What do we tell the children?
The first piece I saw freaking out over the Trump victory was from the Huffington Post on What do we tell the children?
When I hear that I begin to wonder “what HAVE you been telling the children?”
If this is any indication this is how it started. This is how they started…
Tell them, first, that we will protect them. Tell them that we have democratic processes in the U.S. that make it impossible for one mean person to do too much damage.
Ummm. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Jefferson wasn’t above having children with his and not regarding them publicly as his children. Andrew Jackson was remembered as an Indian fighter or “sharp knife” by the Cherokee. Read about the Creek wars.
James Polk had a vision for a nation from “sea to shining sea” and so started a war with Mexico to cease New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
It’s important to tell comfort a very young child that they are safe, but at some point you have to let them into to the facts that this world is not a safe place.
“Well the World Changed Last Night…”
Aaron Sorkin, powerful, influential screen writer wrote a letter to his daughters.
Well the world changed late last night in a way I couldn’t protect us from. That’s a terrible feeling for a father. I won’t sugarcoat it—this is truly horrible. It’s hardly the first time my candidate didn’t win (in fact it’s the sixth time) but it is the first time that a thoroughly incompetent pig with dangerous ideas, a serious psychiatric disorder, no knowledge of the world and no curiosity to learn has.
I’ll give Sorkin points for at least fessing up that even he, a man with enormous wealth and influence, far greater than anyone in this room knows he can’t protect his daughters from “damage”. At the same time the standard of “mean” seems to go out the window as long as you believe your political adversary is wrong or even evil. But did the world really change last night?
We should be fair to note that 8 years ago when Barack Obama won the presidency we heard a different message.
It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.
It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.
We might now look at this and note that change keeps coming, not always in the ways we might want.
Your Hopes are Misplaced
I am not about to tell you that there isn’t good and bad, right and wrong, better and worse in politics or history or the circumstances of our lives and that we shouldn’t work to make this world a better place. What I am about to tell you is that our efforts TO make this world a better place always seem to fall short, often for reasons that are our own fault.
The post-Trump-victory-freakout is all premised on the assumption that when all is finally said and done all we have is politics. This is something we should be seriously careful with because when your politics becomes the ultimate you will resort to ultimate measures to insure that your vision of the good and the right finally prevails against other human beings who disagree with you. This in history has often led to bloodshed and even genocide. Why?
Let’s look at the premises for public morality today in our secular realm
- All that matters is there here and now. YOLO. You only live once. This is your shot at life to get what you want, experience what you desire, to follow your passions, to make your dreams come true.
- God is not meaningfully present, it is up to US to create a world of peace, love, justice and harmony. Because these things are not just up to us as individuals, politics is the way we achieve these things.
- What can you do with the people who don’t agree with your vision of the good or how to achieve that good? You know many of these people will NEVER get on the same page as you, probably for your whole life long. What do you do with these people? The answer throughout history has been to marginalized, exile or kill them so that your political vision can come to fruition.
The American constitution is not an adequate defense to avoid “meanness” or genocide. What Andrew Jackson did in the Creek wars wasn’t much different in character from what Hitler, and Stalin before him tried to do with the people living between Germany and Russia. Read Bloodlands. We do this all the time, sometimes by death, other times just by exclusion in school districts or zip codes.
Hitler had an evolutionary ideology of racial progress while Stalin had one of class progress. If this world is all you have then all your political battles become ultimate and your adversaries are not just mistaken but evil. This way leads to death.
The Book of Samuel and David’s Victory
We’ve been working our way through the Book of Samuel. We’ve noted many times that the central question of the book of Samuel revolved around the political technology of kingship and its ability to bring to Israel the peace and stability she desired for herself. Arriving at 2 Samuel 5-10 we reach the apex of David’s power. Now that Saul is dead and Abner has negotiated the rest of the tribes coming under David’s rule David proceeds finish the job.
- David becomes king of all of Israel
- David conquers Jerusalem as his capital/stronghold, a sort of non-tribal city like Washington DC is a city that doesn’t belong to any US State
- David defeats the Philistines
- David brings the ark to Jerusalem
- David subjugates the surrounding nations of Moab, Zobah, Ammon, and Edom establishing an empire
Chapter 7 begins by perfectly articulates the picture. The Lord had given David “rest from all his enemies.”
