One of the questions I ask when studying scripture is, "Where can I stand in the text?" If that question goes unasked, the assumed answer is usually Jesus. Or Israel or Paul or whoever the good guy happens to be in that particular story.
When we encounter a story of conflict (whether in the Bible or at the movie theater), we easily find ourselves shaking our fists right along with the hero, shouting, "Get 'em! Get 'em good!"
We identify with the hero fighting for right. Our anger is always righteous. Our violent response is always justified. The story of David and Goliath has all of the elements that produce those feelings:
- David was hopelessly outmatched by the giant Goliath. He was the underdog.
- David is perceived as a simple shepherd boy, innocent and righteous, coming to take on a sinful, godless murderer. Good and evil are clearly defined.
- Goliath insulted not only the Israelites but our God. David was defending not only his people but our God. What cause more justifies a fight?
We tell story after story of heroes battling bad guys. The stories are especially thrilling when the hero is hopelessly outmatched, defeat seems imminent, and the world as we know it is about to end. But then--suddenly, impossibly--victory!
We are so enamored by these stories that we seek ways to embody them in our own lives. We long to be real life heroes. We want to bring justice where injustice is perpetuated. To bring righteousness where evil is winning. To bring hope where all seems lost.
We want to be David.
But there are two problems with this. First, we forget to consider that we may not actually be David. We just might be Goliath--with all of the power on our side.
The echo chamber of social media, curated news feeds, and like-minded groups has undermined our ability to discern who is David and who is Goliath.
It is easy to link arms with our fellow soldiers and go to war against the Goliaths all around us. Our battle cry is borrowed from the narrative of David and Goliath: "We are hopelessly outmatched, but this evil giant must be defeated in the name of our god!"
And with this cry, we go to war, justified in slinging whatever we can find at our giant enemies.
Only here's the problem. Our enemies also think they are David. And so they come slinging their rocks too.
We are outraged! What right does Goliath have to take shots at David? He's a giant; we're mere shepherds. He's evil; we're righteous. He is the enemy of God; we are the defenders of God.
This is dangerous thinking. It is the logic of terrorists: acts of violence against the godless enemy are always justified.
It is all too easy to go from righteous heroism to violent terrorism.
- Conservatives versus liberals. Conservatives say that liberals are taking over this country. Politically correct speech has made it impossible to say anything. Others' values are being forced upon us. Liberalism is a giant force that we have to take shots at every chance we get.
- Liberals versus conservatives. Liberals say that conservatives have held power in this country for way too long. They are a giant that controls politics, corporations, and religious institutions. We have to take whatever shots we can get to bring them down.
- Conservative Christians versus liberal Christians. I see these battles raging on Facebook and Twitter. Conservative Christians say that the church is losing its way. Everything that was important to our parents and grandparents is dismissed as old-fashioned and irrelevant. This liberal Christianity is an unstoppable force sweeping the church, but we must stand and defend the values and beliefs of those who have gone before us by any means possible. If some of those liberal Christians get their feelings hurt in the process, maybe it will help them see the truth.
- Liberal Christians versus conservative Christians. This is the other side of the Facebook battle. Liberal Christians look at the positions of power and feel completely outmatched. The conservative Christians are the presidents of institutions, denominational leaders, and the most visible local leaders. We are hopelessly outmatched. They hold all the power. We are marginalized, ignored, and blacklisted. Again, we are justified in using any means at our disposal to promote change and bring new life to dying institutions, even if it means hurting the feelings of a few of those institutional defenders along the way.
- I see it in churches. New people come who represent new ways of thinking, alternative lifestyles, changes in traditional gender roles, different politics. They are perceived as agents of Goliath. If we can defeat them in argument, it is a potshot at Goliath. (Note that this happens to people on both sides of any issue, even in churches.)
- It happens in work environments. Employers are "the man" and employees are justified in taking little shots here and there--fudging hours on timecards, misusing their work time, taking office supplies. The employer is Goliath and employees are the shepherd David barely able to get off a shot before they are eaten up by the system. On the other hand, employers perceive employees as lazy, apathetic, and incompetent. They are the Goliath of a useless workforce, and employers are justified in taking whatever shots they can get off at their employees before the full force of their laziness and apathy destroys the hard work of employers.
It would be appalling if Goliath was throwing rocks at David, and we would be horrified to see ourselves as a murderous giant picking on a poor, innocent shepherd. But as long as we can convince ourselves that we are the innocent shepherd trying to take down the giant, all of our violent thoughts, words, and deeds are justified. We are just trying to defend our god.
It may come as a shock to many Christians that God isn't actually in need of our defense. Nor is God's church.
We aren't actually saviors.
This is the second problem with our reading of David and Goliath. There is a much larger biblical narrative to consider. The prophet Zechariah put it well: "'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty." It is, in fact, not our responsibility to defeat all evil in the world. Rather, it is our responsibility (in the words of Micah) to "act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God."
The idea that the end justifies the means is a popular ethical foundation. However, the biblical message is God justifies the means and decides the end. We are always called to faithful obedience, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, laying down our life and taking up his cross.
Today, if you encounter Goliath, instead of turning to the words of David in 1 Samuel 17, turn instead to other words of David (or the Sons of Korah) in Psalm 46:
"He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
He says, 'Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.'
The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress."
|My own little superhero and his sidekick!|
*Walter Wink, The Powers That Be, 1998, p. 42.