Tag Archives: Violence

How the World Works

Then Pul king of Assyria invaded the land, and Menahem gave him a thousand talents of silver to gain his support and strengthen his own hold on the kingdom. Menahem exacted this money from Israel. Every wealthy person had to contribute fifty shekels of silver to be given to the king of Assyria. So the king of Assyria withdrew and stayed in the land no longer.
2 Kings 15:19-20 (NIV)

When I was just out of high school, I took a manual labor job that I knew would only last four months until I went to college. I chose not to join the union, as was my right because I knew it was just four months. I was bullied, coerced, and threatened until I quit. When I complained I received a shrug of the shoulders. “This is how the world works.”

Another job I had as a young man was for a private company working in a government building. By federal law, there was no smoking anywhere in the building, yet two ladies sat at their desks every day smoking like chimneys as I passed by. When I asked about it, my boss told me that they were legacy employees protected by the local political machine that had been in power for decades. They could do whatever they wanted. They were untouchable. “This is how the world works.”

In another department within that same building was another legacy employee who refused to help me when I came in with a records request. I was a bit confused when she told me, “I’m not working today. Go to another window.” When I told my boss and co-workers what had happened I got the same familiar shrug. “This is how the world works.”

I worked for several different churches in different denominations when I was a young man. I learned very quickly that there were the official boards and consistories that were set up to govern the church, and then there were individuals (typically wealthy, prominent, legacy, and generational members) who really called the shots. By this time, I should have learned: “This is how the world works.”

Today’s chapter contains an overview of five successive kings of the northern Kingdom of Israel. Four of them were assassinated by the person who then claimed the throne. One of them, Shallum, assassinated his predecessor and sat on the throne for one month before he, himself, was assassinated in the same manner by a man named Menahem. Whoever has the guts to assassinate the king gets the throne. “This is how the world works.”

Menahem happened to be on the throne when the army of Assyria came raiding. Menahem was a big fish in a small pond compared to the ascendant Assyrian Empire. Menahem didn’t have the army to withstand a takeover, so he had one choice. He extracted money from his wealthy citizens and paid the King of Assyria. It was really no different than the mafia or a local gang extracting money from neighborhood businesses for “protection.” It was just done on a larger scale. “This is how the world works.”

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same. With the dawn of the technological age, my generation has arguably experienced greater change than any other generation in history. And yet, what has not changed is the human condition. The culture wars being waged online are simply a reboot of tribal warfare. Throughout COVID lockdowns there were endless examples of those in power (on both sides of the political aisle) who made rules for constituents, then flagrantly violated those same rules.

“This is how the world works.”

Into this world, Jesus came to exemplify and prescribe an alternative. Before beginning His ministry Jesus was approached by the Evil One whom Jesus referred to as “The Prince of this World.” The Prince of this World offered Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” if only Jesus would bow to him. It was quite an offer. Jesus could then change the world as He wished in a top-down power grab. It would surprise no one. That’s how the world works.

Jesus declined the offer.

Instead, Jesus asked me and all of His other followers to live, think, act, speak, and relate to others “not as the world works” but as the Kingdom of God works. It’s one of the things that drew me to Jesus and continues to draw me in.

I learned how the world works.

I don’t want to live that way.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Cardiac Self-Examination

Cardiac Self-Examination (CaD 2 Ki 10) Wayfarer

Yet Jehu was not careful to keep the law of the Lord, the God of Israel, with all his heart.
2 Kings 10:31a (NIV)

Much of human history is a violent, bloody affair. Pull back from the minutiae and look at it from a distance and the vast majority of it is the story of tribes and empires violently competing for power, wealth, and dominance, then clinging to that power against the next tribe or empire seeking to ascend to power in humanity’s never-ending game of King of the Mountain.

The story of Jehu the usurper in yesterday’s and today’s chapters is a microcosm of this violent game of tribes and empires. He’s a fascinating character because he was “The Son of Nobody” who was at the right place at the right time to seize a rare opportunity to ascend the political system of his tribe and to become King of the Mountain.

