Saturday Night Theologian
27 July 2003

2 Samuel 11:1-15

In the late summer of 1974, a somber Richard Nixon stared into television cameras and spoke to the American people. The Watergate scandal had overwhelmed his presidency, and he faced impeachment and removal from office. Rather than endure the inevitable, Nixon chose to resign, becoming the only U.S. president ever to do so. The lesson that Watergate was supposed to teach political leaders, and the American people, was that no one is above the law. High office, power, or money are not shields from prosecution and conviction. The unfortunate reality is that many people today believe themselves to be above the law, and history demonstrates that they're often right. The rich and famous are occasionally put on trial, but rarely convicted, because they have the resources to hire the best attorneys, expert witnesses, and media coverage (e.g., O. J. Simpson). Billionaire CEOs who get rich off of shady business deals, defrauding investors, and depleting their employees' pension funds, walk away with the loot, particularly when they're politically well connected (e.g., Ken Lay). Presidents serve as commanders-in-chief of military forces, and they often strike against foreign enemies for suspicious reasons or at suspicious times (e.g., Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War after the Gulf of Tonkin "incident," Reagan's attack on Granada, Clinton's attack on Kosovo, and Bush II's attack on Iraq, just to name some of the more recent). Whereas an ordinary citizen who kills many people is labeled a mass murderer, a president who authorizes a military strike that has questionable justification or timing is often called a hero. The double standard that exists between the powerful and the marginalized is nothing new. King David took advantage of his position of authority on more than one occasion, most egregiously in the incident involving Bathsheba. According to the narrative, David had grown used to power and had become presumptuous. When it was time to go to battle, David presumed to leave his own work for others to do. When he spied Bathsheba from his royal palace, David presumed to appropriate her for himself, even though she was married to another man. When Bathsheba got pregnant, David presumed to recall her husband Uriah from battle in an attempt to cover up his sin. When Uriah showed honor and devotion to his men by refusing to sleep with his wife, David presumed to order his murder to preclude an investigation into his own actions. At every step David acted more and more high-handedly, believing that he was entitled to behave however he saw fit--and he was supported in his presumption by his most faithful follower, his general Joab. David is eventually punished for his sin, and he spends the rest of his reign subject to one assault on his authority or another, but even when he's on the run, it is not he but his armies, his followers, and his harem that do the actual suffering. Many would argue that because David repented, he was spared more extensive punishment. That may be; nevertheless, it remains true that no one else in his kingdom would have had such grievous sins excused merely by the act of repentance. Unfortunately, though certainly some progress has been made, today's justice system often perpetuates the inequalities of an earlier age. Christians who believe that all people are created in God's image--or that all people are created equal, to paraphrase Jefferson--should call for equal punishment for equal crimes, regardless of the power or position of either the accused or the victim. To take such a stand entails not only calling for the just punishment of the powerful but also siding with the weak to make sure that their crimes are not treated with overzealous harshness. Three nuns who engaged in a peaceful anti-nuclear arms protest by cutting through a chain-link fence and striking a missile silo with a hammer were recently convicted of crimes roughly equivalent to domestic terrorism and were facing sentences of five to eight years in prison. At the same time, leaders of our government, like many before them, launch unjustified wars, carry out political assassinations, and coddle repressive dictators who (today) pledge their support of American policies--which one of them will be the next Saddam Hussein? God calls us to stand for justice for both the weak and the powerful.

