Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Deuteronomy 20:10-20) transports me to a prison in Rwanda, where the author of Machete Season is interviewing prisoners convicted of participating in genocide. During a hundred days in the early summer of 1994, over half a million Tutsis were slaughtered, mostly with machetes in the hands of Hutus. The Hutus were people who professed faith in Christ, and who believed they were doing God’s work. When questioned about any sense of remorse, one prisoner answered, Everyone is obviously sorry. . . sorry they didn’t finish the job. They accuse themselves of negligence rather than wickedness.
These machete-wielding people of faith remind me of the instruction found in today’s passage, to use the sword for mass killing. A curious introduction to the passage has the sword fighters starting out as envoys of peace: When you first go to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. Sounds like a good strategy. But the contingency plans are hardly peaceful– if they accept your peace offer, capture them as slaves. Hmmm. And if they don’t accept your peace offer of forced labor, kill all the men with your sword, and God will give you the women and children as plunder. That’s some kind of peacemaking. Guerilla evangelism. Speak peace, then lay siege, strike with sword, and subject to slavery. And these were just the instructions for distant attacks. If the people of God were to attack one of their nearby neighbors, they had the more troubling divine instruction to lay the sword to everything that breathes. Take no prisoners. Finish the job.
Here are three possibilities for navigating a troublesome story like this: it can be a prescriptve passage (teaching how people of faith ought to act), or it can be descriptive (describing the range of what God’s people are capable of doing), or it can be introspective (revealing what’s going on in the landscape of our soul). If you go with the first interpretation, the Holy Spirit really does prescribe genocide in the name of the Father. It’s hard to swallow the prescriptive interpretation; who can picture Jesus barking out orders for someone to slash a child? The second interpretation, the descriptive one, sees a different kind of truth at work here. It is the troubling truth of humanity’s inability to co-exist with those who are different, the tendency to destroy that which is different and to justify brutality in the belief that it is God’s will. This descriptive interpretation is a cautionary travelogue that takes us throughout human history to see all the times people have confused their own capacity for violence and conquest with the will of God. History has repeated itself over and over again, from the Great Plains genocide of Native Americans to Germany’s Holocaust to Northern Ireland’s Troubles to Rwanda to Darfur to Gaza to who knows where. The cautionary story serves as a stark reminder that any of us could just as easily have been the person wielding a machete there against the Hittite child, or the Hopi child, or the Hutu child. Given the “right” (wrong) circumstances, we are liable to do anything in the name of the Father. This liability leads us to the introspective interpretation, which takes it’s cue from Paul’s teaching that the battles people of faith engage in are not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces that attack our hearts and minds. Dramatic stories like this one in Deuteronomy are there to reveal the drama that takes place on the stage of our souls, as we engage in daily battles against enemies of addiction, greed, prejudice, animosity, ignorance, hubris. The voice of God gives us our marching orders – lay the edge of the sword to all these destructive forces. Doing so allows us to offer those around us an authentic peace that brings not siege, slavery, and sword, but healing to the sick and food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless and welcome to the stranger.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “World Peace.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.