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Choose Life, Choose Death, Choose Surrender

If the pro-life movement has a “theme” or “banner” scripture, it’s this one:

Consider that I have set before thee this day life and good, and on the other hand death and evil: That thou mayst love the Lord thy God, and walk in his ways, and keep his commandments and ceremonies and judgements, and bless thee in the land, which thou shalt go in to possess. But if thy heart be turned away, so that thou wilt not hear, and being deceived with error thou adore strange gods, and serve them: I foretell thee this day that thou shalt perish, and shalt remain but a short time in the land, to which thou shalt pass over the Jordan, and shalt go in to possess it. I call heaven and earth to witness this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Choose therefore life, that both thou and thy seed may live: And that thou mayst love the Lord thy God, and obey his voice, and adhere to him (for he is thy life, and the length of thy days,) that thou mayst dwell in the land, for which the Lord swore to thy fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that he would give it them. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)

It’s one pro-life people use frequently.  It even turns up on albums such as this one from the School Sisters of Notre Dame (the title track, based on the passage above, is here.)  It’s unlikely that the Sisters didn’t have this application in mind when they put this out.

Nevertheless it’s equally unlikely that an anti-abortion statement is the principal meaning of this declaration, the horror of sacrificing children to Moloch and other pagan gods notwithstanding.  The Israelites were about to enter the land that God had promised them; their first duty was to adhere to the worship of Yahweh their God and to keep the entire law that he had given them in the wilderness.

This charge was pronounced at the start of their time in the land; at the end of the first phase, the prophet Jeremiah recalled it as follows:

And to this people thou shalt say: Thus saith the Lord: Behold I set before you the way of life, and the way of death. He that shall abide in this city, shall die by the sword, and by the famine, and by the pestilence: but he that shall go out and flee over to the Chaldeans, that besiege you, shall live, and his life shall be to him as a spoil. For I have set my face against this city for evil, and not for good, saith the Lord: it shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire. And to the house of the king of Juda: Hear ye the word of the Lord, O house of David, thus saith the Lord: Judge ye judgement in the morning, and deliver him that is oppressed by violence out of the hand of the oppressor: lest my indignation go forth like a fire, and be kindled, and there be none to quench it, because of the evil of your ways. Behold I come to thee that dwellest in a valley upon a rock above a plain, saith the Lord: and you say: Who shall strike us and who shall enter into our houses? But I will visit upon you according to the fruit of your doings, saith the Lord: and I will kindle a fire in the forest thereof: and it shall devour all things round about it. (Jeremiah 21:8-14)

In the face of the oncoming Chaldean onslaught, his message was simple: it’s time to surrender and go into exile, and by doing so preserve our life and the life of our nation.  Needless to say, that wasn’t what his contemporaries wanted to hear, and they weren’t shy about letting him know that too.

We’d like to think that, since we know now that Jeremiah was right and his prophecies are part of the canon of Scripture, we’d agree with his message if it were given today.  But, as Jesus pointed out to his contemporaries, that isn’t the way it works with prophets, past or present.  About the only passages of Jeremiah, whose “gloom and doom” prophecies used to be proverbial, that get quoted these days are the flashes of hope that pierce the general darkness of his message.

To put it more plainly, Jeremiah’s message to his contemporaries is not only too negative for our sensibilities, it’s downright unAmerican.  He’s advocating surrender to a culture where winners never quit and quitters never win.  Even in our post-Biblical elite culture, how many times does one see “perseverance” as a cardinal virtue?  How many times do we talk up those who keep “pursing their dream,” even when they might be better off doing something else?  How enormous are the resources we pour into efforts that play to our sensibilities but really doesn’t accomplish anything?

I don’t think that the Bible endorses the opposite idea either, i.e., throw up our hands at the first sign of resistance.  But, as Kenny Rogers immortalised in The Gambler, the key is to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em, and in Jeremiah’s day the latter was in order.  Israel had strayed from the covenant and the worship that God had set before them, either for craven reasons (as was the case with Manasseh) or to keep up with the Joneses of the era (as was the case with Ahab and Jezebel, who was one of the Joneses).  Israel had also sanctioned the social injustices that went along with absolute monarchy, the centralisation of power and wealth which led to the marginalisation of everyone else.  (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether we should have a Tea Party rally or a Jim Wallis event in response to what’s going on these days).  After a few centuries of this, it was time for God to pull the plug, and Jeremiah was God’s reluctant proclaimer of that message.

Today we’re conditioned to plough on no matter what in just about any circumstance.  We’re also conditioned to discount the moments when God pulls the plug on us, be they individual or collective.  But that doesn’t change reality that sometimes the choice of life involves the choice of surrender, surrender in some cases to those who are not to our taste.  But the complete understanding of the Scriptures involves grasping the hard truths along with the easy ones, and the sooner we understand that, the better.


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