This text is a troubling one to read during my morning meditations, when I seek to center as I begin a busy workday. Saul is rejected from the kingship to which God called Saul. In this version of that story it is not because of sacrificing when he ought not (as elsewhere we are told of Saul), but here Saul is rejected for refusing a type of sacrifice I know I would have refused too. Through the voice of Samuel the prophet, God calls on Samuel to commit an act of genocide – killing every Amalekite, including men, women, children, and the elderly. In fact, even killing their livestock and destroying all their wealth so none can claim it.
For refusing such a grossly inhumane war crime, what today we would all a crime against humanity, I read that Saul is rejected from king-ship. I boggle at this.
Taking a step back, I can see the intention of the law that scholars call the “ban”. For it is clear that Saul does not refuse to slaughter these innocents out of kindly compassion. He and his troops keep the best of the livestock and wealth for themselves, likely including some newly widowed young ladies. Saul is not going the way of Gandhi and the peace-loving folks who care about human rights, but rather is becoming the forefather to the prison industrial complex. He sees war not just as a means of defending his people from violence at the hands of their enemies, but also a way of expanding wealth for himself and the military establishment.
I think I can look around at the growth of the military industrial complex and understand God wanting to say early on that such an approach to human conflict is not what God intends. We see it in our country. A military-industrial approach to war ends up creating a world of constant war. During the Cold War our attempts to combat rising Communist and Socialist Powers ends up helping create Osama Bin Laden, the extremism in Iran, and Saddam Hussein. A generation later we fear this rising extremism. Our solution? Send in bigger guns and bombs. As the forces we helped create become demolished by the same forces that helped create them, what emerges? Groups like ISIL the so-called “Islamic State” which gel together in extremist and violent ways out of the instability our military actions produce.
This is not a slam on the run of the mill soldier, for I know most soldiers I have known are as caring and kind, many as strongly people of faith, as anyone else. They are simply trying to do their jobs to defend their country the best they know how. Yet the insanity which creates a revolving door of conflict flows from the top down, flowing from the military industrial complex which makes great wealth out of creating the machines of war.
Such militaristic approaches can also be seen in how our country has dealt with the problem of drug abuse and drug culture. In many other developed countries, this was treated as we’ve treated HIV, cancer, and other medical health issues: as a medical problem to be resolved by doctors, through expanded health care efforts. In countries that have used such an approach, there has been a down-turn in the drug problem and definitely a lack of the criminal element associated with it. In our country we chose to put the tools of the military-industrial complex into a “war on drugs”, which only worsened the problems of drug abuse, criminalizing a vexing health problem. It has been good for the military-industrial complex and the related private prison industry, which has made some good money creating military-style weaponry for the police and which, in privately run prisons, make money off of how many are in prison. Yet it has not solved the problem of drugs.
What’s worse, it has created a culture in which some view the poor, those with mental illness or substance abuse problems, and racial minorities as “the enemy” who are threatening our way of life instead of as fellow citizens & human beings in need of compassion, including help, to get through the situation we face. When our police forces are militarized, how can we walk away surprised when police officers attack unarmed youth as if they are in a war-zone as has happened this year? Such acts flow directly from this military-industrial approach to peace-keeping at home.
So I can see where God would try to dissuade the development with Saul.
God wants us to know violence is not something which is intended as a means to get wealth, to build success. As Jesus later warns, kill by the sword and you will die by the sword. Building our culture’s wealth and success upon violence is placing a ticking time bomb in the center of town square. Ultimately that violence will beget more violence, and society will be shaken at its core.
Yet our culture glamorizes violence, in films and in the media, and even culturally. Here in the south where I live far too often people walk away with the idea that a gun will solve their problem of security and self-worth, making them feel safe and strong. Though I know many gun owners who are very responsible with their guns, who don’t let them be treated as toys, and who are not exacerbating our problems, I also know some for whom bearing arms is not just a right but has become a dangerous exercise in which the potential costs to others is not reflected on.
I can’t but think of Obama’s words after Charleston – we are the only developed world with this constant problem of gun violence. It is, I think, because we still glorify violence in a way that helps us lose sight of what matters.
Yet this is also the downfall of the text in front of me. For the alternative that Samuel calls for would have been an act of genocide. I do not think that we need to hear these calls for genocidal acts as if they are the voice of God. Hebrews 1 tells us that in the past God spoke through the voice of such prophets, prophets who like Paul admits he does in 1 Corinthians 7 mix in some of their own prejudice and ideas with God’s very words, but in these last days God has spoken through Jesus. Jesus clearly condemns all violence in his Sermon on the Mount suggesting that God does not call for such acts of genocide as Samuel calls Saul toward. Instead God calls us to strive for a world in which violence is unnecessary. Though in the meantime we may have need for troops and police, the aim is to work to build a world in which violence is minimized, in hopes of building a world in which violence is a thing of the past.
So both Samuel and Saul miss the mark, but so do we. We need to learn to look at things like the right to bear arms, like our pride in our military and our police, not as a justification for more violence. We need to learn to look at them as at best necessary evils. I remember the words of my father-in-law surrounding a military conflict. “I’m a veteran of war,” he said. “And soldiers who’ve really fought in war are the ones least wanting to see another one.” Learning to put aside our addiction to violent solutions to our problems and building peace instead is the best legacy we can lay to help celebrate the legacy of those who laid down their lives to preserve our freedoms.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie