Sermon preached July 7, 2013
Texts: Joshua 8:18-29; II Samuel 8:1-2; Isaiah 2:2-4; Matthew 5:9, 38-48
Thanks to some friends from church here, Julie and I were able to have a front row seat at Duluth’s July 4 fireworks. It is really pretty amazing what some creative minds can do with chemical compounds and explosive devices. It is also kind of amazing how such a display helps me think about all the things I appreciate about being a citizen of the United States. I appreciate the beauty of our country – spacious skies, amber waves of grain, purple mountains majesty, lakes, rivers, canyons. I appreciate the diversity in our nation. We are a country primarily comprised of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants. Mine came from Finland, France (through Canada) and Sweden. While we have not been perfect in our ability to bring people together, ours is a vast experiment in diversity that has been successful on many levels. I appreciate the founding documents of our country – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. When South African blacks were looking to work on a new post-apartheid constitution for their country, these were two important documents they relied on. I appreciate our values of freedom, opportunity, caring for community, justice, the rule of law. I recently completed a book entitled The Orphan Master’s Son, a novel set in North Korea. While it is a novel, its portrayal of a closed society where some negative word about the government could get you imprisoned was chilling, and made me grateful for our freedoms. Some of my enjoyments in life are uniquely American in origin – baseball, blues-based music like jazz and rock and roll. Because I appreciate and care about this country, I participate in its civic life, I vote, I pray.
It is also important, as we celebrate the many good things about our country to recognize that there is a human tendency to draw circles around “our group” tightly, and that such tendencies can lead to harm, violence, and destruction. The rocket’s red glare of national pride can slip rather easily into rockets of destruction aimed too indiscriminately at others.
I think the issue of human violence and destruction is the issue raised by two of the texts we read this morning, two sticky Scriptures suggested for this summer’s sermon series on difficult Bible passages. The passages from Joshua and II Samuel raise the issue of a God who seems to sanction absolute warfare with the complete destruction of the enemy, or the rather capricious killing of the other. In Joshua, the city-state of Ai is completely devastated. The city is burned and all the inhabitants were, in the words of the text “slaughtered.” Twelve thousand people were killed, all the residents of Ai. The king was hanged. In II Samuel, Moabites lose in a battle to King David, and the King uses a measure of rope to determine who will live and who will die – “two lengths of cord for those who were to be put to death, and one length for those who were to be spared.”
What do we do with these texts that are a part of our Scriptures? What do we do with such texts in a world that is often too violent and destructive, a world often marred by religious violence?
Unfortunately, it seems every religion has been used to justify violence at some time in its history. It has been used to draw a tight circle around “us,” as against “them” and then to seek to wreak havoc and destruction against them. We are acutely aware these days of violence and destruction which perpetrators justify in the name of Islam. 9-11 will never again be a series of numbers since September 11, 2001 when terrorists claiming inspiration in Islam flew planes into the World Trade Center in New York. We will never again think of the Boston Marathon in quite the same way after two young men, moved by Islamic jihad rhetoric, planted bombs at the marathon this spring.
Christianity has been used to justify violent action. The Crusades were religiously-sponsored violence. Pope Urban II in 1095 called on Christian to liberate the Holy Land from Muslims, who he called wicked, accursed, and alienated from God. The Thirty Years War in Europe in the 17th century pitted Catholic against Protestant, both justifying themselves religiously.
Buddhism, which many look upon as a religion of pure peacefulness, is currently being used to justify violence against Muslims in the country of Burma. Buddhist mobs wielding torches and machetes have attacked Muslim villages in the country.
Some think that if we just get rid of all the religious rhetoric and traditions that would eliminate such violence and destruction, but I don’t think so. I don’t believe violence and destruction are inherent in any of these religious traditions. I believe there is something in our humanity which lends itself to violence and destructiveness, and that religions are sometimes used to justify what has arisen from our human condition.
To be human is to be self-conscious, self-aware. Unlike other biological creatures, we don’t just function on instinct. We have to make our way in the world. Psychologist Erich Fromm is insightful. Man’s existential conflict produces certain psychic needs common to all men. He is forced to overcome the horror of separateness, of powerlessness, and of lostness and find new ways of relating himself to the world to enable him to feel at home…. Each of these needs can be satisfied in different ways. (The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 255). Among our basic psychic needs, Fromm argues, is a need to be effective, to make a dent, and if we can’t do that in a creative way, Fromm argues, we will do that in a destructive way (Anatomy, 264; The Essential Fromm, 82).
