Please be aware that this reflection includes a description of family violence.
“Where was God?” a friend once wrote to me. “Where was God when my father was on the rampage, trying to break down my bedroom door? Where was God when I was hiding under the dining room table, shaking and terrified? Why didn’t God keep me safe?” There’s an old children’s song that goes like this: “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do …” And when I think of my dear friend, who sang songs like this in religious education classes at school, and who begged God to keep her safe from her father at home, my heart breaks.
When we think of God, we often come up with big, strong images: the enraged she-bear in Hosea (13:8); the soaring mother eagle in Deuteronomy (32:11-12); the God who controls the wind and the waves; the God who sends plagues and armies to punish and destroy. We want God to be big and strong and powerful, and ready to punish evil: but when we look around at the world, God doesn’t seem to be doing much of this. Instead, vulnerable people keep suffering; and the proud keep trampling over anyone who gets in their way.
People, perhaps, like Jesus. In God’s culture, says Jesus, “some who are last will be first, and some of the first will be last.” His words are a warning to the powerful: and the powerful respond with threats. “Get away from here,” some Pharisees say, “Herod wants to kill you.”
Now, if Jesus was the big strong god we’re kind of hoping for, he’d just laugh at the threat. Then he’d whip out a sword, or a plague, or some superhero power, and he’d slaughter those colluding Pharisees, and then Herod and all his lackeys for good measure. And then he’d take out my friend’s father, and every abusive priest, and all the people who threaten us, and those awful neighbours across the street, and that cow at work. And then he’d sit on the throne in Jerusalem dressed in purple velvet as the blood ran in rivers through the streets.
But perhaps we’ve noticed by now: he’s just not this kind of god. Instead, Jesus tells the Pharisees that he’s going to continue his work of casting out demons and healing vulnerable people, and he’s going to head towards Jerusalem, where the prophets have always been killed. And he compares Herod to a fox, and himself to a … chicken.
Not the imperial eagle of Deuteronomy, that symbol of power and strength which could rip a fox to pieces. Instead, a powerless, weak, vulnerable chicken. A mother hen, in fact, who longs to gather her brood under her wings and who puts her own body between the fox and her chicks, knowing full well that she will be killed. And most of us here have seen what happens when a fox gets in the henhouse.
Why would Jesus say this? He’s the Son of God; he can call upon angel armies. So why would he compare himself to something so weak, so pathetic? Something which can’t even protect us from people’s fists, or from predators on the prowl?
This image of Jesus as a mother hen, and these questions, go to the heart of the nature of Christ. And that is that, despite those who claim otherwise, Jesus Christ refuses to be a strongman. Sure, there are plenty of strongmen around who claim to work in God’s name. But strongmen rally the crowds by whipping up fear and uniting people against a common enemy. We see it in the news every day: manufactured angst against marriage equality, or Muslims, or women, or ‘those people taking our jobs.’ Strongmen bring people together by turning other people into scapegoats: and if we worship and follow a strongman, we will never see an end to the cycles of fear and hatred which rip our world apart.
So Jesus rejects this way of being God. He rejects our lust for retaliation and retribution; he rejects our longing for a God who will endorse violence and border controls and racism and homophobia and all the other ways people are made into scapegoats. Instead, he offers peace. And this is not a military peace: it’s not the peace of domination, but the peace of disarmament. It’s the peace which demands we lay down our swords, and learn to love our enemies. It’s the peace which comes when we lower our defences, and risk vulnerability. It’s the peace we experience when we do not let ourselves be warped by the impulse for revenge, but instead “let our only experience of violence be in the suffering of it.” For this is the peace of Christ, and it’s this peace which heals and transforms the world.
When we gather under Christ’s wings, there is no guarantee of safety, no earthly security. Foxes and wolves circle hungrily, and all we have is her own body: warm, unguarded, wholeheartedly loving, infinitely vulnerable. As her chicks, we are called to nestle in and trust her; to let go of our individualism and to become part of the flock; to choose unity, solidarity, and, like our mother hen, self-giving love.
As we do so, we might be mocked, even attacked; we might suffer with our mother hen. But we do so knowing she, too, was mocked and attacked; she too suffered and even died, “wings spread, breast exposed”; and she did so to disarm the powers of retaliation, violence, sin and death once and for all. And now she is raised to new life, and she calls us into this life, this renewal of culture, where violence is no longer king and love reigns over all.
So in answer to my friend’s question, “Where was God when I was a child?”, I say this: “God-in-Christ was huddled with you when you hid behind your bedroom door. She was weeping with you when you were under the table and terrified. She comes more alive in you every time you choose not to retaliate against your father, and every time you choose not to re-enact the violence with your own children but to treat them with gentleness, instead. And as you engage in the incredibly slow, difficult and painful work of therapy, and as you keep growing in understanding and love, you might hear her crooning gently, in tenderness and in joy.” Ω
A reflection on Luke 13:29-35 given to Sanctuary, 17 March 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019. “Let our only experience …” quotes the Rule of the Community of the Transfiguration in Teesdale. “Wings spread, breast exposed” is a phrase used by a number of commentators and preachers without citation; however, I believe it originated in a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor. Photo by Loan Aubergeon on Unsplash.