Tuesday, 01 March 2011 00:00

"Israel's Messiah?", February 27, 2011

“Israel’s Messiah?”
Ezra 1:1-11, Isaiah 44, 45
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 27, 2011
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

The story of Cyrus:

I’m Cyrus.  King of Persia.  People call me a benevolent despot.  How’s that for a name?  I am ambitious.  I know how the world works.  And here’s my secret:  You can do more by giving a little than taking a lot.  In fact, if you give a little, people will give you more.  That’s the secret of my success.  I studied the histories of empires.  I saw them come and go.  They would conquer some country, kill all of the leaders, loot the treasury, burn the land.  And then, big surprise, eventually the same thing would happen to them.  The people had no loyalty to them.  They feared them and that was it.  Might does not make right.  Might makes fear and it will eventually cause you to implode.  Implode, or be overrun, sometimes by your own people.

So here’s what I did.  If there was a land I wanted, I made friends with the people, let them think that I was on their side.  I offered them stability and financial security.  They all but asked for me to take over.  Take Assyria.  I did.  They were all high and mighty after taking Jerusalem and Israel.  They were gloating over it.  They sent the people in to exile, looted and then burned the temple and then they were left with all of the people in their land to take care of.  Not really very bright.  So, I decided to declare that I worshipped their god, Marduk.  I became a regular Marduk devotee.  As Assyria was falling, the people asked me to take over.  It was a bloodless coup.

Then I took care of the refugee problem.  I told the Hebrew people in exile for 50 years, that they could return to Jerusalem.  I even gave them the spoils that my predecessor Nebachadnezzar had stolen.

The poorest left and were off of our books.  I solved two problems at once.

Guess what, they called me their Messiah, their deliverer.  They even put in their holy books that I was God’s anointed.  Me, a follower of Marduk, a foreign King, the Jewish Messiah.  It’s amazing what some people will believe, especially if they want it bad enough.
Cyrus, the benevolent maybe even an enlightened despot.  Go figure.

The sermon:

I just returned from the quarterly Board meeting of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.  So, I guess I follow in the footsteps of other UBCers who served on that Board including Vicki Wilson, Tai Shigaki and even a former seminarian named Edwin Dahlberg.  The ABC Peace Award is named after him.  Anyway, when we arrived on Thursday evening, we went around the room and spoke about what is on our hearts as peacemakers.  We were asked to circle those places on a world map.  People circled, Nicaragua, Kenya, Egypt, Palestine, Bahrain, India for Bob and Lu’s colleague Dr. San, people circled Wisconsin and Yemen and Libya.  I circled the northern Burma, Thailand and China where our Lisu brothers and sisters came from.  I also circled Ohio where they are having Wisconsin-like demonstrations over collective bargaining and union busting.  My very first arrest for civil disobedience was in the office of then congressman John Kasich way back in 1986.  Along with friends from First Baptist Church of Granville, we were protesting the escalation of the war with Nicaragua.  He was just as patronizing to us then as he is now of the protestors as governor of Ohio.

I think about the state of our world and the amazing mobilization of people on behalf of worker’s rights.  I think about this in light of our call to be peacemakers.  I think about this in light of Cyrus’ bloodless coups.  I wonder what we might learn from all of this as we seek to make sense of our world.  I wonder from where our Messiahs might emerge.


Let me start out by saying a little bit more about Cyrus.

Cyrus was a calculating and ambitious King.  He looked at the world and realized that the people had great power.  He sought to harness that power so that he could get what he wanted.

“By all accounts, even those of his enemies, Cyrus was a model—and to the Greeks, an ideal—king. Though Cyrus built his empire primarily by conquest, local peoples often greeted him as a savior after his impressive victories over their rulers. He is remembered as being even-handed, humane and respectful of indigenous cultures and religions. Modern scholars sometimes credit him as being the founder of multiculturalism and the first to publish a declaration of human rights (in the Cyrus Cylinder, c. 538 BC).”© 1999 Church of the Great God
PO Box 471846, Charlotte, NC  28247-1846
(803) 802-7075

The prophet Isaiah says that Cyrus is called by God to be the shepherd for the Hebrew people.  Shepherd also means king.  He is also called God’s anointed which means Messiah.  What is especially surprising about this is that Cyrus is a foreigner.  Much of the prophetic literature that Christians say points to Jesus as Messiah was first used to refer to Cyrus the first Messiah. You know, many people were called Messiah: Saul, Moses, Jesus, Bar Cochba, Gandhi, Cyrus, Zerubbabel, and the list goes on.

