Sunday, September 20, 2015

Detested Fortresses, Vincible Walls

Suomenlinna, Helsinki, Finland
On our recent trip to Finland and Sweden, my husband Whitney and I visited three fortresses.

The first, Sveagard, (Fortress of the Swedes), now called Suomenlinna (Castle of the Finns), once rivaled the fortress on Gibralter. King Frederik of Sweden commissioned it in 1748 as a bulwark against Russian expansionism. It stretches across six neighboring islands at the mouth of Helsinki’s harbor, employed thousands of men during decades of construction, and was never fully completed.

Under siege by the Russian navy in 1808, the Swedish commander, Carl-Olof Cronstedt, surrendered without a fight. In the Crimean War of 1853–56, French and English allies bombarded the fort but the Russian defenders held fast, and the fort remained under Russian rule until Finnish independence in 1917. It served as a prison camp for members of the Red Uprising following Finland’s brief civil war, and still houses a minimum security labor camp and the Finnish Naval Academy.

Most of the extensive fortified complex now serves as parkland for the city of Helsinki. Ferries carry passengers and cars across the harbor, and small cafes nestled into the hills and courtyards provide coffee and sweets along the peaceful island pathways. Whitney and I enjoyed an afternoon wandering the trails and gardens and would have welcomed time to stay longer, exploring the cavernous chambers and tunnels, or sitting on the ramparts staring out toward the sea.

The second fortress was Tallinn, capital of Estonia, a ferry ride across the Baltic from Helsinki. The historic center of Tallinn is Toompea, a castle high on a hill constructed in the 1300s. Surrounding that is a lower town enclosed by medieval walls as well as 17th century fortifications, all amazingly well-preserved. We enjoyed the view from high in Toompea, walked the cobblestones through the central market, took an enjoyable half-hour bike-taxi tour with a very strong, knowledgeable young Russian named Maria, who showed us the walls and alleys both inside and outside the gates.

Our final fortress visit was as memorable as the others, although the fortifications were earthen, rather than stone, and encompassed just part of a small island, Björkö (“Birch Island”). The Viking stronghold of Birka was the center of commerce for the Swedish people from around 750 to 960 AD, hidden in the heart of what is now called Lake Mälaren. The archaeologist who led our walk through the bucolic hillside fort asked us to remember two things:

First, that Viking was a job description, not a people group: the Vikings were the well-trained warrior/sailors who explored and established trade routes through the Baltic to areas far beyond, including Byzantium, the island nations in the North Atlantic, and on to North America.

Second, that the Vikings never wore hats with horns. In extensive archeological digs on Björkö, and throughout Sweden, much information has been uncovered about Viking trade, battle, burials, customs – but never, not once, according to our guide, has there been found one of those hats with horns.

I’ve been reading in the book of Amos, with Scripture Union’s Encounter with God,  and was struck by repeated references to fortresses:
  • I will send fire on the house of Hazael that will consume the fortresses of Ben-Hadad. (Amos 1:4)
  • I will send fire on the walls of Gaza that will consume her fortresses. (Amos 1:7)
  • I will send fire on the walls of Tyre that will consume her fortresses.  (Amos 1:10)
  • I will send fire on Teman that will consume the fortresses of Bozrah.  (Amos 1:12)
  • I will set fire to the walls of Rabbah that will consume her fortresses amid war cries on the day of battle, amid violent winds on a stormy day. (Amos 1:14) 
 One of Tallinn's many towers
Amos is a difficult book, the prophetic word from a man God called from nowhere: a shepherd, a pruner who specialized in sycamore figs, “not a prophet or son of a prophet.” The Wikipedia description says this: “He spoke against an increased disparity between the very wealthy and the very poor.”

Thirty-some years ago, Whitney wrote his first Bible guide about the book of Amos: “Amos, Israel on Trial.” He’s been writing Bible guides ever since, and we’ve been wrestling with the words of that book in different ways across the decades.

But I’d never seen the references to fortresses. Five in chapter one.  More in chapters two and three, including this: “They do not know how to do right,” declares the Lord, “who store up in their fortresses what they have plundered and looted.”  Amos 3:10 

On Tuesday I read this: "The Sovereign Lord has sworn by himself-the Lord God Almighty declares: "I abhor the pride of Jacob and detest his fortresses" (Amos 6:8).

