Hespeler, 8 November, 2015 © Scott McAndless – Remembrance Sunday
Matthew 5:43-48, Joshua 5:13-15, Psalm 137
bout our Psalm reading this morning, I just wanted to let you know that I saw your reaction. In fact, we actually read this same Psalm in the same way a few weeks ago. I chose to have us read it responsively even though, at the time, I was not intending to preach on it as a part of my Script Out series. And then we read the closing words of the Psalm together: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”
When we all read that, I saw it. There was this little, “Wait, what?” moment. “Did we just read what I thought we read? How can there be people in the Bible who are congratulating themselves for dashing little Babylonian babies against the rocks? I thought that the Bible was supposed to be a nice book!”
It is an awful couple of verses – the kind of passage makes you wish it were just taken out of the Bible altogether. I mean, I think we can appreciate, in this Psalm, that the Jews were rather mad at the Babylonians. The Babylonians had attacked them. They had destroyed their whole country and reduced the city of Jerusalem and the temple of the Lord within it to so much rubble. The Babylonians had taken the Jews as slaves and captives and removed them from their land and made them live by the rivers of Babylon far from home.
So, yes, they hated the Babylonians and saw them as their enemies and it is hard to blame them for that. I’m sure that we would all understand if they cursed and swore at the Babylonians all they wanted or even if they fought against them if given the chance. But, at the same time, I’m pretty sure that most of us would draw the line at rounding up little Babylonian babies and dashing them against the rocks as a way of getting back at the nation of Babylon for what it had done to them.
So, yes, we squirm when we read it and would just as soon pretend that the verses weren’t there at a
ll. But, I’ll tell you, I think we need those verses in our Bibles and I’m going to tell you why.
Today we are observing Remembrance Sunday. It is a day on which we honour the service of those who went and gave of themselves for the sake of their country in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping missions. We honour those who fought and defended. We honour those wounded in body and in spirit and we especially remember those who gave their very lives in service. This is a worthy thing to do. It does us all good, both as Christians and as Canadians, that we set aside time each year to do this.
It doesn’t mean, of course, that we love war or glorify the violence that comes with war. On the contrary, we also see this time as an opportunity to pray for peace and to support those who work for peace. It’s just that most of us recognize that, as bad as it is, sometimes war cannot be avoided. There is a time to fight. If you look at the case of the Jews and the Babylonians, we can sympathize. We can understand the enmity that the Jews held for the Babylonians and can support the idea that they might have resisted them.
And that is what the greater part of the psalm we read this morning is about: the Jews grieving and mourning for what has been done to them. Their captors, the Babylonians, make fun of them. They mockingly tell him to sing some of their songs of Zion – to sing the songs that used to be sung in the temple that was built on the top of Mount Zion in the city of Jerusalem before the Babylonians destroyed it. They are rubbing it in and it is just plain mean. For the Jews to chafe and complain and even to seek to fight their way out of their situation is at least understandable.
But the whole thing about bashing out baby’s brains crosses a line. That’s not about defending yourself or even about fighting back. That is about hate, pure and simple. It is about treating Babylonians as something other than human beings – as objects that can be bashed against the rocks with impunity.
The reason why I am glad that it is actually there in the Psalm is because it is human. It is a reaction that is natural and all too common in times of war and civil strife. I don’t think that there has ever been a war where people didn’t speak of those that they were fighting against as somewhat less than human. Just think of all the slang terms that have been used for Germans, Japanese, Vietnamese, Iraqis, Iranians, Somalis and the list goes on and on. You can understand why soldiers do it. It is just so much easier to kill an enemy if you don’t think of them as human anymore – if they are just a Hun or a Jap or a Raghead.
So I understand where it comes from, but there is also so much that is wrong with it. When we dehumanize anyone, even an enemy, we are ultimately devaluing our own humanity and that is a big problem. And of course, it becomes even worse when the fortunes of war put us in a position where we can actually act on our belief that our enemies are somewhat less than human. Fortunately, the Ancient Israelites were never put in the position where they could actually dash Babylonian babies against the rocks, but unfortunately Canadians, Americans and others have been in that kind of position. The Canadian Airborne Division found itself in that kind of position in Somalia in 1993 and the result was what we know of as the Somalia Affair, one of the worst chapters in Canadian military history. The Americans found themselves in that position at the Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq war. The results were very disturbing to say the least.
