I Do Not Respect the Office of the President

Eight years ago conservative media and their followers claimed that Barack Obama needed to show more respect for the office of the presidency. They highlighted pictures of him without a coat on in the Oval Office and him sitting back at his chair with his feet on the desk. These actions were apparently disrespectful (despite similar pictures of Republican presidents doing similar things).

The point seems to be that even though they disapproved of the person in the office, they respected the office and demanded everyone else do the same. Well I’m not so sure it deserves my respect and here’s why.

After reading Obama’s book Dreams from my Father and listening to his speeches and watching his various interviews answering questions thoughtfully and intelligently and noting that he has left the White House without any scandals or affairs and hearing his former employees like John Favreau and Joe Biden gush over how great a boss he was I am convinced Barack Obama is a genuinely decent person. I have seen nothing to convince me otherwise (though I’m sure there are anecdotes from unverified sources floating around on Drudge or Breitbart to challenge me).

That being said, despite the decency Obama seems to embody, he has done some terrible things as officeholder of the presidency. I don’t need to list them all, for they are well known. His use of drones to terrorize the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan, his waging of wars, his ramping up of the surveillance state, and his deportation of immigrants top the list. Some terrible things, like the failure to close Guantanamo Bay detention center and the weakness of the ACA, I take as a limitation of the power of the presidency with a minority congress. But these other offences to decency are his responsibility as Commander in Chief and head of the Executive Branch.

Because Obama seems like such a decent human and because such actions are not unique to his presidency I suggest that such injustices are due to the nature of the office of the president and not the president himself.

Time will tell. I imagine and predict that the Obamas will likely be the most consequential first family post presidency in history, even Jimmy Carter. They are young and healthy and full of ideas and have a lot of people on their side. His time as cultural force is certainly not over. And this time outside of the presidency may free him to do more good with less bad because the office of the presidency is, by nature, flawed.

And so here we are with a new President who is, by almost every standard, not a decent person. I again need not list all the evidence of his terribleness pre-presidency, but just consider that Obama had no affairs, scandals, and few dissenters from his employees and note the contrast that Trump displays. If such a disrespectful person enters an unrespectable office, what can we expect in the next four years? If the office of the presidency compels decent people to do indecent things to others, what will an indecent person do in such a position?

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Martin Luther King Jr., the Prophet Amos, and the Vietnam War

Several years ago I presented a paper at the Society of Biblical Literature’s annual meeting in Atlanta on Martin Luther King’s rhetoric as fitting in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. I was intending the paper to be the first step in a longer project on the Hebrew Bible’s role in the civil rights movement.

Alas, I didn’t get very far beyond the initial paper in my project as other things got in the way (like my unrelated dissertation), but I revisited the initial presentation this morning and thought it might be of interest to some people on this Martin Luther King day.

One of the reasons I chose to write on the speech I did (“Beyond Vietnam” from 1967) was because I think that speech is somewhat shocking compared to the defanged version of King that we often see today. “Beyond Vietnam” makes sense of Vietnam veteran John McCain’s opposition to establishing Martin Luther King day as a holiday in 1983.

But as I hope is evident in the paper, the incendiary nature of “Beyond Vietnam” is apropos to the model King employs in delivering it — the prophet Amos. We need to be reminded every year of the often radical positions of Martin Luther King. Likewise, and even more so, we need to be reminded to the radical positions of the Hebrew prophets that came before him and whom he loved to quote.

(Two more notes: like many SBL papers, the one below is not a final draft and it has also been abbreviated to fit the time slot of the section at the meeting, which is why there are headings with no text in them. Also, the footnotes don’t transfer easily to WordPress’s cut and paste system so I’ll link to the footnoted pdf of the paper here: essay-on-mlk-and-prophets.)

For context, here’s the speech:

1. Martin Luther King, Jr., Amos, and the Vietnam War

by Andrew Zack Lewis

2. Introduction

In Martin Luther King’s later years, as he becomes more frustrated by the lack of progress of his movement, as his influence wanes, and as the Vietnam War escalates, he shifts his persona as an antitype of Moses to an antitype of the prophets—not leading people toward his dream, but crying out in the wilderness for justice. In particular, he seems to identify most closely to the prophet Amos. This paper argues that in his first major public denunciation of the Vietnam War, King uses Amos as a model of a prophet crying out against this government when his conscience will not allow him to remain silent.

3. King as Theologian, Preacher, and Biblical Interpreter

Though the public perceives King as mainly a civil rights leader, whose Christian Theology is incidental, King saw himself as first and foremost a preacher. His sermons and speeches are the culmination of a childhood saturated with the language of the Black Church, a young adulthood spent studying theology formally in the academy, and, according to one his teachers, a “mind and heart deeply steeped in biblical teaching.” Though many have highlighted King’s formal training in seminary and in his doctoral work, pointing to his studies of Niebuhr and Tillich, among other major theological minds, more recently scholars have noted the major influence of the Black church on his thought. It was the Black church, in particular, that inspired his use of the Bible, which undergirds much of his writings. Luther Ivory notes that King “was… a product of a black religious tradition that regarded the Scripture as the most important lens through which to interpret reality.” Richard Lischer describes the role of the Bible in the Black church as a mirror that the preacher holds up to the congregation, to which “the people respond by recognizing themselves in it.”

Keith Miller, who is one of the foremost scholars on the rhetoric and sources of King’s speeches and sermons, describes the use of the Bible in black folk sermons as one where the Bible is the sole authority that undergirds the argument of the sermon.  That is, truth is already proclaimed in the Bible, and other truths must agree with those found in Scripture. The biblical story that black folk preachers, along with King raise up to their congregation more than any other is that of the Exodus.

