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The Kings and Their Gods: The Pathology of Power

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Disturbing, but a joy to read

Daniel Berrigan

Wit, poetic reflection, criticism, and a disturbing re-evaluation of Yahweh are tucked in among the historical summaries and exegetical explanations of Daniel Berrigan, distinguished Roman Catholic theologian, author, and peace activist in The Kings and Their Gods. As a commentary on I and II Kings, it begins with David and ends with Isaiah.

At least three themes surface. First, a re-evaluation of Yahweh. “What to make of the Yahweh of these stories,” Berrigan writes, “a being who in no way disapproves of vile behavior, is inclined rather to bless it, to account moral delinquents his ‘chosen’, and with prodding from on high, to urge base instincts into action?”

Second, we see the dimensions of what Berrigan calls the pathology of power. “The warriors, tricksters, and betrayers are not only our ancestors, they are ourselves. The wars of the Kings are our wars today.”

The third theme addresses the ethical dilemma. “Let the believing community see there [in these biblical books] the worst. More, see the worst presented as noble, virtuous, raised aloft in honor.” Followers of Jesus must grapple with this profound ethical challenge.

Berrigan’s skillful use of words and brilliant turns of phrase make this commentary a joy to read. In David, “the bile of memory rises;” Scripture presents “a remarkable whitewash of Davidic buccaneering;” faith can become “the petrified apparatus of orthodoxy.” We also note Berrigan’s attitude towards Christian conservatism.

Berrigan’s presentation of Yahweh is mind-stretching but also puzzling. “[A]ll such horrors, it would seem, are in close accord with the will of the god of Jerusalem.” Until Isaiah appears, he is extremely critical of “god.” Is this usage a clever literary technique or is it a feeble effort by the clay to critique the potter? Further, is Berrigan criticizing God or the perception of God when he asserts that “the god of the kings shockingly resembles the Baals”?

The situation changes when “out of the darkness Isaiah comes, a giant in dwarfland, a seer among the blind, the prophet and poet.” At this point, Berrigan applies a capital letter to God, “to whom reverence is due.”

Berrigan’s analysis is enhanced by more than twenty asides, the contemporary applications of the theological point at issue. These are often anti-war and frequently anti-American. His examples include an attack on a village using nuclear warheads, and a scathing critique of the rich nations who dine on “the children of the poor.”

In sum, Berrigan has written an outstanding work. More impressive as pure scholarship than as faith-building theology, it nevertheless deserves a wide audience.

—John H. Redekop is professor emeritus at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ont., and adjunct professor at Trinity Western University, Langley, B.C. 

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