Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 13) transports me to Hill 192, a battleground near a river village in the central highlands of Vietnam. The year is 1966, and a squad of five soldiers has just been redeployed on a reconnaissance detail after fending off an attack by the Viet Cong. The 20-year-old squad leader, angry at being denied their scheduled r & r, announces a plan to kidnap a Vietnamese girl from the village and use her as their sex slave, for the morale of the squad. One of the soldiers protests, to no avail, and refuses to participate in the repeated raping and beating of the girl. He tries to save her life, again to no avail, as she winds up brutally murdered. The protester tells the story to an Army chaplain, and the four men eventually wind up in court, convicted of the crime, despite efforts by upper level military brass to cover it up. This true story, first brought to public light by Daniel Lang in a 1969 New Yorker article, was made famous in the 1989 movie Casualties of War, starring Sean Penn as the squad leader, Michael J. Fox as the protesting soldier, and Thuy Thu Le as the victimized girl.
Movies like this one by Brian De Palma give us a clear insight into some of the atrocities of war, beyond the expected casualties and collateral damage that happens whenever violence is used to arbitrate conflict. It reveals the capacity for extreme dehumanization, and calls any celebration of war into serious question. John Wayne’s swaggering heroism is counterbalanced by Sean Penn’s staggering villainy. No one in their right mind would lift up the kidnapping and rape and murder of women and children as an example of just desserts for enemies. Which is why today’s passage is so troubling. It begins innocently enough. The prophet envisions the Day of the Lord, a time when the global power of the day, Babylon, will be defeated, and the people of Israel will be free from their oppression. God, like a masterful Risk player, maneuvers the various countries of the region like pieces on a board game, using the Medes and Persians to do the divine bidding. Terror will seize the hated and haughty Babylonians, pain and anguish will grip them in their arrogance, and they will writhe like a woman in labor. They will look aghast at each other, their faces aflame. And then, to make the narrative more of a De Palma drama, the prophetic innocence fades as Isaiah celebrates the casualties of war: Infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes. Their wives will be violated. They will have no mercy or compassion on the children. In a vast understatement, the prophet acknowledges that the Day of the Lord will be a cruel day.
This passage comes a mere chapter after a call to praise for all God’s glorious works, and a mere two chapters after the beautiful vision of peacemaking, with the lion lying down with the lamb. It is astonishing to see the dehumanizing cruelty of God lifted up almost in the same breath as the glory of God and the peaceable kingdom. In that regard, though, Isaiah portrays as clear a representation of the breadth of the human spirit as anyone could give. We folk of faith are peaceable praise singers, and at the same time we long for the arrogant and haughty oppressors of our world to suffer their just desserts. We may not be as brazen about it as Sean Penn’s character; we’ve learned to temper some of our longings. (As a footnote – the real life leader of this squad in Vietnam, Stephen Gabbot Thomas, did not temper his longings. He served a four year sentence for his crime, upon his release joined the neo-nazi Church of the Creator, and was later involved in the murder of a black Gulf War veteran). Meanwhile the work of dehumanization continues, if in a more civilized form, every time we create disparaging stereotypes of an entire group of people, paint them with a broad brush, find humor at their expense, and cease to see them as fellow human beings, mothers and fathers and sons and daughters. The danger of this demonization comes when the less civilized of our world, the Stephen Gabbot Thomas types, hear and see the mainstream engaging in the dehumanization of “the other” and understand that as a justification for brutality, for rape and murder and desecretation. Perhaps Isaiah is calling us to read chapter 13 as our own story, acknowledge our own propensity to cruelty, even in civilized forms, and make every effort to continually move back toward the narratives of peace and praise found in the preceding passages.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.