Peace to the Nations

For Sunday July 3, 2005

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Genesis 24:34–67 or Zechariah 9:9–12
           Psalm 45:10–17, Song of Solomon 2:8–13, or Psalm 145:8–14
           Romans 7:15–25
           Matthew 11:16–19, 25–30

The vision of Zechariah, unknown Italian, Sicily, about 1300.
The vision of Zechariah, unknown Italian, Sicily, about 1300.

           As we celebrate the birth of our country this Fourth of July, and the progress of our political experiment—which at a mere 229 years is by world historical standards astonishingly young, the lectionary for this week includes some explicitly political poetry from the prophet Zechariah that speaks to us today 2,500 years after he wrote.

           Kingdoms come, and kingdoms go. Babylon conquered Israel and deported them in 586 BC, but before too long the military balance of power shifted and Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon. As a tolerant and enlightened ruler, Cyrus issued an edict in 538 BC that permitted the subjugated Hebrews to return to their devastated home land. Repatriation to Israel was a brave choice, and not all the Jews returned. Economically-speaking they were better off in pagan Babylon than in holy Jerusalem, for the latter was ransacked and in shambles.

           When Israel's present reality was bleak, the prophets often turned to visions of the future, for what is human hope if not the confidence and expectation of a future? That is what Zechariah did for the repatriated Jews living in war-torn Jerusalem (Zechariah 9:9–10):

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
     Shout, daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
     righteous and having salvation,
     gentle and riding on a donkey,
     on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will take away the chariots of Ephraim
     and the war-horses from Jerusalem,
     and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
     His rule will extend from sea to sea
     and from the River to the ends of the earth.

When you read this political poetry closely, and imagine yourself back to the time and place of a repatriated Hebrew trying to eke out a subsistence existence in your subjugated country, Zechariah's poetry subverts your normal expectations.

           Consider the disconnects. A king will rescue them, yes, but why these words about righteousness and salvation instead of revenge and retribution, which warring nations might expect and even demand? A king riding on a colt? Such outlandish political parody might even strike Zechariah's original readers as cruel. Thank God for the promises of peace, that all the enemy's military hardware will be removed from the capital's streets—chariots, war-horses, and battle bows. But peace to the enemy, and to all nations from sea to sea, to "the ends of the earth?" Why such universal blessing when national survival was at stake?

           The hope that Zechariah offered the Jews envisioned a future far different than the one they might have understandably sought given their humiliating circumstances, and certainly compared to the canons of conventional political wisdom. The future his political poetry envisioned is characterized by national humility not hubris, where a king who rides on a baby donkey rather than a regal stallion (or fighter jet) is emblematic and not oxymoronic. The future kingdom is peaceable not provocational. It is also universal, extending to the ends of the earth, rather than ethnocentric, nationalistic or narcissistic. In Zechariah's political calculus, the concerns of Yahweh's kingdom eclipsed and extended far beyond the boundaries of what we normally think of when we think of a geo-political state or kingdom.

Prophets Habakkuk & Zechariah, by contemporary Nicholas Papas.
Prophets Habakkuk & Zechariah, by contemporary
Nicholas Papas.

           Claiming that God loves your own country more than He loves other countries, confusing and conflating God's loves with national values, and invoking God's wrath against your enemies, are all standard operating procedures for many if not most governments, in Zechariah's day and in ours. Claims of divine partisanship fuel the Muslim extremism that we see in many Arab states today, where the notion of a "secular" state is anathema—Allah loves us, he hates the degenerate American satanists, and he promises paradise to those who martyr themselves for their cause. Muslims are killing Muslims in Iraq right now because of thinking like this, and so far Islamic moderates have said precious little.

           But that sauce which is good for the goose is good for the gander. Like many people, I lament that so many people revile America, or disrespect us, not only among our detractors but especially among nations that have been our friends. The litany of complaints is well known. We act in an isolationist, unilateral manner. We cook the intelligence books to justify policy designs. We invoke double standards, insisting that a strong military with nuclear weapons is a just defense, but protest when other countries say the same about their own security needs. The rule of law by which our country thrives and which is the envy of the world seems imperiled when we flout international conventions, detain people indefinitely and without charges, respond to detestable prison tortures by protesting that wars are difficult and complex, and deride as "absurd" the criticisms of important international bodies like Amnesty International and the International Red Cross whose authority we invoke in other (self-serving) contexts. We've come to do foreign policy by belligerent militarism.1 It feels propagandistic when our vice-president assures us that the Iraqi insurgency is in its "last throes" just a day after our own military announced that there were more car bombs in May than in any previous month. I like to think our country is generous to the world, and it is in terms of absolute dollars. But judged relative to our wealth, to other countries on a per capita-GNP ratio, to what we have promised but not given, and despite what many Americans think, I'm not sure we should brag about our generosity.2 On top of all this, like so many countries throughout world history, we claim Yahweh is for us in a special way, and against others.

           Whether Muslim or American, Zechariah's poetry reminds us that Yahweh's global interests transcend national self-interests. He warns against baptizing national ideology with a divine endorsement.

           Two-hundred years ago this year, in 1805 Alexis de Tocqueville landed on the shores of Newport, Rhode Island and began his prescient travelogue of our country. To commemorate that bicentennial the Atlantic Monthly commissioned a prominent, contemporary French intellectual, Benard-Henri Lévy, to travel extensively in America and report his findings. When Lévy visited Willow Creek megachurch near Chicago, he recorded his impressions of how Americans portrayed the divine: "a God without mystery; a good-guy God; almost a human being, a good American."3 This Fourth of July, as we celebrate our great country, and read Zechariah's political poetry written to his own country, I worry that Lévy might be right, that we all too easily, too readily, too unknowingly create God in our own, self-serving national image. I hope I am wrong, and I pray that Lévy is wrong.

[1] See The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War (2005), by Andrew Bacevich.
[2] Cf. the New York Times (June 8, 2005): "The United States currently gives just 0.16 percent of its national income to help poor countries, despite signing a United Nations declaration three years ago in which rich countries agreed to increase their aid to 0.7 percent by 2015. Since then, Britain, France and Germany have all announced plans for how to get to 0.7 percent; America has not. The piddling amount Mr. Bush announced yesterday is not even 0.007 percent. What is 0.7 percent of the American economy? About billion. That is about the amount the Senate just approved for additional military spending, mostly in Iraq. It's not remotely close to the 0 billion corporate tax cut last year." The 4 million that Bush promised to Africa works out to a one time gift of [jumi/essayer.php].25 from each American.
[3] The Atlantic Monthly (May 2005), p. 76.