Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Gilboa or Ziklag?

Now the Philistines attacked Israel, forcing the Israelites to flee. Many were slaughtered on the slopes of Mount Gilboa.  The Philistines closed in on Saul and his sons, and they killed three of his sons—Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malkishua. (1 Sam 31:1-2)
If the Darwin Award had been awarded in the year 1010 bc, the grand prize would have had to go to Saul’s soldiers who died on Mount Gilboa, with Jonathan, son of King Saul of Israel, as the poster boy. We’re taught in Sunday school that Jonathan was a great man of faith—unlike his father Saul, who was obviously a son of Satan—and for much of his life that seems to be true. But I award him a Darwin for being, when it was most important, in the last place his spiritual acumen should have taken him.
Put another way, if his desire was to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Mt 6:33), and if the godly people of the land were his true heroes (Ps 16:3), he should not have followed Saul to Mount Gilboa.
Maybe he was there because he looked up to his father. Saul’s first act as king had been to be the leader in battle that Israel had called for. As leader he sacrificed his own property before asking anyone else to sacrifice theirs, and he led the charge against the Ammonites and so rescued the town of Jabesh (1 Sam 11:7-11). So far, he was the kind of father Jonathan could look up to. But not for long.
We first meet Jonathan when he leads a successful revolt against Philistine rule over his tribe’s allotted land (1 Sam 13:3). The good is soon undone, however, when the Philistines mount a response: Saul panics and offers a burnt sacrifice in direct violation of the Torah and the instructions of Samuel, God’s chosen leader (1 Sam 13:6-14). It is at this point that God first announces that Saul’s dynasty will end (13:13-14). If Jonathan did not hear Samuel speak with his own ears, without doubt someone else told him what Samuel had said. He certainly knew by the time he told David, “You are going to be the king of Israel, and I will be next to you” (1 Sam 23:17).
Soon after Samuel’s announcement, Jonathan raids another Philistine garrison, which triggers another battle in which Israel wins a Pyrrhic victory: Saul places a curse on anyone who eats anything before Saul the egomaniac is satisfied with the results of the battle. When the Lord shows Israel that they cannot continue to fight the Philistines because someone has sinned, Saul specifically names Jonathan as included under the curse: “I vow by the name of the LORD who rescued Israel that the sinner will surely die, even if it is my own son Jonathan!” (1 Sam 14:39). I suppose Jonathan could still have been looking up to his father even after that—Saul was treating people equally there, if nothing else—but I have to wonder why he stuck around.
We should notice here the parallel between this incident and the confrontation between Jacob and Laban at Mizpah, where Jacob pronounces a deadly curse on anyone who would have stolen Laban’s household idol. As it turned out, the culprit was Jacob’s beloved Rachel, and she did indeed die soon thereafter (Gen 31:32; 35:19). God made the curse come true. If Jonathan connected Rachel’s situation to his own, he shows no evidence of it: as already noted, later in the story he seems to assume he will live to see David become king (1 Sam 23:17).
Jonathan no doubt heard Samuel later tell Saul that God had already chosen Saul’s successor to the throne (1 Sam 15:28), and he acted on that knowledge by giving David his accoutrements as crown prince (18:4).
Yet no matter how murderous and ungodly Saul became, Jonathan refused to leave his side. He stayed after he learned that not only David’s but his own life was in danger from Saul (20:33). He watched his father slaughter the innocent priests of Nob (22:19) and no doubt heard that David had twice spared his father’s life when he could have easily killed him (24:11; 26:15). Even so, Saul was still single-mindedly pursuing David to the death.
Finally, he no doubt knew that his father went to visit the witch at En Dor before the battle on Mount Gilboa (28:7-25). He would have known of the hypocrisy of a man who had purged Israel of mediums, presumably by killing at least some of them (28:9), himself visiting a medium. He would have known that “the LORD [was refusing] to answer [Saul], either by dreams or by sacred lots or by the prophets” (28:6)—in short, the Lord was no longer with Saul. And he would have heard that at the séance the Lord through Samuel had promised to kill not only Saul but him as well the next day.
Yet that next day he goes out and fights the Philistines beside his father and is killed.
If indeed his first priority in life was to be second to David in David’s kingdom (23:17), why did he never join David in exile? Life was rough in that exile, of course: while Jonathan was being killed, David and his band were still recovering from the Amalek destruction of their homes in Ziklag. Before that they had wandered from Philistia to Moab and back again (21:10; 22:3-4; 27:2), always in fear of their lives. So things were rough for David, but Jonathan knew that God was with David and not with Saul. So why did he stay with Saul?
As I can come up with no good reason, I present the Darwin Award to Jonathan and Saul’s other soldiers.
The men who had taken Saul’s banner down from the castles of their hearts and were following David—or most of them, it seems—lived to tell about it. Those who—in obedience to some Old Testament version of Romans 13?—went to battle singing “his banner over me is Saul’s” didn’t. What’s really scary is that in suit-and-tie Sunday school terms Jonathan was a much better man than David’s general Joab, yet it was Joab who was out living in the cave with David.
If “wisdom is shown to be right by the lives of those who follow it” (Lk 7:35), who was wise, and who was otherwise?
My vast readership knows that I’m going to try to apply the folly of Jonathan and his men to US evangelicalism’s undying devotion to Uncle Sam, and I won’t disappoint you. “But Jonathan had supernatural revelation from Samuel,” I hear you say. “We don’t, so we can’t know for sure that Uncle Sam is evil, so we have to stick by him.”
OK, fair enough. My question is this: What means apart from special, supernatural revelation might God use to tell his people to withdraw their support from ungodly authority, ordained of God though it be? Today
Look at the plain brown wrapper evidence Jonathan had to work with: Saul was disobedient to God, lethally selfish in battle, guilty of shedding innocent blood, and lethally hypocritical. He was a moral and ethical failure. David was imperfect, but he was good enough that Jonathan could see through his own self-interest and acknowledge David as worthy of being king.
How obedient is Uncle Sam to God? God is not welcome in Uncle Sam’s education system, he’s becoming less welcome in the military, he’s a laughingstock in popular culture, and that list goes on. The leveling of Fallujah and the blithe acceptance of “collateral damage” shows his bloodthirstiness to be no better than Saul’s. His War on Drugs, run by at least three presidents and God knows how many legislators who (and whose children) have used illegal substances but not gone to jail for it, is proof of his hypocrisy. Finally, I would also consider Uncle Sam’s defeats—none of the original military objectives are currently in effect—in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan as evidence that the Lord isn’t in Uncle Sam’s war efforts. (And no, I don’t necessarily believe he always has been heretofore.)
So you, my conservative evangelical brethren, are welcome to continue to trudge up Mount Gilboa with Uncle Sam. Go ahead and vote for Pinocchio, whether the long-eared or the long-nosed variety, and defend him against people like me.
US Bipartisanship
(Carlo Collodi, RIP. Photo credit)
As for me and my house, the Amelekites may burn our shacks in Ziklag to the ground, but I think I’m better off in exile with David’s greater Son, even if it means working alongside the Joabs—atheists, non-evagelical Christians, and people of no particular religious commitment—who are leading the revolt against Uncle Sam’s godlessness, while the evangelical Jonathans proudly send their taxes and children to aid and abet it.
Moses “thought it was better to suffer for the sake of the Messiah than to own the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the great reward that God would give him.” May God grant me the grace (and you the desire) to do likewise.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Faint Praise for Plessy v. Ferguson

