Lectionary Reflections for June 2, 2013
I Kings 18:22-40 (verse 40 has been added to text)
Truth, Exclusion, and Violence
Today’s lectionary readings are challenging for progressive, postmodern, and pluralistic Christians. They also give pause to those who fashion clear boundaries between in and out, righteous and unrighteous, and saved and unsaved. No one gets off easy, theologically speaking, in this text: the point-counterpoint of Elijah and Paul, on one side, and the hospitality of Jesus, on the other, challenge relativists, pluralists, exclusivists, and inclusivists alike.
I have intentionally added verse 40 to the reading from I Kings 18. The reading of the day ends too easily – Elijah is victorious, the Baal god is found to be impotent, and the people cry out, “The Lord indeed is God!” Now, that’s a happy ending, and it’s where we want the story to end – with a clear winner and everyone coming back to the One True God. But the next lines reveal what happens when there are clear winners and losers in theology, ritual, and politics. Elijah cries out:
“Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.”
Then they seized them…killed them all.
Violence emerges from victory; polarization leads to vengeance. One side, God’s side, is pure and unsullied; the other side, Baal’s side, the gods of earth, is evil and worthy of destruction.
Still, we need to explore the dynamics at work in this passage. They are definitely countercultural for those of us who affirm “Christ in a pluralistic age” and who believe that “creative transformation,” as my teacher John Cobb asserts, is the most faithful response to religious pluralism. We don’t draw lines but look for common ground. Christ is, as Cobb proclaimed, the way that excludes no [authentic] ways. God has many faces and gives diverse revelations. We can learn something from Buddhists, Hindus, practitioners of new religious movements, seekers, and – dare I say, in light of today’s passage – pagans and wiccans, practitioners of Earth-oriented faiths.
While I am a Christ-centered pluralist, I recognize that there may be “either-or” moments in ethics, theology, and practice. Still, how we respond to these moments – our willingness to be merciful even to error – is as important as what we believe. The challenge is discerning where we need to draw these lines in theology and behavior. Elijah’s side has an easier time of it: in and out, right and wrong, truth and error is clear. There is no “slippery slope,” but there is always the temptation, as we see in this passage, to demonize and destroy your opponents.
We have learned to be skeptical of drawing lines and so we are equally unsettled by Paul’s affirmation that there is really only one Gospel, the one he proclaims. While we might agree with Paul’s inclusive vision of grace that embraces Jew and Gentile, his adamant approach to theology and practice in Galatians draws clear lines between truth and error. Such clarity of thinking had led to controversies in which people were called to choose sides and losers were ostracized– Augustine or Pelagius, Luther or Rome, Calvin or Wesley, scripture or science – rather than see the insights of various theological positions.
In reading both I Kings and Galatians, the preacher has to ask the following questions: What did Elijah’s triumph look like from the point of view of the Baal priests and their followers? Were they evil or simply misguided? Could this have been a teaching moment in which they might have been called to a larger vision of God? Was there any element of truth in the Baal religions that we might benefit from? While we cannot romanticize ancient Earth-oriented religions, within them was a respect for the cycles and seasons of the non-human world that we would do well to remember in our time. The Galatians passage also raises questions: Were the motivations of those who opposed Paul’s gospel evil or well-intended? While they might have benefited from a more graceful theology, did Paul’s opponents have a point in their affirmation of tradition and ritual? Were they also operating on good faith? If so, did they deserve to be cursed?
Jesus takes a more irenic view to diversity. In fact, contrary to many of our preconceptions of Jesus’ fellow Jews, in this passage, the Jewish community is crying out on behalf of this Roman occupying soldier. Unlike the other oppressors – and he works for Rome and no doubt enforces Roman law – he cares for the Jewish people; and the local leaders want to reciprocate. Jesus accepts their open-spiritedness and the Centurion’s humility and cures the servant from a distance. Christ’s ministry breaks down the barriers of insider and outsider, oppressor and oppressed, and Jew and Gentile.
Paul affirms Jesus’ inclusive viewpoint in Galatia and he is so adamant about his sense of inclusion that he runs roughshod over anyone who disagrees. Perhaps that’s the problem that I see in the passages from I Kings and Galatians: can we hold differing theological views and belong to different faiths without the temptation to theological demolition and cursing?
The encounter of Elijah with the Baal prophets troubles me in another way: returning to the earlier questions, I believe that the Baal prophets were not necessarily evil people and yet they are demeaned and eventually destroyed. They were religious leaders, with mixed motives, just like us. I suspect they believed in the power of the earth and fertility gods they worshipped. If they practiced fertility rites and temple prostitution (and there is some controversy about the nature of their practices), they supported these rituals to insure a good harvest and national well-being. As benighted as some might judge these priests to be, their ministries were intended to promote economic well-being for farmers and the community at large. Without good harvests (and they believed their rites promoted agriculture), poverty and starvation would be the lot of their people. How might the story be told from their perspective? How might they have felt when the gods they trusted remained silent? If given the chance, might some of them have accepted the God of Israel? We will never know; they were never given the opportunity for transformation.
In truth, God’s presence is seldom definitive or bombastic; there are few clear displays of divine victory in our world, especially among those who live with chronic illnesses of mind, body, or spirit, or face incurable disease. How shall we address the silence and apparent impotence of our God in certain situations, which frankly may seem reminiscent of the experiences of the priests of Baal? How shall we continue to believe when the God we believe in is attracting fewer believers than competing Christian and non-Christian groups? Perhaps, Elijah discovered that bombast was not a sufficient proof for God’s power after he fled from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel and discovered God not in drama, but sheer silence!
Psalm 96 invites us to look beyond parochialism. While it exalts the God of Israel above all other gods, it affirms God’s presence beyond human life. The non-human world experiences and responds to the Holy One. If this is the case, there is hope that we – and those whom we oppose – may discern enough light to find our way toward larger visions of truth and healing. However, this will not occur through destruction and violence, but patience with diversity and willingness to give others second and third and fourth chances to experience deeper truths. Perhaps, we need these opportunities as well!