JOSHUA A Deal is a Deal

3 But when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai, 4 they on their part acted with cunning and went and made ready provisions and took worn-out sacks for their donkeys, and wineskins, worn-out and torn and mended, 5 with worn-out, patched sandals on their feet, and worn-out clothes. And all their provisions were dry and crumbly. 6 And they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and to the men of Israel, “We have come from a distant country, so now make a covenant with us.” … 15 And Joshua made peace with them and made a covenant with them, to let them live, and the leaders of the congregation swore to them.

16 At the end of three days after they had made a covenant with them, they heard that they were their neighbors and that they lived among them. 17 And the people of Israel set out and reached their cities on the third day. Now their cities were Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kiriath-jearim. 18 But the people of Israel did not attack them, because the leaders of the congregation had sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel. Then all the congregation murmured against the leaders. 19 But all the leaders said to all the congregation, “We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we may not touch them. 20 This we will do to them: let them live, lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath that we swore to them.” 21 And the leaders said to them, “Let them live.” So they became cutters of wood and drawers of water for all the congregation, just as the leaders had said of them. (Joshua 9:3–6, 15–21 ESV)

The first thing to know about the people of Gibeon — and its dependent cities — is that they are Hivites. They are one of the seven “nations” (גּוֹיִם goyim) inhabiting the land of promise given to Israel in Deteruonomy 7. They are doomed for destruction. And they know it.

In doing so, they have betrayed an arising alliance between Canaanite kingdoms and city states to deal with the threat that is Israel. They have decided to try and make a separate peace.

The ruse they use — there’s an awful lot of subterfuge in scripture, and a damn lot of it is successful — is to pretend they are from farther away than they really are. They wear worn clothes, patched sandals, dry and crumbly bread, and wine in old wineskins. To pretend they are people other than who they are.

They come to make this deal because they are afraid. They have seen what Israel had done — no, they have have what Israel’s God has done — and they are terrified.

9 They said to him, “From a very distant country your servants have come, because of the name of the Lord your God. For we have heard a report of him, and all that he did in Egypt, 10 and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon the king of Heshbon, and to Og king of Bashan, who lived in Ashtaroth. 11 So our elders and all the inhabitants of our country said to us, ‘Take provisions in your hand for the journey and go to meet them and say to them, “We are your servants. Come now, make a covenant with us.”’

We are your servants. עַבְדֵיכֶ֣ם אֲנַ֔חְנוּ, using the same Hebrew word — עבד ebed — used to describe Israel’s status in Egypt.

Israel agrees. On the third day after the covenant is cut, Israel discovers the real identity of their newfound friends and allies. Despite what must be intense anger on Israel’s part, they keep the word of their covenant. “We swore an oath,” Israel says. The Gibeonites effectively surrender to Israel

24 … Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing. 25 And now, behold, we are in your hand. Whatever seems good and right in your sight to do to us, do it. (Joshua 9:24–25)

Joshua enslaves the Hivite inhabitants of Gibeon and its satellite cities, the price they will pay for their deception.

But perhaps it beats expulsion and/or extermination, I suppose. Better to live on your knees than to die on your feet.

A couple of things here.

First, the Gibeonites understand who is at work in the war overtaking their land. They don’t fear Israel — they fear the Lord, the God of Israel. They know the land has been promised, and they’ve heard — heard — of what Israel’s God has done in Egypt, in Jericho, in Ai, and they know they don’t stand a chance against the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

They fear God. Their covenant may be with Joshua, but they want to be on the right said of Joshua’s God. They have become the sojourners we saw in the last chapter, foreigners who have defected to Israel and adopted its cause as their own.

Because they fear God.

Second, the Torah is clear — absolutely no deals with any of the Canaanite people. “You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.” (Deuteronomy 7:2b) That is the law. Violating this is as much an abomination as anyone who marries his half sister, or takes two sisters as wives, or any man who lies with a male as with woman.

And yet here is Israel, tricked into a deal in much the way Abraham tricked Pharaoh into thinking Sarah was simply his sister (as opposed to also being his wife), or Jacob was tricked into marrying two sisters. Gibeon got the better of Israel. Israel has violated the law, the command of God given to Moses, a teaching made for their own good.

Israel lets it stand. “Let the wrath be upon us!” they say. Oh, the Gibeonites pay the price by being enslaved (this passage has, sadly done much to justify slavery as a part of conquest), which is hardly a good thing. But when faced with a clear violation of the teaching, Israel does not try to right the wrong. Israel lets the violation — including the subterfuge — stand.

Israel’s word matters as much as God’s. Think about that for a moment. It’s not that the teaching given to Israel through Moses doesn’t matter — there will be consequences for Israel because of its failure to follow through with merciless war against the people of Canaan. That war is for Israel’s own good — the gods of the Canaanites will prove an endless distraction for Israel.

But just as God is learning to deal with faithless Israel, Israel is slowly beginning to learn what God’s faithfulness means. That God won’t just be there to redeem Israel only when Israel behaves itself, but also — and perhaps especially — when Israel fails or refuses to follow the command of God. Yes, Israel is tricked, but that should give Israel more justification for vengeance against Gibeon, more reason to set fire to these cities and kill all who live in them. Instead, Israel stands firm on its word: “Let them live.”

The covenants we make as the people of God matter. They matter as much as any commandment God has given us.

They might even matter more.

JOSHUA Sojourners

30 At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, 31 just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, “an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.” And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace offerings. 32 And there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. 33 And all Israel, sojourner as well as native born, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, to bless the people of Israel. 34 And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. 35 There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them. (Joshua 8:30–35 ESV)

So here’s my question — sojourners? Who are these sojourners who are wandering with Israel?

The word in Hebrew here is גֵּר ger from the verb גּוּר gur which means to tarry as a sojourner but can also mean to attack or to strive or to be afraid. It is related to an Arabic word, جار jaar which means neighbor from the verb جور jawara which has as its original meaning to deviate or to stray or to wrong, persecute, oppress but in other forms (ask me later about semitic verbs and their wondrous and varied forms!) means to live nearby or next to or to seek protection or even to protect.

It’s important to understand just what is meant by a sojourner here. These aren’t visitors, people wandering around taking in the sights. They aren’t tourists. A sojourner is someone who “separated himself form his clan or home, and places himself under the legal protection of another man or group of men.”1 These are people who are not Israel but who look to Israel for protection and have attached themselves to Israel. They are foreigners, refugees, migrants. Another definition of גֵּר in other closely related semitic languages is client in the sense of someone in a subordinate relationship with a patron or a lord, someone who promises loyalty and service in response for protection and maybe some level of provision. (Vassal would be another way to describe this relationship.) These are people who no longer have the protection of their tribes, clans, or kingdoms, and have separated themselves — either voluntarily or because there was no other choice, their survival and existence was at stake — and attached themselves to a people they are not related to.

Think Rahab, the prostitute, who betrayed her people in Jericho and took Israel’s side in the conquest and destruction of her city. In this context, Rahab is a sojourner. Sojourners are non-Israelites who seek Israel’s protection and take Israel’s side in its struggles.

The Torah is emphatic that Israel have only one law for sojourners and Israelite alike. When God tells Israel, “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt,” God is reminding Israel that not only were they strangers in Egypt (non-Egyptians ethnically and religiously), but they also sought and worked for Egypt’s good. Egypt betrayed Israel, and not the other way around.

God is reminding Israel that it has an obligation to those who take Israel’s side, and seek Israel’s protection. They are no different from Israelites, even if they are not related by blood and do not share in the patrimony or the promise.

So who are these sojourners?

According to Louis Ginzburg’s The Legends of the Jews, they have been with Israel since the Exodus:

The cavalcade consisted of six hundred thousand heads of families afoot, each accompanied by five children on horseback, and to these must be added the mixed multitude, exceeding Hebrews vastly in number.2

To which Ginzburg adds the following footnote:

According to Philo, Vita Mosis, 1. 27, he mixed multitude consisted of two distinct classes: one was made up of bastards, the sons of Egyptian woman and Hebrew men; to the second belonged all those who out of love for the God of Israel followed His people. ShR 18. 1 likewise speaks of the pious among the Egyptians who even before the last plague had proclaimed their belief in the true God, and celebrated the Passover together with the Israelites.3

If Ginzburg is to be believed, the sojourners outnumbered the actual Israelites in the Exodus!

