Unburied Hatchets

Unburied Hatchets

1 Kings 2:1-10

by Daniel Harrell

Last winter, while visiting Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, I found myself overcome again by the senseless, ghastly evil committed by the Nazis against Jews during World War II. The Museum somberly yet dramatically narrates the atrocities start to finish, from the vicious propaganda to the segregation and oppression, to the collectivizing and the ghettos, and ultimately to the extermination of six million people. Israeli law mandates teenagers to visit the Holocaust Museum three times during adolescence so as to drive its lessons deep into their identities. Oddly, the Jewish teenagers there during our visit mostly seemed unaffected. They were too busy flirting and texting. These kids drew caustic scowls from their teachers, and were riddled with glaring over-the-shoulder stares from others. Oblivious to all this, the kids kept on twittering.

My own irritation smoldered. I confess to a nasty little self-righteous preacher streak that ignites now and then. Incensed by their disrespect, my smoldering ire burst into a full-fledged blaze. I spun around toward the teenagers and lashed out, “ARE YOU SO INSENSITIVE TO THE DEATH OF SIX MILLION PEOPLE THAT YOU CAN’T SHUT UP FOR A MINUTE!?” The teenagers, horrified, cowered and pocketed their smart phones. Several whimpered and slinked away in remorseful shame, trembling from my righteous outburst. Other museum visitors silently nodded their assent to my censure. A museum docent patted my shoulder, just before the security guard escorted me out.

At least that’s how it happened in my head. I was angry, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t do anything. As a professional Christian and pastor for a Holy Land Pilgrimage, I was being paid to exhibit the spiritual fruit of self-control. So I begrudgingly stifled my outrage and let the anger simmer for a year. I feel better now.

Anger is a tough one for Christians. Our ethic emphasizes love and forgiveness. Jesus’ last words from the cross rattle around our soul whenever we get rattled. In regard to those who’d crucified him, he said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Know not what they do? That may apply to chatty teenagers far removed from the hatred and hurt of their great-grandparents, but how can that apply to Hitler and his henchmen, or to terrorists or rapists or murderers or racists or relatives who maliciously harm and oppress? They all knew exactly what they were doing—as do so many who reject, belittle, betray or abuse us and made us look and feel so foolish. “Turn the other cheek,” Jesus said. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” he insisted we pray, holding us hostage to our willingness and ability to absolve those who’ve hurt us most.

Therapists counsel how nursing our anger only poisons our own souls. “You’ll wind up a bitter old man,” they say. “Getting angry can’t change what’s already happened.” Personal well-being and autonomy are enhanced by getting a grip on your anger, studies show. Best to move on. Let it go. Forgive and forget. Ignore anger like the bratty child that it is. But how do you ignore a brat who weighs 600 pounds? A September 11 widow told me how her therapist described anger as a stage on the road to healing, a passing phase of grief. But since when do the emotions of traumatic loss or harm march by in single file? Fear, sorrow, bereavement, hatred and fury: they don’t walk in a straight line but pile on all at once, bringing down with them other emotions you can’t even name. Rather than a nice parade, they come at you more like waves of a storm which wait for you to stagger back to your feet before blindsiding and smacking you down again. “Forgive and bless those who hurt you,” Jesus said. But that’s hard to do when you can hardly breathe.

Some will suggest a rational tack. “Understanding the circumstances of the one who wronged you will make forgiving them easier.” Sort out the root causes and apportion the blame accordingly. Treat your hurt as a problem to be solved. Make sense of your pain. But pain is not always rational. Hurt defies logic. You can’t think it away. Even if you manage to manage your emotions by day, they’ll still haunt you at night. I commit all sorts of vengeful crimes against my enemies in my sleep.

