Susan Cartmell: What Have You Done?


David was a charismatic leader, a brilliant strategist, an ambitious politician, and a man of enormous personal energy. He alone united Israel's various tribes, North and South, into one nation. From his childhood when he showed up to do battle with a sling, he was able to assess danger, recognize opportunity, and face fear. Stories of his military escapades dazzle the imagination, and though they may have grown in the telling, no one doubts his prowess.

David was also human. Nowhere is his humanity revealed more tragically than here in this story about David and Bathsheba. Here, we realize that David's blessings were also his curse. His ambitious way of taking property extended to women, too. Let's take a closer look at this story to see what it is saying to us today.

In the first place, the story of David and Bathsheba is about abuse of power, not an act of passion. David was promenading on the upper balcony of his palace one day when he spied Bathsheba bathing on the roof of her home. He was used to getting whatever he wanted; if he couldn't get it easily, he took it. So, David sent for Bathsheba and forced himself upon her. In time, she discovered she was pregnant and sent word to the king. Now Bathsheba was married, and her husband was a good man, a loyal officer in David's own army, but it didn't matter to David who Bathsheba was married to. It didn't matter how much his rape hurt her or her husband. This is not about passion; it was always about prerogative and power.

So, when the prophet Nathan heard about what had happened, he confronted David by telling a story about power abuse. "It's a story that I read about a rich man who is so entitled he takes the poor man's one lamb." Hearing it, David feels the pain of the injustice and yells, "This rich man deserves to die; he needs to make amends." This story is the key that opens the lock in David's conscience. Nathan says, "This story is for you, because you are this rich man. You need to make amends. You have taken Uriah's wife and now his life. You have taken what did not belong to you."

When we get to this part of the story, the Hebrew is spitting out the truth in stark two-word sentences, its meaning unavoidable. Bathsheba declares, "I'm pregnant." Nathan tells David, "You are the man." And finally, at the end, like Oedipus, David sees his own tragedy clearly, "I have sinned against God."

Though the story of David is set 3,000 years ago, it's as old as time. The story of this kind of abuse of power is all too familiar to us, too, today. Starting last October, a group of actresses including Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, and Rose McGowen, came forward to reveal that they had been sexually molested by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Their brave testimonies sparked the #Me Too movement which has revealed an epidemic of harassment and rape on movie sets, television studios, the kitchens of celebrity chefs and the halls of symphonies and Congress. Whether the board room or the battlefield, abuse thrives where everyone is afraid, where the weak are expendable and where people can take advantage of others without recourse. This is a story about abuse, not passion.

Secondly, the story of David and Bathsheba tells us that abuse of power is often a pattern, not a single mistake. When David discovered that Bathsheba was pregnant, and his secret was about to be exposed, he tried to manipulate her husband, Uriah, to come home to his wife, and thereby cover up the affair. But Uriah was too good; he refused to enjoy the comforts of home while his men were still on the battlefield. Uriah's integrity foiled David's attempt to manipulate him. So then, David crossed yet another line. He went to a new low. He ordered his troops to lead Uriah into the hardest fighting, and then abandon Uriah so that his death would be inevitable. David's advice went against every military instinct his men had, but by now David had crossed so many lines he cannot seem to help himself. And he descends lower and lower, throwing all proportion and common sense to the wind.

The truth is, David might have stopped at any point along the way, but now David is in too deep. He's coveted, committed adultery and now he murders an innocent man. You see, abuse is never a couple of indiscrete moments. It's a kind of hubris that grows over time. It's not a small step off the right path; it's a march down the highway of entitlement. It grows and grows until David's is the sin of hubris. He has started to play god.

Twenty years ago, when the Boston Globe broke the story about clergy abuse and it became a scandal, many people were shocked, but the hardest truth has been the knowledge that the Roman Catholic Church created a climate of secrecy which promoted denial. So, when victims came forward to complain about the abuse they suffered, the church refused to believe them. The lawsuits that have crippled the church in recent years are aimed at this culture that protected abusers instead of the people in the pews. The tragic similarity of cover-ups in the church, in the movie industry and in business, point to a series of decisions to preserve the power of some and promote the abuse of others. It's a pattern, not one mistake.

Finally, we all need a prophet today. We need a Nathan, too. Geraldine Brooks has written a fictionalized version of the life of King David entitled The Secret Cord. One of the best parts of her book is the believable relationship between David and his prophet Nathan. She proposes that early in David's military career, he realized that he needed someone like Nathan, because Nathan had a gift for anticipating danger. He became a shrewd and trusted advisor. With Nathan in his camp, David was stronger on the battlefield. Whether Nathan had a strong instinct, or a keen insight into human nature, we'll never know. But David found in his prophet a man who was indispensable and a key to David's remarkable military success. So, Nathan enjoyed a special place. He brought out the best in David, but he was among the few people who could hold this arrogant, battle-savvy fighter to account.

Most of us don't have a prophet in our inner circle, but God speaks to of us if we really think about it. God speaks through trusted advisors, or family members or even strangers sometimes. There are moments in all of our lives when the plumb line of truth transcends a conversation and we are brought up short. Three years ago, my granddaughter learned about the Civil Rights movement in school and called me to talk about it. When I told her I was alive then, she asked, "What did you do, Grandma? Did you march with Dr. King?" I explained that I was in the fifth grade at that time and I needed to go to school that week. But she was relentless and said, "Kids marched, you know, Grandma. You could have gone." The question she asked that day has stuck with me and been ringing in my mind for a long time. "What did you do, Grandma?"

What did you do, Grandma, when gun violence took the lives of 35,000 people every year, did you do to promote sensible gun legislation? When schools became the site for shootings so often that we had one school shooting once a week in our country, what did you do to ban automatic weapons? What did you do to make our schools safe?

What did you do, Grandma, when unarmed Black men and women were routinely shot by police in their cars or public parks or in their own backyards? Did you write to your Senator? Did you march then? Did you run for office? What did you do to fight racism?

What did you do, Grandma, when you saw a picture on Facebook of plastic sludge in the ocean? What did you do when you saw a mass of debris which was the result of 19 billion pounds of garbage dumped in the ocean every year? What did you do to clean up the environment, Grandma?

Perhaps you are wondering what all this really has to do with you. You are not the king of Israel. You don't spend idle hours promenading the balconies of your palace. You may notice an attractive person from time to time, but you remain faithful, and you don't have troops to move around. You have never killed anybody, and you don't intend to. In fact, you may feel overwhelmed or powerless most days. The story of David is a dramatic reminder that we all have influence. We all make decisions which can change other people's lives. As managers and businesspeople, as physicians and attorneys, as teachers and advisors, as citizens of the most powerful nation on earth, we have influence and also great responsibility. Some of it we have earned through hard work. Much of it was the gift of good fortune and the luck of being born into the lives we have. All of it is a gift from God the Bible says. And God is watching.

Let us pray.

Holy One, open our eyes to the stories you have for us - stories that come with a course correction or a word of encouragement. Amen.