Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Exodus 15:1-21) transports me to the fords of the river Bruinen in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Frodo Baggins has been wounded by one of the evil swords of Sauron’s Nazgul riders, and the fellowship of the ring is rushing to get him to the elvish land of Rivendell, the only place that might have healers with wisdom to treat such a mortal wound. En route, the Nazgul reappear, and the elf Glorfindel puts Frodo atop his horse, commands it to fly at top speed, in hopes they can reach and cross the river before the evil riders. Frodo does manage to ride the horse across the Bruinen, but the Nazgul are undaunted and begin crossing the river atop their own steeds. Just when it seems all hope is lost, the river takes on a life of its own, with waves rising in the shape of horses, crashing over the Nazgul and washing them away. Elrond, chief elf of Rivendell, has employed some of his spiritual power, causing the river to overpower the evil ringwraiths of Mordor. It’s a prime example of Tolkien’s critique of society’s ever-growing militarism and technology of war. Ultimately, the way to confront the highly militarized and powerful machinery of Mordor was not with their own highly crafted weapons of war, but with spiritual forces.
The scene in the river, which changes somewhat in Peter Jackson’s epic film version as Elrond’s daughter Arwen plays the hero and summons the river’s spirit to drown the foes, calls to mind a much earlier story of a highly militarized power pursuing a disarmed enemy, only to meet their end in a watery grave. The Exodus story, an epic in its own right, seems to peak with the escape of the slaves after the plagues and the passover, but the drama continues as Pharaoh changes his mind. He leads his army to pursue the liberated slaves, who appear to be trapped between the army and the sea. But Moses is able to summon the spirit of the water with his magical staff, and the water parts, allowing the Hebrew people to continue on their road to freedom. Pharaoh and his army follow them into the sea’s parted path, only to find the water crashing in on them. The victory song, sung by Moses and his tambourine playing sister Miriam, is basically a riff on the repeated refrain: I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea. Horse and driver represent for the ancient people the state of the art technology of warfare. Thus concludes the beginning of the great exodus, with as strong a condemnation of militarism as could be imagined. Pharaoh, leader of the world’s great military industrial complex, meets his maker and comes to his end, along with all his weaponry, which proved no match at the end of the day for the spiritual power of Moses and his God. The people of Israel would soon forget this lesson, and succumb to the desire to put on the ring of power and become like other nations, and the prophets would rise to remind them where their true power lay. This forgetting and prophetic remembering constitutes the cyclical history of Israel to this very day, as they are now fully dependent on the technology of the world’s weaponry to make them feel safe, and we await the prophetic words that will convince them otherwise.
It would be hard to justify a claim that Tolkien was a prophetic proponent of nonviolence, especially after seeing The Hobbit and sitting through the extraordinarily long fight scene between the dwarves and the goblins. But still, despite all these scenes throughout Tolkien’s work of hand to hand combat, you can also read something of a critique of the assumptions that violent solutions can cure the problems of evil in our world. In The Hobbit, Gandalf gives voice to Tolkien’s Luddite hatred of modern technological militarism, describing the goblins as cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones. . . Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well. . . It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them. The key to confronting this evil for Tolkien was not to have the elves and dwarves and hobbits enter an arms race and create their own devices for mass killing. A telling scene of the Hobbit movie gives the key, as Galadriel asks Gandalf why he chose a hobbit, a halfling, to be a part of the company. Gandalf answers, Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love. We wait with hope for the day when these acts of love will overpower the armories of the world, and we can rejoice with Miriam and Moses as our version of Pharaoh’s military-industrial complex gets hurled into the sea.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.