When Dogs Prowl


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

October 21, 2018


Texts:1 Samuel 19:11-24; Psalms 57 and 58

        As Marc Antony stands alone with Caesar’s body, he muses in his soliloquy how he will use his funeral oration to incite the crowd against Caesar’s assassins. Addressing the body, he says, “O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers”  -- refer-ring to Brutus and Cassius, of course, and then he con-tinues: “And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, with Ate by his side, come hot from hell, shall with a monarch’s voice cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war; that this foul deed shall smell above the earth with carrion men, groaning for burial.”

        Shakespeare coined the phrase ”dogs of war” when he wrote Julius Caesar based on Plutarch’s Life of Marcus Brutus.  It was not the only time Shakespeare used the image of dogs and hounds for images of war. In his pro-logue to Henry V, the one who urges his army in the St. Crispin’s Day speech before Agincourt, he wrote of the hounds of “famine, sword, and fire.”  Very different than our images of cute puppies and loyal old dogs mourned when they die.

       The phrase was used by Frederick Forsyth for a novel, albeit without Shakespeare’s poetry of language, and even less subtle for a movie about a mercenary army of white men – what else – overthrowing an African dictator.

        In these two Psalms the Psalmist has created a lament that speaks to us in our time. The Psalmist here was concerned about the physical safety of a city under siege, and often many of us feel that way: that we are under siege and that the dogs we hear howling are not just animals wanting their supper.

         It almost doesn’t matter whether it is what was the horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi or the possible election of Jair Bolsonaro as President of Brazil bringing back to mind The Kiss of the Spider Woman, the prowling dogs of unrestrained power never seem to lie down. And these are just the two more recent examples of a world looking much like the 1930s in Europe.

         The Psalmist speaking as David cries out for protection from God as his enemies lie in wait for the right opportunity to strike. And they wait to strike at night, when it is dark and no one will see their crime. In contrast, of course, the assassination of Caesar occurred in broad day-light, the result of a conspiracy by sixty senators concerned that Caesar planned to make himself an emperor and destroy the Roman Republic and the independence of the Roman Senate.

         It certainly seems clear that the murder of Khashoggi and many other journalists who have opposed dictatorships were done at the behest of ruthless leaders who fear that the light of truth would threaten their powers. The murders of Daphne Caruna Galizia in Malta and Jan Kuciac and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova are just two of the more recent attempts to destroy truth and light.

         Saul’s pursuit of David was much in the same vein. Jealous of David’s popularity, Saul came after him even as he was married to Saul’s own daughter Michal. Saul be-rated his daughter for her loyalty to her husband over her father; and Jonathan was friends with a man he perceived as a threat to his power.

         Unrestrained power is like that. Leaders who see themselves as God’s gift cannot tolerate dissent or criticism. And the stronger the critiques of such power becomes, the more relentless the attacks are on the press and other watchdogs of democracy. The prowling dogs circle about those who call such abuses out and threaten to destroy them.

         We all know that freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution, but where did this idea originate? John Peter Zenger was one of about 3,000 German Palatines transported to New York by the British, primarily as indent-ured servants. Young John was indentured to William Bradford, the first printer in New York. In 1733 he set up his own paper called The New York Weekly Journal which became highly critical of the royal governor William Cosby.

Cosby, furious over the criticism of his actions, had Zenger arrested and sent to prison over what he called the paper’s “divers scandalous, virulent, false and seditious reflections.”  Charged with libel, Zenger was defended by two lawyers, William Smith and Alexander Hamilton. Rebuffed by chief justice DeLancey, the two took the case to the jury which returned a verdict of not guilty.

         The argument was, of course, that press could make a defamatory statement if found to be truthful. Although other royal governors attempted to control the press, this important freedom was protected by the First Amendment. Various presidents and members of Congress have attemp-ted to limit this freedom when they became the targets of criticism, but it still stands.

