Wednesday, 14 October 2015

‘Samson the Suicide Bomber’- Coming To Terms with the Violence of the Bible

The rise in anti-Islamic attitudes, rhetoric, and action in the US and Europe has been extremely depressing to anyone who values a basic sense of pluralism and mutual understanding.

At the heart of a lot of this intolerance is a mix of a general lack of understanding and willful ignorance. 

The former is quite natural and, if the desire is there, easy to overcome;

the latter is tougher, as the desire to understand is very often not present. The assumption is made that we already know what ‘they’ are like, what ‘they’ believe, what ‘they’ want to do to us.

Dialogue and interaction are, therefore, seen as a waste of time; ‘they’ would probably try to deceive us anyway…  

At bottom, many have a fundamental suspicion of anything- or anyone- ‘different’. At different points in American history, it has been Catholics, Jews, or Asians who have borne the brunt of this suspicion; ‘can they ever really be Americans? After all, they are so fundamentally different from the rest of us…’

Today, it is Middle Eastern and North African people at the sharp end of the stick, the majority (but certainly not all) of which are religiously and culturally Muslim…  

The religious component of this suspicion is focused on the Muslim faith itself, its religious tradition, practice, and holy text. Islam is regularly accused of being inherently aggressive, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian, and the Qur’an is derided as giving a thin religious veneer to violence and conquest.

This type of argument is very often difficult to counter, as it requires a level of self-understanding and self-criticism that the arguer rarely possesses. They’d need to be willing to examine their own faith, their own tradition and, yes, they own holy text, holding it all up to the same type of scrutiny that they apply to their opponents.

Rarely are fundamentalists- Christians or otherwise- willing to do this.

The question doesn’t need to be, ‘Does the Qur’an advocate violent extremism?’  It could quite easily be posed as, ‘Using the same criteria, does the Bible?’

Both questions are essentially unanswerable in any concrete, legal way, but the exercise is a valuable one if it helps us engage with the society in which we find ourselves and helps us live together better.

So let’s examine one biblical passage and the character it describes- Samson.

Not only is Samson well known to just about every Christian with even the vaguest knowledge of the Bible, he is held up as a great example to emulate, particularly for children. Walk into any Christian book seller in the world and there will be a children’s book titled something like ‘Great Heroes of the Bible’, and Samson will feature very prominently.

‘Hero’? Really?

Far from being heroic, Samson strikes me as one of a couple of biblical ‘heroes’ who seems to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

If you don’t believe me, jog over to Judges 14 and 15.

Read with any degree of objectivity, Samson comes across as a cruel, unpredictable, irreverent, arrogant, misogynistic, lecherous, muscle-bound hothead with an un-diagnosed anger-management disorder.

He seems to have wandered into the biblical text from Greek mythology, a close friend of Achilles or Hercules- and there are biblical scholars who argue that that’s the best company to put him with, as some type of Hebrew superhuman ‘demigod’ figure. Those of us who grew up with the ancient Irish epic cycles of Fionn mac Cumhaill and CĂș Chulainn will recognize Samson immediately, as I suspect will fans of Spiderman, the Hulk, the Avengers, or dozens of other inhabitants of the Marvel Comics universe-

more human than human, but with none of God’s good qualities like knowledge, mercy, compassion, or love.

When we first meet Samson, he is demanding that his father get him a wife- basically 'buy’ him one, if we want to be true to his historical context. This soundly removes Samson from being a poster boy for the ‘biblical marriage’ lobby…

At the wedding, Samson then loses a bet and, to pay off his debts, resorts to murdering 30 people and looting their property. His wife? He gives her to the best man to rape.

Had enough? We’re just getting started…

After a while, Samson goes to his wife’s family- he’s not actually living with her- and announces he’s looking to get laid. Her father, having assumed Samson had abandoned her, explains he’s married her off to someone else. He is welcome to screw the younger, prettier sister, though…

Furious, Samson burns the crops of the entire local population. Though the text doesn’t mention it, we would now understand the burning of crops is a war crime, a crime against civilians, bringing starvation and disease.

The Philistines seek justice and demand that Samson be made to atone for his actions. Indeed, when they finally capture Samson, the charges they lay on him are ‘ravager of our country, who has killed many of us.’ Who could argue they don’t have a case?

Samson is treated with the justice of the time. He is maimed, emasculated, and humiliated.

What does he do?

He becomes a suicide bomber… in so much as he ends his own life in such a way that will kill as many of his enemies as possible.

Samson placed a ‘bomb’- his own body- in a place of worship. The text puts the death toll at 3,000…

So, I’m very sorry, but Samson is a ‘hero’ only if your definition of 'hero' is ‘someone who only kills civilians of the people we deem to be enemies’.

What role does Samson serve for us? It might simply be to serve as a cautionary tale for those who want to see justifications for violence and death in the holy books of others and never in their own.

I’m not saying that Samson has specifically served as an inspiration for Christian extremism or violence; I’m just saying that if Christian extremists were looking for an inspiration, they wouldn’t have to look further than Samson…

After all, the text says he has God’s blessing. Crucially, at no point does the text have God voicing any displeasure with any of Samson’s actions.

This is not a character from ‘their’ holy book; this is a character firmly placed in ‘ours’.

Can Samson simply be ignored? Can he be carefully interpreted or contextually explained? Of course he can.

But if we allow ourselves that privilege and deny it to other faiths, then we are hypocrites.

In the words of St. John, ‘we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’…

Holy books- all holy books- are beautiful, edifying, and of significant cultural value.  

But holy books- all holy books- are dangerous, dark, and difficult.

This is why theological reflection, inter-religious dialogue, and intercultural understanding are so vitally important. We must interpret our faith traditions in the light of those who do not hold to them, or hold to them differently.

We must read our sacred texts in the light of those who have either been victimized by them or hear a very different narrative than the one we hear ourselves.

So before we criticize the faith tradition of another, we need to ask:

Do we really want our kids to grow up just like Samson?