Why can’t Jesus ever take my side? Why can’t the good and obedient older son win the fatted calf? Why doesn’t the hard-working sister in the kitchen score any points for her delicious dinner? Why do the tax-collectors and outcasts have seats at the party while the well-behaved get left behind? Why does God always prefer the wrong-doer over the one who was wronged? As author and pastor Garrett Keizer observes,

God loves the [extortionist], the slacker [sister], the Prodigal Son and the show-up-late worker. On the other hand, the faithful elder son, the hospitable elder sister, the Pharisee who cannot lay claim to anything as glamorous as extorting money from his neighbors… God has little regard for them except for saying that they should be better sports. So the kingdom of God is like unto a third-grade class in which a bully with fine clothes and lunch money to spare, rips my shirt and spits on my sandwich—and [then] smirks in my face as the teacher says we are to shake hands and “make up” and both say we’re sorry. At this point, the third grader may find that he is angrier with the teacher than with the bully.

 

This is why I prefer the Old Testament when I’m mad. It not only makes anger Biblical, it treats getting even as virtue. In this second sermon installment of the life and times of King Solomon, King David, his father, lies on his deathbed. David calls Solomon, his newly anointed heir, to his bedside for a few last words about unfinished business. It’s a scene that reads like something out of The Godfather or from The Sopranos. King David firmly murmurs with labored breath: “I am about to go the way everything and person on earth must go. Be strong, my son. Be a man. Observe what the Lord your God requires. Walk in his ways. Keep his decrees and commands, his laws and requirements, all that is written in the Law of Moses so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you turn.” So far so good. Obey the Bible. Live long and prosper. Trust and obey. Praise the Lord.

But then comes verse 5: “Now Solomon, you remember what Joab—my cousin and former army general—did to me. He killed two of my commanders, retaliating in time of peace for blood that had been shed in war. The stains of his guilt are upon him. Act according to your wisdom. Do not let his gray head go down to his grave in peace.” For those familiar with King David’s saga, you’ll remember Joab as among David’s staunchest allies. This is the thanks he gets? A contract on his life for a murder he’d committed 40 years prior, and even then in David’s best interest and for his protection? No matter. Joab supported David’s eldest living son, Adonijah, in his bid for the crown in chapter 1 last Sunday. Even though David hadn’t informed anybody about his intentions for Solomon. Some say Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba, and Nathan the prophet tricked David into ceding the throne to Solomon. Either way, Joab knew not what he did. As soon as he became aware of David’s desire, Joab shifted his loyalties to Solomon. But no matter. He supported Adonijah once, who’s to say he wouldn’t do it again? Kill him.

“And while you’re at it,” David continues, “don’t forget Shimei the Benjaminite. He cursed me with a terrible curse. I swore by the Lord to love him as my enemy. I would not kill him with the sword. So you kill him.” It was a capital offense to curse the King. But Shimei realized his error, threw himself before David, repented of his crime and pled for mercy. David forgave him—but did not forget. “Do not hold him guiltless,” he instructed Solomon. “You are a wise man; you know what to do. Bring his hoary head down with blood to his grave.”

Now this is more like it. Forgive but remember. Grace with a grudge. Mercy with vengeance. Love your enemy and then destroy him. This is my kind of forgiveness.

It was Solomon’s too. David died and the story continues with Adonijah, Solomon’s deposed older brother whom we met last Sunday, asking a seemingly harmless favor of the king. Could he get married? Specifically, could he have one of King David’s leftover wives for himself? Since Adonijah couldn’t be king, how about a wifely token with which to remember his brief afternoon of royalty?

Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba, agreed to speak to Solomon on Adonijah’s behalf. Perhaps she was feeling a twinge of guilt for her role in swiping the throne out from under Adonijah. Then again, maybe she being opportunistic. Did she consider the request for a wife harmless or a good way to get rid of the competition, knowing Solomon to be a chip off David’s block? Bathsheba presented the small request to King Solomon, her son, only to have her son blow his own gasket, first with sarcasm (“Why don’t you just ask for the whole kingdom as well?”), then with fury (“May God do to me and more if Adonijah does not pay for this trick with his life!”). Solomon ordered Adonijah dead that day.

