I don’t talk much about Israel and Palestine anymore. My sympathies are largely with the Palestinians, though I have made an effort to get to know a few Israelis, and I’m not sure the world needs me adding to the hot air on the subject.
The folks over at the blog P.OST: AN EVANGELICAL THEOLOGY FOR THE AGE TO COME (it’s a fascinating blog I read frequently, and it’s sharpened my understanding of how I read scripture) have an interesting take on Psalm 137, which begins as a lament in exile and ends as, well, as a wish for mass murder…
(1) By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
(2) On the willows there we hung up our lyres.
(3) For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
(4) How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?
(5) If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!
(6) Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
(7) Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!”
(8) O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!
(9) Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!
That last line is troublesome to many. What to make of such an aspiration, such a desire? (I wrote a song based on this psalm, and wanted very much to incorporate that last line, but the song wouldn’t let me, as much as I tried.) For the folks at P.OST, while the psalm is part of “our story” as Israel/church, we don’t “have the right” to misinterpret this verse by somehow assuming it belongs specifically to us, or speaks to our time and our circumstances:
We don’t have to suppose that these are our sacred texts. There is nothing wrong with rejecting the psalm as a “lament belonging exclusively to the piety of ancient Israel”. The Bible means what it meant and speaks to us on that basis. That is not a bad thing. It is a good thing.
Fine. I guess I can agree with this, so far as it goes. This particular psalm is the product of a time and place, and speaks to a circumstance — life in exile along to Euphrates River, serving the very people who drug you into exile — that is not ours. So, the sentiment at the end doesn’t have to be ours either.
Except… There have been times in my life, like the circumstances surrounding the end of my first internship while at seminary, that left my feeling very angry, very alone, very abandoned. It was that very experience that gave me the ability to see in scripture something of the story of my life, and the story of the church (I have sketched an outline for a book that compares the fate of the church today in the face of modernity and enlightenment to conquest by Assyrians and Babylonians, and that we face another exile, on the banks of rivers of Babylon, serving and entertaining cruel masters who have destroyed our cities and carried us off). How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land, especially to people who demand we sing for their amusement?
These are human feelings, feelings that are no strangers to us even as God’s people. As is the desire for vengeance, to see the pain and suffering of those who have inflicted such on us. And it’s okay to have them. To speak them. To even give them up to God in prayer. Anger as well as sadness and despair is one of the marks of lament.
Note, however, what the psalm does not say or do. It proclaims a judgment upon Babylon, and calls down blessing upon those who will destroy it. Who will murder its children. It is confident in that judgement. The one making the lament does not seek God’s approval to go and himself (I’m assuming here) inflict vengeance upon the Babylonians, and their descendants. It does not agitate, or organize, or demand. It does not call for war or liberation. It’s not the call of the powerful with a state, an army, and an arsenal. It’s not Genesis 34. This is the cry of the powerless, the conquered, the scattered, and it is assumed in the passage that the vengeance coming upon doomed Babylon and its daughters will be done by someone else.
It will be God’s vengeance. Not Israel’s. Not ours.
The vengeance of God, in this instance, is a thing to be trusted in and waited upon. It invokes the primal saving act of God, the rescue of God’s people Israel from slavery in Egypt, from that horrible moment when Israel believed itself done, ready to be overrun, trapped between the sea and Pharaoh’s rapidly advancing army:
Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.
This may not be pleasant thing to hear, and it may shock our modern (or post-axial) sensibilities to hear one of God’s people invoking God’s blessing upon horrific violence. But Psalm 137 gives us space, not just to lament in sorrow, but also in rage, and even to express our desire for murderous retribution. It is okay to want these things.
At the same time, the passage is coherent with the rest of God’s saving action for Israel, and Israel’s understanding of the ways its God has redeemed it time and again — through miraculous acts that demand Israel’s patience and it’s inaction. This is still true, and because of that, we can read this psalm without simply or solely discarding it. However, it’s not okay to do violence because our vindication, our vengeance, our redemption belongs to God and to God alone. Who will fight for us. We have only to be silent, and to wait.
There’s a little story in 2 Kings, one of the Elisha stories, that absolutely fascinates me.
