Feeling Kim Il-Sung

Among the things I have been futzing around with — I futz around well — of late have been skimming the Anecdotes of Kim Il Sung’s Life, published by the Foreign Languages Publishing House of, I’m guessing, the Workers Party of Korea, in Pyongyang. They are, thankfully, available as free PDF files here in the archive maintained by Marxists.org.

I read these things so you don’t have to. Think of it as a service.

The anecdotes — there are two volumes, volume one published in English in 2007 and and volume two in 2013 — read like a lot of ancient literature (think the Analects of Confucius, though longer, or the Sayings of the Desert Fathers or the huge corpus of Islam’s hadith literature), short little stories designed to communicate an essential point about Kim Il Sung. And that kind of shocked of me. They read more like fables or fairy tales than they do ideological indoctrination, but that’s an important part of their power.

Because the idea that is designed to come across is not the superiority of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a state, or even Juche as a social system, but of Kim Il Sung as a man who cares, knows, understands, and is never wrong.

More importantly, these little stories teach the right emotional response to acts of Kim Il Sung’s caring — he we are to feel. Two examples will suffice as examples:

Rice Sent to the Divisional Hospital

One day in early 1951, Kim Il Sung’s uncle Kim Hyong Rok had a chance to go to the Supreme Headquarters and share a meal with his nephew Kim Il Sung after a long period of separation. Kim Hyong Rok was surprised to see the table spread with cooked millet without a grain of rice, dried cabbage soup and a small bowl of kimchi.

Although he was well aware of his nephew’s frugal way of life, he was still worried as to what would become of the country if the latter’s overwork day and night were to impair his health.

So he expressed his concern about his nephew’s health.

Kim Il Sung said with a smile; “Now that all the people are fighting against the Yankees, tightening their belts, I alone cannot live on white rice, can I? I feel at ease and have a good appetite when I live like the people.” [Bold in original]

Kim Hyong Rok thought it useless to insist. On returning home, he pounded in a mortar a small amount of rice he had kept and picked up grains of unhulled rice one by one. He sent the rice to the Supreme Headquarters with a note requesting that it be served to Kim Il Sung.

Kim Il Sung, however, sent the rice to the divisional hospital located near the Supreme Headquarters.

Informed later of the fact, Kim Hyong Rok said to himself, his eyes brimming with tears: “He would not have done anything else, would he? Even though I knew it…” (Anecdotes, Vol. 1, p.15)

And this:

The Leader and a Bare-Footed Boy

One summer day in 1955, some children of Changsong County met Kim Il Sung on their way home from school and gave him the Children’s Union salute. One of them had no shoes on.

The boy coloured with shame and tried to step back when Kim Il Sung looked anxiously down at his bare dusty feet. But the leader laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“Whom do you live with?” he asked.

“I live with my grandmother, mother and younger brothers.”

“What about your father?”

The boy hesitated to reply.

“What about your father?”

“He fell in battle during the war.”

The leader said no more, but hugged the boy. With a worried look, he said to his entourage: “Look here. I haven’t even given him a pair of shoes, but he has greeted me.”

A while later he asked in detail where and how the boy was living. Parting with the children, he promised that he would drop in at their houses some time later.
The boy ran along to his house to inform his family of the good news. When he was half way, he heard a car’s horn hooting behind, and the leader’s car pulled up beside him.

“Get in,” said the leader.

The boy hesitated, looking down at his bare feet.

The leader said, “It hurts to walk on the stony road, doesn’t it? If your feet become sore, you will be in trouble, unable to go to school.”

The boy turned his head away, tears welling up in his eyes. When they reached the house, the leader greeted with the boy’s grandmother and mother. Then he told his aide to take the three brothers and buy them shoes.

It was a long time before they returned with new shoes on. The leader, still standing in the yard, did not feel relieved until he felt the toes and heels of the shoes. The boy was so choked that he could barely stammer out, “Thank you for buying me shoes. I will study hard.” Then he buried his face in the bosom of the leader. (Anecdotes, Vol. 1, p.21-22)

The stories here describe, and designed to provoke, an emotional response. In both, Kim Il Sung demonstrates his virtues to third parties, his uncle and an unnamed shoeless, fatherless boy. In one, Kim Il Sung shares the wartime deprivation of the people, sending his rice to a hospital likely to help wounded soldiers gain the strength to recover. In the other, he stops his car to greet the boy and ends up providing him and his brothers with shoes.