Being a military officer, Jehu had a front-row seat to witness and participate in the violent oppression with which Ahab and Jezebel had ruled the nation. Who knows how many atrocities Jehu had committed or overseen himself at their behest. Jehu had been told by the prophet to “destroy the house of Ahab” which certainly meant ensuring there were no male heirs left to claim the throne. Jehu, however, goes even further. He kills the King of Judah, who was Ahab and Jezebel’s son-in-law. He kills their friends, their cronies, their officials, and their known associates. He kills off all of the prophets and priests of Ahab and Jezebel’s patron pagan god, Baal, and turns the temple of Baal into a community latrine. The story is a perfect example of Jesus’ warning to Peter and His followers that violence begets violence. Ahab and Jezebel violently lived and ruled by the sword, and they violently died by it.

Jehu’s vengeance against the house of Ahab and Jezebel was beyond complete. Jehu’s devotion to God wasn’t. Jehu destroyed the worship of Ahab and Jezebel’s patron god out of vengeance against Ahab and Jezebel, not out of devotion to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. His heart wasn’t devoted to God, it was devoted to vengeance and seizing the opportunity to grab power for himself and his family. As I meditate on the story of Jehu, I consider him to be an example of one who does the right thing (ridding the nation of an evil regime) for the wrong reasons (personal gain).

So, in the quiet, that leaves me ending this week in introspection. Is there a disconnect between my heart and my actions? Do I, like Jehu, do the right things for self-centered reasons? Jehu and David were both soldiers and warriors. They were both violent men who spilled a lot of blood. God used both of them in the grand scheme of the Great Story. The difference between the two lies in their hearts. David was called “a man after God’s own heart” while Jehu’s heart seems to have been after Jehu’s own self-interest. How much of my heart is truly about God’s desires and how much is just Tom’s self-interest?

As I contemplated these questions, the Spirit reminded me of Proverbs 21:2:

A person may think their own ways are right, but the Lord weighs the heart.

I head into this weekend with a cardiac self-examination.

I want to be a David, not a Jehu (or a Yahoo).

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Habakkuk’s Cry

Habakkuk's Cry (CaD Hab 1) Wayfarer

Why do you make me look at injustice?
    Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted.

Habakkuk 1:3-4 (NIV)

I have known many fellow followers of Jesus over the years who would confess to never willingly cracking open the Old Testament unless under the social pressure of being asked to do so during a Sunday worship service. Even if they said they “occasionally” read from the Old Testament on their own, I’m sure that reading would be confined to the books of Psalms and Proverbs. Okay, maybe a few chapters of Genesis or one of the short stories like Ruth or Esther. If I were to ask them, “When was the last time you read the prophet Habakkuk?” they would probably just laugh at me. I’d wager that hearing a pastor say, “Let’s all open to the book of Habakkuk!” is maybe a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

We live in a world in which things “trend” on social media for minutes before being buried by another “trend.” Current events likewise dominate media and social media for a day or two tops before media and social media is on to the next hot topic in search of clicks and likes.

So what could an ancient Hebrew prophet have to say in 600 B.C. that is in any way relevant to my world today?

Let me walk through the verses I pasted at the top of this post:

Why [God] do you make me look at injustice?
    Why [God] do you tolerate wrongdoing?

Like mules leaving almost 50 dead immigrants rotting in the back of a tractor trailer?

Like drug cartels flooding the streets with opioids killing people in record numbers and never being held accountable?

“Destruction and violence are before me;

Like mass shooters opening fire in schools, churches, and malls?

Like demonstrations that torch entire neighborhoods of minority-owned businesses and end with dead bodies lying in the street?

“there is strife, and conflict abounds

Like individuals breaking off relationships with friends and family because they disagree on issues?

Like name calling, insults, and threats calling for death, murder, and assassination on social media?

Like political division between factions who refuse to compromise?

Therefore the law is paralyzed,

Like 400 law enforcement personnel who stood outside a classroom as children were being shot?

Like the headline I just read in this morning’s Wall Street Journal: “Who Would Want to Be a Police Officer in Seattle?”

and justice never prevails

Like the fact that not one of Jeffery Epstein’s high-profile customers has been named or indicted for raping underage girls?

Like political corruption that gets ignored and swept under the rug for the “greater good” of keeping a political party of choice in power?

