Does Jesus’ “Temple Tantrum” Negate Pacifism and Nonviolence?

It’s probably the story most people turn to when they want to throw a wrench in the gears of pacifism. “Jesus advocated nonviolence, you say? Well, what about when he flipped over tables and drove the moneychangers from the temple? Sounds pretty violent to me!”

Indeed it does. And, to be sure, this story, found in all four canonical Gospels, does provide a caution to pacifists against prohibiting all physical violence, much like the Matthean Jesus’ tirade against the scribes and Pharisees provides a caution against prohibiting all verbal violence.

But this caution comes with some rather large caveats.

First, the point of both this instance of physical violence by Jesus and his uses of verbal violence recorded in the Gospels is the same, and it is crucial to grasp: in each case Jesus is sending a clear warning to the powers that be who are abusing their power over others. They focus on purity over compassion, on strict adherence to the Law over mercy toward the needy, on maintaining their power and privilege over pursuing justice for the vulnerable and marginalized—and this really ticks Jesus off. You won’t find a single instance in the Gospels of Jesus verbally haranguing the poor or flipping the table of a widow—or a little child, or repentant sinner, or seeking Gentile, or any of those considered last, least, or lost in the eyes of the world.

Gospels scholars are pretty much united in recognizing that this incident in the temple was a kind of “enacted parable,” or maybe better, a kind of “prophetic symbol.” Jesus overturns tables and drives out animals in the temple courts not because that single action is actually going to halt temple commerce. Undoubtedly everyone picked up their tables, gathered their animals, and carried on with their business. But with this action Jesus served notice to the powers that be—the temple authorities, the watching Roman rulers—that their poor-oppressing and other-excluding ways were under God’s judgment.

This wasn’t a “temple tantrum” at all, but rather a deliberate, symbolic act of religious, political, and social activism.

Second, this incident does not sanction all uses of any kind of violence even for good ends. The fact remains that this is the one and only remembered incident in Jesus’ entire life and career where he used physical violence. The whole thrust of his teaching and life is against the use of violence and in favour of nonviolent resistance to powers gone bad. So, although this incident allows the possibility of Jesus-followers to use physical violence to send a message to the abusive powers that be, this is not the norm and must be done carefully, thoughtfully, and probably only as a last resort (as it apparently was for Jesus, John’s order of events notwithstanding).

Furthermore, the Gospel accounts of the incident do not give warrant for physical violence against human persons, let alone lethal violence of any kind. The only clearly described physical violence is against property: Jesus “overturned” the tables and chairs of the sellers and moneychangers, and “poured out” their coins. Yes, Jesus “drove out” the moneychangers and “would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple,” but the Gospels don’t say how exactly Jesus accomplished this. Was it his table flipping that drove them out? His verbal tirade? Maybe his “wild-eyed prophet” look, borrowed from his Baptist cousin? We don’t know. In John’s version, yes, Jesus makes a whip, but the whip is not used against people—the text specifically says it was used to drive out the “sheep and the cattle” (pantas exebalen ek tou hierou ta te probata kai tous boas).

So yes, by all means, let’s take Jesus’ tirade in the temple into account when we’re considering a Christian pacifism or Christian nonviolence. Let’s allow it to provide a necessary caution against a kind of “pure nonviolence” that can turn into passive acceptance of evil or self-righteous denunciation of all forms of violence.

But let’s also read the Gospel accounts of this story carefully, and let’s set this single remembered incident of Jesus’ use of physical violence—nonlethal, against property not persons—in the context of a whole life and teaching that is consistent in emphasizing justice through nonviolence, peace through selfless love.

Jesus and Hell

I preach the good news of Jesus, including Jesus’ way of radical, nonviolent love. As one might expect, I get some pushback on this. “What about sin?” I hear frequently. “What about God’s judgment?” “What about God’s wrath?”

“What about hell?”

Yes, what about hell? After all, Jesus mentions hell more than anyone else in the New Testament. There’s this handy bit of practical advice, for example: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” Or this lovely bit of encouragement: “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?”

I’ll admit that my first thought when I hear these kinds of questions is that if anyone thinks my idea of love doesn’t include ideas of sin and its consequences, they aren’t listening. More on point, though, is this: if we want to understand Jesus on hell, we need to read these Gospel teachings carefully, in context, across the Testaments.