The uncle has “eyes brimming with tears” and the boy is “so choked” he could barely speak. Both are grateful for the leader’s generosity, for Kim Il Sung’s provision, and respond with an intense and overwhelming gratitude and love. Kim Il Sung, who sacrifices himself for the wellbeing of the nation and makes sure all DPRK citizens are provided for. His uncle is grateful to the points of tears, and so is the boy. And so must all who live under such beneficence.

That ends up being the most important point of media in a society where truth or facts no longer exist. Media in such situations exists largely to communicate correct emotional responses and to prompt those responses. And it seems, increasingly, American media is no longer interested in shared truth or affirmed facts, but rather narratives that suggest and provoke emotional responses. No doubt there is plenty of anger and resentment as part of DPRK/WPK propaganda, but that’s not part of these Kim Il Sung stories. These are designed to make the hearer happy, grateful, and feel deeply unworthy of living under such a kind, generous, thoughtful, and self-sacrificing leader.

You could do exegesis on these stories — I have done a little, and I find them fascinating — but that would be unwelcome, since these stories are designed not for scholarly study1, but basic inculcation of values, virtues, and even habits.

Because my guess is that North Koreans who learn these stories talk less about what they might mean than how these stories make them feel. Or are supposed to make them feel.

I doubt our media will evolve to the point where we’re telling stories of the eternally virtuous Donald J. Trump, who made a little boy cry tears of joy and promise to study hard because he gave him shoes, but we are slowly and sloppily slouching that direction. Our political opponents have no virtues, we possess no vices, and we don’t even live in the same world of facts and data anymore. We have facts, they have lies. We have real news, they have fake news. All that’s left in this is the appeal to emotion. To right feelings and proper responses.

This is religious, though of a particularly shallow kind, that doesn’t allow the mind to engage the story critically — even if the story is believed. Because we can no longer really ask questions of the stories we believe. Only our enemies doubt or disbelieve. We can only feel, and then only the right feelings.

All there is here is sentiment. And sentiment … is a harsh and merciless master.

It’s one more sign, for me, that dictatorship of some kind — and one that will insist on barring and banning all competing stories — is coming. A free and democratic society has to be held together by something, and because ours no longer is held together by very much (not even a shared concept of citizenship), someone will at some point decide competing stories and competing meaning and competing facts and competing emotional responses make it impossible to govern a single people.

At which point, we may all have to promise to study hard, and have eyes brimming with tears when prompted.

  1. Though for a while, I have been considering writing about a distant future where a small community of humans somewhere has turned all of this into a religion. ↩︎

LECTIONARY “Though You Do Not Know Me

Lectionary 29 / Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

A reading from Isaiah …

1 Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
and to loose the belts of kings,
to open doors before him
that gates may not be closed:
2 “I will go before you
and level the exalted places,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3 I will give you the treasures of darkness
and the hoards in secret places,
that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I name you, though you do not know me.
5 I am the Lord, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;
I equip you, though you do not know me,
6 that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
7 I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the Lord, who does all these things.
(Isaiah 45:1-7 ESV)

I have not written here about any scriptural for a long time. I have not blogged here for a long time. Partly it is because I have had nothing to say. Partly it is because I am in a difficult place, spiritually. Partly it is because I write every day, and am also nearly 50,000 words into a novel. And partly, it is because I am a public person of sorts where I am and am not sure I want to create trouble for my employer.

I don’t seem to be able to create much public trouble for myself. I only get yelled and thrown out by bishops and pastors and committees of church people, but why chance it? (Which is perhaps another reason I have not blogged here much.)

So why today, then, as we creep up on Reformation Sunday? I don’t know. It still feels like a part of me is missing when I can’t do this. When I don’t do this.

I love this passage. I love the confident proclamation of the Lord to a man who likely isn’t even listening. “Thus says the Lord to his anointed” — כֹּה־אָמַר יְהוָה לִמְשִׁיחוֹ֮ li-meshihu to The Messiah. God has chosen this man, Cyrus, the shahanshah of Persia, a king who very likely knows little or nothing of The Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to rule, and to conquer.