4. Typology as Hermeneutical Method for Biblical Interpretation

(a) Exodus as Archetype

King’s first major public address exploited the typology inherent in his cultural upbringing. African American slaves viewed the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage as archetypical of their own hopes and experiences. In May 1956, on the two year anniversary of the landmark court case Brown v. Board of Education, King was asked to preach at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and gave a sermon called “The Death of Evil Upon the Seashore,” in which he highlighted liberation movements from around the world as indicative of God’s Providence displayed in that early episode of Israel. Exodus, therefore, is a paradigm for God’s activities in world history.

Obviously, Exodus remained an important type from which to draw for King up until his death. His final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” posits King as Moses looking into a promised land that lies in the future. Between these two landmark speeches lies multiple references to the Exodus in the Civil Rights movement in the United States. For instance, the march to Selma acts as an antitype to the Exodus out of Egypt.

Explicit antitypes of the Exodus abound in the work of King and the Black church in general, but the Exodus so saturates the culture that imagery often lies implicitly in the works of King that are not evident to casual listeners. Keith Miller argues that King’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

explodes closed memories of the Exodus by reconceptualizing a hermeneutic of (Second) Isaiah as he interprets African-Americans’ experience of oppression and exile in Babylon/America and their hope for a new Exodus. Drawing on African-American political rhetoric, King spotlights biblical writers’ dialogue with each other and extends the arc of biblical narrative into the present.

Miller highlights direct quotes from King of Isaiah 40:4-5, which, to biblically literate readers, refers to Isaiah’s new Exodus from Babylon. The typology that Second Isaiah employs gives license to King to employ it as well. Second Isaiah broadens the scope of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt to a hope for all oppressed peoples, since “every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low” in King’s dream. Miller’s claim, then, is that by invoking this passage in the litany of dreams at the end of the speech, King is extending the typology of the Exodus beyond the immediate context of Second Isaiah to all of history. He also claims that this is the key to understanding the speech. Miller argues that Second Isaiah has landed in Washington D.C. to present an oracle of a new Exodus vicariously through the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Miller also notes that King invokes the words of Amos in his speech and that Amos’s argument that God’s Providence extends beyond the the children of Israel and Judah emerges in Amos’s declaration that both the Syrians and Philistines experienced an Exodus. Amos emerges frequently in King’s speeches, particularly Amos 5:24, “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” which is a common refrain for him throughout his career. However, years after “I Have a Dream,” when King’s influenced has waned considerably, and his optimism becomes strained by setbacks toward civil rights and especially the escalating war in Vietnam, King seems to embody the prophet Amos in a more profound way.

5. King’s last years

(a) Loss of influence

Shortly after giving his famous speech in Washington, he won the Nobel Peace Prize  and Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. However, other events depressed him to the point that he would declare that his dream had become a nightmare, such as “when four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham… [when he] moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw [his] black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty… [when he] watched [his] black brothers and sisters in the midst of anger and understandable outrage… turn to misguided riots to try to solve” their problems.

The other major issue that he claims turned his dream into a nightmare is the Vietnam War, which, along with his acceptance of the Nobel Prize, forced him more and more to address global issues that went beyond the civil rights for blacks in the United States. Though he does not seem to have changed his philosophy on the interconnectedness of all justice and injustice, he had resisted up until America’s conflict overseas forced him into it.

(b) Interconnectedness of Justice

In his short book, The Measure of a Man (1959), King writes:

We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable net-work of mutuality, and whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you are not what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.

Despite this early sentiment and other, similar reactions to his trip to India in 1957, most people still saw King as merely a leader of civil rights in the somewhat narrow construct of mid-Century America. His acknowledgment of other issues that seemed to go beyond the immediate issue of segregation like the problem of poverty in general and economic inequality beyond racial inequality as well as state-supported violence against nations half-way around the world confused some of his allies in the civil rights movement. Lyndon Johnson went from being one of his supporters in desegregation to one of his targets in his criticisms of the Vietnam War.

His waning popularity, coupled with a conscience that needled him to respond to the violent activity overseas finally led to a strikingly condemnatory speech at Riverside Church in New York City, one year to the day before his death.

6. Beyond Vietnam as Reflection of Amos

(a) Genre of Beyond Vietnam

The speech “Beyond Vietnam,” alternatively titled “A Time to Break Silence,” at first glance bears little in common with his other famous addresses. In particular, the speeches and sermons mentioned previously, “The Death of Evil on the Seashore,” “I Have a Dream,” and “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top,” not only use the Exodus typology to illumine the argument, but they follow deductive logic typical of black folk sermons. “Beyond Vietnam,” by contrast, embodies an inductive argument, amassing large amounts of evidence to prove his argument. Keith Miller is largely critical of “Beyond Vietnam” since it lacks the rhetorical thrust of King’s more typical sermons, also pointing to its lack of biblical references. Though Miller is partially correct that biblical references are sparser than in other sermons, I should point out that many iterations of the speech lack the final section, where he finishes the speech with Amos 5:24. Miller’s source is one of these versions.

Though explicit references to the Bible are rare in “Beyond Vietnam,” it is my contention that the entire speech parallels the book of Amos in many ways and the generic differences between it and his other sermons contributes to these parallels.

(b) King’s early identification with the prophet Amos

King had obviously appreciated the prophet Amos early in his career since he often quotes Amos 5:24. He also occasionally compares Amos to Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson, whom he claims are all “maladjusted” to the social order of the world and which should compel people to be likewise maladjusted. Likewise, in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail,” he writes, “Just as the eighth century prophets left their little villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns… I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.” Obviously, Amos, Micah, and Isaiah are the prophets to whom he refers.