7 Now Elisha came to Damascus. Ben-hadad the king of Syria was sick. And when it was told him, “The man of God has come here,” 8 the king said to Hazael, “Take a present with you and go to meet the man of God, and inquire of the LORD through him, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this sickness?’” 9 So Hazael went to meet him, and took a present with him, all kinds of goods of Damascus, forty camel loads. When he came and stood before him, he said, “Your son Ben-hadad king of Syria has sent me to you, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this sickness?’” 10 And Elisha said to him, a“Go, say to him, ‘You shall certainly recover,’ but the LORD has shown me that he shall certainly die.” 11 And he fixed his gaze and stared at him, until he was embarrassed. And the man of God wept. 12 And Hazael said, “Why does my lord weep?” He answered, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel. You will set on fire their fortresses, and you will kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women.” 13 And Hazael said, “What is your servant, who is but a dog, that he should do this great thing?” Elisha answered, “The LORD has shown me that you are to be king over Syria.” 14 Then he departed from Elisha and came to his master, who said to him, “What did Elisha say to you?” And he answered, “He told me that you would certainly recover.” 15 But the next day he took the bed cloth and dipped it in water and spread it over his face, till he died. And Hazael became king in his place. (2 Kings 8:7-15, ESV)
Where to start?
What I find most fascinating about this story are verses 11 and 12. “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel. You will set on fire their fortresses, and you will kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women,” Elisha says to Hazael. He sees, perhaps in a vision, or perhaps simply because he grasped Hazael’s character, the violence that Hazael will do to Israel — to God’s people — once he becomes king of Syria.
And what does Elisha do?
No press conference. No demand for a pre-emptive strike. No war without end. No condemnations. Not even any warnings, so far as we are told. Just a tear. Or two. Because he sees the suffering that’s coming. Suffering that likely comes — Hazael makes much war against Israel in subsequent chapters of 2 Kings — though Elisha’s vision is all we get in the way of details.
Hazael, as king of Syria, will wage horrific war, kill women and babies. He will kill unborn children. Again, the writer(s)/editor(s) of 2 Kings say this comes to pass because “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel” (2 Kings 13:3). Hazael appears to die a natural death, and his son appears to lose much of what Hazael conquered. So it goes.
Oh, and Amos calls down doom upon “the house of Hazael” and “the strongholds of Ben-Hadad” (Amos 1:4).
But that’s it.
It’s an important story. Because much of our modern theological conversation about evil demands that those who are “self-identified” good people must act. To stop horrific evil. Such as the evil Elisha clearly see Hazael ready to perpetuate.
But nothing of the sort happens in scripture. If Elisha does anything, it isn’t said here. Hazael leads an army, an army that inflicts much death and destruction. And this is seen as God’s judgement on Israel for its idolatry (1 Kings 12:25-33). The Assyrians would later conquer Israel, and its people would vanish. (Actually, no, they would become Samaritans.) Now, we tend not to see God’s judgement at work that way, and when we do, it’s generally to make tawdry political points. Because that seems to be all we’re capable of anymore.
It speaks to the pointlessness of our ethics. Our ethics demand the exercise of our power because they assume the exercise of power. Our ethics assume power. We don’t know what to do when we don’t have any. Elisha is not powerless — the episode in 2 Kings 6 when he strikes an entire Syrian army blind, but only to mislead them, not to defeat them — shows what power Elisha has. He could have easily dealt with Hazael had he wanted to. But his is the power of the prophet — the one who pronounces the word of God. He leads a Syrian army into a trap, and then commands mercy. And a feast. It’s not a permanent peace, but there is no permanent peace this side of the eschaton.
Elisha not only foretold the coming awfulness, in a way, he also anoints the man — an Assyrian leader, no less, one of the enemy’s, one of the oppressor’s, commanders — as king who will inflict that awfulness. It’s a strange tale, one that leaves our ethical sense reeling a bit.
And that is the point, I think. Sure, Hazael will be one of many imperfect instruments of God’s justice upon God’s people. But this is not an easy book of moral tales, a guide to good behavior, recipes on how to do right and succeed at life. It is the story of God’s people in all its wonder and brutality.
It is our story. We need it because of the wonder. And the brutality.
I just finished reading Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld’s book Killing Enmity: Violence and the New Testament. It’s one of a couple of new books that sparked my attention, and that I’m reading over the break. (The other is Amos
Young’s Yong’s The Bible, Disability and The Church: A New Vision of the People of God.) Mostly because I’m intrigued by what others have to say about scripture, violence and how we who are God’s people understand God in, with and through violence.
Neufeld deals with what is for many good bourgeois Christians a difficult subject — the violence in scripture. Particularly, what appears to be God’s role in the violence of scripture. I qualify the term Christian with bourgeois because I have come to believe in bourgeois life there is an expectation that violence should not be normative*. And if ideals of progress are embraced, there is a notion that violence is neither becoming less normative or should (or could) become less normative. Regardless, for the bourgeois, violence is not a normal part of human existence, and it is not normative or ideal. It is an aberration. So, violence in scripture seems to be a moral puzzle — how could a loving and compassionate God do this or allow this? (A question I have heard over and over, including from my father.) How could God’s faithful people do these things and still be faithful or still be God’s people?