I call you by name, the Lord says, and I equip you, the Lord adds, saying twice to this foreign king, “Though you do not know me.” (וְלֹא יְדַעְתָּֽנִי)

God does these things, names and equips Cyrus the King of Persia (much as he named and blessed Jacob), goes before Cyrus letting us know that the work of Cyrus — subduing nations, loosening belts, opening doors and gates, leveling exalted places, breaking down doors of bronze and cutting through bars of iron, and the giving over of treasures and hoards — is God’s work, and the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does this for no one’s sake but ours, his called and named and redeemed people.

Cyrus does not know the Lord, and does not know that when he conquers he does so because the Lord has grasped his hand, leads Cyrus and guides Cyrus.

So that we may be saved.

Does Cyrus need to know who calls him, and whose he is, to do the work he has been given? Does he need to believe to be part of God’s plan? Clearly not here. “Though you do not know me.” Said twice. Probably never said to him. But rather, said to Israel, as it languished in hopeless exile, wondering when salvation would come. The Lord’s anointed is here, in the form of a foreign king, who has put an end to Babylon, and will set us free. Chronicles ends, and Ezra begins, with a proclamation from Cyrus that “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth” and commanding the exiles to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the House of the Lord. Perhaps Cyrus believes, but I doubt it. This is a formula that the leader of great multi-ethnic empire would have given. He pronounces to the people he has conquered in the name of their god(s). Israel’s is just one more god of a people he rules over. His work is likely accidental, at least to him.

But not to us. This accident of history … is our redemption.

So how, then, are we to look upon the political world? The church, especially as it inherited empire and became Christendom, worked out the moral and ethical responsibility of Christians in a Christian polity. The teaching of the church assumes a Christian polity, and can generally conceive of the world no other way. Even liberal/progressive Christians, with their demand that some version of the beatitudes, need a version of Christendom, because they need the moral responsibility that comes with the presumption of rule.

But as Israel’s kingdoms failed, Israel also learned that, while it is called to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:7), Israel is also now something of a free rider politically. Israel as a people is no longer sovereign. They are conquered, and subject to the whim of the Babylonians, then the Persians, and then the Greeks — those who rule them. This loss of sovereignty is also the work of the Lord, who says “I make well-being and create calamity.” This sitting on the banks of the Euphrates singing songs of lament and mourning is also God’s work. While in scripture there are times and places where the people of God order the world according to the commands and teaching of God, there are other times in which we are cast about, leaves on the wind, in which we have no control, and can expect none.

Sometimes we are free riders on the order created and imposed by others, always mindful that order too is God’s. Not always, but when we’re hauled off into exile, it is enough to plant and build and beget, teach our children and all who come, rather than assume the empire must always adhere to our notions of right and wrong, of good order and justice.

The work of redeeming us is God’s, and sometimes God will find the strangest means — a foreign king who barely knows who we are — to fulfill God’s promises.

Because God knows us. And has not forgotten us.

Some Men Leave Nothing Behind

John Schindler, who blogs here and tweets as @20committee, has an interesting series of tweets about Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock:

Since the 1990s, I’ve long believed that target selection can tell us a lot about the attacker. For example, it never made sense to me that the Oklahoma City bombing was done by Muslims because a federal building in Oklahoma City isn’t a target that means anything to Muslims. Now, since then, attacks have gotten a lot less planned and a lot more haphazard — more targets of opportunity and ease, rather than anything meaningful.

But nothing about what happened in Las Vegas makes much sense. The target, an open air country music festival, initially suggests someone for whom country music means something negative. But if the reports are correct that Paddock was looking at concerts (like Lollapalooza), and this was just the one he chose, well, then, the target itself has no meaning. Except that it was easy.

So I agree with Schindler that much about the attack makes no sense. But I believe it may be possible for Paddock to be, in fact, a fairly blank slate. He may have left nothing behind.

My dad was 73 when he died in January, and I don’t think I ever really knew him very well. I thought, in going through his things, I might learn something about him. I found a treasure trove of letters he wrote to his mother when he was stationed in Kwajalein in 1970-71, and thought there might be some insight there.

But there wasn’t. He talks mostly about golfing, bowling, playing basketball, and going diving in the lagoon. He doesn’t talk about work — my dad was good at keeping secrets — except once to describe how beautiful the sight of an ICBM warhead reentering the atmosphere is (Kwajalein is the receiving end of ballistic missile tests launched from California). He doesn’t talk about feelings or thoughts or ideas.

