Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 49:22-26) transports me to an Army field hospital somewhere near Oran, Algeria, in the height of WWII. My dad, an underage teenager who forged his mother’s name so he could join his older brothers in the war effort, served in the north African theater as well as in Italy. He didn’t come back with a lot of war stories, and none of his stories ever glorified or celebrated violence. One story reveals something of the complexity he understood as a follower of Jesus using violence against the enemy. He had, even as a teenager, some kind of intuition about the causes of war. He was in Italy, and saw many orphans in the streets. He worked with the chaplain to provide aid to the desperately impoverished and hungry children. He wrote home asking for money to help build an orphanage for these Italian kids. My grandmother wrote him back a terse response: I’m not giving a cent to help anybody who’s liable to shoot my boys in the back. All the Italians were the same to her – fascists ready to gun down her own children. To my dad, they were just kids, starving kids who were more apt to act with violence and desperation if they didn’t soon experience some compassion and a full belly. Another story I remember was from the time Dad woke up in that field hospital near Oran. He had come down with double pneumonia and his fever was rapidly rising. He was put in a cattle car and had to stand shoulder to shoulder with other sick soldiers, and they set off for an all-night ride to the hospital. He passed out on the train, and when the fever broke and he finally woke up two or three days later, his first image was a nurse at the foot of his bed, clipping his toenails. He always told that story with a bit of a smile and a wink directed at my mom, who was always getting on to him about his foot care, or lack thereof, which meant there were always holes in the toes of his socks.
The complexities of war and relationships with enemies go back a long way before American soldiers feeling tenderness toward Italian children. Isaiah certainly experienced the ambiguities. Here the consummate peacemaking prophet, head filled with visions of lions and lambs feeding together in a peaceable kingdom, where swords are beaten into plowshares, shows that he was not immune from the jingoistic celebrations of violence of his day, complete with fantasies of neighboring enemy nations crushed and humiliated. Today’s passage reveals a very different war story of nurses and feet from my dad’s. Isaiah presents God walking onto the stage of war with a John Wayne swagger, arrogantly envisioning the sweet revenge of V-Day in their version of a propaganda newsreel: Those neighboring queens will be your nursing mothers; your enemies will bow down with their faces to the ground to lick the dust at your feet. It’s a vision my Granny would have appreciated while her boys were in harm’s way.
I don’t know how Jesus processed all the complex ambiguities of scriptural voices related to our relationships with warring enemies. His teaching reveals that he imbued more of Isaiah into his own ideology than any other voice. However he did it, he was able somehow to pull out and discard the threads of imperial dreams and jingoism when he was weaving his own destiny related to his and God’s enemies. It was no John Wayne moment of crushed foes face down licking the dust from his feet when he gathered his disciples in that upper room for a footwashing. Were he to have come to earth and had that gathering many centuries later in another culture, he might have had nail clippers in hand along with a towel and basin, clipping the overgrown and uncared for nails of the feet of friends who were soon to be his enemies. He might have even had needle and thread in hand, and darned some holes in the toes of the socks. Something tells me he understood that these kinds of actions, done on a regular basis in a community of faith, are the kinds of things that can prevent wars from breaking out.
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.