“Beyond the Agag Cycle”
I Samuel 15:1-35
A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Douglas M. Donley
September 11, 2016
University Baptist Church
When I was on Sabbatical, we visited New York City. The kids had never been there, and I wanted to show them my old Seminary stompin’ grounds. We took in a couple of shows and saw just some of the sights. The first day we were there, we rode the Staten Island Ferry right by Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. On the way back, we looked at Manhattan. The last time Kim and I had been on that Ferry, the Twin Towers were there. We showed the kids where they were and what had replaced them. We then walked up to the site from the Ferry, guided not by street names but the new freedom tower looming in the distance—a beacon.
Downhill from Wall Street and Trinity Church, we saw the large plaza and the two deep chasms where the towers once stood. Approaching, we gazed into the fountains several stories below us and pondered. We looked at the names etched in the stone and metal foundation. We took in the silence, the solemnity, the sadness. I remembered the view from the top of those towers, the pride, the triumph, the wonder. Now the place is sanctified by tears, enough to fill an ever-flowing fountain. And it is holy ground. The crowd around the plaza was New York international. The way it should be. And I remembered the hate that brought us to the day.
We visited with an old friend, the organist of our church in Cleveland. He was a few blocks away from the towers and watched the first plane hit. He still gets choked up as he retells the story for the thousandth time. This morning he is directing the Duruflé Requiem at St. Bartholomew’s church in Manhattan, joined by survivors and firefighters. 9/11 is always in the back of the mind of any New Yorker, even if you were there just as a student for a few years, or like Kathleen and David Tice, you lived in the shadow of the towers. You breathe the sadness, the rage and the meaning. But because New York is a part of you, you know that you can’t just sit still. You need to do something. You need to move. You need to cling to a hope. You need to embrace the unknown and not cower in a corner. That’s how you survive. You learn how to move forward.
And so when you hear a story like the one we have in today’s scripture reading, you find a way to move beyond its narrow implications and you find a way to imagine a better world. There is a reason this scripture never comes up in the tidy three-year lectionary cycle. But like the events on 9/11 it’s part of our past that we can choose to ignore, it being a piece of our subconscious, or we can name it and move beyond it.
This scripture is what Phyllis Trible would call a text of terror. It’s a text of terror because of its blood lust. It’s a text of terror because it shows a God and a people who are bent upon genocide. In fact, according to the text, Saul looses his favor in the sight of God because he refused to bend his will to the blood lust of God.
This is hard for us to get our minds around if we believe that scripture is a rule-book that recounts only the positive aspects of God or of God’s people. We have trouble with this terrible and terrifying depiction of God as a bloodthirsty warrior. But, if we view the Bible as a document inspired by God, revised and edited to serve those in power, then we see something very different. If we view the Bible as a mirror through which people seek God, we can possibly see how this passage serves people who needed to believe in a bloodthirsty and vengeful God.
We need to remember that this scripture was written and codified by the people who were loyal to David. David was Saul’s successor and his nemesis. After this passage, the great king Saul fades as David rises in the sight of God and in the sight of the people. “Saul has killed his thousands, but David has killed his ten thousands,” say the people in I Samuel 18.
Today’s scripture is about vengeance. “Vengeance is mine,” says the God of I Samuel, “and that vengeance is carried out by those who believe in me.” Taking our queue from this scripture and others like it, we are drawn to vengeance. We can find scriptures that show no mercy toward our enemies and that’s how we live most of our lives. As a society, we like to get even. And we erroneously call that justice.
No one even tries to call prison “reform school” anymore. Budgets for counseling, life skills and recreation have been cut because we think that we should not placate offenders. Is it any wonder people leave prison more violent, cynical and sneaky than they were when they entered?
I think we are stuck as a society in what I will call the Agag cycle.
The Agag cycle is a cycle of revenge, violence and blind patriotism. Revenge, violence and blind patriotism feed each other. It takes the miraculous work of God and the dedicated work of God’s people to break the cycle.
Agag, you remember was the Amalekite King who was spared by Saul. We last encountered the Amalekites back in the book of Exodus. They fought against the Hebrew people as they passed through their land in the Negeb desert on their way to the Promised Land. Not unlike an unwanted pipeline, they declared their sovereignty and defended their homeland against foreign invaders. After King Amalek and his people were slaughtered by Joshua, Exodus 17 says that Moses and company built an altar and wrote on it, “YHWH will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” The chickens come home to roost in today’s scripture.
