Marchette Chute once said that "a historical fact is rather like the flamingo that Alice in Wonderland tried to use as a croquet mallet. As soon as she got it's neck nicely straightened out and was ready to hit the ball, it would turn and look at her with a puzzled expression..." I don't know that I agree with Chute beyond a reasonable doubt here in regard to historical facts, but I find her words to be quite true as well if we interpret them as being about life. So often, we fit our lives into the neat boxes of the relationships we like and the routines we like (or may not like) and the places we like and the thoughts we like. We avoid crisis as if it were the plague. And to be honest, it can feel that way sometimes. Crying on our beds because we've had our beliefs challenged, or had our hearts broken, or lost someone is an experience we've all had by the time we reach graduation, if not more often and much earlier. As much as we dislike it, life is walking the tightrope that dangles above the absurd all day. Just below us there are always people, places, ideas, and realities that scare, hurt, or seek to unsettle us in some other way.
But sometimes something happens to someone else which is so absurd, and such a waste, and such a tragedy, that we experience that pain of the incomprehensible ourselves for another. Just such an event took place this week right here in Mercer County. At the Hardee’s on Meadowfield Road, around 3 o’clock on February 22 a young man by the name of Kyle Copson was pacing around with a large kitchen knife in his hands.The state police were called, as the headquarters is only about 100 yards away, across the highway. Kyle was seen lunging at police and assaulting them. According to the official reports, officers used lethal force to stop Kyle from hurting them or others. He was shot three times in the chest and died nearly immediately. The sheer and utter insanity of this whole thing cannot be lost on us. Kyle Copson was 26 years old. I turn 22 this April. My brother turns 27 a little more than one week from now. Many of my friends are 25, 26, and 27 years old. I could have known him. What motivated this? Why did it have to end in his death? Why didn’t he submit? What was happening? Was he well? All these questions swirl around us when things like this happen, but the chief reality we face is the pain of empathy; he died and I didn’t. I got to live for all of February 22nd, and Kyle Copson did not. Trayvon Martin was 17 when I was 17. I got to make it to 18, he did not. The sheer senselessness can be overwhelming if we let it be, but it does have a purpose.
The Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament, record a story the like of which would never be written by any Christian fiction writer. It’s grotesqueness and disgustingness have puzzled biblical commentators for centuries. It is clearly within the Hebrew canon of Scripture and is by no means a later addition. The text in question is the 19th chapter of the book of Judges, a book of the history of the first rulers of Israel as a free nation, before Israel had kings. In the 19th chapter, we are told, a story that seems to be dropped in from out of nowhere. This sort of individual story today would be considered an oddity not worthy of much more than mention; perhaps some slight commentary, but nothing more. But here we are in the middle of the Old Testament, getting 30 long verses detailing this disgusting scene. It begins with a man who takes a concubine, or a mistress, from the area around the city of Jerusalem. This concubine, later on, turns out to be unfaithful, and leaves him to be with another. He plans to go back and get her, the scriptures even recording that he “arose and went after her, to speak kindly to her and bring her back” (Judges 19:3). The mistress ended up at her father’s house, now the Gentleman’s father in law. The Gentleman’s father in law is overjoyed to see him, thinks the world of the guy, invites him, feasts, drinks, and all the fixings. They party and party and day after day the mistress and her father convince to stay the night one more time, and one more time, and one more time, until finally he decides he’s saddling up and hitting the road. He takes his mistress and one of his servants to a town called Gibeah to avoid the land of the foreigners that at the time occupied Jerusalem. As he’s about to pitch tent in the city’s square an old man looks up from heading in from his work in the fields and sees The Gentleman and his Mistress and their party. Fear strikes his heart and he most likely strolled up hastily with as much feigned curiosity and calm as possible, asking “where are you folks from? Staying here tonight?” He quickly encourages them to stay the night in his house, casting a fitful look behind him as he shuts the door and bolts it fast. That night, what the old man feared would happen did. A band of younger men came in from their work and began sieging the old man’s house, demanding that the out-of-towner be given to them that they might rape him. What the old man and the Gentleman decide to do is send out their own daughter and mistress, respectively, to be given over to them instead. The daughter of course refuses and cannot be forced, but the Gentleman forces his mistress out the door where she is gang-raped all night. She returns just before the dawn, falling on the mantle of the old man’s house. By the time the Gentleman finds her, she is dead from her trauma. He then proceeds to pick her up, carry her home, mutilate her body and divide it into twelve pieces, and mail to twelve sizeable cities across the nation of Israel. This is the height of absurdity, of confusion, and of unutterable horror. But why might this be in the bible?
