Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (2 Kings 9:1-26) transports me to a classroom in the old Wren Media Center on the campus of Mars Hill College, where I was teaching a course in the LAA (Liberal Arts in Action) core curriculum about ten years back. The class was called “Character” and it was a sweeping view of human nature from a wide variety of perspectives – the humanities, the sciences, the arts. I’ll never forget one particular classroom encounter; it was one of those moments that severely challenged whatever faith I might have had in human nature. The topic of the day centered on humanity’s propensity for violence; we had watched the film Hotel Rwanda and read Machete Season, based on a series of interviews with the perpetrators of the horrific genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus. I remember being particularly well-prepared for this class, with several prompts designed to lead the class down the path of engaged and profound dialogue. After my introductory prompt, a simple question about what knowledge they had of the atrocities of genocides throughout history, one of the first year honor scholars, a very bright education major, raised her hand to bypass all the introductory talk and cut to the chase: I can see how genocide can be necessary, she said, fairly casually. I mean, if you have enemies, and you only kill the soldiers, then their children are likely to grow up bitter and one day come after you, for revenge. So in the long run, I can see how it might be better to go ahead and kill everybody, so you don’t start a cycle of violence. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more ill prepared to respond to a student. I was dumbstruck. Here was a sincere and dedicated woman of faith, active in the Christian Student Movement on campus, answering a divine call to work with children, who didn’t bat an eye in tossing out a justification for mass murder of children and babies. So much for my well-laid plans and designs for the class. I don’t really remember where the dialogue went from there, but I think I did a fair amount of stammering as I tried to keep my head from exploding in public.
I don’t know why a response like this young scholar’s would have caught me off guard. I had read my Bible, as I’m sure she had. There’s plenty of evidence that she was not the first to think that wholesale killing of people for the sins of their fathers’ might be justified, even divinely inspired. Today’s passage, while not a genocide passage, runs on the same logic. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel had done some despicable things, murdering the innocent in order to confiscate land, allowing idol worship to go unchecked in the land. And so the prophet Elisha summons one of his students, an honor scholar among the young prophets no doubt, and speaks words of instruction on behalf of the Lord: the young prophet is to go and anoint a pretender to the throne, Jehu, from the ranks of the military. Moreover, the prophet is to instruct Jehu to fulfill the word of the Lord by killing off the family of Ahab, which included Ahab’s son, the reigning King Joram. This King was about as ill-prepared for his meeting with General Jehu as one could imagine. He had been out doing his part to battle the enemies of Israel, and was recovering from war wounds when Jehu’s caravan approached. Joram sent emissaries to see if Jehu was coming in peace. When they didn’t return, he went himself, and asked the same question – Are you coming in peace? When Jehu responded that he was indeed not coming in peace, that he was out to avenge the blood of Naboth (which his father had shed), the King turned to run, shouting out a warning call of Treason! to the king of Judah who had accompanied him. Jehu shot the fleeing king in the back, with an arrow piercing his heart.
So there you have it, one more example of many throughout scripture where the calling to graciously love and to be a light to the nations and to welcome the stranger and to have compassion on the children is stirred in the same pot as the vindictive call to exact violent vengeance on the offending sinners and to include the children of sinners in your vendettas, thus saith the Lord. Claiming the Almighty’s stamp of approval on royal coups d’etat and palace intrigues as well as personal power plays has always been part of the fabric of the faith community. Again, why is this surprising? It simply tells us that the whole cloth of human nature, the threads of violence and vengeance as well as the threads of grace and love, seek connections with a force greater than ourselves, with the divine force at work in our universe. The extent to which we can choose which threads to sew into our own lives at any given moment and under any particular circumstance seems to be one of the key questions of character. I wish I had thought of it when my student left me speechless. Could I have chosen a different thread had I been a Hutu in Rwanda in 1994? Or had I been Jehu 2,800 years earlier? Maybe that’s one reason Jesus came and lived his life and died the way he did, to show us that it is indeed possible for us as human beings to choose the threads of love and grace, no matter what the circumstance.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.