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Eighty or so years ago, our grandparents announced that they were fighting a war to make the world safe for democracy. They thought they were changing things forever. But barely twenty years later that dream came crashing down under the flag of Nazism. Changing people’s warlike habits was not so easy.
Less than forty years ago, a dashing young American president created the Peace Corps. It attracted a legion of young people who believed that, with American technology and boundless energy, they could go anywhere and pay any price and do anything to lift up people. They thought they could teach birth control to India, flood control to Pakistan, and disease control to Nicaragua. But many of them found they could not teach self-control to anybody! Changing people’s cultures was not easy, and changing individuals was nearly impossible.
Thirty years ago, young people were clamoring to go to medical school, so that they could be the next Charles Drew or Jonas Salk and could eradicate disease. They were pressing into law school, so that they could walk in Thurgood Marshall’s shoes and eliminate racism. They were filling up the social work schools, so that they could fight the war on poverty, build the great society, end Vietnam, and change it all! We demonstrated for change everywhere, the campuses, the streets, and the Woolworth’s lunch counter. We would change the very face of America.
And now? How much has changed? Woolworth’s lunch counter is in the Smithsonian, and, as of this week, Woolworth’s itself is history; but the sicknesses of the human heart go on and on. Little seems to change.
We are not the first generation to find this discouraging. We are not the first to hold the great expectation that we can change others, only to founder on that expectation. Three thousand years ago, a drama was acted out in the Judean hills that tells us about our great expectation, that we can change people.
The key players in this drama are the men surrounding the King of Israel. David is getting pushed around by two people. One of them is his military chief, Joab. The other is his son, Absalom. Between the general and the prince, a whole lot is going on to try to change the King. They really believe that they can change David. But it’s tougher than they supposed.
In brief, the story is this: Absalom had arranged for the murder of his half-brother, Amnon, in revenge for Amnon’s rape of their sister, Tamar. As angry has David had been about Amnon’s sin, he had not punished his son, so David’s other son, Absalom, had taken it upon himself to work vengeance. As our story is set today, David has grieved over Amnon’s slaughter. Absalom is a fugitive, and David is grieving over that, but the king cannot bring himself to forgive his son and bring him home. He is in conflict. He doesn’t know quite what to do, and like a lot of us who aren’t sure what we should do, he does nothing. He just sits and nurses his wounds. Something needs to change.
Enter General Joab. Joab sees that David needs to change. David needs to get off dead center. So Joab selects a strategy.
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