Anyone who thinks Old Testament stories are inferior to modern stories must have overlooked the story of Joseph. Joseph has long been one of my favourites and I guess in part because it is a story of very plausible human characters. You will no doubt be as familiar as I am with the general gist of the beginning of this story. A bright, favoured son with a massive ego flaunting his new coat in front of his brothers and rubbing their noses in the fact that he is the favoured one…he is the one with the special cloak and he in effect is the only one with his fathers special blessing – and presumably the one destined for the inheritance. So would it be surprising to learn that the brothers hated him for it.
The brothers are out together with Joseph one day and absolutely fed up with their brother’s show-boating and his insistence that his brothers acknowledge his importance that they finally snap and decide to kill him. Fortunately for Joseph, there was one brother who made all the difference and without that brother, Joseph’s whole significant future history would have ended right there. Now instead of rehearsing yet again all the details of the story – and it is a truly great story – I want us to stop to think for a moment about the situation this young man was facing. The brother’s name was Reuben. The others were so angry at Joseph’s in your face behaviour they wanted to kill him. Reuben’s problem was that he knew what they were proposing was wrong.
In terms of modern counselling technique, Reuben was right up there with the best. I once worked with an experienced counsellor who had a great reputation for calming down teenagers full of pent-up rage. The secret he told me was simple. First you don’t stand in front of the angry one. That is confrontation. You stand beside them looking in the same direction as them. Rather than assume you already know where they are coming from, you next seek to get them to explain why they are angry. When they feel they are being heard then they are more able to entertain reasonable alternatives.
Reuben was not particularly moral in his solution, but given the alternative of certain murder he didn’t do too badly. He didn’t wait until the stones and knives came out and the killing began. He showed in effect he was looking in the same direction as his brothers when he correctly identified that Joseph was no longer welcome in the family and that his father would be unlikely to get off his case until be believed Joseph was dead. Reuben’s alternative of putting Joseph in a hole and pretending to the father that he died as a result of attack by wild animals is reported as Reuben’s attempt to play for time… but whatever else it is, it does set the stage for Joseph’s eventual reuniting with his brothers, years later in Egypt. And I guess the key thing to notice is that Reuben was prepared to take action, no matter how difficult, to take away the possibility for violence.
One of the stories behind what we might call the mythology surrounding the story of the Buddha is the story of what happened when he met a notorious, mass-murdering bandit in the woods. The Buddha was reportedly aware of the man’s past history of mass murder but actually invite the man to meet him in the hope that he might that turn the bandit from violence to peace. There are several versions of the story yet in all variants, the Buddha does not behave like most of us probably would and remains very calm, centred and serene as he faces this sword-wielding, crazed killer.
In one of the versions of the story, just as the bandit lifts his sword to attack the Buddha, the Buddha says to him:
“If I must die then be good enough to fulfil my dying wish: The first part of my wish is :cut off the branch of the tree.”
One slash of the sword, and it was done!
“What now?” asks the bandit.
“Put it back again,” says the Buddha.
The bandit laughs. “You must be crazy to think that anyone can do that.”
“On the contrary, it is you who are crazy to think that you are mighty because you can wound and destroy. Even children can do that. The mighty know how to create and heal.”
And the story says the crazed robber was so taken by this, he turned from his violent ways – a completely reformed man.
Whether or not this story was of an actual event seems to me to be beside the point.
The story points to one of those things we call an eternal truth – and resonates for me because it seems to me that it speaks to the human condition. Creating and healing are far more significant acts than wounding and destroying.
There can be no excuse for pre-emptive violence, yet common mythology glorifies violence.
We get it in our action movies where a lone individual using strength, cunning and guile, high powered guns and an apparently inexhaustible store of ammunition leaves the dead piled high… and is recognised in popular belief as a great force with which to be reckoned.
We get it with our international politics. A terrorist threatens – crush him with force.
A country appears threatening. Sanctions, guns, bombs, guided missiles and drones – if necessary full scale invasion and then of course they, the enemy, will capitulate.
And yes, there is something about the sight of military decorations, of uniforms, swords, guns….. I even wonder if the same thing that attracts children to Harry Potter causes young men in particular to enjoy the immense power being placed in their hands when the simple press of a trigger can annihilate a distant enemy. There is also something seductive about those war games on the computer – World of Warcraft is evidently popular.
