I live in a suburb outside Chicago. I grew up in this area. Sharon and I have raised our family here. We Chicagoans have always had tremendous pride in our city. We love to hear people from around the world discover the beauty of our city positioned next to our magnificent Lake Michigan. However, during the pandemic, everything changed, dramatically. Social unrest, economic distress, and fear of the unknown brought out the worst in people. A 30 percent increase in gun sales in our country put firearms in the hands of people, young and old, who had never had a weapon in their homes. Common peace-loving people suddenly became suspicious and even frightened of their neighbors. Homicides in the Chicago area and in much of our country increased by 25 percent in 2020. As a result, numbers of young families fled to the suburbs seeking greater green space and safer working environments. Office buildings in Chicago are now struggling to remain open with a drastic reduction of tenants. Suddenly, our grand and beautiful city has become marred and nearly abandoned, teetering on survival. What just happened? How did people become so angry and full of fear? How did violence and death become such a common occurrence in our lives?
Now, nearly 40 percent of American households have a firearm in it. Certainly, an argument can be made that a gun is needed to defend oneself against random attacks and threats to life; and of course, hunters of animals use them for their gaming purposes. However, many firearms today are being used for attacks against enemies, family members, former friends, or members of a rival gang. In Chicago, gangs are now fighting openly in the streets and stray bullets are killing innocent children, some while doing homework in their living rooms or walking home after school. Already in 2021, there has been a 21 percent increase of children under 19 years of age dying from gunshot wounds in the Chicago area. Recently, after a White Sox baseball game, a middle-aged woman who had been a teacher for 25 years in a local Catholic school was shot and killed on the Dan Ryan Expressway because her car was caught between two vehicles shooting at each other as they sped down the highway at outrageous speeds.
The sociological and economic issues involved with how the city of Chicago will be able to reinvent itself and become alive again are complex and challenging. I pray very wise minds, compassionate hearts, and skilled leaders will know how to lead us out from our current mess. However, the one issue that jumps out at me as a church leader is how people are handling their frustrations, anger, and out-of-control emotions. Even church-going folks these days are ignoring huge portions of the New Testament, which clearly addresses the issues of violence, retaliation, and murder. Too often, people are grabbing a gun, getting into cars and hunting down their enemies who they believe have wronged or shamed them. They are settling disputes through brazen and often unabashed confrontations and killings. Satan is having a field day whipping up hurt and pain into violence and assault. And unhealthy social media arguments are fueling many of these disputes, which too often result in face-to-face confrontations and even street battles.
Too many people are lacking the most basic interpersonal skills of knowing how to be in the same room with someone with whom they disagree. They feel compelled to attack a person espousing a view different from their own. They have either lost or never possessed abilities to listen and weigh with an open mind views contrary to their own. Even worse, if they feel wronged or injured by another person, they lack the strength and skill of knowing how to seek reconciliation and healing in their relationships. Not enough leaders or parents are teaching or modeling for young people the basic and essential skills of saying to a friend or loved one such important defusing or healing things as, “I am sorry,” “I forgive you,” or “I love you.”
No one knows more about our human nature and fallen selves than our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. So many ills in our society today are issues of our hearts. When we allow pain and hurt to grow unchallenged in our hearts, we can become angry and very unpleasant people to be around, and enormously dangerous to ourselves and others. Psychologists say that much of depression is anger turned inward against our own selves. Last year, suicides from firearms rose 32 percent in America. Despite Americans comprising only 4 percent of the world population, the USA is now responsible for one-third of the world’s firearm suicides. When people are angry and disappointed with themselves, they need to exercise the same basic skills of forgiveness towards themselves as they offer others. Suicide is a very complex psychological and spiritual subject, but having too many firearms available in the average home does not help matters.
Today more than ever we need to listen carefully to the following words of Jesus, “You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought to court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell. So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the alter in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. When you are on the way to court with your adversary, settle your differences quickly. Otherwise, your accuser may hand you over to the judge, who will hand you over to an officer, and you will be thrown into prison. And if that happens, you surely won’t be free again until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:21-36) As we can see, reconciliation and seeking peace are very important subjects to Jesus.
How many people in our world today think that holding onto or even promoting anger in our hearts is more than okay? In fact, being angry is becoming a way of life for an increasing number of people. Yet, in this passage of Matthew, Jesus is clearly saying that harboring unrighteous anger is always and ultimately judged by God. It never has a good outcome. It will only lead to trouble for ourselves and others. A growing number of people today are resolving conflicts through attacks and violence rather than repentance and reconciliation. It is a colossal tragedy to see a young person succumb to the temptations of gang warfare, end up killing someone else, and spending the rest of their life in prison. We Christians need to become more proactive in showing our family members, friends, and neighbors the way of Jesus, who alone is the one fully capable of cleansing our hearts and putting our feet on the paths of forgiveness and new life.
It requires tremendous inner strength to forgive others and even ourselves. As Jesus teaches us, this kind of strength does not emanate from ourselves alone. On the contrary. It is a strength which comes from above, outside of ourselves. Yet, it begins with our willingness and confession that our anger is controlling us and making us do and think things which are contrary to the will of God. When this happens, we need to go straight to the root of things and address whatever pain is harboring in our hearts. Jesus always spoke directly to people’s hearts not just their minds. Jesus has the power to liberate us from whatever might be enslaving us, including anger, hurt, and violent thoughts. To be strengthened we need to cry out to him and ask for his help before our anger leads us to the “fires of hell” which Jesus mentioned.
Christianity began to turn the world upside down in the First Century when the original followers of Jesus started loving their enemies and resisting the temptations of revenge. It was this kind of special love that broke the cycles of violence and death in the world at that time. All cities in America, not just Chicago, need to recapture these kinds of sentiments today. Church leaders, lay and clergy alike, need to be willing to get their hands dirty, enter some very messy situations to point people towards these life-giving teachings of Jesus, and model the path of reconciliation and forgiveness for them. Otherwise, our cities will continue to collapse under the weight of unbridled and senseless violence and killings, born from untamed anger and hatred.
When the Apostle Paul looked out over the landscape of widespread violence in Rome during his time, he said the following to his disciples: “Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, ‘I will take revenge; I will pay them back,’ says the Lord. Instead, ‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap coals of shame on their heads.’ Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.” (Romans 12:19-21)
Whenever this pandemic begins to truly subside and give us opportunities again to freely visit and embrace our neighbors with our loving presence, may we comb our cities and villages for those people most lost, hurting, and scared from the nearly two years of unusual isolation. Down deep people want to put down their arms and open their hearts again and trust their neighbors, themselves, and God. May we be the ones to show the path of peace and introduce them to the Prince of Peace.
Even the Apostle Peter needed to learn this most important lesson when our Lord turned to him in the Garden of Gethsemane and said, “Put away your sword. Those who use the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:32)
So friends, let’s join together in resisting revenge by doing what our Lord asks us to do by loving our neighbors as ourselves and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.