The vengeful God recorded in I Samuel 15 wanted all of the Amalekite people killed, including the present King, Agag. It was to fulfill the promise made in the desert. It was to continue an age-old battle. Like the Hatfields and the McCoys, it was no longer important why they were enemies, the important thing was to win the battle and slaughter the enemy. Besides, it’s written right there on the altar, “YHWH will have war with Amelek from generation to generation.”
Biblically, the name Agag (the spared Amalekite king) became synonymous with evil. Haman, the most hated person in all of the Bible and chief nemesis of Queen Esther, was called an Agagite. If you want to really insult someone, call them an Agagite. Agagites are evil people who don't deserve to live. As horrible as that sounds, we still have people who want to get rid of all of the Agags of the world.
Most people will agree that Adolph Hitler was and Agagite. Even Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed his killing was justified to end the war.
We killed the Agags Sadaam Hussein, Mohamar Qadaffi, Osama Bin Laden, but it did not break the Agag cycle. Now there is ISIS and we can’t even find a clear Agagite to be their leader, therefore all leaders are Agagites for letting it get to this point. Depending on who you listen to in the campaign, Clinton, Bush, Obama, they are all Agagites. And as one candidate said, we need to carpet bomb Syria to get rid of the Agagites. But wouldn’t that make us Agagites in the eyes of the world?
The problem with killing an Agagite is deciding who is one and who isn’t. One’s Agagiteness is in the eyes of the enemy.
Martin Luther King was seen as an Agagite by the white power establishment.
So was Malcolm X by the white and the black establishments.
So was Salvador Allende by the State department and the wealthy landowners of Chile.
So were Sacco and Vanzetti by the anti-union and anti-immigrant masses stirred up by Judge Webster Thayer.
So were the Maryknoll nuns, the Jesuit Priests and Oscar Romero in El Salvador.
So was Augusto Sandino and Carlos Fonseca in Nicaragua.
So was Stephen Biko in South Africa.
So are all of the people on death row in this country.
You see, we are stuck in this cycle, as Holly Near remind us a generation ago, of killing people who are killing people to show that killing people is wrong. We are stuck in the Agag cycle. The illogic says, if we can just kill all of the bad people, then everything will be all right.
God’s command to kill everyone and everything is truly barbaric. We can look at this and say, well, we have moved beyond that kind of barbarism, haven’t we? All one needs to do is look at the towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to know that we are still in the Agag cycle. North Korea just tested a nuclear device and several countries have stockpiles of these weapons. Do we feel safer? We’re still in the Agag cycle. All one needs to do is look at the drones continuing a war that will kill civilians in Iraq or Syria or the mortar shells going to and from the Gaza strip or the West Bank. All we need to do is to look at the fact that in retaliation for the killing of 3000 innocents on September 11th, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria have killed hundreds of thousands with no clear end in sight. There is no clear definition of who is an Agagite. All we know is that we are stuck in the cycle.
We have even gone so far as to call our opponents in this country the modern equivalent of Agagites. The candidates seem to depict the other as the Agagite. One is crooked and the other is a bully and a liar. It seems we’re not so much voting for a candidate, but voting against a candidate. The venom of the election seems to try to win by saying that the other is a bigger Agagite than I am.
And we still use 9/11 to feed this demonization on both sides. And we are left ignorant and more in danger than ever before.
You know what happens when we stay stuck in the Agag cycle, don’t you? All we need to do is declare someone an Agagite and we then feel justified to carry on our little holy war against him or her. We can call the Agagite the president, the Speaker of the House, the immigrants, Al Qaida, ISIS, all of the Arabs while we’re at it and we can justify any kind of injustice done against them. And even though we may not kill them, we are still stuck in the Agag cycle.
Unless we make a conscious decision to break ourselves free from the cycle.
Maybe we need to take up the action of none other than King Saul himself. Saul led his army to the slaughter of the Amalekite people. But in direct defiance of the order of a vengeful god, he stopped at the killing of good animals and the killing of Agag. In a holy war, all of the spoil is to be devoted to YHWH as a sacrifice. That could explain the saving of the animals. But the saving of King Agag was a different matter all together.
Maybe it just got too much for him. Saul was a charismatic leader and as such was subject to much criticism. David and all of the other Kings to follow him were selected because of their ancestry. But not Saul. Maybe Saul saw a bit of himself in King Agag. And when he was face to face with King Agag, it was like looking in a mirror. He put down his weapons, knowing he was defying the vengeful feelings of his people. In an act of courage, he stood up to the mindset that we need to wipe out everyone in order to make us feel better, all of the revenge had made him feel none the more centered or even holy. He risked is very crown. There with the blood still dripping from his sword, he stopped. He stopped.