This is the question I believe Neufeld is dealing with as he examines New Testament parables, the crucifixion and atonement, hierarchy and subordination, and the images of divine warfare used in the some of the epistles and in John of Patmos’ Revelation. I don’t share these bourgeois concerns, mostly because I do see violence as a normative part of human existence — and an inevitable one. I do believe scripture is the product of a relationship with God in which God promises that God will act to save God’s people, and will do so in miracles rather than through human efforts (“The Lord helps those who help themselves” is definitely not a biblical principle, and is not part of our ongoing relationship with God). But God is present with human beings in all human actions — including our violence — and God saves human being through and in acts of violence (the crucifixion being the biggest example). So, Neufeld is right in his conclusion when he writes:
We will not often find violence-free rhetoric in the New Testament with which to express this wondrous mystery [the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the victory over violence, not the victory of violence], most especially when ‘violence’ is conceived of in broad terms … . Might that be because grace is encountered, received and enacted within a world marked by violence? The words of scripture participate in the incarnation, an enfleshment that takes place in a violent world. The Word always speaks to us in the Scriptures from within this world. Our wrestling with the issue of violence happens in a world in which violence resides not only in our social and political relationships but also in our minds and imaginations. Might that be why suffering, vulnerability and sacrifice are always both evidence of the reality of violence and, in the light of the cross, the scandalous means by which the violence that produces them is subverted and finally overcome?
In the end it is the ingenuity of God’s love, the compassion at the heart of grace and the persistent drive towards reconciliation and restoration that the writers of the New Testament wish to narrate. They do so with the consciousness that both they and their readers are participants in that story that is still unfolding. And they do so with words and images that are at hand. It would be tragic to be preoccupied with and dismissive of their means and to miss the story they are telling, the news they are announcing. With all its twists and turns and surprises, that story is always much bigger and mysterious than any ethical, theological or ideological distillations. It is in the nature of the ‘gospel’ — ‘news’ — that all such distillations are at their very best transitory. Scripture will, thankfully, always slip out of our firmest grasp. (p. 150-151)
We wrestle with violence in a violent world. We wrestle with God, and God wrestles with us, in a violent world. And even if God is not violent in God’s-self, human beings cannot help but understand or perceive the encounter with God in ways and shapes and forms that are violent or can only be understood as or in violence. Neufeld’s last metaphor is that of Jacob wrestling with the mysterious stranger at the ford of the Jabbock in Genesis 32, and he writes:
[W]hen struggling with question of violence in the New Testament we wrestle with the full humanity present in the pages of the New Testament, and the full humanity of the community of listeners and wrestlers. But in the morning, even if limping badly, we call the place ‘Peniel’. [“For I have seen God face to face, and I have been delivered,” ESV, Genesis 32:30.]
I do believe, I confess and I preach and I teach, that human violence is a reality. A reality in which God is present, and not absent. Scripture even tells us that God commands our murderous violence (Deuteronomy 7), but perhaps the lesson to draw from that is there are some things God commands us to that we should not do (as Israel does not). My great ethical concern is the morality of social violence, and state violence in particular, and I see no writ in scripture that God’s people are called to govern, rule or have any stake in the outcome of state or social violence. It is not a means to the end we seek, and I believe quite firmly that no understanding of “love of neighbor” can ever be grounded in violence.
At this point, I was going to have a snarky aside, but thought better of it.
* The essence of my snarky aside was going to focus on the nature of violence in bourgeois life. It has been impersonalized and exported. That is, made the result of bureaucratic and administrative processes, and then forced upon others. So the good bourgeois never has to deal with the reality that the world they depend upon — the order of state and state-managed markets — is inherently violent because they never see the actual violence or those upon whom the violence is done. This is not inherently snarky, accept that I was going to focus on the womanist, feminist and liberationist theologians Nuefeld cites throughout his book as being deeply opposed to the violence of hierarchy, patriarchy, oppression and domination. It has been my experience that most such theologians are also self-professed socialists (and very bourgeois, making them clerisy through and through!) and thus deeply committed to state violence to order the world.
I’m an unrepentant reader of the ugliness and messiness in scripture. I am attracted to it, I gravitate toward it, and I don’t have ethical or logical problems with it. “Why would a good God do that? Why would a good God let that happen?” Not my questions.
