Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

We have witnessed an escalation of violence on so many levels in our lives. Violence always claims innocent lives. It is an expression of disorder within the human soul that explodes into disorder in the community. Last Sunday’s Gospel passage from Mark 9:30-37 offers extraordinary insight into not only the roots of violence, but its cure.

Before revisiting the narrative, which is remarkably simple and direct, a sobriety check is in order. Since the last federal election cycle and the pandemic lockdowns that enveloped it, many have become addicted to the adrenaline high of outrage that has produced on so many levels outbursts, a kind of public pandemic of behavior resembling that of intoxicated drivers. The pattern is not unlike addiction — and sometimes fueled by it — where the mind is corrupted to work overtime in order to justify crazy addictive behaviors, very much like patterns of sin.

The insanity is evident, if we have the courage to admit it, on all levels. Violence in the womb, where the reality of humanity of unborn life is denied systemically in law and medical practice. Violence in the workplace and marketplace where human beings are pulled apart by gossip and sexual exploitation, where persons are reduced to objects for foraging egos or passions. Violence in the home, sometimes taking the form of domestic abuse and even spilling out into the streets. We need not belabor the point by citing the atrocities on the international stage, both those reported and those suppressed by media except to recall that, in all cases, innocent lives are destroyed.

Lest we forget, this vicious cycle has dogged humanity from the Garden of Eden, with the first murder, a fratricide. It has surrounded the lives of all prophets who appeal to the conversion of hearts from the seeds of violence. It threatened to destroy Jesus himself at his birth and ultimately resulted in his very political execution on the most exquisitely painful and horrifying instrument of torture ever devised: the cross.

That is where last Sunday’s Gospel narrative begins. It goes right to the reality of violence in the world, demonstrates its roots, and reveals the solution. Jesus offers us reality therapy. He begins and ends, as always, with the truth. The truth about how we become violent and stray from the good, and the truth about how God saves us from ourselves — if we will only let him.

The narrative has three short acts. It starts with a familiar reminder to his disciples by Jesus as to why he is with us: “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise” (Mk 9:30). Of course, they did not understand, and the second act tells us why. It is their story and ours.

On the way home – a journey, which is a metaphor of our earthly road toward our eternal destiny — they, like us, become focused on themselves, their own egos. Jesus asks them what they were discussing. It is the usual pattern of sinners and other addicts: how to get themselves “high.” They fall silent. “They had been discussing among themselves along the way who was the greatest” (Mk 9:34). This is the root of all violence, sin and human discord: the tyranny of the ego.

St. James, in a passage from his letter, which was read last Sunday just before this Gospel, spells it out clearly: “Beloved, where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice” (Jas 3:16). He goes on to say that this is how wars start. Conflicts emerge from “passions that make war within your members” (Jas 4:1). The whole epistle takes only 15 minutes to read, and I would recommend it for the sense not only of its psychology but its sermon on how to deal with becoming a better peacemaker in a violent world. But Jesus gives us an even clearer picture in the next scene.

When the apostles arrive at the home, Jesus sits down. The style of the time would probably be that still used by nomads in their tents, sitting on their haunches, directly on the ground or, at best, a rug. Again, it is a metaphor for the humility of God, the Son of Man who takes on our humanity to reveal the depths of divinity: pure and innocent love. To make the point clearer, Jesus embraces a child in their presence, and invites his disciples and us to receive one another as child to child and, in this way, to receive him (God) into our lives (cf. Lk 9:37).

What is Jesus telling us? Each of us must look into our heart and ask what is driving us to covet, to seek our happiness and fulfillment in a desire from something we do not possess. Without presuming to do this work for anyone else but myself, as a fellow sinner, I can only suggest, from experience, that it is a propensity on the part of fallen humanity to seek happiness by objectifying others. By this I mean, the many crooked and self-serving ways in which we treat others and so many steps and stones toward our own self-fulfillment.

I accuse no one but myself. Every sinner must examine his or her own conscience every day. But isn’t the root of all violence, from the womb to the grave, ultimately the elimination, exploitation, removal or abuse of another human being who stands in the way of our passions or ambitions or can be used somehow to feed them? Men feeling inadequate or useless in their own families and relationships, perhaps because of certain personal issues of self-esteem, joblessness, illness or some other perceived inadequacy? Women seeking stability, a home to build, a family to nurture, a secure environment, but unable to trust men suffering from their own inabilities? If this sounds sexist, just exchange the gender: there are enough of each scenario in each at any given time.

Bottom line. We need a savior. A divine Savior. Our culture tells us to double down on ourselves: to seek the fulfillment of our passions and desires in ourselves and those around us. It is, at heart, a kind of spiritual and psychological cannibalism. I was tempted to write “cannabis” but, yes, drugs lead to the same result: nothing but me, myself and loneliness. We cannot save ourselves or look to others, in any shape or form or idealization, to save us. The spoils of war, whether in the heart, the home, the neighborhood or abroad are always the same: some kind of morbidity.

Jesus invites us to consider the childlike innocence and purity of God. To be consumed by God is to be made whole and be healed, to live at peace. To be consumed by our passions and desires is to make war — on ourselves and others. This is reality therapy well worth learning from.