Bible readers should be drawn back to Genesis 1 where God as king brings order to the chaos of Genesis 1:2 and his labors culminate in rest in his palace. This is a picture of David’s culture of complete restoration and redemption. David through war, violence and politics has achieved exactly what was desired by Israel in 1 Samuel 8 and what was promised in the last chapters of the book of Deuteronomy. God has given to David through the political technology of kingship the vision of heaven on earth that an early iron age Israelite would have wanted.
2 Samuel 7:1–3 (NIV)
1 After the king was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2 he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.” 3 Nathan replied to the king, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you.”
Notice also here that David isn’t mentioned by name. We know its him but the authors are subtle in highlighting the vision and connecting it with kingship.
David’s impulse now at temple building was in fact, like the idea of “give us a king” demanded by the tribal elders of Israel, similar to all the other nations.
Let’s take a look at what we know from the context of David’s world.
The biblical emphasis on Yahweh’s giving his people rest is unusual in the ancient Near Eastern context, where it was generally deemed the responsibility of the people to provide a place of rest for the deity—a temple, in other words. In ancient Mesopotamia, the chief purpose of the state was to provide shelter and food for the gods; to fail to do so was high treason. Such provision was made through the cult, and the center of the cult was the temple, the house of the gods (or the main god). The building and repair of the temple was the responsibility of the ruler.
All these activities were aimed at appeasing the gods and keeping them at rest. The Assyrian king Sennacherib, for instance, in an account of his building a “Temple of the New Year’s Feast,” speaks of his desire to “quiet the heart of Assur, my lord.” Other aspects of his temple building parallel David’s. He writes: “My heart moved me, the command of Shamash and Adad I sought by oracle, a favorable reply they gave me, and commanded (me) to build.”127
David too desires to build a house for Yahweh, and he too seeks and receives approval (later reversed) from the person responsible for oracular inquiry, the prophet Nathan. The striking distinctive of the biblical account is, as just noted, the fact that, rather than the king building a house and providing rest for the god(s), Yahweh provides rest and builds a house for Israel’s king, David.
Walton, J. H. (2009). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament): Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel (Vol. 2, pp. 441–442). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Reversing the Skeptic’s Projection
Most contemporary skeptics imagine that religion is simply the projection of our fears, wishes or egos onto the sky in order to create a god that bolsters us. In this line of thinking the Ancient Near Eastern understanding of what the gods want from us fits in perfectly. The kings get their power from the gods so if the king wants to maintain power they have to kick up the goods to their deities in order to keep the good times rolling.
It is important to see that David’s assumptions are formed by his context, as even are Nathan the prophet’s. They have both been shaped by this world, by religion in this world where we project our imaginations onto God and expect from him what we would expect from another human being. God stops this and intrudes with a word that is surprising, puzzling, but ultimately more important than David’s ambition to house and therefore contain his God.
David won’t build a house for God, God will build one for David, and for himself
What follows is a rather shocking rejection of David’s plan and God’s announcement of an even more startling and welcome promise in verses 5-16. God does not want David to build him a house. God is gentle with David but subtly corrects him in imagining that David has something to offer God and by virtue of that God has somehow been used in connection to David’s ambitious plans for empire. Nothing could be further from the truth. God is not a part of David’s plan, David has been a part of God’s plan, which should be plain to any reader of the book up until this point.
What’s more, God has a plan for David beyond himself. David will not build God a house of cedar and stone, God will build David a house of flesh and blood. This house will be an everlasting house ruled by an descendant of David. God will be his father and he will be God’s son.
David responds with his own prayer of thanksgiving.
David’s Empire was built on violent subjugation and oppression
We might read this and think for a moment about the Moabites and Edomites as well as the other surrounding peoples. David’s victories came at the expense of his neighbors did they not? When given the chance after the death of David’s son Solomon the peoples, including the northern tribes would rebel and throw off the yoke. No one in David’s day, or even for a thousand years later would imagine that the promised ancestor of David use power in any other way than what David did.
