And the Lord rooted them out of their land in anger and in wrath and in great indignation,
and cast them into another land, as it is this day.
Last week's mail brought an ad for a book that looks intriguing. It is called God: A
Biography, and apparently goes through the Old Testament treating the figure of God
strictly as a character in a drama--"variously powerful yet powerless, savage yet gentle,
endlessly subtle, yet mysteriously naive." The author, Jack Miles, says,
I write here about the life of the Lord God as--and only as--the protagonist of a classic
of world literature; namely, the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. I do not write about
(though I certainly do not write against) the Lord God as the object of religious belief.
I do not attempt, as theology does, to make an original statement about God as an
extraliterary reality. . . . God does have a first and a last appearance in the Hebrew
Bible. We see him first as the creator, outside history, prior to it, masterfully setting
in motion the heavenly bodies by which historical time will be measured. We see him last
as the "Ancient of Days," white-haired and silent, looking forward to the end of history
from a remote and cloudy throne. This book becomes a biography of a special sort by dint
of its determination to describe the middle that lies between so vigorous a beginning and
so quiescent an end.
It should make interesting reading. By treating God simply as a character in a book, not
asking whether the book is fact or fiction, Miles should be able to take a fresh look at
what the Old Testament--Swedenborg's "literal sense"--actually says. This is hard for us
to do when we read with our theological glasses on, so to speak. In a sense, Swedenborg is
telling us that there is a difference between what God actually says and what we hear, and
that the Bible records what people have heard. Since our primary interest is in
understanding what God intends to say, we tend to "read past" the literal statements.
Our reading from Deuteronomy was chosen as a sample, and the issue comes to focus in our
text. "And the Lord rooted them out of their land in anger and in wrath and in great
indignation, and cast them into another land, as it is this day." We know that there is no
wrath in God, so we do not take this literally. This is "an appearance of truth." This is
the way things looked to people who were all too familiar with their own anger. This is
how they understood their own past.
Perhaps, though, we are a little too quick to "explain things away." The Russian
theologian Nicholas Berdyaev wrote, "The greatest sin of the age is to make the concrete
abstract." The Biblical story is telling about an army coming in and driving people out of
their homes. It is talking about killing and burning on a scale that dwarfs the fire that
has been such a huge event in the life of this church. There was nothing "abstract" or
"theological" about it at the time. The "appearance" of divine wrath was very real, very
Some liberation theologians take these stories concretely enough to be distressed by them
and respond by virtually writing them out of their historical reconstructions. They wind
up telling a story not of conquest but of indigenous peasants rebelling against Canaanite
oppression. There are suggestions that some Canaanites joined the Israelites--the story of
the Gibeonites in the ninth chapter of Joshua is the most obvious example--but this is a
minor theme. The story as told is one of warfare, military conquest, "naked aggression,"
if you will. There is not much that is noble about it. It does not present us with a model
of behavior that we can adopt.
What can we say that does not gloss over the ugliness of aggression or attribute it to
God? We might start by saying that the Bible is in many ways painfully realistic. There is
a great deal of destructiveness in our world, and we have an extraordinary talent for
finding excuses for it. Bob Kirven is fond of remarking that some of the most terrifying
people he has met have been people who knew God's will. They could drive straight toward
their goals no matter who might be in the way. The miracle is that in spite of all this,
the Lord's providence still manages to keep open so many avenues to change. In what used
to be Yugoslavia we have a vivid image of what we might call the cycle of injustice--how
resentment of past injustice can be kept alive and can lead to ever new injustice on the
pretext of somehow redressing the balance. The miracle is that this does not always
happen. In a way, the miracle is the miracle of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not the same as forgetfulness. It does not involve rationalization or
denial. It is moving beyond initial emotional reactions without losing sight of the
circumstances that prompted them. One of the wisest pictures of this process I have
discovered is in an immensely valuable book by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman entitled, How Can
I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service. It could serve as a commentary on Swedenborg's
marvelous definition of charity as "acting with prudence to the end that good may result"
(The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine, ¶ 100), and I should like to quote it at
. . . concerned as we are with results, we call on tactics of persuasion, appealing to
states of mind that get people going. We begin to manipulate consciousness. Play to anger.
Go for fear. There's always guilt. These basic states of mind are always lurking about,
looking to be fed. They find plenty of nourishment in the world of social action: anger at
oppression, guilt at being "better off," fear of violence and the greater power of others.
. . .
Sometimes these feelings get us going--just the kick in the pants we may need. And we can
keep them in check, in fact work with them. We can turn anger at injustice into cool,
steady resolve. We can flip fear of war into greater reverence for life. We can find in
feelings of guilt a call to greater moral sensitivity and alertness.
