The Wrong Response

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“You
struck them, but they felt no pain; you crushed them but they refused
correction. They made their faces harder than stone and refused
to repent.”

~
Jeremiah 5:3

I
was reading in the book of the prophet Isaiah. Israel is in trouble
again as it so often is. There’s a huge army backed by a much larger
nation surrounding Jerusalem, they’ve already taken all the other
fortified cities of Judah and now it’s time for one final mop up
and the Jews will be slaves in their own land.

The
scene is classic drama, though I wouldn’t want to have been there.
The Assyrian general starts making a speech about how Israel’s ally
of the time (Egypt) isn’t going to help them, how their god is not
going to help them anymore than the gods of all the other peoples’
who Assyria has taken down. The Jewish king’s servants ask the Assyrian
to not talk so loud in Hebrew because the people on the city walls
can understand. He says, “Was it only to your master and you that
my master sent me to say these things, and not to the men sitting
on the wall – who, like you, will have to eat their own filth and
drink their own urine?” The general urges them to just give up now
rather than be starved and then slaughtered.

Clearly,
Israel is in deep tapioca. I stopped my reading at the end of the
Assyrian’s ultimatum and reflected. I didn’t remember precisely
how this one turned out but I realized that I already knew that
the next thing I read would give away the end of the story. There’s
a pattern to how these things go, you see. If Israel responds in
an arrogant way, if they thumb their nose at the enemy and boast
about how great they are and how they are going to kick the Assyrian’s
all the way back to Assyria like they’re some red-faced gorilla
from the World Wrestling Federation, then they’re going to be in
for it. The Lord is going to watch while they have visited upon
them all the judgement for their sins that has been building up
since the last time this happened. And with the Assyrians as the
Lord’s imprecise instrument, the judgement is going to get real
nasty.

But
if Israel responds in that peculiar way that the Bible holds up
as a model there is hope. Fortunately, in this case, King Hezekiah
leads the nation in a response that pleases the Lord. He tears his
clothes and puts on sackcloth, (definitely a good start), and sees
that the other leading men do the same. Hezekiah prays with humility
and desperation to the Lord, asking that He would deliver them.
He sends word to the prophet Isaiah to find out what the Lord says.
The Lord is pleased and Jerusalem is miraculously delivered without
the Hebrews even having to leave the city. The Assyrians run back
to Ninevah with their tails between their legs.

Hezekiah
had, from the Biblical point of view, the Right Response. Even though
there was a scary enemy provoking him, he did not immediately respond
to that enemy but instead took the situation to the Lord. This may
seem like a strange thing to do to our modern secularized mind,
after all shouldn’t he be doing something more directly in response
to the enemy surrounding his city? Shouldn’t he be strategizing
or giving a big pep rally to his people to keep them united? But
his response does make sense from the point of view of someone who
really believes in a powerful, good Divinity. A higher power who
is just and holy but also wants the best for His people.

Often
in the scriptures, this Right Response is accompanied by a sincere
searching for sin among the Lord’s people. They examine their conscience
and search through the community for injustice, for wrongs that
should be righted. They really believe that letting sin and injustice
stand is an invitation for retribution. Responding to a vicious
attack by searching your own conscience for error may seem like
a counter-intuitive thing to do, but it makes sense from the perspective
of actual belief in a just God who runs an, ultimately, just and
moral universe.

Sin
in the Camp?

This
meditation left me feeling rather melancholy about much of what
I’ve seen of my own people’s response to the vicious attack of September
11th. It seems to me that there’s been a lot of patting ourselves
on the back about how great we are, how we represent freedom and
goodness in the world and we just have to “smoke ‘em out” and destroy
these fools who dare think they can mess with the mighty United
States.

In
short, a lot of what I’m hearing, especially from our political
leaders, is the Wrong Response. There’s hardly any humility that
I can see and, especially at first, nearly a media black out on
the whole issue of what sins and injustices we might have on our
consciences.

But
imagine if we had the Right Response. Imagine real humility at this
time, sackcloth and ashes, and searching for anything that our people
has done to bring the Lord’s wrath. I suspect with such an attitude
through the land there would be a lot of discussion about the million
Iraqi civilians that are dead because of the U.S. military. That
might be an injustice worth talking about. I suspect there might
be even more than this horrifying atrocity that we might re-examine
in such a climate of humility.

While
my imagination is running wild, let’s imagine that we not only identified
some things that our government was doing that we weren’t so proud
of, but then really did something to change them. Imagine the response
from the rest of the world to a United States that didn’t just pay
a bunch of lip service to justice and freedom but really tried to
act consistently with those divine ideals. I don’t know if it would
end all terrorist attacks forever, but it certainly seems like it
would be a much more constructive step than adding, now, the murder
of Afghan civilians to our conscience.

But,
oh well, so much for my little thought experiment. It looks like
pride doesn’t just go before the fall. In our case, it seems to
come after as well.

October
31, 2001

Stephen
W. Carson [send him mail]
is a working software engineer and a graduate student in the Department
of Political Economy at Washington University in St. Louis. He prepared
this for Washington
Witness
,
the conservative WUSTL paper.

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