Another psychologist, Anthony Storr, discusses human destructiveness from a different angle. He argues that a certain amount of human aggression is natural and needed in our lives. It is linked to self-affirmation (Human Destructiveness, 7). Theologian Marjorie Suchocki puts this insight well. Aggression in itself can be good, prompting us not only toward survival, but toward development of ego-strength. It can help us to dare to do things that are good but nonetheless a bit frightening to us (In God’s Presence, 70)
So we have this need for a measure of significance, to feel like we make a difference. Storr goes on. If the individual’s requirement to be recognized and appreciated as a person in his own right has not been met, the normal drive toward self-affirmation and self-assertion becomes intensified and transmuted into hostility. Aggression is liable to turn into dangerous violence when it is repressed or disowned (21).
The situation for humans can become particularly volatile when our imaginative capacity becomes involved. In considering something like the Holocaust, Storr insightfully writes: Cruelty and destructiveness of this order is peculiar to the human species because it requires the operation of the imagination. It represents the nether side of man’s most priceless asset. To be able to see fellow human beings as wholly evil, as possessing magical powers for harm, as being both despicable and dangerous, requires an imaginative capacity not found in other species. (137)
The roots of human destructiveness are found in our human condition, in our need for self-affirmation, for significance, to feel effective. When these needs do not find a creative outlet, they seek other outlets. This may not explain socio-pathic violence, but that is beyond today’s sermon. And if the Bible is a human book, at least to some extent, as well as an inspired book, then perhaps some of this less creative human stuff finds its way into the Bible, too.
The Bible is the story of God, but also contains the stories of a nation. And have you ever noticed that some of our national stories are a bit one-sided. We tend to tell the heroic tales. We tie our significance to being members of a group. Our stories can be triumphalistic. Perhaps some of this kind of material has found its way into the Bible. Look how great an army we have, we completely defeated our enemies at Ai. Look how powerful our king is, deciding the fate of the defeated Moabites. Whatever happened, these have become heroic tales of victory.
The danger in such stories is that we take them as revealing something of the very nature of God – violent and vindictive. Such stories can seem to justify our own destructiveness. Joan Chittister makes an important distinction between patriotism and jingoism. Patriotism is love of country…. Jingoism is chauvinism, a love of country that lacks a critical eye. Or better yet, perhaps, a love of country that lacks a loving eye. When we love something to such a degree that we lost the capacity to compare it to its own best potential, we don’t really love it at all. We idolize it. Read wrongly, these passages from the Bible can seem to justify jingoism, and destruction based on it.
But such a reading is at odds with the longer sweep of the biblical story. It is not simply a contrast between an Old Testament God of violence and destruction and a New Testament God of love. Within the Old Testament itself, we see a growing sense that what God is finally about is a new world, a peaceable kingdom where they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; where nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. God is at work toward a world where the peacemakers are blessed and enemies are loved.
Such a reading of the Bible, and of these sticky Scriptures does not answer all our questions about whether war is ever justifiable, but it suggests that certain kinds of war are not. This reading of these sticky Scriptures does ask us to ask ourselves these questions. Does our reading of the Bible move us in the direction of God’s dream for the world – justice, peace, reconciliation and love? Do our expressions of faith move us in the direction of a thoughtful and reflective faith? And a thoughtful and reflective faith can support a thoughtful and reflective patriotism, though not an uncritical jingoism.
In the end, is there any positive value in reading such difficult texts such as those in Joshua and II Samuel? I know they pushed me into thinking deeply about the human needs that may lay behind violence, hostility and destructiveness. How can such needs be met more constructively. The American philosopher William James once argued that war brings out some good in people – a certain discipline, a certain camaraderie, a certain heroism. He suggested we needed a moral equivalent of war, something that called upon these positive human qualities without destroying other people. Inside of ourselves, there are times when we need to get beyond personal patterns of behavior that are harmful. We may need to marshal a certain war-like courage to confront ourselves.
Are such metaphoric readings of these sticky Scriptures worth the price? I don’t know, but if grappling with them leads us to a more thoughtful and reflective faith, leads us to a deeper commitment to God’s dream for the world, invites us to courage and love, then maybe. Amen.