The text for our reflection this morning comes from the story of Elijah, the most well-known prophet of the 9th century BCE.
The story of Elijah begins in the 17th chapter of 1 Kings. At that point in the history of the nation, Israel is divided into two. If you were here last Sunday you will recall, the arrogance of the son of Solomon, Rehoboam, led to the revolt of the ten northern tribes under Jeroboam. Our story takes place in the north when Ahab is the King of those 10 tribes. His father had arranged a political marriage with Jezebel to unite Israel with the coastal region of Tyre. And Jezebel brings with her all of her traditions and practices, including the worship of Baal, a fertility God. And so she brings in prophets of Baal into Northern Israel.
Well, God is not pleased with that development, and so sends Elijah to Ahab to announce a drought. And then Elijah promptly leaves and goes and takes refuge with the widow of Sidon for three years, a story alluded to by Jesus when he is given an opportunity to teach in his home synagogue in Nazareth.
We pick up the story in the 18th chapter of 1 Kings. God sends Elijah to Ahab to announce the end of the drought, and this is the way that story reads:
1 Kings 18:17-39
Now, that verse is the end of the reading for this Sunday. The lectionary committee, in their wisdom, said ‘Good pastor, you can stop there. Do NOT read the next verse’. Now you’re dying of curiosity. The next verse says: v. 40
I’d like to share with you one of my deepest convictions out of my faith for which this last verse is critical, but in the reverse. My conviction is this: if we want to get the ending right, to the story that we are now living, then we must get the beginning right. That is to say, correct understanding of the biblical story is essential if we want the modern story to have a happy ending.
For the biblical story reveals both the deepest origins of trouble, not only in the holy land, but everywhere, and reveals also its resolution. Typically we think of the story of the Garden of Eden, right, as the origin of sin, the fall from grace, the temptation of the serpent, and we know it was all Eve’s fault J.
But, there are many stories in the Bible that describe those origins in different ways. The story of Cain & Abel — no women to blame in that story, when violence was introduced into human society. The tower of Babel with its hubris, the pride reserved only for God that brings down the civilization.
The Exodus story, the systemic oppression of an entire people. The story of Job, contemplating on the source of evil. The story last Sunday of the arrogance of Rehoboam, threatening to rule more harshly than his father, resulting in the dissolution of the united kingdom. There’s much for us, even today, we can learn from all of these stories.
The Elijah story reveals also another source of trouble. Only I am not sure that those who passed this story on to us saw it in quite the same way that I do. The story of the contest between the prophets of Baal and Elijah, is a story of redemptive violence. That is, the idea that violence can be used to redeem some wrong, some evil (in this case, the worship of Baal).
The story is a classic David v. Goliath story. One prophet against 450. Or, if you count the 400 prophets of Asherah that are for some odd reason mentioned at the beginning of the story and then left out in the remainder of the story, it’s 1 against 850. And of course, in such stories, God is always on the side of the underdog, right? With the exception of the Ducks, of course! God is always on the side of the Ducks!
On Mount Carmel, Elijah was greatly outnumbered. But he’s not worried, is he? He knows he has God on his side. And when he gets the people on his side as well, what does he do? He massacres the other prophets. Wipes them all out.
Now this strikes us as a rather brutal ending to the story, and hence normally left out of the lectionary reading. Nobody likes to be reminded of such things in worship, unless your image of God is Bruce Willis in a Die Hard movie. But note that there’s nothing in the scripture that says that the killing was God’s idea. It’s just Elijah’s doing.
And it’s no more brutal than anything that is portrayed today in T.V. and even what we see in the news. And whether it is a comic made into a movie — Spiderman, Batman, Iron Man and now we have what, Super Girl? Where is Sigourney Weaver when we need her? — or a science-fiction drama like Star Wars or an old-fashioned cowboy western movie, the story is always the same. Our hero is outnumbered. And then gets beat up, or some other innocent person is beat up by those villains before the hero gains the upper hand and in the nick of time kills all of the bad guys, wipes them all out, leaving audiences — ancient and modern — to cheer.
Yeah, it feels good. And the message is clear: when you are on the right side, God’s side, you can use all the violence you want because you are acting with the blessing of God in this cosmic battle against evil.
Only there’s a problem with this story, isn’t there? It’s not the way it usually works in the real world. And that is my problem with the myth of redemptive violence: it does not work.
