Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Transparent Authority

For the past week, the Daily Office readings have had me locked into the narrative of Saul's acsendancy to the kingship over Judah and Israel. Today is the tale of the Ammonite invasion and the account of one of the grosser stories of the violent exploits of humans in the Hebrew Scriptures. Nahash the Ammonite goes up against Jabesh-Gilead and demands their submission. When the people of Jabesh-Gilead sue for peace and offer a treaty, Nahash places as the first condition that everyone's right eye be gouged out. Basically making clear his intention that there will be blood and humiliation for the people of Jabesh-Gilead, he also makes sure that there will be no outcome to this negotiation that does not result in violence being perpetrated on the people of Israel.

Of course, in Hollywoodland, this is a classic and well-worked conundrum. All of the great, old and mythic westerns hash this chestnut out again and again. The bad guy rolls into town. The townfolk don't have quite the gumption and power to resist being oppressed. The news travels out to the place where the hero (a peaceful, yet powerfully built man of quiet means) is working at a simple lifestyle-he doesn't even wear the ubiquitous Colt peacemaker at his hip! He could be a farmer (like Saul in this scripture narrative), following the plow. He could be a blacksmith (of even temper and creative bent). He might be an idealist (like Jimmy Stewart in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"). It almost doesn't matter. He is a man of peace goaded into war-rage by the evil he was formed at the beginning of creation to resist and overcome, right?

In the end, thought, what matters is that good people are being oppressed and the hero can't help but respond. But remember, this is the Old Testament. When Saul hears of the outrage Nahash wants to inflict on the good people of God, he takes the oxen he was using to plow his fields and chops them up into bits which are then sent around the kingdoms with the message, "Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!" Gruesome. And now Saul doesn't have oxen to pull his plow. He is now to be the hero/king/general/leader who will go up and defend the people of God against Nahash, and all other comers. There is no looking back, turning back or wondering what might have been. The battle is joined.

Just like in Hollywood, Saul and the rough riders of Israel are triumphant and the Ammonites are routed. The school marms and shopkeepers of Jabesh-Gilead are saved. Saul is celebrated, so much so that the people reaffirm their commitment and covenant with Saul as king before God with prayers, sacrifices and vows exchanged. Glorious.

Still, it causes me some pause. What is it about human beings that we brace against leaders until they are able to prove their mettle to us in some form of battle? I get the fact that no one can truly lead from a place of ignorance or out of a lack of experience. A leader has to be able to either demonstrate skill to get us through a novel moment of crisis, or be able to say, "I have been here before...and this is what we need to do to deal with this issue." But, again, why does it have to be such a violent example, and why do we need to work that story over and over again? Is it the satisfaction of seeing the "bad guy" get it in the end? Sure. I love that moment in scripture, Western or what-have-you when the bad guy gets it, and when the good guys win. It shows me that at least for a moment what I see as necessary for things to be right in this world is achievable.

But, too often, in real life the good guys aren't really that effective or successful. Bad guys win sometimes...and the real "victory of our God" tends to be something like a faint glimmer on the horizon and like the dawn can take a LONG time to manifest if you are waiting for it. The late night watches abound in "false dawns" before the sun actually rises and I have spent more than a few sleepless nights waiting, waiting and waiting for light that just seems to linger forever in a frustrating grey twilight of "almost, but not yet."

That is where the psalms come into play. Today, there were a quick succession of shorter psalms from 120-123. My favorite, Ps. 121, recounts how God is faithful to us, even in the midst of a dark night of the soul. God is the constant presence, and no matter how long it takes, there will eventually be justice. Mind you, we are still on the hook to take action, to respond to the call as agents of the Christ to labor for justice and peace...but we are counseled to take the long view. God is the one who is present in times of need. God does the watching over...both of our going out and our coming in. God is in the here and now, as well as in the later moments when dreams of judgment are realized.

The good news is that while the Hollywood writers are on the hook to provide a denouement before the credits roll, our God promises that the credits will NOT roll until all comes to fullness and completion in God's own good time. Our job is to release the expectation that somehow, like those Hollywood stars, we have any creative control. That control resides solely with the creator. It isn't enough to strap on the six-shooters and ride off on ol' Paint to fight the bad men...it is also on us to realize that the fight-the true fight-for justice and peace will never be won by us through might of arms or strength of will. The battle is, was and always will be God's. We are to play a role only in that we are willing to contribute to being one part of a greater undertaking--redemption of ALL in Christ. That means embracing the bad guys in love while at the same time resisting their evil.

So much more complicated! Would that I could just do what Saul did. I could allow myself to be consumed by righteous anger and go charging up that hill like Teddy Roosevelt. But, to what end? Is God served when violence is repaid with violence? Not in Christ...but neither are we off the hook. We have a vital part to play in THIS narrative. God give us the strength to see it. I know I am wondering what that next call will look like. I just hope it isn't "the Saul Factor." Yikes.

So, I celebrate the closure that Saul is able to offer to the people of Jabesh-Gilead; but I am also mindful that real leadership is not counted in the racking up of victories, like kills on the side of an ace pilot's plane during time of war. Real victories are those moments when we rise up to do what God asks of us today, in this moment...to mop the floor or change the lightbulb, to weed the garden or clean out the gutters, to balance the budget or prepare the sermon

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