So, in this Joshua passage, I suspect most of these sojourners are Canaanites — individuals, families, clans, tribes — that have seen the handwriting on the wall and switched sides, throwing in their lot with Israel in exactly the way Rahab and her family did. Along with some others who joined Israel along the way.

And some … well, we’ll meet them tomorrow.

  1. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, 439–449 ↩︎
  2. Legends of the Jews, Volume II, p. 375 ↩︎
  3. Legends of the Jews, Volume V, p. 439 ↩︎

JOSHUA Holy War and Those Who Wage It

15 On the seventh day they rose early, at the dawn of day, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times. It was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. 16 And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, “Shout, for the Lord has given you the city. 17 And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers whom we sent. 18 But you, keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction, lest when you have devoted them you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction and bring trouble upon it. 19 But all silver and gold, and every vessel of bronze and iron, are holy to the Lord; they shall go into the treasury of the Lord.” 20 So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they captured the city. 21 Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword. (Joshua 6:15–21 ESV)

This is it. The long-promised holy war of conquest, extermination, and expulsion, the war without pity or mercy that God commanded Israel to wage way back in Deuteronomy 7, has begun.

A very conservative friend of mine, very proud of his Magyar heritage, once noted that this is what people do and have always done. “We killed all their men, we took all their women, and pretty soon their children began to look like us.”

We are troubled by conquest, by this kind of assimilation, by the taking of territory and the killing of people and remaking both in another image. Conquest and colonization, enslavement and expulsion and extermination, no longer sit well with us. Perhaps they never have. I suspect our unease is a product of the conquered and enslaved living in our midst. Reminding us daily who they are. Who we are.

But I doubt we’ve really changed. Not in such a short time. My friend is right — this is what human beings do.

We’re also uneasy with God being the author of this conquest, this expulsion, this extermination. This is not a God of Love, a God of mercy and compassion, a God who suffers with us, a God who forgives and redeems, who promises peace to the world. This is the worst of God, and of us.

… and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. (Deuteronomy 7:2)

Because their gods will be a distraction. And the Lord God of Israel is not wrong — the entire history of Israel shows how attractive the idols and Canaan are, and how destructive for Israel their worship will be. Israel will suffer division, civil war, defeat, conquest, occupation, and exile because of idolatry.

God is not wrong.

So note, as Israel marches into the promised land and makes war on the Canaanites to take their cities, their fields, and all the land in-between, that Israel does not do what God tells it. Israel shows pity and mercy, is lazy in following even this command of God.

Israel is forbidden to covet the silver or the gold of the Canaanites. The plunder belongs in “the treasury of the Lord,” whatever that might mean. And on this one day of perfect battle, when God hands Jericho to Israel without a struggle, as Israel puts the city to the sword, we still cannot keep our hands off “the devoted things.” Grasping hands clutch at the silver and gold bound for the treasury of the Lord, and hold it tight, concealing these things under garments as Jericho is leveled and its streets run with blood.

Canaanites are left alive. “Now when the people of Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not utterly drive them out.” (Joshua 17:13) Slavery hardly seems merciful to us, but God said nothing about enslaving the Canaanites. They were to be killed, driven out. Not employed as hewers of wood and drawers of water.

So, lest we think killing and violence, destruction and brutality are easier than love and compassion, it isn’t. This is hard work, holy work, this divinely sanctioned mass murder. It is God’s work. And Israel can no more do this than love their neighbor as themselves.

Israel fails, and fails utterly at this task of conquest, expulsion, and extermination. Eventually, God will stop fighting for Israel. Even as David prepares to become king of all Israel, the land is full of Canaanites. While Solomon reigns, the land is still full of Canaanites. With their pillars, their Asherim, and their carved images — all the attractive nuisance God said it would be.

So, God has to learn to deal with his feckless, fickle, faithless people who can no more obey him in matters of war and killing than we can in peace and love. God stops driving out the people of Canaan, instead handing Israel over Canaanite rule time and again as a consequence for faithlessness. We cry out to our God and demand, “deliver us this day!” Saviors and redeemers are raised, and the people delivered, but only for a time.

God never again issues this command to Israel, to wage a war of conquest without mercy or pity. God is slowly learning what we are and aren’t capable of. God is slowly learning that we cannot be faithful. In anything.

A Desolate Woman in Her Brother’s House

I wanted to write this blog many weeks ago, but out of deference to a couple of people very dear to me, I refrained.

Because this about rape. In the Bible. And I wasn’t sure an essay on this subject would be helpful.

The first thing to consider is that scripture does not speak of abstractions. Scripture does not weight in on the morality of ethics of most things, and certainly not as abstract moral acts. Scripture has nothing to say about war, whether it is good or evil. Scripture is neither pro-war nor anti-war. Or rather, scripture seems to be both pro-war and anti-war. There is a lot of war in scripture, and God is present in some of it, acting on behalf of God’s people (Exodus 14, Joshua 6, Judges 7, 2 Chronicles 20, much of Jeremiah). There are even rules set out for the conduct of war in Deuteronomy 7 (the conquest of Canaan) and Deuteronomy 20 (other kinds of warfare). But for much of it, God is utterly and completely absent.

What strikes me as strange, at least from where I sit as a modern, Western Christian, is that God seem to neither condemn nor endorse war, to make the act morally proper and the actor — the soldier, the warrior — morally righteous, and thus without sin, for fighting. God commands fighting, but we cannot infer from that fact that God believes the fighting to be morally correct. In fact, one instance, in Numbers 31, God actually demands some kind of penance — a ritual cleansing — for Israelite soldiers who has exacted a divinely commanded vengeance upon Midian.

We like our Bible to give us clear guidance, to tell us right from wrong, to make our actions as Christians morally correct and untainted with sin.

But scripture doesn’t do that. And even when it seems to, it doesn’t. Not really. Not on war. Not on marriage. Not on sex. Not on much of anything, except maybe idolatry and the worship of false gods (God says: don’t, or else, and he means it). Our clear teaching as church on these matters is frequently grounded less in the actual story of scripture — which is a murky, messy, complicated, and very violent story — then it is on snippets of scripture and some general philosophical principles that only relate tangentially to the biblical story. There may be little alternative to this, but it isn’t as faithful to the biblical narrative as I think it ought to be.

And so it is with rape. A subject you’d think scripture would have something to say about. And it does. But not how you think.

First, there is a little guidance in the Torah.

Exodus 22 says this:

16 “If a man seduces a virgin [בְּתוּלָה or young woman of marriage age] who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride- price for her and make her his wife. 17 If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins. (Exodus 22:16–17)

An important thing to understand about the biblical world is that people were not autonomous individuals as we understand them. So, the person wronged in a rape is not so much the woman (though we shall see she is wronged), but the family of the woman. Women weren’t property, but they were possessions with value (in some ways that is a difference without a distinction) and virginity was valuable because you could at least more or less guarantee the patrimony of a first child (and thus guarantee proper inheritance of wealth). So, here, a man who rapes a young woman — a marriageable woman — is required to marry her, and if the father will not allow it, he has to pay the going bride-price anyway as compensation. For what he took.

Deuteronomy 22 deals with this in some more detail:

23 “If there is a betrothed virgin [בְתוּלָ֔ה], and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, 24 then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

25 “But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, 27 because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.

28 “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.” (Deuteronomy 22:23–29)

City girls beware! You’d better cry out for help, because anything else will be seen as consent!

However, the focus of most of these laws is the young woman who is betrothed — promised but not yet given, married without the final act consummating the marriage. (I have long believed that there is no such thing as pre-marital sex in scripture. There is marital sex — sex within marriage and the sex act that makes a man and a woman married — and non-marital sex. But there is no sex before marriage when the sex act itself is what makes two people married.) So this is not so much about protecting young women as it is protecting marriage arrangements and families. There is a “mercy” provision here, if you can call it that, in that the teaching here gives a woman the benefit of the doubt when there is no one around to hear her cry out.

But cry out she must, according to this, or else she is an accomplice. Complicit in robbing her family and her betrothed of her value.

