Monday, August 10, 2009

Victory Day in Rhode Island

Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan says that the Bible presents two narratives and asks us to choose between them. One is the familiar story of violence and revenge. He calls it the “normalcy of violence.” The other narrative “presents the radicality of a just and nonviolent God confronting the normalcy of an unjust and violent civilization.” If the Bible presented only the first narrative, of violent conquest, we would not need it because it would give us nothing we cannot get from the world around us. If it presented only nonviolence, we would not believe it. Instead, we find a complicated and interwoven narrative of violent conquest and peaceful non-violence. Our task is to find the narrow way that leads to peace and justice.

These two contradictory narratives, of peace through violence, and peace through justice, are on my mind as I contemplate “Victory Day,” a holiday commemorating the American victory over Japan that ended World War II, which is observed only in Rhode Island.

Yesterday in worship we sang, “I Will Call Upon the Lord.” It is one of my favorite contemporary Christian hymns. It is upbeat and hopeful. The tune is easy to sing. It is a happy song.

I will call upon the Lord
who is worthy to be praised.

So shall I be saved from my enemies. . .
The Lord liveth and blessed by the Rock;
and let the God of my salvation be exalted

But the bright cheerful tone is at odds with the scripture from which the lyrics are taken. It is from King David’s song of victory after he has defeated Saul. If we read further into the text in Second Samuel, this is what we find:

He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.

You have given me the shield of your salvation,
and your help has made me great.

You have made me stride freely, and my feet do not slip;

I pursued my enemies and destroyed them,
and did not turn back until they were consumed.

I consumed them; I struck them down,
so that they did not rise;
they fell under my feet.

For you girded me with strength for the battle;
you made my assailants sink under me.

You made my enemies turn their backs to me,
those who hated me, and I destroyed them.

They looked, but there was no one to save them;
they cried to the Lord, but he did not answer them.

I beat them fine like the dust of the earth,
I crushed them and stamped them down like the mire of the streets.
II Samuel 22:35-43

The lines are haunting: "You made my enemies turn their backs to me, those who hated me, and I destroyed them. They looked, but there was no one to save them; they cried to the Lord, but he did not answer them.”

There was no one to save them.

Is that, as we say after the reading of scripture, “the Word of the Lord”? I do not believe that it is. It is part of the Bible. It is even an important part of the Bible. It says something everlastingly significant. But it is not the word we are called to live.

We are called to live in the counter-narrative, which runs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures on a parallel course, and comes to life in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This counter-narrative proclaims the Kingdom of God as a radical alternative to the normalcy of violence we find in the kingdoms and empires of this world.

During World War II, Harry Emerson Fosdick was a prophetic voice for the Kingdom of God. In February of 1944 he preached a sermon called, “Righteousness First.” Based on Jesus’ commandment to “seek first the Kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness,” Fosdick argued for the importance of winning the peace after we win the war. Near the end of the sermon, he references the repeated calls to “support our boys” in the war. We should and must support them, he argues, but we need to support more than the winning of the war, we need to support the highest ideals of Christ’s teaching.

They will win the war, --at what cost!—but we along with them must win the peace, and at that point we run again into the everlasting truth of Jesus’ law: we cannot put party first, or economic self-interest first, or absolute national sovereignty first, or imperialistic greed first, or racial prejudice first. If we do, we shall be rightly damned forever in the estimation of our offspring. We must put righteousness first.”

Only a just and lasting peace can justify the horror of war and bring real victory.

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