In fact, I believe the ugliness and messiness speak specifically to human existence. And God’s presence in our lives.
I don’t think I’ve blogged much about here about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. I think we all know the story. It begins with God “testing” Abraham. In Hebrew, נִסָּה test, with the implication that knowledge is being sought, or that the heart is being measured, and in the case of this passage, The Theological Diction of the Old Testament (vol. 9, p. 450) says, the author of the Genesis 22 passage “seeks to show how someone who fears and obeys God should relate to God.” Which is all well and good. That Abraham is the subject of this story, and his trust in the promise of God is the subject of this story, is generally accepted and general taught. Abraham’s faithfulness in regards to his son (whether that son is Ishmael or Isaac) is the model of faith in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Doing what God says is what it means to follow and trust God.
Well, maybe. The problem I have with this interpretation is that it reduces Isaac to an object in Abraham’s faith drama. He’s no longer really a person. And by making this a “test,” we’ve also made it clear that God didn’t really mean for Abraham to slit his son’s throat there on the mount of the Lord. That makes this a game. That makes faith a game, God’s promise a game, it makes Abraham’s faith less than real because it’s clear, if this a “test” in the sense that many of us understand that word, that none of what is going on is real. I remember, for some reason, one afternoon in Army basic training, the afternoon we spent then putting on and “clearing” our gas masks. (As well as taking them apart, learning how they worked, and seeing a nasty little film about what chemical weapons did to rodents.) After hours of this, we were graded on how quickly we could get into chemical protective gear. I think we had to have the masks out of their pouches, on, cleared and the hoods over our heads in under 18 seconds. There were no chemicals, no clouds of poisonous gas, just men with stop watches yelling at us. It was a “test” as we understand it — timed, graded, you could pass or fail but there were no real consequences for either (since everyone was tested until they passed).
But if we stick with the implications of the Hebrew, then what we have here is a quest for knowledge, and not a graded examination. God may have been testing Abraham, but God was not administering a test. And God isn’t the only one learning something.
(Personally, I think the best version of this story is Bob Dylan’s…)
So, I think it would be better to examine what Abraham’s faith looks like from Isaac’s standpoint. Because that’s the standpoint I think that matters. It’s our standpoint. Neither Abraham nor Isaac could truly know that God did not mean it what God said: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall tell you.” (Gen. 22:2, ESV) Isaac has to assume that when Abraham binds him, and raises the knife, his father absolutely has to mean it and, following the command of God, God absolutely has to mean it.
And that tells me that we, as human beings viewing this from Isaac’s perspective have learned a couple of things:
- God is capable of commanding some human beings to do horrific things.
- And those human beings are capable of following through with that command.
Some years ago, when reading an interview in Salon with French intellectual (sic) Bernard-Henri Levy, I developed the notion of something I called “the liberal conceit.” I think it was the cognitive dissonance in Levy’s insistence that killing people is wrong (thus his opposition to the death penalty) and yet his support for liberal/humanitarian intervention and war (because allowing people to live under dictators is immoral). It seemed to me Levy did not get that humanitarian intervention is war, and therefore killing, but perhaps this is why I am an neither a neoconservative nor a French intellectual (sic).
(In fact, I wad going to write the first of these essays based on the Levy interview, until I went back and reread it to discover it did not say what I remembered it saying or quite what I thought it had said. What he said was annoying enough, however.)
At any rate, I am going to write these essays over time, in no particular order. But first, I need to define what I mean by liberal. Liberalism is is the governing mindset of modernity. It is individualistic (that is, focuses on the well-being of the individual, even if it is collectivist), optimistic about the moral and material condition of humanity (always improving, and human beings are essential “good” when allowed to be), focuses on emancipation (liberty and social equality), and that the final “meaning” of human life is determined collectively in and by the state and society (society being that community which is bounded by the state).
(Conservative readers should not get complacent. These are your values too, generally speaking.)
It occurred to me a couple of weeks ago, as I was preparing to preach a sermon on Matthew’s beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-11) that liberal Christians, as a general rule, tend to see these blessings applying only to those who are “unfortunate,” to those who ended up on the “wrong side” of life’s lottery. That is, those who aren’t rich and powerful, but only through no fault of their own. This little phrase came to mind:
The mercy of God is for the guilty, and not merely the unfortunate.
When Jesus tells his disciples after he goes up the mountain, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3 ESV), he doesn’t qualify that statement. It may be the “poor in spirit” are that way because they’ve never gotten an even break or anything remotely resembling justice in the world. But it may also be that the “poor in spirit” are the authors of some, much or even all of their misfortune.