And there is a repeat of the Exodus injunction about rapists being required to marry young women not yet betrothed. A bride price must be paid — fifty shekels of silver — but no choice is given as to the marriage. In fact, the man is prohibited from divorcing his wife, the only prohibition against divorce in the Torah, I believe. (And just how many “happy” marriages were made this way?)

So, to sum up, the teaching on this subject from Exodus and Deuteronomy is fairly specific, aimed at young women of marriage age who have not yet had sex (if we take בְתוּלָ֔ה to mean nubile girl who has not yet had sex, because such a girl would be a wife) who are either betrothed or not. The law is designed largely to compensate the father and protect the future husband. Not the woman.

It says nothing about older women, married women, and women who no longer have “value” or “virtue.” The law can be extrapolated, and the rules about sex in Deuteronomy 22 and Leviticus 18 & 20 are quite clear about sex with “your neighbor’s wife.” (Who is my neighbor?) But these laws that deal with “rape” are limited to certain kinds of woman in certain very specific social situations.

There is one other set of teaching from Deuteronomy 21 that touch on this subject because they deal with what Israelites can do with female captives:

10 “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, 11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman [אֵ֖שֶׁת יְפַת־תֹּ֑אַר literally, “a woman lovely of shape”], and you desire to take her to be your wife, 12 and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. 13 And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14 But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her. (Deuteronomy 21:10–14)

So, you’ve just killed her family and defeated her people’s army, plundered her village and possibly burned it down. She’s clearly going to eagerly and happily say, “yes, please, take me now.” So maybe this is why God (speaking through Moses) mandates the 30-day cooling off period. But she clearly has no choice in the matter — she is a captive, and not a willing participant. Thirty days to mourn her losses and accept her new situation, but I hardly think that makes “going into” any more consensual. And while consent hardly mattered for much of human history, especially for captives and slaves, this teaching sets forth who Israelites may rape under the limited conditions of war and captivity.

It’s depressing reading, this teaching on rape.

Thankfully, scripture no more follows its own teaching on rape than it does its own teaching on sex. Because there are three fascinating stories in which rape is as central to the biblical narrative as the rape of Lucretia was to Brutus toppling the Roman monarchy or the kidnapping of the barely marriageable Helen for immoral purposes led the Greeks to declare war on Troy.

The first story is the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34. Dinah is the only named daughter of Jacob, and as Israel and his twelve sons wander around what is now the northern portion of the West Bank, they encountered the Hivites. Dinah “went out to see the women of the land” (perhaps like Smurfette, she was lonely being the only girl in a family of boys) only to meet Schechem, son of the Hivite ruler. Genesis says that “he seized her and lay with her and humiliated her,” and that may very well be, but given as she was drawn to the company of the Hivites (lonely as she was), she and Schechem may have fallen in love. The humiliation wasn’t hers, but her family’s — her father’s and her brothers’.

Schechem does want to do the right thing — what will later be the biblical thing. “Get me this girl for my wife,” he tells his father Hamor. And Dinah may very well have been willing.

But Jacob’s sons are not. “The sons of Jacob had come in from the field as soon as they heard of it, and the men were indignant and very angry, because he had done an outrageous thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing must not be done.” (Genesis 34:7) Hamor makes a deal with them — later telling his son privately they will get to inherit all of Israel’s wealth this way — to offer their daughters and sons to each other.

The sons of Jacob state the bride price — all of the Hivite men must be circumcised. “Then we will give our daughters to you, and we will take your daughters to ourselves, and we will dwell with you and become one people.” And so … the cutting was done. And so, on the third day with all the Hivite men still in pain from having their foreskins clipped, Simeon and Levi rampage through the Hivite village killing all the men they can find. And plundering what remained — including “all their little ones and their wives.”

Which gets us to the ambiguous end of the story:

30 Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me by making me stink to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites. My numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household.” 31 But they said, “Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?” (Genesis 34:30–31)

The question is left unresolved. Both Simeon and Levi make a coherent case for protecting the family/tribal honor. And Jacob makes a coherent case for their act putting the entire family/tribe at risk. There is no resolution, except that Simeon and Levi are both “disinherited” at the end of Genesis — because of their violence, they will not receive a portion of the land of Israel. Instead, they will be scattered, and have no allotment of their own.

But also note well that in this tale, a rape prompts swift and brutal vengeance.

Which brings us to our second story, the Levite and his concubine in the last three chapters of Judges (19–21). I have dealt in some detail with this story — the most gruesome in all of scripture — so I will only summarize it here.

A Levite and his concubine (young woman not a wife) are traveling around the West Bank when she is unfaithful to the Levite and flees him to live with her father in Bethlehem. (Already this is a happy relationship.) He comes and tries to woo her back with kind words. Eventually, they leave and go north. She wants to stay in Jebus (Jerusalem), but he won’t stay in a city of full of foreigners, and they make their way to Gibeah in Benjamin. They were going to stay in the city square when an old man invites them to stay with him and tells them “do not spend the night in the square.”

After dark, the whole of Gibeah descends upon the old man’s house. “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him!” the men of Gibeah clamor. (Some hospitality.) The old man offers his daughter and the concubine, but the men of Gibeah don’t want girls — they want the Levite. So, the Levite grabs his concubine, tosses her out of the house, and “they knew her and abused her all night until the morning.” (Judges 19:25) She dies grasping hold of the doorposts of the house, trying in vain to find sanctuary from the horror and violence done to her.

Sadly, this story gets worse. The Levite then cuts her up into a dozen pieces, mails each piece to a tribe of Israel, a counsel is assembled, and war is decided. If Benjamin hands over the evil doers, so that they may be put to death and justice done, all will be well. Benjamin, the smallest tribe in all of Israel, proceeds to tell the rest of the Israelites to fuck off, and war ensues. On the third day, after Benjamin successfully holds off and twice defeats much the much larger combined army of Israel, God gives Benjamin over to Israel and the Israelites kill all but 600 Benjaminite men.

In effect, Israel has committed genocide. Against one of its own.

Which Israel quickly comes to regret. “Why has this happened today that there should be a tribe lacking in Israel?” However, Israel has also sworn not to give any daughters in marriage to any of the remaining men of Benjamin. How to solve this problem? Israel finds a village that did not participate in the war — Jabesh-Gilead — and they kill every man and every woman “that has lain with a male” in that village. They get 400 “young virgins who had not known a man by lying with him” and give them to the surviving Benjaminites as wives. So that the tribe may not disappear from Israel.

But they were still 200 girls short. So, Israel told the remaining Benjaminites to go and kidnap young girls from the annual festival at Shiloh. Which they do.

23 And the people of Benjamin did so and took their wives, according to their number, from the dancers whom they carried off. Then they went and returned to their inheritance and rebuilt the towns and lived in them. (Judges 21:23)

Ir’s an ugly story. Rape leads to war which leads to genocide which leads to regret which leads to more kidnapping and rape. And then everyone is happy. Well, except maybe the young women of Jabesh-Gilead and Shiloh.

But the point of this story is that a rape — a horrific gang rape at that — prompts vengeance, vengeance which leads to war and genocide.

No bride price is paid here.

Lastly, we go to the story of Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar in 2 Samuel 13–18. Amnon is one of David’s sons, and he falls in love with his beautiful sister Tamar.

And Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin, and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her. (2 Samuel 13:2)

He pretends to be sick, and she comes to feed him, and he tries to talk her into his bed. She isn’t having it — half-brothers don’t have sex with their sisters, not in Israel, she says, and how would she bear the shame?

14 But he would not listen to her, and being stronger than she, he violated her and lay with her. 15 Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. And Amnon said to her, “Get up! Go!” 16 But she said to him, “No, my brother, for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me.” But he would not listen to her. 17 He called the young man who served him and said, “Put this woman out of my presence and bolt the door after her.” (2 Samuel 13:14–17)

He gets what he wants, and then throws her away. She, disgraced and a “desolate woman,” goes to live with her brother Absalom. David their father is angry, but like Jacob in Genesis 34, he just sits there and doesn’t actually do anything about it.