Jesus the Messiah
When Jesus began his ministry those around him had high hopes he would accomplish what David did in the manner of the Maccabees in their revolt against the fragment of the Greek empire that occupied the children of Israel. Wouldn’t Jesus, the son of David create a violent revolution to overthrow the Roman occupation of Judea and the Galilee? Didn’t he possess great power?
The politics of Jesus’ day was just as hot and more bloody than our own. Ancient peoples knew how to use power, fear and intimidation to achieve the political outcomes they called good.
If you read the book of Samuel you’ll notice on a variety of occasions the dead bodies of enemies were hung up for public display to send a message to the people about what happens when your cross your political opponents.
- 1 Samuel 31 Saul’s dead body is fastened to the wall at Beth Shan by the Philistines.They were making the clear political statement that the Philistines now rule and anyone who put their hope in Saul should give up.
- David in 2 Samuel 4 kills the murderers of Ish-Bosheth, cuts off their hands and feet and hangs their bodies by the pool of Hebron. This too was a political statement.
- This was political protocol throughout the ancient near east. You might have heard of Metacomet also known as “King Philip” who was the leader of “King Philip’s war” against early Pilgrim settlers in New England. At first he cooperated with the European settlers later tried to create an alliance to push out the colonists. He lost the war, his wife and 9 year old son were sold into slavery, his body was cut into quarters, hung in the trees and his head was on a pike at the entrance to Fort Plymouth where it remained for over 20 years.
The Romans practiced this on a massive scale but not just with dead bodies, but with dying ones. NT Wright comments on what the Romans did with the loser of the slave revolt led by Spartacus.
The real-life Spartacus, who led a major slave revolt, met his end about a hundred years before Jesus. Many died in the final battle, but six thousand of his followers were crucified all along the 130 or so miles of the Appian Way from Rome to Capua (inland from Naples), making it roughly one cross every forty yards (Appian, Civil Wars 1.120).
Crucifying people beside busy roads or by the entrance to a city was of course designed to make a statement and issue a warning. People with business on those highways would walk past these terrible spectacles every day, and we may presume that many slaves who might have toyed with the idea of running away or joining the revolt would look, shudder, and decide that even their present miserable life was better than that. No doubt the authorities would often tell themselves that this was the only language such people understood. And, though there is evidence of friends or relatives taking away a corpse for burial, the more usual outcome was that the remains would stay there for several days and nights, becoming food for vultures and vermin, until (as with Jezebel in 2 Kings 9: 21– 37) there was nothing much left to bury. Nobody who had witnessed such a horror would be likely to regard such a death as “noble.” The point was emphasized by the harsh and degrading physical treatment that preceded crucifixion itself. The routine whipping and scourging were designed partly to weaken the victim and prevent a struggle, but also as part of the total public humiliation.
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 1069-1075). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Now I know that some leaders like their heroes not captured, but Jesus goes to Jerusalem, foretells his capture and then goes through with it to the horror, dismay and despair of his friends and allies. This Son of David is going to conquer in a way that no one in the world ever imagined before. Instead of killing and posting his political enemies to display his power, he allows himself to be crucified to display his love even for his enemies.
David is a king and his a kingdom that is so utterly expected by this world, in this world. Jesus’ kingdom is so clearly not FROM this world but is definitely FOR this world.
The more people get to know Jesus the more they believe that he, unlike David, embodies a way of kingship like this world has never seen. This is how Tim Keller describes it in his new book Making Sense of God.
Particularly impressive to readers over the centuries has been what one writer has called “an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ.” 19 That is, in him we see qualities and virtues we would ordinarily consider incompatible in the same person. We would never think they could be combined but, because they are, they are strikingly beautiful. Jesus combines high majesty with the greatest humility, he joins the strongest commitment to justice with astonishing mercy and grace, and he reveals a transcendent self-sufficiency and yet entire trust in and reliance upon his heavenly Father. We are surprised to see tenderness without any weakness, boldness without harshness, humility without any uncertainty, indeed, accompanied by a towering confidence. Readers can discover for themselves his unbending convictions but complete approachability, his insistence on truth but always bathed in love, his power without insensitivity, integrity without rigidity, passion without prejudice.
