Hope you’re all enjoying a grand summer (or, for those in the Southern Hemisphere, a nice winter). I’m having a great time, but I’m also feeling a bit scattered. It's requiring more effort than usual to stay centered and aware of God's presence. Not sure how it happened, but I’ve just had way too many “pots on the burner.” Mind if I whine for a moment?
Here's a snippet of my life (beyond the ordinary chores, relationships, etc.). I have my weekly sermons and other church duties, of course. And, as part of my daily routine, I have about 50 e-mails (on average) that ask for a response (taking roughly an hour a day). Beyond this, I just finished and sent off a manuscript for publication entitled (tentatively) This Sacred Moment: Reflections on Practicing the Presence of God. I’m now editing the page proofs of Revolting Beauty and refining for publication The Cosmic Dance (our funky illustrated book on science and theology). I'm speaking eight times at a week-long conference in Hungary in a couple weeks that I need to prepare for. I have two academic dictionary entries, an academic journal article and three revised chapters for the new edition of Across the Spectrum due by September. Plus I'm supposed to complete two chapters in a forthcoming anthology by this spring.
But these aren't what's occupying most of my time. The project that presently occupies most of my time, thought and passion these days is The Myth of the Blueprint (my eight-year project showing the influence of pagan philosophy on the early church's view of God, free will, providence and evil). I just finished a section on the first two heirs of Plato in the "Old Academy," Seusippus and Xenocrates. This stuff seriously lights my fire!
See, I've got lots of pots on the fire. I don't want or expect anyone to feel sorry for me, because I love every bit of this! (Well, e-mails not so much, but everything else for sure). But that's my problem. I'm interested in and passionate about way too many things! (My ADHD tendencies are getting the better of me, I suppose).
But I’m not quite done whining yet. I also have to read -- a lot. I have to read! It’s a sort of addiction. Last week I finished J. R. Boys-Stones’ Post-Hellenistic Philosophy: A Study of its Development from the Stoics to Origen. (This is a great work detailing the shift from independent reasoning to authority that occurred in Stoicism and Middle Platonism and that strongly influenced early Christianity). Then two days ago I finished John Dillon's The Heirs of Plato: A Study of the Old Academy (347-274). (Dillon is the best authority on ancient Platonism, in my opinion). I’m now reading a book that a publisher sent to me, written by Stephen Russell, entitled Overcoming Evil God’s Way (Faith Builders Resource Group, 2008).
And with this I (finally!) transition from my whining to the point of this post. (Oh yes, I forgot to mention in my whining that I try to post two or three times a week. Nuts, isn't it?).
Overcoming Evil is intended to be a comprehensive overview of the biblical and historical case for “nonresistance” (returning force with force). I’m only a hundred pages into this book (it's about 300 pages long), but so far it’s very good. Already I'd recommend it. Russell's material on the Old Testament is a nice, clear and comprehensive introduction to the issue of peace and violence in the Old Testament, though it doesn't add much to what we’ve already covered the last couple of months. My review will thus be brief.
His main point is that, when you read the Old Testament in the light of Jesus Christ (as we must) it becomes evident that, while all Scripture is inspired, not all Scripture reveals God’s character with equal clarity. It's true God reluctantly participates in the bloody barbarism of the cultures he’s trying to slowly win over, but God's true character is revealed when (for example) he mercifully protects Cain, the murderer, from being murdered and when he puts strong constraints around ancient, unbridled, retaliation practices. So too, in contrast to the barbaric Conquest narratives, we see God’s true heart in Old Testament characters who display Christ-like characteristics. For example, we find Elisha doing warfare God’s way when Elisha leads a supernaturally blinded Syrian army with whom Israel was at war (and that had been dispatched specifically to kill Elisha! See 2 Kg 6:12-14) into the court of the Samaritan King. When all expected Elisha to give the order to slaughter the captives, he instead told the king to throw them a banquet (2 Kg 6:22-23). That’s doing battle God’s way. And in contrast to the use of violence which always -- always! -- leads to more violence, this act of mercy brought an end to the fighting between Syria and Israel (2 Kg 6:23). God's ideal will is for his people to fight like Elisha, not Joshua.
Three other points of emphasis in Russell's material on Old Testament violence are worth mentioning. First, Russell rightly points out that, while Yahweh knew his people would have to be defended against hostile nations (recall Ellul's point that nationalism and violence are two sides of the same coin), God didn’t originally intend to have his people fight. He repeatedly promised his people that if they would trust him, he would do all their fighting for them. Moreover, as we've seen, many passages suggest that God originally intended to fight Israel's enemies with non-lethal means, e.g. driving them out with hornets. So, when God later commands his people to kill (unless Creach is right and this is to be interpreted allegorically), this too must be understood to be a matter of God sadly accommodating his will to meet his untrusting, violence prone people where they're at.
Second, Russell has an excellent section on God as the Lord of history. He notes how God was willing to use the violent tendencies and arrogance of one nation (e.g. Assyria) to punish the sinfulness of another nation (e.g. Israel), only to turn around and allow yet a different arrogant and violence-prone nation (e.g. Babylon) to punish that nation (Assyria). In doing this God was exposing the sinfulness of all nations as well as exposing the futility of using violence as a source of security. (This is similar to what Craigie argued in The Problem of War in the Old Testament). The only true security is trust in God. Yet, in the midst of all these judgments, Russel points out, there was always uttered a word of mercy and hope. Even Assyria and Egypt, Israel's arch-enemies, would eventually become part of God’s people (e.g. Isa. 19:25).
Third, in the course of fleshing out all this, Russell offers some wise and pointed words to America. He notes that empires rise and fall with remarkable speed, even those such as Assyria and Babylon who, at the height of their power, seemed utterly invincible. Babylon’s mighty reign lasted less than a century, as did the empire of modern day communist Russia. We Americans are now the reigning empire, and, as with all previous empires, we trust in our power and wealth to keep us secure. (In fact, as with all previous empires, we interpret our power and wealth as a blessing from God/the gods). We must remember that this has been the arrogant mindset of all empires just prior to their falls from power.
In this light, Russell concludes, “Who imagined the fall of the Soviet Union would come a short seven decades after its founding and rapid rise in power? And who among us knows what God has in store for our nation or any other? But His purpose is good, and if we choose to become part of His plan, even our deaths will be victorious” (72-73).
Wise words. I encourage you to put no trust in the power and wealth of America (or whatever country you happen to live in). The only real security is in Yaweh and living his way, as revealed in Jesus Christ.
Even if it means you die.
Stay centered in his love and peace.