First of all, there is the problem of who gets to determine which side God is on. German soldiers wore belt buckles that said Gott mit uns (“God With Us”). Suicide bombers are known to proclaim “God is Great” before they push that button. Everyone thinks God is on their side. Even that deranged mass killer thinks he has been wronged in some way by society, or women, or the other students or their boss, and that justifies the violence and killing. In some way everyone thinks they can be redeemed by the violence used for their cause. Kill the false prophets because they had it coming.
The second problem is that redemptive violence becomes a tool of government to justify each and every war. It is only through this violence, we are told that we can redeem the wrong that has been done to us or to others or reclaim what is rightfully ours.
Biblical scholar Walter Wink names all the problems with the myth of redemptive violence in his book “Engaging the Powers”: “This myth speaks for God, it does not listen for God to speak. … It misappropriates the language, symbols, and scriptures of Christianity. It does not seek God in order to change, it claims God in order to prevent change. Its God is not the impartial rule of all nations, but a biased and partial tribal God worshipped as an idol. Its metaphor is not the journey, but a fortress. Its symbol is not the cross, but a rod of iron. It offers not forgiveness, but victory. Its good news is not the unconditional love of enemies, but their final liquidation. Its salvation is not a new heart, but a successful foreign policy. It is blasphemous, it is idolatrous, and it is immensely popular”.
“This violence”, says Wink, “is the ethos of our time. It is the spirituality of the modern world. It, and not Christianity, is the real religion of America”.
Those are heavy words. And if Wink is right, in his assessment of our worship of violence, then the proponents of war to right the wrongs of other nations are the prophets of Baal of our day. If we continue to blindly follow where they lead, we will become that which we seek to destroy. Wink calls this “mimetic violence” — violence that mimics the enemy, and thereby becomes evil itself.
He says “My point is not simply that war is bad. The issue is far deeper. It is that war draws intelligent, rational, decent people into mimetic violence. Before they realize it, they are themselves doing or condoning acts of utter barbarity and feel unable to act otherwise.”
And what is especially thought-provoking about Wink and his book “Engaging the Powers” is that he did not write this in the aftermath of September 11th, after the pre-emptive war against Iraq, after Guantanamo Bay, and so on and so forth. He wrote it 9 years before any of that began.
It’s precisely why I say if we want to get the story right today, we need to get it right from the Bible. And Wink is one of those, I think, who does.
What he makes powerfully clear is also clear in the story of Elijah, namely, redemptive violence simply does not work. Note that the authors in this story carefully tell us “All of Israel” gathers there on the mountain. Must have been a pretty big mountain, or a pretty small nation — they “all” gathered there in front of Elijah. And Elijah calls them “all” closer. This is typical, classic hyperbole — I’ve told you a million times not to exaggerate, right?
And it’s a little clue that we can’t take the story literally, it’s symbolic. They are “all” there to see, and to say, two times, “The Lord is indeed God”. And then they kill the false prophets. Eradicate the evil-doers and you will get rid of evil, right? That’s what we’re told.
Only we get to the end of the story in 1 Kings, and what does it say? Ahaziah, the son of Ahab, continues to worship Baal. The killing of the prophets does not stop the ‘evil’. And if that is not a message about the futility of waging war on evil with swords and guns and bombs, then I am not a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So please hear this message of scripture, write it down, recite it whenever you hear discussion about the war on terror: killing the evil-doers does not kill evil. Never has, never will. In fact, it only perpetuates and multiplies the evil.
So why do we keep trying to do what has never been done, which is impossible to do, which is counter-productive? There is one way, and only one way, scripture teaches us, to rid the world of evil and that is to fill the world with God. And that is precisely the solution presented throughout scripture. That is why you never hear Jesus advocating that we kill the enemy, not even those who execute him.
Elijah says to the people “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?”. Make up your mind, will it be the God Yahweh or the God Baal? And later in the story it reads “They (the false prophets) limped about the alter they had made”. In both cases, “limp” here refers to shifting weight from one leg to the other. The story is using that image of the ritual dance as a way of saying it’s time to quit jumping from one to the other, it’s time to put both feet on the ground in favor of God, the Lord of Israel. To rely solely on God, or more precisely, to rely on the way of God rather than the way of the world.
Or as we Christians might say it, to rely on the way of Jesus rather than the way of Rome. The way of the cross rather than the way of the crown. The way of servant-hood rather than the way of lordship. The way of sharing rather than the way of hoarding. The way of generosity rather than the way of greed. The way of peace rather than the way of killing.
We really do have a choice. Every day we make the choice between God and Baal. Between peace and violence. Between life and death. It’s our choice, it’s no one else’s. It’s not the government’s, it’s not even the church’s. It’s each of us.
The time has come for us to choose. May we choose the God of peace and love, which is the way of salvation.