From where might we find modern-day Messiahs?

In one of our sessions over the weekend, a college student member of the Peace Fellowship Board lifted up the writings of Gene Sharp, author of “The Politics of Nonviolent Action”.  It turns out that the Egyptian leaders have studied his work.

Far from a spontaneous movement of people, they implemented his analysis and strategy in their so far triumphant and unfolding struggles.  As we seek to understand the middle east, northern Africa and even Wisconsin and Ohio, it would be good to review a bit of what Gene Sharp pointed out in his work.
(Much of the information below about Sharp’s work comes from a review on the following web site: http://www.fragmentsweb.org/TXT2/p_srevtx.html)

First of all, all hierarchical systems require the cooperation of people at every level—from the lowliest workers to the highest bureaucrats. When enough people withdraw their support for a long enough time, the power of the ruler disintegrates. In The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Sharp stresses that strategic nonviolence is not passive, nor is it a way of avoiding conflict. He sees conflict as necessary and inevitable. Strategic nonviolence is a method of actively engaging in resistance through carefully planned campaigns of disobedience and disruption.

Sharp puts forth two ways of looking at the nature of political power. One is the monolithic model, where people are dependent on their ruler for support. This model assumes the government is "...a 'given,' a strong, independent, durable (if not indestructible), self-reinforcing, and self-perpetuating force." From this point of view, the only means of opposing the power structure is with overwhelmingly destructive force. This model provides the justification for war and violent revolution. The monolithic theory of power is only true when both the rulers and the ruled believe it is. For obvious reasons, this is a conception of power that those with power like to perpetuate.

A more realistic view of political power recognizes that rulers derive their power from those over whom they rule. The cooperation of those around a ruler is absolutely essential if (s)he is to have any power at all. Without at least the passive support of the general population and his/her agents (cabinet members, aids, legislative bodies, police, military officers, etc.) the most powerful dictator in the world becomes just another crackpot with dreams of world domination. The technique of strategic nonviolence is based on this insight.

The question of why people obey is central to understanding the dynamics of political power. Sharp lists seven reasons:

1.    Habit: In his opinion habit is the main reason people do not question the actions their "superiors" expect of them. Habitual obedience is embedded in all cultures. After all, isn't that what culture is—habitual behavior?

2.    Fear of sanctions: It is the fear of sanctions, rather than the sanctions themselves, that is most effective in enforcing obedience.

3.    Moral obligation: This "inner constraining power" is the product of cultural programming and deliberate indoctrination by the state, church and media.

4.    Self interest: The potential for financial gain and enhanced prestige can entice people to obey.

5.    Psychological identification with the ruler: People may feel an emotional tie with the leader or the system, experiencing its victories and defeats as their own. The most common manifestations of this are patriotism and nationalism.

6.    Zones of indifference: People often obey commands without consciously questioning their legitimacy.

7.    Absence of self-confidence: Some people prefer to hand control of their lives over to the ruling class. They may feel inadequate to make their own decisions.

When analyzing human obedience the psychological factor is decisive. Domination and submission are psychological states of mind. Those who argue against the use of nonviolent tactics like demonstrations or petitions, claiming that they are merely symbolic gestures, forget that power is symbolic as well.

Withdrawing support, even symbolically, calls into question the props and illusions that hold Power up. Yet people are often ignorant of the power they hold, and governments conspire to maintain the illusion of their monolithic power, making their subjects feel helpless. People hold power.  This is the lesson.  This is the hope.  This is what we cling to for dear life.

Sharp cites three ways that nonviolent actionists can prevail. The first is conversion. Gandhians and many religious groups insist that converting the opponent to their point of view—winning their hearts and minds—is the only true victory. Accommodation, on the other hand, occurs when the opponent doesn't agree with the resisters, but decides it is too costly to continue the fight. Accommodation is probably the most common path to victory. The third way that success can be achieved is through what Sharp calls nonviolent coercion. This occurs when the opposition is forced to make concessions against its will because its power base has been dissolved. Thus, even when a nonviolent campaign is unable to change its adversary's way of thinking, it can still wield power and influence the course of events.

