Friday, December 03, 2010

Reflection on second week of Advent

"For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. And the government will rest on his shoulders. These will be his royal titles: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His ever expanding, peaceful government will never end. He will rule forever for the throne of his ancestor David. The passionate commitment of the Lord Almighty will guarantee this!"

The above verse from Isaiah 9 is probably the most regularly read and cited verse relating to the season in the Christian Calendar that we call Advent. As we enter the second week of Advent, I'd like to share some thoughts and images that I've been meditating upon during this season. This meditation began several weeks ago while reading The Presence of the Kingdom, by Jacques Ellul, and has continued and deepened for me with the coming of Advent. For quite some time I've been meditating upon Moses' words to the Israelites, who are preparing to enter the promised land, in Deuteronomy 30. In that chapter Moses says, "Now listen! Today I am giving you a choice between prosperity and disaster, between life and death," and then further, "Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, that you and your descendants might live!" The more that I've reflected on this exchange (and its broader context), the more that I've come to the conviction that it is an absolutely central text in my own understanding of the story of scripture. Why is it so central? It is central because I think it states with the utmost clarity that God wants his people to live and prosper, that the desire to share the gift of life is the fundamental choice God made in creating the cosmos.

Now, it is obvious to anyone even moderately familiar with Deuteronomy that these words of Moses are closely followed by the story of the conquest in Joshua. That is a story filled with death and mayhem for the people of Canaan; this is a fact that I cannot and will not dispute here. It seems clear that God wanted these people to die. What do we do with that part of the story? It raises many legitimate and troubling questions; the kind of questions that have been picked up with vigor in our own time by people such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others. The only hint at an answer that I can provide here is that, fortunately, the story does not end here. Indeed, it seems to me that if we follow the story through Isaiah and into the the life of Jesus and the early church, God's choice of life for all people, his desire to see everyone prosper, and to eschew the violence and division of the world (the status quo), becomes quite abundantly clear. Isaiah 9 has always been an important stop on this journey, a clear and visible marker that the one whom God has chosen as saviour is the one whose reign will be characterized by an ever expanding "peaceful government."

So, why am I raising these issues and what do they have to do with the images I've provided? I raise them because they raise for me two primary questions as we enter into the advent season: Where is my life in view of the promised end of all things evoked in Isaiah 9? & Where is the life of the world at present? The first picture is of St. Basil's Cathedral in the central square of Moscow, Russia. When I was a kid growing up in the 1980's, St. Basil's was (at least for me) the preeminent symbol of the Kremlin, the "enemy," the Soviet government that had thousands of ICBM's aimed at my country. I never thought, or was never prompted to think, about what "that" building actually was, or what narrative lie in back of it (a mixed narrative, to be sure-apparently built to symbolize the conquests of Ivan the Terrible!). Hence, it has been one of the most disturbing-but at the same time liberating-revelations of my adult life to learn not only that St. Basil's is supposed to be a place devoted to the worship of the "Prince of Peace," but to see Russian thinkers, artists and activists become some of the most influential people in my own thought and development as a Christian and a human being (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Berdyaev). I knew nothing of this "other" Russia when I was a kid. Why? There are undoubtedly many reasons. But what I'm meditating on this season is the incredible damage done by the language of "enemy," how the use of this term severely warps our ability to see others, makes us slaves to whatever ideology is dominant at the moment and prevents us from being able to realize any kind of lasting peace. The "Russia" that has become such a vital part of my intellectual and spiritual life as an adult was hidden as a child behind the fear, anxiety and paranoia evoked by the language of "enemy."

