Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Exodus 32) transports me to my first year at seminary, where my roommate Ken Hutchens and I played the fools by calling into the local rock station’s “Show With No Name” each Monday morning to give a report on the “Church With No Name.” One time we were raising money for our Olympic-sized baptismal pool (where we had to use the buddy system for baptisms). Another time we were organizing pup tent revivals, and another time we were trying to get the scripture sign-holding guy at the major sporting events to expand people’s biblical literacy by putting other verses on his sign, thinking people were already pretty familiar with John 3:16 (our suggestion was Genesis 27:11 My brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am an smooth man.). Today’s passage reminded me of a particular Monday morning when we informed the listening audience of our Cold War ICBM evangelism plan – Inter-Continental Ballistic Missions. The plan was for us to partner with the Pentagon and get thousands of copies of the Four Spiritual Laws plastered onto each nuclear warhead, with a time-release trigger so that just before the bombs burst into flame, the Rooskies would learn that God loved them and had a wonderful plan for their lives.
That really doesn’t sound all that crazier than the passage today, where Moses comes down from Mount Sinai, the tablet of ten commandments in hand, and finds the children of Israel in a frenzy, dancing naked around a golden calf. The anger of both Moses and God waxes hot. Moses stokes up the forge, re-melts the gold and makes the people drink it. Then Moses asks for all the people who are on God’s side to step forward, and when they do, he instructs them to go and murder everybody else – brothers, companions, neighbors. So much for that sixth commandment God had carved on the stone tablet (it would seem that thou shalt have no other gods trumped thou shalt not kill). Of course scripture tells us (in one of the more provocative theological ideas of the Bible) that this came after God repented of the evil thoughts that had first entered the divine mind, namely, to wipe out the entire covenant community and start all over with Moses. It all makes our seminary nuclear missions attack on those godless communists seem fairly mild by comparison.
What this horrific story teaches me is the destructive capacity of righteous anger. When holiness waxes hot, watch out! It would be easy to take our modern moral compass and pass judgment on the cruel and unusual punishment inflicted on the impatient and faithless folks who got carried away dancing around the golden calf. But if we take the story seriously, we realize that it’s a story about the human heart. It’s the story of our desire to wound when we are wounded, to hurt when we are hurt, to strike when we are struck, especially when someone or something has threatened something precious to us, something in our core, something we hold sacred. The capacity for anger is part of the image of God in us, and the capacity for that anger to wax hot is part of the image of God. But as a Christian, I believe that Jesus took that white-hot anger to the cross and redeemed it. Jesus took the destructive spirit that so often possesses the emotion of anger and re-cast it. A re-forged redemptive anger is one that that acknowledges the hurt and the wounds of injustice, and allows for the healing of forgiveness to enter in, so that the anger is transformed into a fierce compassion. I heard a testimony of that redemptive possibility last night, here at Peace Camp at Eastern Mennonite University. Kim Phuk spoke to our group, and if you don’t know the name, you know her picture. It’s probably the most famous photo of the 20th century, the picture of a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl screaming and running naked down a road after all her clothes and much of her skin had been burned away by the fire from a napalm bomb. She told her story, which includes many painful years when she carried so much hot anger within her, deep scars of the heart as well as the scars on her body. Then she experienced the powerful grace of God, and her anger and hurt were slowly redeemed and healed. Jesus’ love so transformed her life, that she was able a few years ago to follow that Way of love and speak at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial about the need for forgiveness and reconciliation and an end to senseless war. After her speech one of the officers who coordinated the napalm attack on her village came up to her and introduced himself, and sought forgiveness. She embraced him, extended grace to him, and they have since become the best of friends. May all of us who live at the foot of one Mount Sinai or another, who either experience the betrayal of family, companions, neighbors, or who do our fair share of betraying what is sacred and holy, could learn from Kim Phuk and from Jesus, lest we act on our impulses to take up the sword and slay.
How about you? Where does this passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.