22 March 2018

His eye is on the collateral damage

I will sing unto the Lord
For he has triumphed gloriously
The horse and rider thrown into the sea.

I knew the Ottawa Friends meetinghouse before I ever attended my first Friends meeting, because it was also the meeting place for a small charismatic congregation that my cousins attended, with me sometimes tagging along. One of the songs they sang was "I will sing unto the Lord."

It's a delightfully singable song, but with a big (for me) problem:

What about the horse and the rider? Does anyone at all care about their fate?

Neither the song nor the biblical text (Exodus 15:1-21) seem to pay any attention to the Pharaoh's forces as human beings; they "sank to the depths like a stone," and that was that. Their whole function seemed to be to illustrate God's miraculous delivery of the Israelites.  Their individual guilt or innocence in following Pharaoh's orders, not to mention their terrible fate, is beside the point.

There are many other examples of collateral damage in Biblical texts -- whether the victims are forces opposing Israel, or Israelites themselves. Just consider the fate of Korah and his friends, including "wives, children and little ones," Numbers 16.

Which explanation do you prefer?
  1. These people's sufferings were inconsequential to God in comparison to the value of teaching the rest of us a lesson.
  2. God's biblical chroniclers did not understand God well enough at that point in history to record God's provisions of care to those whose death appears cruel to us.
  3. These incidents did not happen exactly as they're depicted in the Bible; in reality, no innocent people suffered just for the sake of shock and awe.
Which is it? Did God drown and burn and crush people ... and is it the very same God whose "eye is on the sparrow, and I know he cares for me"? (Scripture; song.)

This attention to the apparent indifference of the Bible or of its readers to God's collateral damage may seem trivial, but I can't help wondering whether this indifference, or lack of curiosity, might have something to do with the cruelty of God's own people to this day. When the church seeks to dominate rather than serve, the resulting exercise of power results in witch trials, scarlet letters, doctrinal litmus tests, shaming, shunning, church splits, coercion in all its varied forms.

In Solveig Torvik's epic documentary-novel Nikolai's Fortune, the woman who bore a child after being raped is humiliated before the whole congregation.
There had been growing numbers of such scenes in the church in Rantsila in recent times. With each newly-fallen woman, the pastor -- a thin, pale man whose eyes were devoid of the barest flicker of compassion -- grew more frenetic in his exhortations.

"Man is an imperfect creature, by his very nature too easily tempted to sin," he warned. "But woman, she is ordained to be the guardian of his virtue. Should she fail in that sacred duty, as did this poor sinner, we shall all be lost." He paused for effect. "But there is hope, even for such sinners as this." This was the moment they were waiting for. On cue, Marie stood to face the worshippers....

"I confess the sin of having a child out of wedlock," she said tonelessly. Her voice was barely audible in the deep silence, but a sigh of satisfaction rose from the packed pews.
Marie is led away from the church,
... past the prying stares of the last handful of gloating worshippers who were waiting for a closer look at a certified sinner. The men leered at her knowingly; the eyes of the hard-faced women shot her through with venomous daggers.
Although based on a true story, these details are composed from imagination. However, does anyone doubt that such scenes happened regularly and still happen today? No doubt, atheists can be equally cruel; that's not the point. It's not our job to fix the atheists; it's our job to pray and build a trustworthy church, one where it's safe to ask questions, where God or God's authorized representatives are not waiting in ambush.

I said a bit more about Nikolai's Fortune here (the third book reviewed).
Collateral damage, part two, part three, part four.

Russian "MeToo" charges by State Duma journalists: an update.

Skripal and extraterritorial security.
Aspects of kleptocracy — what Alena Ledeneva describes in the Russian case as the “informal means of execution of power and decision-making outside of formal procedures” — are extended into spaces beyond the home country.
Rich Lewis on centering prayer and ADHD.

The Arusha (Tanzania) Call to Discipleship.

Amy Young suggests books for overseas workers in transition.

Sue Foley, "Absolution" ...


BrianY said...

Thanks for articulating this, Johan--I have often wondered this same thing about the Ex 15 passage, also when singing songs like your praise chorus ("O Mary, Don't You Cry No More" comes to mind). And I remember leading worship as part of a Christian Peacemaker Teams project where we struggled with this passage. I had selected it because of the liberative work of God that it records--but at least one other

It seems to me that one of the things going on in (or underneath) the Num 16 passage is a struggle about who the rightful members of the priesthood were to be. The horrific deaths of the Korahites and the ensuing plague are a caution to anyone afterward who would question the primacy of Aaron and his family. I'm sure critical scholars have framed it this way.

I guess I would opt for a modification of your option 3, that "in reality, /few/ innocent people suffered just for the sake of shock and awe." Recently I have been trying to better understand Rene Girard's concepts of scapegoating and mimetic desire. I don't have a very good grasp on them yet, but they probably apply in this case... although usually the process of scapegoating involves re-directing collective violence onto a /single/ victim rather than an entire family. It may have been that Korah became the scapegoat in a conflict between Aaron and the Levites, and that the collective punishment that the passage records was an elaboration meant to underline the gravity of the offense against the priesthood.

BrianY said...

Sorry, I didn't finish a sentence there: "...but at least one other member of the group could hardly read the passage due to its seeming callousness re: the lives of the Egyptians."

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Brian. I think that Girard's insights do apply here. Since Girard regarded sacred history as an expose of the sacrificial system rather than just an affirmation of it, I suppose we're allowed to wonder whether the extinction of the Korahites was a literary device than one that is strictly historical. So "inerrancy" might mean something different than biblical conservatives usually suppose!