Nor does he really in any of the other papers I found. He had them, and occasionally he parted with them when we spoke. But not often. And he didn’t write anything like that down.

Nor was there anything on his computer except photographs.

My dad is as much a mystery to me in death as he was in life. And maybe that’s who he was. He was what he did. He was a soldier, an officer, a project manager, a math teacher, a basketball coach. Not everyone feels the need to make great pronouncements about themselves to the world.

Granted, my father never planned or organized an act of individual terror (CAVEAT: outside his military service or his time working for General Dynamics, and we don’t generally consider those things terrorism), and so there’s nothing to explain. The only surprise I found in his apartment was a wall covered in baseball caps, a Keurig coffee maker, and a mess left buy a man grown too sick to clean the place where he lived.

It may be Paddock is one of those men, like my dad, who just kept things to himself. Who is largely imponderable and unknowable because he committed nothing to writing, left few traces, and had few public opinions on much of anything. You need such men if you’re going to keep government secrets — I’m a terrible keeper of secrets, and it is just as well I never got or had security clearances for very long. Paddock apparently never kept those secrets, but he was 10 years younger than my father and would have come of age in entirely different world. But my guess is lots of men (and lots of women, too) live such lives, leaving little behind when they go and letting us try and figure out who they are by what they’ve done.

So whatever concerns we have about what we don’t know, it may be we don’t know anything because there’s nothing to know. (Watch me be really wrong about this.)

Pardoning Sheriff Joe

I’ve not blogged much of late. Because I have been busy trying to keep body and soul together, working on a novel (more anon), and frankly, I’m not sure there’s anyone out there paying much attention.

And I’ve not much to add one way or the other on current political discourse. Well, I do, it’s in the novel. It’s a story set some two decades in the future about a group of foster kids who form a small army to get revenge upon the giant company that arranged for and profited from their abuse. Yeah, it’s informed by this ministry I do — because there are real parts to it, I think I’ve done some good, and when “Melina” handed me a wonderful story (wonderful in terms of fiction, and not in terms of the story she told), I decided it really was a shame to waste it.

But I’ve not much to say about Trump and the current condition. I am a pessimist. I believe much worse is coming, and I’ve believed this for a very long time.

When President Trump first hinted, early last week, that he was considering a presidential pardon for former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, I didn’t really have an opinion one way or the other except to remind some folks that pardons — ahem, forgiveness — is for the guilty, and not the merely to unfortunate. They are, to an extent, a fuzzy shadow of divine grace, extended to those unworthy because … that’s what God does.

It has been fun to watch my Twitter feed argue the relative merits of the pardoned, particularly those comparing Arpaio’s pardon to that of Chelsea Manning (which wasn’t a pardon, but a commutation, which too is an act of grace and mercy). And A lot of what I’ve seen about the merits of the two pardons deal with the character of the person pardoned, whether they merit sympathy or empathy, and the consequences of the acts that got them convicted in the first place.

(For anyone unclear, there are those who allege that Manning’s theft of government documents and handing them over to Wikileaks got people killed.)

I’m not here to argue the merits of either act. Just to note how we talk about deserving pardon here. In both instances, the presidential act gets in the way of justice being served (though there was and is a lot less and anguish over Manning’s commutation). I agree that it is likely the use of the pardon in Arpaio’s case is likely a sign of the kinds of perfectly lawful lawlessness that is to come from Trump.

And yet I do stand by the principal of the unlimited pardon, even for a horrific human being just like Joe Arpaio. Yes, there will be times — many of them — when as Christians who wield the sword we will say something like “May God have mercy on your soul, because we cannot.” But at the same time, once we speak of “deserving mercy,” we reach a place where none can be extended to people we believe unworthy. It is hard, as I frequently note of Christendom, to wield the sword with anything resembling authentic Christian love. In fact, I believe it to be utterly impossible. There is no way to love someone in any meaningful way when you are inflicting pain, suffering, or death upon them. Even in the name of justice.

Yes, I understand that in another time, Arpaio would not have been pardoned unless he had first showed himself worthy — that he had repented and been penitent, showed that he had changed his life. (Nor would Manning have been pardoned either.) But we don’t live in that world anymore, and Jesus did not call disciples who had gotten their lives together first. He met Peter and Andrew at their nets, poor, half-naked, and smelling of fish. He met Levi at his traitorous tax booth. And he didn’t wait for Saul to see the light and rethink his life. He was the light that changed Saul’s life whether Saul wanted it changed or not.