But Absalom does. He kills his brother Amnon. This sets off a chain of events which leads Absalom to sense his father’s weakness, and so Absalom overthrows David, who flees from the city, leaving behind ten concubines to look after his house. Absalom is proclaimed king, and the first thing he does is to publicly humiliate his father in front of all Jerusalem:

21 Ahithophel said to Absalom, “Go in to your father’s concubines, whom he has left to keep the house, and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself a stench to your father, and the hands of all who are with you will be strengthened.” 22 So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof. And Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel. 23 Now in those days the counsel that Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the word of God; so was all the counsel of Ahithophel esteemed, both by David and by Absalom. (2 Samuel 16:21–23)

(If there is a porn epic to be made from a biblical story, it’s this one.)

David eventually regains his nerve, support for Absalom begins to crumble, and the usurper is killed after losing a major battle in the forests of Ephraim. David mourns the loss of his son, and after a little confusion, eventually returns to Jerusalem and resumes his kingship.

It’s a wonderful, complex, and fascinating story. The point for my purposes today is that a rape leads to vengeance — murder, revolution, and war.

Again, no bride price paid here. Now, a case could be made that such a marriage — between Amnon and Tamar — would have been “illegal” according to the Torah (Leviticus 18:6, 20:17). But that never stopped anyone before (See Genesis 20:12).

Instead, we get with rape in the Bible what we see a lot in antiquity — vengeance and war. Bloody, horrific war. Revolution. And ambiguity. Because none of these stories ends well. Simeon and Levi may have been right to seek vengeance against the Hivites, but their revenge cost them their patrimony — their piece of the promised land. Israel may have been right to demand Benjamin do something about the events in Gibeah — because gang rape really is a lousy form of hospitality — but genocide, which required more killing and even more rape — was hardly the answer. And Absalom was right to be incensed over his half-brother’s cruel assault, and then abandonment, of his sister Tamar. Even to the point of killing Amnon. But he was hardly justified in overthrowing his father, and raping David’s own concubines publicly — all events which led to his own ignominious death while stuck hanging from the branches of an oak tree.

What scripture does in the story, however, is take the violation of women — and of family honor — so seriously that it is a cause for war. Rape is that big a deal here. It is such a big deal that a lid needs to be put on the possibility of vengeance. And this may be one reason the Torah gives us such banal rulings — compelled bride prices and enforced marriage. Because the cost of this act, not merely to the woman or to her family, but to an entire people, is so potentially staggering. War. Genocide. And nothing really solved at the end of the day.

What no one does in scripture is blame the woman. What no one does in scripture is question her motives or actions. What no one does in scripture is malign her past, or wonder if she dressed provocatively. (Yes, in the case of Dinah and the unnamed Levite’s unnamed concubine, who they are and what they want doesn’t count.) Instead, the men in her life — for better or worse — take up arms. It doesn’t get them much of anything (except dead rapists), and in this we see an appreciation of the tragic, that many very human situations simply don’t have a morally neat resolution.

But in these Bible stories, honor — familial and individual — and love matter enough to put everything at risk. And that is something worth remembering.

On Fig Trees

Something I didn’t include in my sermon for this last Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent.

Jesus tells his disciples a short parable, about discerning the signs of the seasons from the trees — knowing when the summer is coming when the trees put out new leaves. So, we should also know, from the signs of war and in the skies, and the very sea itself, we should understand the Kingdom of God is coming.

At the same time, Jesus specifically mentions the fig tree — a tree that bears fruit. “Look at the fig tree [συκη], and all the trees [δενδρον].”

Now, Luke lacks the story of Jesus cursing of the fig tree right after his triumphal entry in Jerusalem present in both Matthew (21:18–22) and Mark (11:12–14). (MORAL: God hates figs.) This is a story, I think, designed to show what is about to happen to Jerusalem. It will be judged, and become barren. It will no longer yield fruit, and we know what happens to such barren trees — they are cut down and cast into the fire. (Matt 7:15–20)

Luke, however, does have a fig tree story. Long before the triumphal entry, Jesus tells his disciples the following parable:

6 And he told this parable:“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground? ’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” (Luke 13:6–9 ESV)

There’s a whole host of meanings in this parable (patience and persistence, as well as hope, but also right judgment — some things cannot be saved), but I think the primary intention is to consider the coming fate of Jerusalem.

I think Jesus bids his disciples to consider the “fig tree” at the end Luke, despite not cursing the fig tree, very deliberately. Not only are we to consider the signs of the coming age just as we discern the seasons from nature around us. We are also to consider that some things have run their course. They bear no fruit, and thus they will be cut down and cast into the fire. Figs are not gathered from thornsbushes, and grapes are not cut off brambles. (Luke 6:44) The judgment of God is coming, and in the case of Israel, as the armies of Rome to destroy the city — take down the tree. Only those who discern the signs right are going to escape that judgment.

SERMON — Nothing to be Afraid Of

I didn’t preach on Sunday — instead, I played some original songs for the folks of Payne AME Church in Chatham, New York — but if I had, it would have looked something like this.

Advent 1 (Year C)

  • Jeremiah 33:14–16
  • Psalm 25:1–9
  • 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13
  • Luke 21:25–36

25 “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

29 And he told them a parable:“Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:25–36 ESV)

And there will be signs. In the sky. On the earth. The very creation of God will be in turmoil, the highest heavens and the sea itself bearing witness to what is happening. To what is coming.

Jesus is speaking to his disciples here of fear. Paralyzing fear. Conquering fear. Debilitating fear. Fear that leaves us incapable of moving, of acting, of thinking. Of even paying attention.

Fear in the midst of violence and terror. Fear in the midst of war. A war the Jesus says will befall Jerusalem, a war that will come in “the days of vengeance,” a war that will be wrath against the people of Jerusalem, and the city itself. And those people — God’s people, God’s stiff-necked, unfaithful, disobedient people — will, according the words of Jesus, fall by the sword, be led captive and scattered among the nations of the world, and will be trampled underfoot.

We’ve seen cities burn. In our lifetimes, we’ve seen cities burn. From war, terror attack, riot, and uprising. We’ve seen cities burn. Across the Middle East, cities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya smolder and crackle under the weight of siege and aerial bombardment. We fear terrorist who have so successfully — but very sporadically — unleashed violence in our midst, attacking us in our very own cities. Not quite laying waste to them, not quite surrounding them with armies, not quite leaving them desolate. But terrifying us anyway, leaving us uncertain about some of our neighbors — can we trust them? — and what the future holds in store.

Well, let me put you at ease. There will be more. More terror. More war. More death. More desolation. Lots more. The killing and the dying and violence will continue. Feel better now?

Do not be afraid. God speaks these words, or some version of them, more than any other in scripture. Do not be afraid. And God does this when Israel, when the people of God, are most afraid. And honestly, their fear is most warranted.

The time God says this the speaks to me most clearly is that moment when Israel, fleeing from their slavery in Egypt, is caught — water in front, Pharaoh’s army closing in fast. Nowhere to go. No forward, no backwards. Nothing is left. There is no future, just desolation, despair, and pending doom. “It is because there are no graves in Egypt that you, Moses, brought us out here to die in this desolate place?” Afraid, angry, desperate, Israel has lost all hope. There is nothing left to hope for.

This is when Moses speaks the words of God — “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. … The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”

Fear not. Words spoken to a frightened people, a hopeless people, a people so overcome by fear that they have given up any sense they have a future.

This is when God speaks these words to us. Not on calm and peaceful mornings, not when life is secure and we are confident, but in those moments when we have lost all hope. In those moments when it seems most clear there is no hope to be had. Fear not.

Luke’s Gospel almost begins with this admonition, do not be afraid, spoken by an angel to Zechariah when his is told he and his wife Elizabeth — they had been long unable to conceive a child of their own — will have a son, John, who will become John the Baptist. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” And again, to the young Mary, betrothed to Joseph, who hears these very same words, “do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And you shall conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”

Fear not, Jesus tells his tiny flock in chapter 12, for it is God’s good pleasure to give them the kingdom. This after a long sermon telling his disciples not to be anxious, not to worry about their futures, about where their daily bread and their clothes will come from. God knows you need these things, Jesus says, and God’s got it. God has got you. God has got us. The kingdom is ours, and we who have been called to follow Jesus will have treasure that cannot be stolen and cannot rot or rust.

Fear not. Do not be afraid.