The prophet Habakkuk lived in a period of political corruption, crime, violence, war, and social upheaval under a corrupt king and a nefarious ruling class. He pens his poetic dialogue with the Almighty and opens with a line that aptly described the questions of my own soul as I daily read the headlines:

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?

It felt pretty relevant to me in the quiet as I read the chapter this morning. Habakkuk is giving voice to questions and sentiments that are echoed throughout history and will always resonate in a fallen world that is the domain of the “Prince of this World,” in which evil is present, and worldly kingdoms and institutions hold sway.

It is easy to feel as if God is both silent and absent.

Habakkuk’s short, poetic dialogue with God has a simple outline:

Question one: Why are you silent and will not act against injustice?

God’s answer: Just wait. I’m going to raise up the Babylonians to bring about the justice that I’ve been announcing through you and other prophets like your peer Jeremiah for some time now. I’ve been patiently listening for people to listen and repent. That’s not happening, so get ready.

Question two: Serious?!? Why would you use the evil Babylonians?!?

Tomorrow’s chapter is God’s answer to this second question.

In the quiet this morning, I found myself identifying with Habakkuk’s questions. In the middle of writing this post, I went downstairs to have breakfast with Wendy and we perused the headlines. Habakkuk’s lines kept resonating in my head and heart as I read.

God’s response also echoed. Within the Great Story, faith is defined as “the assurance of what we hope for, the evidence of that which we can’t see.” That includes the reality that God appears to be silent, and it seems like God is not doing anything, but I have limited, finite human senses and knowledge. So, my heart cries out like Habakkuk.

Having just finished the book of Revelations, I know that God has promised to bring divine justice to the earth one day and deal with evil and the fruits of evil once-and-for-all. Until then, my prayerful cries of “How long, oh Lord?” rise as incense in heaven’s Throne Room along with your cries, and everyone else’s cries.

When will God make good on His promised judgment?

I don’t know.

I have faith that He will.

Until then, I’ll keep crying out along with brother Habakkuk.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Prophetic Pondering

Prophetic Pondering (CaD Rev 11) Wayfarer

The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over [the two dead prophets] and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.
Revelation 11:10 (NIV)

I have been a follower of Jesus for just over 40 years, a period of time which is used in the Great Story as the number of years in a generation. So, I have spent time over the past couple of years pondering the changes I’ve observed in our society and our culture in one generation. In some ways, the changes seem startling to me.

A generation ago, I watched as Christian fundamentalists with groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition sought to force their religious doctrines on society through political power. What I observed in those days was that a judeo-christian world view was foundational in society around me. Virtually ever kid I knew grew up going to church of some kind. It was just what you did.

A generation later, I find it ironic to observe what I would consider woke fundamentalists who are seeking to force their doctrinal world-view on society through political power. Major institutions of media, business, and academia are offering full support. Meanwhile, my own local gathering of Jesus’ disciples has grown in the last couple of decades, not because new followers are joining the ranks but because so many other churches are dying and closing their doors. Churches are being burned and attacked, social media posts call for violence against Christians.

These are things that I would have never have believed would happen in one generation, just 40 years ago.

In today’s chapter, the interlude between the sixth and seventh “trumpet judgments” continues. Two prophets, or “witnesses” are raised up. They echo the ancient prophet Elijah whose prayers shut-off the rains and brought fire down from the heavens.

It’s important to remember that the picture John’s visions create is an Earth in which there are a mere 144,000 followers of God who are sealed and protected through this time of tribulation. Where are all the followers of Jesus? John’s Revelation does not seem to address this, though the letters of the apostles speak of a “rapture” of God’s people in which they are suddenly and unexpectedly snatched up to heaven in the twinkling of an eye. This leaves the rest of the Earth’s inhabitants who are described as unrepentantly anti-God. Therefore, when the two prophets are killed, the world celebrates their deaths and gloats over their bodies. People throw parties to feast the end of God’s messengers.

In the quiet this morning, I once again find myself pondering the changes I’ve observed in one generation. I could not fathom the anger, hatred, and calls for violence that I witness on both ends of the socio-political spectrum. Though, given the gross failings of institutional churches that I touched on in yesterday’s post, I can certainly empathize with those who were victimized and are crying out in anger.

