Everyone wants to be a good citizen and a good neighbor, or at least that’s what we should want. But is that enough? Perhaps there is more to living out our Kingdom calling than simply trying to avoid evil.
Jeremiah 5:20-31; Matthew 5:13-20, 23:27-28; 1 Peter 5:5-11
Music: “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46: IV, by Edvard Grieg, performed by Wiliam T. Strømberg conducting the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, Edvard Grieg Music to Henrik Ibsen Peer Gynt, Blikkboks Ltd, 2018.
We need museums to teach us what we do not know and to reveal to us what we should have known. The Virginia War Museum in Newport News did that for me. This institution exists to educate the public about the American military experience and to honor those who have borne the burdens of it. Its exhibits cover every phase of my birth nation’s conflicts from the Revolutionary War to the Global War on Terrorism, but as one might expect, many of those exhibits are devoted to the Second World War.
The disturbing thing about all wars, including World War II, is that they never bring permanent solutions to anything. The same evils overcome in one generation take shape again in the next, requiring renewed effort to keep them at bay. The evils overcome in the Great Patriotic War, as our erstwhile Soviet allies called it, were not foreign to us. They were, and remain, an integral part of the civilization the Allies struggled to preserve.
One exhibit made that abundantly clear to me. In a well-illuminated display case there hung the tunic of a German soldier. The buckle of the belt fastened around the tunic depicted an eagle of the Third Reich grasping in its claws the swastika of Hitler’s National Socialist Party. That was not surprising, but the inscription above the eagle was a surprise. In capital letters it proclaimed boldly –
GOTT MIT UNS
“Gott mit uns” means “God with us.” German soldiers have worn it on their uniforms for three centuries, long before the Prussian kings began uniting the separate German states into the cohesive empire that eventually became the instrument of Nazi aggression. The Third Reich had ample reason to continue the tradition, not only for many of its soldiers, but also for certain civil servants. Adolf Hitler, after all, believed he was doing the work of God in creating space for God’s “master race” to rule the world. Such work required the enslavement or elimination of all those who were considered lesser beings according to Hitler’s ideology: Communists, homosexuals, Gypsies, Slavs. . .
. . . and especially Jews.
Jews of Germany understood the inscription on the belts of police officers who enforced the decrees that robbed them of life, liberty, and property. Jews of Poland and Russia had no trouble deciphering Gott mit uns on the belts of soldiers who rounded them up and marched them away to an uncertain fate. Jews of France, Holland, Greece, and Italy would have recognized the message as Wehrmacht soldiers handed them off to SS Totenkopf (Death Head) units that staffed the camps where their lives became solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
What would those Jews have been thinking? Some surely wondered which god these Nazis thought was with them. That this was a Christian God seemed to be certain. The Germans were, after all, Christians. Protestants and Catholics alike embraced Nazism. Many of those same soldiers and policemen who efficiently eliminated 6,000,000 Jews faithfully attended church and chapel services, and almost all of them enjoyed the festivities of Christmas. The Christian God, then, was the one served by those who sought to make themselves masters of the earth over the bones of Jews and other supposedly lesser beings.
Why do we wonder that Jews have a hard time accepting the Christian message? If Christians – even nominal or cultural Christians – like the soldiers of the Third Reich did what they did in the belief that their crimes faithfully served their God, why would any Jew want to have anything to do with that God? If the experience of the Shoa (Holocaust) was the only evidence they had, then it follows that Jews might perceive the Jesus those German soldiers praised on Sunday must be a cruel god indeed, or perhaps a demon from hell.
Gott mit uns. God with us.
How arrogant. How dare they believe God would sanction such crimes? Surely the Nazi era was an anomaly. No other Christian nation would do such things. Surely none would believe that God’s chosen people, the Jews, would be so deserving of His anger that they should be eliminated from the face of the earth. Surely the Germans were led astray. It could never happen to anyone else. Or could it? The sad truth is that the same refrain, “God with us,” echoes through the corridors of history.
God with us –
– on the lips of Crusaders marching under the banner of the cross, ravaging Jewish communities across Europe long before they ever set eyes on the Holy Land.
God with us –
– in the minds of Inquisition agents searching for Jewish houses in the cities of Spain. It was easy. Since the Torah prohibited Jews from kindling a flame on the Sabbath, all they had to do was wait until Saturday and look for the smokeless chimneys. Once identified, the Jews were given opportunity to embrace the Savior. If they refused, the best fate they might hope for would be deportation. Even descendants of Jews who converted were not immune. Those who aspired to a privileged position in society required a certificate of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) to prove several generations of Christian heritage. Unwary applicants might find, to their horror, that they had a Jewish grandfather, making them subject to the mercies of the Inquisition courts.
God with us –
– in the decrees of Christian kings across Europe as they expelled Jews from their realms. Spain, England, France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Hungary, Austria, Lithuania, Holland, Portugal, and the German states all did so. After, of course, expropriating whatever Jewish wealth might be available to aid the crown in its “divine work.”
