What would happen if the Vice President of the United States committed murder and got away with it? It is not a rhetorical question; such a thing happened long ago, in the early days of the American Republic. On July 11, 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed fellow New Yorker Alexander Hamilton. The two had been adversaries for several years, and eventually their enmity resulted in a duel at a neutral site in Weehawken, New Jersey. It is unclear who fired first, but it is certain that Hamilton fell mortally wounded, dying the next day in New York City. Burr fled, facing charges of murder both in New York and New Jersey, but later returned to the city of Washington to complete his tenure as Vice President. In time the charges of murder were dropped, but Burr’s political career was over. Thoroughly disgraced and out of favor with President Thomas Jefferson, he moved to the West in search of new opportunities.
The American frontier in those days separated the United States from the Empire of Spain in Florida and along a continental-sized line from Louisiana to what would become the Oregon Territory. It did not take long for an enterprising man like Aaron Burr to create opportunities for himself, whether legal or not. It is said that he intrigued with Spanish and American officials on a scheme to separate Mexico from Spain and the western territories from the United States and establish a new empire with himself as its chief. Although the full extent of Burr’s plans will never be known, there was enough truth to the allegations of intrigue to result in his arrest and prosecution by the Jefferson Administration on charges of treason. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, personally presided over the famous trial in August 1807. The Chief Justice had instructed the jury that conviction required testimony by two witnesses to a specific, overt act. When the prosecution could not meet that standard, the jury declared Burr not guilty.
In the election of 1800 Aaron Burr had come within a whisker of winning the presidency. By 1808 he was a political outsider living in exile. By 1812 he had returned to the United State, but he never returned to power. His family, his law practice, and his health deteriorated over the remaining years of his life as he watched his nation grow in size and power without him. Although endowed with considerable gifts and abilities to govern, his grasp for power ensured that his legacy would not be as one of America’s great men, but as a byword, a legal precedent, and a footnote in history. Yet from him, perhaps, we can learn something more about what Yeshua of Nazareth meant by His cryptic observation:
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. (Matthew 11:12 NASB)
תַזְרִיעַ / מְּצֹרָע
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov wrote a story about how a dead fish ruined a man’s life. To be honest, it was not the fish itself, but what happened when this particular man encountered it. Chekhov opens “A Slander” by explaining that Sergei Kapitonich Ahineev, a writing instructor, is enjoying the celebration of his daughter’s wedding at a great feast. As time for supper approaches Ahineev goes into the kitchen to see if everything is ready. He asks Marfa, the cook, to show him the centerpiece of the banquet, a fine sturgeon, and at its unveiling is overcome with delight at the aroma and presentation of the great fish. The sight of it moves Ahineev to smack his lips, a sound much like a kiss. Just at that moment, one of his colleagues, Vankin, looks in and makes a joke about Marfa and Ahineev kissing. Apparently thinking nothing further about it, Vankin moves off to rejoin the party. Ahineev, however, is mortified that Vankin would think he was kissing the cook, and anticipates that he will be spreading that story to the guests. Determined to prevent such a slander, Ahineev makes the rounds of the party, telling everyone he can that there was nothing to the story Vankin would be spreading about him kissing Marfa in the kitchen. In the process, he describes both Vankin and Marfa in the most unflattering terms, calling him a silly fool, and her a perfect fright whom no one would care to kiss.
Having completed his self-appointed task of circumventing Vankin’s anticipated slander, Ahineev settles down to enjoy the rest of the celebration. All is well until a few days later, when his headmaster calls him into the office and reprimands him about his indiscretion not only in having an affair with his cook, but also in being so public about it. Truly scandalized, Ahineev goes home at the end of the day, only to face the anger of his wife at his supposed unfaithfulness. Angered himself, Ahineev leaves immediately to confront Vankin, the man he supposes has spread this false tale. Yet that confrontation does not turn out as he expects, for Vankin’s sincere denial convinces Ahineev that he is innocent of the gossip. Puzzled, Ahineev reviews the list of his acquaintances, frantically asking himself who might have ruined his reputation.
To the reader there is no mystery about the guilty party: it is Ahineev himself. By spreading rumors about his colleague and his servant, he has made himself an outcast. In other words, Ahineev has become a social leper. And in presenting the hapless writing instructor to us in this way, Chekhov helps us understand the deeper meaning of the Torah’s instructions about leprosy.
The problem with great satire is that it can be so irreverent. Then again, that is the strength of satire: using humor and ridicule to point out something (usually a shortcoming, hypocrisy, or vice) often overlooked in the routine of living. Satire can be cruel, and thus must be used with great caution. If employed properly, it moves the audience to laugh loudly in genuine humor at their own or their society’s expense, and plants seeds for reflection that hopefully will bloom into motivation for positive change.
