1 Samuel 17
“David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” (17:32)
“David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” (17:37)
One of the fascinating sites in the Bavarian city of Regensburg in Germany is this large mural of David and Goliath painted on the wall of Goliath House, which is in the historic centre of the Old Town. The David and Goliath story in the 17th chapter of Samuel is one of the most popular stories from Scripture. It suggests an underdog situation, a contest where a smaller, weaker opponent faces a much bigger, stronger and more frightening adversary. David and Goliath confront each other: Goliath, the powerful giant (about 10 feet tall) with his armour, javelin and sword, and David, the young man with his shepherd’s bag with 5 stones and his sling in hand, along with his faith and trust in God. What seemed to be a weaker, outmatched shepherd defeats a mighty and menacing warrior. It is a lesson of courage, faith, and overcoming what seems impossible.
It reminds me that in our journey through life we all encounter giants of various kinds which threaten or undermine the well-being of our lives. Some of these giants are very personal and can be very intimidating. Some may threaten our family or our community, or our ethnic or cultural rights and traditions. Some giants may threaten our nation or other nations; and some may be a threat to the health of our planet. There are many different kinds of giants that may confront us, one way or another. What are some of these giants and how can we learn the art of battling and overcoming these obstacles to enjoying the fulness of life that God intends for us all?
If you or someone in your circle of care has experienced some form of personal abuse, exploitation, or other traumatic experiences in your life, you may end up having to confront personal giants that threaten your life and well-being. These experiences can have a major impact on your life; in fact, they might even begin to define your future life. These are very hard giants to cope with, and the healing process may involve professional counselling on the road to recovery.
There are other significant giants that we may encounter in life, which may be somewhat hidden to some of us, but others will be painfully aware of their detrimental presence in their lives. My main focus in this meditation will be on one of these broader societal giants that threaten our well-being in our everyday relationships, in our community, and in our nation. One of the most pervasive and devastating giants we regularly encounter as humans is what I would refer to as cultural captivity. Culture involves the beliefs, values, customs, and traditions of a society. Culture is the lens through which we evaluate everything around us, which gives us the sense of what is proper or improper, normal or abnormal. We learn and absorb culture from our very earliest childhood days and throughout our life. We develop a sense of cultural identity, a feeling of belonging; it becomes part of our self-perception. It is related to nationality, ethnicity, religion, social class, locality, and other factors connected to our distinct culture. Cultural captivity may occur when we encounter people from a culture different than our own, and we ignore, discount or fail to respect their culture.
The world that God made is full of marvelous, elaborate and complex diversity. The whole created order is a testimony to its beauty and mystery. The story of humanity is one of rich diversity and possibility. What is required is learning how to live respectfully, productively and joyously in the midst of cultural diversity. But the reality of history indicates that we humans have found it very difficult to do that. We become trapped in our cultural captivity, and are often quite oblivious that we are doing it, or feel powerless to do anything significant about it.
Cultural captivity is certainly a Canadian problem, and I’ll have more to say about that shortly.
But I want to make clear that this problem is not confined to any one country; it is indeed a global problem. I have had the opportunity to travel fairly widely and have worked with many people from different countries, cultures, races, and ethnicities. Whether it is Africans, Asians, Caribbeans, Latin Americans, Europeans, Russians, etc. I have heard many stories of tribalism, discrimination, ethnic cleansing, and racism, all of which are different forms of a cultural captivity that dehumanizes people and causes immeasurable suffering. One of my continual observations is that ethnic minorities often face very major challenges and obstacles in the country in which they are living, where they are not the dominant culture.
Let us now focus on Canada, a country which often prides itself on being multicultural and welcoming diversity. Certainly, the people who live here come from every corner of the globe.
Over many years we have made some important progress in becoming a more just, equitable
and inclusive society; but we are still faced with some very troubling and persisting problems that have been part of our lived reality for a very long time. They particularly relate to the treatment of our ethnic minorities, including Indigenous peoples and Blacks, and other racialized groups. If you really want to know the realities of our situation, you ask the people most affected, and hopefully they will share their experiences with you. We need to LISTEN.
Michaëlle Jean, a former Governor General of Canada (a Haitian refugee raised in Quebec), had some very pertinent things to say in response to the many recent demonstrations made asserting “Black Lives Matter”. She said, “Racism makes life a constant struggle for Black Canadians. Of all the scourges afflicting humanity, the most devastating and recurrent is racism.” She said it is systemic, which includes demeaning behaviours, prejudices, attitudes, slurs and jibes, harassment, ethnic profiling, insinuations, putdowns, and exclusion due to ethnic origin, colour of their skin. Her experience is that racism is a succession of painful stings, never trivial, never harmless; it may be unwitting, and it exists in every society.
