Saturday Night Theologian
10 August 2003

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

Over the past couple of decades, politicians have learned how to take advantage of polling data for their own political advantage. Do the voters of my district support tax cuts? Then so do I! Do they want increased spending on roads and bridges? That's what I'm for, too! Will they support military action against a foreign power? So will I! For many in elected office, the focus is no longer on what's right but on what's expedient. This approach to life is not limited to politicians, of course. A similar scenario plays out in corporate hallways and boardrooms. Have those in power shown an inclination to support Project A over Project B? If so, then I'll support Project A as well, even though I really think Project B is the way to go. If my boss happens to support the losing project, then so much the better for me. Maybe I'll get her job. Joab was a politically astute general. During Absalom's revolt against David, David had asked his generals not to hurt his son Absalom, but when Joab found out that Absalom was hanging helpless in a tree, he didn't hesitate to kill him. He reasoned that David was too emotionally involved in the situation to see straight. If I don't kill Absalom, he thought, the people will turn against David, he will be driven from power, and so will I. Joab realized that it was expedient to kill Absalom, and he had no compunction about doing so, striking him down while he was helpless. David, on the other hand, was willing to forgive his son. After all, Absalom was his own flesh and blood, and he loved him. To Joab, Absalom was the enemy; to David, Absalom was his beloved son. The holy war ethic loudly proclaimed in the book of Joshua, and practiced by David on occasion (e.g., his dealings with Saul's sons in 2 Sam 21:1-9), counseled the slaughter of one's enemies, particularly the leaders. However, David was unable to think of Absalom as an enemy, despite all that he had done. David loved Absalom, and he wanted to forgive him and treat him with mercy. Jesus said that his followers are to love our enemies. How does that apply in a war-time setting? First, it suggests that we must see our nation's enemies as people, not ideologies or objects. Most of the people who fight in a war are there because of loyalty to their country, or perhaps their leader, not because of their hatred of the enemy. Hatred of the enemy dehumanizes us, moving us further from the ideals that Jesus taught. Second, loving one's enemies dictates that war be something that we enter into only grudgingly, when it is forced upon us. Cowboy rhetoric and comments that seem to glorify war and slaughter are un-Christian. Third, though war inevitably brings death to people on both sides of the conflict, we should not rejoice over the deaths of our enemies. The bragging and preening that followed the deaths of Saddam Hussein's sons--and his 14 year old grandson--were disgusting and far from the example of behavior laid down by Christ. It might be overly simplistic to characterize most wars as nationalistically motivated mass murder, but it's not far from the truth. If only we could view our enemies as human beings, even as people worthy of love, how would that change our world? In the meantime, we must resist the temptation to do what's expedient rather than what we know to be right, and we should demand that our leaders do so as well.

Psalm 130

In May 1978 Martha McKinney's 22 year old son Brian was kidnapped and murdered by a faction of the Irish Republican Army. For years she suspected that he had been killed, and her anger grew. In June 1999 Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams came to McKinney's house and promised to help find her son's body. After searching a bog for several days, Brian's body was found, and Martha and her husband were able to bury their son. Martha continued to feel immense anger toward her son's killers, but then she attended a conference at Stanford University designed to let victims of violence meet other victims from the other side of the conflict. She met other Catholics who had suffered, and she met Protestants who had suffered as well. Gradually she was able to overcome her anger and to forgive those who had killed her son. Why should we forgive other people when they've wronged us? For one thing, we can't live happy, productive lives if we're full of anger against another person. When people do something against us, they hurt us, but when we refuse to forgive, we hurt ourselves. A second reason to forgive others is that in doing so we are following God's example. Forgiving other people for egregious wrongs done to us is difficult, but when we remember our own sins and that God has forgiven us, it makes it a little easier to forgive others for their sins against us. The psalmist in Psalm 130 speaks in a voice of desperation, crying out to God for forgiveness. All of us have done things that hurt other people at different times, and we know what it's like to ask for forgiveness. When we consider our own shortcomings, we realize that we are unworthy of God's love. Nevertheless, the psalmist reminds us, with God there is forgiveness and steadfast love. God doesn't hold our past against us, because God loves us and wants to have fellowship with us. When we think about how much God has forgiven us, how can we continue to withhold forgiveness from someone who has wronged us? Some sins have greater consequences than others, and it would be wrong to suggest that it is always easy to forgive another person. It's not always easy, but it is always possible. Furthermore, it's always beneficial, both for ourselves and for the one we forgive.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

