Néstor O. Míguez
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "Look", he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
What do you make of a video game called "Stoning Stephen"? The player is a member of the crowd and has to try to hit the defenceless Christian before the others, as he continues speaking and praying. More points are scored if you hit him in the mouth and stop him talking. The sound of cheers from the crowd accompanies each successful hit. Many more points are scored if you hit him with a stone and kill him. When the final blow is dealt, the victim lets out a loud scream, the crowd applauds and sparkling lights appear on the screen.
After reading our text, this seems to be rather macabre. However, games like these are feeding the minds of millions of children and young people for several hours a day. Some of you have probably played similar games. Of course, we could make it something more palatable - there are also stories of "good" violence in the Bible: a game where young David has to aim at huge Goliath's forehead, while trying to dodge the blows from the giant's spear and sword (1 Sam. 17:50). "Good" violence and "bad" violence are leading us to believe that killing is a game, that destroying another person is a victory, that the "good people" (us) have a right to bump off "the bad people" (them, those who are different). Sadly, games prepare us for the real violence, war, torture and extermination that are taking over our world. Many video games look too much like a television news bulletin.
Violence has always been a part of our world. There have always been ways to make us believe that killing others is "natural" and necessary, that killing solves our problems. Nobody sits down in front of a video game in which, when they are about to stone a woman, a Messiah appears and says "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" and everybody withdraws saddened (John 8:1-11). Violence "sells", mercy is boring. This is the ideology that is gaining ground in our world, the "programme" that they are installing in our brains.
Violence is part of our human sin, it is motivated by feelings of envy, spite, fear or pride. The stone used to kill was in the heart before it was in the hand. The stones in David's sling, in the hands of those threatening the woman brought before Jesus or thrown at Stephen, were deadly weapons. However, these same stones, in other parts of the Bible, are used to build a solid house (Matt. 7:24-29). They are even used to mark the place of the mysterious appearance of God (Gen. 28:10-12). The problem is not in the stone, but in the intentions of the person who throws it, who uses it.
How often, in a nursery school, do you see toy building blocks used as symbolic weapons (by making pistols or sub-machine guns to play cops and robbers or war games) or as actual weapons, when the children throw the pieces at each other's heads. But the reverse is also true: how often is a child's imagination able to create building materials out of what seems to be rubbish or waste. Then, what were simply obstacles or useless and broken stones become living stones, cornerstones, useful for making, creating, enjoying and serving (1 Pet. 2:4-8).
Violence is not only about stones and weapons. There is violence in the hunger that results from an unjust distribution of the things that God has given us to share. There is violence in prejudice affecting those with a different skin colour or culture, or discrimination on the grounds of gender. Those forms of humanity that God himself has given us have justified many acts of violence, whether visible or invisible. These same violent statistics could be places of meeting, love, mutual enrichment and solidarity.
Because just as violence is part of our sin and comes from the heart, the ability to love, serve and protect also comes from the image of God within us, from God's love planted by faith in our hearts. This is why the prophet's promise is that the love of God will transform our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (Eze. 11:19). Violence gives way to mercy, anger to understanding, greed to justice.
Throughout history, Christians and churches, in their various denominations, have also confused living rocks of faith with stones cast to wound and kill. Like the nursery school children, we have turned stones that the Lord gave us to build a rich and more beautiful world for his children, into things with which we use, either physically or symbolically, to attack others, casting them at their heads.
In the midst of a world that persists in finding excuses to wage wars and kill, where those who call themselves Christians, defenders of the faith, fill their hands with stones or far worse things, it becomes necessary to listen to the Word that gives life more strength than to the word that excludes and kills. We cannot be healthy while our heart continues to pump the poison of sectarianism or arrogance, while we believe ourselves to be the only bearers of healthy doctrine or superior culture.
True health, that is the path leading us towards reconciliation, comes through the recognition of others, of their pains and feelings, of their hopes and dreams, of the rich diversity with which God himself allowed the fruits of his Spirit to grow and flourish. This Spirit of God drives us to be part of God's creativity rather than to respond in zealous vengeance when we ourselves are still experiencing misunderstanding or unjust violence, when we see the consequences of poverty and injustice around us, and in many cases within ourselves. We, like Stephen, should continue speaking of the glory of God even under attack. The Spirit inspires hope for a different time, a time of glorious freedom for the children of God, even within a creation that is subjected to futility (Rom. 8:18-20).
Suggestions for use
In the group, if appropriate, or in small groups, encourage some group members to talk about any violence that they have experienced or which they have been a victim of. This must be done carefully as in some cases it can provoke strong feelings. After their stories have been told look at the reactions of the rest of the group: depression and pain, anger and a desire for vengeance, willingness to understand or forgive. Examine our feelings in light of the text we have read.
Another option would be to work on a "parable". Bring in a piece of undamaged and clean wood, some nails and a hammer. Have a pair of pliers handy as well. Invite the group members to hammer a few nails into the wood. Then reflect together on the blows, the damage to the wood (a parallel could be drawn to the Cross of Christ), then try to take the nails out - you need as much or even more force than you did to hammer them in. Finally, look at what has happened to the wood: even though the nails have been taken out, the board remains marked. However much you fill or cover the holes, the marks will always remain. Compare the experience with the issues of violence. Think about the issue of healing and reconciliation: what kind of wood are we made of? Also in this context, think about the meaning of the Resurrection.
Games. Think about games we have played recently or that we see children playing. How many of them involve forms of physical or symbolic violence? How many are based on competition? Reflect on the idea that "violence is learnt through games". Think about or invent games that do not involve violence and actually stimulate solidarity. There are groups that have websites and books dedicated to the subject. The group could investigate whether there are publications promoting "peaceful" games in your area and try to get hold of them so you can use them in the Church's teaching.
Another option is to organise a debate on the question "Is there such a thing as good' violence?'" - with one speaker or group defending one side and the rest, the other side - using Biblical arguments. Other sub-issues that could be raised are:
- Is there such a thing as "preventative violence"? Is that not the first form of violence?
- When does defensive violence become aggressive?
- What is the relationship between forgiveness and justice?
- In all circumstances it is good to close in a time of prayer.
Confession: when we are violent towards others, the violence is often symbolic of exclusion or disdain for their beliefs.
Seek salvation in Christ: pray for one another. Ask the Spirit to enable us to defend our faith without attacking others.