2 Kings 6:8-23
Seek Peace and Purse It: Seek Peace with your Enemies
August 4, 2013
My Christian Anarchist friend Stefan called me the other day to catch up a bit and see if he could stay at our place for a couple of nights this week on his way from one protest event to another. Talking with Stefan is good for my spirit because he cares passionately about the things I’m pretty sure Jesus cares about–income inequality, environmental degradation, sexism and racism and heterosexism and the rampant materialism and militarism of our screwed up culture. He cares passionately about all of the things I care about–except that I get tired of caring and tend to spend my time re-covering old chair cushions instead.
So a few times a year I get to talk with Stefan and reset my priorities, think about things I’ve avoided thinking about, soak up some of his energy and anger. Listen to all of the swear words that most people don’t dare utter in front of a preacher. It’s great.
Our most recent conversation meandered from his work opposing the tar sands pipeline to some of my recent insights into immigration issues which eventually led to the comment: “I hate the phrase ‘national security.’ Every time I hear it it’s like fingernails down a chalk board.”
National security–that’s what ancient Syria was about. Making sure that their neighbor didn’t have the chance to accumulate too much land, to establish too big an army. If Syria didn’t attack Israel, how long would it be before Israel posed a threat to Syria’s national security?
National security–that’s what the King of Israel was concerned with as well. He obviously didn’t want the Syrians coming into Israel, killing people, taking land, pillaging crops and livestock. So he had his own sort of spy–Elisha–who could warn him in advance about his enemies’ moves.
National security–it’s the phrase our country uses to justify so many things: the invasion of Iraq, the degradation of the environment, the dehumanization of immigrants, civil rights violations, torture. There is an “ends justify the means” mentality when it comes to national security. The discussion, even about something as horrific as torture, tends to revolve around questions about whether or not the torture is effective in helping to maintain national security–not about whether or not torture is acceptable at all.
We’ve heard a lot about national security this week in particular as the news reports come in about the Bradley Manning trial. Apparently the secrets that the government and military keep are vital to national security. Not secrets about what they plan to do in the future, but secrets about the damage they have done in the past. These secrets are such a threat to national security that the man who revealed them will likely face decades in prison.
National security. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, in the book of Ecclesiastes, we are told that there is nothing new under the sun. And it certainly seems that is true in this regard. Then, as now, those in power point to the need for national security to justify all kinds of morally questionable behavior.
I have to be honest with you, though, about this story from 2 Kings–it reads to me more like a fable than a historical report. It has more an air of ridiculousness than reality; more a sense of wishful thinking than reporting.
If this story is indeed a fable–factual or not–told to teach an important moral lesson, then it shows the folly of our attempts to achieve national security. It mocks our national–and personal–tendency to identify an enemy and then try to protect ourselves from it–or her or him or them . . .
The opening scene is almost farcical. The Syrian King plots to set up camp in Israel. Elisha tells the King of Israel about the Syrian plans so the the Syrians can’t set up camp there. So they try another place. But the Israelites know about that too. So they try another place. And on and on.
What a waste of time. What a waste of energy.
Like the farce of the arms race. The national pursuit of more weapons and bigger weapons and more powerful weapons–not even (I pray) for the sake of using the weapons, but just for the sake of saying we have the weapons.
What a waste of time. What a waste of energy. What a waste of money.
And the middle scene of this fable–the scene with the panicked servant–is really quite stunning. This text doesn’t seem to get preached on a lot, but when it does, preachers tend to latch onto this middle scene. And really, what’s not to love about invisible flaming swords and chariots.
The moral in all of these earnest sermons, of course, is that we shouldn’t worry, because God’s got our backs. If we would just open our eyes to the spiritual realities of the world, we would see that God is watching out for us and protecting us.
And that’s nice, I suppose. And true, on a certain level.
Still, I wonder how I would feel if I opened my eyes and suddenly saw a ring of flaming swords and chariots surrounding me. I’m not sure “peace,” “relief,” and “safety” are the words that would be at the top of that list. I imagine a flaming army is a terrifying sight, even if they are–you hope–on your side.
