I invite you to look briefly with me this morning at four texts. The first two are among our appointed readings for the Second Sunday in Lent: Genesis 22:1-14, the Akedah passage, known in Jewish tradition as "the binding of Isaac," and Mark 8:31-38, the passage in Mark's Gospel known as the First Prediction of the Passion of Jesus, and his second call to discipleship. The other texts are contemporary. One is the publication of the National Defense University known as Shock and Awe, the military doctrine that is the basis of a planned attack by US forces on Iraq next week or shortly thereafter. The other is a letter from a friend of mine who is on his way back from Iraq carrying a treasure of incalculable value. The title of this sermon, then, is "Shock and Awe," and unlike the theoreticians of the Defense Department, the things that induce awe in me are not the same as what shocks me.
The Genesis reading, known as the Akedah from the Hebrew verb in verse 9 meaning "to bind," is the climactic event in Abraham's life. The patriarch's spiritual journey began in Haran when he responded in faith to God's call to "go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to a land that I will show you" (Gen. 12:1). He and his wife Sarai came into Canaan and lived among the Canaanites; they went down to Egypt; they encountered bandits and raiders and God's judgment on their neighbors in Sodom and Gomorrah. They got old and had no child to inherit the wealth God had promised them. Abraham had a son Ishmael by his Egyptian slave girl Hagar but Sarai made him send them away. Finally, in their old age, Sarah gave birth to Isaac. And when Isaac was a young man, God tested Abraham and asked him to offer his son as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah.
Abraham obeys God's terrible command, and goes with his son to the place God directs them, prepared to kill Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice. Jews and Christians have struggled with this passage for centuries. How can God make such a demand? How can Abraham even think of doing such a thing as murdering his son? The emphasis of the story is on the "testing" of Abraham, not the slaughter of Isaac, which is avoided at the last minute by the miraculous provision of a ram caught in a thicket on the mountain. The rabbis emphasize the testing of Abraham's faith. A medieval Jewish philosopher taught that God knew how Abraham would respond and wanted the patriarch to discover for himself the depths of his faith. Persecuted Jews in a later period saw themselves as re-enacting the drama of the Binding of Isaac, without the redemptive ending.
Another reading is that Israel is God's son, and God teaches his people of his love for them in this terrible story. Christians have carried on this interpretation, by seeing in the sacrificial death of Christ, the Son of God, as God's making the sacrifice that he finally does not ask of Abraham. However you read it, this is a story filled with terror! The reader is shocked by the story, and we sit in silence before its implications for us. This is a "test" we hope we will not have to take.
The story in Mark's Gospel follows the passage we know as "Peter's Confession of Jesus as the Christ at Caesarea Philippi." Remember - Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" They answer, "John the Baptist; and others say Elijah; and others one of the prophets" (Mark 8:28). Then he asked, "But who do you say that I am?" and Peter answered, "You are the Christ" (8:29). Now Peter is very proud of himself for getting the answer right. He thinks he has passed the test. And most of us think he has passed the test, too. For Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Messiah, isn't he?
Jesus does not say a word to Peter after he gives "the right answer." Mark says only that "he charged them to tell no one about him" (8:30). Then Mark continues with the passage that we heard today: "And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly" (8:31-32a). This is not Peter's answer, and not what Peter wants to hear. It's not what we want to hear either! Who is being tested here?
You know the rest of the story. Peter rebukes Jesus for telling disciples the truth about the fate that awaits him in Jerusalem. Jesus damns Peter by saying "Get behind me, Satan!" Peter's idea of the Messiah as a triumphant king defeating the Roman legions and putting the Jewish clergy and leadership elite to the sword is not what God has in mind for his Son, Jesus, and not what Jesus has in mind for his disciples. We all flunk the test. And as if to rub his disciples' noses in it, he calls the crowd and tells them the same thing: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34). It gets worse: "Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels" (8:8). We are not "shocked" by this text, but we are awed by its simplicity, its humility, its glory, and the impossible demand it places upon us.
The third text, a contemporary one, has a title you've all no doubt heard in recent weeks: Shock and Awe. Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance is a book written by Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade, and published as long ago as 1996 by the National Defense University Press. It is a book of "military doctrine." It describes the plans our government and military leadership has for the war that is about to be unleashed on the people of Iraq. Here are two paragraphs from the text, and they are guaranteed to shock you.
The first example [of the shock and awe strategy] is "Overwhelming Force," the doctrine and concept shaping today's American force structure. The aims of this doctrine are to apply massive or overwhelming force as quickly as possible on an adversary in order to disarm, incapacitate, or render the enemy militarily impotent with as few casualties and losses to ourselves and to non-combatants as possible. The superiority of American forces, technically and operationally, is crucial to successful application. . . .