There are mornings on this chapter-a-day journey when I feel as if I am left with more questions than answers; Mornings when I am more perplexed than inspired. I’ve come to believe that this is not a bad thing. The Twelve who followed Jesus in the flesh for three years were still confused and scratching their heads the night before He was crucified and the day He rose from the dead. Why should I be any different? Along my journey I’ve found that it is often the long stretches of pondering good questions that ultimately lead to new depths of spiritual understanding.

So, two thoughts I continue to ponder as I enter my day today:

First, it would be easy for me to over-dramatize the changes I’ve witnessed in a generation and conclude that the end-times are near. I don’t know that. The pendulum of socio-political thought swings back and forth sending individuals on either side of the spectrum into doomsday thoughts and predictions. What I have observed in the last forty years helps me to appreciate how the events and anti-God attitudes in John’s vision could, indeed, be possible, but that doesn’t equate to thinking they are probable in the near turn.

Second, the pendulum of social, cultural, political and religious thought does often swing back and forth. Some would argue that it is currently doing so. The social and political upheaval of the 60s ushered in a period of rebellion, violence, sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. The 70s then experienced a “Jesus People” movement when many people found themselves aimless and empty, searching for spiritual answers. I consider it possible that a generation of young children who are being asked to question fundamental biological truths about themselves (when they don’t even have the vocabulary or cognitive ability to process it) may very well find themselves confused about their identity and longing for a strong spiritual foothold to help them make sense out of life. This might even lead to a spiritual revival.

I’m posting this much later than norma this morning because I’ve been pondering how best to conclude. I’m still not sure, so I’m just going to leave it here, continuing to ponder.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Series of Unfortunate Events

Series of Unfortunate Events (CaD Jud 21) Wayfarer

The men of Israel had taken an oath at Mizpah: “Not one of us will give his daughter in marriage to a Benjamite.”
Judges 21:1 (NIV)

There was a period of time in our daughter’s childhood when her favorite series of youth fiction was Lemony Snicket which always carried the tag line: A series of unfortunate events.

That tagline “a series of unfortunate events” popped into my mind as I sat in the quiet this morning pondering not only the tumultuous events that are unpacked by the author of Judges in his three-chapter epilogue but also the tumultuous events that we’ve been living through in the past two years. Looking at the headlines and the horizon, I would say that we’re not out of the woods

Today’s chapter is the final chapter of the book of Judges and the third and final chapter in a saga that began with a single Levite traveler traveling home with his wife and servant. One rather isolated local incident blows up into a national tragedy. Emotions boil over and reason gives way. The people become a mob and violence ensues. Tribal instincts perpetuate the violence. The human desire for justice turns into a cycle of vengeance.

As the teacher of Ecclesiastes famously observed, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

For the ancient Hebrews, the series of unfortunate events are intertwined with a hodge-podge of cultural decisions that only fueled the perpetuation of the unfortunate events. The Hebrew tribes had mingled their worship of Yahweh as prescribed in the Law of Moses with the religious customs of local gods and cultural mores of the region. High on the bloodlust of vengeance, eleven tribes swear an oath not to give any of their daughters into marriage with the tribe of Benjamin.

As often happens with mob violence, it is in the tragic aftermath that “cooler heads prevail” and corporate regret rises. The eleven tribes, however, have placed themselves square in the middle of a cultural dilemma. They can’t give their daughters in marriage to the men of Benjamin without breaking their oath which was an unforgivable act in the culture of that day. Yet, if they don’t find a way for the leftover men of Benjamin to find wives and procreate, the tribe will be wiped out. So, they devise a scheme to help the remnant of men from Benjamin to kidnap Canaanite virgins who were taking part in an annual religious festival. This exemplifies an ancient Near East tradition that holds sway in international relationships to this day:

Me against my brother.
My brother and I against our neighbor.
My neighbor and I against a stranger.

It is quite common for modern readers to balk at the violence and vengeance in this ancient story, but that’s exactly what the author of the book of Judges wanted his readers to feel. In his context, he wanted his contemporary readers to say: “This is awful. Isn’t it so much better to have a king who will provide justice and stability?”