        In its 2017 Digital News Report, the Reuters Institute discusses the question of public trust in the news media in more than 40 countries. The use of social media for news has decreased, especially on Facebook, plagued by the disclosure of fraudulent sites created by powers who wish to disrupt our democracy.

         Other social media sites such as WhatsApp, Snapchat and Instagram have taken up some of this slack and be-came important organizing tools for students against gun violence following the Parkland shootings

         What is disturbing about the Reuters report is that authoritarian powers are using social media even more to create atmospheres of hate and distrust, such as the anti-Rohingya postings that created a favorable climate for ethnic cleansing. Goebbels would have been proud of the Myanmar leadership.

          Also disturbing is the lack of trust of news sources in the United States based on political opinion. Liberals say they trust the news about half the time while those on the right have a far lower level of trust. The Report also shows that both right and left choose and trust their sources based on their political opinions.

          None of this should be surprising. We do tend to read what is not disturbing to us. The differences are subtle on the reporting on Khashoggi. On Fox News we had “Missing Saudi journalist” with a statement by Trump that “apparently” Khashoggi was dead. CNN focused its reporting on a “pivotal Saudi diplomat” with photos of Khashoggi and discussion of U.S.-Saudi ties.

           In the wake of the Saudi admission of Khashoggi’s death, however, even Fox News, which usually defends Trump’s claims, no matter how ludicrous, calls the Saudi explanation “pathetic.” CNN interviewed his editor Karen Attiah who used an eight-letter euphemism for nonsense to describe the so-called explanation.

          However, the differences in reporting turn to editorializing in a discussion of the so-called “migrant caravan” trying to leave Honduras, a country of rampant corruption and poverty; the two often go hand in hand. Although much of the financing was from the World Bank investment group IFC, the corruption is local and has rob-bed Honduran farmers of their land. Berta Caeceres was murdered because she spoke out against government sponsored corruption.

        “Each evening they come back howling like dogs and prowling about the city,” the Psalmist cries. “They roam about for food, and growl if they do not get their fill.” The enemies of justice and righteousness come at night when we sleep; they hope we will not wake to drive them away. They count on compliance.

         We need more than marches and demonstrations against those who would limit our vision and destroy our liberty. We who fear the dogs need to develop new visions of justice and righteousness and to work to achieve them. Easier said than done, of course, but it’s so necessary.        David's Psalmist expressed a faith in God even as he called on God to come to his aid: “Rouse yourself!” he cried.

          We certainly want to stop the venom of serpents and have the evil we see around us vanish like the snail but that won’t happen without our active witness to a vision that reflects God’s justice and mercy. Our vision must be rooted in the Gospel of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

            Sometimes the Gospels make Jesus almost seem haphazard in his way of preaching and living the kingdom. He goes about from town to town healing the sick, urging people to care for each other, and preaching the good news that God’s kingdom is at hand. He probably had a pretty good idea of how those in power would receive him, not much different than those in power who face determination of people working for justice and mercy today.

          The fact that the people of power may not like what we preach or do should be irrelevant. We will be put in the situation like others before of offending them, and they will strike back And we need to be prepared for that. That is why we live and work in community, to give each other the support we need and to declare to the world that God’s vision for our lives as expressed through Jesus will reign in the end.

          One of the more gruesome parts of the Khashoggi story is that his fingers, the fingers that wrote and typed his criticism, were cut off before he was killed, much like what happened to the guitarist songwriter Victor Jara in Pinochet’s Chile. But the words live on just as Jara’s songs continue to sound out against brutality and tyranny In the end, the dogs will be caught and tamed and fed with a better food to satiate their hunger – the food of truth. This is our faith: that God’s righteousness will prevail.

        Let us come to God in prayer: We come to you, O God, as Creator not just of heaven and earth but also of us as sentient human beings. Fill us with the food of truth and courage so we may help establish your kingdom on the earth. In the name of him who came to show us the way, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.