It did not stop Agag’s brutal murder by none other than the prophet Samuel, but it did cause the action to stop. It caused people to have to think about whom they would follow, Saul, or Samuel and later David.
There comes a fork in our roads, too. There comes a time when we can and do make decisions which will affect our relationship to the world and to our fellow human beings.
We are products of three millennia of an Agag cycle. But we are also followers of one who had the opportunity and the right to call for vengeance and every time chose to stand up against it.
Jesus said in his sermon on the mount, “You have heard it said, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, but I say to you do not resist evil. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, turn to him the other...You have heard it say “You shall love your friends and hate your enemies.” But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
You remember what happens if we keep requiring an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? We end up with a whole lot of blind people without any teeth.
So look at yourself this week. Try to count the times you find yourself in the Agag cycle. Call the feelings you are having about that to consciousness. Once you have done so, try to find a different way out of the situation. Reach out to someone and get some support. But don’t let yourself get caught in the Agag cycle. For that way is the way that leads to death.
Breaking the Agag cycle sets people free. It sets us free. And where there is freedom, we can dream of a new day and we can see it through.
Cancer has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s a plague that invades our bodies. Figuratively, its tentacles can spread, infecting whole nations. Vengeance is like a cancer.
In the worst or our struggle to remain at the table in our denomination, our opponents stood up in meetings and said people who believed like us were cancers. And the best way to deal with cancer is to cut it out, lest it spread and kill the body. I would argue that we were more like the white blood cells that were fighting the disease of intolerance. Our opponents saw us as Agagites. And we were at an impass. It’s easy at this point to see our opponents as Agagites for calling us Agagites, instead of misinformed people who were hurting and broken.
Someone asked Kim how she was doing with her cancer diagnosis a couple of weeks ago. She thought for a moment and said, “You know, this cancer did not come about because of a foreign body that has invaded me. It developed in me, from me. It’s a part of me. While I’d wish it weren’t a part of me, it has something to teach me because it came from me. So I’m going to let it teach me something and then I’m going to do my best to get rid of it.” I want to be Kim when I grow up.
Cancer is our little personal Agagite. It’s an unwelcome guest in our lives. And unchecked it can kill. We can choose to give it the power to break our spirit, or we can learn what it has to teach us and use the time we have to make the most out of our encounters.
When we see a cure out there, we do our very best to spread the news about it, to give treatment the best chances of working. We don’t say, well since I got cancer, then you need to get it too. That’s the way vengeance works. Cancer is our teacher, not our enemy, given that it grew from within us. And we will use the best medicine we can. Part of that is the scalpels and the chemotherapy and radiation. But a bigger part of it is our attitude. It’s surrounding us with positive energy. It’s remembering what gifts we have in the people here. It’s finding time for laughter and joy amidst the struggle. It’s about being real and making the most of our time. It’s about not wasting our time and energy on vengeance. That only feeds the disease. It’s about surrounding ourselves with much better medicine. We feel it in your prayers, in our singing, in our confidence, in your love.
And so, on this September 11th, our world has changed. We still live in a world where fear is tantamount. We live in a world where terror is real. But we also live in a world where there is hope. There are people who will come to the aid of perfect strangers and offer them hope and help. There are people like those in this church who will pray for our own blindness and that we will see with new eyes. There are people who are lead by compassion. There are people who inspired by God to make places of hope and peace. There are people who will not be defined by narrow jingoisms and prejudgments. There are people who are good and just and merciful and true. There are people who have moved beyond the Agag cycle. Those are the people from whom I want to learn.
The cross which adorns the table in front of us is a symbol of vengeance. But Jesus transformed this symbol into a symbol of mercy and we have this empty cross on our altar table to signify our commitment to join Jesus in transforming this world and our altars from vengeance to mercy.
This is the cycle-breaking altar.
The altar of peace and justice.
The altar of truth.
The altar of mercy.
The altar of healing.
The altar to a loving God of all not a vengeful God of one nation.
May we transform ourselves to be people who are consumed by justice and peace and mercy, even if it means going against the accepted ways of our world. For mercy is God’s dream for us. And mercy is our gift to the world. May we continue to move beyond the Agag cycle to something better and more worthy of the Gospel message of mercy and peace. And may we do so together.