Acts 2:14a, 22-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
Before we moved to Abbotsford in 2002 I knew very little about Abbotsford. I knew a little about its geography and I remembered a murder case of a teenage girl that made national headlines. The perpetrator was dubbed the Abbotsford Killer.
Later I met people who had once known the perpetrator, or lived around the corner, or known someone who knew him. After the perpetrator’s arrest Maclean’s wrote about him, “Those who knew him said he seemed incapable of such heinous crimes. But last week, Terry Driver, 31, a dedicated father of two, onetime Boy Scout leader and son of a decorated former Vancouver police sergeant, was charged with the attempted murder of Misty Cockerill and the first-degree murder of Tanya Smith…”1
That’s what stories of violence so often have in common: No one expected this person to do such a thing. They were courteous and friendly neighbours, good colleagues, and well, so much like us.
The “so much like us” part reminds me of the so-called Milgram experiment. Stanley Milgram was the Yale psychologist who conducted a study into responses to authority figures that suggested obedience to authority would override people’s conscience. In the experiment subjects were to administer electric shocks up to lethal strength to others simply for not solving mathematical problems.
The experiments began in July 1961, three months after the start of the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem and the result suggested that the problem of evil cannot be limited to Nazis or Germans but resides in all of us. Something the Christian faith has known for a long time, though we tend to forget that we know.
The question for the Church is how, knowing that we are capable of doing evil, we can develop such practices that allow us to act and speak in ways that are life-giving instead of destructive.
Our family conversation turned to Northern Ireland this week. We talked about how they were affected by Brexit and about the makeup of their society. We talked about how unlikely in the eighties and even in the nineties peace seemed in Northern Ireland. And then came the Good Friday Peace Agreement. And to everyone’s surprise, that peace agreement has held. Not everyone is happy all the time but the young people who turned 19 this year have no recollection of the armed conflict.
But we also talked about the fact that everyone in Northern Ireland was somehow part of the conflict, whether they played an active part in it (however you may define active) or not. And we talked a bit about how difficult it must be to go forward when you know people, or work with people, or meet people who were ‘on the other side’ and who may have wished to do you harm, or who actually did do you harm.
All this came to mind when I looked at our first reading from the Book of Acts. The reading is part of the Apostle Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Jerusalem and tells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He tells the story to an audience that is not innocent, an audience that was was involved in Jesus’ execution, perhaps directly, but most certainly in the way that people in Northern Ireland were all part of the story prior to the Good Friday Agreement, or in the way that South Africans needed to learn to live together, or in the way that we in Canada have a story that is not always shaped by justice but that began with colonialism and the displacement of the peoples who were here first.
Perhaps we thought Peter’s sermon was not much, considering that we know the story, he is hardly telling us anything new. But consider this: He is preaching to people who are hardly innocent in the violent death of Jesus.
And his sermon is not an accusation but an invitation. He tells his listeners that as much as violence has been their story, the violence against Jesus and the violence against each other, so is the story of Jesus their story for they are Israelites and Jesus is God’s promised.
Rowan Williams says, “In this event of the preaching of Jesus risen, there are no ‘uninvolved bystanders’. … , the apostles speak speak to an audience of participants, an audience with blood on its hands.”2 “The apostles stand in the name of Jesus before the court that condemned Jesus.”3
At first glance we see a reversal: Those who judged and condemned Jesus are now subject to the judgment of the one they condemned. Yet instead of conferring judgment on the people, the resurrection of Jesus is held up as promise and hope, thus making the future possible.
This is remarkable. Peter’s sermon is not about theological propositions, not about truisms, nor is it a “we told you so” but it offers hope to a people whose lives are marred by conflict and violence. Peter’s sermon offers hope to us who are the descendants of colonialists or inheritors of the history of colonialism. Peter’s sermon offers hope to us who are somehow entangled, with our investments and opinions, in a world that still believes that violence will bring peace.
Into this world Peter preaches a vision that sees peace come from the victim that bore the sins of the world, so that victims can be healed and perpetrators face their victims.
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a clinical psychologist who served on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, tells of the story of a man, member of a white congregation in Capetown, which had been attacked by a group that had broken with the ANC, who had come to the hearing of the amnesty application of the men who had stormed into the church. The man asked to judge for permission to speak to the perpetrators. He asked them to turn toward him and to repeat their apology to his face and to speak their apology in their own language. All three of the men took a turn to speak their apology. And then he asked them to engage in a common act of remembrance. He described his wife and what she was wearing on that day and asked, ‘Do you remember her, do you remember seeing her?’
Gobodo-Madikizela tells of another incident where the police killed seven young men from the township of Capetown. It had been a set up. Black police officers had pretended to have been exiles who had returned home. And in their disguises they recruited, trained, and equipped young men to commit acts of violence. When these so recruited young men went to do what they had been instructed and trained to do, they were ambushed by an army of police.
At the hearings the police officers asked to apologize to the mothers of these young men. The police officers are also young men, and they addressed the mothers as ‘my parents’, “I ask your forgiveness my parents.” And a mother responds by addressing him as ‘my child’. “You are the same age as my child. You are like a child to me. I cannot deny you the forgiveness that you want. Your name means ‘prayer’. I don’t know if you follow your name. I forgive you, my child.”4
In the facing of the victim forgiveness is offered. When Peter preaches in Jerusalem, he offers forgiveness, and the common humanity that we heard in these stories from South Africa is present here also, made possible not by violence, but made possible by the Jesus the innocent victim who was oppressed afflicted, yet did not open his mouth; like a lamb led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent.
That is the Good News that Peter proclaims and begins to understand. It is the Good News offered to us, the Good News that wants to end all violence, including our own.
2Resurrection, page 1-2
3Ibid. Page 3