The second image will probably be familiar to some of you. It is a picture of an Atari video game called, "Missile Command," that was big (along with movies like "Red Dawn") when I was a kid. The game was based upon the "Star Wars (or SDI-Strategic Defense Initiative)" technologies that the Reagan adminstration was attempting to develop in the 1980's to defend the US against ICBM attack (the same types of military technologies that have continued to garner hundreds of billions of our tax-dollars to this day). The object of the game was simple: intercept the ICBM's before they obliterate your cities. Some of you will also remember "Space Invaders," which is the game where you have to eliminate the "aliens" before they get you. All these games and movies give us the abiding impression that the world is fundamentally a hostile place where we must use cunning and lethal force to defend ourselves or else suffer the consequences. Now, I am certainly not going to blame these or any other games for creating the larger human ills that they merely symbolize (and perhaps reinforce). But when we are raised in the language of "enemy," using so much of our ingenuity & imagination to create video games and other media that exult these types of things, it is not hard to see why we live in an era where many of our best contemporary prophets, like Walter Brueggeman, say that the primary failure of the church in our time is a "failure of imagination." So, what is the true cause of the violence? In his book "The Powers That Be," Walter Wink describes what he (and others) call the "myth of redemptive violence", viz. the belief that the use of lethal force in "appropriate" situations-killing other people-"enemies"-is an effective way to bring about peace and resolve conflict. I agree with Wink that this is one of the great humans myths that never gets old and is appealed to in every age to justify the necessity (and nobility) of war and violence. Maybe that is what God had in mind with the conquest? Whatever the case, apropos of Isaiah 9, I've become even more convinced this Advent Season that there is only one true act of "redemptive violence" in human history. Jacques Ellul states it best:

"In the world everyone wants to be a wolf, and no one is called to play the part of a sheep. Yet the world cannot live without the living witness of sacrifice. That is why it is essential that Christians should be very careful not be be wolves in the spiritual sense-that is, people who try to dominate others. Christians must accept the domination of other people, and offer the daily sacrifice of their lives, which is united with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ."

The last image comes from a news story featured on CNN and most of the major media outlets yesterday. I saw the live CNN story where Ari Fleische enthusiastically stated that the Pentagon just announced that a new weapon (featured in the picture-just in time for Advent!) was being unveiled in Afghanistan that would make US troops "far more lethal and safer." The weapon is essentially a "smart grenade" launcher that through the use of laser targeting mechanisms and radio waves allows grenades to be programmed in real-time to blow up immediately after they pass over walls, around corners or above foxholes. This ensures that the "enemy" will no longer have many places to hide on the field of battle. Perhaps a helpful question for us would be this: Where are we going to hide all of these wonderful weapons we've made-at such enormous costs-when the "Prince of Peace" returns? From a worldy point of view it is easy to justify the need for such weapons and the necessity of putting some of our finest scientific minds to work on such projects. But as we think about the season of Advent, and reflect upon what the significance of Jesus' coming means, I think it is critically important for us to consider the damage that we're doing to ourselves with the language of "enemy," and the continued costs (with ever-rising rates of spiritual (dis)interest) that we're passing on to our children when we affirm the myths of the empires of this world. As you can see, I'm still in the process of assessing the costs from my own childhood.

Now anyone who knows me will know my own struggles with temper, frequent lack of emotional restraint and the interpersonal-violence that I do when I fail to listen to or respect the opinions and views of others. These are some of the personal forms of violence in my own life, and areas where I need the "Prince of Peace" to continue to shine his light. Please pray for me in these areas as we all pray for the world and the coming reign of peace forever.


KennyB said...

Great thoughts Billy.

Mind saying a few more words about, "Maybe that is what God had in mind with the conquest?"


billy said...

Thanks Kenny, good question about my question. Honestly, I think that question was on a continuum somwhere between sarcasm, being rhetorical in nature and ultimately being sincere and serious-the truth being that I simply don't know the answer, and I'm asking. You can see some of my additional thoughts in today's follow-up post. I suppose it is possible that God thought "clearing" the land was the first and necessary step to a much bigger and ultimately very different project-perhaps he was meeting the moment where it was? In that sense maybe this very ugly, terribly violent, "one-time" event could ultimately be viewed as "redemptive" insofar as it was intended to lead events in a much different, and ultimately better, future trajectory. I think that many people, with legitimate questions, would strongly object to this kind of interpretation. I also find it troubling. It is easy to see how such an interpretation could be viewed as a "slippery-slope" to humanity using such stories to legitimate genocide and murder, as in fact history is full of such examples, our own countries idea of "manifest destiny" and the related acts committed against slaves and native americans sounding eerily similar. I'm just not sure that there is ultimately any totally satisfactory answer to this question beyond wrestling with it and allowing our revulsion to it to turn back upon us and examine our own selves and our own convict us of the newer and "more promised" land revealed by Christ that we've failed to enter because we've left alive all of the garbage that separated us from one another and leads us to war. Let's keep talking and journeying together....