Monthly Archives: February 2010

Fox in the Henhouse

Fox in the Hen House (2008), oil and enamel on canvas, 24 x 30 in.,  by Michele Mikesell

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!” (Luke 13:34)

Whenever I read the story above of Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem, I imagine myself nearby, watching him shake his head and listening to him sigh. Do you do that? It’s helpful to imagine ourselves in the text, but we should be willing to see ourselves as the accused, not merely innocent bystanders. We need to ask ourselves, How am I like the unreflective people in the city down below, who go about their daily lives, unwilling to be drawn to him?

It’s interesting that Jesus describes himself as a hen. A chicken is not a very noble creature. It’s weak and vulnerable, even comical. Just two verses earlier he calls King Herod “that fox.” What prompted this comment was a warning that Herod would try to kill Jesus (31). This Herod was Herod Antipas, the same one who had ordered Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist beheaded. Although Herod refused to pass judgment on Jesus when Pilate gave him the chance, Jesus too was executed. The story would be a tragedy, only Jesus, a trickster of sorts, was adept at inversion. He liked to turn things upside down. He says, “The last shall be first” (30). We use the expression “the fox in the henhouse” to describe a situation where a predator is given free reign with its prey. Jesus ends the passage with a promise that one day the victim will become the victor. The hen will rule the fox house.

In this case, the fox house was Jerusalem, but Jesus could have wept over any city, then or now, because of its unresponsive people. Why Jerusalem? Luke mentions Jerusalem ninety times in his gospel, while there are only forty-nine references in the rest of the New Testament. Some scholars believe Luke’s fascination with Jerusalem and its temple is best explained by the fact that it was written after the Jewish War (66-70 CE) in which Jerusalem was totally destroyed. Predictions about the city’s destruction may then be explained away as cases of vaticinium ex eventu—prophecy after the fact (e.g., possibly Luke 21:20). More likely they simply reflect the author’s desire to highlight those things, which appeared most important in hindsight. The apocryphal book 2 Esdras, which may have been written around the same time, has a parallel verse to the one above in which God says to Israel, “I gathered you together, as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings: but now, what shall I do unto you? I will cast you out from my face”(1:30). The similarities are striking, only in Luke’s version it’s the unruly chicks who refuse protection.

The imagery is powerful. There’s a hungry fox on the loose. A mother hen is concerned for her chicks. Can you see the picture? The hen frantically flaps around the barnyard, trying to corral her errant brood. Why won’t they come? Don’t they see the danger? The fox licks his chops and creeps closer, eyeing the fluffy yellow morsels darting around. Their mother, now desperate to save them but unable to draw them to safety, does the only thing she can do. She offers herself to the fox. It’s what any good mother would do. I wonder, Do the chicks even realize what has been done to save them? Do we?


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Learning from Lent

Three Temptations of Christ, detail, (1481-82), fresco by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Sistine Chapel, Vatican

In Luke 4:1-13 we read that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for forty days of fasting and temptation in much the same way God led the Israelites into the desert for forty years of wanderings. During Lent we lead ourselves into the wilderness of self-denial for forty days. It’s not surprising most Baptists don’t do Lent. I suspect many people in traditions that observe this somber season don’t either. Can you blame them? Who would go into the wilderness unless someone makes them go?

The wilderness is always a scary, uncomfortable place. If you find the desert beautiful and serene, that’s not your wilderness. Your wilderness may be a hospital bed, or an empty house, or a neighborhood bar—wherever pain meets temptation. We would never go there willingly. Something leads us, even compels us to go.

All three Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—tell the story of Jesus’ temptation, though Luke’s passage is much closer to Matthew’s account. All Mark says is,

And straightway the spirit driveth him forth into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days tempted of Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him. (1:12-13)

Details of  the three temptations come from Matthew and Luke. Both start with the temptation to eat bread, but they disagree what comes next and how the story ends. Unlike Matthew, Luke ends with the temptation to test fate and jump off the temple, trusting his life to the angels. Both Matthew and Mark end with the angels ministering to Jesus. Luke ends his passage not with comfort but apprehension: “And when the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from him for a season” (13). Jesus got only a temporary reprieve from the adversary. He would be back. The next time he would use Judas to do his dirty work (22:3).

