A few weeks ago my family traveled to Italy. One day we went to Pisa, a town made famous for its leaning tower. The tower stands on the “Field of Miracles,” part of a complex which included special buildings for Baptisms, the Cathedral Church, a hospital, and a cemetery. All of life’s important milestones took place in the Field of Miracles, cradle to grave.
The collection of buildings on the Field of Miracles deeply appealed to me. I had already known the tower leaned; what I hadn’t known before was that every other building leaned too. The tower to the left, the baptistry to the right. A miraculous field where nothing stood straight.
Everything leaned because Pisa sits on sandy ground between two rivers near the sea. It all seemed poignant - a city struggling against its own soil, trying to raise up places of beauty despite all the wrong conditions. It made me feel better about our own sanctuary, a place of beauty but with a keystone off-center.
Pisa makes plain the effort we all live with - creating something on shifting sands, the miracle of beauty resting tenuously on chaos.
This tension between chaos and creation captured the imagination of the old storytellers of the Bible. It’s a theme to which many of the stories of scripture return - how does creation arise when chaos persists?
We heard two very different stories about chaos and creation from the Old Testament today. Both the story from Genesis and from Psalms speak of God creating the world, but do so in different ways, with different sensibilities about chaos. The Genesis reading barely mentions chaos; one only senses it by close attention, by wondering about the formless earth and depths passed over by God’s spirit. Much more clearly the Psalm imagines the conflict between chaos and creation.
The Psalm reverberates with anxiety. Is the foe to scoff? Living with that question, the Psalm remembers God defeating the foe in a cosmic battle:
You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
In the language of the Psalm, chaos took the form of the sea, embodied in dragons, given the name Leviathan. God, a warrior, killed the chaos monster. Such language captured the sense of chaos as dangerous and threatening.
The Psalm reflected the long standing myths of the people around the region, myths such as the one of the Babylonian god Marduk killing the sea goddess Tiamat and using her body to create the world. When we know the backstory - the cultural currents - of the Psalm, we can hear the echo of Marduk and Tiamat when the Psalmist sang of God breaking the heads of the dragons and using Leviathan’s body as food for creatures in the wilderness.
The primordial violence in the Psalm disturbs me. It bothers me to read of creation arising from the killing of chaos, of beauty arising from blood.
The Psalms stand in a unique place in scripture. We call the Bible ‘the Word of God.’ And much of it is meant to be God’s word to us passed through the voices of prophets. But the Psalms come to us as ‘the word of people;’ prayers recorded over centuries. Certainly this Psalm comes as the achingly anxious prayer of people to God - cajoling God to act least the foe scoff.
And so, while the voice of the Psalm disturbs me, I know it’s a very human voice. The Psalmist sang “kill the dragons” and we, in our own ways, can react in much the same way to the chaos in our lives. Kill the dragons, kill whatever makes our lives feel chaotic, whatever makes us fear a foe.
I felt like I heard the Psalm repeated often these last few months as we watched ISIS rising up in Iraq and Syria. The world felt very chaotic when a terrorist speaking with a British accent beheaded an American journalist. Vice President Joe Biden sang our Psalm, “kill the dragons,” or as he said, “we will chase them to the gates of hell.”
The violence of the Psalm may offend us, but in a moment of honesty we can recognize the fear of chaos in our own hearts. It’s a very human prayer born of our anxiety.
And yet our faith calls for something more. I find it so interesting that for all the human heart laid bare in the Psalms, we rarely hear God speak there. The Psalms give voice to our angst. But as a Just Peace Congregation we know God calls us to do more than just respond out of our fear.
Our congregation identifies as a “Just Peace” Congregation. This descriptive phrase arose in the 1980’s as part of a public witness by the United Church of Christ to find alternatives to war and military expansion. As a Just Peace Congregation we work and pray for reconciliation without vengeance.
As a Just Peace Congregation we know the fallacy of “kill the dragons.” We might even remember another old myth of a water dragon, Hercules and Hydra. According to Greek legend, the hydra was a nine-headed monster who terrorized a town by the sea. If one head was cut off, two more emerged in its place. When we attempt to kill the dragon, we may just end up facing more danger.
