Some stories in the Old Testament seem disconnected with today’s world because our lives are just too different. This is not the case today’s story of Joseph which continues to have a sort of timeless appeal because it reflects some familiar human flaws. You will no doubt be familiar with the general gist of the beginning of Joseph’s story. A bright, younger son with a massive ego, flaunts his new coat in front of his older brothers in effect rubbing their noses in the fact that he is the favoured one. As the one with the special cloak he can now demonstrate his father’s special blessing – and presumably to demonstrate he is 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 and they encounter Joseph one day. They are absolutely fed up with their brother’s show-boating and his insistence that his brothers acknowledge his importance. He has pushed them too far and they 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.
Today, 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 older brother was facing. The brother’s name was Reuben. While Reuben understood the others’ anger 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 subsequently 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 reduce the possibility for violence.
I wonder if the real issue is that all too often when the bad action is about to be demonstrated there are so few prepared to step up and encourage a more ethical alternative. For the last seven years an independent United Nations appointed panel under the leadership of Carla del Ponte has documented a litany of war atrocities in Syria that have grown increasingly brazen. These included the torture of prisoners, chemical weapon use, attacks on hospitals and even sexual slavery.
Last Sunday Carla del Ponte, a Swiss prosecutor announced her resignation because after thousands of confirmed reports to her panel, the UN security Council had steadfastly blocked any attempts to take action.
It will be interesting to watch now and see if the Security Council will respond to Carla del Ponte’s bold and selfless action. But the real issue will be whether or not those who claim to live by Christian principles will be prepared to allow their UN representatives to stand by default and say nothing.
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, murderous bandit in the woods. The Buddha was reportedly aware of the man’s past violent history but invited the man to meet him in the hope that he might find a way to 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.
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. When a highly respected international legal expert fails to get the support the UN Security Council it is a measure of our faith to see if any of our number is prepared to speak out.
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. 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. While we are probably all agreed that Jesus gives us clear direction for lives lived as disciples the Reubens in real life are not always forthcoming.
And I guess if it comes to that 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 peace-making 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 neighbourhood 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 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. 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.
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