From Ugliness, a Beauty Emerges
Psalm 137:1–9; 149
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept... For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth... Matthew 15:21–39
We’ve come a long way in our story already. We’ve discovered . . .
Creation – God brings into being this beautiful, evolving world of wonders.
Crisis – we step out of the dance and enter into rivalry with God and our fellow creatures, throwing this planet into disarray.
Calling – God calls people to join in a global conspiracy of goodness and blessing, to heal and restore whatever human evil destroys.
Captivity – the people who have joined God’s global conspiracy of goodness experience the horrors of slavery, but God eventually leads them by the wilderness road out of captivity towards freedom.
And now we come to a fifth major episode. It’s the story of conquest, as the Israelites finally reach the land their ancestors had inhabited four centuries earlier. There’s just one problem: others have moved into the land and made it their home for many generations. To possess the land, the Israelites will have to displace these current residents through a war of invasion and conquest. Wars like these are the most bloody and difficult of all, but the Israelites trust that their God will give them victory.
This episode in the biblical story, more than any other, forces us to deal with one of life’s most problematic questions: the question of violence. By violence, we mean an act that intends to violate the well-being of a person or people. To help some, is God willing to harm others? Is God part of the violence in the world, and is violence part of God?
Or is God the voice calling to us in our violence to move to a new place, to join God beyond violence, in kindness, reconciliation and peace?
Today, as in the ancient world, many people sincerely believe that God loves us and wants peace for us so much that God has no trouble harming or destroying them for our benefit. We find a lot of that kind of thinking in the Bible, giving God credit and praise for our victories and their defeats. Before we go too far in condemning ancient people for that exclusive way of thinking, we should realise how easy it is for us to do the same – when we create a superior us that looks down on them for thinking so exclusively!
We should also notice that where we see this kind of thinking embedded in the Bible, we also find important qualifications. For example, God’s favour towards the insiders is dependent on the insiders living good and humble lives. If the insiders become oppressors, they should not expect God’s help. And God gives the freed slaves the right to conquer just enough land for themselves, just one time. They are never given a licence to create an empire, expanding to enslave others as they had previously been enslaved.
Even as they prepare for war, they are told again and again that after the conquest ends, they must treat ‘aliens and strangers’ as neighbours, with honour and respect, remembering that they once were ‘aliens and strangers’ themselves in Egypt. Their ultimate dream is to be farmers, not warriors – so that swords can be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, as soon as possible.
But even with these provisos in mind, we can’t ignore the brutality found in many Bible passages. From Deuteronomy 7 to Leviticus 25 to 1 Samuel 15 to Psalms 137 and 149, we hear claims that ‘God’ or ‘the Lord’ actively commands or blesses actions that we would call crimes against humanity. Many religious scholars have assumed that because the Bible makes these claims, we must defend them as true and good. Fortunately we have another, better option.
We can acknowledge that in the minds of the originators of these stories, God as they understood God did indeed command these things. We can acknowledge that in their way of thinking, divine involvement in war was to be expected. We can allow that they were telling the truth as they best understood it when they found comfort and reassurance in a vision of a God who would harm or kill them to defend, help or avenge us. We can try to empathise, remembering that when human beings suffer indignity, injustice, dehumanisation and violence, they naturally pray for revenge and dream of retribution against those who harm them. Without condoning, we can at least understand why they saw God as they did, knowing that if we had walked in their sandals, we would have been no different.
But we don’t need to stop there. We can then turn to other voices in the biblical library who, in different circumstances, told competing stories to give a different – and we would say better – vision of God.
For example, take the passage in Deuteronomy 7 where God commands Joshua to slaughter the seven Canaanite nations. They must be shown no mercy. Even their little girls must be seen as a threat. Then we can consider a story from Matthew’s Gospel which offers itself as a response to the earlier passage. There we meet a woman who is identified by Matthew as a Canaanite. This identification is significant, since Canaanites no longer existed as an identifiable culture in Jesus’ day. Calling this woman a Canaanite would be like calling someone a Viking or Aztec today. She asks for the one thing that had been denied her ancestors: mercy . . . mercy for her daughter who is in great need.
Up until this point, Jesus has understood his mission only in relation to his own people. After all, they’re pretty lost and they need a lot of help. So he hesitates. How can he extend himself to this Canaanite? But how can he refuse her? In her persistence, he senses genuine faith, and he hears God’s call to extend mercy even to her. So he says ‘yes’ to the mother, and the daughter is healed. From there, Jesus goes to an area to the north-west of the Sea of Galilee. He teaches and heals a large crowd of people there who, like the woman and her daughter, are not members of his own religion and culture. Their non-Jewish identity is clear in their response to Jesus’ kindness: ‘And they praised the God of Israel.’ What was an exception yesterday is now the new rule: Don’t kill the other. Show mercy to them.
Then Jesus repeats a miracle for these outsiders that he had done previously for his fellow Jews, multiplying loaves and fish so they can eat. In the previous miracle, there were twelve baskets left over, suggesting the twelve tribes of Israel – the descendants, that is, of Jacob and his twelve sons. In this miracle, there are seven baskets left over – suggesting, it seems quite clear, the seven Canaanite nations that Jesus’ ancestors had been commanded to destroy.
Matthew’s version of this story makes a confession: Our ancestors, led by Moses and Joshua, believed God sent them into the world in conquest, to show no mercy to their enemies, to defeat and kill them. But now, following Christ, we hear God giving us a higher mission. Now we believe God sends us into the world in compassion, to show mercy, to heal, to feed – to nurture and protect life rather than take it.
We begin with pre-biblical visions of many warring gods who are all violent and capricious. In much of the Bible, we advance to a vision of a single God who uses violence against them in the service of justice for us. Eventually, through the biblical library, we find a beautiful new vision of God being revealed. God desires justice for all, not just for us. God is leading both us and them out of injustice and violence into a new way of reconciliation and peace. God loves everyone, everywhere, no exceptions.
Violence, like slavery and racism, was normative in our past and it is still all too common in the present. How will we tell the stories of our past in ways that make our future less violent? We must not defend those stories or give them the final word. Nor can we cover them up, hiding them like a loaded gun in a drawer that can be found and used to harm. Instead, we must expose these violent stories to the light of day. And then we must tell new stories beside them, stories so beautiful and good that they will turn us towards a better vision of kindness, reconciliation and peace for our future and for our children’s future.
The stories of Jesus’ life and teaching, wisely told, can help us imagine and create a more peaceful future.
They help us see the glory of God shining in the face of a kind, forgiving, gentle and non-violent man, and in the smiles and tears, words and deeds of those who radiate his love.
Meditate and Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a film you’ve seen or a book you’ve read that upheld violence as the way to prosperity and peace. Can you share an alternative film or story that pointed to a non-violent way to peace?
3. How do you respond to Matthew’s story of the Canaanite woman in conversation with the Deuteronomy story of Canaanite slaughter? Can you think of other paired stories like this?
4. For children: Who do you think is stronger – a person who can punch a bad guy and scare him away, or a person who can convince a bad guy to become good?
5. Activate: This week, listen for situations when people use God (or some other ‘good reason’) to justify violence or unkindness. Try to understand why they would see God and violence this way. Seek to see the world through their eyes and to imagine how hard it would be for them to see God differently.
6. Meditate: Hold in silence the tension between a violent world and a God who calls us to reconciliation, mutual understanding and respect, and peace.