Psalm 14

Modern atheism, the denial of the existence of God, was probably unknown in the ancient world. Though ideas of God, or gods, varied among different groups, all seem to have acknowledged the reality of the divine. This was certainly true in Israel, regardless of whether inhabitants of the land worshiped Yahweh or other gods and goddesses. Of what group of people, then, is the psalmist speaking when he says, "Fools say in their hearts, 'There is no God'"? He is not talking about those who deny that God exists; rather, he is referring to those who believe in God but don't take God seriously. In his book Foundations for Reconstruction, Elton Trueblood says that the Third Commandment, "You shall not take God's name in vain," is perhaps the most frequently violated of the Ten Commandments in today's world. This commandment, Trueblood says, is not concerned with swearing, which is a relatively minor offense, but with the much greater sin of treating God lightly or casually. Many people today claim to believe in God, but in what ways does it affect their behavior? They sing their favorite hymn in the worship service, while plotting their marketing strategy for next week's meeting. They wear a cross necklace to the grocery store, then they proceed to chew out the cashier for an error she made. They complain about atheists' attempts to remove the motto "In God We Trust" from their money, which they spend on luxury vacations for themselves, ignoring the plight of the hungry in their own backyards. They seethe at the idea of godless men and women seeking political office, then they don't even bother to show up to vote. This sort of behavior isn't atheism, but neither is it Christianity. It is perhaps most akin to the Deism practiced by many of the founders of the United States. Deists believed that God had created the world and established its laws but that God was no longer involved in, or perhaps even interested in, what went on in the world. However, it must be said that the Deists were true to their beliefs, and many of them thought that, despite God's apparent distance from the modern world, it was incumbent upon them to live good lives and improve the lot of all those who lived around them. Nor is such behavior characteristic of agnosticism, the attitude that questions, but doesn't deny, the existence of God. The people in question are convinced that God exists, that they are God's people, and that they can do pretty much whatever they like in this world, because God won't do anything to stop them. If not atheism, Christianity, Deism, or agnosticism, what can the modern attitude that says "God exists--who cares?" be called? Pragmatic atheism is one choice. It might also be called compartmentalized Christianity (or Judaism, or Islam, etc.) or perfunctory Christianity. These are all apt descriptions, but I'd like to offer a label that focuses on these people's conception of God: Christianity of the self-absorbed God. They seem to envision a God who is nearsighted and hard of hearing, unable to see their actions or hear their words. Their God is forgetful and lax, not remembering their deeds or even caring about them. Unlike the Deist God, the self-absorbed God is involved in our lives, but only to extent of being interested in praise, adoration, and the occasional prayer. This God is a bit of a narcissist. As long as we provide God with these offerings, God is unconcerned about how we live the rest of our lives. Christians who take their commitment seriously will admit that we sometimes live our lives as though we worshiped a self-absorbed God, but we are constantly challenged to return to a more authentic version of Christianity. We don't want to be like the fool who says in his heart, "There is no God, at least not one who cares what I do." God does care. God wants us to live lives of integrity and compassion, of righteousness and godliness, of justice and mercy. Only then will our lives reflect our belief that God does exist, and that we do care.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