God with us –
– moving the hands of Russian Orthodox magistrates as they authorized pogroms that made the Motherland uninhabitable for the Czar’s Jewish subjects.
God with us –
– in the hearts of American Protestants as they excluded Jews from their professional organizations and social clubs, insulted them with derisive jokes and demeaning names, and complained fearfully about Jewish bankers who supposedly controlled the world’s wealth. It’s not that these American Christians objected to the blessings of Jewish achievements. They appreciated the financial innovations of Marcus Goldman and Samuel Sachs, the scientific advances of Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the creativity of George Gershwin and Leonard Nimoy. It wasn’t so bad that they were Jewish, but it would have been better if they could have been Jewish somewhere else.
Come to think of it, the German Nazi experience was not so unique after all. We might think of it more correctly as the culmination of two millennia of Christian holy arrogance. Such arrogance seems to have overlooked the solemn word of God:
“If the heavens above can be measured And the foundations of the earth searched out below, Then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel For all that they have done,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:37 NASB)
If God can break His promises to the Jewish people, and to the rest of scattered Israel, then what prevents Him from breaking His promises to Christians? How, then, do we dare presume that we act for God by relegating Jews to the status of lesser human beings?
Or what do we make of these words of our Savior, the Messiah of Israel?
They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God. These things they will do because they have not known the Father or Me. (John 16:2-3 NASB)
It is customary to consider this as a prophecy of persecutions coming upon Christians, but we rarely consider that these words were spoken by a Jew to His Jewish disciples. Did He, perhaps, have in mind the persecutions that would happen to all His Father’s covenant people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike?
Do we truly desire to heal this breach between Christians and Jews? If so, the first thing we should do is to let our Heavenly Father restructure our thinking. It is, after all, His Kingdom we profess to serve. Perhaps He should have the last word about who is in it.
Repentance prayer ~ Our Father and our King, truly the revelation of Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah is an awesome gift You have given. Your prophet Isaiah identifies Him as Immanuel, God With Us (Isaiah 7:14). The redemption of all Israel and the world through Him is the greatest message of life. Yet we who profess His Name have all too often turned the message of “God with us” into an authorization to persecute those we should be embracing and honoring. Forgive us, Father, for our arrogance. We do not understand how Your mercy and grace work with our Jewish brethren, but the testimony of history demonstrates that You are not finished with them. Judgment belongs only to You. We want to leave it in Your hands, and instead be Your instruments of peace and reconciliation. Help us, Father. We ask in the Name of Yeshua, Amen.
A motif running through J.R.R. Tolkien’s fiction works is the exile of the Elves from Valinor, the Blessed Realm of the Valar, the gods of Tolkien’s world. Those who read The Lord of the Rings first encounter the exiles as the High Elves who aid Frodo and his companions in their flight from the Shire. Readers who venture into The Silmarillion learn that the High Elves are the Noldor, one of three Elven clans who answered the Valar’s invitation to leave Middle Earth and live in Valinor. The Vanyar and Teleri – the other two clans – remained in Valinor, but the Noldor rebelled against the Valar and returned to Middle Earth to fight against Morgoth, Tolkien’s equivalent of Satan.
The Noldor had justification for their actions. Morgoth had stolen the Silmarils, the matchless jewels fashioned by Fëanor, greatest of the Elven craftsmen, and had killed Finwë, Fëanor’s father and king of the Noldor. Nevertheless, their rebellion under Fëanor’s leadership incurred a sentence of exile and separation from any help the Valar could offer. Over the next several centuries the Noldor and their allies among the Elves and Men of Middle Earth proved unable to defeat Morgoth, and they suffered a long defeat. At the end of their strength, the humbled remnant repented and begged help from the Valar. When help came, Morgoth was defeated and the Valar granted clemency for the Noldor to return to the Blessed Realm, bringing with them the remaining Elves of Middle Earth who had never seen Valinor.
This is the unseen backdrop for the Elves appearing in Tolkien’s later and more popular works. Those who pick up the story with The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings meet wise Elrond, stern yet kindly Thranduil, and gentle Galadriel, but they have no understanding of their history. Galadriel, for example, was Fëanor’s niece, and along with his sons and her brothers led the Noldor in rebellion. Upon passing the test of refusing the Ring of Power when Frodo offers it to her, she proves that she, the only surviving rebel leader, is indeed ready to return home as a humble penitent.
In Galadriel’s story we see the stunning panorama flowing through the body of Tolkien’s works. Yet there is one missing detail: he never tells us what happens when the exiles return. It is a significant omission. We can imagine the scenes of reconciliation as the Noldor made amends with the eternal Valar, but we do not know what happens when they encountered the brethren they had wronged. At the beginning of their flight from Valinor, the Noldor demanded of their kin, the Teleri, use of their ships. The Teleri refused, resulting in a terrible battle known thereafter as the Kinslaying. As Tolkien describes it, “Thus at last the Teleri were overcome, and a great part of their mariners that dwelt in Alqualondë were wickedly slain.” If that were not enough, when they arrived on the shores of Middle Earth, Fëanor gave orders to burn the wondrous Telerian ships, craft of great beauty the like of which could never be made again.