One of the most counterintuitive combinations in Jesus’s life, that of truth and love, is seen everywhere in the pages of the Gospels. Then as now, people rejected and shamed those who held beliefs or practices that they thought wrong and immoral. But Jesus astonished everyone by being willing to eat with tax collectors, collaborators with the occupying Roman imperial forces. This outraged those we might call the “Left,” those zealous against oppression and injustice. But he also welcomed and ate with prostitutes (Matthew 21: 31– 32), which offended those promoting conservative, traditional morality on the “Right.” Jesus deliberately and tenderly touched lepers (Luke 5: 13), people who were considered physically and ceremonially contaminated but who were desperate for human contact. Yet he also ate repeatedly with Pharisees (Luke 7: 36– 50; 11: 37– 44; 14: 1– 4), showing that he was not bigoted toward the bigoted. He forgave the enemies who were crucifying him (Luke 23: 34) and the friends who were letting him down in the hour of his greatest need (Matthew 26: 40– 43).
Nevertheless, though welcoming and befriending all, Jesus was surprisingly insistent on bearing witness to the truth. Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector, was stunned by Jesus’s love and embrace of him, yet, when hearing his call to repent, he stopped his government-backed extortion racket (Luke 19: 1– 9). When Jesus encounters women who were considered sexually immoral by the society, he engaged them with a respect and graciousness that startled onlookers (Luke 7: 39; John 4: 9, 27). Yet he gently points out to the Samaritan woman the wreckage of her many failed relationships with men and calls her to find the soul satisfaction she has sought in his eternal life (John 4: 13– 18). In the famous account of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus says to her, in one breath, “Neither do I condemn you,” and in the next, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8: 11). 20 Here we see the counterintuitive but brilliant conjunction of both truth and love, both a passion for justice and a commitment to mercy. He is full of grace and truth (John 1: 14).
New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg explains that the religiously respectable of Jesus’s day refused to associate or eat with people considered sinners, such as tax collectors and prostitutes, for fear of becoming morally contaminated by them. Their friendship and love was given only conditionally, to those who had made themselves clean and pure. But Jesus turned the dominant social pattern on its head. He freely ate with the moral and social outcasts. He welcomed and befriended the impure and called them to follow him (Mark 2: 13– 17). He did not fear that they would contaminate him; rather, he expected that his wholesome love would infect and change them, and again and again this is what happened.
Keller, Timothy. Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (p. 234). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
What Jesus doesn’t avoid his culture war or try to rise above it, he relativizes it and contextualizes it within his own frame. The Romans aren’t the problem. Jewish nationalism isn’t the problem. These are all aspects of the human problem. No individual party offers a solution yet it isn’t the case that all failed solutions are equal. Remember, Jesus’ kingdom is not FROM this world but it is FOR this world and Jesus work was precisely to bring it for us.
Politics within our frame will tend to lead where it has always lead, to the strong marginalizing the weak and the political victors instilling their version of truth or justice upon those who don’t have the power to stand up to them. That is the story of humanity’s quest for utopia.
Our repeated attempts to resolve this continually perpetuate it and it is exacerbated by our secular framework which intensifies and accelerates the conflicts because we’ve got to get it all fixed in our short little lifetimes meaning that we rush our recalcitrant opponents into mockery, exile or death for the sake of what we imagine goodness to be.
Jesus comes into this cycle, as the Son of David, appropriating the image of an everlasting kingdom but completely upending the world’s imagination of how this kingdom can come. Instead of hoisting his enemies bodies upon poles, trees and crosses for their mockery and violent example making he is lifted up, his love for us at his expense is revealed, and in the resurrection vindicated. Jesus’ kingdom cannot fail because our chief tool of power, violence and death are un-done by his resurrection. The world that wields the sword stands impotent before the risen Lord and the means of coercion and marginalization we trust in are exposed to be bankrupt of any moral or effective power.
Should you lie to your children by telling them you will always protect them?
When they get old enough they will figure out for themselves that you cannot.
Aaron Sorkin believes that ultimately, even though he lost this battle he’ll prevail later.
Roxy, I know my predictions have let you down in the past, but personally, I don’t think this guy can make it a year without committing an impeachable crime. If he does manage to be a douche nozzle without breaking the law for four years, we’ll make it through those four years. And three years from now we’ll fight like hell for our candidate and we’ll win and they’ll lose and this time they’ll lose for good. Honey, it’ll be your first vote.