Detest his fortresses?

I confess, I cringe when I hear people talk about what God hates. I’ve seen that go badly, and I’d prefer to focus on what and whom God loves: all of creation. Every person he made.

But what does it mean that God has sworn by himself “I detest his fortresses?”

Check the word, Whitney suggested. Maybe he’s referring to the “high places,” the places of worship and idolatry?

Fortress: "ma`owz": place of refuge or safety; stronghold.

But the word translated “fortress”, in Amos, at least, is different:  "chomah": fortified wall; city wall; wall joined to a wall.

Amos suggests that the walls in question aren’t for protecting people, but for protecting commerce, safeguarding possessions of the wealthy, shutting out the needs of the poor: 
With a blinding flash he destroys the stronghold and brings the fortified city to ruin.
There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court and detest the one who tells the truth.
You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.  Amos 5:9-12

Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land
skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales,
buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,
    selling even the sweepings with the wheat.
The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.
Will not the land tremble for this, and all who live in it mourn? (Amos 8:5-8)
On Wednesday evening, watching the GOP presidential debate. I found myself thinking of the fortresses I saw, and of Amos’ accusations against the walls and fortresses of his day.
Ansgar's Cross on Fortress Hill, Birka, Sweden

Many of the candidates want walls, fences, surveillance, cameras, across the entire Mexican border.

And guns, weapons, war ships, battallions: “We need the strongest military on the face of the planet, and everyone has to know it.”

Income inequality? The growing ranks of homeless Americans? Children in poverty? Underfunded schools? Wage theft? Mass incarceration of non-violent offenders?  The complete breakdown of justice for those who can’t afford lawyers or private bail-bond schemes?

No mention.

Dig a little further on this question of fortresses: it’s one of those themes that to me carries proof that the Biblical books, written across centuries, by a wide mix of authors, carry the words of a real God who speaks:

Throughout the Psalms the word of praise well up: “You, Lord, are our rock, our stronghold. Our fortress. Our place of safety. Our strong tower. Our wall.Our place of refuge. We will not be shaken.” (9:9, 18:2, 27:1, 28:8, 31:2, 31:3, 37:39, 46:7, 46:11, 48:3, 59:1, 59:9, 59:16, 59:17, 62:2. 62:6, 71:3, 91:2, 94:22, 144:2).

In the prophetic books, God asks his people why they’ve put their trust in other things: 
Isaiah 17:10: You have forgotten God your Savior; you have not remembered the Rock, your fortress.

Hosea 8:14: Israel has forgotten their Maker and built palaces; Judah has fortified many towns.
Nahum, writing around 615 BC, a century or more after Amos, described the fall of fortified Thebes, and promised Ninevah a similar fate in a short, very vivid prophecy: 
An attacker advances against you, Nineveh. Guard the fortress, watch the road, brace yourselves marshal all your strength! ! (2:1) Woe to the city of blood, full of lies,full of plunder, never without victims. (3:1) All your fortresses are like fig trees with their first ripe fruit; when they are shaken, the figs fall into the mouth of the eater. (3:11) You have increased the number of your merchants till they are more numerous than the stars in the sky, but like locusts they strip the land and then fly away. (3:16)
Fortresses are fun to visit, interesting to learn about.

Yet history, and scripture, make very clear: fortresses fall. 

Cultures constructed around military might and consolidation of wealth invite constant invasion.

Our most invincible walls prove vincible after all.

Justice and mercy are far better safeguards.

And God alone is our one sure refuge. 
We have a strong city;
    God makes salvation
    its walls and ramparts.
Open the gates
    that the righteous nation may enter,
    the nation that keeps faith.
 You will keep in perfect peace
    those whose minds are steadfast,
    because they trust in you.
Trust in the Lord forever,
    for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal.
He humbles those who dwell on high,
    he lays the lofty city low;
he levels it to the ground
    and casts it down to the dust.
Feet trample it down—
    the feet of the oppressed,
    the footsteps of the poor. Isaiah 28
Suemenlinna, Helsinki, Finland