What happens when the prodigal Noldor return home is a tale we do not know. We hope they are reconciled with their brethren, but achieving reconciliation requires conscious effort to overcome the debt of blood between them. Until that debt is paid or forgiven, the bliss of the Blessed Realm remains unbearably diminished.
Tolkien’s epic thus becomes a parable for us, the returning exiles of the House of Yosef (Joseph). Like the Noldor, we are guilty not only of rebellion against our God and the king He had anointed, but also of an endless Kinslaying of our brethren of Judah.
Something very strange happens when people face an imminent threat to life and livelihood. The strange thing is unity such as would never have been possible otherwise. History provides countless examples, such as the defense of New Orleans in January 1815. When a veteran British force attacked the city, an odd assortment of people turned out to defend their home. They included Regular soldiers of the American army under Major General Andrew Jackson, as well as Creole gentlemen and their American merchant rivals, common laborers, farmers, militia men from far away states, black slaves and free men, and even pirates and smugglers affiliated with the infamous Jean Lafitte. Once the threat was past, these disparate segments of society returned to their separate lives and the circumstances that divided them, but for one glorious moment they experienced the joy of being a people united in a common cause.
We might consider as well the example of our Jewish brethren in World War II. Immediately before the war, an Arab revolt in British Palestine compelled His Majesty’s government to issue a White Paper in 1939 which closed the door on Jewish immigration to the Holy Land. This was a political and military necessity for the British; another Arab revolt would threaten their hold on Egypt, their link to India and the Pacific, and the lifeline of the Empire. When faced with war against Hitler’s Germany, Great Britain could not afford to lose that lifeline, and thus European Jews in peril of their lives in the Shoa (Holocaust) lost their last and best chance at escape from the death camps.
One might suppose the Jewish response to the White Paper – particularly among those living in the Land – would be violent rejection and revolt. Some did respond that way, but the most memorable response was by David Ben Gurion, at that time among the most prominent leaders of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish settlers in the Land. He expressed his position this way:
Ben Gurion’s pragmatism was instrumental in establishment of the Jewish Brigade, the only regular military unit of any Allied army in World War II comprised entirely of Jews. The Jewish Brigade served with distinction in the British forces in Egypt, Italy, and Northwest Europe, and it also served as a training ground for Jewish warriors who carried the fight for Israel’s independence after the British Mandate over Palestine ended in 1948.
Isaac Asimov could have written I, Robot without Karel Čapek’s help, but he would have needed a different word for the artificial life forms featured in his writing. Asimov’s robot stories shifted the paradigms of science fiction by exploring the unintended consequences of creating something smarter and stronger than a human, but without a human’s ethical configuration. For over half a century he probed dark and difficult territory, asking questions and spinning scenarios that remain disturbingly applicable to our present reality. Yet Asimov neither invented the word “robot”, nor initiated the inquiry into the potential nemesis of unbridled technological innovation.
Bad things happen when man plays the role of God, as Mary Shelley demonstrated in 1818 with her first novel, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Shelley brought the question into the modern era, but it was Karel Čapek who mechanized it. Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossumovi univerzální roboti; Rossum’s Universal Robots) was a success from its first performance in 1920. The play introduced international audiences to the Czech word robota, meaning hard work, a word rendered into English as robot. The play is not a comedy; in Čapek’s imaginary world the robots are manufactured life forms designed to assist humans, but eventually they rebel and extinguish all human life.
Čapek revived this scenario in War with the Newts, a novel published in 1936 as satire on the hypocritically self-serving international system which enabled Nazi Germany’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia two years later. It is a humorously dark tale about a race of sentient amphibian creatures discovered in the waters of Indonesia. The newts prove to be swift learners and adept at a multitude of tasks, making them ideal candidates for exploitation not only as workers, but also as undersea warriors. In time the newts, like the robots, rebel, destroying the dry land and turning it into shallow waters suitable for their environmental needs. The nations of the earth find themselves in a war for survival against a global amphibian army. It is a war humanity will not win, but Čapek reveals that the victorious newts will turn on themselves and become the instruments of their own destruction, leaving a remnant of mankind to rebuild the planet.
It is frightful to contemplate the end of one’s world, particularly when the end is justly deserved. Asimov, Shelley, and Čapek relate scenarios of judgment resulting from mankind’s own selfish shortsightedness – playing God, if you will. The element of terror they invoke lurks in the revelation that the instruments of judgment are the works of our own hands. As usual, art imitates life. YHVH renders judgment on those who disregard His standard of righteousness and set up standards of their own – playing God, if you will. Judgment brings a sentence of destruction and death, which is terrifying enough. What makes it more chilling is to learn the name of the one who will bring about the anticipated death and destruction. About 35 centuries ago, the doomed Canaanite civilization experienced that very thing shortly after Moses spoke these words:
It is the Lord your God who will cross ahead of you; He will destroy these nations before you, and you shall dispossess them. Joshua is the one who will cross ahead of you, just as the Lord has spoken. (Deuteronomy 31:3 NASB)