Saturday Night Theologian
25 July 2010

Hosea 1:2-10

I've heard it said that history is written by the victors. While that's often the case, it's not universally true. For example, Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee tells the story of the American West from a Native American perspective, and it is written by a Native American. Josephus, a Jew, wrote The Jewish Wars in the aftermath of the Roman defeat of the Jews in the late first century. Southerners, who lost the U.S. Civil War, began writing histories of that war and of the Reconstruction period soon after the latter ended in 1877, and their interpretations carried the day, at least in the South, for about a hundred years. In particular, I remember learning in school that the Reconstruction period in the South was a time of chaos, injustice, and confusion for the poor white southerners, who had to deal with recalcitrant and ungrateful former slaves, Northern carpetbaggers, and Southern scalawags. Only by dint of tremendous effort, Southern historians said, did true patriots regain control of the South after the War between the States (or the War of Northern Aggression, as it was sometimes called). A fairly extreme example of this portrayal of history appears in the 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation. Most modern historians reject this extremely negative portrayal of Reconstruction, and especially the relatively positive portrayal of groups like the Ku Klux Klan in some of these histories, but competing visions of Reconstruction persist to this day. Today's reading from Hosea features a negative reading of an episode from Israelite history, the revolt and accession to the throne of Jehu. The prophet condemns the slaughter instigated by Jehu: "Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel." This portrayal of Jehu's revolt contrasts with the mostly positive portrayal recorded in 2 Kings 9-10. The Deuteronomistic Historian, who wrote this version of the history of Israel and Judah, praises Jehu for removing Joram, Ahab's son, from the throne of Israel, Ahaziah, Ahab's nephew (?) and son-in-law, from the throne of Judah, and for killing Queen Jezebel and seventy sons of Ahab. From his perspective, Jehu was cleaning house, getting rid of a wicked ruling family. Hosea saw things quite differently. He decried the excessive violence of Jehu, seeing it as a violation of God's will. From the perspective of almost three thousand years in the future, I have to agree with Hosea's reading of history. The Kings account glorifies bloodshed in a way that I find offensive and contrary to my own understanding of God's will and God's way. Furthermore, I find the glorification of war in general to be offensive and, as a Christian, contrary to the teachings of Jesus. That's why I find it so dissettling to hear people proclaim their allegiance to Christ on the one hand and their commitment to seemingly endless war and violence on the other. Whether it's the war in Vietnam, or Granada, or Panama, or Kosovo, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, wars--even if instigated in the name of righting a wrong, such as the U.S. attempt to capture or kill Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan following 9/11--always degenerate into cycles of violence which catches up innocent noncombatants, women and children, and so-called militants in the same net. War is a blunt instrument that should rarely--probably never--be used, and certainly not in any scenario other than self-defense, yet it is often the first choice among those who see themselves as patriots. Too few people realize or care, before it's too late, that the costs of war are not just the suffering and death of innocent civilians in the war de jure, but also the soldiers on both sides of the conflict, the region that has to handle the refugees, the families of those on both sides killed and maimed, and the poor who suffer from lack of services because the resources of the nation are geared toward violence rather than meeting needs in a context of peace. How long will it be before the U.S. is punished for the blood of Baghdad and Al Anbar, Kabul and Kandahar, just as Israel was punished for the blood of Jezreel?

Psalm 85 (first published 25 July 2004)

In the world of Star Trek, the Klingons are portrayed as the most warlike group of people in the Federation. Modeled on the ancient city-state of Sparta, Klingons live for war and hope to die in battle. When the Klingon Empire is at peace, it hardly seems to know what to do with itself, and its people seem lost. When most people imagine an ideal political situation, it is not the Spartans or the Klingons that come to mind. Most people imagine a realm characterized by peace, prosperity, and justice, one like that described in today's reading from the Psalms. The psalm is set in a time when God seems to be withholding blessing from the people. How long will this period of disfavor last? asks the psalmist. God has punished and restored the people in the past; is this yet another swing of the undulating pendulum of favor and judgment? The psalmist trusts that God will again restore the fortunes of those who are faithful, and he describes what he believes God's reign will be like. "Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; justice and peace will kiss." In the psalmist's idealized world, God reigns over a faithful people, and God's rule is characterized by steadfast love, faithfulness, justice, and peace. There is no mention here of military might or victory over one's enemies. I'm particularly taken by the expression "justice and peace will kiss." Justice and peace go hand in hand, both in the ideal kingdom and in any nation that truly wants what is best for its people. The Spartan/Klingon model of peace by military might is an illusion, or better, a delusion. Many, perhaps most, of the conflicts in the world today are fueled by injustice, even when they also have ethnic or religious facets as well. People of one ethnic or religious group have superior social status to another group, so rebellion ensues. The lower classes see no hope of advancing beyond their current status by ordinary means, so war breaks out. Masses of people living in slums look at the riches of their rulers and see injustice, so they resort to terrorism to try to right the wrongs. Peace at the point of a sword is oppression. A system that guarantees one social group privilege is structural injustice. An army that consistently brutalizes an already subjugated people is state-sponsored terrorism. One of the most frightening aspects of our modern world is the fact that many people--privileged and oppressed alike--see nothing wrong with a more or less constant state of war. The U.S. spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year on the machinery of war (quite a bit less on the personnel, but that's a matter for another time), and its leaders, Democrat and Republican alike, seem surprised that it doesn't result in peace! At the same time, Osama bin Laden and his ilk plot the murders of hundreds of innocent people, and they can't seem to understand why each bomb only makes their opponents more determined! Both group-sponsored and state-sponsored terrorism are unjust and an affront to the cause of God, which is the cause of peace. It is time for the people of God to stand up and say to all who support violence, "Enough!" Only when justice and peace kiss will we be on our way to the ideal world we all dream about.

Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19) (first published 25 July 2004)

When a forlorn Frenchwoman appears at the door of a house in a small village in nineteenth century Denmark, the women of the house take her in and offer her a position as housekeeper and cook. After several years, her fortunes change, and the Frenchwoman prepares a sumptuous feast for her employers and for the entire religious community that lives in the village. In the process, the people learn that life is something to be enjoyed with friends and family, and Christianity is not incompatible with happiness. The religious community portrayed in Babette's Feast is not unlike many religious communities today. In their efforts to remain unstained by the world, people sometimes go too far, equating joy with sin and following rules that seem designed more for punishment than sanctification. The church at Colossae had members who didn't understand the nature of the freedom that Christ offers his followers. They were in danger of being "taken captive" by philosophy, human tradition, and the "elemental spirits of the universe." Some Greek philosophers of the day taught that everything in the universe was made up of fire, air, water, and earth. These fundamental elements also symbolized esoteric truths about the powers that ruled the universe. Only by living one's life according to certain rules and principles could one hope to remain in harmony with the ruling powers. The author contrasts his view of Christianity with this one. If Christ contains the whole fullness of deity in himself, then there is no reason to fear elemental spirits. Neither the Jewish custom of circumcision nor Greek demands that certain food and drink be avoided have any hold over Christians. Christianity is a religion that should be characterized by joy, openness, and interaction with the world, while at the same time its followers are called on to avoid unprofitable excess in all areas of life. It's easy to feel moral superiority to people who don't live their lives according to the same rules that you do, but following God is not about rules. Following God is not a matter of eating and drinking, it's not a matter of what words you say or avoid saying, and it's not a matter of how frequently you attend church or engage in prayer. Following God should be something that people do out of joy, not out of fear or obligation. From time to time we all need to examine our lives to make sure that we are not harming ourselves--or our witness--by our tendency toward self-limitation.

Luke 11:1-13 (first published 25 July 2004)

Prayer is a funny thing. We use it to praise God, and we use it to curse our enemies. We ask God to intervene on behalf of those in need, and we ask God for favors that will benefit us at others' expense. We thank God for our blessings, but we rarely ask for wisdom in using those blessings for the sake of God's kingdom, since we already have other plans. Maybe prayer isn't what's funny after all: it's the way we pray that's funny. Abraham Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address, noted the irony of both Union and Confederate partisans praying to the same God and asking for victory in battle. During World War I, many German and British soldiers along the Western front celebrated Christmas Day, 1914, together in No Man's Land, singing carols and praying. Today we pray for the success of our soldiers fighting in Iraq. Undoubtedly the terrorists who hijacked the planes on September 11 prayed for success the morning of their attack. It is obvious that God can't grant all these prayers, since so many are mutually exclusive. It is equally obvious that many of them should never have been prayed. We need to hear again the words of Jesus, who gave his disciples a model to use when praying. The version of the Lord's Prayer in Luke is shorter than that found in Matthew, but the essentials are the same. Jesus told his disciples to praise God, to pray for God's kingdom to be established (which I view as equivalent to the Matthean expansion that asks that God's will be accomplished), to meet the immediate needs of the disciples, to forgive the disciples' sins, and to protect the disciples from times of trial. I want to focus on points two and three, establishing God's kingdom and meeting immediate human needs. The problem with many of our prayers today is that we focus so much on our wants that we forget to ask God to meet our needs, much less to establish God's kingdom. Furthermore, how often do we consider that if God grants our wishes, God's greater purposes might be thwarted? This applies on both an individual and a global scale. If God gives me that promotion at work, will someone whose family is in greater need suffer? If God gives our soldiers in Iraq victory, what are the long-term repercussions for justice and peace in the region? It's hard not to pray for the things we really, really want, and I don't think it's necessarily wrong to do so. However, our focus should clearly be on what we need, and even more on what the world as a whole needs, that is, that God's kingdom be established. If we will concentrate on praying for those two items, maybe we'll realize that having our basic needs met and seeing God's kingdom established will become what we really, really want.