The slaughter was great indeed, and there fell of the Israelites nearly thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured too, and the two sons of Eli died, Hophni and Phinehas.
1 Samuel 4: 10-11
In today’s passage from 1 Samuel we hear of the ignominious and deadly defeat of the Israelites by the Philistines. As the story is told, the Israelites, having lost a decisive battle, determine to bring the Ark of the Covenant out to the battlefield that God may be with them and rescue them. The two priestly sons of Eli, infamous for their greed and brutality, accompany the Ark. The Israelites shout in joy and confidence at the arrival of the Ark, certain that now God will bring them victory. With God on their side, who can defeat them. The result of the battle, however, is an overwhelming and decisive victory for the Philistines.
The story we hear today is not merely ancient history, but rather a cautionary tale. All of us as human beings will perhaps never cease to presume that “God is on our side.” This is true both in our personal and in our communal and political lives. We look to God to buttress our own projects, plans and ideas for our own lives and for the life of our society and world. We think we know what we need to be fulfilled, happy, successful, and we pray and look to God to make that happen. We want God to ratify our life plans rather than submit our life to God’s plans Hophni and Phinehas use their position to aggrandize and gratify themselves, whomever else they diminish or make suffer in the process. They then expect God to make them victorious.
Movements and states suffer the same illusions. Fundamentalists of all stripes and from all cultures live the conviction that the imposition of their power and their will on others is the reign of God. From one side or the other, the view is that for the sake of their own righteousness they can terrorize or carpet bomb others into submission.
In both gross and subtle ways we are forever transposing places with God: attempting to make God the servant of our wills rather than the other way around. I had a teacher many years ago who used to refer to those he called “the dead certain.” Certitude is not ours to have in this life. We must always work and serve others out of a disposition of profound humility and uncertainty. We must always attempt to do the best we can, without assurance that we are right. To claim a certainty that is not humanly possible is to have died to our own life as spirit and to our openness to the mystery of God.
To give up our claim to be “god-like” is to develop a much lighter grasp on our lives and our work. We are no longer as fearful of making mistakes, because we realize that we are always, to some degree or other, mistaken. Yet, we attempt to serve others and the world from a position of “first doing no harm.” We may not know exactly where things are headed, but we can continue to follow “the way,” trusting that God is on everyone’s side. This does not mean that God ratifies what each and all of us do. Rather, it is that God wills the good for each and all of us. Pope Francis reminds us that the way to live this truth is in participating in and expressing the mercy of God. Everything we do is fallible and partial, but by the mercy of God, if we practice humility and good will, God’s will can be done in and through us.
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address