This brings me back to our modern-day series of unfortunate events and a parallel desire for justice and stability. As a follower of Jesus, I am led to a very important and salient contradiction.

Human instinct is for strong human leadership to ensure justice, stability, and safety with top-down authoritarian power.

Jesus taught His followers to change the world with a grass-roots movement in which individual believers transform other individuals with interpersonal Love that changes lives from the bottom up.

Every example from history in which these two paradigms have been confused has ended in its own form of tragic failure.

And so, I enter another day, and another work week, resolved to stick to the plan Jesus gave His followers.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Violent Times

Violent Times (CaD Jud 19) Wayfarer

In those days Israel had no king.
Judges 19:1 (NIV)

I observe of late that I live in violent times. Violent crime is on the rise in cities along with snatch-and-grab gang robberies. Political extremists on both sides call for violence against their enemies on social media, and political protests on both sides have turned violent. We are all aware of the latest in a long string of mass school shootings that occurred just a few weeks ago. A few months ago, in Green Bay Wisconsin of all places, a woman high on meth strangled her lover during sex, then dismembered the man and hid the pieces throughout his mother’s basement, leaving his head in a bucket. The murderer appears to have found pleasure in the act. She asked the police officers who took her into custody if they “knew what it was like to love something so much that you kill it.” The first time I read about it, I found the details so disturbing that it was hard to stomach.

That gruesome event was brought to mind as I read today’s chapter. This chapter is another one of the more difficult ones to stomach in all of the Great Story. An unnamed Levite finds himself and his concubine the guests of a fellow Hebrew in the town of Gibeah. In an act that is a direct parallel to what happened to Lot in the city of Sodom in Genesis 19, a bunch of men of the town beat on the door of the host and demand that the Levite be sent out to take part in their ancient version of a rave. The Levite sends his concubine out to appease them. After being gang-raped through the night, he finds her dead on the threshold of the host’s door the next morning. Appalled by what has happened, he cuts her body into twelve pieces and disperses the parts to the twelve Hebrew tribes to shock the nation and explain what had happened.

So, why is this even in the Great Story, and what am I supposed to glean from this? Meditating on this question, I came to a couple of conclusions in the quiet this morning.

First, the author includes this horrific story for a reason and he gives me the clue in the first line of the story: “In those days Israel had no king.” This is a line the author has repeated in each of the last two chapters. This is the theme of his book’s epilogue. He is sharing with his readers the social breakdown that occurred when there was no strong civic or religious authority.

Second, the entire story is about hospitality in the ancient Near East, which was a social expectation of such magnitude in that culture that we can’t really relate to it today. The Levites’ father-in-law in the first half of the chapter exemplifies “go the extra mile” hospitality to his guest. This stands out in stark contrast to his host in Gibeah in the gruesome second half of the chapter who should have protected his guest and not allowed the concubine’s rape to happen.

Finally, the bloody act of the Levite in dismembering his concubine’s body and sending it to the tribes was a call to action. It was meant to shock the nation into doing something about what was happening in their society.

This brings me back to my own times, in which I don’t have to look very hard to find acts of violence not that much different than the ones in today’s chapter. And, in the Levite’s call to action, I hear echoes of what our society is proclaiming right now: “We have to do something!”

So what do I take away from this?

Personally, I’m reminded of the human need for authority in both my social and spiritual life. Being a follower of Jesus means that Jesus and His teachings are my spiritual compass. As I submit to doing my best to follow His example and His teaching, I find myself with spiritual and moral guardrails on my thoughts, words, relationships, and actions. This even includes honoring, and being subject to, my civic authorities. Without those moral guardrails, I can only imagine how my life might cycle out of control.

But also, as a citizen of this representative republic, I play a part in this society and I need to do my part to participate in the civic and social process by speaking out, letting my voice be heard, and voting for strong leaders who will lead by action and example.

