Sunday, June 11, 2023
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“Fruit Trees Over People?”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, June 11, 2023
Reading: Deuteronomy 20:1-20

Not too many of you arrived this morning wondering how to conduct yourselves on the battlefield.

My Tuesday Bible study meets to help us all prepare for Sunday. One participant asked: “What’s all this about war?” I looked around the room. I was the only one under age 60. Some pushing 90 or over. We didn’t look like any formidable fighting force.

Scripture is full of things we wouldn’t have put there. That’s sort of the point. There are encouraging verses, things to put on cat posters or in needlepoint. There are also lists and censuses and stories that couldn’t get a PG13 rating and genealogies of strangers. When we read the Bible, we’re drawn into a story not ours, a story we couldn’t have invented. That’s why we’re doing this series on strange texts. Most of the stories we hear in ordinary life are pretty poor. The lies that you only count as far as your purchasing power. Or that the only story you have is the one you invent for yourself. These stories of the individual consumer will lead you to despair. But scripture, with all its variety and strangeness, is the way to life.

In our story for today, the Israelites are about to cross over into the promised land. They’ve been in the wilderness 40 years, wandering without sure destination. The previous generation that escaped Egypt is almost all dead, and a new generation has arisen. They are on the brink of glory, about to inherit the land. The only problem is there are already people there. God will give Israel the land but it will be a struggle. The story you heard is full of references to the Exodus. It is really God who will fight. The Israelites have only to stand still.

One of the common criticisms of the Bible you hear is that it’s so warlike. The Old Testament especially is condemned for being tribalistic and bloody. This is a valid concern. Christians have taken texts like this and fought crusades, conquered native peoples in the Americas. That’s one reason churches like ours often don’t read stories like this—how do they help us live good lives now? The problem is if we ignore texts like this, people will still find them. When they do, have we helped them know how to read them?

Now I do worry about the criticism a little. Most human beings for most of history have had to face violence in their immediate neighbourhood. We don’t. That’s a gift. But we shouldn’t just condemn our ancestors, whose lives were very different. Modernity promised it would end violence. Instead of tribes, we would have nation-states, and they would bring peace. Only problem was the nation-states just became bigger, bloodier tribes, more people dead in wars in the 20th century than ever before. We human beings are a violent lot. These stories didn’t cause that. They reflect it. And they tell Israel how to conduct herself amidst it.

See Israel is supposed to be different than its neighbours. Better. A light in their darkness, salt in the food. And this story reflects that difference. Sure, all people fight, but Israel fights differently. For example, they’re outnumbered. First verse in our text, “When you go out to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, do not fear” (20:1). Horses and chariots are the ancient equivalent of tanks and missiles. Anyone who can help it, seeing a larger and better equipped army, doesn’t fight that day. But Israel remembers defeating Pharaoh with no army at allGod did it with the sea. Before battle it’s the priests who address the people, not any military experts. Pretty sure I’m not the guy you want addressing the Canadian Forces before battle, right? And then we’re given four classes of people who don’t have to fight at all. If you’ve built a new home but have not lived in it yet go home. If you’re engaged but not yet married, go home. If you’ve planted a vineyard but haven’t tasted the fruit, go home. These are the reasons we live and that we fight: home, family, livelihood. But then there’s a fourth class: “Is anyone afraid?” Go home. I’m imagining this is every soldier ever, at least the ones with any sense. Release your fearful ones, and you have no army. I’m sure they don’t teach all this in the Royal Military College in Kingston: how to shrink your army on the eve of battle when you’re already outnumbered and outclassed technologically. But it’s the Lord who fights. Not us. To make that clear let’s reduce our fighting capacity. Otherwise, we might think the battle is up to us, not God.

A teacher of mine is well-known for being a pacifist. Real pacifists are hard to find. Someone who wouldn’t do violence for any reason. The easiest way to practice non-violence is to tell other people you’re a pacifist. Immediately they want to fight you. What do you mean? What about Hitler? Was my grandfather wrong? It’s easy practice. He points out the deck is stacked against him. Find me a good movie or novel about peace… You can’t do it. War populates our imagination as a theatre of bravery, romance, strategy. We all long for the spirit of the greatest generation because they sacrificed for something bigger than themselves. What defines our life since then? Going to the mall? Being on your phone? Anyway. He’s a pacifist because of Jesus, who commands us to love enemies, to return peace for violence, to suffer rather than do harm. And lots of Christians have done likewise. Every monk, nun and priest in history is a pacifist, even if their kings or countries were not. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. changed history with non-violent resistance. Quakers and Mennonites are whole churches formed out of commitments to peace. But it’s tricky. I buried a lot of veterans whose service was the most important moral commitment in their lives. I probably wouldn’t exist without World War II—my grandparents rushed to the altar before my grandfather deployed. The marriage didn’t survive when he got home—they were strangers when they married as teens; even greater strangers when reunited. Few of us would be here without someone having been willing to fight. That’s why their names are on the walls.