How was a maniac like Adolf Hitler able to rise to power in the 1930s and to retain power until the final days of the war in Europe? In large part, he did so by telling lies. The Jews are our enemy. The peoples of Eastern Europe are genetically inferior. The only way to achieve national security is to build a huge war machine. The huge war machine we build will be for defensive purposes only. The Poles crossed the border and attacked German troops. Many of these statements were transparently false to anyone living outside Germany, but within Germany, many people believed. Hitler knew the value of manipulating the truth to suit his purposes, so he appointed Joseph Goebbels as Minister of Propaganda. Goebbels was a master of disinformation, and his lies prolonged the war. When Nazi defeat was certain, he hinted that German scientists were working on a secret weapon that would drive the allies beyond German borders. Even as bombs began to fall on Berlin, Goebbels spewed forth a message of false hope that was designed to encourage the German recruits to fight bravely defending the city. Telling lies might have positive short-term benefits (e.g., avoiding blame, taking undeserved credit, casting aspersions on one's opponent), but they inevitably come back to haunt both the one who lies and those who believed the lies. Paul counsels fellow Christians to put away falsehood and speak the truth. Anger, even justified anger, is no reason to lie. "But," some might argue, "when you're at war, disinformation is necessary." That's probably true, but when the U.S. government announced in early 2002 that it was creating an Office of Strategic Influence, i.e., a Department of Propaganda, the outcry was so great that it was forced to shut down within a few months. The problem with arguing that war justifies disinformation (i.e., lies) is that we seem to be in a constant state of war nowadays, as was the case in Orwell's novel 1984. Whether it's a war on Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Serbia, or Panama, or Grenada, or terrorism, or drugs, the language of war is ubiquitous, supported by the news media, who coin names for their version of the current war. Despite the euphemistic change in title from the Department of War to the Department of Defense after World War II, the United States can't seem to go very long without declaring war on someone or something. And with war rhetoric comes the attempt to justify lies, not only to enemies but to allies as well. Instead of constantly seeking something to be against, why not instead seek something to be for? Instead of a war on terrorism, how about an initiative to uphold human rights worldwide? Instead of a war on poverty, how about a program to meet the basic needs of the world's poor? Initiatives and programs are positive terms, and they can be supported with truthful words, not disinformation. There are few valid reasons for an individual to lie, and there are few valid reasons for nations to lie. As Christians, let us hold both ourselves and our governments to the highest standards possible.

John 6:35, 41-51

In T. H. White's story, The Once and Future King, "The Wart" grew up in the shadow of his older brother, Sir Kay. His father, Sir Ector loved him as much as Kay, but it was clear to all that Kay had the makings of nobility. Someday he would be a powerful knight in England; perhaps he would even rule. One day Sir Kay was participating in a tournament, and the Wart was serving as his squire. However, in the midst of all the excitement, the Wart left the boarding house without Sir Kay's sword, and since the house was now locked, he was unable to retrieve it before the tournament. Desperate to find his brother a sword, he remembered seeing an old sword stuck in a stone in a churchyard, so he went and pulled it out of the stone and brought it to Sir Kay to use in the tournament. When people heard what he had done, they were amazed, and they soon recognized him as king of all England. The boy, who was called Wart because it rhymed with his real name Art, was crowned King Arthur. His friends and neighbors had all thought that they knew his background and family. He was the son of Sir Ector, after all--everyone knew that. It turned out, though, that everyone was wrong. He was in fact the son of Uther Pendragon, the former king of England. The gospel of John contains no birth narratives, but it clearly presupposes that the readers are aware of the miraculous nature of Jesus' birth. Thus, when the people say of Jesus, "Isn't this the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?" there is an implicit irony: in fact, the people do not know the truth about Jesus' background, so their rejection of him on these grounds is spurious (see also the following chapter). Jesus goes on to confound his audience further by claiming to be the bread of life, offering the people something more substantial than the manna their ancestors ate in the wilderness. Physical food is essential for existence, but spiritual food is necessary for life. Animals eat, but they don't think abstractly, nor do they experience the divine, at least not in the way that it is possible for humans to do. We can feed our bodies, and we can exercise our minds, but we also need to get in touch with our spiritual natures. There is a great longing today for spirituality, as people seek the divine in a wide variety of ways. Some look for God in the stars, others through meditation. Some look for God in nature, and others seek God in religion. The truth is that God can be found in all these places, and others, because God is everywhere. Jesus says, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." There is an allusion here to the mystery of the Eucharist, but in a larger sense, Jesus is saying that to commune with him is to gain eternal life, that is, life in the presence of God, beginning in the here and now. Although we may encounter God in nature or through meditation, we can be sure that we will encounter God through Jesus Christ. In this sense, Jesus is truly the bread of life, a sure access to the divine that is available to all who would believe, even today.