I know, this is easier said than done. I have been overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty, and sometimes I have been truly convinced I have no future. I don’t get excited much about current events anymore — about wars and rumors of wars, about signs in the skies — and I don’t do a lot fainting with foreboding over what is coming in the world. I do, however, sometimes wonder if God has led me all this way — through Islam, as a witness to the attacks of September 11, 2001, through seminary and the humiliating and painful mess that was candidacy for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — through all off this simply to die in some forgotten corner of the world, alone and unwanted. I wonder. I truly do. Because it has seemed, at times, like there is nothing left.

Nothing to hope for.

It’s in this moment Jesus tells us — stand up straight, raise your heads, look up. Your redemption is at hand. This is not the end. You do have a future! Walk and live with confidence in the midst of the violence and meaninglessness of the world. Your redemption — our redemption — is at hand.

Stand up. Walk confidently as men and women who know you — all of you — have lives that matter to God. All of you have futures. All of you have something to hope for. And someone to hope in. Jesus.

Do not be afraid. Stay awake, straighten up, and live. Like the redeemed people we are.

How Daesh (داعش) Does Really Effective Ministry

Rod Dreher does the world a tremendous favor today by posting a number of links to anthropologist and terror scholar Scott Atran , including this recent piece in The Guardian on the nature of داعش (Daesh, or The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria), this long interview with Russia Today, this essay in The New York Review of Books, and this piece for Foreign Policy.

Read them. Atran understands the appeal of Revolutionary Islam — he understands the appeal of revolution itself, especially for the young, who seek both adventure and moral clarity as they seek a place and a purpose in the world — and he appreciates the difficulties the bourgeois West faces in dealing what is essentially a revolutionary crusade to make a perfect world. I think Atran underestimates the sheer overwhelming and crushing power of bourgeois banality — it has steamrolled everything in its path, and I doubt Revolutionary Islam, for all its rage and well-planned violence, will prevail over the essential bureaucratic and mechanical meaninglessness of modernity.

I won’t belabor many of the points Atran makes — you should just read them. Mostly, he focuses on the tremendous appeal of meaning and purpose that داعش presents to the young, disaffected and otherwise, of the West, young people who are looking for something bigger to belong to.

Meaning, belonging, and purpose — I write a lot about these things in my book. That was the appeal of Islam for me, and it was the appeal of Revolutionary Islam for the few years I flirted with it. Secular modernity has done very poorly for some — misfits and castoffs and otherwise marginalized people for whom there is no room in a society that won’t tolerate alternative forms of meaning to modernity’s search for comfort, security, and pleasure. Or for whom there is no space in or with the moralizing cohorts of the progressive left, which demands inclusion in a world I’m honestly not sure is worth being included in and which simply doesn’t include us in their idea of inclusion anyway. (Yes, I am still something of a frustrated revolutionary. I really do wish I had a revolution I could fight and die for, worth fighting and dying for…)

And I’ll have to be honest, when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America tossed me out of their candidacy process in 2014, saying I was too much of a sinner — too much of a potential liability — to be a pastor, that set off a tremendous crisis of meaning and purpose in my life. One that I haven’t really been able to resolve. Because I still ache to belong to something. And I don’t now. Because I’m not allowed to belong.

So, I get the appeal of داعش, and were I younger, I think it’s something I could join. I would have found beheadings distasteful, but honestly, it’s about building a better world. So I could have lived with them and justified them. After all, no sacrifice is too small for a better tomorrow — George W. Bush set fire to all of Iraq with the promise of a better tomorrow — so Americans aren’t all that different. Save that our means are mechanical, bureaucratic, and impersonal. We don’t get our hands so terribly bloody when we kill.

But none of this is what I want to focus on. In the NYRB piece, Atran notes something stunning as he critiques Western efforts to counter داعش “propaganda”:

In its feckless “Think Again Turn Away” social media program, the US State Department has tried to dissuade youth with mostly negative anonymous messaging. “So DAESH wants to build a future, well is beheading a future you want, or someone controlling details of your diet and dress?” Can anyone not know that already? Does it really matter to those drawn to the cause despite, or even because of, such things? As one teenage girl from a Chicago suburb retorted to FBI agents who stopped her from flying to Syria: “Well, what about the barrel bombings that kill thousands? Maybe if the beheading helps to stop that.” And for some, strict obedience provides freedom from uncertainty about what a good person is to do.

By contrast, the Islamic State may spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist single individuals and groups of friends, empathizing instead of lecturing, to learn how to turn their personal frustrations and grievances into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims, and thus translate anger and frustrated aspiration into moral outrage. From Syria, a young woman messages another:

I know how hard it is to leave behind the mother and father you love, and not tell them until you are here, that you will always love them but that you were put on this earth to do more than be with or honor your parents. I know this will probably be the hardest thing you may ever have to do, but let me help you explain it to yourself and to them.

And any serious engagement must be attuned to individuals and their networks, not to mass marketing of repetitive messages. Young people empathize with each other; they generally don’t lecture at one another. There are nearly fifty thousand Twitter accounts supporting ISIS, with an average of some one thousand followers each.

There’s a word for what داعش is doing here — ministry. While Western governments futz and fiddle (and generally fail) with programs and policies, داعش is building individual relationships of empathy and support, reaching across as individual human beings to other individual human beings, listening to life stories and then slowly, carefully, and deliberately providing a meaning and structure, and then a series of answers about life and the world that lead to purposeful action.

According to Atran, the FBI has only one person — an agent in Los Angeles — doing any kind of counter-engagement.

Here the whole problem of the West (including the church) lies bare — we cannot conceive of anything or anyone working outside the confines of our bureaucratic and institutional structures. We cannot think outside of those structures, and we cannot hire (or call) people who don’t quite fit in them (or don’t fit in them at all) because fitting in those structures, conforming to them, is more important than actually accomplishing the things those structures and institutions are designed to accomplished. In our modern understanding, man was clearly made for the sabbath, and damned is the man who cannot or will not rest on the seventh day.

I know many pastors who are deeply frustrated with a bureaucratic church life that seems deliberately and purposefully intent on suffocating or even preventing ministry. The good they do, the relationships they build, the presence of God they share and are part of, seem almost accidents in daily lives given over to bureaucratic and administrative nonsense. Its seems much of the world works that way, on accident rather than on purpose. It is deeply frustrating to live in a world like that.

And deeply human to want to change that.

Atran is right. Since the summer, I’ve done an online ministry with young people that has worked largely in this dynamic. It’s not hard to find kids who ache to be listened to empathetically — they are all over Whisper — and to say a kind word or two to them. To gain their trust simply by listening. I try to give hope, a Jesus-shaped hope (without overtly mentioning Jesus, though as I have read Atran’s work, I think that has been a mistake) to those who express hopelessness and despair. It’s tough work, this empathetic relationship building, even online, and I was successful at it when I was unemployed and could devote myself to it full time. But once I was employed, and had other work that swallowed up my days, well, there have been a couple of significant failures because I could not devote all the time needed to all the people I had committed to.

And as I think about this ministry, I suspect no church in its right mind would approve such a thing — much less approve me to do it. Too risky. Too unquantifiable. Too … strange. Where’s the program? The job description? The accountability? The measures of success?

If the West wanted to properly counter داعش, western governments would create — or better, probably foster and encourage — a cadre of empathetic relationship builders (or pastors, if you will) who will meet the same kinds of people in the same kinds of ways that داعش recruiters do and engage them. By listening, by empathizing, and then by slowly inviting those people into an understanding of their life, their meaning, and their purpose that doesn’t involve the waging of global revolution. I personally think love is a good organizing principle, but then I would. Perhaps we could aim to create an “Army of Love,” jaish al-hub جيش الحب, though what the point of that army would be, aside from doing what Jesus tells us to do — preach, teach, and baptize — I’m not sure.

Mostly because I don’t think there is anything more. But that’s just me.

What I do know is that no Western government could organize this without thinking in terms of call centers or customer support. Without imposing the means and methods of modern management in order to try to continually prove its effectiveness. Without job descriptions and regular metrics. You couldn’t sell mere relationship building, love as both means and end, to a modern organization. Contractors are allowed to rob governments blind but something as “unorganized” as this would simply give managers the hives. I’m not even sure a church could do it effectively. Because churches are wrapped up in the same way of doing business as governments and corporations. It’s all the same rotten culture.