Most of the time in the Gospels, the “hell” Jesus mentions is “Gehenna.” The other times when Jesus refers to a hellish judgment, ideas of “Gehenna” are probably still in the background.

“Gehenna” is a reference to a very particular place—and it’s not some location under the earth run by the devil and staffed by his demons. “Ge-henna” refers to the “valley of Hinnom,” a small valley running along the south and west of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Gehenna today

I’ve been there—there’s nothing hellish about it at all. Nor was there in Jesus’ day.

Sometimes you’ll hear that in Jesus’ day there was a perpetually burning garbage dump in the Hinnom valley. But that’s not the case. This idea seems to have originated from a Rabbi centuries after Jesus. In Jesus’ day there was nothing hellish about Gehenna at all.

What was hellish about the valley of Hinnom was its history. There are several Old Testament passages that describe the hellish history of Gehenna. They’re all similar, but to get a taste of hell let’s focus in on one of these—Jeremiah 7, starting with 7:31:

And they [the people of Judah] go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I [Yahweh, the Lord] did not command, nor did it come into my mind.

Here we learn three key points about Gehenna, the valley of Hinnom.

1) The fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God.

In fact, 2) God abhorred the fires of Gehenna.

And why did God so despise the fires of Gehenna? Because 3) they were the epitome of senseless human violence, particularly violence against the most vulnerable.

But there’s more to the story of Jeremiah 7. The people of Judah are appealing to their own special status before God, hoping this will save them from foreign invasion. “The temple of Yahweh is here!” they cry—as if that will help them. “Look,” they say, “we offer all the proper sacrifices!”—as if that will make a difference.

But any special status they think they have is an illusion, all their acts of righteousness are irrelevant, because they are “oppressing the alien, the orphan, and the widow, and shedding innocent blood.” They are committing grave injustices against the most vulnerable among them—of which burning their sons and daughters in the fires of Gehenna was the most horrific.

All this explains why the tables turn at the end of the chapter:

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.

Gehenna back in Moloch’s day

It’s a soul-shuddering reference to Jerusalem’s impending doom, the city’s destruction at the hands of the ruthless Babylonian armies. The people’s religiously righteous acts and supposed special status aren’t going to save them.

And all their injustice, all their oppression, all their senseless violence against the most vulnerable? It’s going to rebound against them in equally horrific fashion, until the valley of Hinnom becomes an enduring symbol of God’s judgment on the self-righteous strong who oppress the marginalized weak.

To our three points about Gehenna’s fires above we can now add three more:

4) Gehenna symbolizes God’s judgment, but this divine judgment is not an “angry God directly inflicting violence upon sinners for eternity” judgment.

It’s a 5) “reap what you sow” judgment—if we sow violence, injustice, and oppression, we will reap that violence, injustice, and oppression upon ourselves, in very human, very natural, ways, within human history and not beyond it.

It’s a 6) judgment specifically upon the powerful, those with social or economic or political or religious clout, for the ways in which they oppress and commit violence against the weak, those on the bottom rungs of our social and economic and political and religious hierarchies.

With this background on Gehenna in mind, we can now fully appreciate Jesus’ words on hell in the Gospels.

Jesus isn’t talking about a “literal hell” where unrepentant unbelievers go after they die to be tortured in God’s inferno for all eternity.

He’s talking about the violent consequences of our own violent actions, right here in our lived lives, right here in human history.

He’s talking about such consequences especially for those who use their power to oppress the weak, who live in wealth in indifference to the poor, who have the means to care for the sick and clothe the naked and feed the hungry but refuse to do so, who rest secure in their status and privilege while committing grave injustices against the vulnerable and the marginalized.

And he’s talking in particular to the uber-religious, the people who think they’re on God’s side because they believe the right things or do the right rituals—but they burden others with moral demands while doing nothing to help them, they focus on minor moral issues while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy and allegiance to God above all other powers that be.

These are sobering words, serious warnings, for every age and certainly our own. But all this is right in line with the good news of Jesus and Jesus’ way of love.

After all, there’s nothing more loving, nothing more like Jesus, than standing in solidarity with the powerless, the stepped-upon, the pushed-to-the-side, and standing up to the oppressive powers that be—whatever the cost to ourselves.