We don’t deserve God’s love. And sometimes we don’t deserve the grace we find in the world either. Anymore than we always deserve the evil that comes our way as well.

Moral Therapeutic Deism, 1952 Edition

As you know, I’m a fan of old radio shows. Af late, I’ve been listening to This is Your FBI, which ran on ABC from 1946 to 1953. I’m almost at the end of the run.

This is Your FBI was an anthology show that featured different crimes every week with one constant, Special Agent Jim Taylor (played by actor Stacy Harris). It was produced in cooperation with the FBI, so we get lots of pontificating by J. Edgar Hoover (mostly played by an actor).

And lots of pontificating about the nature of crime, particularly the youth crime wave that allegedly swept the country in the immediate post-WWII years. Crime was a simple matter for the producers of This is Your FBI: bad parenting was responsible for most it. Young people became criminals because they were either spoiled or were neglected. It’s a simple psychology indicative of mid-century thinking that probably drove more than a few parents neurotic.

But for This is Your FBI, “the criminal” is almost an entirely different species or race of human being. In fact, there is much talk about “the criminal,” how he is different, not like “us,” a threat to ordinary individuals and society, and under the right circumstances, can eventually be managed out of existence.

For that is the goal of all this law enforcement — the complete elimination of crime. By catching and locking up criminals, and creating conditions by which none are produced. Like most endeavors to change and make human beings better, it has failed. And it will fail.

What does any of this have to do with religion? This is Your FBI is an unremittingly secular show, like most popular entertainment from the middle of the 20th century. To the extent God and church are involved, it is usually peripherally — a church is robbed, a priest is interviewed about someone’s character.

Except that in one episode, “Man Hunt,” from May 1952, the narrator speaks of the the etiology of “the criminal” in a different way:

Few people become professional criminals for any single reason. Greed may be a dominant cause in many, insecurity in others, and hatred of society in a proportion of the remaining cases. Some students of crime point to another reason seldom mentioned: the decline of religion. Study after study of religious training among criminals prior to their arrest show almost none with interest in or knowledge of any religion. One of the tenants of any form of worship is the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Obviously, no criminal lives by that code. Mainly because, as the figures show, the majority were never taught the basic concepts of any religion. As a citizen, you can do nothing about your neighbor’s interest, or lack of interest, in moral ideals, except by your example. However, if you are a parent interested in preventing your child from becoming a criminal of tomorrow, invest your time, your effort, in helping him learn the truth of religion. It’s the best investment you can possibly make in his future. And in your country’s.

The decline of religion. This is May, 1952, very near the high watermark of American Christendom. Churches in cities, towns, and suburbs were stuffed to the gills, engaged in a building boom, couldn’t lay bricks and cement or design programs fast enough. I’m not entirely sure where, in 1952, religion was supposed to have declined from. The church is influential, listened to, respected. Catholics, Jews, and Mormons have more or less become Protestant co-religionists in an America where the church is reasonable, liberal, and tolerant. Perhaps not as much as some would like, but that change is a just a few years down the road.

There’s the stunning lack of specificity, a reference to a generic religion that wants us only to be good. It is, as I have noted before, a lowest-common-denominator faith, a “truth” that has no specific content (because it can’t without inflaming sectarian disputes; so, pick a truth, any truth) but which, somehow, can inoculate against evil behavior. Note again what’s essentially stated here — a content-free truth can make someone a good person. Indeed, that’s the whole point of religion here. Not transcendent meaning, but becoming and being a good person. And this is 1952, long before the culture wars and the decline in church membership. Faith and truth here are merely utilitarian means to ends, with the end here being good citizenship, not discipleship.

Conversion Stories

Well, today (Saturday, July 8) I did something a little different — I played some of my songs at Moses Lake Seventh Day Adventist Church. It was one of the better welcomes I’ve received. The congregation is fairly large, younger than I’ve seen outside the Catholic parish here, and more diverse than the other Protestant congregations I have visited (though not as reflective of the population as the Catholic parish is).

I met the pastor a couple of weeks ago while doing a story on a free, two-day long dental clinic they were hosting, and we talked a bit. He grilled me theologically, basically wanting to know if I believed in God’s grace. At least he didn’t assume.