(c) Decision to oppose Vietnam War

(d) Radical Identification with Amos in 1967

When circumstances compelled King to oppose the Vietnam War publicly it seems he begins to identify more heavily with Amos and his parallels with the prophet do seem striking enough to notice the identification, even if King did not recognise it himself.

The brief descriptions of the character of Amos in his eponymous book point to a person with whom a mid-century black civil rights leader might have identified, particularly one criticised for “overstepping his role.” Though no one seems quite sure of Amos’s social standing at the time of his prophecies, at the time of King’s activity, most considered Amos to be poor and subservient to the upper classes. One scholar describes him as having “belonged to one of the poorest and most exploited classes, that of the manual labourers, which came into being in Israel… following the dissolution of the traditional tribal structures…” We are certain that Amos was somewhat an outsider, coming from Tekoa in Judah, while prophesying against Israel. When Amos does speak out against the abuses of power and hypocrisy in the Northern Kingdom, Amaziah criticises him for being an outsider unqualified to speak out against the state.

Martin Luther King, though not a shepherd or orchard keeper, does come from the underclasses of his time. The establishment had come to accept him for promoting civil rights for African-Americans, but when he began to criticise the Johnson administration for its role in the war, the government and the national newspapers attacked him and attempted to belittle him for “getting out of his depth.”

In King’s autobiography, he explains his reason for denouncing violence in Asia with a quote from Amos himself:

And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I nevertheless am greatly saddened that such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. They seem to forget that before I was a civil rights leader, I answered a call, and when God speaks, who can but prophesy.

(e) Parallels between Beyond Vietnam and Amos

(i) negativity

When King does finally speak out, with the incendiary “Beyond Vietnam,” more parallels emerge with the largely negative oracles of Amos. Rather than the lofty dreams of some of his other speeches and his confidence in a providential arc of the universe bending towards justice, he spends most of his speech condemning the United States for prosecuting an unjust war while injustices still rage at home. While Amos in chapter 4 compares Israel to the Egypt God helped it escape when he writes, “I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt” (4:10), King compares America’s crimes against the peasants of Vietnam with the Germans it defeated in World War II. King writes, “What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?” King calls his own government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

(ii) International in scope

Though King and Amos both reserve their greatest criticisms for their own governments, they still share an international focus. Justice knows no boundaries in these particular works. Amos’s criticisms of other nations are more extensive than King’s, but they are really meant to call greater attention on the crimes and hypocrisies of his countrymen. He begins his prophecy with oracles against Israel’s neighbors, making the rhetoric of his eventual condemnation of Israel that much more cutting. King’s condemnations are embedded in his arguments and lack the teeth of Amos’s, but they do serve the same purpose—that of putting greater focus on the sins of his own country. He says:

This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia. Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation… Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue…

Elsewhere, King highlights France, America’s ally, as an unjust coloniser of Vietnam, sparing few of his invectives.

Both speakers, therefore, recognise injustices through many nation-states, not just the ones toward which the speeches themselves are directed. Likewise, they recognise the international nature of God’s liberative grace. Just as Amos notes that God delivered the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir (9:7), King recognises the liberation movement in North Vietnam as one that seeks justice from cruel colonisers, one of which, Diem, the U.S. supported. In other writings of the same era, King gives encouragement to other liberation movements throughout the world and that sentiment is present in this speech.

(iii) The Problem of Poverty

Though both King and Amos have international concerns, their main focus is domestic poverty and issues that distract from its alleviation. Amos rails against the cult in its collusion with the state and other powerful people. Those who are wealthy enough to own two houses (3:15) seem to care nothing for justice in the streets. (4:1; 5:12) In his book of woes in chapter 6, he describes in detail extreme wealth and how God will send the wealthy into exile first. Complicit in the affluent of Israel are the religious leaders who are so corrupt that they will not hear the words of God when they do come through Amos. (7:13) The cult is obviously meaningless to the people since they wait for the ceremonies to cease in order to do more business and exploit the poor to their own gain. Amos quotes God as saying that God hates the religious festivals and will not even accept their offerings. The cult ceases its usefulness and that is the impetus for one of the biblical phrases King quotes the most in his career and the line that King uses to conclude his speech: “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (5:23-24)

Though the ostensible subject of King’s speech is the injustice of the War in Vietnam, note that the title is “Beyond Vietnam.” The war, he claims, is merely a symptom of a larger problem and when he lists his reasons for “bringing Vietnam into the field of [his] moral vision,” his first is that the funds going toward the war distract from the programs that went towards the “rehabilitation of [America’s] poor.” Meanwhile the government sent the children of the poor to fight and die in the war itself.

King’s solidarity with the poor parallels the common reception of Amos at the time—that Amos’s invective “against the abuses of the rich would simply have been an expression of his solidarity with the poor and dispossessed.” The mission of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is to save the soul of America and King feels that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” He finds materialism, racism, and militarism intrinsically related, calling them “giant triplets” that keep American society “thing-oriented” rather than “people-oriented.”

(iv) Finales of Hope

The tone of both Amos and King in “Beyond Vietnam” is angry, but not without hope. Amos ends with a brief oracle of hope that alleviates the unrelenting condemnation and announcements of impending doom. After the exile, the Lord will bring his people back and new wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills. Amos’s finale resembles many of King’s final statements, and “Beyond Vietnam” has a similar tone of hope, the last line being a direct quote from Amos. However, King’s finale includes an ethical call that Amos lacks. It seems that for Amos, the chance to repent and hold back judgment has passed. Amos merely reminds his hearers that God will bring them back from exile once their time of punishment has passed. King, however, attempts to be constructive, suggesting concrete things that the government can do to leave Vietnam. At the same time, however, he shares with Amos the understanding that a time will arrive when it will be too late. “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today,” he says, “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time.”

