Friends came round for a meal this week, who – when they arrived – were not in the best mood. Largely because, their daughter had been given a detention. A five hour detention. And the reason that she had been given a five hour detention, was that she was eating an easter egg, which she had been given by a teacher, for good behaviour. So, she waits until the end of the lesson, unwraps the crème egg and eats it on her way to the next lesson – but en route she is arrested by Darth Vader and escorted to the detention block where she had to stay for five hours! Other detentions were handed out for arriving at school late, for a girl wearing her hair band around her wrist, and a boy who turned up to school in odd socks.
By George: The trouble that follows on from eating an easter egg. The school of course, are proud of what they call a zero tolerance approach, that left 20 percent of the school in detention throughout the course of the school day, in the run up to GCSE exams. One class had only one pupil left in it! Zero tolerance is not the only phrase containing the word 'zero' that would adequately describe such a policy.
On these Sunday evenings, we are looking at the problem of suffering and violence throughout Scripture. We have looked at the context of the Creation, the Exodus, and then the settlement of the promised land. This week we are looking at what it means to hold on to that promised land, from others whose gods have promised it to them as well.
As the people of Israel have been colonizing the promised land, they had adopted what you might call a ‘zero tolerance’ approach. When a town is overrun, all the men are killed. But so too are all the women, and all the children and all the animals. Firm but fair, you might say. In the long run, it will be better for everyone…
Well, the story so far is that, the descendents of Abraham have been in slavery in Egypt for centuries. Then finally, Moses leads them to freedom, and Joshua leads them into the promised land: But there are other people already living in this land… the Canaanites. And they are gradually being extinguished. But this is a beautiful land, the land flowing with milk and honey, and everyone wants to get their hands on it. The Philistines are a warrior people from city states beside the sea side, who start attacking the land.
So, not having a king, when these external threats pop up, the twelve tribes of Israel come together under the leadership of a judge. (hence the book of judges) And one of those judges is called Samson. And we all know the story: Samson is a Jewish version of Achilles. Eventually, the story goes badly … he is betrayed, but ends up praying to God, asking that he might be avenged for his eyeballs… and what does he consider a reasonable exchange for two eyeballs? Three thousand people. Not the last time Israel has shown a lack of proportion in response to violence…
So – Samson prays, and two pillars are taken down, killing three thousand people. That’s not the last time in history that two great pillars supporting an entire infrastructure of worship, have come tumbling down to kill three thousand people! Samson was a one man al-quaida terrorist attack. According to Scripture, that is what happened – and it looks as though it is sanctioned by God.
Although the text doesn’t actually say that – the way the story is read suggests that God himself gave his strength to Samson to perform this atrocity. In what ways is this attack different from the worst terrorist attack in modern history? Should we think again before putting cartoons of Samson into bible stories for kids as a healthy role model, who – though having been a bit of a tearaway – returns to God at the end of his life, as his final great act shows!
Well… what do you say to that? Three thousand people are killed in New York – and it is despicable… three thousand people are killed by Samson, and it is virtuous! It’s just a different three thousand…
Of course, from a twenty first century position of comfort and luxury, it’s easy to look back upon all this and tut and shake your head and speak of how barbaric it was. But, if you were a child of Abraham living in this era, you would be living in fear. And when your enemies are defeated, and not only defeated but utterly wiped out so that there are no children left to grow up and exact revenge – I would imagine that you would be grateful.
So, living in a world of sheer violence, I think you would express that gratitude to God! And it hardly needs spelling out, that we are – in fact – no different. When we thank God for the privileges we have in this country; when we thank God for the security with which we live; for the fact that we always have food and shelter! And who would complain about that. But keep looking: look at what it means to thank God for the luxuries we enjoy: for the holidays, for the nice cars, for the comforts that we can all-too-easily take for granted. When we do that … should we not look, at the same time, at why it is we enjoy all these luxuries? Should we not look at why the goods we buy are so cheap, the holidays we enjoy are within our grasp; the homes we own are worth so much.
Because when you scratch the surface and begin to look at these things, so many of our luxuries are bought at the cost of massive suffering for other people. Now, these are issues that we look at regularly at Bloomsbury, and I’m not suggesting that we should be in a constant state of guilt and shame. But simply to say, if you shake your head at the Samson story, and then thank God for your comfortable life – there is a huge if unacknowledged inconsistency!
All this, is to say that – it strikes me that these violent stories of Scripture, when read properly, show us a mirror. They serve as a parable … getting us to nod and cheer or shake our heads and jeer, before realising that we are cheering or jeering at ourselves – and the rug is pulled from under our own feet! That is the way Scripture works – and it seems that this is precisely what is happening when we read this passage in the light of all that follows it!
The zero tolerance we see in the Israelites, the zero tolerance we see in the Ely school are desperate grasps at security when you feel unable to control a situation. You might be forgiven for regarding the school as a miniature Libya …. And if you look at the school’s own website and receive the schools own messages, you know that this zero tolerance approach is for everyone’s good! That is the story that is told, because the school have the power to control how their story is told.
It is exactly the same with these violent texts from the Old Testament … they tell the story, because it is their story. But in the overall narrative of Scripture, these stories are not the end … they have further consequences and further twists in the narrative that will cause them to be read in a new light. And that is the challenge that we are left with – with our liftestyles and habits and assumptions and commitments – they are so natural to us, we take for granted their givenness – but will we have the courage to hear our stories read in the context of other people’s stories…. Or is our own approach one of zero tolerance?