In this morning’s reading from Exodus, the story of Moses parting the Red Sea, many are not so much troubled by their incredulity at Moses’ parting the Red Sea, as they are troubled by God’s destruction of the Egyptian soldiers who are drowned when the waters come back together. How can a God who is love, who forgives, who has compassion for all his creatures, drown thousands of soldiers in the sea? And this story is rather tame compared to other Old Testament stories. Remember, for example, the stories in the book of Joshua in which God tells the Israelites to spare not a single inhabitant of the cities they conquer (e.g., Jericho and Ai, chapters 6 & 8), but to “devote them to destruction.” Or remember the stories of King David killing thousands and showing no mercy, one time even making his captives lie down in a row on the ground and measuring them off with a cord. Those captives within every two lengths of cord he put to death, but those within every third length of cord he spared as slaves (2 Samuel 8:2). And, just a few chapters after today’s story, in Exodus chapter 32, Moses commanded the sons of Levi to “Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor,” all who had worshipped the golden calf.
These passages are disturbing, and I have a hunch we all very much would like to make sense of them. As I look back at my own history of trying to understand these passages of violence, I see three different responses. The first response is an emotional response of confusion, hurt and anger: Confused because I can’t understand how God could not only condone such violence. Hurt because such violence does not square with what I have been told about God being loving and compassionate. And then angry because I often get angry when I feel hurt. A second response is to basically suppress these violent passages – I ignore them and focus instead on the New Testament. A third response – which dates from seminary, where I developed tools for scripture interpretation – is to try place these passages in historical context and tell myself things like, “The Israelites were the underdogs; God was standing up for the underdogs.” Or, “It’s human nature to see God as fighting on your side” Over the years I’ve cycled through these answers, mostly the last two, ignoring and rationalizing.
At this point in my life, I’m no longer satisfied with my responses of ignoring and rationalizing. I’m wondering if it might be more fruitful to go back to my first, knee-jerk response of confusion, hurt and anger. Rather than trying to ignore or somehow “solve” these passages, I wonder what I might learn if I were to turn around and face these passages, letting them be what they are, and living with the discomfort that they cause in me?
What I’m beginning to see when I give myself permission to face these passages and not run from the discomfort they cause, is that all of Scripture – including these violent passages – can tell me something about myself. The violence that God does to the Egyptians in the Red Sea, that violence is in me, too, who would like to see God fight for me against my enemies. The Levites slaying of three thousand of their fellow Israelites, that violence is in me, too, who can sometimes get very zealous for what I think is “right.” David’s arbitrarily killing off two thirds of the captives lying down on the ground, that arbitrariness is in me, too, who can be quite arbitrary in whose lives and concerns I pay attention to.
I’m willing to admit all this because I know that I am not alone. For example, I know that I am in the company of Peter (the first pope!) who failed to stand up for Jesus, and who denied Jesus three times, in the courtyard of the high priest. I know that I am in the company of the disciples (future saints all) who, acting on racial stereotypes, tried to shoo away the Canaanite woman who came to Jesus to beg that he might heal her daughter. I know that I am in the company of the disciple (a future saint!) who turned violent and pulled out his sword in defense of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. I know I have company when I acknowledge the capacity for violence within me. And I have a hunch that I am not alone in having difficulty with these violent passages: I’m probably not the only one who is inclined to run from or who wants to ignore them, who doesn’t want to turn and face them.
But if we wish to grow, the way to grow is not to ignore or rationalize these passages, but to face them and to own their “shadow,” which is within us. Stanford sociologist Rene Girard writes about the phenomenon of “scapegoating” in which a group sacrifices an individual or a group as a “scapegoat” in order to maintain a myth they tell about themselves. Fr. John Heber, a disciple of Girard, says the following about scapegoating and the shadow that is within each of us:
When a mob beats a thief to death in Nairobi, they are not doing [so] because they are all totally opposed to theft and want to rid the world of this scourge, they are projecting their own shadow nature onto the thief and refusing to own it.
That is, a group will beat a thief to death, not out of an altruistic desire to rid the world of thievery, but because they are unwilling to face the thief that is inside each of them. Unwilling to admit and own this “shadow,” they project their own inner thief onto the victim and kill him, thereby keeping pure the myth that they are not thieves.
I wonder if we, if we are inclined to ignore or rationalize our way through violence in Scripture, might be refusing to own our “shadow,” might be attempting to maintain a myth we tell about ourselves (such as, we do not have within us the capacity for violence). And I wonder if – if we would come to a place of truth and continue to grow and develop in our spiritual lives – we might turn and face the discomfort, the confusion, the hurt and the anger we feel in regards to these scriptures, and to let these emotions just “be” with us. Being with these feelings may not be comfortable, but as we are able to own them, so we align ourselves with Christ, who did not shun discomfort, who was the ultimate scapegoat upon whom the world projected its shadows, and whose death and resurrection not only dispelled all false myths we might tell about ourselves, but threw a wrench into the works of all subsequent scapegoating and opened up the way for true and lasting peace
As we consider the violent passages in Scripture, and as we consider our reluctance to own our “shadow” and our capacity for violence, maybe it would help to remember that tomorrow is the Feast of the Holy Cross. The Feast of the Holy Cross celebrates Jesus’ cross, how it judges the world and exposes the world’s myths for the empty shams they are, and how it holds up Jesus, the true Light of the world. I see in this feast both strength and opportunity. I see the strength to face my own “shadow” because I know that – in the cross – I am loved and forgiven, no matter what. And I see opportunity because I know that in the cross any myths I tell about myself have the opportunity to be exposed to a much more satisfying truth; that is, that perfect freedom, perfect contentment, is to be found solely in following, loving and serving the one whose cross upends all untruths and brings light to all shadows, and who always – always! – loves, forgives and redeems us.