Once again, our story reveals the ridiculousness of human attempts at national security. Human power–even the most sophisticated forms of it–is nothing compared to the power of God. Human power is temporal; God’s is eternal. Human power is limited; God’s is limitless. Human power is visible; God’s is mostly invisible.
When it comes right down to it, we’re just not all that. And I suppose opening our eyes to that reality can be comforting, in a way. But it is also terrifying.
Then, even as the servant’s eyes are opened, the Syrians’ eyes are blinded. You might notice that physical sight and intellectual/spiritual insight go hand in hand in this story. When the Syrians lose their eyesight, they apparently also lose their brains. Elijah, the very man they are supposed to kill, takes them into the heart of enemy territory–into the Israelite capital of Samaria.
How true it is that our attempts at national security often put us in danger. In so many types of danger. Physical danger, certainly. And psychological and emotional and spiritual danger. You’ve probably heard the same NPR stories I have. More soldiers are dying today from suicide than on the battlefield. Sexual abuse is rampant in the military. Divorce rates are soaring. We go into–or send vulnerable people into–the heart of the enemy, putting ourselves–putting them–in very dangerous positions.
The King of Israel, who is also concerned with national security, practically begs Elisha to let him kill the Syrians. Which is it’s own kind of danger. The readiness, the eagerness to kill. The “enemy” lens that dehumanizes other human beings. That thinks in terms of “us” and “them.” The King of Israel also suffers a form of blindness–his inability to see the humanity of the “other.”
In many ways, this odd little fable-story from 2 Kings reveals the folly of our attempts at national security. But in the end, Israel does achieve national security.
Elisha will not let the King kill the Syrians. Instead Elisha has the Israelites prepare a great banquet for the Syrians and then send them on their way. The last line of the passage says, “The Syrians came no more on raids into the land of Israel.”
This, more than any other part of this story, is what makes me want to classify it as a fable. Because you know and I know that there is no way the Syrians and Israelites lived happily ever after. Human nature argues against it. And history reveals prolonged, ongoing violence between the two nations.
It would be nice if one good potluck could create world peace. But that’s just not how the world works.
Though there is another story I can tell you.
Once upon a time–about 2003, during the US invasion of Iraq– there was a group of Christians who went to Baghdad with Christian Peacemaker teams. They went to stand in solidarity with the Iraqi people. They went to witness to the love of God in Christ and to show that not all people from the United States viewed Iraqi people as “the enemy.”
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove was with that CPT group. He was in Iraq when US troops bombed the town of Rutba, demolishing the hospital there. He was in Iraq three days later when his American friends’ car hit a piece of shrapnel in the road and rolled into a ditch.
(You may know another story about someone traveling on a dangerous path, then ending up bleeding on the side of the road. This is like that.)
Some Iraqis stopped and rescued Jonathan’s friends. The Iraqis took them to Rutba, where a doctor provided the best medical service he could considering their hospital had just been bombed. These Iraqis saved the lives of those Americans.
And when Jonathan asked the doctor what they owed for the medical care, the doctor simply said, “Go and tell people what is happening in Rutba.” And that is just what he has done–in personal conversations and essays and blog posts and speeches and, most recently, a book.
Now, this story of Rutba is true, so it doesn’t exactly end with a “happily ever after.” I wish I could say, “And Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove told his tale to President Bush and the American troops left Iraq and never dropped a bomb there again.” But I can’t.
I can, however, tell you that each time the story of Rutba is told, those who hear it have a chance to open their eyes and see the people of Iraq as fellow human beings rather than “the enemy.” That the kindness and generosity the Americans experienced in Rutba has likely accomplished more for Iraqi national security than any number of improvised explosive devices.
That is the truth of the story of Rutba. That is the truth of our scripture this morning. That is the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ:
Our national security–our personal safety and security for that matter–does not come in defeating our enemies, but in loving our enemies. In praying for our enemies. It sitting at the table with our enemies.
Like many of Jesus’ teachings, this one is a bit of a trick, a paradox. I imagine Jesus saying it with a knowing grin: “Love your enemies.”
Because, of course, when we do love our enemies, they are no longer our enemies.
Thanks be to God.