Creating an Alternative Community 06/10/2018
Sojourn Sermon – 1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-5
I suspect that our text for today needs some context. It is, in many ways a tragic story because it is story of great failure. The failure of a radical and alternative way of being in the world that had been established in the early Mosaic community.
According to Walter Brueggemann, this “alternative community of Moses,” as he calls it, stood in sharp contrast to ancient near eastern empires like Assyria, Babylon, and most notably, Egypt. These empires were characterized by economic models designed to create affluence for the elite through oppressive social policies that guaranteed surplus for the royalty and nobility and scarcity for the masses. This affluence and oppression were made possible in part by religious apparatuses that justified such policies. Imperial religions worshiped local and national gods that were often closely associated with the ruling elite, especially in Egypt where Pharaoh was seen to be a god himself.
The tradition we find in scripture is that the people of God emerged from the lowest stratum of one of these kinds of Empires. Slaves of Egypt, and the story of their liberation from such bondage would become an essential element in their religious practice and self-understanding. This self-understanding of Israel as a liberated people can be detected in their social codes, what is often called Torah, or the Mosaic law. Often, in books like Deuteronomy, the divine ordinance is accompanied by a call to remember. “Remember,” the Lord speaks through Moses, “That you were once slaves in Egypt.”
What’s more, the social mandates we find in Mosaic law often completely subvert the social order of those imperial states I just mentioned. For example, if we look back to Deuteronomy 5, where the Sabbath is instituted we find that the practice of resting for a day is directly tied to the experience of slavery in Egypt. The text reads:
“The seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
The Sabbath is about freedom. God is a liberating God. Israel is a liberated people. In instituting Sabbath rest, the Mosaic Law affirms that the people of Israel are no longer slaves. Unlike slaves, they can take a day off. They are free to rest from their work. And everyone in their society ought to be given time to rest as well.
This is the alternative community of Moses, where the God of the people is not a God that is associated and supportive of an Imperial regime but is instead a God of the underling, of the oppressed. The God of Israel is a God who cares about rest for foreigners and slaves, even beasts of burden. If society is to be ordered around the worship of this God, it’s not going to look like Egypt or Assyria or Babylon. So Walter Brueggemann goes on to say, “[Moses’] work is nothing less than an assault on the consciousness of the empire, aimed at nothing less than the dismantling of the empire both in its social practices and in its mythic pretensions.”
So in the immediate aftermath of the conquest of Canaan, which is of course deeply problematic and is a huge hurtle that people of faith must wrestle with, but one that we don’t have time to discuss right now. In the immediate aftermath of the conquest of Canaan, God does not institute a monarchy. Instead God institutes the office of Judge, and these judges are called to bring the people of faith back in YHWH when they begin to follow other gods. The book of Judges and the first part of 1 Samuel tell the story of this period in the larger story of Israel. As the people continue to be unsuccessful in battle and continue to be dominated by other tribes in the region, they come to Samuel and they ask him to anoint for them a king.
Now it is important to note here that the Bible is not a monolith. It rarely, if ever, represents a unified view on a given issue. One issues that has multiple views represented in scripture is whether or not the establishment of a monarchy was a high point or a low point in the story of Israel. There are some scripture texts that are very pro-monarchy, and there are some that are very anti-monarchy. Our text for today represents the later view. This text would be considered a very anti-monarchy text.
There’s an important interpretive key here that I think helps us understand what is so problematic about the people of God having a king. The people want a king so that they may be like other nations. They say it twice, first when they come to Samuel and recognize that his sons do not follow in his ways, and second after Samuel gives them this long warning about what it will mean for the people to have a king. The warning is that monarchal systems of governance, or any hierarchical system of governance for that matter, will result in slavery. Nevertheless the people demand a king, and God gives them what they want. When the OT texts are finally edited, after the Babylonian exile, the editors largely blame the affluence of the monarchy for the fall of the Israelite state.
Three Mennonite scholars, Marion Bontrager, Michelle Hershberger, and John Sharp, in their book, The Bible as Story, refer to this event as the “monarchic crisis.” I used the term failure, and I think both are equally true. The establishment of the monarchy is a failure of the people to live as an alternative to the to the surrounding empires, and it is a crisis of identity because in this moment the people fail to remember that they were once slaves in Egypt. They go from being a liberated people, whose defining moment was being delivered from slavery to a people who will enslave others. This is Samuel warning.
