Saturday Sermonizing: David Grieves Saul the Murderous Madman

During World War 2, the United States Military found that it had a problem. It turned out that a lot of their foot soldiers weren’t very good at their jobs. A Brigadier General named S.L.A. Marshall had just surveyed thousands of our troops immediately after they’d seen combat. When asked, less than 20% of them reported that they had actually shot at the enemy, even when the enemy had opened fire on them first.

Marshall’s survey doesn’t speak very strongly of anything that could be called a winning military strategy, but it does say something pretty powerful about humanity’s emotional resistance towards doing violence. I’d have to think that if you’d surveyed foot soldiers before they entered combat, they would’ve expressed very confidently that they were up for the task. And rightfully so, because the stakes were awfully high. The fate of the free world was hanging in the balance as fascist forces marched across Europe. But a lot of them—80% according to Marshall’s findings—couldn’t do it. Despite their deep conviction that their mission was to save the world for the forces of good, they couldn’t get past their emotional resistance to the idea of killing another human. The violence seemed politically necessary and probably even morally virtuous, but they couldn’t do it.

The Hebrew Scriptures tell the story of King David, a man who knew more-than-a-little-bit about military action and violence. You might be more or less familiar with the story, depending on the rigor and prestige of your Sunday school education. I’ll give a few basic plot points: David is supposed to be the 2nd King of Israel, but the 1st King of Israel—Saul—isn’t too happy about that. And when I say not-too-happy, what I really mean to say is that he’s been driven to frequent fits of murderous rage. This one time, David is playing his harp in an attempt to entertain or soothe King Saul, and his performance gets cut short because Saul picks up a spear and hurls it at David. It sounds to me like a really high-stakes version of being boo-ed and swept off the stage at the Apollo. So then later, things get so dangerous for David that he has to flee to the hill country. While he’s out there, he puts together a band of roving bandits to provide himself some protection. Saul has raised an army and he’s doing battle with neighboring tribes while also still trying to find and kill David. This is, essentially, a story about guerilla warfare, and David is the stealthy militia leader resisting Saul’s established military power.

But David ends up being a little bit like the majority of foot-soldiers during World War 2. He has every motive, justification, and opportunity to do violence, but for whatever reason he doesn’t do it. During David’s rise to power, he keeps his hands clean. The biblical authors tell a couple of stories wherein David is able to sneak up on Saul. (An interesting aside is that in one case, Saul has stepped into a cave to, uhm, defecate, and David sneaks up on him while he’s on the john, so to say. Poop humor is surprisingly common in the Hebrew Scriptures.) But so anyway, David has the opportunity to get rid of Saul, but instead of killing him, he cuts off the hem of his robe. The gesture signals, “I could’ve done it, but I didn’t.” So David doesn’t seem to be much of a General. It doesn’t seem like he’s pursuing winning tactics.

But as it turns out, Saul dies before too long anyway. A neighboring tribe—the Amalekites— they corner Saul and he decides to fall on his sword instead of being captured. So at this point we’re up to the part of the story relayed by this morning’s lectionary reading. David gets the news that Saul’s regime has been defeated, which clears the way for him to claim the throne. Then David does something that ought to seem odd. He sings a song of lament for this murderous madman who’s been chasing him around the countryside. He mourns.

Let me try to put this in some type of modern perspective. Do you remember when Osama Bin Laden was killed and then a bunch of super-patriotic flash mobs broke out on college campuses and city streets? Anyone who dared to point out that maybe it’s not so awesome to celebrate death so enthusiastically was named a moralizing wet-blanket. Now imagine if some big wig in the military got on the TV and responded by singing a sad song as a memorial and shedding a few tears. That’s sort of like what David is doing.

“O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle!”

I think what bothers me most about the David story, though, is that the biblical authors pronounce David a righteous king. David was “a man after God’s own heart” the Hebrew Scriptures tell us. Considering some of David’s later exploits, I’ve gotta think to myself, “if that’s a righteous man, then I’d hate to see the wicked ones!” See, when I think about proper behavior for public officials, my list usually doesn’t include committing adultery and then having the woman’s husband killed in an attempt to cover it up, as in the notorious Bathsheba episode. But before all of that, David was a lot more admirable. This song of lament shows us David at his very most fully human. Before the kingship turns David corrupt and cynical, he really is a man after God’s own heart.

Our theologians and biblical commentators offer up a number of different explanations as to why David refuses to do violence against Saul. He might’ve been acting as a practical, shrewd politician, since generally it’s not desirable to rise to the thrown in the midst of bloodshed. Another explanation is that David had respect for Saul’s God-ordained Kingship. That maybe starts to explain why David mourns Saul’s death. Saul has been defeated but so too have the entire people of Israel. Or, maybe he wanted to but just couldn’t do it. There’s no way to know for sure.

Let me suggest another explanation—that God steered David clear of violence because the contempt and hate that compel people to do violence were bad for David’s soul. David, who at this point in the story is presented as a man after God’s own heart, should clue us into something important about the condition of being human. His story and struggles ought to be everyone’s.