Really? Can he really promise is daughter that in the election of 2020 evil will be vanquished and whatever candidate runs then will usher in a kingdom of peace, justice and light? Wasn’t that the promise we were given in 2008? Who can possibly believe this?
Many look at Jesus’ promises and return as wishful thinking. Can you reasonably consider this to be anything but wishful thinking? And won’t his daughter who is now young also become old and die? Can Sorkin’s millions save her from the age of decay and the disappointments of this world? Would Sorkin even offer this?
Why are these people lying to their children? What kind of world do they think they are living in? Do they occupy the same world as the poor children of Haiti or Kenya or Thailand?
The son never set on the British empire until it did, as it does on every human empire that imagines it can through its politics and force of arms deliver to us the lives we’ve always wanted.
If in fact you believe that Jesus brings his kingdom not from this world but for this world, a kingdom where we learn to love our enemies rather than kill them, a kingdom where death itself is banished, how then should we live?
We should understand that politics is important and legitimate for Christians to participate in in terms of the kind of justice and love that Jesus embodied.
We should also know that all our politics is only provisional and is only capable for perhaps bearing witness to a kingdom that is coming. This changes how we see our adversaries and the level to which we freak out when things don’t go our way.
We battle not against flesh and blood which means that neither Hillary nor Donald are your ultimate friends or adversaries.
Your labor in the Lord is not in vain which means that even if the age of decay destroys whatever it is you’ve accomplished in your political work that God knows and will perfect the small starts we are able to achieve until he comes.
So if on November 9 you were rejoicing because your side won, congratulations. I hope your efforts are productive in making this world a better place to be.
If on November 9 you were in despair about the future of the country and of the world, examine your assumptions that are producing the emotions that are grabbing you. Remember what kind of world you live in. Remember how your lord Jesus worked his mission in this world, loving enemies, refusing to imagine that the Romans or the Herodians were what was really wrong with us. He not only fought for the dignity of those society hated but died on a cross for his enemies. In three days he rose again and will sit and judge the living and the dead. This is his story. This will be yours.
In Jesus your inheritance is secure. Love you neighbors, pray for those who persecute you, trust that your labors will not be in vain and look for his coming.
What should you tell your children? That even though in this world they will have trouble, Jesus has overcome the world and in him they are loved, forgiven, secure, and in Him will receive an inheritance that will never decay or fade.
Paul,do your children stick around long enough for all this? Incidentally what did Polk do with those states?
good word paul 🙂
You certainly aren’t very sentimental. I think the first thing that someone said to Katie and I after reemerging from our post wedding ceremony exodus was that we should probably ignore what the pastor said and that it wasn’t properly cheery. Don’t worry . . . We’ve ignored that advice.
I’m embarrassed to say that before the board meeting for Katie and My membership interview, I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about the resurrection. That question, what does the resurrection mean to you, kinda stumped me. That’s pretty bad for a guy that has a degree in theology!!! Haha. But I guess that is a concept and reality that is pretty weighty and maybe takes a while to have sink in. We’ll ever since I’ve dwelt on the question of the resurrection a lot and see how central it is to Christian Theology! I now realize how your teaching rhythm of Misery – Deliverance – Gratitude hinges on the resurrection . . . The Deliverance!!! Well now I can say, Thank God for the resurrection! It’s very freeing to think of life in terms of gratitude and resurrection.
I haven’t thought about it too much, but I can’t help but think about Wendell Berry after mentioning gratitude and resurrection – one famous line of his in particular, “Practice Resurrection.” I wonder what he means by this exactly. I wonder if he is talking about living in gratitude because of the resurrection; like live as though the resurrection were true . . . the deliverance -> gratitude combo.
Anyway, thanks for these. They are always helpful.
Oh you’re right Al, I’m not very sentimental. 🙂 And you’re also right about Berry. I don’t know his work much but I’m currently working on one of his novels. “Practice resurrection” I assume means that the Christian life is the living out the reality of the resurrection in the now-but-not-quite-yet reality we have. We can give our lives away because they have already been redeemed and our inheritance is already won and preserved for us. This should make us free and giving. Misery, Deliverance, Gratitude. 🙂