleasure, but the God of Israel creates humanity to love the cosmos; they are to tend to and enjoy creation. See, I have given you every plant… for your pleasure, we might understand it to say. The God of Israel makes humanity not out of violence but out of God’s own image. There is some refraction of God that finds its way into the creation of humanity. And when Marduk is finished he leans back and says, “Won’t it be nice to relax while these humans do all my work?” the God of Israel says something very different.


God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.


This is the first thing God says about the first things, but it is also the first thing God says about all things. This is why the creation narratives of our Scriptures are important, not to give us a science of how the earth came to be, but to tell us what we and all creation are made of.


Israel seemed to resist Babylon’s story by saying to their children,


You are not made of Kingu’s blood; you are made of God’s image. Markduk calls you violence, but our God calls you good.


But I am haunted by a question this week. What happens when you are constantly told that you are not created in God’s image and that you are not good because your skin is not white?


I think you begin to believe it.

I think you get to the point that the only thing you can do is break a window, or steal something you don’t need or want, or hurt someone. While we indeed call upon all people to refrain from violence, I cannot say that I am surprised by the looting and riots we have seen over the past week. What else do we expect from those who have been told in word and deed alike that Genesis 1 does not apply to them? How can we expect them to believe a different story about their substance when so many of our structures tell them they are unwanted, unneeded, even expendable?


We cannot, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13:12, “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” when we have our knees on the necks of neighbors. This is Paul’s whole point in this passage. You cannot claim that “Jesus Christ is in you” when among you there is “quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder,” not to mention killing.


We cannot “baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” as Jesus says in Matthew 28:19b when we won’t get in the same water as them. The command to take the story of God to “all nations” goes unmet when we refuse to inconvenience ourselves for the sake of our sisters and brothers who are at risk because they are black. What is this calling other than the invitation to change one’s behaviors and landscape for the sake of someone unlike you that you do not yet know? As it turns out, you don’t just wake up one day in “all nations.” You have to give up something dear to you, like home, and put yourself into someone else’s way of thinking and living. That is the only way to fulfill the great commission. We cannot make disciples of the crucified Christ if we have not given up anything in order to do so.


Thus we hear the words of Rev. Michael B. Curry, Bishop of the Episcopal Church:


“Violence against any person is violence against a child of God, created in God’s image. And that ultimately is violence against God, which is blasphemy—the denial of the God whose love is the root of genuine justice and true human dignity and equality.

Love does not look like the silence and complicity of too many of us, who wish more for tranquility than justice.” [3]


Lord, have mercy,

Christ, have mercy,

for all the times we have preferred tranquility over justice.


In introductory words to his commentary on Genesis 1, Walter Brueggemann writes,


“The main theme of the text is this: God and God’s creation are bound together in a distinctive and delicate way. This is the presupposition for everything that follows in the Bible. It is the deepest premise from which good news is possible. God and his creation are bound together by the powerful, gracious movement of God towards that creation. The binding which is established by God is inscrutable. It will not be explained or analyzed. It can only be affirmed and confessed. This text announces the deepest mystery: God wills and will have a faithful relationship with earth. The binding is irreversible. God has decided it. The connection cannot be nullified.” [4]


So why have so many white people tried to convince black people that these realities do not apply to them? Why have we corporately or individually, by action or lack thereof, tried to unbind what God has bound? Why have we not affirmed and confessed this reality for all persons? Why have we tried to reverse what God has made irreversible? If God has decided it, then why have we tried to change God’s vote, or perhaps, eliminate it altogether?


My friend recently moved to downtown Indianapolis. On Thursday he sent me a video that he took from his balcony of protestors marching peacefully down the street. A few of them catch sight of my friend and shout for him to come down and join them. In a flash, the whole crowd starts shouting,


“Walk with us! Walk with us! Walk with us!”


This reminds me that today is Trinity Sunday. Allow me to explain why.


The early church fathers wrote about the Trinity using a word that we probably aren’t very familiar with these days: perichoresis. Yes, it is the kind of word that breaks the bank if you’re on Wheel of Fortune—a real “Can I buy five vowels, Pat?” kind of situation.