So, داعش will continue to find — and be found — by those seeking meaning. Because young people want to know their lives have value and purpose. Because so many are hungering for meaningful encounters with empathetic adults who will value them and help guide them toward that purpose. I know because I’ve met them. And I still meet them. There are young people out there who hunger for meaning, purpose, and belonging, who yearn for something more than the grand buffet of unlimited consumption and meaningless comfort, of using and being used. And right now, for some, داعش provides that.

A smart society would find room for such people without demanding the kind of complete conformity that liberal modernity demands. But we do not live in a smart society. Most people seem happy with the promises of the modern world (and bully for them) and cannot fathom why some of us are misfits, malcontents, and marginalized — why we want something more. Or something different. So, because of that, it probably won’t matter what even a fairly large portion of the disaffected and the misfit want or even choose. We’ll all be steamrolled by the impersonal machine that is bureaucratic modernity anyway. The West can afford to do nothing. It can afford not to care.

SERMON — Not For Us

The following was my sermon for Sunday, 15 November 2015 (Lectionary 33 / Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost in Year B), preached at Christ Our Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Chatham, New York. The readings for the day according to the Revised Common Lectionary are:

  • Daniel 12:1–3
  • Psalm 16
  • Hebrews 10:11–14 [15–18] 19–25
  • Mark 13:1–8 (Green)

1 And as [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 2 And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

3 And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he! ’ and they will lead many astray. 7 And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.  (Mark 13:1-8 ESV)

I suspect many Christians — and even many of us — are convinced that we, of all the human beings who have ever abided on the face of God’s good Earth, are living through the most violent and least certain time ever.

The events of the last week, of the last few years, of the last two decades, and probably of our lifetimes, provide all the evidence we think we need. People who wish us ill are everywhere, taking hostages and setting off bombs and gunning people down. People who mean us ill have organized political parties, fomented revolution, taken over nation-states, massed armies, invaded, conquered, and occupied. We see what they’ve done in the last 20 years, setting off bombs, sinking warships, attacking cities, killing with no regard for their own lives and little for anyone else’s.

This leaves us uncertain and scared. We want safety, and we want peace, the peace we believe God and the modern world have promised us. We’re willing to do just about anything to secure that peace, even if it means exporting all our fear and all our violence on someone else, far away.

I don’t think it helps that in a media age, in an age of twitter and Facebook, in an age where if anything happens anywhere, an event like the attack in Paris this week, can feel immediate, can feel close. It’s a false immediacy, heightened by the very human need — and sometimes the the social demand — to publicly express sympathy, solidarity, and support with victims and survivors. To express outrage, and condemnation, and demand resolve, that something be done.

This is not new. The telegraph and the newspaper created this kind of immediacy almost 200 years ago. Suddenly, war far away could become a part of ordinary life, a thing you read about, think about, and talk about every day in ways not possible when communication was slow, when the war far away might end before we’d even heard it had started.

So while I suspect Christians have always trembled a bit when they’ve read this Gospel passage, this hearing of wars and rumors of wars, of nation rising against nation (it would be better to say people against people), and kingdom rising against kingdom, has, I think, taken on an added urgency in an age of mass communication. Sometime in the 19th century, I know that some Christians began taking all of this very, very seriously. This is our age, they said, as armies massed in Europe on the eve of the First World War, or as soldiers rampaged across the world in the second, or especially after the founding of the state of Israel, when every looming battle in the Middle East suddenly became a possible sign of the fulfillment of biblical prophesy and the second coming of Jesus.

This is our age. Jesus is speaking to us. He may be talking privately to his disciples, but it’s clear he’s speaking to us and about us.

Just look around you.

It’s easy to be this kind of conceited, to think that we live in the most important moment in human history, the end times. This isn’t just a religious problem — Karl Marx built his entire understanding of the world on the notion that the conditions were right for the final revolution that would right human relations and effectively end history. Believers in social justice tend to begin by saying, “if not now, when?” And it isn’t just a modern problem either. In the year 1000, Christians across Europe were both hopeful and terrified the end of the first millennium of the Christian era would also herald the second coming and the end of the world. Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther believed he lived in the end times, seeing both the conflict with the twin antichrists of Pope and Turk — Muslim Ottoman armies advancing into the heart of Europe — as signs the coming of Jesus was nigh.

Every time we’ve seen the end, forecast the end, predicted the end, we’ve been wrong. Every time.

In fact, let me tell you this. Today’s gospel reading is not for us. It’s not about us. We are, at best, overhearing something intended for another people entirely, something that came true, that was fulfilled, long, long ago.

Jesus begins today’s gospel reading by speaking of the destruction of the temple, and when Peter and James and John and Andrew ask him privately “what will be the sign when these things are about to be accomplished” I think we have to assume the “these things” are the throwing down of the great stones of the temple.

And Jesus has answer.

But first, a little history lesson. For the first 30 years or so following the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the Roman empire was a relatively peaceful and stable place. Augustus Caesar, in avenging the death of his great-uncle and adopted father Julius, imposed a peace on the Roman world that would last for a century. The empire Paul traveled in, preached in, and wrote his letters in, was that peaceful and orderly empire. Yes, more often than not, it was ruled by sadists, perverts, and certifiable lunatics like Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, and Nero. But unless you were a wealthy senator in Rome who caught the emperor’s eye, it was a relatively safe and stable place to live.

All that would change in the last few years of the 60s. (It’s always the 60s, right?) Paul and Peter were put to death. The capricious, decadent, and incompetent Emperor Nero suddenly faced military revolts in France and Spain. The senate finally worked up the courage to declare the emperor a criminal, and he would die by his own hand somewhere in the Italian countryside just barely a step ahead of rebellious soldiers.

In the midst of all of this, the Jews decided to revolt, and throw off Roman rule. A general by the name of Vespasian was dispatched to deal with the Jewish revolt, and here’s how the Roman author Suetonius — writing several decades afterwards — described that war in a book now known to us as The Twelve Caesars:

An ancient superstition was current in the East, that out of Judea would come the rulers of the world. This prediction, as it later proved, referred to two Roman Emperors, Vespasian and his son Titus; but the rebellious Jews, who read it as referring to themselves, murdered their Procurator, routed the Governor-General of Syria when he came down to restore order, and captured an Eagle. To crush this uprising the Romans needed a strong army under an energetic commander, who could be trusted not to abuse his plenary powers. The choice fell on Vespasian. He had given signal proof of energy and nothing, it seemed, need be feared from a man of such modest antecedents. Two legions, with eight cavalry divisions and ten supernumerary battalions, were therefore dispatched to join the forces already in Judea; and Vespasian took his elder son, Titus, to serve on his staff. No sooner had they reached Judea than he impressed the neighbouring provinces by his prompt tightening up of discipline and his audacious conduct in battle after battle. During the assault on one enemy city he was wounded on the knee by a stone and caught several arrows on his shield.

Hear what Suetonius is saying, and compare it with what Jesus is telling his disciples. Someone clearly arose in Judea and said, “I am he! The Anointed One! Your salvation is at hand! I will lead you to your redemption!” But all he and his people did was lead the Jews to war, death, and destruction. And Suetonius was convinced that the anointed one was Vespasian himself! People did rise against people, and initially, the Jews were successful. They defeated a legion and captured its eagle — the very symbol of Roman military power. It looked good at first, like this rag-tag band of well-organized Jewish rebels were going to prevail against the mightiest military force in the world.

But it was not to be. And as the Romans surrounded and lay siege to Jerusalem, Vespasian took some soldiers, and left for Rome to seize power for himself. And he left his son Titus in command, which Suetonius describes this way:

In the final assault on Jerusalem, Titus managed to kill twelve of the garrison with successive arrows; and the city was captured on his daughter’s birthday.

It was a bloody and horrific war, the kind waged by a people desperate for their liberation and redemption against an empire brutally skilled and incredibly proficient in conquest and occupation. An empire that did so without qualm or conscience. According to another ancient writer, Josephus, more than a million people died in the war — that’s about two percent of the Roman Empire’s total then-estimated population of 55 million. Today, that’s the equivalent of 6.6 million Americans or 1.3 million Frenchmen. Or 500,000 Iraqis in 2003. Or 450,000 Syrians in 2012.