And it is this hell of our own harmful actions and their destructive consequences—our sin and all its death—that Jesus has come to save us from. Jesus calls us to leave behind our damaging, violent ways and follow him in his path of compassionate, inclusive, forgiving, self-giving love. If we don’t do this the result will only be death for ourselves, for others, for the world. But if we do this we will find life, full and flourishing life for all.

This is love. This is Jesus. This is good news indeed.

I’m an Atheist

Okay, it’s confession time: I’m an atheist.

It’s true. But probably not in the way you’re thinking.

atheistEarly Christians were sometimes called “atheists,” did you know that? Not because they didn’t believe in God, but because they didn’t believe in the Romans’ gods. In a world in which there were many “gods” and “lords,” for Christians there was only the one true God, the Creator, and one true Lord, Jesus.

So this is what I mean when I say I’m an atheist. I’m using the word in its ancient sense. I mean there are plenty of “gods” that I don’t believe in—even some that are popular among Christians. Some of these are “gods” that I simply do not believe exist. Others are “gods” that, even if they do exist, do not hold my allegiance.

Here are a few of these gods I don’t believe in:

I don’t believe in a god who is a “supernatural being.” That is, I do not believe God is a bigger, stronger, and smarter version of ourselves—who also happens to be immortal and invisible. In fact, I do not believe God is “a being” at all, as if God is merely one being among many in the universe, albeit the most powerful one. Instead, I believe God is being itself, the One “in whom we live and move and have our being,” the One “from whom and through whom and for whom are all things.” God is that without which nothing would exist. God is being, not merely a being.

I gave up looking for “evidence” of God a long time ago, or denying God’s existence for lack of such evidence: “a being” might leave traces of its existence, but “being” just is. I also no longer look to God as an all-controlling chess master, or a benevolent grandparent, or a strict police officer. Some of these sorts of projections of ourselves are helpful metaphors, useful analogies for God (like God as “father” or “mother”). Others, I’m convinced, are distortions of the true and living God (like God as all-controlling chess master).

I don’t believe in a god who is simply a force, some kind of energy field or “higher power.” (Great, I just ticked off two groups I like: Star Wars fans and Alcoholics Anonymous.) Rather, I believe God is person—not only “personal” but personhood itself, consciousness itself, awareness of self in distinction from other and in relation to other. Just as there is something rather than nothing because God is, so also there is consciousness in the universe because God is.

I don’t believe in a god who commits violence, or commands it, or even endorses it. I believe “God is love”—not only “loving” but love itself, the giving of self for other, for the good of the other. God cannot be other than love; God cannot not love. God always and only works for the good of the other. That which brings flourishing life and well-being: this is God. That which damages or degrades or destroys: this is not-God. Just as there is something rather than nothing because God is, and there is consciousness in the universe because God is, so also there is good in the world because God is.

This is a hard thing for most Christians to accept, partly because many passages in the Bible don’t reflect this view of God, and partly, I think if we’re honest, because we like having a way to justify our own violence. Not outlandish, over-the-top violence, of course. Just our civilized violence, our sanitized violence: the death of vicious enemies over there, or of condemned criminals among us here, demons all. Yet because of Jesus I am convinced that God is love, not harm, and that God brings life, not death—even for enemies and criminals. Isn’t that the gospel?

I don’t believe in the gods “Prosperity” and “Security.” “Prosperity” goes by other names: “Wealth,” “Profit,” or simply “Success.” Jesus called it “Mammon,” and he said one cannot serve both this god and the one true God. Then there’s “Security,” also known as “Comfort” or “Safety.” Prosperity and Security are the twin gods of the modern nation-state. Listen to any political campaign, and these gods are sure to be invoked: “The Economy” and “National Security,” they’re often called. These twins are sacrosanct: they are so obviously good things, who would dare to question them? Who doesn’t want prosperity and security for themselves and those they love?

Yet Jesus never promised prosperity and security to his followers, and he so dramatically gave these up himself. The problem with them? When prosperity and security hold our highest allegiance, whether as individuals or as a society or as a nation during an election year, then we pursue them at the expense of others—including the ailing earth, the needy neighbour, the suffering stranger, and the enemy “other.” The end result is only loss for us all.

There’s a whole pantheon of gods I don’t believe in: the powers-that-be, or the “powers of this age.” These are all our social and political and economic structures and systems, along with the human leaders that support them and the internal “spirit” or ethos that drives them. Presidents and prime ministers, governments and administrations, nations and nationalism, kingdoms and empire, colonialism and racism, theocracy and democracy, capitalism and socialism and so many more.