Don’t ask me whether the devil is a literal being, an amorphous evil presence, or simply a metaphor, a figure of speech. I don’t know. I’ve always thought of the devil and demons as literal beings and reading C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters reinforced that mental image. It works for me. In any case, questions like Is it true? Did it really happen that way? are not as important as What is God trying to say? So, what is God trying to say to us in this passage?

The writer of Hebrews believed the main point is that Jesus is like us (4:15). He was tempted in every way only he didn’t give in, which actually makes him very different. I’m not sure why Jesus would find it tempting to jump off a building. I’m afraid of heights, so it wouldn’t be a temptation for me. You’d have a hard time even getting me near the edge. But isn’t that the point? This was Jesus’ temptation. Not ours. He was being tested. Not us. It might not have been hard for Jesus to say no to what tempts us. Just as we all have our unique wildernesses, we have our own temptations.

The season of Lent encourages us to practice the spiritual discipline of fasting, which builds the virtue of self-control. Setting aside food, or whatever else tempts us, not only promotes self-mastery, it also allows us to see more clearly. Again, the writer of Hebrews: “let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us . . . looking unto Jesus” (12:1-2). We say no to ourselves so we can more easily say yes to God.

I think many people don’t observe Lent because they’re afraid to fail. It’s like New Year’s resolutions. Why try if you know you’re not going to succeed? But I would argue that even failure has its payoff. If we try to live a little more self-controlled, a little closer to God, and fail, it reminds us that we’re weak, sinful creatures. It teaches us that we need God’s strength and forgiveness. If that’s all we learn from Lent, it’s not a bad lesson, now is it?


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The Scapegoat

Die Ziege (1920), woodcut by German artist Richard Seewald (1889-1976)

What if multitudes could live happy and fulfilled lives in a utopian society but only at the expense of the suffering and torture of one unfortunate child? This question is the basis of the 1974 short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin. In this allegorical tale, a child, nearly ten, is kept locked in a basement, shut off from all contact with the outside world, covered with festering sores, sitting in its own feces, oblivious to the beautiful city and happy world outside. The people in Omelas know the child is there. As difficult the truth is to accept, they know that their happiness depends on its misery.

This is usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve, whenever they seem capable of understanding; and most of those who come to see the child are young people, though often enough an adult comes, or comes back, to see the child. No matter how well the matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.

It is a cruel reality that the few in society have to suffer for the good of the many. It’s true in economics. There have to be some losers, some poor people, to allow the best financial situation for the majority. Redistributing wealth to help the poor would stagnate the economy and make most people poorer. At least that’s what we’re told. The same could be said about health care. To maximize the quality of our health care system we have to let some people fall through the cracks. Rationing health care to make it available to all would degrade the overall quality of medicine.

Scapegoats. Every society has them, whether the neglected and abused child at Omelas or the urban poor in America. The idea is ancient—that one must suffer for the good of the many. In the Bible, a goat was chosen by lot and sent into the wilderness to atone for the sins of the Jewish people (Leviticus 16:10).

At the end of Le Guin’s short story, we learn that a few people every year are so overcome by shock and grief at the sight of the poor, tortured child that they simply walk away from Omelas. Nobody knows where they go. They give up utopia to live in the wilderness. They make themselves scapegoats, because they can’t live with the thought that their pleasure comes at the price of someone else’s pain.

We are never totally helpless in the face of injustice. If we cannot stop it, we can always walk away. Or we could become the scapegoat. But who would ever willingly do that?

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

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Dreamy Images

Untitled. 1982

Recently a friend introduced me to the work of photographer Jerry Uelsmann from my home state of Florida. His black-and-white montage images are dreamlike and captivating. Thick, gnarled tree roots grow into a dilapidated house.  Objects fly over reflective lakes—a naked woman or round, dandelion-like trees. Plants grow out of carpets and furniture. There’s a definite connection to the surrealism of Salvador Dali.

Surrealism comes from the prefix “sub”(changed to sur-), as in subconscious, and “realism.” Literally, it means “under realism.” Surrealists are not bound by what they see but are free to create images out of their imaginations. That’s why there is a dreamlike quality.

