The hero in the zombie series “The Walking Dead” is Rick Grimes, a former sheriff. When the series began Rick had a strong moral center, a need to protect, and a desire to build something good in a world gone very, very wrong. Often, Rick was placed in scenes opposite ruthless villains so that the audience could hear Rick’s hopeful lines in contrast to the slick, manipulative, self-justifying monologues of the villains.
But our hero Rick has changed.
The bad guy this past season was a cannibal named Garrett, whose response to one his victim’s plea for mercy was, “There is no going back, Bob."
In the mid-season finale a handcuffed, unarmed police officer begged Sheriff Grimes to take him back to the group’s camp. Rick replied, “There is no going back, Bob.” Then he shot him in the face.
It didn’t have to be that way. Rick didn’t have to take it that far.
Like the real-life Biblical figure Jephthah.
Jephthah is one of the most inspiring characters in the Bible. He was the progeny of his father’s adulterous liaison with a prostitute. As soon as his father died, his brothers kicked him out, and he became the leader of a street gang. (Judges 11: 1-3)
God raised Jephthah up out of the gutter and made him the leader of the Jewish people, one of the great Judges of Israel. Under Jephthah’s leadership, a minor clan on the neglected side of the Israelite nation freed the children of Israel from 18 years of oppression under the pagan Ammonite nation. (Judges 11: 4-33)
But along the way, Jephthah did something terrible. He made a hasty and unnecessary promise to God, though surely it seemed like a good idea at the time. It certainly sounded holy and pious when he said it.
And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11: 30, 31)
God didn’t ask Jephthah for that promise. God didn’t offer victory in exchange for a burnt offering. Right before Jephthah made the vow (verse 29) God had given Spiritual assurance to Jephthah that the battle was God’s will. He didn’t have to take it that far.
Under Jephthah's leadership, the Gileadite clan of Israel won the battle, but when Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, there was his daughter, coming out to meet him with timbrels and dancing; and she was his only child. Besides her he had neither son nor daughter. (Judges 11:34)
In Leviticus 18:21, and Leviticus 20 God explicitly and repeatedly prohibited human sacrifice, even making such practice a capital offense; but Jephthah the man who came of age on the streets where nothing is free and you live or die by your word; Jephthah could not back down.
He killed his own daughter. And something in this great man changed. Jephthah had long been a warrior, but something changed. He became a harder, morally compromised, ruthless, and broken version of the hero he had been.
In chapter 12, a group from the powerful Ephraimite tribe of Israel crossed the Jordan and confronted Jephthah. They insulted him and his clan. They laid claim to the treasure the Jephthah had taken in battle, and they attacked. Jephthah’s Gileadites won the battle, but for Jephthah victory was not enough.
He set up checkpoints along the Jordan River, and had his soldiers question every man trying to cross over to the Ephraimite side.
And when any Ephraimite who escaped said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said, “No,” then they would say to him, “Then say, ‘Shibboleth’!”
And he would say, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they would take him and kill him at the fords of the Jordan. (Judges 12: 5, 6)
Jephthah ordered the slaughter of anyone----armed, unarmed, fighting, or surrendered------anyone who even sounded like one of the people who had dared to insult him.
They killed 42,000 fellow Jews that day. He killed more of his people than the people he had been protecting his people from.
Did it have to be that way? Did Jephtah have to go so far?
But each of us, like Jephthah and Rick Grimes, are just a few moral compromises from going too far. Each of us may be just one or just one more terrible, pointless human sacrifice away from becoming the villain we thought only other people were.
“We push ourselves and let things go. Then we let some more go and then some more. And pretty soon, there's things we can't get back. Things we couldn't hold on to even if we tried.”
--- Bob Stookey, “The Walking Dead”
--- Bob Stookey, “The Walking Dead”
Stop and remember why you started fighting in the first place. Remember what you were supposed to be building. Remember how you were supposed to make it better.
Don’t let that go.
Don’t let the means dictate the end.
Don’t let yourself become the villain.
And if you already have, contrary to what some characters say, you can go back.
That’s the chapter left for every lost hero or villain to write themselves: Redemption. And you don't play that scene alone.
“Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the Lord, “Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool. (Isaiah 1: 18)
---Anderson T. Graves II is a writer, community organizer and consultant for education, ministry, and rural leadership development.
Rev. Anderson T. Graves II is pastor of Miles Chapel CME Church in Fairfield, Alabama; executive director of the Substance Abuse Youth Networking Organization (SAYNO); and director of rural leadership development for the National Institute for Human Development (NIHD).
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