Last Sunday, Adonijah begged mercy for his presumptuousness, whereupon Solomon replied: “If he proves to be a worthy man, not one of his hairs shall fall to the ground; but if wickedness is found in him, he shall die.” Adonijah submissively bowed before Solomon, and Solomon sent Adonijah home forgiven. But as soon as Adonijah crossed the line this second time (his bid for a wife of the former king was construed as a bid for the crown), he was doomed. Two strikes and you’re out. In the New Testament, asked how many times you have to forgive a brother who sins against you, Jesus replied seventy times seven. Solomon couldn’t even manage one times two. Still, there were no repercussions. No heavenly repudiation. No prophet showing up to chastise Solomon for his temper. His anger, as well as that of his father’s, gets couched instead in the context of faithful obedience to the Law of Moses. Not that Moses was a docile character—his hand pulled the lever of doom against disloyal Israelites a number of times too. Almighty God himself is depicted throughout the Old Testament as a jealous God, filled with vengeance and wrath who takes revenge on all who oppose him and furiously destroys his enemies!”

So then what’s with the New Testament emphasis on turning the other cheek? Why are we now commanded to repay evil with good, waive any right to revenge and delay every gratification of justice? Why do David and Solomon get away with getting even while I get walked over, a humiliating doormat for the sake of being a good Christian? What am I supposed to do with my anger? If being forgiven by God is conditioned on our forgiveness of others, what hope do we have? I can say “I forgive you,” but does it count when what I really want is for your own hoary head to be painfully and mercilessly buried deep into the dirt of your perdition? Not much grace in that.

As always, the critical difference between Old Testament and New is the resurrection of Jesus. Keizer points to an explicit link between resurrection and forgiveness that signals two things: First, forgiveness is supernatural. Loving and absolving your enemy happens no more easily than does a man rising from the dead. Neither is natural. As such, secondly, forgiveness takes faith. Faith affirms that some things cannot be seen; that all things cannot be known. This is why the rational approach to forgiveness proves so fruitless. To comprehend everything cannot lead to forgiveness if only for the simple reason that you will never comprehend everything. Faith is required.

In addition to the link between the resurrection and forgiveness, there is also a link between the resurrection and anger. If by anger we mean the unleashed and impassioned hostility against those people and circumstances which offend, frustrate, threaten, endanger or impede; then the cross of Christ must be viewed as the anger of God in its purest expression. The defeat suffered by Jesus was not that suffered by the Son of a dispassionate Father. The sin Jesus bore—of which we all share guilt—brought down the full fury of heaven. The lid came loose. The gasket blew. The earth shook. The sun went dark. The Temple curtain tore in two. God’s furious justice on that Judgment Day gave way to the vindication of Resurrection Day. Jesus’ defeat ends up as a win, his death a victory, the way of the cross becomes the way to new life. Though dead in the water, Christ makes us alive through his life, no longer counting our rottenness against us, forgiving us despite our own feeble, halfhearted attempts at repentance making possible even the unnatural forgiveness of others.

The link between resurrection and anger, as well as the link between resurrection and forgiveness, hints finally at a third link; the link between forgiveness and anger. To forgive is to first blame and accuse, it cannot ask for the termination of anger—only its transformation. It’s resurrection. We wince at the seemingly unchristian temperament of King David and the volatile outburst of Solomon; but in neither case do they transgress their rights and roles as kings endowed by God’s spirit. As it was God’s spirit granting them rights to anger, we can safely assume that anger—while not always preferable or appropriate—is not prohibited either. “Get mad, just don’t sin,” say both the Psalms and the apostle Paul. Jesus himself, the royal descendent of David and Solomon, is well remembered for ferociously labeling the religious leaders of his day snakes and viper spawn, for turning the tables on Temple moneychangers, and for calling his best friend, Peter, Satan incarnate. Yet from this same angry Jesus rises salvation for the snakes as well as grace for his friends and enemies, for the prodigal sons and the self-righteous, for you and me too.

So when you’re mad, instead of praying for your anger to go away; ask God to raise it up from those deadly places it does its damage. Rather than trying to calm your passionate rage; let God convert your passion into love. Anger is that impulse to knock down walls. But anger resurrected as forgiveness, like the resurrected Jesus himself, walks through walls.

And one last thing. While our Lord was no longer subject to the grave nor apparently to the laws of nature after his resurrection; he still carried scars on his hands and his feet. God’s anger transformed into amazing grace, but Jesus’ grace toward his enemies never required that he hide the evidence of his hurt.