These, too, are not all inherently bad. Some can bring social order out of chaos, after all. Many even originate out of a desire for the common good. But when we put all our hope in these people and processes, when we give our total allegiance to a nation or an ideology, we’re giving them a power that only belongs to God. Then we’re sure to be disappointed and that power will probably be abused. And when these powers-that-be perpetuate structural evil or systemic injustice, they become “evil powers.” And then they must be resisted, not followed; they must be defied, not deified. Some can be redeemed, but only through deep, collective repentance.

I admit it, I’m an atheist. But by that I simply mean I’m with the Apostle Paul: “There is no God but one. Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:4-6).

Related to modern atheism is another term: humanism. Check out Humanist Canada’s website to learn more. Many Christians have been “humanists” since humanist ideals were first formulated in the late Renaissance. I consider myself to be in the tradition of “Christian humanism.”

The Horrors of the Apocalypse

Revelation 6, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: domination, war, economic injustice, and death.

Revelation 8-9, the Seven Trumpets and Three Woes: volcanoes, earthquakes, plagues of insects and disease, and war, always more war.

Revelation 12-13, the Dragon and his Two Beasts: persecution, suffering, martyrdom for those who follow Jesus.

Revelation 15-16, the Seven Bowls of Wrath: the earth, the rivers, the seas, the skies, all touched with degradation and devastation, and death, always more death.

Awful, terrible, horrific things. Things almost too monstrous to mention.

War. Poverty. Drought. Famine. Disease. Climate catastrophes. Natural disasters. Religious persecution. Overwhelming death.

It’s only in the White West where we have had the luxury of being able to imagine these horrors as something still future, some future seven-year tribulation. But tell that to the 40 million who died in ancient China’s Three Kingdoms War, or the tens of millions—half Europe’s population—who succumbed to the Black Death in the Middle Ages, or the millions of indigenous persons swept under the first waves of conquering Europeans, or the millions who perished in the Bengal Famine of 1770, or the tens of thousands of Christians killed for their faith each year around the world.

There is no need to imagine all this as some future tribulation. This has been the human experience throughout our history. It was, it is, and it is to come.

This can be hard to accept on its own, but there’s something else that makes all this even more difficult to accept for us as Christians: Revelation, and indeed several passages in the Bible, describe many of these horrific realities as divine judgment.

But does God, in righteous wrath against sin, actually employ violence and destruction and death to exact judgment, to bring about justice? If so, how do we reconcile that with Jesus’ call to nonviolence, to love our enemies, to forgive seventy times seven times? And if not, how do we make sense of this kind of language in Revelation, or even elsewhere in the Bible?

There are several things in Revelation that suggest that all this is more complex than it first seems, and that notions of God seeking “retributive justice” or using “redemptive violence” are missing the point of Revelation’s language of divine judgment.

Yes, God judges human sin—but not by zapping us with lightning bolts of violence, not by doling out destruction with one hand and death with the other.

Lion-Lamb 2Let’s start with the first major vision of Revelation, Revelation 4-5. This vision sets the stage for everything else that follows in Revelation. It sets the tone for how we should imagine Jesus and God. And there God reigns through Jesus, and Jesus is the Lion of Judah—Israel’s Messiah—who reigns as the Lamb who has been slain.

Jesus does not reign as a tyrant, as a bully, as a cruel and violent despot. Jesus reigns as the one who is willing to die rather than kill, who rejects violence and coercion as the path to justice and peace.

This should sit like a burr in our brain, making us uncomfortable with connecting all these horrific things on earth with God’s reign from heaven.

Then look ahead to one of the last major visions of Revelation, the judgment scene in Revelation 20. There we have another clue that things are not as they seem. There, at the end of God’s judgment of all things, we are told that “Death and Hades” are themselves condemned and eradicated. To put this into Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

God does not deal in death; God is out to destroy it.

In short, both the first major vision of Revelation and one of the last visions highlight one crucial fact: violence and injustice and suffering and death are not the way of God, but they are the very enemies of God which God is seeking to eliminate.

So how do we make sense of all the visions in between that seem to say the opposite?

