The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house
2 Kings 5:1-14
by Isaac S. Villegas
July 7, 2013
There’s a girl, a young woman, an Israelite who is ripped away from her people as part of the spoils of war. Her king and the king of Aram have been at war for years, and she becomes a victim of their war, a victim of a war between Aram and Israel. She is taken from her home, stolen from her people, her family, and forced to live in a foreign land, among her people’s enemy — and not just to live among them, but to be a slave in the service of their powerful general, Naaman. “The Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel,” it says, “and she served Naaman’s wife.”
No one would blame the Israelite girl if she was resentful. No one would blame her if she hated her master, if she wanted the worst to happen to Naaman and his wife. No one would blame her if she spent her time in the general’s house trying to do her small part to bring down the enemy of Israel, with the subtle arts of resistance, with the secret weapons of the weak, with small acts of sabotage.
No one would blame her if she followed the advice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian in Germany, who, in 1933, as the Nazis were taking over his homeland, told his people that the church must become a social force of sabotage: the task of the church, Bonhoeffer said, “is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.” Not just to care for victims of the system, but to sabotage the system itself.
But that’s not what this Israelite slave does, even though she could have claimed that God had put her in the belly of the beast for such a time as this, to jam a spoke in the wheel, to poison the system from within, to wither away Naaman’s household from the inside.
But that’s now what she does. Instead, she tells Naaman the general, the man who orchestrates the war against Israel, the man who stole her from her family, her people — this servant girl tells Naaman how he can be healed. “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria,” the slave says to her master, “He would cure you of your leprosy.” She refuses to play the game of war, of revenge and retaliation, of attack and counterattack. She refuses to treat Naaman as he should be treated: as an enemy, as someone deserving of pain, the pain of leprosy.
In the 1970s, the poet Audre Lorde worried about the way her friends were too quick to play by the rules of the system, the social order set up by the powerful. She worried about how her fellow activists were captured by the imagination of the powerful, how they were too quick to use the same tools and tactics of the master to try to destroy the master’s house, to get rid of the system, to jam a spoke in the wheel of society, as Bonhoeffer wanted to do.
Instead, Audre Lorde had this to say, as a warning: She said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”[i]
The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, she said. I think of that line when I read the story of the slave girl in Naaman’s house. I can imagine her saying the same thing. She refuses to try to beat her master at his own game, to live by the rules of his world of power, of what counts as power and justice.
In the name of justice, she could have welcomed Naaman’s disease as a sign that God has not forgotten her, as a small sign of God’s power and justice, that God won’t let violence go unpunished.
But that’s not how the servant girl thinks about her God. Her God is not like her master, only bigger and stronger. Instead, the slave from Israel knows the God of life, the God who offers healing and restoration. So, why wouldn’t her God heal her enemy? Why wouldn’t the God of Israel heal an enemy of Israel? I can think of plenty of reasons why not, but not her.
During the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Weldon Nisly, the pastor of Seattle Mennonite Church, joined a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation to Iraq. Weldon and the other eight members of the team were in Baghdad to listen to stories of suffering, to document the civilians killed by the bombs, and to pray and hope for an end to the violence. On their long drive out of Iraq, as they were on their way to Jordan, 200 miles west of Baghdad, in the middle of an Iraqi desert, their vehicle crashed. Weldon was severely injured. His body was broken. Fractured ribs tortured him with every step. The group found help in a nearby town, Ar Rutba, where Iraqi doctors and nurses saved his life in their makeshift medical clinic. The town had a hospital, but it was leveled three days earlier, bombed by the U.S. forces, a misfired missile, perhaps. There, near the rubble of the hospital, the victims of war healed someone who was supposed to be their enemy.
Seven years later, Weldon returned to Ar Rutba to see the people who saved his life, to thank the doctors and nurses who put his broken body back together. He was also curious about why they helped him, a citizen of the country at war with Iraq, at war with them. One of the doctors, a member of the medical team that cared for Weldon, had this to say: he said, “We did not see you as Americans or as an enemy. We saw you as injured people who needed help.” “It is a matter of ethics,” he said, “It is also the Iraqi way and what Islam teaches.”
On this 4th of July weekend, we are reminded that we are misfits here, because the gospel calls us into a way of life that involves offering God’s healing for all people, which means, at times, we can’t help but betray national allegiances. We can’t help but care for people who are supposed to be our enemies, like the Iraqi medical team did for Weldon, like the Israelite slave did for Naaman.
[i] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches, rev. ed. (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007), 102. Also, “we cannot fight old power in old power terms only. The only way we can do it is by creating another whole structure that touches every aspect of our existence, at the same time as we are resisting it” (103).