Of course for a decent war you need an enemy and if you don’t have one. Make one.
Depersonalise the foreigner. If the foreigner speaks a different language dresses differently and has different features so much the better. If they even believe different things – like Muslims, or Buddhists, or Hindus we can exaggerate the more bizarre features of the religion and even say they have an evil religion.
If we were ticking boxes for the above attitudes Anders Breivik, mass murderer in Norway, ticks most of those.
Loved uniforms, even made his own uniforms, read and agreed with those who wrote anti-Islamic literature, reportedly liked the judgemental parts of the Bible and I regret to say described himself as a Christian, advocated what he called regrettably necessary violence aimed at foreigners and immigrants and even advocated violence against those who offered hospitality to the foreigners, loved computer games of the violent sort especially as it turns out, the best selling war game World of Warcraft, made bombs, collected guns and ammunition… and although there would be few who would have thought that what he did with his weapons was rational, there would be many who would agree with some of the principles he expressed, and many others who have fantasized about using weapons.
Unfortunately when violence actually does occur it rarely corresponds with how the fantasy is supposed to turn out. On the movies in the action films the hero dispatches all the clearly bad baddies each with a well aimed bullet and we don’t get to see what happens to the often very long suffering of the wounded. Nor do we see the despair of the killed person’s family and the years of anguish that follow. For this reason it can never be the right thing to do to wait until the violent action occurs before we take action.
While for most of us deliberately violent means of dealing with the dangerous person would be unthinkable there is of course the dilemma about what to do when you see the first warning signs of violence beginning to build. Anders Breivik is mercifully a rare extreme and once underway with his killing would have been very difficult to stop. Yet I would suggest there is probably no adult present in a typical Church congregation who hasn’t seen examples of unjustified violence or hate sometime in their life. And whether it is some crazed Anders Breivik or simply some little old lady who can’t stand her neighbour there always seems to be a need for someone to take on the role of coming alongside and looking in the same direction.
And I guess the reality is that we are often faced with less than perfect alternatives when it comes to reducing violence. It can quite legitimately be argued that pacifism has no place as long as there are genuine enemies to deal with. If the mass killer has already started a killing spree or a terrorist is about to crash a plane into a skyscraper it may well be too late to do anything but take him out by any means you have at your disposal. But I guess I would like to argue that perhaps we have to start our peacemaking sooner rather than later when the crisis is upon us. Perhaps this might even mean putting better alternatives to those talking of violence. It might also mean speaking up when we hear others fulminating about new immigrants, about Muslims in the community, or about the need to close our borders to foreigners. I would not like to leave the impression I know what to say to people who fear and even hate. On my internet site I am frequently crossing verbal swords with those who are intolerant – and frequently I fail. Yet I still think it is worth trying. When it is obvious that the motivations for violence are distorted I believe it is necessary to speak up. When we see children introduced to violent video-games there is reason for challenging the games values. We should be seeking to have the young meet those of other cultures and teach far more about values in others’ societies. When we encounter intolerance whether it be in our neighbourhoods or through media such as the internet it is worth putting an alternative point of view. And yes I can confirm from personal experience that there will be those whose form of bigotry is so firmly set that nothing we say will make any apparent difference.
Neil H Swanson tells of the Russian youth who had become a conscientious objector to war through the reading of both Tolstoy and the New Testament, and was brought before a magistrate. With all the strength of sincere conviction he told the Judge of the life which loves its enemies, which does good to those who despitefully use it, which overcomes evil with good, and which refuses war.
“Yes” said the Judge, “I understand. But you must be realistic. These laws you are talking about are the laws of the kingdom of God; and it has not yet come.”
The young man straightened, and said, “Sir I recognise that it has not come for you, nor yet for Russia or the world. But the kingdom of God has come for me! I cannot go on hating and killing as though it has not come”.
I cannot be sure I would have the courage of that young man, or even the courage of Reuben speaking up against a small majority group for the less violent alternative. Nor can I say with any certainty that I would know how to work towards a world in which there were fewer who hate – or a world in which some Anders Breivik would not run amuck. What however I can be more certain about is that there are many contributing causes of violence. If we claim the kingdom of God has come for us we must at least see it has something to do with the realities of the world in which we find ourselves. .