From Political Analysis to Moral Accountability:
Ancient Poetry and Modern "Eliminationism"

For Sunday December 13, 2009
Third Sunday in Advent

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

Zephaniah 3:14–20

Isaiah 12:2–6

Philippians 4:4–7

Luke 3:7–18

           Last month I read Worse Than War; Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity by Daniel Goldhagen. He begins his study of mass murder with the annihilation of the Herero people by the Germans in 1904. Harry Truman exterminated 300,000 Japanese. The Turks slaughtered 1.2 million Armenians and exported 800,000 more. Hitler, Kim Il-sung, his son Kim Jong-il, Pol Pot, Stalin, and Mao Zedong all "made slaughtering a constitutive feature of their civilizations." The Hutu genocide of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda is well known, but in fact there have been seven "iterative exterminationist episodes" since 1962. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 5.4 million people have perished in eliminationist campaigns since 1998, making it the deadliest conflict since World War II.

           Goldhagen estimates that between 127–175 million people have been "eliminated" in the last hundred years. The victims came from all regions of the world, and from all social, economic and political classes. The vast majority of these people were killed in their own countries, by their fellow citizens, by willing and non-coerced murderers, and without any substantial dissent. By Goldhagen's count, "mass murder has deeply scarred countries that are home to 4.4 billion people, two-thirds of the world's population." And so eliminationism is "worse than war."

5.4 million dead in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998.
5.4 million dead in the Democratic Republic of
Congo since 1998

           Elimination takes five main forms — transformation of a group's essential identity (eg, their language or religion), repression (enslavement, camps, apartheid, famine, segregation), expulsion and deportation (death marches), prevention of reproduction by systematic rape, and extermination. Eliminationism is not inevitable, accidental, a spontaneous eruption, or the work of "abstract forces or structures." It's a direct consequence of human agency. People have a choice.

           Parts of Goldhagen's book are so disturbing that I had to put it down. A friend told me that he wasn't sure he could finish it. But I appreciated his work for one reason in particular. Goldhagen insists that political analysis must always include moral accountability. The myths, lies, denials, rationalizations, "self-exculpations," "prettified self-images," and "linguistic camouflage" of both active eliminators and passive bystanders are endless. Beyond the explanations and excuses, and after we've disabused ourselves of the secular myth of progress (political, scientific, economic), we must ask ourselves — do mass murderers act with ultimate impunity?

           If you enjoy a secure life in Zurich or Palo Alto, you have the luxury to deconstruct the ancient poetry of Zephaniah as a pre-scientific myth. But if you and your people face elimination, or if you're one of the billion people who go to bed hungry every night, Zephaniah offers a compelling explanatory narrative. Zephaniah prophesies that the illusion of political impunity will meet the certainty of moral accountability.

           Zephaniah's five-page prophecy is easy to describe while hard to imagine. His very first sentence pictures a cosmic cataclysm that results from divine judgment: "I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth" (1:2). His very last sentence rejoices in human redemption: "I will restore your fortunes before your very eyes" (3:20).

           Between these first and last verses, at least twenty-five times Zephaniah mentions "the day of the Lord" or semantic equivalents. He announces a coming day of destruction for all the oppressors of the earth. He compares these predators to ravenous wolves, and then envisions their destruction: "The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. "The great day of the Lord's wrath” (1:14) will be a day of bitterness, anguish, ruin and gloom.

Deserted town of Now Zad, Afghanistan, formerly home to 30,000 people.
Deserted town of Now Zad, Afghanistan,
formerly home to 30,000 people.

           Zephaniah has harsh words for his own people Israel. He deplores their religious idolatry in the worship of Baal and Molech. He denounces wanton luxury predicated upon economic exploitation, people who wore “foreign clothes” — expensive imports from exotic destinations (1:8). The financial district, merchants, and those who “trade with silver” — Jerusalem's equivalent to Wall Street — will be “wiped out” (1:11). In the social and cultural realms, violent oppression ruled the day (1:9, 3:1). Judah's politicians, officials, prophets and priests are all identified as hostile predators who “know no shame” (3:3–5).

           Zephaniah expands his purview beyond Israel and even beyond her surrounding enemies to include the entire world. As a global egalitarian far ahead of his time, his vision is universal. Portions of his prophecy about “the day of the Lord” are directed to “the whole world” and “all who live in the earth” (1:18 and 3:8), the nations and kingdoms “on every shore” (2:11). He expands his prophetic judgments to include the five surrounding nations of Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Cush and Assyria, and then again to include the whole earth.

           For people who dismiss notions of divine judgment as embarrassing or unworthy of God, the 127-175 million people eliminated in the last hundred years remind us that the alternative is ultimate impunity for the Pol Pots of the world. Stretching across twenty-five centuries, spoken to and for ancient Judaism but speaking today to Christians, to Darfur's dispossessed Muslims, to Hindu's untouchable Dalits, and to all the exploited of the earth who have endured pillage, plunder, displacement, torture, starvation, burning of villages, and systematic rape of women no matter their age, Zephaniah preaches a message of radical redemption: a day is coming when "never again will you fear any harm" (3:15).

           We rightly dismiss caricatures of divine judgment that portray God as capricious, arbitrary, vindictive or sadistic. Rather, God's judgment is a purifying response to everything that dehumanizes us — political violence, oppression, religious fakery, economic exploitation, exile, famine, and war. Must our moral calculus accept that an Idi Amin slaughters with impunity? Do I really want God to leave me to my own worst impulses of envy, greed, anger, and lust, or do I want Him to judge, rescue and purify me from them?

300,000 dead and 2 million displaced in Darfur.
300,000 dead and 2 million displaced in Darfur.

           To me, the most terrifying texts in the Bible are not those of divine judgment but those that suggest that God gives me up to the consequences of my own sin, poor choices, and foolishness (cf. Romans 1:24, 26, 28). The "refiner's fire" that John the Baptist announces in this week's Gospel purges, cleanses and restores. The message of divine judgment is thus ultimately an optimistic one of human redemption.

           God's judgment is redemptive and not merely retributive. It is not a punitive end in itself but a means to our better end. God scatters, but He also “gathers” (3:20). Zephaniah announces impending doom, but he also issues an invitation and appeal. He beseeches us to seek the Lord “before” (3 times) the awful day of the Lord comes. Divine judgment is not inevitable, it is not some immutable law of fate. When we repent, as John the Baptist invites us to do in this week's gospel, God eagerly restores.

           Zephaniah envisions a day when God “takes away your punishment,” a time when “you will not be put to shame for all the wrongs you have done to me” (3:11, 15). It is a day when He is “mighty to save,” a time when He “takes great delight” in us, a time when he will “quiet us with His love and rejoice over us with singing” (3:16–17). Echoing his prophetic compatriots, Zephaniah finally says that the day of the Lord is a day when “the nations on every shore will worship him, everyone in his own land” (2:11; Isaiah 2:2, Micah 4:1–2, and Zechariah 8:22–23). A day is coming, he predicts, when "never again will you fear any harm" (3:15).

For further reflection

* What did Jesus mean when he said, "for judgment I came into the world" (John 9:39)?
* Proverbs 31:8–9: "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy."
For another bleak assessment of human history see the novel or film adaptation of The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
Cf. Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell; America and the Age of Genocide (2002), and Philip Jenkins, The New Faces of Christianity; Believing the Bible in the Global South (2006).

Image credits: (1) Allison Kilkenny: Daily News & Opinion; (2); (3) Azjamon World View.