The feeling of empowerment that evolves within resisting groups during a campaign can bring about increased self-esteem and personal development, whereas the use of violence tends to create callousness and de-humanization. The use of nonviolence also disperses power throughout a society, in contrast to violent struggles that tend to centralize power.

I imagine what is taking hold is exactly what Sharp and dare I say Jesus had in mind.  People are reevaluating where power comes from.  They are reevaluating whether or not they need a central ruler, a messianic figure.  Jesus always resisted attempts to hail him as a Messiah.  Jesus was concerned with the kingdom, the reign, the commonwealth of God.  And He was always pointing in that direction.  He rightly worried that if people pointed to him as the Messiah, then they would forget about the kingdom of God and focus only on him.  The people on the streets are recognizing the power of the network, the tweets, the people united.  It’s unwieldy, uncontrollable and extremely exciting.

But it does need a ruler—or at least a set of assumptions, a narrative to follow if it is to be successful.  And that is where the church comes in.  That’s our moral authority.  But we must be careful with it lest it become the very hubris we abhor.

The truth is, we forget our power.

We forget our ability to make change.

We think we are small and insignificant.  But we are part of a great narrative.

We are a people who in history have been slaves. We have been in exile. We have been in and out of power.  We are ignored as pie-in-the-sky and insignificant and naïve.  We have been counted as out and yet we emerge as hopeful and powerful people when we remember our story.

We have remembered how our story is woven into the history of the people of God.

We have seen how pieces of our story have blinded us or lead us in the wrong directions, like a dropped stitch, like a flayed strand that has sought to unravel us.

And yet, and yet and yet we are here.

We remember the remnant people who hold fast to justice and peace.

We remember the remnant people who remember that our power comes from God and it comes the best when we recognize that God’s people working together in order to benefit and honor each other is what really sustains us as a people.

Where is Israel’s Messiah?  Is it a ruler?  Is it a military warrior?  Or is it someone or a group of people who say that violence is not the answer?  There is a better way.

Let me close with a parable entitled, “The King Who Ruled Nothing” It was published in the October 2005 issue of Global Bits, a newsletter from New Zealand.

Once upon a time there lived a cruel King who ruled with an iron fist. He was the most powerful King in the world, with a powerful army and an abundance of gold. One day the General of his army came to him with some rather bad news.

"Your Lordship," said the General, "my men are tired of war. They are tired of bad food and mud and blood and they wish to come home. We have already conquered half the world and the royal treasury is bursting with gold. The men think enough is enough."

"The men think?" screamed the King. "What do I care what the men think? The men do not rule this kingdom—I do. Hang the men who will not fight."

"I have, your Highness. I've executed hundreds. But they still will not fight anymore. Now the executioners are refusing to hang any more soldiers."

"Then hang the hangmen," ordered the King.

"Me personally? I'm afraid I couldn't do that. They are all close personal friends."

"Then I'll have you hung. Guards! Seize him!" But try as he might, the King could not find anyone willing to arrest the General.

"I'll kill you myself then," screamed the furious King.  Just then a palace guard came in and announced that hundreds of women and children were gathering outside the palace gates and demanding that their men be allowed to come home from the wars.

"Tell them to go home," said the King.

"We have," said the guard. "But they won't leave."

"Have them hung then."

"We don't have enough rope."

"Arrest them."

"We don't have enough dungeon space."

"Then let them stay there until hell freezes over," shrieked the King.

"How will we get supplies into the palace, your Highness?" asked the guard.

"We have plenty of supplies for now. All this disobedience has made me hungry. Where's my lunch?"

"The cook has joined the people outside," said the guard.

"Well I still have my gold," said the King. "Have the palace treasurer give a gold coin to everyone who will obey me."

"The palace treasurer has joined the people outside as well," said the guard. "And the rest of the staff is packing their bags."

So the hapless King was forced to cook his own meals, wash his own clothes, dress himself and make his own bed. As time went by, the people surrounding the palace began to go home and resume their lives, and the soldiers straggled home from the wars.

The King was forced to take all his gold and move into a small cottage that didn't require so much upkeep.

But still no one would obey him—not the neighborhood children when he told them to get out of his garden, not even his own dog.

Day after day, the King would sit and count his gold that no one would accept.

Sometimes one of his old subjects would come by and they would enjoy a game of chess, but unlike the old days, they wouldn't let the King win.

Meanwhile, the people in the Kingdom prospered in peace and lived happily ever after.

©February 27, 2011, Minneapolis, MN