The second example is "Hiroshima and Nagasaki," . . . . The intent here is to impose a regime of Shock and Awe through delivery of instant, nearly incomprehensible levels of massive destruction directed at influencing society writ large, meaning the leadership and public, rather than targeting directly against military or strategic objectives even with relatively few numbers or systems. The employment of this capability against society and its values, called "counter value" in the nuclear deterrent jargon, is massively destructive strikes directly at the public will of the adversary to resist and, ideally or theoretically, would instantly or quickly incapacitate that will over the space of a few hours or days.
I have to confess that this document, while it distresses me, does not shock or surprise me. It certainly is intended to shock the people of Iraq. But does it induce awe? Awe is what people feel in the face of divine power that we can acknowledge and worship. I do not think the people of Iraq will feel worshipful when 3,000 missiles and bombs are dropped on Baghdad over a 48-hour period. But they will be shocked. Many will be dead.
Here is the text that awes me. Here is a text that, like Jesus' prediction of his suffering and death, his acceptance of suffering to save an uncomprehending and ungrateful human race rather than allow the infliction of the punishment on those who deserve it for their sins - namely us! - brings me to my knees in awe. This a letter written three days ago from Iraq by my friend Chris Allen-Doucot, one of the founders of St. Martin de Porres House, the Catholic Worker community in North Hartford. Listen to his words, and see what you think.
I came to Iraq three weeks ago to escort my friend Iqbal Fartous and her 7-year old son, Mustafa, out of the country for medical treatment they both need. Really, though, the need for medical treatment, though genuine indeed, is a pretext. I have come to Iraq because I don't want my friends to die from warfare.
Iqbal is a grade-school teacher. She lives in a poor neighborhood in the southern Iraqi city of Basra with her husband and four surviving children. Iqbal once lived a good life by most measures. Before the first Persian Gulf War, she was free from poverty - her home was filled with furniture from Italy. Now her home is filled with 24 members of her extended family. The only furniture remaining are 2-inch foam mats that serve as couch, chair and bed.
Her husband was drafted into the Iraqi army to fight in the first Gulf War. He returned home a psychological casualty. The sanctions imposed on Iraq plunged Iqbal and her family into poverty. . . . Food became scarce.
In 1994, she gave birth to her son Hyder and in 1995 to Mustafa. Shortly after Mustafa's birth, the U. N. "oil for food" program began. Every person in Iraq began receiving monthly rations of cooking oil, tea, sugar and beans. The rations have helped relieve some of the suffering, although sanctions still prevent adequate repairs to the water and sewage treatment facilities damaged or destroyed by American bombings in 1991, causing outbreaks of typhoid, cholera and hepatitis.
On January 25, 1999, Iqbal's neighborhood shook as an American missile flew past her window and exploded down the street. Hyder was killed. Mustafa was seriously wounded by shrapnel. Iqbal ran with Mustafa's limp body to a hospital. After nearly a week of unconsciousness, he opened his eyes and cried for his mother. He was missing half of his right hand, and chunks of shrapnel were in his body. Four years later, they remain there.
The missile that killed Hyder was a so-called smart bomb, supposedly accurate to within 10 meters of its target. The Pentagon claims an anti-aircraft battery was the intended target; yet this destruction landed in the middle of Iqbal's neighborhood.
I met Iqbal in July 1999. She was weeping in the hallway of a local maternity hospital; earlier in the day she had a miscarriage. Malnutrition and anemia among Iraqi women have elevated the incidence of miscarriages. Indeed, last month Iqbal suffered a second miscarriage.
Time is running out for Iqbal. The embassies in Baghdad are quickly emptying, and most U. N. personnel have quietly left. President Bush has set March 17 as the date for bombing to commence . . . . Bush promises to "shock and awe" the people of Iraq by releasing a torrent of munitions unparalleled in history in a mere 48 hours. People around the world may be shocked and awed; people here in Iraq will be dead. . . .
How can I leave? Iqbal is my sister. If the shoe were on the other foot, I have no doubts that she would stay behind for my wife and child.
The deaths of Iraqis in this coming war will not be the sole responsibility of Saddam Hussein or George W. Bush. No. The destruction of the people in Iraq will be carried out by those people who stood silently by. I alone cannot stop this train; I just hope to pull Iqbal and Mustafa off the tracks and still make it out alive.
There you have it. Four texts. Two ancient and two contemporary. Which ones shock you? Which ones induce awe? bring you to your knees before the presence of God? Who is being tested here? Who will pass the test? Where is God in these stories? Where is Jesus? Where am I? And where are you?