“It was brutal.”
My seatmate was a black woman whose sophisticated demeanor had impressed me for weeks years ago as we would wait on the platform for our train home, and I have never regretted eventually getting up the courage to start a conversation with her. An activities manager for a corporation well known in medical circles, she grew up in rural Virginia, in a cinder-block house with a wood stove and no running water, and attended segregated schools for all but one year before college. While I grew up believing that segregation was bad and integration was good and that was that, it was not the years in segregated schools that she was calling brutal, but her year in seventh grade in an integrated school.
When I asked for stories about the brutality of that year, she told of constant comments from the white kids and being shot with water pistols one day on the school bus, and never having a white girl partner with her in PE. To a sixty-something white man it didn’t sound too bad, but I’m open to the idea that to a twelve-year-old black girl it would have been enough to make school literally dreadful.
The best part of that year was when she won the spelling bee. (Maybe it happened more than once.) I picture a twelve-year-old black girl standing in front of the class, hair in pigtails to her shoulders, a simple button-down dress with a small frill on the collar, and a look of simple satisfaction—not gloating, not anger, not contempt—on her face. I’m probably nowhere close to the truth, but I like that picture. What she did tell me was that it seemed to her that the white kids on her team in the bee would rather have had their team lose than to have it win because a black kid was the last standing. Even I can agree that that must have hurt.
The chorus to my favorite Bob Dylan song is, “Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.” When I was “older,” I was taught that Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decision that legitimized (i.e., assured government entities who practiced it immunity from prosecution for) racial segregation, was horrible. “Separate but equal” is never equal, I was told. And being young and wanting to pave a road with good intentions, I never questioned the unstated assumption that equal meant good and just. But now that I’m “younger,” I’d like to question the assumption.
Let’s look at the justice question first. My seatmate was part of a small minority of blacks in her community. If we peg the black community at 25% of the population and 25% of the kids in the school district, and if we further assume that the white families had an average of twice the income of the black families, and if the property taxes that funded the schools were assessed at a flat rate according to property value, we have the whites enrolling 75% of the students but paying 86% of the costs. (If the whites earned more than twice as much as the blacks or the taxes were assessed on a “progressive” scale, the discrepancy is larger.) To the degree that whites saw themselves as different from blacks—and let’s limit the discussion to only the sorts of differences that whites see between themselves and other whites, perhaps in areas like remedial reading—is it not understandable and reasonable that they would want separate schools for their children?
I’m not defending the system. I don’t know how to balance “What do those who never owned slaves owe those who were never slaves?” with the measurable after-effects of slavery andJim Crow. I’m simply saying that just as well-meaning Christians today pave the road to hell with well-intended collateral damage in the Muslim world and votes for school levies and other practices that violate the Golden Rule at home, we should consider the possibility that the Christians who defended Jim Crow truly wanted to “do justice and love mercy.” That the system they built was unjust is beyond question, but as is the case today, there was a kernel of justice in there somewhere that may have dulled otherwise well-honed taste buds.