Ephesians 3:14-21

According to scientists, every human being alive on earth today is the direct descendant of a woman who lived in Africa between 100,000 and 150,000 years ago, the so-called Mitochondrial Eve. Although the notion seems incredible at first, it can be demonstrated fairly easily by starting with the entire population of the earth today, about 6 billion people, and keeping in mind that mitochondrial DNA is transmitted only by mothers, to both sons and daughters, so there is no recombination with a father's DNA, as is the case with the DNA in most nuclear chromosomes. First, we can eliminate all those who have living children from consideration, since as we trace family trees back in time, current parents and grandparents will be included at that point. Beginning with those without progeny, we move back one generation to their mothers, eliminating their fathers from consideration (since they don't contribute to the mitochondrial DNA of their children). Then we continue to move back one generation at a time, reducing the number of female ancestors gradually as family lines converge (because sisters have the same mother, etc.), and eventually we arrive at a single woman who was the ancestor of everyone alive. Of course, she is far from the only common ancestor of people, just the closest female ancestor of all living humans whose ancestry can be traced purely through the female line of descent (similarly, a "Y-chromosome Adam," probably also from Africa, but from a different time, also exists as the ancestor of all living humans). The discovery of Mitochondrial Eve reminds us how closely related everyone on the planet is, from the Aboriginal people of Australia, to Native Americans, to Europeans, to Chinese, to the Bushmen and Pygmies and Bantu-speakers of Africa. All of us have a common ancestor within the past 5000 generations. Many of us, of course, are much, much more closely related, even to people with a different color skin, different hair, who speak a different language, and who live in a different country. We all share a common spiritual ancestry as well, and the author says that that common bond is even more important than the genetic one. He uses a play on words in Greek (patêr, father; patria, family/lineage) to emphasize the fact that we are all children of God. We who are Christians can draw upon God's spirit within us, growing through faith to a fuller understanding of God's love, revealed in Christ. The letter to the Ephesians seems to have been written to people who lived among some who claimed a special knowledge of God (perhaps an early form of Gnosticism). For this reason, the author stresses that understanding the richness of God's love, as demonstrated by Christ, is far more important than any kind of esoteric knowledge. This is a lesson that moderns would do well to remember, too. We are not confronted with classic Gnostics; instead, we face the problem of Christians who would elevate knowledge of "facts"--that is, doctrinal purity or orthodoxy--above love. The teaching of Ephesians here recalls the teachings of Jesus in John 15 concerning Christians having love for one another, as well as the classic chorus of the Jesus Movement, "We Are One in the Spirit," which ended with the phrase "And they'll know we are Christians by our love." When people of other faiths consider Christianity, do they think of it as a religion of love? Unfortunately, probably most do not. Just as the misdeeds of radical Muslims cause many Christians to think of Islam as a religion of hate, so do the actions of so-called Christian nations make many Muslims think of Christianity as a religion of war and injustice. As progressive Christians, we must set an example for our brothers and sisters in Christ by showing love for our neighbors, Christian and Muslim alike, remembering that our "neighborhood," like John Wesley's parish, extends to the whole world.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

John 6:1-21

When people allow God to work through them, the hungry are fed. Another of today's reading, Psalm 14:6, says that God is the refuge of the poor. One of the alternate readings for today, 2 Kings 4:42-44, tells a story similar to the Feeding of the 5000, where the miracle-worker is Elisha rather than Jesus. It is interesting to note that the Feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels (even the resurrection of Jesus is only alluded to, not mentioned explicitly, in Mark, according to most textual scholars). Other miracles of Jesus that are recorded in the gospels are arguably more impressive; for example: Jesus' raising of Lazarus, or the widow's son, or Jairus' daughter; healing the man born blind, or the deaf man, or the leper; walking on water, or calming the storm, or the various stories of miraculous catches of fish. Yet the four canonical evangelists all chose to include only this story. Why? When one lists the basic necessities of life--food, clothing, and shelter--it is clear that the most important is food. Our ancestors lived without clothing or permanent shelter for millennia, but no one can live without food for any extended period of time. Without food, the body has no source of energy, it begins to consume itself, and after a fairly short time, it dies. We've all seen images on TV of malnourished children with distended bellies and shriveled bodies. When we see pictures like that, we ignore the nakedness of the children and immediately recognize the need: food. Throughout the Bible God is presented as one who provides food for those who are hungry. In preparation for the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, God plants a garden filled with fruit trees. God gives Joseph the wisdom to provide food for his family and the nation of Egypt. God provides manna for the Israelites in the wilderness. God provides both Elijah and Elisha with food from miraculous sources. What better way to show that God is working through Jesus than to have him provide food to a multitude? To argue over the question of whether the food miraculously multiplied (the clear intent of the story as recorded in all four gospels) or whether those present were cajoled into sharing their lunches with their neighbors misses the point. The point is that where God is at work, people don't go hungry. Those who stress the miraculous side of the story cannot excuse hunger in the world today by saying that they can't perform miracles the way Jesus could. On the contrary, whereas Jesus fed only 5000 people a single meal, we as a collective body have the resources today to alleviate hunger for the whole world, billions of people, forever. What a miracle! Those who believe that the story teaches sharing of resources may not be right in terms of the original message of the story, but they're right on the mark in terms of a modern application. When the people of Jesus' day saw how many people had been fed, they said, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world." When the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus asking him if he were the Messiah, he replied, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them." In other words, God is at work. If we will feed the hungry, people today will say, "God is at work today just as in the time of Christ."

For another discussion of this passage, click here.