Friday, December 10, 2010

More thoughts on last post

I got an e-mail response the other day to my last post asking an important question. The respondent was asking me for more detailed thoughts on my views of the "conquest" narrative in Joshua in the light of the (obvious) conflict it creates with the teachings of Jesus-and very significant portions of the rest of scripture(something I purposely acknowledged in my post). There are many different opinions and approaches that people take in their views on this matter. Personally, I'm not sure that there can ever be any definitive answer to the overall question-the why question (aside from declaring the book non-canonical-an approach that seems to me to be quite close to procrustean reasoning). My purpose in referencing the "conquest" narrative was to openly acknowledge (and confess) it while at the same time asserting that the "hermeneutical trajectory" of scripture, and indeed God's actual work in the world through the life of Jesus, goes in exactly the opposite direction. It seems to me that whatever ambiguity-in terms of the "Divine" character-exists in regard to the Joshua narrative (and other "violent" OT narratives) is more than surpassed in the theological clarity and actual practice of the life of Jesus (and in the core eschatological vision of the Prophets). I know that this does not completely resolve or erase the issue. But I think it does serve to highlight the stark contrast between where that narrative enters the story and where God chooses to complete the story. In my opinion, among other important things, this gives the very ugly narrative in Joshua a kind of "reflexive" quality wherein we are called, perhaps, to look at the nature of ourselves-to see ourselves in that very narrative. What do I mean?

I've been unambiguous about my belief that the overall teaching of the Torah, Prophets, Gospels and Epistles, make it quite clear that God's vision for the future of his creation is to see the end of all forms of violence and all the manifold ways that nations and people use violence and systemic forms of oppression (often codified and expressed in the form of law) to divide, separate and subjugate others (including "creation")-principally for the self-interested gain of some person, group of persons or nation. I think that Jesus' teaching, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, is very clear on these points; and his actions were even more resolute. It is in this sense that the "conquest narrative" (and related violence in scripture) takes on a "reflexive" quality for me, viz. the "object" of our examination in this instance, the "conquest," refers or bends back upon us, who we are, and prompts the difficult question, "Are we really, truly, any different in the way that we live and act in the world?" In order to judge that story and have any type of moral indignation about it, don't we first have to be substantially different from it? When Jesus says, "First get rid of the log from your own eye; then perhaps you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend's eye,", I think he is pointing to the critical importance of being able to do this kind of reflexive self-examination. And this becomes much more difficult when Jesus teaches that even having a harsh word to say to your brother is essentially tantamount to murder. When we look at the "conquest" narrative (and all of the hideous violence that's falsely been predicated upon such grounds) it is easy to feel justified in conducting a "moral inventory" of God. Is that our job? Perhaps that is part of our job (or maybe part of the Job in us!). Whatever the case, I'm confident that the narrative and the God behind it can bear the weight of reflection. But for me this is the more important question: who's going to do our "moral inventory?"

After the Holocaust of WWII, with the formation of the UN, the world was introduced to the phrase "Never Again!" Since the entrance of that phrase into the world vocabulary-and the shared commitment that it was meant to symbolize-some experts estimate that there have been over three-dozen cases of organized mass-murder, with almost everyone agreeing that there have been at least 7 instances of full-blown genocide. So, what is my point? I believe that in his teaching Jesus is trying to direct us to the fundamental truth that all violent catastrophe and injury in the world (whether to persons or eco-systems) begins and grows from the smallest instances of neglect, abuse, withholding of affection or nurture, dereliction of duty to others for the sake of self-interest (or national interest),etc. When all of these sins of omission and commission become "aggregated" at national or international levels they become enormous crimes against person or planet that make us feel helpless and overwhelmed. What can we do to stop such things? What is the point in trying when the crimes are so enormous and when we didn't commit them in the first place? I think Jesus is trying to tell us that he wants us to be responsible for the whole plot, to follow his example and quit trying to avoid responsibility for the "sins of the whole world" that he gladly accepted-and not just doing this in the abstract sense of "life after death," but in the joy and the misery of the "here and now." But we can't do that unless we're willing to take the hard look inside and stop covering over our own fundamental refusal to "bear the sins of the world" by highlighting or using as an excuse the "sins" of someone else-or the painful lingering questions about our own God.

I know that I've opened a lot of big questions and have only begun to sketch some basic thoughts. I sincerely appreciate the comments and e-mails and want to continue the discussion. I wanted to share one final thought that was brought to mind by some of the questions raised by the last post. This is something from Soren Kierkegaard that I love and thought was apropos in this instance:

What is the difference between criticism of a text and radical
accountability to it?
“Imagine a country. A royal command is issued to all of the office-bearers and subjects, in short, to the whole population. A remarkable change comes over them all: they all become interpreters, the office-bearers become authors, every blessed day there comes out an interpretation more learned than the last, more acute, more elegant, more profound, more ingenious, more wonderful, more charming, and more wonderfully charming. Criticism which ought to survey the whole can hardly attain survey of this prodigious literature, indeed criticism itself has become a literature so prolix that it is impossible to attain a survey of the criticism. Everything became interpretation-but no one read the royal command with a view to acting in accordance with it. And it was not only that everything became interpretation, but at the same time the point of view for determining what seriousness is was altered, and to be busy about interpretation became real seriousness. Suppose that this king was not a human king-for though a human king would understand well enough that they were making a fool of him by giving the affair this turn, yet as a human king he is dependent, especially when he encounters the united front of office-bearers and subjects, and so he would be compelled to put the best face on a bad game, to let it seem as if all this were a matter of course, so that the most elegant interpreter would be rewarded by elevation to the peerage, the most acute would be knighted, etc.-Suppose that this king was almighty, one therefore who is not put to embarrassment though all the office-bearers and all the subjects play him false. What do you suppose this almighty king would think about such a thing? Surely he would say, “The fact that they do not comply with the commandment, even that I might forgive; moreover, if they united in a petition that I might have patience with them, or perhaps relieve them entirely of this commandment which seemed to them too hard-that I could forgive them. But this I cannot forgive, that they entirely alter the point of view for determining what seriousness is.”
For Self-Examination, pp.58-59 (SV XVII 69-73)

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.