One place they went wrong was in their belief in the legitimacy of the state. It was the state that had made slavery possible, including but not limited to the Father of Our Country his very se’f signing the Fugitive Slave Law that necessitated the extension of the Underground Railroad from the Mason-Dixon Line and Ohio River to the border with Canada. It was the state that then made Jim Crow possible. Political corruption in the Bible belt being no phenomenon new to our day, we can assume that even in the community imagined earlier, the black families would have paid 14% or more of the actual taxes gathered and gotten less than 14% of the budget. What apart from a belief in the legitimacy of the state would lead anyone to believe that the blacks should have been paying their school taxes to the white power structure to begin with? My friend’s victory in the integrated spelling bee—this was after six years in a “separate but unequal” school, don’t forget—is all the evidence I need to state with confidence that the blacks left to their own could have educated their children adequately in a system of their own device, without “help” from the white establishment.
That spelling bee was won during Martin Luther King’s heyday. Since then, Dr. King’s dream of integration—or at least the government-enforced means by which he expected to see it come to fruition—has come to pass. I have yet to hear anyone say that black people as a whole (as though one can rationally put all black people in the same box) are better off as a result. Some are better off, of course, but I suspect those are mostly people who crossed racial lines stompin’ at the Savoy or participating in some other meritocracy or, like my seatmate, simply learned to serve their neighbors in voluntary interactions. The most visible symbol of state-enforced integration, for one, did not fare well, and the story can be repeated many times.
If our first responsibility after loving God is to love our neighbors as ourselves, to treat them the way we would want them to treat us, and to respect their bodies, property, reputations, and trust, that pretty much limits our use of lethal force against those not proven to be murderers and thieves to when our lives are in immediate danger (Ex 22:2). No matter how well intentioned they may be, state-enforced slavery, apartheid, and integration are all out of bounds. Absent the state, all three are also absent.
In such a society not everyone would choose to cross racial or other cultural lines. Sometimes those who would like to cross lines will find themselves unwelcome. As Christians, of course, we have been commanded to cross the ultimate cultural line, to engage people who see no reason to embrace our Lord, and we are rarely welcome. I would suggest, however, that whether our intended audience is jihadists, Klansmen, or the person in the next seat, we are more likely to succeed in our mission if we come with a “tell me your story” than with the state’s clunky armor (1 Sam 17:38-39).

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Prayer Request from a Friend

A respected friend wrote the other day asking prayer for her son, a law enforcement officer. One of his colleagues was killed in the barracks, and her son has been pulled away from his regular duties and assigned to a search for the suspect. I should add that “his regular duties” do not seem to include (much) sitting beside the road waiting for opportunities to extract money from people who have not done any actual harm.
Searching for a murderer—and while my fondness for people with uniforms and guns is in general limited, I would call this incident murder until evidence otherwise surfaces—is a legitimate activity, and given my respect for the mother and a therefore well-grounded assumption that the LEO will carry out his duties with a Christian sense of responsibility, I consider it a privilege to pray for the young man.
But I am also praying that this incident will cause that young man to ask some needed questions.
I am reminded of the leveling years ago of Fallujah, Iraq, after the corpses of four mercenary soldiers were “desecrated.” That the men had been killed was not the issue, nor how they had been killed. It was the treatment of the dead skin and bones that prompted a response worthy of a herd of enraged elephants in a village in India, or the army of a beast like Xerxes or Genghis Khan.
Let’s assume the officer in charge of the Fallujah operation consulted the Urim and Thummim and got God’s go-ahead to destroy the city and kill those who resisted. Would he have done the same thing if the mistreated corpses had belonged to aid workers from Samaritan’s Purse? How about if they had belonged to ten-year-old Iraqi girls? To ask is to answer, right?
If the murder victim had been—oh, I don’t know, how about yours truly?—would the officer currently in charge of the search for the cop killer have pulled my friend’s son off his duties to look for the perp?
The death and destruction in Fallujah had nothing to do with concern over life created in the image of God. It was one armed gang taking revenge on another for what amounts to an insult. I suspect, the same is true, mutatis mutandis, in my friend’s son’s case. You can say all you want that “the death of one we pay to protect us is an attack against us all,” but given that the dead man was more likely to fine me for doing something he does every day in his tax-funded car with the lights and sirens off than to save me from true miscreants—and given court rulings that the law enforcement caste is under no obligation to protect us—I don’t believe it.
So yes, I hope they find the murderer. I hope some enterprising journalist visits him in his cell to find out his side of the story, even if there’s nothing there but murder. I hope my friend’s son comports himself in the process in a way that gives him an opportunity to share how God has worked in his life. But I also hope he at least asks himself whether he is protecting a society in which “all men are created equal”—or, more importantly, all men are created in the image of God, rebels against God though we all be—or if he is part of a caste system that in the name of protecting its subjects truly exists for its own benefit.