By the way, I voted yesterday.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Two Paths

Two Paths (CaD Jud 9) Wayfarer

Abimelek son of [Gideon] went to his mother’s brothers in Shechem and said to them and to all his mother’s clan, “Ask all the citizens of Shechem, ‘Which is better for you: to have all seventy of Jerub-Baal’s sons rule over you, or just one man?’ Remember, I am your flesh and blood.”
Judges 9:1-2 (NIV)

I still have vivid memories of the bully. I remember his name. I can see his face in my memory along with the bathroom at Woodlawn Elementary school where it happened. I was in second grade and he was a year older than me. He was bigger than me. He was mean and intimidating. He demanded that I give him my lunch money, but I didn’t have any. I brought my lunch to school. This made him mad and he feigned that he was going to hit me. He then told me that after school he would find me and was going to beat me up. The two-and-a-half block walk home was sheer terror, but I managed to walk with my neighbor who was two years older and that gave me some comfort.

That was my first experience with a bully, and it obviously left a strong impression on me. History is filled with those who use threats, violence, and intimidation for personal gain. What begins as bullying on the school playground can easily become a way of life that in adulthood turns into gangs, organized crime, and rackets. The same tactics of power and intimidation get “cleaned up” but still fuel political parties, corporate boardrooms, and union organizations. I’ve also experienced the same basic bully tactics from powerful individuals in churches.

The stories of Gideon and his son Abimelek form the center of the book of Judges. Ancient Hebrew writers, poets, and lyricists commonly used a literary device and placed the central theme of their work smack-dab in the middle. I mentioned in yesterday’s post that one of the central themes of the book of Judges is the tension the Hebrew tribes were experiencing as they tried to be a theocracy and follow God as their ultimate King and the reality they were experiencing with their enemies of what a powerful leader/king could do for a city or region. At the center of the book are two contrasting examples of this very tension. Gideon and his son take two very different paths to power and end up in very different places.

The story of Gideon provides the example of a powerful leader who humbly refuses to be made king, and he calls on his fellow Hebrews to recognize God as their only true leader. In today’s chapter, Abimelek provides a contrasting example. He takes the path of the power-hungry individual who will stop at nothing to seize and maintain his power.

Beneath the story of Abimelek are other subtle themes that were crucial in their time, and they still resonate today. Abimelek was one of some seventy sons of Gideon, the offspring of Gideon and a Canaanite slave. It’s likely that the biracial son of a slave was treated as less-than by his pure Hebrew half-brothers, the sons of Gideon’s legitimate wives. Abimelek uses his Canaanite blood, and his position of relative power as Gideon’s son, to convince the Canaanite people of the city of Shechem to appoint him their king. He then goes all Michael Corleone and “settles accounts” with all the potential threats to his power, his brothers, by killing them all (with the exception of the youngest brother, who escapes).

Chaos, political intrigue, violence, vengeance, and the continuous struggle for power follow Abimelek through the entire chapter. The Godfather epic is an apt parallel. Once he stepped down the path of power by violence and vengeance, Michael Corleone could tragically never escape the consequences of where it led. Abimelek found himself on the same tragic path.

In the quiet this morning, I said a prayer for my elementary school bully. I hope God led him to find a better path in life. He taught me a lesson that day. He provided me an example of the person I never wanted to become. I’m grateful for that.

I also find myself pondering the simple contrast between Gideon and his son, Abimelek. Gideon wasn’t perfect, but his deference to God’s power and authority kept him from the tragic ends experienced by his son.

I’ve learned along my life journey that whatever positions of earthly power and/or leadership I might find myself should come because I am led to them, not because I seized them for myself. As a follower of Jesus, I am called to the path of humility and service to others. Looking back from my current waypoint on Life’s road, I can tell you that it is a path that has always led, not always to easy places, but ultimately to good places.

I think I’ll stick to this path.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Of Tribe and Time

Of Tribe and Time (CaD Ex 1) Wayfarer

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”
Exodus 1:8-10 (NRSVCE)

When it comes to a film, the first shot the director gives you is always an important one. In movie terms it’s called the “establishing shot” and most casual viewers don’t realize how important it is to provide you with the setting, the environment, and the emotion. In many cases, the establishing shot will foreshadow the entire theme of the movie with one quick visual. For those interested, here’s a quick look at some of the best of all time…

Likewise, great authors provide readers with a literary version of an establishing shot. The opening prologue or chapter lay out the scene for the reader.

