My great aunt Josephine was a true American. A woman of courage, she stood up against FDR's imprisonment of innocent US citizens of Japanese heritage, offering the victims help as she could and encouraging others to join her. After the war, she opened a camp that attempted to bring all races and economic strata together for two or three weeks at a time of good fun and learning to live together in peace and to take care of the natural world. My parents did their best to teach me those values, and so gave me the opportunity to attend that camp during the summer of 1964. Unfortunately, I was worse than immature, and so I was at the center of one incident that particularly went against what Aunt Jo was trying to accomplish.
After lunch and an hour or so of Aunt Jo reading fascinating stories to us, we would go to the swimming pool, essentially a small pond with a cement bottom. The two changing rooms, each a large box with walls of 1 x 10 boards, were a few steps from the water, with the doors facing the pool. The unwritten rule was that everyone got in, then we changed, and when everyone was reasonably dressed, those who were finished could leave.
One afternoon, after I had doffed my suit and was standing close to the door, a black kid swung the door open. As I remember, someone told him to shut it, which he did, but then he opened it again. I decided it was time to act, and I chose as my weapon a word I'd heard the neighbor kids use for as long as I could remember but the definition of which I had only recently learned: "Shut the door, you stupid nigger!"
I don't remember what happened next—I know we never came to blows—but at some point I was just standing there yelling "Nigger! Nigger!" and eventually somebody sat me down and explained Aunt Jo's vision to me and how I was going against it. But I wasn't listening; all I cared about was that I had been wronged.
If you had asked me at the time if black people were inferior to whites, I would have said no. If you had asked me if I was the kind of person who used that word at all, I would have said no. (I'm sure my enjoyment of an afternoon sharing a cozy chair reading comic books with a second-grade classmate would not have been diminished had I known at the time that her father was black.) But I had been attacked, and I considered any response fair.
Most US citizens felt that they had been attacked on 9/11. I know I did, and as I've said elsewhere, I was out for blood with the enthusiasm that comes only to cowards who know they won't be called on to shed that blood or be at any risk in the process. In the years since, I have come to see my sin and attempt to turn from it. But when I share my new views with fellow Christians, the response is always some variant of "we were attacked."
A recent Sunday school lesson lined some more ducks up for me.
Simeon and Levi, sons of the biblical patriarch Jacob, had in some sense been attacked when Shechem raped their sister Dinah, and they were furious. They doubtless knew that because they were outnumbered by the Shechemites, let alone the latter's allies, they had to act decisively. Their response was preemptive war preceded by deception that was as brilliant as it was dastardly; I see both at work in US Christian war fervor.
I'll begin with the two brothers' deception because the similarity between it and its current counterpart is harder to see than that of their violence and today's.
The brothers proposed that the Shechemites be circumcised, knowing that no man in Shechem would be able to defend himself while in the consequent pain. The Shechemites thought they were getting a good deal because now they would be able to live in peace with the Israelites, trading and intermarrying, but they were wrong. And as if the murder weren't bad enough, the inclusion of circumcision in the ruse was even worse: circumcision was the sign of God's covenant with Abraham. The brothers sold the idea by telling the Shechemites how they could look the part of Abraham's offspring without actually being Israelites on the inside (Ro 2:28).
The contemporary counterpart is symbolized by the purple thumbs on the voters in occupied Iraq, our media's proof that Uncle Sam has indeed brought democracy to the Muslim world. Do those purple thumbs mean that Iraqis are free to trade with us in the US, to give their children in marriage? Is this even what most US citizens want? Can the Iraqis really vote their preferences? Or does Uncle Sam control a power structure that limits the field to candidates who will promote his interests?
Is democracy, even as practiced here in the US, such a good thing? I know people in the US who would say that there are no candidates who represent them in any way; certainly only one person currently in elected office comes close to representing me. I would suggest that Uncle Sam's promotion of democracy in the Mideast is just as cynical as—and thousands of time deadlier than—Simeon's and Levi's circumcision ruse: he just wants to respond to "Look at all the bloodshed" with "Yeah, but look at the purple thumbs."
The parallel between Simeon's and Levi's preemptive war and ours is so plain I need only mention it. One Israelite woman was raped; in revenge they killed dozens, if not hundreds of men. Three thousand Americans died on 9/11; hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan have died because of our response, many times more than three thousand as "collateral damage," the rest the direct result of US military action.
Simeon and Levi may have considered the dead "collateral damage"—they were just going to hell anyway, right?—but Jacob didn't think so: "You have brought trouble on me by making me a stench to the Canaanites and Perizzites, the people living in this land. We are few in number, and if they join forces against me and attack me, I and my household will be destroyed" (Gn 34:25). Though Jacob does nothing to those sons right away, he condemns them to landlessness when he blesses his children: "Simeon and Levi are brothers—their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel." Levi is given no portion in the land apart from the levitical cities, and Simeon is absorbed into Judah, essentially disappearing after the battle of Hormah (Jg 1:17).
I can't help but wonder if Jesus has similar words for those who claim to be his people in the US today.
The Law of Moses tells us what Jacob and his sons should have done: "If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins" (Ex 22:16-17). "If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl's father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives" (Deut 22:28-29). (I could be wrong, but I assume that the father can refuse to give the girl in marriage in either case; on the basis of victim's rights, I fail to see the justice in allowing a woman to refuse to marry a seducer but forcing her to marry a rapist.)
So Jacob could have had Shechem pay a bride-price and not given Dinah to him. He could have given him the opportunity to prove that he was indeed penitent, a convert, and, if Dinah was willing to take him on, allow the marriage. There was no justification for bloodshed.
(I realize that Jacob lived before Moses, but he worshiped the same God. If he had not known what to do, he (or his sons) could have prayed to the God he had met twice in person and who had spoken to his mother before he was born. God knew of the law before it was given and would surely have spoken to him one way or another in his time of need.)
US Christians also had another course of action open to them that did not require deception or disproportional violence: letters of marque and reprisal, by which Congress could have authorized a band of private citizens to use whatever means they could muster using their own resources to track down the perpetrator. Instead, the Bride of Christ has agreed to Uncle Sam spending trillions of dollars and killing thousands of innocent people—and almost nine years after 9/11, the alleged perpetrator is still at large.
Despite the stain put on it by Simeon and Levi, the family of Israel became the means through which God chose to show his glory and bring his Son Jesus Christ into the world. But I wonder if Simeon and Levi haven't spent the last six thousand years regretting their actions. The church of Jesus Christ will eventually sacrifice and serve her way to world domination, but if I have spent forty-six years regretting my words to Bobby Bullock, how long will today's "patriotic" US Christians have to regret their support for Uncle Sam's wars?