Saturday Night Theologian
31 July 2005

Genesis 32:22-31

The idea that life involves great struggles is widespread in human thought and history. Voltaire said, "My life is a struggle." Hitler's famous autobiography and statement of values was entitled "My Struggle." Nietzsche believed that the driving force behind all of life's activities is the struggle for power. The song "The Impossible Dream" speaks of a person who strives "with his last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable star." In Genesis 32 we encounter a strange story about a human wrestling with a divine being, struggling for victory. Details in the story suggest that it is based on an earlier story that involved a man struggling with and prevailing over a night-demon, who was forced to grant the man an extra measure of power in order to flee before daylight sapped the demon's strength. In its present form, however, it describes a nocturnal wrestling match between Jacob and an angel (to use a later term), who embodies the power of God. As a result of Jacob's tenacity, the angel blesses him and changes his name to Israel, which in the context of the story is interpreted to mean "one who prevails with God." Somewhat scandalized by this interpretation, the Latin Vulgate says rather that Jacob "was strong" with God and prevailed over humans, but the Hebrew is unambiguous. For what are we struggling today? Will we prevail in our struggles? It is important to note that when Jacob wrested a blessing from God, it was something that God wanted to give Jacob all along. If we want to prevail in our struggles, we had better make sure that we are struggling for something God wants to give us. Hitler's struggle for pan-Germanic dominance and subjugation of the Jews failed, in large part because it was misguided, based on selfishness and hatred, betraying a fundamental misunderstanding of God's will for the human race. Similar struggles to achieve dominance over others and to discriminate against people are also doomed to fail in the long run. On the other hand, struggles for basic human rights, freedom, and equality for all are struggles that we must continue, for if we are persistent, we will succeed.

Psalm 17:1-7, 15

Palestinians launch missiles against Israeli targets, and Israelis send gunships to blast apart Palestinian homes and shops. The U.S. and Britain bomb Iraq, and terrorists strike back against American soldiers and against British subways in London. Violence begets violence, whether on an individual scale or an international scale. Those who believe that violence can be quelled by more violence only delude themselves. The IRA this week renounced its use of violence, stating that progress toward the group's goal of a united Ireland will only be made through political and other nonviolent means. Skeptics may doubt their sincerity, but at least they're saying the right thing. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of many other organizations and nations, which continue to tout violence as a legitimate means of achieving their goals. The psalmist tells God, "I have avoided the ways of the violent," and he asks for God's deliverance from his enemies. Why do people become adversaries? There are many possible reasons, including a wrong suffered or imagined, prejudice, and greed. Adversaries become enemies when violence is added to the mix. In the absence of violence, wrongs can be rectified and people can learn tolerance. When we add violence, however, enmity becomes entrenched or even institutionalized. People like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and of course Jesus have taught that violence solves nothing and is anathema to God. Those who know better in today's world give lip service to peace but make war on their enemies, and their enemies in turn make war on them. Caught in the middle are innocent civilians--men, women, and children--and even soldiers who want no part of the continued violence. Sgt. Kevin Benderman is facing a court-martial for refusing to participate in further violence against Iraq. In his defense, he argues that after spending eight months on active duty in Iraq, he realized that what he was participating in was wrong, and he had to take a stand. The army, of course, takes a dim view of soldiers who refuse to fight, so it is charging him with desertion. The army's position seems logical. After all, how can you fight a war without soldiers? However, the position is logical only if you accept the premise that making war--either in general or against a specific enemy--is permissible. Benderman has decided for himself that it is not. The psalmist, who dissociated himself from acts of violence, would agree. So would Gandhi, King, and Jesus. Do Christians?