In today’s chapter, the author of Exodus establishes the scene for the story and the journey on which I am about to embark. At the end of Genesis, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) and his 70 descendants and their families, flocks, and herds had migrated and settled in the area of Egypt to escape a famine. His long-lost-son, Joseph was Pharaoh’s right-hand and had welcomed them and provided for them.

Exodus now picks up the story, and in the establishing shot, we find that Israel’s descendants have settled in Egypt and have been fruitful in multiple ways. His sons and grandsons are growing their families, having lots of babies, and each is becoming his own tribe. Between Genesis chapter 50 and Exodus chapter 1 we’ve gone from one Hebrew tribe to twelve growing tribes. The problem is, political winds have shifted.

In ancient cultures (we’re talking about 3500 years ago) the world was a harsh, violent, lawless and brutal place. It was tribal. You were born into a tribe, your tribe protected you, and life was about surviving against other tribes. Some tribes, like Egypt, had successfully become nations but every nation and every tribe was focused on protecting themselves against the threat of other tribes bent on conquest.

In Egypt, the new Pharaoh (that is, Egyptian ruler) and his administration take stock of the fact that Israel’s tribe has become tribes, and they have slowly proliferated within Egypt’s kingdom and territory. That is a threat. Remember, it’s a tribe vs. tribe world. Having that many people from a foreign tribe living in their kingdom was scary. It’s one thing to protect yourself from an attack from the outside. It’s another thing if a tribe living among you goes rogue. From a political perspective, Pharaoh had to address the threat. So, he moves to persecute the Hebrew people living among them and to limit their population growth.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself mulling over both the differences and similarities in our world. It’s that point of tension between two extremes. On one hand, the world has changed drastically in 3500 years and that’s the reason many 21st century readers struggle mightily with the brutality and violence of the ancient stories of the Great Story. If I want to understand the Great Story, I have to be willing to embrace that I will never fully understand ancient history yet embrace the understanding that it has value in the context of a larger eternal narrative.

On the other hand, I also find myself muttering that there is “nothing is new under the sun,” and the more things change the more they stay the same. In China, the government is persecuting people groups and religious groups within their population to try and stop their proliferation. They also have, over recent decades, infamously adopted birth control measures eerily similar to Pharaoh (e.g. allow the girls to live, but not the boys) in an effort to control the political and economic threat they feel from population growth. It also strikes me, as I mull things over, that the same tribalism at the root of the Egypt/Hebrew conflict presented in today’s chapter is at the root of everything from benign sports rivalries to toxic racial, social, nationalist, and religious prejudice. I also think of gangs, cartels, crime organizations, religious denominations, and political parties. Humans are still tribal in a myriad of ways.

When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, told the story of the Good Samaritan, healed the child of a Roman Centurion, and sent His apostles to “ends of the earth” He was pushing His followers beyond their tribe. He prescribed a different type of conquest in which tribal boundaries are breached with love and proliferate generosity, understanding, forgiveness, repentance, and redemption. That’s the tribe with whom I ultimately wish to be associated.

Love and Life; Hatred and Murder

 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother…

Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.
1 John 3:11-12a, 15 (NIV)

Once again yesterday we citizens of the U.S. were shaking our heads in disbelief at the unfathomable event that took place in Las Vegas late on Sunday evening. While this event was unprecedented in its scope, there is a repetition that I feel when these tragic events unfold.

The endless press coverage. The same video clips played in a ceaseless loop. The scramble to learn everything possible about the perpetrator and the victim. The press conferences with law enforcement. The statements from world leaders. The eyewitness interviews on the street. The outcry from every side of the political spectrum. The talking heads giving psychological profiles and “expert” opinion.

We’ve been down this road before. Here we are again going through the same motions.

This morning’s chapter provided some synchronicity for me. John makes a direct connection between love/hate and life/death. It caught me off guard when John reminds me of Jesus’ command to love others, then immediately switches to the word picture of Cain (If you don’t know the story, see Genesis 4) who murdered his brother.

Whoa. Wait a minute. Hold the phone. How do we get from “love” to “Cain?”

John answers this at the end of the paragraph:

Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.