Or perhaps not. Sometimes humor exists only for humor. That is one way to consider the works of Douglas Adams, the late English author best known for his satirical science fiction works, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It is quite possible that Adams and I could have been good friends, although our worldviews would have generated a continuous wrestling match between us. To the end of his life he remained utterly convinced in the nonexistence of a Creator, even as I am utterly convinced that there is no god but YHVH. And yet I can appreciate his masterful use of the English language, his clever story lines, and his penetrating wit, all of which he employed to point out things worthy of our consideration. Here is one example from the first Hitchhiker’s Guide novel:
The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?.
This is Adams at his best, using seemingly trivial questions with simple answers to provoke a deeper level of inquiry on the very nature and meaning of human existence. Perhaps he would be surprised to learn that the Lord God does the very same thing. The small, simple, seemingly insignificant things are what He uses to test our hearts, to discipline us, and to mature us so we can exercise greater responsibility, and all the time He magnifies His glory through us and through these processes. Thus, when it comes to distinctions between believers in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the differences usually are much smaller than we may think. Consider, for example, the attitudes of believers in Messiah Yeshua (Jesus Christ) regarding the Law, or Torah, of God. To define this difference, we can use the same pattern Douglas Adams used by asking three simple questions:
When are we to worship God?
How are we to worship God?
What does God say is food?
At the distance of two hundred years the specter of Napoleon Bonaparte is no longer frightening. Now he is nothing more than a historical figure often depicted as a comic caricature of the man who once ruled most of Europe. In his lifetime he inspired admiration to the point of worship not only for his genius at the art of war, but for his genius at bringing responsible government out of the chaotic revolution of France. Yet his ambition pushed him beyond the limits of himself and of France, and in time he lost everything.
We have a picture passed on through the years of a bitter Napoleon who blames everyone but himself for his setbacks. That is the picture C.S. Lewis invokes in his description of Napoleon in hell in his classic work, The Great Divorce. A similar picture appears in Waterloo, the 1970 movie about Napoleon’s final battle starring Rod Steiger as the Emperor. In the midst of the battle, illness overcomes Napoleon and compels him to leave the field briefly. During that time Marshal Michel Ney (played by Dan O’Herlihy), Napoleon’s trusted subordinate, orders the French cavalry to attack when he believes the enemy is retreating. What he does not realize is that the Duke of Wellington (played by Christopher Plummer) has ordered his infantry to shift their position to the other side of the hill they occupied. As the French cavalry charge, the British infantry form squares, a tactic designed for defense against cavalry. In charge after charge, the French horsemen expend their lives to little effect, eventually crippling that arm of Napoleon’s force and contributing significantly to his ultimate defeat. In the movie, Napoleon returns to the field just as Ney is leading the charge. In rage and dismay he says,
What’s he doing? What’s Ney doing? What’s happening? Can’t I leave the field for a minute? What’s he doing there? How can a man go forward with the cavalry without infantry support? What’s the matter with you?
To the military mind this outburst is perfectly understandable. Napoleon the general trained his men well and expected them to act not only with initiative, but also according to his commands and within the parameters of good order and discipline. It is no surprise that he became angry at learning that a trusted and experienced subordinate acted impetuously, violating a cardinal principle of war and endangering the entire army. It is the same reason our God becomes very angry when His people disregard the good order, discipline, and sound judgment He expects of them.
One of the compelling images I recall from childhood is the opening scene of Branded. This Western TV drama starred Chuck Connors as a United States Army officer unjustly charged with cowardice. Week after week the series opened with Jason McCord, Connors’ character, being drummed out of the service at a remote post in the American West. As the garrison assembles, McCord is marched to the front and center of the formation, where his commander removes from him every vestige of his connection with the Army – his hat, rank insignia, and even the buttons on his coat. Last of all the commander removes McCord’s sword from its sheath, breaks it over his knee, and tosses the broken hilt out of the fort’s gate. The shamed officer then walks out of the fort as the doors close behind him. Now on his own, branded for life with the mark of a coward, he must find a way to clear his name.
What if someone had exonerated Jason McCord? Such things have happened before. There is provision in the law to excuse an offender, either when the accusation is proven unjust, or when a duly constituted authority bestows clemency in an act of mercy. The law, however, remains in effect. Should another man, or even the same man, desert his post in an act of cowardice, he would be guilty of the same offence. Even if the entire United States Army deserted, requiring the President to recruit an entirely new force, the deserters would still be guilty according to the statutes and regulations governing the military service. And should the law change somehow, perhaps refining the definition of cowardice and clarifying the penalties, the law would still be in effect, and those subject to it would be wise to learn the changes lest they find themselves inadvertently in error.
How interesting that such a principal gleaned from a 1960s TV Western is actually a principal of the Word of God. While some may argue that the Law of God has no application at all in an age when Messiah Yeshua has won forgiveness for all who believe on Him, in actuality His work of redemption secured a prophesied change in the Law, not its abolition.