Romans 9:1-5

When Rabbi Michael Lerner was a little boy, he attended a private Christian school in his community. He participated in Christmas plays with the other children and drew the nativity scenes assigned by his teachers (although an occasional enlightened teacher allowed him to draw Hanukkah scenes instead). It came as a great shock to him one day, then, when a fellow classmate hit him in the face and called him a "Christ-killer." Anti-Semitism is nothing new, of course. Its presence among Christians can be traced back through the refusal of Western nations to accept Jewish refugees who were fleeing to Holocaust in Nazi-controlled Europe; to the Nazi-inspired Kristalnacht in 1938; to pogroms against the Jews in Russia and elsewhere; to Martin Luther's treatise "The Jews and Their Lies"; to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella; to medieval laws restricting where Jews could live and forcing them to wear identifying patches on their clothing; to massacres of Jews during the First Crusade; to the Code of Justinian suppressing Jewish worship and study; to the anti-Semitic writings of John Chrysostom, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Origen, and other Christian leaders; to the early second-century Epistle of Barnabas; and perhaps even to the gospels themselves. What a contrast, then, to read of Paul's love for his fellow Jews, in today's reading from Romans: "I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh." The Jews are people blessed by God, Paul says, and nothing can take that away. The fact that Paul's understanding of Judaism had changed to encompass Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah did not mean that Paul rejected the Jews. On the contrary, it was his burning desire to see them accept Jesus as Messiah just as he had done. Paul's love for the Jews echoes Hosea's love for the nation of Israel. Whereas Amos prophesied against the Northern Kingdom with a certain degree of relish, Hosea spoke with a heart full of pain, for he, too, was an Israelite from the north. Why Christianity as a whole discarded Paul's attitude of love for the Jews for an attitude of hatred may be explained by the church becoming predominantly Gentile, by the ascendancy of Christianity as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, or by fear and prejudice. It should be noted, however, that some Christians did stand against anti-Jewish attitudes and practices throughout history, to a greater or lesser extent, and in the wake of the Second World War, almost all Christians today give at least lip service to a condemnation of anti-Semitism. What about the dispensationalist position, which strongly supports the nation of Israel as a key player in the drama of the end times that their theology envisions? While one would certainly welcome their apparently (and often sincerely) positive attitude toward Jews in today's world, we must remember that their picture of the future includes a massive conversion of Jews to Christianity. It is fair to say that dispensationalist theology (though certainly not every dispensationalist as an individual) values Jews primarily for the role they play in the eschatological events surrounding the Great Tribulation, not for their contributions to society, their values, or their beliefs. Progressive Christians, of whatever eschatological bent, welcome the more positive attitude toward the Jews that the last half-century has brought, but which is still far from universal among Christians. Christianity has a special relationship with Judaism: we read the Jewish scripture, we honor Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs, and we follow a Jewish Messiah. Christians owe a debt of gratitude to Jews, past and present, and it is our sacred duty to oppose and renounce anti-Semitism in all its forms.

Matthew 14:13-21

It had been a grueling few days. Jesus' disciples were tired, and they were excited when Jesus suggested that they take the boat across the Sea of Galilee to a secluded spot where they could rest. When they arrived, they were chagrined to find that a huge crowd of people had followed Jesus to that very place, walking several miles along the shore of the lake. Seeing the crowd seemed to revive Jesus, however, and he began healing all those who were sick. As evening approached, his disciples urged him to send the crowd away. "You've done all you can do," they said. "Send the people into the surrounding villages so that they can get something to eat." Jesus' reply startled them. "You feed them," he replied. "Where will we get the resources to feed so many people? There are thousands of them!" the disciples asked. What transpired then is the only miracle included in all four gospels, the Feeding of the Five Thousand. It's easy to hear this story and say to ourselves, "If only I could perform miracles! Then I could really make a difference in the world today." The fact is that we can perform miracles. Maybe we can't literally multiply loaves and fish, but we can definitely do what Jesus did: heal the sick and feed the hungry. Some people argue that people are poor because they're lazy, or because they choose to be poor, but no one chooses to miss a meal, much less starve to death. Yet millions of people around the world go to bed hungry every night. No one chooses to be sick, yet millions of people suffer from preventable or easily treatable diseases. Why? In both cases, because not enough people care. Just this week Congress passed CAFTA, the Central America Free Trade Agreement. One of the provisions of this law that purportedly helps the average citizen of Central America or the Dominican Republic is a guarantee that big pharmaceutical companies can extend their patents on drugs throughout the region, thus denying less expensive, generic drugs to those who are sick but can't afford them. The agreement will also help commercial farmers, while family farms, especially in rural areas of Central America, will suffer. How can Christians imitate Jesus today? We can oppose future legislation like CAFTA (i.e., the FTAA). We can state clearly and powerfully that Christianity opposes the exploitation of the poor and the sick. We can support groups like Pastors for Peace who attempt to deliver food and medicine to the poor in Cuba. We can give money to non-profit organizations like Oxfam, Bread for the World, and Doctors without Borders that are on the front lines of meeting the needs of people around the world. Finally, we can elect people to represent us who reflect our values and who recognize that access to affordable health care and food are basic human rights, not privileges of the wealthy.