So, here’s what I’ve been meditating on in the quiet of my walk around the hotel parking lot this morning:

Jesus said He came to give Life. Life is the goal. Increasing Life, abundant Life, eternal Life, fullness of Life.

The conduit, the flow, to Life is love.  Love God. Love others.

When we refuse to love, we shut off the conduit. We shut love down like a valve. The flow stops. Things back up. Stop the flow of water in the eco system and everything dies. Stop the flow of blood and the body dies. Without the flow of love there is a very real spiritual and universal death that  naturally occurs.

When we choose into hate, we are consciously, willfully choosing to stop the flow of love that allows for Life.

Hatred is cosmic murder.

One can say that it’s not the same thing as the physical carnage on the Las Vegas strip, but that’s the very point that John was making in his connection between hatred and Cain. In an eternal perspective it is very much the same. There is direct correlation between hatred and murder.

And, that leaves me with some very serious personal questions to mull over today.

 

Still Using the Same Bloody Playbook

So Jehu destroyed Baal worship in Israel. However, he did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit—the worship of the golden calves at Bethel and Dan.
2 Kings 10:28-29 (NIV)

As I read the chapter this morning, I couldn’t help but think about the news reports coming out of the cities held by ISIS. Our own media have been slow to report the brutal daily realities there. People forced into religious submission and immediate death sentences for any who do not proclaim religious allegiance. Immediate death for anyone caught in the most minor moral infraction such as smoking a cigarette or not wearing the right garb. Those of other faiths beheaded or crucified. Dead bodies hung out for public display as a warning to all.

Life in ancient times was bloody and brutal. Today’s chapter is not a light, devotional read. It’s a veritable blood bath. Last week I used the Godfather saga as a modern parallel to Jehu’s take over of Ahab and Jezebel’s regime. The word picture continues to parallel in the today’s chapter. Having “capped” Ahab and Jezebel, the new Godfather Jehu consolidates his power by killing all of Ahab and Jezebel’s sons, all of their inner circle, their loyal followers, and then all of the members of the religious cult of Baal to whom Ahab and Jezebel zealously ascribed.

For ancient political upstarts like Jehu this type of bloody takeover was nothing new or groundbreaking. There was a well-worn playbook for taking over and consolidating power, and Jehu’s actions were strictly takeover “by the book.” Even in The Godfather II they reference the ancient Roman Empire as blueprint for how they organized and carried out “business.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I thought the most important thing mentioned in today’s chapter was when it is reported that Jehu had wiped out the corruption and idolatry of Ahab and Jezebel, but then he continued to commit his own personal idolatry by worshipping the idols of golden calves. One idolatrous regime gives way to another. Jehu was happy to violently wipe-out his enemies and set up his own personal empire, but in the end he wasn’t that much different from his predecessors.

Which brings me back to today’s headlines, and my own thoughts in the quiet of the morning. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The reports out of cities controlled by Islamic State read like the ancient story of Jehu (and the Inquisition, as well). Even in our own “modern” and “enlightened” culture we have groups of people both left and right who have actively ascribed to violence, power, and intimidation to do away with those who disagree and subject others to their personal world views.

Maybe we’re not so civilized as we think we are.

I’m reminded this morning of Jesus’ words, “You have heard it said…, but I say….” As a follower of Jesus I am called to a different playbook that says if you want to gain power you have to let it go, if you want to lead you have to serve, if you want to ascend you must humbly bow. Jesus’ playbook begins with a change of heart that leads to a change in behavior and relationships. It grows organically by contagion.

The problem with Ahab, Jehu, Rome, the Corleones, Islamic State, the Alt-Right, and Antifa is that it’s all about external power to subject others to their will, but this only serves to sow seeds of hatred and rebellion in the hearts those subjected. Thousands of years of human history and we still haven’t learned the lesson. We’re still falling back to the old playbook. It often works, for a time.

I much prefer Jesus’ strategy. Start with changing the individual heart and then working outward using simple tactics of love, grace, forgiveness, and generosity. I’m not forcing anyone to follow this path, mind you, but I’m happy to buy you a cup of coffee or a pint and tell you about my own personal experience.