9 August 2015
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 14B (RCL)
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Ephesians 4:25 — 5:2
John 6:35, 41-51
Nathan’s prophecy to David in last week’s reading comes home with a vengeance in this week’s reading. The sword does not depart from David’s house. We’ve leapt over a lot of material in the story of David’s house, including Absalom’s rebellion. David had been declared king of Israel as well as king of Judah (and Samuel had warned the house of Israel of the consequences of having a king). Now, Absalom has won the loyalty of the men of Israel, and David goes to war against Israel with his own men, his mercenaries and the men of Judah. After the death of Absalom, David will resume the crown of Israel. I am sure the relationship with Israel will be difficult, despite the gauzy filter history will apply.
Anthony Giddens (The Nation-State and Violence, 1985) claims that the existence of the nation-state is predicated on the ability to make war. It is also predicated on the ability to distinguish citizen from non-citizen. When the “Jews” in John’s Gospel begin to dispute with Jesus about his ability to give bread from heaven, the issue seems to be that God, through Jesus, is offering this bread to whomever God draws to him. While their fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, they died. Unlike Moses, Jesus offers bread to everyone. No wonder Jesus fled when the people tried by force to come and make him king. God’s kingdom inverts the violence of David’s kingdom. The bread Jesus offers for the life of the world is his flesh, which is predicated on the cross.
This weekend is the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. In the intervening year, we have become much more sensitized to the issues of racism, attitudes of and toward police, and the systemic structures of poverty (courts fining people who can little afford the fines, etc.). In my mind, all these things fit neatly with Gidden’s observation of the centrality of violence to the nation-state. The nation-state exists because it is able to enforce its will, both on its own citizens and on non-citizens. The Roman Empire prided itself on its justice system, even though the people who heard Jesus speak experienced that justice very differently from the elites. Much of the brutality of the Empire went under the banner of law and order.
We fear chaos. We fear that if we removed the constraints imposed by the nation-state, the constraints of law-and-order, things would disintegrate into chaos. We respond to threats with violence. Jesus imagines a different kingdom, and is willing to be sacrificed to become the meal of that kingdom (at least in John’s telling). We have imagined order as a zero-sum game: we have imagined power as a zero-sum game. David cannot let Absalom take power, and cannot imagine any way of getting it back except violence, even though he does not want harm to come to Absalom. Joab understood the situation better than David did.
In the Letter from the Birmingham jail, MLK listed the steps necessary before direct action. The first was gathering facts: did injustice in fact exist. The second was negotiation — working with the powers that be in an attempt to correct injustice. Thirdly, and lastly before direct action, came purification of motives: Why are we doing this? Can we accept the consequences? In his principles of non-violence, he makes it clear that he understands power as an open-sum game. Direct action does not seek the defeat of people, but the overcoming of injustice. It seeks to win friendship and understanding. Everyone walks away better for the direct action.
The Letter to the Ephesians frames something very much like these principles: Putting away all falsehood, let us speak truth to our neighbors. Speak only what is useful for building up, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. Put away all bitterness and wrath. Forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven you. Be imitators of God, as Christ who offered himself for us, a fragrant offering to God. I pray for our city this weekend, that we can indeed hear these words.