After the accidental burning of the temple, Titus reportedly gave orders to level the entire city — including the temple. And not one stone was left upon another. All that remained of Jerusalem was a wasteland. A dead and abandoned city.

THAT’S the war Jesus is talking about here. The war that will leave the City of David a wreckage and the people of God scattered to the hills hither and yon. This war came and went almost 2,000 years ago. It is done.

Jesus is speaking to his followers — the time is coming when this city will be destroyed, and just as it was when Jeremiah addressed Israel while Babylon lay siege to Jerusalem, the coming war is God’s judgement on faithless Israel. The wise, the faithful, those paying attention, those staying awake, will run. As hard and as fast and as far as they can. Because there is no saving this city. No saving this temple.

He is not speaking to us. We are just overhearing a conversation. One not meant for our ears.

And yet, it was saved. It was memorized, preserved, and written down. And so, these words Jesus speaks privately to his four closest disciples are not completely without value to us. They mean something.

“Do not be alarmed.” That, and only that, is what we need to remember. There will be wars, and rumors of wars, and peoples rising against people. There will be violence and death and destruction. And very little of it will make any sense to us. Whatever the specifics, it doesn’t matter. “Do not be alarmed.”

Remember, our redeemer — who suffered and died at the hands of the same empire that would also destroy Jerusalem — rose from the dead. He conquered death. He showed us that it has no power over us. He promised his resurrection three times. Nowhere did he promise the temple would rise again.

So when we face the alarming — and what could have been more alarming to the early church than seeing the men who destroyed Jerusalem comfortably rule the Roman world for more than two decades? — we need to remember whose we are. We need to remember what promises and assurances we have — eternal life, a call to feed and tend sheep, to baptize and teach that God has not abandoned his people to sin and death no matter what our senses seem to tell us. We need to remember that our redemption is not dependent on the political order of the world. It will not be achieved in rebellious liberation or the brutal imposition of order. Most of all, we need to remember that we have nothing to fear from the violence of the world because it accomplishes nothing permanent, nothing meaningful.

Do not be alarmed, Jesus says. No matter what happens. No matter what comes. No matter who seems to be winning.





War is a Relationship

Okay, so I tweeted the following on Saturday:

Waging war is relational. Your enemy must also accept they are beaten. Since V-J Day, few combatants have accepted their defeat….

This is an important point worth considering. Because war is basically a relationship, one in which both parties to war use violence to try not only to diminish each other’s capacity to wage war, but also hopefully convince the enemy to stop fighting.

You have to change you enemy’s mind. You can’t just defeat your enemy. They have to accept that they are defeated.

For example, it is my understanding that by the time both Germany and Japan surrendered in 1945, the German and Japanese people, as well as what remained of their leadership, understood their devastated societies were past the point of effectively mobilizing men and material to continue coherent resistance. They accepted unconditional surrender, and all the uncertainties that came with it — occupation, and the powerlessness of knowing they were completely at the mercies of the victorious United Nations. They had no idea what that meant, how harsh the rule of their conquerors would be. And make no mistake, the United Nations didn’t liberate or free Japan and Germany from fascist rule. They were conquered nations (the UN Charter actually accords Germany, Japan, and Italy a different international legal status — they are not allowed to engage in collective self-defense, for example), and they were going to be treated as such.

Now, today we tell ourselves a story of relatively benign occupation and societies generously rebuilt by their conquerors, but that’s an after-the-fact telling. It was not clear in the fall and winter of 1945 just how things were going to go. Occupation soldiers in both countries had very strict rules against ANY fraternization with the locals, and the operative plan for post-war Germany — the Morganthau Plan — called for the country’s near-complete de-industrialization. What became the Marshall Plan was only kicked into motion as the Iron Curtain descended across Europe and allies were needed to deal with the Soviet Union.

Germany and Japan — and more importantly, the Germans and the Japanese — surrendered and accepted their complete defeat, their conquest, not knowing how their conquerors would treat them. It was a benign conquest, as far as conquests go, at least for those nations that weren’t “liberated” by the Soviet Army. But make no mistake — V-E Day and V-J Day were conquests.

Since V-J Day, however, it has been nearly impossible to secure the kind of military and political victory in war that WWII was for the United Nations. (In speaking of the UN this way, I’m using language current in 1945 and 1946.) I can think of no instance since 1945 in which an entire nation accepted military and political defeat, and subsequent conquest and occupation.

There are a few conflicts which adhere to something akin to the WWII pattern — the breakaway state of Biafra was methodically and bloodily brought back into Nigeria after seceding; the Pakistani armed forces in Bangladesh were routed in 1971, and their commanding general surrendered to India; the Argentine military was fairly decisively defeated in the South Atlantic in 1982; and the Tamil Tigers were crushed in a long and bloody civil war in Sri Lanka. There are a few others that are not coming to mind (the Katanga rebellion in Congo in 1964, brought to an end by UN military action). But I think you get the idea.

But even here, the wars between state actors — Britain and Argentina, Pakistan and India (and Bangladesh) — were “limited” in that Britain didn’t invade Argentina proper, and once the Pakistani armed forces were routed in what was then East Pakistan, that war was effectively over. Only the civil wars — in Nigeria and Sri Lanka — were brutal affairs ending in unconditional surrender.

Mostly we have frozen conflicts — like the Korean War, ended by an armistice agreement (and regularly violated in the late 1960s); the Chinese Civil War, which percolated in the 1950s with air battles over the Taiwan Straits and the regular shelling of Nationalist held islands; or the Arab-Israeli disputes, where the fighting was halted by temporary cease-fire and disengagement agreements.

The post-WWII gave us an interesting phenomenon, in which a nation at war could militarily prevail but still lose because the political goals sought through waging war are either too costly or are completely unachievable. I’m thinking here of the United States in Vietnam and France in Algeria. But the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia — in which the defeated Khmer Rouge government was internationally recognized and supported for another decade by sponsors as varied as the United States and China, also comes to mind.

The French had largely defeated the NLF FLN in Algeria by the late 1950s, but the Algerians refused to accept defeat — they were fighting for their national independence. And as long as they were willing to resist French rule, and make the goal of keeping Algeria as a part of Metropolitan France far too costly, then it didn’t matter how many battles the French armed forces won. In the end, France cut Algeria loose.

The United States faced a similar problem in Vietnam. Again, the Vietnamese communists were fighting for their home and their national independence. They knew the Americans would eventually pack up and leave. As spectacular and surprising as the Tet Offensive was in 1968, the NLF in South Vietnam eventually lost everything they gained and more, and was broken permanently as a fighting force. And the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive was beaten fairly handily by South Vietnamese troops backed by heavy US air power. And yet, none of it mattered, because once the North Vietnamese began their final offensive in 1975, US force was nowhere to be found, and South Vietnam’s army crumpled far faster than the even the North expected it to.

As long as the Vietnamese communists were going to fight, and believed the Americans would eventually leave (we were far less attached to South Vietnam than France was to Algeria, which had been a part of France since the 1840s), they didn’t have to accept anything remotely resembling defeat. Even when they were defeated. They could fight as long as they were willing to bear the pain the United States could inflict upon their society.

In fact, the Israel-Palestinian conflict fits this. No matter how well Palestinian forces have fought (and they have occasionally fought Israel to a draw in specific battles), they have always lost. And yet, military victory — conquest and occupation — has not secured anything remotely resembling a win for Israel. Because the Palestinians refuse to surrender. They refuse to accept defeat. They don’t believe they have to. And in the world we live in, right now, they don’t.

Which leads me to the point of my tweet. With the attacks in Paris, there are increased calls to wage harder war against Daesh — the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. I’m all for dealing with Daesh, and it seems the current bombing campaign, which has been going on for some time now, has accomplished little.

But defeating Daesh … I honestly cannot see Sunni Muslims in the area that is now Daesh accepting their defeat any more than the Palestinians have. Or the Iraqis accepted their conquest in 2003. (It didn’t help the Anglo-American invasion was called a “liberation.”) Which means, if you really want to take Daesh on, you need a large army — half-a-million men under arms, maybe — and you need to commit yourself to the rhetoric of conquest. and subjugation. We aren’t liberating anyone. The Sunnis of the region may come to see that, at some point, but that cannot be the goal. If done, it will be an occupation, far longer and costlier than anyone in the west today is willing to commit to.

