The Genesis:3 Project
All of them joined forces at the Valley of Siddim, now the Dead Sea. Genesis 14:3
WAR (hunh, yeah) what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’. Say it again.
Edwin Starr made his mark on the pop charts during the Vietnam War with this anthem that decried “the destruction of innocent lives.”
I think that the people who initiate wars would lay claim to them being necessary, even if they are evil. And certainly those who are the intended victims of violent aggression would contest the premise that refraining from war would prevent the destruction of innocent lives.
Yet, in one of those occasional circumstances in which translation adds to understanding rather than confusion, this verse comes in the middle of the description of the first war recorded in the Bible. And though the proper Hebrew name for the aquatic landmark literally translates as “the sea of salt,” we in the English-speaking world call it the Dead Sea.
The description of the war is a complete jumble. A bunch of kings from a bunch of places fight a bunch of other kings from a bunch of other places, the purpose of which seems to be to put down or to succeed in a rebellion of unknown purpose and take the booty of the losers for their own. In the process, one of the few details we learn is that some of the combatants fall into tar pits, presumably to their deaths, which may be part of the reason that the Sea of Salt is known in English as the Dead Sea.
Within two generations war had become common enough that every segment of the saga of the Israelites includes at least the threat of one, though they all seem to have some identifiable purpose. But bad boys with their bad toys seem to be interested in doing harm to each other before the technology becomes an instrument of considered foreign policy.
I used to be far more convinced of the unethical nature of war when it was my backside on the line. While Edwin Starr was singing, I was becoming eligible for the draft. I knew I had four years respite thanks to a student deferment, but by the middle of my sophomore year, it became pretty evident that four years wouldn’t be enough.
I have done some brave things in my life, I am sure, but serving in the military was not one of them. I was scared silly of getting killed, and even my devotion to the values of our country was not enough to get me to pledge my own life, fortune and sacred honor to provide for the common defense.
I saw how easy it was for a disagreement to escalate into violence just the other day. I was at an outdoor press conference – one of the responses of choice to the flow of executive orders coming from the brand-new administration. I was at the microphone (which was very temperamental) when a guy on a bicycle with two bullhorns stopped about twenty yards away and started haranguing people walking on the sidewalk. It had something to do with God; we were in front of a church, so it wasn’t all that surprising. But a very gentle man I know walked over to ask him to stop. I couldn’t hear what he said, but the cyclist answered him through the bullhorn, so I presume it had something to do with respect and various aspects of the First Amendment.
The gentle man was persistent, and at one point put out his hand. I don’t know if it was meant to initiate a handshake or to just create a moment of connection. But Mr. Bicycle switched bullhorns and began to broadcast dire warnings about what would happen if he laid a hand on him.
Even at a distance, I could see the gentle man lose his gentleness. The fight-or-flight instinct tensed his body and he took a stance that revealed that his gentleness had been cultivated after some experience as a less-than-gentle man.
At that point, the press conference ended, and along with it the challenges being hurled at us through Mr. Megaphone. Gentleness settled again over my champion.
But it was that simple. A stranger yelling nonsense at a good guy through a bullhorn was almost enough to escalate into battle.
I have to think that if I had been conscripted after my college years my own amygdala would have given me the courage I couldn’t find in the calm of the campus. The jury is out on the question of whether that is a good thing. It is a Sam Peckinpah dilemma.
But I sure want someone in charge of deciding whether to go to war who has cultivated a proclivity to avoid it rather than a willingness to be goaded into it because of a perceived slight. I don’t want someone to send innocent lives into battle because he is in a snit over some perceived offense. I want a guy who can recognize when it’s not worth it anymore and has the courage to walk away instead of creating a complete jumble just to satisfy himself. Because that’s the kind of war that is definitely good for absolutely nothin’.
Say it again.