“G-d hath delivered thine enemy into thine hand this day: now therefore let me smite him”
I am buried in job applications at the moment, cursing them even as I am grateful to be able to fill them in, so when Marybeth asked if I could do this week’s Dark Devotional, I leapt at the chance. “Please,” I thought, “after weeks of tweaking my CV, using words like ‘managed,’ ‘monitored,’ ‘evaluated,’ and ‘specification,’ give me a chance to do some G-d talk. Inject that theology into my veins.”
As I sent off another application last Friday, I treated myself by typing “Catholic readings February 20 2022” into Google, clicking on the first link. Prepared for my usual reaction of “What were the people who set the lectionary readings smoking,” I let my eyes idly wander down the Old Testament reading, my focus sharpening as I thought, “Oh, HELL YEAH, bring it.” My excitement grew as I read the responsorial psalm, New Testament reading, and the gospel, ending with a sense of wholeness. Rarely have I seen the readings fit so beautifully together. So, well done, lectionary setters, for putting your pipes down that day.
I kept being drawn back to the OT reading (1 Samuel 26: 2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23), where David and Abi’shai come across Saul sleeping, with his spear by his head, and Abi’shai says:
G-d hath delivered thine enemy into thine hand this day:
now therefore let me smite him
I allowed the discomfort to settle in and deepen: so often we talk about Jacob wrestling with the angel (and thus, with G-d), but we often forget that our journey of faith requires that we wrestle with ourselves. How many times have I said versions of those words about Donald Trump or Boris Johnson and their party/supporters, anti-vaxxers, racist, homophobic, imperialist right-wingers, the list goes on.
He needs his head ducked in the Thames three times and pulled out twice.
I wouldn’t cross the street to [pour water] on him if his guts were on fire, but if I had accelerant, I might run.
A guillotine on the Capitol steps or the White House lawn would focus Republican minds. You’d only need one example.
Long walk, short pier.
I have said those things frequently to much laughter and agreement. As much as I like to imagine I am David, Moses, Ruth – I am far more often Abi’shai, Pharaoh, Jezebel.
In 2016, particularly after Trump’s election, I noticed a shift on my end (liberal/left) of the political spectrum. We, who had eschewed violence in my living memory, were beginning to talk about guillotines. Violence was creeping into our language, but I waved it aside, “knowing” we were just venting, we wouldn’t actually do anything about it. “Good!” I thought, “it’s about time we stopped being nice and let these neo-Nazis and fascists know we are strong and mean business. We can talk this way and remain on the right road.”
In short, “Now therefore let me smite him.”
David responds to Abi’shai:
Destroy him not: for who can stretch forth his hand against the Lord’s anointed, and be guiltless?
The statement, in the moment, is about Saul…but I think it runs much deeper than that.
I’m a high church girl. I’m very uncomfortable with the way “anointed” gets thrown around in Christian circles. I use it to mean sacramental anointing — holy orders, extreme unction, baptism, confirmation, and in the Bible, kings, prophets, and Jesus’ head and feet. That’s about it. Well, until now.
My friend Marie, who died in a car accident almost two years ago, used “anointing” all the time. Conversations were anointed. Meetings were anointed. Everyone was anointed. It drove me crazy until the day I was desperate for it to pop up in my Facebook chat just one more time, because it would mean she was still here.
David is talking specifically about the fact that Saul is anointed by the Lord to be king, but as I read it, I had my usual image of us queueing up before G-d to receive our gifts, but with an added twist: G-d anointing us with oil before we leave Him:
With the constellation of gifts I give you, you are anointed to bring justice.
With the constellation of gifts I give you, you are anointed to be a bridge.
With the constellation of gifts I give you, you are anointed to heal.
With the constellation of gifts I give you, you are anointed to stand in doorways and bring earth and spirit together.
With the constellation of gifts I give you, you are anointed to be a mirror for others’ shadows, so they may recognize it and fight it, in themselves and others.
In that case, we are all G-d’s anointed, and which one of us can stretch forth our hand against another and remain guiltless?
In that moment of realization, the weight of what protecting life (hint: it doesn’t include picketing abortion clinics and abusing vulnerable women) actually means struck hard.