To be a liberal is essentially to divide the world up into three categories of people: the unfortunate, who are unable to secure justice for themselves and thus need people to secure justice for them; the virtuous, who do the actual securing of justice; and the evil, who are largely responsible for creating or perpetuating the condition of the unfortunate and thus also need the intervention of the virtuous in order for justice to prevail.
The key liberal notion is justice, which is a kind-of social vengeance. Justice for the unfortunate means ending their misfortune. But they cannot do it themselves, so they must be empowered or guided by the virtuous, who will use power wisely and fairly to empower the unfortunate and bring the evil to heel. Justice for the evil means anything from their re-education to their annihilation. But the evil deserve only justice, and not mercy, because the right ordering of the world — the just ordering of the world — demands it. The mercy of God has no place in the just ordering of the world. The guilty and the innocent, the evil and the unfortunate, receive justice and only justice. For the unfortunate, that justice is their elevation at the hands of the virtuous. For the evil, that justice is their being brought low at the hands of the virtuous.
It is my experience that most liberals, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, see themselves as “virtuous,” as seeking obvious good for the unfortunate. There is significant disagreement on who the unfortunate are, or how the nature of the justice the virtuous should pursue on their behalf, but the basic belief is the same. And the basic desire to wield power, even an allegedly disinterested power (there is no such thing, since power always seeks to aggrandize the self; empowering others is a form of self-aggrandizement), is the same as well. A lot of power given to the virtuous in this scheme. A lot of power they give themselves.
The virtuous rarely if ever question their own virtue. Their motives are not subject to review or conscience nor is the destruction they wreck upon the earth — and much of the violence and injustice done in the 19th and 20th centuries has been done by the virtuous wielding state power in the name of justice and good (at least for someone). And they rarely question what constitutes justice. Because they (at least to themselves) so obviously embody all that is good and noble and pure in human aspirations and divine commands.
But in the end, the virtuous in the liberal scheme of things seek a world in which God’s mercy is no longer necessary because there is perfect justice or at least justice striven for.
This is why I am so militantly (and yes, I use that word on purpose) opposed to the language of justice used by the social democratic left and its fellow-travelers in the liberal and progressive church. (The right doesn’t use the language very much but pursues the same kinds of ends.) There is no mercy in justice language, and the aspiration for justice is really a grab for power in the name of virtue, power unchecked by other power, and unlikely to be checked effectively by conscience. I don’t think there’s even much “justice” in justice language, since it seeks power, and any power that can be used for good will be used for evil. Just as sure as the sun rises in the east every morning.
Only the virtuous almost never see the evil they do in the pursuit of justice. Or even care.
I am not a fan of Brian McLaren. He is one of these “welfare state=sanctified community, if not the Kingdom of God” kind of Christians whose thinking is a statist and nationalist as that of the conservatives he opposes. For him, the nation, and not the church, is the sanctified community, which makes him no different than a flag waving “God-and-country” Christian (who usually end up putting country first). Since the state is violence, to invest one’s-self in the state and the outcomes of its actions is to invest in violence. To endorse it and support it. Something I believe the church has no business doing. Liberal Christians are deeply invested in state violence. Indeed, they cannot be liberals without their faith in the role the state plays either in humanity’s salvation or sanctification.
And the staggering reality is that Jesus didn’t kill anybody — something that can’t be said about Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, or Mohammed (no disrespect intended to any of them). He didn’t hit anybody. He didn’t hate anybody. He practiced as he preached: Reconciliation, not retaliation. Kindness, not cruelty. A willingness to be violated, not violation. Creative conflict transformation through love, not decisive conflict termination through superior weapons. Courageous and compassionate resistance, not violence. Outstretched arms on a cross, not stockpiles of arms, nuclear or otherwise.…
Where do you primarily find God on Good Friday?
If God is primarily identified with the Romans, torturing and killing Jesus, then, yes, the case is closed: God must be seen as violent on Good Friday. The cross is an instrument of God’s violence.
But if God is located first and foremost with the crucified one, identifying with humanity and bearing and forgiving people’s sin, then a very different picture of God and the cross emerges.
- God is violent, and since human beings are made in God’s image, we are commanded to use that violence in some times and places.
- God is violent, but God’s violence is holy and righteous in a way human violence cannot be. And thus, while humans can be violent, it is only under God’s explicit command.
- God is not violent, and is always a regrettable violation of God’s image within human beings.
- God is not violent, and thus human beings are never commanded to use violence.