But look what this text does. It places limits on violence. Hedges it in. When you go to fight, offer terms of peace first. As Churchill said, “jaw, jaw is better than war, war” (you need his English accent for it to work). Talk until everyone gets bored and goes home. That’s a pretty good summary of Canadian foreign policy, isn’t it?! Then there’s this gem of an ecological note at the end of the passage. Did you notice it? Verses 19-20:

If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you? You may destroy only the trees that you know do not produce food; you may cut them down for use in building siegeworks against the town that makes war with you, until it falls.

Defend the trees. Don’t cut the fruit bearing ones. The next generation needs to eat.

General Sherman in the US Civil War famously said “War is hell. You cannot refine it.” He was wrong. You can prohibit cutting fruit trees. Sherman didn’t even mean it. He burnt and pillaged his way through the south, but didn’t murder civilians or take slaves, he liberated slaves. Any good soldier knows how you conduct yourself in war is a deeply moral matter. Because if you have deadly firepower you have to know how not to murder with it. My pacifist teacher points out when we called it the War on Terror, we honoured Osama Bin Ladin. We called him a warrior, a soldier. He wasn’t. He was a murderer. Language matters.

But there’s a more troubling aspect to this passage. Interpreters call it one of the most frightening in the whole Bible. It’s called “the ban.” When the Israelites face the peoples in the land, they’re to give no mercy. Destroy them all. Destroy the livestock. Leave nothing alive. It’s all an offering to God. This defies the common sense of warfare. Ancient peoples went to war to take other people’s stuff. But with the ban Israel was to destroy all the stuff. And people. We should pause here. This is a horror.

But it may not have ever actually happened. Scripture lists the people to be so treated: Hittites and Amorites and Canaanites and Perizzites and Hivites and Jebusites. They all survived. In fact, DNA shows they’re basically the same people as the Israelites. Israel has to deal with them as neighbours. In fact, the Bible has frequent commands: don’t marry the foreigners. Don’t worship their gods. There’s no need for those laws if the neighbours don’t exist anymore. But they do. Scripture is winking at us. Telling us to read deeper. Elsewhere in Deuteronomy we see this command, 7:2-3: “And when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons” Uh, wait a minute: how do we intermarry or make covenant with them if we killed them all? Often the Bible will say, “and Israel defeated the Amalekites. There were none left.” End of chapter. Next chapter. “And the Amalekites came up for battle.” Wait, I thought they were gone? Nope. Still there. The language is exaggerated, like a sports team that wins and brags, hey, we killed y’all! Uh, no, actually, we’re still here, thanks.

Remember most of the Bible is written by defeated and mistreated people. They flex when they write: remember a time when we destroyed our enemies? The unspoken part: but actually we’re destroyed now. In exile in Babylon. Annihilated by Assyria. Oppressed by the Romans. It’s said so often we think it’s true: history is written by the victors. But it’s not true. The Bible is written by the conquered. Never forget that.

I wonder if you remember any other list of neighbouring peoples elsewhere in scripture? We preached on it recently, at Pentecost. Jews from all nations gathered at Jerusalem. And the Holy Spirit is poured out on Jesus’ disciples, who can suddenly speak foreign languages they never learned. The crowd is astonished. They all say this together (sort of like a responsive reading in church, in bold in your bulletin): we are “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.” They all hear about Jesus in their mother tongue. That’s how to conquer a people. By the Spirit’s power of language. They’re not murdered. To read Deuteronomy carefully, neighbours never were. They’re won over by the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

Israel is chosen. Elected. Singled out. Made a teacher’s pet. Not for her own sake. But to bless all the other nations. Including us here today. Not many of us here are Jewish, one or two, some are married to someone Jewish or have a Jewish child, bless y’all. Most of us benefit from God’s election of Israel through faith in Jesus Christ. My ancestors were French, German, Welsh, Scottish. All pagans. Until they were all slain by the Spirit’s resurrecting power. Not murdered or banned. But born again.