You’re probably thinking that David’s story doesn’t have much if anything to do with your story. And you’re probably right. None of you, so far as I know, are heirs to political offices. None of you—I hope—lead a troop of roving bandits on the weekends. But more generally, the everyday happenings of your day-to-day life probably don’t tempt you towards drastic acts of violence. And most of the time we don’t even act out in open shows of hostility. We are polite, if nothing else. Maybe some people are harder to love than others, but at least we don’t tell them how awful they are to their faces.

So it’s true that we’re not that bad. But it’s also true that violence, like most other things, is a matter of degree. Walter Brueggemann—whom the UCC can proudly claim as our own—reminds us that even the polite, mainline Protestants amongst us are still affected by what Freud and Nietzsche called the Tradition of Darkness. “We tend to screen out,” Bruggemann says, “we tend to screen out the savage, ominous power of violence and vengeance, the will to retaliate, the drive to hurt and to get even, and the sad inescapable truth that much of our well-being is conditioned by an invisible but brutal darkness.” The urge to draw our sense of self from contempt for others might boil below the surface, it may be subtle, but it still affects us.

A while ago I saw a bumper sticker that communicated far more than the short slogan it presented. The sticker read “NOT a Republican.” Forget what exactly it is that I stand for, this person seemed to be announcing, just know that I’m not one of those repulsive Republicans. I have to assume, and I think it’s safe for me to assume, that the person who proudly displays that bumper sticker draws a large part of their political identity from the contempt they feel for their opponents. But what’s tragically ironic is that when we have a sense of self that feeds on the evils of enemies, we can only fuel our contempt by nibbling away at the health of our own souls.

Saint Augustine argued that things like envy and contempt try to pierce our neighbor with a sword, but that the blade can’t reach our neighbor without first passing through our own body. Truthfully, the blade often doesn’t reach our neighbor at all. And there’s no way it can reach our neighbor when the neighbor doesn’t actually exist. See, the person who slapped that “NOT a Republican” sticker on their bumper wasn’t directing that contempt at anyone in particular. What they actually despise is some sort of inconceivably evil caricature that only exists in their brain. If you really pay attention, you’ll notice that most political discourse takes on the character of two people standing shoulder-to-shoulder at a shooting range, each firing shots at a cardboard cut out of the other. And once they’ve pulverized that cardboard cut-out, there’s nothing left to do except to make another one—this time, though, it’s gotta be bigger and scarier, because shooting at the old caricature just doesn’t feel quite as good anymore.

What’s important to realize is that seemingly innocent types of “NOT a Republican” contempt are actually just lesser forms of hatred or outright violence. All of these feelings—contempt, hatred, the urge to do violence—all of them are in some sense eliminationist. They are all bolstered by the feeling that the world would be a better place if someone or something simply didn’t exist. Maybe they should just vanish, and maybe someone else should do it, but in any case, feelings of contempt make us feel that if they did cease to exist, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. And when the feeling that someone ought not to exist grows and feeds on itself long enough, people can be driven to see to it themselves.

A lot of people already know this, I think, that it isn’t healthy to harbor and rehearse negative feelings, that hate and contempt will corrupt your inner life and well-being. But if there’s one thing to be said for humanity it’s that we’re almost endlessly clever when it comes to finding ways to feed our vices. Maybe just a little bit of contempt, a few scattered sneers ought to do the trick. Or, what if we could act out some of our aggression and contempt without internalizing it? We’ve thought of that, too. It’s called Catharsis. Just find somewhere to vent the anger instead of letting it build up inside. Squeeze a stress ball, punch a punching bag, whatever. Let off some steam. It’s like how you feel better after throwing up when you’re sick. Get the bad stuff out and you’ll feel better.

Here’s the thing about Catharsis: it doesn’t actually work. A psychologist named Brad Bushman wanted to find out if venting works, so he ran some studies in the 1990’s. What he found is that venting makes people feel really good, and that in the future they’ll be more likely to vent as a way of dealing with their emotions. Venting doesn’t wash away the original feelings, though. If you punch something because you’re angry, you’ll still be angry. The only difference is that the emotional satisfaction of venting will make you more likely to act out the anger in the future.

It’s sort of funny (in a sad way) when our scientists tell us something that we should’ve learned 1,700 years ago from our Saints. Anger and hate can’t be directed outside of ourselves, not through violence, not through Catharsis. Saint Augustine was right—hatred’s sword can’t pierce your neighbor without passing through you first.

The same spirit that gave Saint Augustine his wisdom worked through David when David was at his best. God keeps David’s hands clean of violence because it would have been bad for his soul. And David grieves the death of Saul with a song of lament not because he’s a wet-blanket, over-pious moralizer. David, the man after God’s own heart, grieves because his soul is fully intact. He grieves because grief is the appropriate human response to death.

David’s actions as a man after God’s own heart start to make more sense when we think about the person of Jesus, who is—in the Christian story—a man with God’s own heart. When Jesus told us to love our enemies he was really saying something much bigger and more challenging. He was saying that, in God’s new social order, there are no enemies. Those enemies of yours are unclaimed brothers and sisters with unimaginable worth as God’s children. And the work of God’s people is to be a constant reminder that we all belong one to another. Loving our enemies is a tall order, but it’s usually pretty easy to get started. It might even be as simple as scraping off a bumper sticker.

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