(f) Differences

Obviously differences abound between the two works. Beyond Vietnam is not a direct allegory of Amos, after all. Amos does not seem much concerned with militarism and King does not seem concerned with idolatry or empty religiosity. Regardless, King’s identification with Amos allows him to use Amos as a model for his own speech.

The overall tone is more important here than whether King applies specific complaints of Amos to his own situation. King normally overlooks the specifics of oracles of woe in the ancient world for the universal hope that comes with their eschatological vision. It is no wonder why King consistently, throughout his career, relies on specific eschatological visions of the prophets: a day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,” (Isaiah 40:4) when “Men will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nations will not rise up against nations; neither shall they study war any more,” (Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3) when “the lion and the lamb will lay down together,” and when “justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” These are the dreams of the prophets in the midst of troubled times and they are the dreams of King in his own troubled times. The future has not yet arrived, but King and the prophets hope for the same future. Their presents, however, differ, and King responds to the specific problems that he encounters, which, though related, are obviously not identical to those of Amos. Nevertheless, similarities do exist and it should not surprise anyone that a preacher who views the Bible as a mirror should see himself in a prophet with some similar concerns as he has.

Bibliography

Shepard, Clayborne Carson and Kris, (ed.) A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Little, Brown and Comany, 2001.

deWolf, L. Harold. “Martin Luther King, Jr., as Theologian.” Journal of the Interdenominational Center 4 (1977): 1-11.

Ivory, Luther D. Toward a Theology of Radical Involvement: The Theological Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1956. The Death of Evil Upon the Seashore. http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/publications/papers/vol3/560517.010-The_Death_of_Evil_upon_the_Seashore,_Sermon_at_the_Service_of_Prayer_and_Thanksgiving_at_Cathedral_of_St._John_the_Divine.htm (accessed 4 November 2010,

Washington, James M., (ed.) A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: HarperOne, 1990.

Carson, Clayborne, (ed.) The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. London: Abacus, 2000.

Lischer, Richard. The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. And the Word That Moved America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Miller, Keith D. Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr. And Its Sources. New York: The Free Press, 1992.

Miller, Keith D. “Second Isaiah Lands in Washington, Dc: Martin Luther King, Jr.’S ‘I Have a Dream’ as Biblical Narrative and Biblical Hermeneutic.” Rhetoric Review 26, no. 4 (2007): 405-24.

Scoggin, J. Alberto. The Prophet Amos. Translated by John Bowden. London: SCM, 1987.

 

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Deuteronomy, Ruth, and the Long View of Wisdom (and Beatrix Kiddo)

Occasionally, one will hear the biblical book of Ecclesiastes described as anti-wisdom literature, the idea being that, though the book of Ecclesiastes shares much of its vocabulary and other generic conventions with the book of Proverbs, the overall message is largely at odds with Proverbs and the “wisdom psalms.”

As an example, here is Proverbs 10:2:

Ill-gotten treasures have no lasting value,

but righteousness delivers from death.

Many proverbs share what could be called a moral economy, wherein one receives rewards for good works and some sort of punishment for misbehavior. By contrast, here is a proverb from Ecclesiastes 1:3:

What does anyone gain from all their labors

at which they toil under the sun?

It is a rhetorical question. The answer, based on the context of the passage, is “nothing,” for in 1:2 the author declares that “everything is meaningless,” “illusory,” or, at the very most “ephemeral”—the gains are temporary but do not last.

I was trying to explain the relationship between wisdom and anti-wisdom to my Hebrew class yesterday (we are working on Ecclesiastes after spending last week on Proverbs), when one of my students said, “Isn’t this backwards? Ecclesiastes seems to exhibit true wisdom while Proverbs doesn’t seem that wise to me.”

I explained that the distinction is generic—that is, Wisdom Literature is a name for a type of literature and not necessarily a description of the actual value of the text—but I got his point. After all, though both books purport to gain their “wisdom” or “anti-wisdom” through similar methods—observation of the natural world—their conclusions are at odds and Ecclesiastes seems to “say it how it [really] is” without sugarcoating.

I bring this up as a follow-up to my previous blog post wherein I go through Deuteronomy 24 as a text that, while ostensibly hopeful about moral and ethical behavior, does not seem to have its pulse on the real world, where someone can and has violated everyone of the principles over and over again and yet has been rewarded with the position of the most powerful person on the planet.

The post is kind of bleak and maybe even void of much hope, but I decided to leave it there for a while with no response as a model of what the Bible seems to encourage, though few Christians feel comfortable enacting. That is, I wanted to sit in a space of lamentation, questioning the justice of the way of the world.

Deuteronomy shares a lot in common with Proverbs. Deuteronomy is not Wisdom Literature, in that it does not gain its insight through observation of the natural world and doesn’t express its insight through proverbial couplets, but its vision of the moral economy is, for the most part, the same. Do the right thing and things will go well for you; do the wrong thing and they won’t.

I should be clear that the moral economy of the Bible as a whole does not challenge that of Deuteronomy or Proverbs, really. That is, the Bible without Deuteronomy or Proverbs in its canon would still maintain a similar moral vision wherein there are rewards and punishments for right and wrong behavior, respectively. However, the other books in the canon make Deuteronomy and Proverbs tolerable to read while actually living in the real world.