Enemies can be very useful, of course. They have a way of uniting people together and focusing their efforts towards a clear purpose. And of course, if you can persuade the people in general to treat their enemies as somewhat less than human, it allows you to manipulate people in some very scary ways. I don’t know about you, but I have felt like there has been a lot of that going on recently.
Look, for example, at the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. With huge numbers of people on the move through Europe and spilling over into the whole world – people fleeing for their lives – of course there are a number of difficult issues that are arising. There are concerns about the economic impact, about security and about what such a large number of outsiders can do to a society. Of course these concerns are there and there is nothing wrong with being concerned about such things.
But what is a problem is a growing tendency to see the strangers involved in this global disaster as somewhat less than human – to see them as barbarians or terrorists or to focus on the niqab that some women wear. These are all terms that have been freely thrown around in our political discourse and it is worrying to say the least. Some people have been using this kind of language in an attempt to direct the Canadian population in some dangerous directions.
As I say, I think it is important that this kind of dehumanizing attitude is found in the scriptures. It teaches us that, if the Ancient Israelites had to deal with such attitudes, we have to be prepared to as well. But it would not be good if Psalm 137 were the final word on the attitude we should have towards our enemies. Fortunately, it is not.
We get another point of view, ironically enough, from one of the most violent and war-minded books of the Bible: the Book of Joshua. In that book, Joshua, the great commander of the forces that are about to sweep through the land of Canaan and to conquer it for the children of Israel has an amazing encounter. He is out walking through his army’s camp when he comes across a soldier – a man he does not know, standing there fully armed with a drawn sword.
Joshua responds to this, like any of us would, by saying, “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” – “Are you a friend or an enemy.” What he doesn’t realize, however, is that he is not confronting just any soldier but a heavenly warrior – the commander of God’s own army. In fact, the suggestion is, he is in the very presence of God. So this ordinary battlefield question – “friend or foe” – actually turns into the great question that people ask in war: is God on our side. And usually the answer to that question is an unqualified yes, of course God is on our side. We almost have to believe that.
But God has a very different answer for Joshua: “Neither;” he says, “I’m neither on your side nor on the other but as commander of the army of the LordI have now come.” God doesn’t take sides. God certainly doesn’t see your enemies as dehumanized monsters as much as you might like him too. God won’t approve of bashing the little ones against the rocks just because their parents are Babylonians. I wish we could all learn the lesson that Joshua gained that day in his camp.
Jesus took that kind of approach even further. He felt it wasn’t enough to just see your enemy as a fellow human. “You have heard that it was said,” Jesus challenged his followers, “‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That saying of Jesus is, in its own way, almost as hard for us to hear as that passage from the Psalm about bashing babies against the rocks. In many ways, loving enemies is much more objectionable than is treating them as somehow less than human.
Of course, in this saying, Jesus was acknowledging that we do have enemies – that, in this dark world, there are people who will be out to get us, to destroy our way of life and even all the good that is in the world. He was being utterly realistic and he was speaking to people who knew very well who their enemies were.
But it was out of that very realistic view of the world that Jesus brought the command to love your enemies. He said that you had to love them, not for the sake of those enemies who, realistically probably couldn’t care less about your love for them. He said that you had to love them for your own sake – so that you could be all that you were created to be, so that you could be like God, in fact, who could never hate even those who hate him.
The world is a dark place where there are people who will hate us, threaten us and attack us. That hasn’t changed and that is why we can and must honour the memory of those heroes who put their lives on the line for the sake of all that is good about our country.
But at the same time, we must never forget that God calls us to see more in the world than just that. He calls us to understand that even those who would destroy us are humans made in God’s image. We cannot rob them of their humanity without robbing ourselves of our own. Are we always going to live up to what Jesus calls us to do – will we always be able to love those enemies? I suspect not. But what Jesus asked for must ever be before us. That is our challenge. Whatever we do, however, we must not give into hatred and treating people as less than human. That is a very dangerous path to go down.