There is still blood on the windscreen of my car, which is parked in High Holborn. There are still feathers and various body parts enmeshed in my grill. Because this morning, I hit a pigeon at high speed. And it was messy. One minute, the pigeon is going about the business of gathering twigs for his nest. The next, he is no more. It is horrible – a life that was merrily going on this morning, has ended – because of my actions. Body parts were still falling off my car as I drove through Shoreditch. This series began with the recognition that for the majority of animals in the history of the world, life is stressful, and painful, and violent.
But what about humans. Is life really much better? Well, perhaps not for every human. But what about kings? Life as a king must be great. But it wasn’t always great. A criminologist from Cambridge University has recently published a survey, saying that – between the years of 600 and 1800 AD – if you were a king, you were more likely to die a violent death than if you were a front line soldier on the battlefield. It was a violent world … and if you were king, there were other people who were desperate to sit where you were sitting. And you were desperate to keep sitting where you were sitting.
When you look at this kind of reality – you realise what a bad press people like King Herod have had. He’s always in trouble for killing all those babies in Bethlehem – about twenty of them in all probability. But it wasn’t the first, or last time he did that – and it’s what everyone did. His replacement was due to be born in that town of Bethlehem, – and Herod the Great didn’t want those kids growing up with aspirations to sit where he was sitting. Because he wanted to carry on sitting where he was sitting. Nasty Herod…
Anyway, we’re not talking about Herod this evening. We’re talking about Elijah. And Elijah was a goodie – and we know that because he went up Mount Carmel and proved all those nasty prophets of Baal to be mistaken. And when he had proven them wrong … he had them slaughtered! So – Herod does this kind of thing and it makes him a baddie, and Elijah does this kind of thing, and it’s okay, because Elijah was a goodie. A bit of consistency wouldn’t be amiss.
In fact, atheist blog sites are crammed with lists and lists of these kinds of inconsistencies – revelling in the hypocrisy of it all. How can you believe in a loving God – how can you believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and then go and accept God condoning violent acts like this. But really – by now – after we’ve been looking at this stuff for just a few weeks… are you not getting bored with that question? After you’ve asked it once or twice, after you’ve thought about it for a bit…
These lame “either-or” alternatives are usually wheeled out before us: either God wanders around being angry and violent and demanding death; or the bible is a load of rubbish, just the words of stupid violent people – and should be abandoned as a source of any moral goodness in the world today. It reminded me of a great quote I read on one of Ruth’s favourite blog sites yesterday:
“That Church is sometimes like a swimming pool: Most of the noise comes from the shallow end.”
Why is it that supposedly thinking atheists, can’t think beyond shallow, either-or philosophies? Why is it that so many intelligent atheists and secularists, can’t read a historical document with even a degree of sensitivity about what they are reading? Why is it that sound, bible-thumping evangelicals are so insistent on saying that – because it’s in God’s Word, it’s God’s will for Christians today…
For most of history, killing people has been a justifiable and defensible and acceptable act of political necessity. Every Sunday morning and every Sunday evening, I am reminded of this fact by driving past the Tower of London. Sure, it’s glorious, beautiful, fascinating – and before I leave London I’m desperate to pay a long visit to the place. If I could afford it… But really – it’s a kind of down-to-earth purgatory. If, a couple of centuries ago, you were sent to the Tower – entry was free – but you, in fact, were not! In England, in this supposedly civilised country – throughout history, those who are a threat to the governing power are locked up to await their fate:
Either a quiet execution for politically sensitive prisoners – or you were invited to Tower Hill, the place that is now the residence of a certain Mr and Mrs Bevis, to be hung, drawn and quartered. Execution was not seen as an infringement of human rights. It was an accepted part of political expediency.
And let’s be absolutely clear about this: when people died for their religious beliefs, this did not mean that it was simply a difference of religious opinion that led to their deaths. Religion and politics, as has always been the case, are mutually inseparable. So … people never die simply for their religious beliefs, because execution with religious labels on it, is always, invariably and inescapably a political act! Let’s not pretend that religion had nothing to do with the Christmas execution of Sadam Hussein, or that politics had nothing to do with crucifxion of Jesus.
So, when we read this passage in Kings, about the history of Israel and … not surprisingly, its Kings – we are not reading about a barbaric and crude God, who is so uncivilised that he has to execute anyone who picks any deity other than himself. We are reading about the history of kings – of rival claims for power – of competing narratives of the world and about how the world should be run. The prophets of Baal were not simply sad, spiritual, religious types put to death by a crude, blade-wielding worshipper of Yahweh. Any more than those who died in the Tower of London because they would not recant their catholocism, were dying simply because of their private religious beliefs.
When we read the books of Kings, we are reading about Royal families and their struggle for power – which are no different, ethically or politically – to any other power struggles in monarchies throughout history. These people were human beings – and behaved in the same way as all other human beings. Stamping out the prophets of baal in Israel, was virtually the same practice as stamping out catholocism in Tudor England… And how many people turn around and claim that Queen Elizabeth I (who had done time in the Tower of London and lived to tell the tale), how many claim that Queen Elizabeth was a crude and barbaric monarch?
No, if the Kings of Israel did not act as kings, and instead behaved like virtuous, tree-hugging Guardian-reading, non-conformists, the books of Kings would lack any historical authenticity.
The kings of Israel operated as kings. For Christians to claim they did otherwise, is unbiblical, and for atheists to expect them to do otherwise is irrational. On either side of these debates, are flat, two dimensional readings of Scripture that fail to take into account the genre and the context of the documents.
The context is that Samuel the prophet had warned against having kings – because this is how kings behave. It’s not that kings are unfair. The good kings and the bad kings of Israel, killed their rivals. If you’re not doing that, then you cannot describe yourself as a king in this era … you would have to be something else.
And, Elijah, having conducted his experiment successfully and proved that Yahweh, and not Baal, is the one true God – gets to give the orders. Getting rid of the prophets of Baal, is a political necessity when you are trying to centralise power in Jerusalem, expel the foreign gods and put the fear of God into the populace so they had better jolly well get with the programme.
I suppose the question, really, is – within the context of Scripture – how the unfolding narrative makes sense of this story. These are the people who are told not to put Yahweh their God to the text: which, it seems, is exactly what Elijah did on Mount Carmel. And the reason this story is in Scripture, is not so that we can make a hero out of Elijah.
It is rather, so we can see that even the great heroes of Israel got it wrong. Even the great heroes of Israel abuse power when it comes to them. As we see the story unfold, we see that any power wielded by the kings of Israel is shallow and short lived. And it’s the people who suffer. And this is precisely what Samuel the prophet had warned would happen when Israel asked for a King.
So … as we approach now the outbreaking of the Kingdom of God as manifest at Easter – we see a different kind of King, a new kind of Kingly authority. We will see a king who fulfils all the expectations of the Hebrew Scriptures, but who fulfils them in unexpected ways. We see a king who – far from cursing and punishing others – draws all the curses and the punishments and woes of Israel onto himself. We see a king who – far from wanting to grasp at power and exert it and execute all the people who were proven wrong… we see a king who relinquishes his own power and relinquishes his own life.
And the challenge for us, in this Kingdom of God … is whether we want that kind of kingdom – or whether we like where we are sitting, and would give anything we have to stay where we are sitting. Because the King of Israel breaks bread with us this evening, looks us in the eye, and – even though we like sitting where we are sitting, he says “follow me”.
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 17th April, 2011