As an example of a “real world” enactment of Deuteronomy, let me give a quick reading of the book of Ruth. While Ruth is likely not a part of what is called “deuteronomistic history” it is difficult to read it without being reminded of Deuteronomy and thqdefaulthe historical books in its orbit. For instance, it opens describing the setting as the time when the Judges judged (Judges being a deuteronomical book), and Boaz is described with similar language as the Judges are described—particularly Jephthah (see Judges 11:1 and Ruth 2:1, where each man is described as a gibbor chayil, though that phrase is translated quite differently in different English versions of their respective books).

Consider also Deuteronomy 24-25, which describes rules on allowing widows and refugees to glean in fields as well as the procedure of “levirate marriage” which protects widows from destitution. Ruth, a widow from Moab—thus included in two groups of the most vulnerable—fulfills her rights of levirate marriage through gleaning the fields of Boaz, Boaz being a relative of her husband and her future groom.

Contemporary relevance concerning the book of Ruth, particularly as it fulfills Deuteronomy 24-25 and the blessings promised therein can be found in the way time is gapped in the very short book. For instance, more than 10 years pass in the first 5 verses alone. In this time, a man named Elimelek moves from Judah to Moab because of a famine, Elimelek dies in Moab, Ruth is married to Mahlon for 10 years and Mahlon then dies. Importantly for the story is that Ruth is married for 10 years without having children, which would be a devastating situation to find herself in at that time and place in history. She is widowed and has no male child to take care of her, which means that she can really only survive through the generosity of others.

She decides that her only recourse is to move back to Judah with her mother-in-law Naomi, who is also a widow and childless. However, in Judah Ruth has the opportunity to glean the grain fields for food (see Deut. 24:19-20). The story as told moves quickly from Ruth gleaning the fields to getting married to Boaz, but the text reminds us to slow down things in our mind’s narrative again. When she arrives in Judah, the barley harvest was just beginning (Ruth 1:22) but her betrothal doesn’t occur until the winnowing of the barley (3:3) around 5 months later. She does finally have a child and that happens quickly after her marriage, but one of the points of the book of Ruth (I would argue) is to show how the promises of Deuteronomy, as enacted by Ruth and Boaz, lead to fulfilled blessing of the nation of Israel and tribe of Judah through Ruth’s great-grandson David. In other words, the delay in fulfilled promises not only includes 10 years in Moab, but three more generations before the birth of the future King.

One can imagine that those blessings were far from the principals’ minds as the story was lurching through time. Ruth was likely motivated by survival and not the laws of Moses. Boaz, though  likely prodded by duty, perhaps followed the laws due to his empathy and, perhaps a little romantic love.

Which leads me to one of my favorite scenes in Ruth, which is Boaz working the legal conventions of the time in his favor. Though Boaz would like to marry Ruth, he is aware that there is another relative who has the legal right of first refusal, as it were. We do not know his name, and that is key to understanding the resolution of Ruth. It’s not that his name was never known, but just that it has been erased from history. Boaz calls out to the legal redeemer in 4:1:

Turn around and sit here Peloni Almoni.

The King James Version calls him “Such a one!” and the Jewish Publication Society calls him “So-and-so,” both of which are much better than the NIV and NRSV, which have “my friend.” When I teach Ruth in Introductory Hebrew, I describe the scene in Ruth 4:1 as similar to the scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1 when the Bride reveals her name but it is bleeped out. Whatever the case, Peloni Almoni is not a real name, but a place holder for a real name.

The reason this is such a great scene is that Peloni Almoni‘s motivation for turning down the opportunity to marry Ruth the Moabite is that he is afraid it will ruin his own estate. How does Boaz provoke him to turn it down? By claiming that the purpose of the levirate marriage in question is to “maintain the name of the dead with his property” (Ruth 4:5). In other words, Peloni Almoni will acquire the property of Mahlon, including his wife, for the sake of Mahlon and not himself.

Peloni Almoni turns it down and likely didn’t put much thought into it once the transaction was complete. He goes back to his life as a property owner, thinking that he did the right thing for him and his family. Only centuries later do we find out that the decision had the opposite effect on his estate. We do not know his name. To us, he is Mr. ______, “Peloni Almoni.” Meanwhile, Mahlon’s name lives on. More importantly, Boaz, who performed the selfless act of providing Ruth with as much grain (literal seed) as she could carry to sustain her in her times of need and a lineage (figurative seed) that redeemed Israel in its time of need, has a name that continues to live on in the Bible and its readers.

As Christians living in dark times it is right to remember the arcs of these stories. Ruth’s and Boaz’s names live on because of their generosity (chesed). David’s name lives on because of Boaz and Ruth. And Jesus is also in the same lineage. But it’s perhaps equally important to remember that Ruth was barren for a decade. That David comes several decades later. That the fissure in the Kingdom, the destruction of Jerusalem, the Exile, the abomination that causes desolation, etc. come between David and Jesus and that Jesus dies, and that though he already has instituted the glorious eschaton through his resurrection, has also not yet fully implemented it.

And so here we are. We need not list all the terrible things people suffer throughout the world. And I dare not equate the embarrassment of having a fraud as head of state while others suffer much worse fates (especially before any real damage is done). But I do not want to live as if there is no hope (for the economy, the environment, the immigrant, women, etc.). For we need hope. And perhaps this is an overlooked gift of the Bible. We can read Psalms 88 and 89, knowing that Psalm 150 is coming. But we must read Psalms 88 and 89, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Job, Jeremiah, because we do everyone a disservice when we neglect the real pain they express.

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Supreme Authority, Tremendous Authority, Amazing Authority

I teach Hebrew at a seminary that claims “trustworthiness and supreme authority [of the Bible] in all matters of faith and conduct.” The seminary is considered evangelical and its position on Scripture is one of the main factors in that consideration. Because the seminary is in Canada, one could argue that the “evangelical” label is more a description of hermeneutical method over ideology than it would be in my home country of the USA.