A friend of mine is a native elder, grew up with the glories and agonies of the Cree people. Had a sudden conversion to Christian faith. Woke up still drunk on his kitchen floor, no idea how he got there. And he saw Jesus in his kitchen, who summoned him to a better life. He never touched alcohol again. Most of us need help to recover from substances, but this encounter was enough for him. Cut his hair short. Burned his record collection. Became a 70s Jesus person hippie. Now he’s a little older. He’s grown his hair long again. He’s reembraced his Cree culture alongside his hippie Jesus one. And like most old hippies, he grew up and got a mortgage. It happens. Some of his enemies he annihilated: like the alcohol. Others he made friends with. Like his Cree culture and his hair and maybe even a few new vinyl records. Becoming wise in Christ is figuring out what to annihilate: things like pornography, hatred, racism, they can’t be trifled with. Root them out. Other things are trickier. Like entertainment. Or ambition. Difficult family or neighbours. We don’t burn those. We deal with them very carefully. Like Israel’s neighbours. Don’t ban em. And don’t marry em. In fact, to listen to Jesus, forgive them. And win them over.

You’ve heard an infamous Arabic word from our media: jihad. We know it refers to holy war. But in Arabic it just means struggle. And before it refers to any outward war, it refers to inward spiritual struggle. Seeking victory over pride. Envy. Jealousy. We actually use warfare language the same way. The war on drugs, or on crime, or whatever. In fact we use it too loosely there—politicians talk that way when they angle for more tax dollars, no one speaks up on behalf of crime or terror.

But maybe here’s a bigger struggle. How come when I look at the alumni journals from my college or high school or whatever, I put them down and feel worse? I mean, I’ve accomplished a few things, not as many as I’d like, but I convinced y’all to hire me. So why do I wish I had more to show off to my peers from grade 5? Here’s a little secret. Everybody feels that way. It’s why when you go on Facebook you feel miserable. Images of everyone’s touched-up happiness. My friends who are more successful in their fields all know others who are more successful than they. We can all seethe with jealousy.

I once heard the great Jeremy Lin speak in Vancouver. He said he’d played basketball for Michael Jordan, with Kobe Bryant, against LeBron James. And he said they were all haunted by what they hadn’t achieved. Championships they just barely missed. These are the greatest in their sport’s history. Lin’s point was that without Jesus you always feel miserable. Thing is, even with Jesus we compare. Someone wise said: “comparison is the thief of joy’. It’s a struggle, a war, a jihad, a crusade, not to be dominated by envy. In one way, ambition is good. It fires achievement. It’s also poison. Keeps you perennially unsatisfied. Facebook makes billions off that lack of satisfaction–$85 billion in 2020. We got quite a fight on our hands, fellow soldiers.

I mentioned the demographic of my Bible study. Lots of gray heads, me a gray beard, not too much youth. But raging grannies have changed the world before. I know we’re a little embarrassed about this now, but the temperance movement was led by church ladies. It was about the time women got the right to vote, 1920s. It’s not hard to show the damage alcohol does. Women wanted their husbands, fathers, sons home from the bar, not drinking up their paycheck and abusing their families. Their legislators made it so. Prohibition didn’t work, sure. But I’m just saying don’t underestimate the warrior class of church ladies. In the black church it’s often older women who not only beautify the church, pray, make things happen in the neighbourhood. They also raise grandchildren, and other people’s children, make money for whole households, participate in ministries of mercy. A teacher of mine was done with child raising, his wife and he contemplating an empty nest. Until their 16-year-old got pregnant. They said well, we’ve done this before. Let’s stock up on diapers and formula. And they were back at it. People are aging differently. 100-year-olds have their wits, 90-year-olds are running marathons. Don’t underestimate a room full of gray hair. They might not look like it, but they’re warriors. Of a different sort.

Let me conclude with Jesus, good place to end, good place to start, good place to remain. He’s the centre of our Bible, and shows us how to read it. And he’s the one who’s utterly cut off. Put to the sword. Shown no mercy. Banned. All our human violence of every nation and tribe heaped on his beautiful head. And his grave is not his end. He conquers by being conquered. And now draws all peoples to himself not with coercion or violence, but with the compelling power of love. He is the love that moves the sun and the other stars. And there is nothing harsh in him. So yes, there is still conquest. There is still struggle. Against everything violent, harsh, comparative, and unkind in us. And one day he will have the victory. Amen.