Life, as said earlier, is an absurd, painful, confusing thing. The scriptures do not run from that. No matter how some of us may use the scriptures, they record to us the accurate will, understanding, and knowledge of God, but they also reveal the accurate nature of humanity. And humanity can get ugly, to make an understatement. The examples of this reality are countless throughout history. The above story has often been explained by bible scholars and exegetes as being an object lesson in what happens when a nation abandons The Lord. While it definitely is just such an object lesson, I think it has something to say about the the mind-numbing, heart-squeezing absurdity of things like the death of Kyle Copson, Trayvon Martin, billions of unborn children across the world, and countless other unsung, absurd happenings in the world.
First and foremost, I think it says that none are innocent. Literally everyone in this story did something which was extremely hurtful or drastically unethical. Sometimes this came amidst highly complicated and nervous situations like the one the old man found himself in in harboring the foreigners. Some may be the lack of character and cowardice that the Gentleman always displayed, or the flippancy of the mistress in infidelity. No one, not a single involved party, was brought up in this story who was not implicit in some sin or scandal at some point.
Second, it shows me that God understands that this life is absurd. God asks the prophet Ezekiel the rhetorical question, “have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23, ESV). God is not glad to see the wicked punished, but rather it is true what the prophet Micah said when he said “He [Yahweh] does not retain his anger forever, because delights in steadfast love” (Micah 7:18, ESV). God understands better than all of us the absurdity of this life, because it is absurd chiefly because of the reality that we are faced with. We are faced with the reality that God has “in [his] book they written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me when as yet there was none of them” (Psalms 139:16, ESV), while simultaneously and paradoxically we are told “choose this day whom you will serve... (Joshua 14:15, ESV). Absolute sovereignty, personal responsibility. Complete and utter control, the choice to do the right or the wrong thing. I do not have the knowledge, the wisdom, or the understanding to begin how to defend this paradox, and even less so to resolve it, but then again, none of us do. None of us ever have. And for that matter, none of us ever will here on Earth. The absurdity and pain of this life is an ordained and necessary reality meant to point us to the one of who says about himself that, ultimately, “My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways...” (Isaiah 55:8). He is infinite, we are finite. He is holy, we are sinful. He is all-powerful, we are totally helpless. This is reality, but not finally. Josh Garrell’s song “Farther Along” sums it up well when he says, “farther along, we’ll understand this./ Farther along, we’ll understand why.”
But third, this passage teaches us that we are not do-less creatures despite our dependence on God. The bible is the word of God to the people of God. While it is the true revelation of God for all people, only those within the family of God can rightfully be expected to obey God to the fullest and deepest sense of the word. But Christ’s word to us is, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). This is who he is, and he is about the “bringing many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10). This of course first and foremost means preaching the gospel to the unbeliever. There are real matters of justice in talking about the plight of the sexual slave, the racially discriminated, and the unjustly aborted, and those are implications of the gospel, too. But with something so seemingly beyond understanding we get the feeling that there is nothing to be done. But the post-script to the most despressingly absurd story in the bible is Judges 19:30: “consider it, take counsel, and speak.” We are called to speak for justice, but it will not matter that people get the fairest treatment if we are simply making them more comfortable on their way to hell. I fail so often in evangelism and showing the work of Christ to people in my life, but pray for me and with me that this most disgusting event will remind us to speak to people while we speak up for people.
(All recorded events are based on "Man In Officer-Involved Shooting Identified; More Details Emerge" from the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.)