But even then, as I said, I cannot see the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria accepting conquest and long-term occupation. If anything, it will become another reason for violent resistance, the West Bank and Gaza Strip writ large, with all the inhumanity and brutality that entails. It will be bloody. And the West … doesn’t have the stomach for that kind of hands-on colonial conquest and occupation anymore, not the kind needed to truly pacify the Sunni region of Iraq and Syria.

You can apply as much brutal force as you want (and we’re good it, especially if it involves expensive high technology). But as long as your enemy is willing and able to resist, as long as your enemy believes he or she is not conquered, you’ve not won. You can’t win.

I honestly haven’t any idea what to do about Daesh. What we’re doing isn’t working, what we’re going to do likely won’t work either. There will be some kind of war — even with all the pointless language of pitilessness coming out of Paris. But the West that beat Germany and Japan, that mobilized to deal with the Soviet Union, that West is gone.

World War Two was won by a confident American government, an activist government, a government willing to mobilize resources, a government that confiscated a lot in taxes (top tax rate of 94 percent in 1944) and even more in bond drives, a government that demanded sacrifice in terms of life and labor and material, a government that could be creative and innovative (Douglas MacArthur relied on former Protestant missionaries to help sell cultural changes to Japanese society because they understood and sympathized with that society as well as with the occupation efforts) and at the same time utterly and immorally ruthless (the interning of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans merely because of their ethnicity). We don’t have that government now. Instead, we have an ideologically hollow collection of fifth-rate thinkers overseeing a kleptocratic morass of contractors who couldn’t figure out how to poke their way of a wet paper sack. All watched over by lawyers and activists willing to second-guess everything.

If we cannot trust the Federal government to oversee the delivery of health insurance (and we don’t, and given how that’s gone, we probably shouldn’t), then we cannot trust that government with the task of remaking an entire society on the other side of the world. It’s not up to it. And neither are we. At this point in our shared national existence, we probably couldn’t sacrifice for a collective or common good or goal to save ourselves if we had to.

If there’s any good news, we probably don’t have to. Daesh isn’t going to win. Unlike Germany and Japan, which were industrial powerhouses that could build and field vast and incredibly proficient industrial armies, Daesh presides over a sparse and benighted corner of the world. It possesses no industry, few resources, and little else but a fervent desire to die. If they beat us, it will only be because we will collapse under the weight of our utter decrepitness and incompetence. Or because we effectively give up. (I’m not ruling these out, but they are highly unlikely.) There may be a great deal of fervor behind the death cult that is Daesh, but it’s not mass fervor. It doesn’t take a lot of people to cause revolutionary trouble, or even wage the kind of hit-and-run terror war Daesh is proving to be exceptionally adept it.

But they cannot conquer the world.

We won’t win, but we won’t lose either. A valiant and incoherent muddle to whatever finish awaits us, interrupted by the occasional spasm of horrific violence. Which, for good or ill, sounds like most of human history.

Who the Strong Become When They Act Without Mercy

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.

But there’s something missing about the current discussion (which really isn’t, as it’s more awn argument in which each side tries to justify itself and demonize the other). The Israelis and their sympathizers speak a great deal about the care and precision with which strikes are made against Gaza, and technically I suppose this is true (just as it likely is when American forces drop bombs somewhere), but I’m more interested in a moral dimension of the discussion: who do the powerful and wealthy become when they war they wage is done against a poor, badly armed and largely captive population?
Who do the strong become when just about all the war they wage is done against people who cannot effectively fight back?
This isn’t a criticism aimed entirely at Israel either — Americans largely wage war against peoples and nations incapable of effectively resisting, much less fighting back. I’m thinking Iraq, which by the 2003 Anglo-American invasion had pretty well been beaten and starved into submission. (That said, the Iraqis later more-or-less defeated the United States in the only war they could effectively fight.) But the Israelis have become masters at this, and the term “mowing the grass” was coined for these brutal and incredibly destructive, but brief and largely pointless, forays into Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon — as if they were simply onerous chores that got one sweaty and dirty, and not the cause of significant death and suffering.
It’s part of a larger language, a set of ideas, in which the powerful no longer have responsibilities and obligations to the weak. In which captors have no obligations to their captives. With Israel and Palestine, the “peace process” has helped foster the illusion — and it is an illusion — that there is no occupation in the West Bank, that Israel has cordoned off Gaza and turned it into a giant, open-air prison camp. But it’s bigger than that. It’s in the revolt of aggrieved billionaires, of Republicans who complain about the “47 percent of takers,” when Secretary of State Madeline Albright disgustingly noted that the deaths of half-a-million Iraqi children “was worth it” when it came to containing the post-Kuwait War Iraqi state.
In this world, a kind-of junk Randianism* pervades — the powerful and rich have no obligations to the weak and poor. No responsibilities. In fact, if anything, the powerful and rich are constant victims of the weak and poor, and are entitled to defend themselves using every murderous tool at their disposal.  The weak and the poor have all the responsibilities here, to stop being a burden, to stop “taking,” to cease their resistance, stop being an annoyance, possibly even to die, because their very existence is a problem in need of a solution. (And one in which they will have no role nor even be asked.) They are an eyesore, an annoyance, human beings whose well-being is of no concern, whose suffering only has amusement value.
And the rich have plenty of means to avenge their “victimhood,” on account of being rich. If the Palestinians suffer, it is because they resist, because somehow, unguided, home-made rockets fueled by sugar-water are somehow the moral equivalent of fleets of F-15 and F-16 fighter jets armed with precision guided bombs. If the Iraqis suffered, well, it was because of their government. “Double war crimes,” Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said. 
It’s your fault I’m making you suffer. That’s the morality at work here.
Now, it may be there never was a world in which obligations and responsibilities figured highly. But there was a time of noblesse oblige, in which at least the idea that those with much owed something to those with little. The welfare state, such as it is, dates from that time, and the post-WWII world was built by people deeply possessed of a sense of obligation and responsibility. The Israelis began their obligation of Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai in 1967 with some sense that theirs would be a “humane occupation,” one informed by several generations of Jewish humanism and the Jews’ own experience as a dispossessed people. It didn’t really work out that way, largely because there can never be a liberal, humane or humanitarian way to govern people against their will. 
In this, the powerful and wealthy become brutes, and slowly (but surely) become acclimated to imposing sacrifice and suffering upon others. To becoming mass murderers. To keeping people in cages, taunting them, beating them, starving them, and then wondering why they occasionally lash out. Americans, like Israelis, have become accustomed to seeing themselves as victims, or potential victims, and in the world in which we live, victims are no bound by any morality when they “defend themselves,” when they seek to right a wrong or prevent a further wrong. There is no limit to the violence that can be inflicted, to the suffering that can be imposed, to the guilt that can be presumed. Victims owe their victimizers no mercy. It’s as if the language of Frantz Fanon had been stood on its head and made to serve not revolutionaries seeking to throw off colonial masters but rather the most powerful states – and their armies – in the world
If anything, this is the ultimate identity politics. Race, gender, sexual orientation have nothing on the victimhood claimed by the frightened and aggrieved rulers of wealthy, powerful, and paranoid states.
Nor will this change any time soon. Democrats may talk the language of obligation, but they aren’t actually very good at doing it, and the only obligations and responsibilities in the liberal/progressive lexicon that matter all get channeled through the centralized state. Because it’s the only thing we have in common. (They also want to preserve the very state power that brutalizes and destroys.) There are intellectual conservatives in the Anglo-American world who talk seriously about obligations and responsibilities, but they are few (and not terribly influential right now), and the Republican party (and the conservative movement) are hopeless on the matter, talking an angry language of rights that denies any notion that we owe something to our neighbors merely for being our neighbors.
But this is the world we live in now. There is no way to restore a sense of obligation, not on those who govern, not on those with wealth, not on nations that keep others captive, that patrol the world with weapons ready to annihilate all who disturb their sense of good order. So, we shall see more of this. Not less.
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* Not that Randianism isn’t already junk to begin with.