Though I’ve done most of my own research in the book of Job, its Hebrew is largely too difficult to teach during the first four semesters of Hebrew—the courses I’ve been tasked to teach. Instead, for intermediate Hebrew I have been teaching through a workbook that allows the class to read several passages in different genres. One passage from the workbook is Deuteronomy 24:14-22, which, when I picked the workbook, looked like a nice introduction to deuteronomistic legal texts, but while going through this year it has continued to stick with me.deuteronomy-chapter-24-25

What appears at first like a random assortment of laws is really a well constructed rhetoric, drawing the reader/listener in to make them feel good about their ethical behavior (don’t cheat people, because what kind of person does that) to being fair in the courts (don’t punish people for crimes they didn’t commit, even as a type of revenge, because that is not true justice) to being generous and charitable, because that is what God has been to you. In other words, “don’t be a criminal… oh good, you’re not a criminal, then be just and help maintain a just society… oh good, you’re just, then be righteous. Go above and beyond, for that is what being a God-follower really means.

To show you what I mean, let’s look at the first two verses of the section (Deut 24:14, 15) as translated by the NIV:

Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite (lit. “your sibling”) or a foreigner (ger) residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

Such a blatant abuse of power, not paying someone for work they did (no mention of the quality or quantity of work) should obviously be considered a crime, but the command comes with a warning that the abused day-laborer, whether Israelite or foreigner (more on that word later), has the real power in the relationship. The day-laborer can cry out to the Lord and the Lord will judge the “capitalist.”


For further reference, see the following links:

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/09/06/usa-freedom-girls-sue-trump-campaign-for-stiffing-them.html

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/06/09/donald-trump-unpaid-bills-republican-president-laswuits/85297274/

http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2016/06/10/dozens-lawsuits-accuse-trump-not-paying-his-bills-reports-claim.html


At first read, the next passage seems like a jump to an incongruous law, but, as I stated above, the law progresses from not stiffing your employees from work they did to not punishing people for things they didn’t do. It shows the humane side of lex talionis. It’s not a part of God’s law to punish someone else for a crime they did not commit.

Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin. (Deut. 24:16 NIV)


For further reference:

http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/mar/3/donald-trump-says-hed-force-us-military-commit-war/

http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/dec/17/rand-paul/rand-pauls-right-geneva-conventions-bar-donald-tru/

http://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2016-11-10/dreamers-told-feds-where-they-live-will-trump-deport-them


Similarly, we read the next verse, again in the NIV:

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. (Deut. 24:17 NIV),

which assures justice for the most vulnerable in society. The stranger, sometimes translated alien or sojourner, has the following definition from the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament:

גר is a man who (alone or with his family) leaves village and tribe because of war 2S 43 Is 164, famine Ru 11, epidemic, blood guilt etc. and seeks shelter and residence at another place, where his right of landed property, marriage and taking part in jurisdiction, cult and war has been curtailed.

In other words, we are talking about a refugee. What are the rights of the refugee? The word mishpat is normally rendered “justice”, but that doesn’t help us too much without an example of what that justice is. Fortunately, the author of Deuteronomy seems to have anticipated this question and given us something to hang our hat on in verse 18:refugee-boat

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. (Deut. 24:18 NIV)


For further reference:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/09/21/trump-calls-proposed-ban-on-refugees-a-matter-of-quality-of-life/

http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-syrian-refugees-isis-2016-4


One interesting thing about this particular verse is the way justice is to be done for the widow. The restriction on taking a widow’s garment in pawn was, presumably to protect the widow from shame. That is, the poor widow likely has few clothes to wear. If a wealthy person takes her garment in pledge, she will likely not have another garment to cover herself, thus causing people to think she is asking for sexual advances because of the way she dresses. It saves her from being taken advantage of by two different powerful men—the one who has taken her garment and the one who believes she “wouldn’t dress like that if she didn’t want it.”


For further reference:

https://www.yahoo.com/beauty/trump-sexual-assault-accuser-summer-215302666.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/08/us/politics/donald-trump-women.html


The section ends with what seems like a command to be generous to the most vulnerable. The principle is familiar, but I was really struck by the Hebrew, the point of which most modern translations miss. The NIV’s is one of the most egregious, reading,

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, (Deut. 24:19 NIV)

The idea is not entirely wrong, but the radical nuance is watered down. The King James Version is, not surprisingly, the most literal, reading

When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow (Deut. 24:19 KJV)

But even here, one misses the strong sense of possession conveyed by the idiom “be to the stranger” (sometimes called the “dative of possession”) after 21132_largethe repetition of second person pronominal suffixes in the rest of the verse. Let’s update the passage with the idiom in mind, highlighting the suffixes:

When you harvest your harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf, do not return to take it; it belongs to the refugee, the orphan, and the widow.

That is, your overlooking the surplus is no accident, but divine providence for the most vulnerable. Going back to glean your surplus is a violation of the divine order. Generosity is built into the laws of God so much that not being generous approaches theft.


For further reference:

http://www.snopes.com/luck/trump.asp

http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/trump-and-the-truth-his-charitable-giving

http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/trump-taxes-charity-1.3789360


The second half of the verse gives the explanation along with the entirety of verse 22. Here is 19b:

… so that the Lord your God might bless you in all the work of your hands.

