The year of 2020 will be remembered by all who lived through it as a year like none other. While we may look back on this year as an anomaly, it may be we discover that it was the introduction to our new normal. While the whole world has needed to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, in North America we have also dealt with a converging number of other factors and forces that have made our world look bleak, perhaps bleaker than the rest of the world. Though the pandemic has been at the forefront of our attention, we have also been confronted by the social unrest brought on by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. The United States has also experienced unprecedented and colossal forest fires in the West that have sent smoke plumes across the United States and across the Atlantic Ocean into Northern Europe. The southern states of the US have experienced more violent storms than in any other year on record. Human-induced climate change weighs heavily on the minds of those who care about the wonderful creation we call our home. And now we hear of cries for civil war. Yes, CIVIL WAR!
This week we learned of a plot to kidnap or even kill Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. As reported in Bridge Michigan,Michigan’s non-profit, online, investigative journalism magazine, the men that were abducted by federal agents for hatching the plot were preparing for “a violent uprising against the government, or impending politically-motivated civil war” (italics mine). These are not lone cries of marginalized individuals hiding out in the woods. In an MSNBC interview, Michigan’s Attorney General stated that the foiled plot may only be the tip of the iceberg, indicating such cells are distributed throughout the United States. Last month, in an interview on The Jim Bakker Show, the evangelical pastor Rick Joiner pleaded for Christians to join militias in preparation for a civil war against those on the political left. Last year, Dr. and Rev. Robert Jeffress, a southern Baptist pastor and President Trump’s spiritual advisor, predicted a civil war if Trump was successfully impeached.
In this week’s lectionary text found in Exodus 32:1-14, the people of Israel are unrest with their sitting government. Moses has gone on a retreat to consult with Yahweh and appears to have disappeared and be disengaged from the needs of the people of Israel. In their discontent, the people ask Moses’s brother and advisor, Aaron, to give them a god that they could follow. So Aaron asks the people to give them their gold jewelry, and according to Aaron’s report to Moses, he threw the gold into the fire “and out came this calf!” (Exodus 32:24). Aaron also claims that the calf is an image of the mighty Yahweh, the God who led them out of Egypt, not some idolatrous, impotent figure (Exodus 32:4). Though we do not read it in the text for this week, the LORD ecommands Moses to kill the instigators and sends an unnamed plague upon the people. Curiously, Aaron, the crafter of the calf, is spared (Exodus 32:24).
This passage, if read as a prescriptive text, presents somewhat of a problem for those who oppose anything close to a civl war. A deeper understanding of the calf might expose a cultic association with child sacrifice that was prevalent among the Israelites at that time (recall Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac). But that is a topic for another time. What I want to focus on is the peoples’ desire for a god that would go before them. In other words, the Israelites sought a guiding principle in the uncertainty of their newfound freedom from slavery. Apparently, the calf represented “revelry,” which included dancing, singing, and sacrificing.
What we are talking about here are not personal or household idols, such as fame, wealth, career, and beauty, but symbols of nationhood. Symbols of nationhood are powerful and are associated with sacrifice, especially violence inflicted on large numbers of civilians for the sake of the nation. These symbols are military in nature, or the god of war.
America has been steeped in the god of war from its inception. Furthermore, the war motif has been fueled, and indeed made possible, by American Christianity, not particular to the right or the left. In the United States we have romanticized, normalized, spiritualized, and sanitized war. We measure our greatness by our superior military capabilities. The threat of war, not the promise of peace, is what leads us in our relationships with other peoples.
In an article found in the most recent issue of Anabaptist Witness, Timothy Erdel and Robby Prenkert, both professors at Bethel University, a conservative liberal arts college in Mishawaka, Indiana, focus on the way idolatrous sentiments of politics and militarism have infiltrated American Christianity, again irrespective of ideological sway. Their point of emphasis is on how the United States Constitution has been elevated to the level of the Hebrew and Christian scripture. One of them gives the example of a student’s response to a discussion question asking what they would die for. One student’s response was that he would die for the right to keep his guns because it is his constitutional right to possess firearms. This student went on to reflect that he was not sure why he felt this way since he was preparing to become a youth pastor.
War metaphors can be found strewn throughout our English vocabulary to describe how we deal with conflict. In arguments or debates, we plan, come up with strategies, attack and demolish our opponent, and either win or lose an argument. In their article “Metaphors We Live By,” George Lakoff and Mark Johnson claim that war is a metaphor that pervades our culture.
Recently, a member of our congregation at Florence suggested that we find a new vocabulary to discuss our differences as a culture. Lakoff and Johnson allude to this turn of vocabulary by imagining how we would think differently were we to use images of dance to talk about differences. Opponents would become partners; participants would become performers; contempt would turn into beauty; the podium would turn into a dance floor; issues would turn into music. We might not even think of it as an argument at all!
What if we took it a step further and replaced the language of war with the language of love? How would our view of those we differ with change? Can we change our culture by changing our language? We may not be able to change our culture, but we can change our own views by the way we talk about conflict. And as we change our own ways of thinking, those views can spread and take hold on those around us.
In our other passage for this week, Psalm 106, we are told that when Yahweh informed Moses of his intention to destroy the people because they were in pursuit of another god, Moses “stood in the breach” and spared the people from destruction. A “breach” is a failure to observe a law, an agreement, or code of conduct. It can also mean a gap in a wall, barrier, or defense created by an attacking army. Here we go again with military metaphors.
What does it mean for us today to “stand in the breach?” Perhaps this is a place where we can begin to turn arguments into dance performances, turn the battle or war into a conversation of love with the other participant, turn our polarization into balanced beauty. I invite you to begin this process of change by adding your comments and suggestions of a new vocabulary which stands in the breach of our world today in the comment section below.
Timothy Paul Erdel and Robby Christopher Prenkert, “The Third Testament: American Exceptionalism as a Case Study in the Global Temptation to Embrace Political Idolatry,” Anabaptist Witness, 7, no.1 (May 2020): 11-30. https://www.anabaptistwitness.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/AW7.1_ErdelPrankert.pdf, accessed October 9, 2020.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, University of Chicago Press, 2008.