Every life is anointed. Every life holds endless possibility. What does it mean to cut that thread? To execute someone? To kill someone in war? To end that possibility, the ability to change, that anointing? And not just to kill outright, but to kill someone emotionally, spiritually—to use, abuse, to dismiss, to obstruct another’s life? To think, as we so often do in mission or in various positions of authority, that we know what path a life should take and force it in that direction?
We don’t. There are infinite paths an anointing can take to fulfil its purpose: someone anointed to bring justice can fulfil it through the obvious legal career path of lawyer and judge, but can also fulfil it in her friendships and family, through teaching, through simply living her life in integrity every single day, every choice making her a vessel for justice to pour through. Someone anointed to heal can be a doctor, a therapist, a teacher, work with an NGO, be the one to hold the space in every situation.
Every life is anointed. So what do we do with those living lives that are harming and destroying themselves and others?
I get the desire to cut short the lives and threads of those who have committed heinous crimes: those who commit genocide, those who have abused and murdered others, those who dehumanize others, those who commit violence as a way of life. I understand and feel it more deeply than I want to admit.
But I also know that each act of violence drags us to destruction. So now what?
The response to the psalm gives us a clue: The Lord is kind and merciful, but only if we understand that kind and merciful do not mean sitting on our hands and allowing those who would destroy free rein. David and Abi’shai don’t just walk away from Saul, they take his spear and his water, then walk to a hill where David holds up the spear and asks for a servant to come and get it. He has shown his strength, but not wielded it to commit violence. For those who would say, ‘But Jesus’:
Those are the ways in which we constrain those who would commit violence. However, I would argue that as creatures of earth, it is too easy to fall into whipping from chasing people with whips. How do we discern right action? 1 Corinthians 15: 47 points the way:
And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.
As branches to Jesus’ vine, we allow His sap, his body and blood, to flow through us and to direct our growth and allow us to channel His spirit, that we may be His hands and feet, and His actions in the world. So we refuse to platform hate. We look to restorative justice and truth and reconciliation. We limit freedom to prevent people from doing harm. We freeze the accounts of arms traders, drug dealers, human traffickers, and break the back of their operations, repurposing the money to create a more just world through ensuring that everyone is housed, fed, and given the opportunities they need to flourish.
However we act toward our enemies—whether we offer them our coat as well as our cloak or hold up their spear from a hill—we must act from love, aware that love isn’t saccharine, but encompasses setting boundaries and limits, speaking truth, conflict and its resolution…all the hard stuff we eschew.
And we need to do the hard stuff, maybe especially for those who are most shadowed. As Father Marcus Keane says to Lucifer in the television show, The Exorcist:
Son of the morning, profane thing, ashes on the earth, you are redeemed. Outcast, fallen angel, you are loved.
And if Lucifer, then also the messy, fallible, fallen creatures of dust to whom G-d sent His son.
I have spoken about right action toward others, but we cannot discern that without first coming right ourselves, exploring and living out our own anointing in whatever ways our lives make possible. We must move toward wholeness and integrity ourselves before we hold the space for others to do so.
How? Pray. Be open. Listen. Learn. Live the crucible of relationships. Risk. I know I felt it this last week in conversations about vocation to the priesthood with Rachel (later joined by her husband, Simon) and vocations advisor Joanna. Something greater than us was present, something hummed in the air. Everything that had once felt in opposition in me finally felt part of a greater whole. To quote Marie, the conversations were…anointed.
(Stop cackling, girl. You think I can’t hear you up there?)
Our ways of knowing are not the same; you will find yours. As you pour your anointing into the world, you will help others find theirs, even those you think are beset by their shadow and beyond hope. And moment by moment, you will help to repair the world.
Creature of dust, fallen, frail, and lost, you are redeemed. Outcast or belonging, strong or weak, in joy or sorrow, in faith or despair, in light or shadow, you are loved.
As it always has been, is now, and ever shall be.
Irim Sarwar is an American of IndoPak ancestry now living in the UK who was born Muslim and became Catholic via teaching at a Modern Orthodox Jewish school. She has also catalogued books in a Dominican priory, worked in quality assurance, and is currently a churchwarden and freelance copyeditor/proofreader. Spiritual mongrel. Believes in hybrid vigour in all things, especially journeys of faith.