After similar commands to leave ungleaned grapes and olives because they also are the property of the refugee, orphan, and widow, the passage explains further:

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this. (Deut. 24:22 NIV)

All is fine and dandy with the first couple sections, but this is where I struggle as an evangelical. I love the idea of the generous being blessed by God. I wish this were true, but I question that truth. As I said at the beginning of this post, I believe in the “trustworthiness and supreme authority” of the Bible. In fact, I’m contractually obligated to believe such a thing. But how trustworthy is this passage?

Consider the book of Job which seems to challenge the above passage. Job describes himself in similar ways as the book of Deuteronomy describes the righteous Israelite

Whoever heard me spoke well of me, and those who saw me commended me, 12 because I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist them. 13 The one who was dying blessed me; I made the widow’s heart sing. 14 I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban. 15 I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. 16 I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger.” (Job 29:11-16 NIV)

The narrator also describes Job as blameless and upright, he feared God and shunned evil and was the greatest of all people of the east (Job 1:1-3). And yet, Job loses all he has and seems to become like the most wretched in society. He is not blessed as we understand it. In other words, the Book of Job would seem to challenge the “trustworthiness” of Deuteronomy. Perhaps there is an ironic grace, here. Job saves the Bible as a whole from issues that the real world would seem to undermine. Doing justice and loving mercy do not always lead to blessings.

Let’s also consider the flip side: Implicit in the commands of Deuteronomy 24 is that if you do not behave in such a way, you should not expect blessings. You should, in fact, expect to be found guilty of sin (Dt. 24:19). And yet we are now presented with someone who has violated every one of the principles espoused in Deuteronomy 24:14-22 and has been rewarded (blessed?) with the most powerful position on the planet, guaranteeing him the spot as most famous person in the world, a position this man seems to consider the most blessed achievement of all.

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Trump as the Glue Joining Barbarism and Technology

 

The Wannsee Conference… is not regarded as the point at which the policy [of extermination] was confirmed rather than initiated. It remains an important juncture, however, the moment when barbarism and technology joined together in the most demonic alliance ever. If Hitler found ‘willing executioners’ among his own people, he also found them among his conquered subjects… The Holocaust was enacted in the fevered dreamscapes of Eastern Europe where… Holocaust was a state of mind before it was Nazi policy.

–Latvian-Canadian historian Modris Eksteins, Walking Since Daybreak (Mariner Books, 1999).

The above quote has stuck with me ever since I read Eksteins’s book over a decade ago. Partly because I had visited the former Jewish ghetto in Vilnus, Lithuania and had frequented a square in Klaipeda at least partly famous for being the locus of a speech by Hitler. It came back to me today when someone suggested that the Trump candidacy, if he loses tomorrow, will have been a net good since at least the truth has come out—we now know the extent of the racism in the right wings of much of America.

I do not agree. Had the technology of Nazism not met the barbarism of anti-semitism already latent in parts of Poland and the Baltics, then would the lives of Jews and Roma been fine? Certainly not. But neither would millions of Jews and Roma had been exterminated because of the legitimating of the barbarism through the election of Hitler.

Is Trump Hitler? No, of course not (The reason such comparisons are useful is to make stark one’s reason not to make a direct comparison). The chances that Muslims, Latinos, and Blacks would be exterminated is minimal, thank goodness. But the nomination of someone who so regularly spews racist and xenophobic rhetoric legitimizes a hatred for the Other. Trump claims to be the voice of his people, which may be the case in some ways. But that voice would be better bottled up. The frustrations with immigrants (like Somalis in Minnesota—Trump’s most recent target of his rhetoric) doing things differently would be better off not expressed. Time may not heal all wounds, but it might keep them from becoming gangrenous.

For the conservative, there are certainly better, more benign choices than to hold one’s nose and vote for Trump. Four more years of left-of-center policies are four more years to create a constructive right-of-center policy. It may not be ideal for those who lean Republican, but neither is Trump, who has little regard for conservatism anyway. At best, he will fumble his way through a term, fighting with his own party and flaming out. At worst, well, I’d rather not entertain those thoughts. Such a task can be the opposite of constructive.

(See also  “Is Donald Trump a Sodomite?“)

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The Locals

Her voice was vaguely European, not specific to a nationality but housing a general air of condescension.

I had started across the street in need of a weather report and directions to a trailhead that I had very little information about other than what I happened upon on the internet a week back. I checked what wi-fi signals I could pick up and, lo and behold, the name of her particular coffee shop popped up on my screen. I needed a password so I walked across the street, under the “Wi-Fi Here” sign, and into the shop to get something that would grant me access to the information.

It was 4:30, which is a little late for a coffee, but I was not about to spend $4.50 for a vegan muffin. There were books, which seemed a particular kind of hodge podge—tiny homes, permaculture gardening, vegan cooking, how your dog is a mirror into your soul. I looked at a collection of Wendell Berry essays, but decided to get a coffee in the end when I realized I had read several of the essays already.

“How can I help you?”

“I’ll have an Americano.”

“Just hold on, let me help this woman.”

This other woman was buying a book called Street Vegan.

“Are you a true vegan?”

“No. . . I’m an omnivore but I’m interested,” the other woman answered.

I didn’t hear the rest of this conversation, but waited patiently with my phone in hand noting the disappointment on her face as she listened to this woman admitting to such a moral failure.

“How may I help you?” she eventually asked me.

“I’ll have an Americano.”

“Okay.”

“Can I also get the password to your wi-fi?”

“Just wait.”

So I waited again until she finished brewing my Americano (black; the other option with coconut cream) and then I paid ($4.00!), all with my phone in my hand waiting for the password. Once we were all settled, she said, “Okay, the password is ————”

I started to type into my phone, but she interrupted me.

“Could you take your device outside?”

