Preached from the pulpit of Good Shepherd Church, November 16, 2014, by The Rev. Dr. L. William Countryman
Texts: Proper 28A: Judges 4; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
Have mercy upon us, O God, have mercy,*
for we have had more than enough of contempt,
Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich,*
and of the derision of the proud. (The Saint Helena Psalter)
I’m starting with these psalm verses today for a reason: it’s easier than starting with the story of Deborah and Barak, of Sisera and Jael. You may have been a bit shocked to be hearing that story at all in church; and, to tell the truth, the lectionary didn’t want us to hear all of it. It only assigned the first few verses—maybe because they contain one of the few references to women’s leadership in ancient Israel. But those verses don’t make much sense on their own, and I decided we’d better have the whole story. If you found it distressing, be thankful that we didn’t read the next chapter—the other version of the story, couched in epic poetry—which is even bloodier.
Now, why would I want us to hear this chapter at all? Because it raises an issue for us that we know is important and don’t like to deal with: the question of God and violence. It draws out powerful emotions on all sides.
I don’t suppose there’s ever been a war fought in American history where people—politicians, church people, pretty much the whole population—didn’t invoke the name of God to justify it. On the other hand, many of us shudder at the way this has been done in our own lifetimes, and some of us, I would guess, are convinced that all violence is wrong. Either way, we’re probably uncomfortable with the idea of God actually telling his prophetess Deborah to start a war. Are there really circumstances where God would do that?
Well, those Psalm verses give us a partial answer. Many of you will have heard more than once that one of the pervasive themes of scripture is God’s concern for the poor and oppressed— for the sort of people who can truly and honestly say, “We have had more than enough of contempt, too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.” It’s a theme that sweeps through the Bible from beginning to end.
The Israelite tribespeople whom we meet in this story would have fit that description. They were farmers and herders, scattered across the countryside wherever they found little pockets of usable land and springs of water. They didn’t have any central government to bring them together. They didn’t have much in the way of weapons. They were easy pickings for the king of Hazor, with his chariots and horses and standing army.
The only thing that gave these oppressed people the courage to stand up to their oppressors was the word of their great prophetess, declaring that this was God’s will and that God would sustain them. When Barak expressed his qualms—he knew the odds, after all—she gave him a sign, something so unlikely that it would prove that God was behind it all. When Israel won the battle, the triumph would be sealed not by big men capable of wielding heavy swords and pikes and clubs, but by a woman. A woman, Deborah, began the process and a woman, Jael, would bring it to its end. Barak was left with no room to claim the victory for himself.
From our distance, we may condemn the bloodshed. But if we had been there, we would have been thanking God—and not, I imagine, feeling any great pity for our defeated oppressors, living or dead. Perhaps we can even imagine ourselves into a few contemporary situations that seem quite similar. Can you imagine yourself as a Kurd or as an Arab Shi’ite faced by the army of the self-styled Islamic State? Violence—even extreme violence—would be a fact of your world. Probably you would thank God to see a bit of it working in your favor for a change.
Now, we live in an age when non-violent forms of resistance have achieved some great victories—from the independence of India to civil rights reforms in the United States to the fall of the Berlin Wall. But they don’t work equally well in every time and place. They work only where the oppressor is not quite prepared to kill everybody outright. I wouldn’t recommend trying them against the Islamic State.
Still, we have a problem, don’t we? The same Bible that tells us this story of God as fomenting war also tells us that God is above all the creator, friend, and lover of this whole world. Faithful people have tried, again and again over the ages, to reconcile the two. One way has been to think of God as a kind of jealous lover: loving and warm as long as we behave, otherwise harsh and vindictive. The author of this morning’s story offered us that explanation. The passage began this way:
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. So the Lord sold them into the hand King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. . .
That motif recurs over and over again in the Book of Judges. But it doesn’t help us much with our problem. God first punishes Israel with oppression and then punishes their oppressors for oppressing them? It doesn’t seem quite right.
Another tack is to say that the issue isn’t really jealousy, but justice. God loves us, but punishes our sins and errors. First God punished Israel by using the arrogance of their neighbors. Then God punished the same neighbors for their arrogance and cruelty using the agency of Israel. Borrowing Alice’s dictum at the Caucus Race (and giving it a nasty twist): All have been wicked and all shall be punished. But the God of justice is also the God of love, with a longer term goal of calling us away from our wrongdoing and back into communion with our one true Lover. It’s just that, first, God has to get through the process of dealing out justice—or find a way around it—before getting on with the business of love.
It’s not much better, is it? Which of God’s attributes is going to come into action at any given moment? None of us is innocent of oppressing others, sometimes in ways we don’t even recognize. Perhaps all of us at least see ourselves, one way or another, as being oppressed by others, even if in small ways. During the current 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I’ve been reminded again and again of how nineteenth-century slaveholders railed against the oppression of the Union Army even as they continued to oppress their African-American slaves. Which will it be for us: justice or love? Which will it be for anybody?
We have to reject this sort of dualism. God does not have a split personality. God’s justice is not independent of God’s love; in fact, it’s an expression of God’s love. God’s love is given to all of us alike. God loves every human being in the world ardently and insistently. If God expresses a special love for the poor, that is a way of telling every one of us that, even at our weakest and most unprepossessing, we are still and always God’s beloved. Never does a human being fall below the threshold of God’s love. It’s almost as if God’s love undergoes a kind concentration as it reaches further down and finds us in our most difficult circumstances.
This doesn’t mean that God will intervene for us at every turn and make things nice for us. That’s not how love behaves. It doesn’t take over the life of the beloved. It doesn’t infantilize the beloved. It cleaves to us and suffers with us and rejoices with us.
And given this post-Edenic world in which we live—this world where we are privileged (or condemned or both) to experience good and evil and the making of choices—this is often going to be a messy job for God. There is no way for God to be with us in this world without getting dirty hands.
What does it mean for God to become involved in the death of oppressors for the sake of the oppressed? It means that even if we should find ourselves in straits more desperate then we ever imagined, God will not abandon us. Even at the cost of dirtying God’s hands. Oppressors, beware of this kind of love!
In a world that actually grasped that truth, there would be no more oppressors and oppressed. We would imitate God’s love for us in our love of one another. There would be no more violence and bloodshed. And what would remain of the story of Deborah and Barak, of Sisera and Jael, in that heavenly world? It would still be the reminder not of any passion on God’s part for war or death, but of God’s singular and enduring love for us, even in our weakest, poorest state.