I’ve rarely seen surreal art hanging in people’s homes. I wonder why that is. Maybe it’s for reasons similar to why we rarely share our dreams. We either forget or we’re a little embarrassed by them. (If I dreamed of a naked woman flying over a pool of water, I probably wouldn’t share that with my family and friends, no matter how memorable.)

I’m no Freudian but I do think dreams can tell us important things about ourselves. And if we believe the Bible, we have to admit that God occasionally speaks through dreams. Pharaoh had a surreal dream about skinny cows gobbling up fat cows and shriveled ears of grain consuming healthy ones. Joseph interpreted it as God’s warning of a coming famine (Gen. 41). Gideon was encouraged when he overheard a man telling a friend his dream: Behold, I dreamed a dream, and, lo, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the host of Midian, and came unto a tent, and smote it that it fell, and overturned it, that the tent lay along (Judges 7:13). The dream was interpreted as a sign of coming victory in battle. In neither case was the dream straightforward. God didn’t appear and say he’s going to send a famine or give victory. What strikes me about both these passages is how God speaks through normal dreams, surreal images like Uelsmann’s photos.

If God can speak to us through dreams, he can speak to us through art. The question is, Are we listening?

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The Four Chaplains

On February 3, 1943 at 12:55 a.m., a German U-Boat torpedoed the SS Dorchester, a crowded U.S. troop ship carrying 902 men. Onboard were four U.S. Army chaplains: two Protestants, one Roman Catholic priest, and one Jewish rabbi.

Panic broke out in the damaged vessel as frightened men trying to make it to safety stumbled over dead bodies and debris. Although they had been told to sleep with their life jackets on, many had taken them off because it was hot below decks and the bulky World War II life jackets were uncomfortable. On deck men ran around in the dark. Some jumped into the freezing North Atlantic water.

The four chaplains broke into a supply locker and began handing out life jackets to the men who had none until finally they ran out. Then, one by one, the chaplains took of their own life vests and gave them to soldiers lining up to get them. “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven,” said one survivor who witnessed the selfless act.

In the 20 minutes before the ship sank, the chaplains worked to calm the frantic men, help them to safety, and minister to the wounded and dying. The four chaplains linked arms and prayed aloud as the ship slipped beneath the icy water. Only 230 men survived. Among the 672 who died were the four chaplains: Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed.

Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:3).


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Learning to Read Again

I’ve taken some time off from posting because of our move, a writing deadline, and the beginning of spring semester.  In addition to teaching history I’m also serving as an instructor for an ethics course called Ethics and Moral Reasoning for the Naval Leader. Last week we discussed constitutional ethics and I was a little dismayed to find out that the vast majority of my students, who all swore an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution, had never even read it. It’s hard for me to be too judgmental. In almost eighteen years as a naval officer I have never had a training session on our nation’s foundational law, even though we have annual training for things as banal as computer security. I have read the Constitution, several times. But the experience with my midshipmen in class reminds me that there may be other important documents that we should know but don’t.

It reminds me of John Kerry’s 1971 debate with John O’Neill on the Dick Cavett Show during the Vietnam War. (I was far too young to watch it or care if I had, but I saw a re-run many years after the fact.)  Kerry was a Vietnam War veteran who came to oppose the war. O’Neill was a Vietnam War vet recruited by the Nixon administration to serve as a counterfoil to Kerry. The high point of the debate came in the following exchange.

Kerry asks O’Neill, “Did you serve in a free fire zone?”

“I certainly did serve in a free fire zone,” O’Neill replies.

Kerry then reads, “Free fire zone, in which we kill anything that moves—man, woman or child. This practice suspends the distinction between combatant and non-combatant and contravenes Geneva Convention Article 3.1.”

O’Neill asks, “Where is that from, John?”

Deadpan, Kerry replies, “Geneva Conventions. You’ve heard about the Geneva Conventions.” Ouch!

Now, I have to admit something. In almost eighteen years as a naval officer, including a combat tour in Iraq, I’ve never read or been asked to read the Geneva Conventions. I’m reading them now. Good stuff.

It’s not that I didn’t know the Geneva Conventions were important or have an idea of what’s in them; it’s just, well, who has the time? It’s like that with many Christians and the Bible. We know it’s an important book. There’s good stuff in there, but who has time to actually read it?

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