Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (2 Samuel 20) transports me to the brutal killing fields of Syria, where the government of Bashar al-Assad is continuing to bear down on the popular uprising with bombing raids against cities and towns. Unlike the Arab spring movements in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere, the Syrian people have not managed to create massive military defections to their side. What started out as a principled, nonviolent resistance movement has morphed into violence, as the people fear that a lack of armed defense will simply end in a genocide of all those opposed to the Assad regime. As understandable as such a response is, given the trauma and intensity of the torturous suffering in the besieged cities, it plays right into Assad’s hands. As a New York Times reporter lamented, the resistance movement’s use of violence solidifies Assad’s support among core constituencies such as the minority Alawites and Christians, who fear they will be wiped out by a new revolutionary regime. When I read this, I wavered between weeping and wailing. The Christians, the followers of Jesus, supporting the indiscriminate bombing of civilian cities and genocide so they can feel more secure. I know it’s easy for me to armchair the situation from the comforts of my safe and secure home a world away, but I have to wonder, where are the mass defections of Christians who are ready to move over to the Way of Jesus in the face of a regime such as this?
The brutal repression of resistors and would-be defectors is nothing new in the Middle East. The passage today takes us to an early chapter in this long history, as Israel’s King David, long before he was enshrined as the most beloved king in history, had to deal with his own threats from massive military defections. It is a grisly and gruesome story, as the tribes from the north got jealous that David was spending too much time in the south. In the midst of what seemed like petty and pedestrian bickering, a certain “troublemaker” named Sheba, a Benjamite, blew the horn of insurrection and shouted for the people to desert the king. He knew where to light the match to ignite the fires of rebellion, for it says that all the men of Israel deserted David to follow Sheba, leaving David with the much smaller force of the men of Judah. David had to act, and he sent a general, Amasa, to amass the forces and prepare for civil war. When Amasa took longer than David gave him to complete the task, he feared more rebellion was in the works, and sent another general, Joab, to see what was afoot. This is where it got gruesome. Joab met his fellow soldier, took him affectionately by the beard and feigned greeting him with a kiss, only to disembowel him with a hidden dagger. An underling of Joab’s then called for the people to make their decision on who to follow, but the people were paralyzed by the sight of Amasa splayed out there in the middle of the road, so someone tossed him into a field, giving the people a clear path to follow the king. They tracked the troublemaker Sheba to a city, Abel, known to be a peaceful sanctuary. This didn’t stop Joab from engaging in an all out attack on the city, women and children and civilians be damned in the process. It took an old woman of the city to come out and stop the battering rams, promising the head of Sheba in return for peace. By nightfall, Sheba’s severed head was thrown out over the city wall, and Joab retreated, confident that he had poured sufficient water on the fires of insurrection and there would be no more defections any time soon.
Of course we know from history that it was not the end of violence in David’s reign, nor in the reigns of his sons. The cycle of violence finally ended with a much later son of David, Jesus of Nazareth. He did not respond to the massive defections of his own disciples with siege or with severed heads. For many generations, the followers of Jesus understood that nonviolence was the only way to respond to the cruelties of psychotic despots. It would take a few hundred years for the Christians to become empire people themselves, and begin fabricating the theologies that would eventually provide ample cover for the Christians in Syria to back the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. It feels like this tyrant has affectionately taken hold of the beard of the Body of Christ and feigned a kiss, only to stick a hidden dagger deep into that Body, leaving its intestinal fortitude splayed out on the ground. Maybe the best we can do is weep, or wail, or better yet, rise up from the middle of the road and get serious about teaching our children the things that make for peace.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you in your journey of faith? Feel free to respond, and share with friends on FB, Google+, Twitter, etc.