Perichoresis describes the motion of flow between the first, second, and third persons of the Trinity. God the Source is eternally loving and self emptying into God the Beloved. God the Beloved is eternally loving and self emptying into the God the Spirit. God the Spirit is eternally loving and self emptying into God the Source. And back around: God the Source is eternally loving and self emptying into God the Spirit; God the Spirit is eternally loving and self emptying into God the Beloved; and God the Beloved is eternally loving and self emptying into God the Source. So it goes forever and ever. Do you see how one might get dizzy if she thought about this too long? Thus theologians began to describe the motion as the perichoretic dance.


I was explaining this to a group from my church a number of years ago, and I was worried that I had lost everyone. Just then, Geneva chimed in. This then ninety-three year old saint who has since gone into paradise made a profound observation:


They never step on one another’s toes.”


This dance is so egoless and harmonious that we can barely imagine such a united community of persons. This is why when we sing the great Trinitarian hymn in the church it repeats so often the exclamation “Holy! Holy! Holy!” because the dance is so loving and selfless and other-centered that we sense in our bones that it is other than us, sacred, divine.


But here is where the Scriptures mess with our intuition. As Brueggemann noted, the foundational idea of the Bible is present from the very beginning: God insists on humanity (which, for the record, God first calls “good”) entering into relationship with God. When humanity rejects the invitation time and time again, God eventually does something unthinkable: God becomes a human, too, so that there can never be a separation between God and humanity without tearing apart God’s very self. That is the miracle of incarnation, that a young Jewish man with dark skin is eternally in the Godhead. And he is there in order that the rest of us might join him. Thus, in John’s Gospel we hear Jesus pray,


“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” [5]


Back to my friend on his balcony with the protestors chanting “Walk with us! Walk with us! Walk with us!” as they pass him. This communal invitation is a reminder of the one we receive from the Godhead:


“Dance with me! Dance with me! Dance with me!”


This is the radical, energetic rally cry of the Trinity to all of humanity that has been made in Trinity’s image. Join the dance! Let us love you and self empty ourselves into you, and then allow yourself to love and self emptying back into us and others! What else are we to make of Genesis 1:26a, “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness?” God does this at the very beginning in creation and it comes to a climax when Jesus reminds us all that it is for the purpose of others knowing—knowing what?


“That you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” In other words, that God has become a human and therefore a young Jewish man with dark skin is forever in the Godhead, and that the Godhead loves each one of us equal to the amount God loves that young Jewish man with dark skin, which is quite a lot it would seem.


In a public conversation about how the church can move forward into a new reality after COVID-19, Fr. Richard Fragomeni made a statement that terrified me.


“We are no closer to God than we are to those we love and love least.”


Can we claim to be any closer to God than we are to those we love least? This is not great news for me at the moment. Believe it or not, there are people with whom I do not get along. There are people against whom I hold a grudge. There are people next to whom, in heaven’s choir, I do not want to sit. And it is also true that I participate in systems that try to convince my black sisters and brothers that Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel are not true, that they are not loved by God equal to Jesus himself.


So before I comment that the riots and looting need to stop, I must evaluate myself and my community. Have we proclaimed the gospel of Marduk, or have we ourselves been truly converted to the Gospel of Israel’s God, the good news of the dark-skinned Godhead? For the Apostle Paul, the test of faith is our ability to “agree with one another” and “live in peace.”


If we are really going to be Trinity people, if we are going to join the dance, if we are going to believe the Scriptures, if we are going to trust the God of Israel rather than the god of Babylon, if we are going to hear God saying “good” and not “violence,” if we are going to affirm the incarnation, if we are going to be formed by the Gospel, then we must be able to affirm one simple truth right now:


Black lives matter.


Amen, may it be so.



________________________________________________________

1 Thordkild Jacobsen presents the 1,000 line epic in a very readable form in his book The Treasure of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion. See pages 167-183.

2 Genesis 1:26-31a.

3 Read Bishop Curry’s full essay here: https://churchanew.org/blog/2020/06/03/bishopcurry2?fbclid=IwAR1pGN2rn8EMLFAtpMOe9Z81P_XoIl4AsyO49OMhbizs1F6MlycG96_jyJE

4 Walter Brueggemann is one of the most beloved Biblical Scholars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. This quote is taken from his volume on Genesis in the Interpretation series. See pages 22-24.

5 John 17:21b-23.




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