We arranged to meet again, I played him and the associate pastor a few of my songs, and they invited me to come play for worship.

I enjoyed it. I will go play anywhere — I’ll come to your church if you’d like! — and the thanks I got has been the best I have ever received. I hope to go back, maybe even regularly, but that is not up to me.

I noticed something interesting, though.

The theology very much reflected the Adventists’ roots in mid-19th century America — individualistic and decision oriented. I am learning to respect this theology, even if I don’t share it, because it represents the experience not only of a lot of American believers, but probably a lot of Christians not just in the last two or three centuries, but probably throughout the history of this people called church.

(And we seemed to come on the Saturday the Adventists celebrate America, so there were patriotic hymns of an earnest, 19th century sort. I get the sense the Adventists, as an offshoot of the Millerites, don’t quite know what to do with America theologically, being a very American church yet also being a minority far out of the cultural mainstream.)

At any rate, something came to me in the midst of worship. And it struck me when the associate pastor said something.

One of the songs I played, “Follow Me,” tends to reflect my theology. Jesus doesn’t ask us softly and tenderly. He comes up to us — at least some of us — and smacks us across the side of the head, strikes us blind, and commands “follow me,” after which we leave everything and follow Jesus. There’s no please, no request, just a demand that we cannot say no to. And we leave everything to follow Jesus.

The Gospels, and Luke’s version of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, seem to reflect this irresistible Jesus. He does not knock gently on the door. He breaks it down, grabs us while we are trying to flee, and drags us kicking and screaming out of the house.

But I also see a lot, in the Gospels, people coming to find Jesus. To see him. Meet him. People who seek him out. The most intense stories are of those Jesus meets and calls. But the other stories … they seem to matter too.

For me, Jesus commands: “Follow me.” But the associate phrased it in a very different way, as a question: “Will you follow me?” Jesus is in charge in that first telling, we are in the second.

Which I think reflects the conversion experiences so many people have. Both the associate and the pastor told me a little of theirs, and they were very reflective of the wider American religious culture, some version of I was out of control until I grabbed hold of Jesus. From everything I have read on his blog, that seems to be Rod Dreher’s experience as well — until I put God at the center of my life, I was out of control, wallowing in sin, captive and unable to free myself, living a pointless and meaningless life.

Disorder to order. That’s what following Jesus does. It creates order and meaning where there was chaos and meaninglessness. It creates a break, a chasm, in a life, between a time of darkness and as time of light. It is a very typical conversion story, and very legitimate.

It has also become the dominant narrative. It is how we understand conversion.

But it is not what happened to me. I do not see myself as having made any real decision to follow Jesus. He just stepped into my life on a particularly terrible day and gave me no choice. There was no saying “no” to Jesus. I was not in charge.

If anything, I’ve had a lot less control over my life since Jesus claimed me than I did before. And meaning … well, that wavers. I have good days and bad ones.

As I said, I am learning to respect the dominant conversion narrative. It reflects a real, lived experience, and there is scriptural support. It may be that many Christians, perhaps most, have found themselves facing a moment when they understood Jesus to ask, “will you follow me?” And they decided to follow. And good for them.

I, however, was never asked. Never given a choice. This too is scriptural. In fact, this is what makes our most compelling encounters with Jesus. That is, in part, what has made all that has happened since that beautiful Tuesday in early September, 2001, so difficult and perplexing — I followed, and all I seem to have gotten for it is grief, rejection, despair, and loneliness. I don’t understand why God’s people are so frightened, so cruel, so tribal, so unwelcoming.

I don’t understand why God would drag me to be with such people.

Still, I got to play music today. For people who thanked me, and said they appreciated it. It felt good, and it has been too long. I hope I can again. Soon.

Clothed in the Spirit

Because I’m working another full-time job, and not involved in the life of a congregation, I can plead that I’m not paying the kind of attention to Scripture — or worship — that I really ought to be. I’m a bit lost in the wilderness, as I have confessed multiple times on this blog.

So, this posting really should have been written several weeks ago for Pentecost.

Not long ago — and I’m not sure when exactly that was — I was reading through the two books of Chronicles, the second and much shorter historical account for Israel’s rise, fall, and redemption from exile. It’s a much more sanitized version of our history (yes, ours), leaves out many of the gory details of Saul’s faithlessness and David’s sin.