Yet left to themselves, fear, anger, and guilt are unwholesome states of mind. How many of
us have them fully in control in our private lives? The pull us into a cycle of reactivity
and feed on themselves. . . . History is full of examples of how these attitudes, which
initially may have stirred people to action, went on to poison and destroy
well-intentioned movements for social change. (pp. 158f.)
To put this in a nutshell, anger may be the only thing with enough energy to get our
engine started, but that does not mean we should hand it the steering wheel. Anger prompts
us to react, but does not tell us how. One of the caricatures of Buddhism is that it says,
"Don't just do something--sit there," and like many caricatures, it is not without an
element of wisdom. How Can I Help? continues,
[Fear, anger, and guilt] also prevent us from calling upon deeper human virtues that often
move us all to act. In anger, we may lose light of love. In fear, we may sacrifice trust
and courage. In guilt, we may deny self-worth and obstruct inspiration. Do we really want
to lose access to all these? If we really care about social change, can we afford to
sacrifice such sources of commitment and strength? Are we serious or not?
The question needs to be asked. Do we really want things to change for the better, or do
we just want to make a dramatic gesture to salve our consciences? If we really want things
to change for the better, then we have to do the hard work of looking at what works and
what does not. We cannot be guided by romantic optimism or romantic pessimism. If we take
a hard look at what is wrong with our world and what is right with it, if we look clearly
at our history, then it seems we need to face up to the long haul. There are no quick
fixes in sight.
This brings us to our New Testament reading. "And when he had made a whip of small cords,
he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen, and poured out the
changers' money, and overturned their tables, and said to the men who were selling doves,
`Take these things away! Do not make my Father's house a marketplace!'"
Did Jesus really lose it for a few minutes? This was a troubled and violent era, and we
may doubt that this was the first time something like this had happened. In all
probability, the temple personnel rounded up the sheep and oxen and straightened out the
tables and picked up the money, and things were back to normal before long.
In other words, if this was really an attempt to reform Temple policies, it could hardly
be effective unless there were some follow up. As the Gospel story unfolds, though, this
"cleansing of the Temple" seems to have been basically a very effective attention-getter.
It said more clearly than words, "What I have to say is urgent. It has to do with the very
core of your spiritual life, of your religious commitment. There is something awfully
wrong at the heart of the matter."
There was follow up. The Gospel of John places this incident at the very beginning of
Jesus's ministry, right after the baptism, the calling of the first disciples, and the
miracle at Cana. The synoptics place it at the very beginning of Holy Week, immediately
after the entry into Jerusalem. In each case, it is followed by teaching. It is a kind of
introduction, an opening statement. It strikes me as very much in the spirit of Ram Dass
and Paul Gorman--the kick in the pants we may need to get ourselves going.
It is certainly not the dominant theme or mood of the Lord's ministry. This has much more
to do with love and courage and trust than with anger. Ultimately, the Lord worked a
transformation especially in his closest disciples, and the means he used included his
parables and his questions, his healings, and especially his constant care for them. it
was no overnight transformation. It took three very intensive years, with lots of ups and
downs along the way. If there was the haste of initial anger, there were also the patience
and the commitment for the long haul.
This brings me, by a rather roundabout path, to some recent thoughts about church growth.
At a recent meeting of our East Coast clergy, Randy Laakko was telling of his mixed
feelings when some one who had not been near the church for years asked for a baptism, or
for a funeral for a relative. Part of his reaction was "Where have you been in the
meanwhile," and part was a sense of the beauty of the fact that the church could be there
for them when it was needed.
Various programs can offer excitement, and that may be what is needed to get attention, to
"start the engine." But I suspect that the growth we really want involves long-term
commitment, even lifetime dedication. It is a lot to ask, but we do not strengthen the
church by lowering our expectations.
It is a lot to ask, but it is also a lot to offer. The church will be there for you as
long as it exists. Surely in our own times of accelerating change, there is a need and a
hunger for this kind of reliability. Hard as it is to pledge our personal futures, and
unsuccessful as we often are, we keep marrying "for life." We are nostalgic for the old
days in part because they seem so much more stable than our own times.
Our church includes moments of enlightenment that can be exciting. It includes moments of
affection that are moving. Perhaps what we need most of all to recognize, though, is its
simple durability. Perhaps we need to say out loud, "If you are willing to be here for the
church, the church will be here for you--not necessarily with drama or excitement, but
with patience and trust and courage, and above all, with love.