I thought of this with news of ISIS. We killed Saddam Hussein, more chaos erupted. We killed Muammar Qaddafi, chaos became a many-headed mess in Libya. We just killed the leader of Al-Shabaab in Somalia, already a new leader arose. Much of our kill the dragon approach in Iraq - we called it de-Baathification - fed the resentment fueling ISIS; indeed the leader of ISIS was a bystander arrested by our troops and imprisoned for a year with other men who became his core lieutenants. ISIS was born in an American jail. And now our plan to chase ISIS to the gates of hell, our plan to smash chaos and bring order, causes us to serve the interests of Bashar Assad and extremists in Iran.
The Psalm gives voice to the anxiety we feel in chaotic times. “How long, O Lord?” We want action. “Kill the dragon.” But the violence never brings the peace we desire.
A different way to deal with chaos comes in the first creation account. I read it for many years without realizing it came out of the same cultural currents as the Psalm. But chaos lies just below the surface in Genesis. We heard, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” These evoke chaos; and evoke it even more clearly in the original language. The word for deep - tehom - comes from the same root as Tiamat - the Babylonian goddess of the sea, Lady Chaos.
Jews wrote down the first creation story during the Babylonian exile; in other words, they heard their captors tell of Marduk killing Tiamat but they told a very different story of their God passing over chaos. The Babylonian creation story legitimized violent conquest; and we know from the historical record that this is what the Babylonians did - violently killing those who stood in their way to create their new world order. The Jews experienced this first-hand - the Babylonians defeated them, destroyed Jerusalem, gouged out the eyes of their king, and took them all back as slaves.
So when the Jews in Babylon told their creation story, the relationship of chaos and creation shifted. God’s spirit moved over the deep; God passed over chaos. Here the deep remained menacing, ambiguous, wild, turbulent, and dangerous. But unlike the Psalm and other stories, chaos was not seen as evil to be eradicated. Here God speaks to us: no violence done to chaos.
God moves over chaos: it’s not a bloody struggle but a cooperative moment. Our selections from the story of creation emphasis the cadence of the text. God said, “let there be;” and God said that is was good; and there was evening and morning. God does not defeat chaos but rather tames it - speaking softly, offering praise, slowly coaxing chaos to order.
Where violence killed chaos only to see it rise again, God tamed chaos into something good.
We’ve tried killing the dragon for the last 13 years - two major wars, troops still in Afghanistan and Iraq, with military actions in countries across the middle east, and yet we still face more chaos.
Of course we’ve been down this road before. We tried to kill the dragon in Vietnam, literally trying to bomb the Vietcong to the gates of hell by dropping 70 tons of explosives for every square mile of the country. General DePuy, leading the 1st Armored Division in Vietnam, once summarized our war doctrine. “The solution in Vietnam is more bombs, more shells, more napalm…’til the other side cracks and gives up.” We lost the war while trying to kill the dragon.
But even during the Vietnam war some people tried other approaches. In the 1960’s the Marines operated in a northern coastal region of South Vietnam. They focused on counter-insurgency instead of annihilation, realizing that it was more important to protect villagers than to kill the enemy. Despite the initial success of these pacification efforts, the Pentagon ended the Marine approach in order to concentrate efforts on shock and awe firepower. Could Vietnam have turned out differently if we listened to the Marines instead of Westmoreland, if we’d tamed chaos instead of killing the dragon?
President Obama, who listened to the chorus calling for us to kill the dragons, once knew such strategies didn’t work. He said a year ago, “We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and, in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war—through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments—will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways.”
And yet, here we go again.
The videotaped deaths of James Foley and Steven Sotloff horrify. “How long, O Lord, will the foe scoff at us forever?” In our anger and our fear we want action, for the dragon to be killed. And yet as real as our passion can be, violent retribution will not bring us lasting peace.
We hear a different approach in the creation story. God didn’t seek victory; God sought out goodness. Chaos wasn’t tamed in a day. It took the almighty 6 days and left God so tired that a day of rest was needed. Instead of cutting off one more head of the hydra, what if we prepared for a long effort to tame chaos?
A long-term commitment to building democratic governments, nurturing sustainable development, and establishing a reconciliation processes in communities broken along sectarian lines: I think these are the best way to make a new future in the mideast. As a Just Peace Congregation I hope we can work and witness for such non-violent alternatives.
Though our military is strong enough to smash a dragon, may we be wise enough to work instead on taming chaos. Alleluia and Amen.