But I came across this amazing passage from 1 Chronicles 12 about David’s “Mighty Men”:

16 And some of the men of Benjamin and Judah came to the stronghold to David. 17 David went out to meet them and said to them, “If you have come to me in friendship to help me, my heart will be joined to you; but if to betray me to my adversaries, although there is no wrong in my hands, then may the God of our fathers see and rebuke you.” 18 Then the Spirit clothed Amasai, chief of the thirty, and he said,
“We are yours, O David,
and with you, O son of Jesse!
Peace, peace to you,
and peace to your helpers!
For your God helps you.”
Then David received them and made them officers of his troops. (1 Chronicles 12:16-18, ESV)

“The Spirit clothed Amasai…” וְרוּחַ לָבְשָׁ֗ה אֶת־עֲמָשַׂי This Spirit is the ruh that is the breath of God, and it enfolds Amasai like a garment. He wears לבשׁ lbš the Spirit of God. It covers him.

This doesn’t happen often. In Judges 6:34, the Spirit of the Lord clothes Gideon (וְרוּחַ יְהוָה לָבְשָׁה אֶת־גִּדְעוֹן) as he leads the army of Israel across the Jordan and gathers allies, and later in the Chronicles account (2 Chronicles 20:24), The Spirit of God clothes Zechariah the son of Jehoiada as he calls out the people’s idolatry following his father’s death (וְרוּחַ אֱלהִ֗ים לָֽבְשָׁה אֶת־זְכַרְיָה בֶּן־יְהוֹיָדָע הַכֹּהֵן). These are passages when a leader is clothed in the Spirit to gather followers or preach the clear truth to the people of God.

But this passage from 1 Chronicles is different. David is approached by some men from Benjamin and Judah — with whom David is at war because Saul is still king — who have come for reasons the Chronicler doesn’t say. Only David calls for God to rebuke them if they have come for ill. That’s when the Spirit clothes Amasai, and he proclaims his allegiance to David.

This is a political confession Amasai makes on behalf of his thirty men. He, and his cohort, give themselves over to David, and proclaim peace upon David and all those who help him, for God helps David. They will fight, will command men to fight, for David.

Like the Gibeonites, they see which side God is on and they switch sides.

Others from Israel slowly defect to David. But only Amasai and his thirty make a Spirit-clothed allegiance and confession. They are David’s because David is God’s.

What has this to do with Pentecost? Everything.

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:44-49 ESV)

“But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” ὑμεῖς δὲ καθίσατε ἐν τῇ πόλει ἕως οὗ ἐνδύσησθε ἐξ ὕψους δύναμιν. Acts itself uses “tongues of fire” and filling to describe the action of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, an outpouring like water, and not clothing wrapping and covering. But the risen Christ himself in Luke speaks of “putting on” power from high. A garment that enfolds us so that we can make a confession, proclaim an allegiance to Christ.

One of the things I learned early on as Muslim is that the shahada, the basic confession of faith — لا إله إلى الله محمد رسول الله there is absolutely no god but God and Muhammad [the praised one] is the messenger of God — is also a fundamentally political confession. To speak these words changed how the believer related to clan, caste, village, nation, and reoriented everything toward God and His Prophet.

Clearly this confession that Amasai and his fellow soldiers make is also a political confession. By being clothed in the spirit, and proclaiming “peace” to David, they are saying they will serve David and David’s God, who helps David. And not Saul. Their relationship to David becomes more important than being men of Benjamin and Judah, and they become men of David here.

And this is Peter’s confession on that day the followers of Jesus are “clothed with power from on high”:

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. … Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:32-33, 36)

This is a political confession, as political a confession as Amasai’s proclamation of peace for David. When we confess this, we confess who is Lord, who is sovereign, who is helped and whom God helps. We confess whose side we are on by remembering whose side God is on — Christ’s. We are no longer divided by language, tribe, clan, and nation (εθνος), but we are no longer united by being members of the House of Israel or simply by being subject to Caesar’s rule. We have another Lord, because God has helped another.

And in helping Christ, God is helping us. In being on Christ’s side, God is on ours.

But only because we have come and submitted ourselves first to Christ. Because the Spirit has given us the power, wrapped itself around us, clothed us, and given us the ability to make that confession. We are only righteous insofar as Christ is righteous, and the only righteousness we have is that which first belonged to Christ.