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A King on a Colt?
Zechariah's Peace Poetry

For Sunday July 6, 2008

           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 America this Fourth of July, and the progress of our nation's political experiment — which at a mere 232 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 Jews 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 their capital had been ransacked and was in shambles.

           When Israel's present reality was bleak, the prophets often envisioned a better future. What is human hope if not the confidence and expectation of a future? That's 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 in the time and place of a repatriated Jew trying to eke out a subsistence living in your subjugated country, Zechariah's poetry subverts your normal expectations. It's not what most Jews would have wanted to hear.

           Consider the disconnects. A king will rescue them, yes, but why these words about righteousness and salvation instead of revenge and retribution? Don't warring nations expect and even demand retribution? A king riding on a colt? Such outlandish political parody might have struck 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, peace to all nations from sea to sea, and peace to "the ends of the earth?" Why such universal blessing when national survival was at stake?

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

           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. It imagines a king who rides a young donkey rather than a regal stallion (or fighter jet) as emblematic and not oxymoronic. The future kingdom is peaceable not provocational. It's 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.

           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 governments, in Zechariah's day and in ours. Claims of divine favoritism 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.

          I lament that many people revile America today, or disrespect us, not only among our detractors but especially among nations that have been our friends. This summer my daughter will travel in Honduras and my son in Bosnia. I wonder about the reception they'll receive as Christians who happen to be American. To many people we've lost our legitimacy as the sole super power; the litany of complaints is well known.

           We act in an isolationist, unilateral manner and fail to appreciate how others view us. We cook the intelligence books to justify policy designs. We invoke double standards, insisting that a strong military with nuclear weapons is our just defense, but protesting 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. On top of all this, like so many countries throughout world history, we claim that Yahweh is for us and against others.

           Zechariah's poetry reminds us that Yahweh's global interests transcend national self-interests. He warns against baptizing national ideology with a divine endorsement. God longs to "break the battle bow" and proclaim "peace to the nations."

World flags.
World flags.

           In 1805 Alexis de Tocqueville landed on the shores of Newport, Rhode Island and began his prescient travelogue that was eventually published as Democracy in America (1835, 1840). To commemorate that bicentennial, in 2005 the Atlantic Monthly commissioned the 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" (American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, 2006). This Fourth of July, as we celebrate our country, and read Zechariah's political poetry written to his own country, I worry that Lévy might be right, that we all too easily create God in our own, self-serving national image. I hope I'm wrong, and I pray that Lévy is wrong.

For further reflection

* See The Post-American World (2008) by Fareed Zakaria; and The Kings and Their Gods (2008) by Daniel Berrigan.
* How can we today "proclaim peace to the nations" as Zechariah urges?
* Recall that the gospels quote this passage from Zechariah to describe Jesus's triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Image credits: (1) J. Paul Getty Museum; (2) Nicholas Papas; and (3)

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