We live in a world where it is big news that a woman is vice president of the United States, a heartbeat away from the presidency. There are still some who question whether a woman should have that position of leadership — just as there are still some who question whether a woman should be pastor. When I came here 16 years ago, some folks left because you had called a female pastor. There are many who believe a woman should not have authority or leadership positions over men…and they quote their bible to justify their attachment to patriarchy. But then…what do we do with Deborah?
Because when you read the book of Judges, there seems to be no such questions or resentment of Deborah’s role as leader of the Israelites. She is their prophet…she speaks for God among them. And she is also their judge, arbitrating disputes and upholding the law among the people. And on top of that, she is basically commander and chief of their armies, ordering the generals and directing their battles. And when Barak, the general, hesitates…she lets him know that his lack of trust in God’s word and her direction means that he will miss out on the glory of defeating Sisera – the general of the enemy’s army…and that victory, too, will go to a woman. And so it is Jael, not Barak the warrior, who drives the tent peg through the general’s head and does him in.
For those who find the feminist movement unsettling…this story is a nightmare. It’s not surprising that people have most often ignored Deborah or taken crazy interpretive leaps to dismiss her role. Patriarchy is strong, my friends. You even see it at work in the book of Hebrews. The writer of Hebrews praises the faith of the Judges of Israel….and lists Barak instead of Deborah. Barak…the general who took orders from Deborah and wouldn’t go into battle without her. The problem is that throughout history, people who believe gender roles and norms are God-ordained have worked hard to hold on to their surety…even if it continues to force people into boxes that don’t fit.
But the truth is that God has no interest in limiting our roles or our work by our gender…God simply calls each of us to use our gifts…to be the unique person we are called to be. And for us to accept and honor the gifts that others…that each and every unique person brings to the table.
I am fascinated by our human insistence in putting people in boxes. Limiting people’s options. Labeling people and deciding what they should look like and what jobs they should have and how they should act and whether they are “acceptable”. God creates a mad diversity and gifts people — Jew and Greek, male and female – people of every class and every race and every gender — each with unique gifts to make our world a better place.
Deborah used the gifts God gave her — to do otherwise would have been a rejection of who she was…who God created her to be. She is a wife, yes…but she also administers justice for the nation and leads them into battle. And Jael, another wife, is the fierce warrior who defeats the enemy’s leader.
But here’s where I struggle with the story of Deborah. Because I have a hard time with stories that glorify war and seem to suggest that the answer to violence is more violence. I confess…I do not like the book of Judges. Because the book of Judges has been used to justify holy wars, crusades and all manner of brutality against people who are “different”. The book of Judges, including Deborah’s story…reveals what has been true about who we are since the beginning of time. We are drawn to violence…we glamorize violence. We love our action movies…we love our guns…we love our fights and cheer on our armies at war like we’re rooting for the home team. I’m not talking about just America here…I’m talking about humans. Since Cain killed Abel…we have sought to solve most every problem, most every disagreement, with the last man or woman standing. The violence of the Vikings and the Ottomans and the Greeks and the Huns and the nations and tribes of every continent is well documented. But so is the truth that no fight, no war, has been the war to end all wars, as much as we imagined it may be. Deborah and Jael won this battle. But we know from history, that in 40 years, another war arose…which was, by the way, one of the longest stretches of peace in Israel’s history. Most were much shorter…because it was just as true then as now, that every battle leaves the seeds of the next one in its wake. Yes. the truth is that violence never truly ends violence…it just cycles on. And the other sad truth…is that every nation and tribe has claimed that God is on their side as a “Warrior” and defender of the people. We assume God is in the battle waging war on our behalf.
But is that, really, where we find God in the midst of our human story? Honestly…as Christians, followers of Jesus…we would have to say no. If Jesus is God incarnate in our midst…God is not “on our side” in a battle…because every “side” is made up of God’s beloved children. Rather, God is with us in the midst of this broken world….not as a warrior, but as one who joins us in the midst of our injustice and suffering. Who suffers with us and for us…who loves us, in spite of ourselves, forgives our idiocy, and somehow uses our crooked paths to bring in God’s way of astonishing grace….of abounding steadfast love and mercy that never ends.
Now, I don’t pretend to have the answer to our persistent human violence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and teacher in Germany during Hitler’s Reich, was a convinced pacifist. He believed the way of Jesus meant violence was never the answer….yet, in the end, he took part in a plot to kill Hitler and was imprisoned and executed for his crime…because after years of watching so many innocent people suffer — Jews and Gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled, not to mention all those who were losing their lives in the war….he saw no other answer at the time.
Like Bonhoeffer, my heart breaks and my anger is kindled for those whose rights are violated in this world…who are killed and enslaved, imprisoned and abused …by nations, by governments…by individuals. And I want the perpetrators stopped. I want injustice stopped. And I do believe that that is what God wants. It is God’s heart for all humanity. Deborah’s people had suffered under the oppression of Sisera’s army. We know from Sisera’s mother and her servant, that Sisera’s army regularly plundered and stole all of their goods and crops and raped their woman — a girl or two for every man, she says. Sisera needed to be stopped. And I am grateful for all those who, like Deborah and Jael, do what needs to be done to stop them.
Yet, I am also aware of the trauma and moral injury inflicted on many of those who fight those battles and wage those wars. They live with the nightmares…with the disconnect inside of them, trying to make sense of killing people…people who didn’t start these wars either…who are most often just pawns in another nation’s army. Trying to square the brutality they’ve experienced and committed with their belief in a loving God.
And what I am convinced is that there is no clean path through this broken world. We will do our best to care for the vulnerable…to do what is right…and use the gifts God gave us as best we can. Whether it is like Deborah in the halls of justice and the fields of battle ….or like Martin Luther King in the pulpit and the path of nonviolent protest….or like the good Samaritan binding the wounds of the injured…or the good shepherd seeking out the lost and outcast…or the foolish father welcoming and rejoicing in the wayward. But whatever our path…the truth is we will never get it “right”. Our wisdom, at the end, is always foolishness. We are not the answer. But Jesus is. Jesus…who loves us as we are. Jesus…who forgives us when we don’t know what we’re doing. Jesus…who resurrects us when we’re dead and calls us children of God. Broken as we are…Jesus is the answer. God with us. God, dragged into the corrupt halls of justice, like a lamb to slaughter and executed by the state… IS the one who wins the battle over death and the devil and all that is evil in this world…over all that is so very, very wrong. We will do our best, friends…to follow Jesus. But in the end, we simply cling to one who holds us all. Amen