Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Comparative Religion

During the summer I spent in Chicago working for the Cubs, I took a weekend off to visit a friend in the middle of Illinois. During that stay in an area heavily populated by those of Swedish ancestry, the father of my friend told me a joke.

This Swede began to tell a joke about two Norwegians (a rival nation): “These two Norwegians, Olaf and Sven, were walking down the road…” But before he could even really begin, one of his friends stopped him and said, “You can’t tell that joke. It’s not politically correct. You can’t make fun of people. Try this instead. When you want to tell a joke, don’t tell it about two Norwegians or about any other people still around. Choose a biblical people who don’t exist anymore…like Hittites or Amalekites. There aren’t any of them around, so you can make fun of them.” Satisfied though a little off-put by the friendly instruction, the Swede began his joke again: “There were two Hittites, Olaf and Sven, walking down the road…”

I didn’t laugh. I knew it was funny, and I knew why it was funny, but I didn’t laugh. Looking back at that joke over the years has made it even funnier, and today’s Old Testament lesson (Deuteronomy 9:4-12) drives that point home. There really aren’t any Hittites or Amalekites hanging around anymore. The Israelites drove them out of the land they were possessing as a divine imperative. Nowadays, we call those sorts of military conquests “genocide,” but back then it was simply “God’s will.”

In today’s lesson, Moses gives an important qualification to the Israelite’s indiscriminate exercise of military might. He says to God’s people, “Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land’; whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you.” It’s a familiar theme: “You didn’t earn this; it is gift.” But, in this case, it feels a little different.

Ultimately, contemporary Christians (and probably Jews, too) fail to find a good way of excusing or explaining some of the atrocities of the Hebrew scriptures, but in this speech by Moses we do find a “right-er” way of approaching this dark chapter in human history. We cannot revel in the glory of a bloody victory without also acknowledging the role of divine purpose of which we ourselves are just observers. In other words, if this military campaign really was God’s will (or at least seemed to be at the time), we can’t confuse that with our own righteousness or goodness. We can’t triumph over our enemies because God thinks we’re better than they are. We must accept that God’s will for our enemies isn’t necessarily a reflection of our own identity.

This may sound like splitting hairs, and if you read this as someone trying to excuse genocide than it will be no better than that. I’m not trying to say that Israel was right (or wrong) to thrust out the Hittites, Amalekites, and all the other people. All I’m saying is that Moses reminded God’s people that they weren’t the reason for their victory. If we ever fool ourselves into thinking that God’s will is for us to succeed because we’re better than someone else, we’ve fallen into the deepest trap of human evil imaginable. We must hold firmly in our minds that, whatever God’s will might be, we share the same sinful humanity of those on the other side of the battlefield. We are not fighting because we are “purer” or “more righteous” than our enemies. To do so would be a modern crusade against an abstract principle rather than a tangible humanity.

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