She waved to the outer room where the tables were looking as if to shoo away the poisonous waves coming from my phone. I wandered out to check the weather and then find more information on the trail. A grey-haired man worked on an airbook in the corner.

“Can I help you with anything?” the grey-haired man asked.

“Me?”

“Well, you’re looking at books and checking your phone. Perhaps I can answer any questions.”

“I’m camping at Ruckle Park and am checking the weather to see if we should stay for the rest of the week or go home early.”

“Ah. Sometimes people want to know the ferry schedule and they could just ask someone.”

“Right. I’m also checking my email while I have wi-fi. And am looking for a hike.”

“The best hike is down this road on the First Nations reserve.”

“Oh! I’m glad you said that, because that was the hike I was looking for! I just didn’t know where to find it on the map.”

The woman who sold me the coffee poked her head in the outer room and said, “See, human contact is always better than devices.”

“Yes, but I talked with two of the park rangers at Ruckle and they didn’t know about the hike so I thought it was a secret I stumbled across.”

“Well, you need to talk to the locals; they don’t always hire locals at the park,” the man said.

“How do I get there?”

“You drive down to the end of this road. You’ll pass all these billionaires’ third homes and then the road will end and you should see the trail head there. Great views of the islands.”

“Is it an actual old growth forest?” I asked, “That’s what I read on the website.”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Okay, well I guess I’ll see for myself, anyway.”

I went back to my device because the locals couldn’t answer my emails for me. After a few minutes, when I was done I asked the man, “What was the name of the First Nations band?”

“I don’t know,” he said, not looking up from his work. “The trail is Reginald Hill.”

dsc_0188

An arbutus tree hugging a Douglas Fir

This turned out not to be the case. I found the website that told me about the trail. One  end of the trail begins near the Reginald Hill trailhead, but I didn’t tell him. I also found out that the First Nations band is called the Tsawout nation. They do not live there anymore but have moved to Vancouver Island now. The trail is on the last bit of land they have left in the Gulf Islands, which they use for various celebrations and ceremonies. We hiked it the next day and it became one of our favorite hikes we’ve ever done as a family, with very large trees, a haunting cedar grove, and beautiful beaches. We were grateful that the Tsawout nation allows people to hike on it despite their being displaced. They are no longer locals.

Four days later, while waiting for the ferry, I went back into the cafe for a cup of coffee. My wife wanted to see the place so we all went in but that proved too many people for the back room. Or so those in charge seemed to think. They sent the rest of the family into the front room while I waited to order. As the same European woman brewed my coffee, she asked, “Did you find the hike?”

A little surprised that she remembered me, I answered, “Yes!”

“The one on the coastline?”

“It was wonderful.”

She nodded knowingly and handed me my coffee. “Here you are darling.”

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You with the top hat, your nation requires your service

Sometimes I feel guilty for loving the olympics. The IOC’s corrupt, the host cities often go into hock in order to build the facilities and host the games, the same cities often exploit the most vulnerable residents in order to make room for the facilities and guests, and all the problems with nationalism.

But I get sucked in to the confluence of so many athletes of all different shapes and sizes competing at the highest of levels. I love the passion that comes from training so hard for four years for that one moment and the inherent drama that comes when eight people are peaking at the same time. I usually don’t care which country comes out on top, but it’s hard not to root for USA, where I’m from, and Canada, where I live. But occasionally, you’ll catch me cheering for Lithuania even against the US or Canada.

I seem to be in the minority when it comes to different countries performances in the games. Pretty much every website or newspaper has a medal count broken down by different nations and I’ve been increasingly impressed by the United Kingdom, or, as they like to call themselves, Team GB. Team Great Britain has been Great. Apparently, GB only historically excelled in sitting down sports—cycling, sailing, rowing, and equestrian events. But they’ve been earning medals in all events this year, including swimming, gymnastics, diving, track, as well as the sitting down sports.

The reason seems to be partly attributable to a talent identification program with the hashtag #discoveryourgold. Their greatest success story is Helen Glover who started rowing through the program in 2008 having never rowed before. She is now perhaps the greatest rower in the world and is undefeated in the last 4 years, breaking world records along the way and wiping out the competition Ledecky style, with her partner Heather Stanning.

From what I gather, one applies online giving some information about age, height, weight, dominant eye and hand, and then goes through a physical to determine what sport he or she would be best suited for and to determine whether he or she could potentially become world class in said sport.

I love this idea. Often, we start doing sports because we want to be like Mike or because it’s what we’re good at that’s nearby. That’s great for the vast majority of people. Most people are not world class in any sport. It’s best just to find a sport that teaches fitness, comaraderie, a healthy sense of competition, and a skill set that you can do into dressage20hatadulthood. But what if you’re leaving something world class on the table? What if you have what it takes to be the greatest rower of all time but you grew up in north Texas where no one rows?

But there’s danger in such a program, too. Rowing’s one thing. I swam competitively and training for crew seems like training for swimming without the speedo and shaving. If it turned out I was an okay swimmer but had the potential to be a world class rower, then send me to wherever people row well.

But what if the results come back and the talent ID program thinks I’ve got the right stuff to be a world class Olympian in something like dressage or race walking? I’m not sure how maxresdefaultI would respond. I like to tell people that I’ve never lost at the game Twister, but if Twister were an Olympic sport, would I want to train everyday for the bragging rights of becoming the best Twister player in the world? Even for Olympic glory and the stake of the pride of a nation?

  Could I turn down the chance to become among the best in the world at anything? Even if that something is as goofy as walking really fast or wearing a top hat and dancing with a horse to “Ice Ice Baby?” I don’t know if I’d have the courage to enter the program for fear of letting down my country in the end after all.

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