Think of those Four Horsemen of Revelation 6: domination, war, economic injustice, and death. Although these are portrayed as coming at the call of heaven, they are thoroughly human evils, originating in our own human greed and cruelty and reflecting a pattern seen throughout human history.

The same assessment could be made of all the expressions of “God’s wrath” in Revelation. Not just the killing and wars, but even the famines and diseases and degradations of the earth, the sea, and the skies—these are caused by human action, human harm, human sin. These are not “God directly inflicting punishment,” but rather “God giving people up to the consequences of their sinful actions.”

This is exactly how Paul describes “God’s wrath” in Romans 1. Paul says that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness.” And how is that “wrath of God” revealed? Paul goes on: by God “giving us over” to our sins, to experience the full impact of our own destructive attitudes and actions.

No wonder Revelation repeatedly calls on humans to repent.

Then take a look at the two beasts of Revelation 13. Revelation scholars agree that these beasts do not represent specific human leaders (e.g. Nicolae Carpathia) but rather the Roman empire and its imperial cult. These beasts, in other words, are human structures and systems of power gone wrong.

Our human structures for organizing society—our political structures, our economic systems, our religious structures—these can become inhuman, corrupt and cruel, perpetuating injustice and bringing more death than life. At that point, these “powers that be” become “evil powers.” They become beasts.

These beasts, then, and the diabolical ethos that animates them, are not God’s creation. God does not make them. They are not God’s instruments. God does not use them. They are God’s enemies. In fact, we discover by the end of Revelation that the devil and his beasts, all these evil “powers that be,” face the same fate as “Death and Hades”: they are condemned and eradicated.

Evil is not God’s instrument; it is God’s enemy.

God does not deal in death and destruction. God does not stand behind oppressive governments and unjust economic systems. All these things—all the horrors depicted in Revelation, all the horrors experienced in human history—all these things are the very things God condemns, the very things Jesus came to deliver us from.

This way of understanding Revelation is both comforting and disturbing.

It is comforting to know that God does not use violence and destruction and death at all, even to bring about good. As John 10 says, it is the thief who seeks to steal and kill and destroy, not Jesus—Jesus brings life. If there is anything that brings hurt or harm, damage or devastation or death, that thing is decidedly not-God.

SeraphAnd this means there is more than meets the eye in Revelation. All those depictions of God’s judgment being a sort of violent vengeance, a kind of retribution, cannot mean what we think they mean at first glance. God is out to eliminate human sin, evil powers, even death itself—but not human persons. As Ephesians 6 puts it, “our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness.”

Yet in another way, all this is very disturbing. For it means that we are our own worst enemy. Our selfishness, our self-indulgence, our unbridled aggression, our prejudice, our capacity for cruelty, our political oppression, our corporate greed—this is what lies behind so much of the violence and death our world experiences, the degradation and devastation even of the earth itself.

This is the judgment of God. This is God’s assessment of the human predicament.

Hear, then, what the Spirit is saying to us. Hear the call of God for us to repent, to “come out of Babylon and not take part in her sins,” to resist the lure of our world’s “powers that be” gone wrong, to say a firm “No!” to the corruption and injustice and oppression of human structures of power gone bad. Hear the call of Jesus the Lamb to follow him in his cross-shaped footsteps, his footsteps of selfless self-giving for the good of the other, for the good of all, even in the face of death.

In this is the salvation of God. This is the path to the kingdom of God, God’s reign of justice and peace and flourishing life.

Here’s the next post in this series on Revelation: “The (S)Word-Wielder”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on April 17, 2016. The first image is a painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. All other images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

What Did Og Ever Do to You?

The Lord struck down many nations
and killed mighty kings—
Sihon, king of the Amorites,
and Og, king of Bashan,
and all the kingdoms of Canaan—
and gave their land as a heritage,
a heritage to his people Israel.

This was part of our morning prayers this week, this snippet from Psalm 135. It’s a psalm of praise to God, declaring the worship-worthiness of Yahweh. Yahweh is good and gracious! Yahweh is great and powerful! Yahweh’s goodness and greatness are shown in his awesome deeds!

Awesome deeds like killing Egypt’s firstborn, destroying nations and annihilating peoples, and slaying kings like Og, king of Bashan.

Yep.

Og's Bed

Og’s bed

And what did Og do to deserve such a fate? Simply this: he stood up on behalf of his people against an invading army, which just happened to be the army of ancient Israel, who just happened to be Yahweh’s tribe. And so, the original story goes, the Israelites “killed him, his sons, and all his people, until there was no survivor left; and they took possession of his land” (Num 21:33-35).