We can see how this plays out in people’s understanding of God. God goes from being the God of the lowest stratum of society to the tribal God of the monarchy, the God of David. Worship of this God becomes centralized in the temple in Jerusalem. The Kings of Judah and Israel become lavish and decadent. Solomon build a huge haram. There are dynastic disputes and assassinations and rebellions and rape and murder and all the while the people suffer in support of the royalty and nobility. Read the stories in 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and second Kings. Read the prophets.
So in the end, the people get exactly what they want: they begin to look exactly like other nations.
Samuel’s warning, I think, can be boiled down to this: when the people of God begin to trade in those attributes that makes them distinct it will be at a great cost. The people of God will fail to live as a radical alternative and experience a crisis of identity, which in turn will shape how we view God.
Now, perhaps it’s rare that people actually look to themselves or their colleagues and say I want to shed those things that make us distinct. I think it’s rather commonplace, however, that the temptation presents itself. Scripture speaks of this tendency in Romans 12. Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This language of “being conformed to this world,” I think, is roughly the NT equivalent of losing those things that make the people of God distinct. You may have even heard this term before.
Since the late modern period, in North American Christianity, this idea of conforming to the world or maintaining a distinct identity is often associated with moralistic virtues. If you grew up in circles like the ones I did, this might mean rejecting or accepting a series of doctrinal positions: rejecting evolution and accepting young earth creationism. Rejecting gay marriage and accepting heterosexual marriage. Rejecting abortion and accepting personhood at conception. Those are probably the most commonly expressed Christian distinctive in the US.
Now, I’m going to bet that all of you had some kind of emotional or visceral reaction to all those purported Christian distinctive. As far as each dichotomy goes, you probably feel like the tendency to reject or accept these doctrinal positions is obvious. Christians, you might say ought to believe this about abortion, gay marriage, evolution, and not that about those things. I’m I right? Do you all feel like you have thought about these kinds of issues that are articulable? Good, I’m glad. It is a good things that you do.
The question I want to ask is, “What do you think about people on the other side of those issues?” How do we engage with people on the other side of these issues? What do we think about ourselves in relation to people on the other side of this issues? What do we think about the idea of having sides?
They way of empire in our own context, I think, is the way of division. It involves creating tribes of likeminded people who demonize the people of the other tribe. It really doesn’t not matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on. It has become the way of political engagement in the US. For example, we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks we saw a very high profile case of name calling where late night host Samantha Bee called Ivanka Trump something I think she should not have called her. Although Samantha Bee apologized and although I can honestly feel her frustration because the context of the insult was in the current administration’s policy to separate children from their parent at the border, I still think this kind of engagement is the way of empire in our own time.
Divide, delegitimize, attack. We are blessed that, for the time being, this kind of political engagement is currently mostly formed in our words. But words can easily become actions.
I have to admit, I’m drawn to this form of engagement. More often than not, I’m not interested in being around people who think differently. More often than not, my tendency is to dismiss people who think differently as being less educated or from living isolated lives where they don’t have to interact with diverse groups of people. More often than not, I tend to insult and demean others before I seek to understand.
This isn’t the kind of radical alternative God calls me to. This isn’t the way of a free people. It is the way of slavery, and it is not the vision of God’s liberated people. This tendency invites me to create a God in my own image, in service of my regime, if you will, and turn that God against others. But when we do this, we are actually rejecting God for a tribal deity. Rather than heeding the warning that if we abandon the radical alternative, we intern will begin to look more and more like the systems of power we claim to reject.
The radical alternative to this Imperial logic is a vision of God’s peace for all people, even those with whom we disagree and would perhaps enslave us. The radical alternative for God’s liberated people is the realization that God is the God of all people, not just your tribe.
The difficulty of our context, and indeed every context, is that people’s lives are at stake. The US is so divided because the issues are actually important, and I don’t want to suggest to you the we become equivocal and reticent about issues that matter a great deal. Instead I want to suggest to you that our call to live as a radical alternative is to seek a third way, to train our hearts not to seek to destroy but to transform. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but in none violence training, we talk about having one hand up and one hand out. One hand up to the oppression, this means that oppression must stop, but it is always paired with one hand out, an invitation to the oppressor.
I’ve got this part down, many of us do, now I need to work on this part.
Every year I hang Buddhist prayer flags from my deck, and if you know the symbolism of prayer flags, you know that the idea of prayer flags is that they spread peace and compassion to all beings in the vicinity, regardless of who they are. There is no pretense about the blessings. I think these flags are a potent symbol of how we are called to be in the world.