Ugh.

Not my favourite way to reflect on God’s gracious goodness. And not my favourite way to prompt prayer and worship on a bleary-eyed morning.

But yet I read it. And I reflected on it. And I prayed to God based on it. How in the world could I do that?

I’ve offered many thoughts already on this blog about how we as Christians should read the Bible, including the Old Testament. In general terms it boils down to this: the Bible points us to Jesus, and we follow Jesus.

That’s all well and good, and I’m convinced it is the right way for us as Christians to think about the Bible and how this collection of God-inspired, ancient human writings should function as authoritative Scripture for us.

But how do we then read specific passages, especially passages that make us go “ugh”?

What do we do with Og?

Well, here’s what I do with these biblical passages, and what I did Tuesday morning when the psalmist’s Schadenfreude over Og’s fate zapped me out of my comfortable morning fog.

First, I recognize these stories and songs for what they are: reflections of an ancient tribal culture with its contexts of tribal gods, tribal enemies, and tribal warfare. For me, this doesn’t in any way negate the divine inspiration of these texts—it certainly affects my understanding of how the inspiration of Scripture works, but not that the biblical texts are divinely inspired. I’ve written on this elsewhere, so I won’t belabour the point here: any notion we have of Scripture’s inspiration must take into account the simple realities of what these ancient writings are.

And what we have here is stark tribalism at work. Us versus them. Our god versus their gods. We win, they lose. Our god is greater than their gods. Yay for us! All praise to our god!

Sounds pretty pathetic when I put it just like that. Yet that’s the logic at work here, and we do ourselves no favours when we try to ignore it or deny it.

And it would be pathetic—and tragic—if we stopped there. But we’re not done yet.

I then read these stories and songs through the lens of other Scripture, especially later Scripture, especially the New Testament, and most especially Jesus. Throughout the Bible you have strong hints that this kind of tribalistic perspective is not really the best perspective to have, that it’s not really what God is looking for.

From the creation narratives pointing through Israel to all humanity, to stories of non-Israelites playing key roles in God’s work in the world, to the Hebrew prophets pointing beyond Israel’s present to God’s wider work among the nations—the Old Testament itself deconstructs its own tribalism.

This trajectory continues in the New Testament, centred on Jesus: through Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, God’s kingdom comes on earth for all peoples. The tribes of the earth become reflections of delightful diversity, not reasons for death and destruction.

All this points to a re-thinking of our “enemies.” Human, flesh-and-blood “enemies” are not our true enemies after all. Rather, humanity is united against a common enemy: our own sin and its resulting death. Og is not the problem. We’re the problem: our recycled attitudes and actions of harm against ourselves, others, our world, and ultimately God.

God's Bed

God’s bed

And all this points to a re-thinking of “God.” God is not like us only bigger. God doesn’t mirror our prejudices and dogmas. God doesn’t happen to hate all the people we hate. God loves the world—all of us, every tribe, every nation, every person. Even Og. And God comes to lift us out of our sin and death, to lift us out of our cycles of violence and harm, not through ever-greater displays of power and force but through ever-deeper expressions of selfless love.

Finally, I pray these stories and songs in this re-thought way, and seek to live in light of God’s fuller revelation of himself in Jesus. As I prayed this clip of Psalm 135 this week, in my mind I was converting the words about flesh-and-blood enemies into words about humanity’s real enemies. I read “Sihon and Og” but thought “Sin and Death.”

God has looked past our tribalism to our humanity, and through the crucified and risen Jesus God conquers our cruelty, our deceit, our prejudice, and more. God is greater than our fears! God is mightier than our hatred! Yay for all of us! All praise to our Creator God!

But this, of course, is not all, these joyful praises in private prayer. As I left our morning prayers Tuesday morning, my thoughts lingered in that space.

How do we continue to perpetuate that ancient tribalistic mindset? (Us versus them, our god versus their gods, we win, they lose, our god is greater than their gods.)

How do we do that as groups of people? (Mennonites, Christians, Straight-White-Males, Canada, The West.)

How do I do that in my everyday life? (My rights, my privileges, my little kingdom, mine, mine, mine.)

Ugh.

It was so much easier to just blame Og.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.