Our Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, made this acknowledgement: “There is a systemic discrimination in Canada, which means our systems treat Canadians of colour; Canadians who are racialized, differently than they do others.”
Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, made this comment about how Canadian police officers interact with people of different ethnicities: ‘First Nations face systemic racism in every aspect of life, and from every institution of Canadian society. Canada’s unwillingness to address systemic racism is killing people.’
Jody Wilson-Raybould, a former Minister of Justice in the Federal Government and Attorney General of Canada, now an independent Member of Parliament, an Indigenous person from the west coast, had a number of observations to make. “I pushed for bold criminal justice reform. Nothing happened. Too often, political expediency triumphed over bold and necessary action.” “The relationship of Indigenous people to our justice system, including policing, is one of the starkest examples of systemic racism, and how the legacy of colonialism remains with us.” Today, she says we need leaders who have the will, understanding, and courage to make the necessary foundational transformational changes, including new laws, policies and practices to address the harmful realities.
Murray Sinclair, is a member of the Canadian Senate, a First Nations lawyer, who later served as a judge in Manitoba, and who served as Chairman of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 2009 to 2015. At the release of the final report of the commission in 2015, with its 94 Calls to Action, Sinclair made these comments: “A period of change is beginning, that if sustained by the will of the people, will forever realign the shared history of indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in Canada. Change, of course, will not be immediate. It will take years, perhaps generations.”
In the various discussions that have taken place recently in order to understand the realities of the challenges we face, leaders have wondered or argued about the meaning of “systemic racism.” In contributing to the current discussion, Senator Murray Sinclair indicated that people are wrong to interpret systemic racism as a statement that everyone is racist in a given system. “Systemic racism is when the system itself is based upon and founded upon racist beliefs and philosophies and thinking and has put in place policies and practices that literally force even the non-racists to act in a racist way.”
The threatening and harmful realities of cultural captivity show up in many different ways. What conditions have to exist in a society that would motivate an extremist to walk into a Mosque in Quebec City in 2017 and murder 6 people and wound others, while they were at worship? What conditions have to exist in a society to encourage “zoom bombing” several Toronto synagogues with hateful messages, whose congregants were engaged in online prayer services during this pandemic? What conditions have to exist in a society that Canadians who identify as being of Chinese ethnicity in Vancouver are being subject to threats, intimidation, or other forms of harassment?
The Apology to First Nations Peoples of The United Church of Canada, delivered by Moderator Bob Smith in Sudbury in 1986, indicates its understanding of cultural captivity.
“Long before my people journeyed to this land your people were here, and you received from your Elders an understanding of creation and of the Mystery that surrounds us all that was deep, and rich, and to be treasured.
We did not hear you when you shared your vision. In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality.
We confused Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ.
We imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the gospel.
We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be.
We ask you to forgive us and to walk together with us in the Spirit of Christ so that our peoples may be blessed and God’s creation healed.”
It seems to me that the Scriptural record clearly indicates that the Good News of Jesus Christ is intended to be available to all people. After his resurrection, Jesus came to his disciples (learners of the Way) and said to them: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
What appeared to start out as a Jewish sect, became a global religion. It spread far and wide. The message of the Gospel is that God so loved the world – the whole world and everybody and every living organism within it. There are many stories and instances where Jesus indicates that his life perspective was not confined to his own particular Jewish culture (e.g. Good Samaritan, Woman at the well, the healing of people on the Sabbath, conversations with women in public, speaking with outcast and troubled people, and even accepting the hospitality of a tax-collector. He often broke through norms and customs of his own culture in order to help, heal, guide and support those who needed his care.
The critical question is ‘How do we live the Gospel, with its worldwide intentionality, without being trapped by the limitations of our particular culture?’ We have struggled with that issue for many centuries, and no simple answer has emerged. We have often learned by hindsight what we should not do. We have often learned that it is folly to be in a hurry to implement or impose our objectives. Given the diversity of the world and the people who inhabit it, it seems to me that one way we could approach it is though this pattern: Listen, Learn, Love.
We need to listen to what others are saying or not saying to us, and how they are doing that.
We need to learn what gives meaning and richness to the lives of others, and what threatens or discourages them. If we listen and learn with sufficient sensitivity and wisdom, then we can learn to love in a way that brings encouragement, life and hope.
Living the Gospel, with all its dimensions and diversity is a humbling and exciting lifelong adventure for each one of us who want to be learners of the Way of Jesus. We are called to love one another with all our differences and diversities. Perhaps, with God’s help, we may even overcome some of the giants we encounter along the way.
“Draw the circle wide. Draw it wider still.
Let this be our song, no one stands alone, standing side by side,
draw the circle wide.
God the still point of the circle, ‘round whom all creation turns;
nothing lost, but held forever, in God’s gracious arms.
Let our hearts touch far horizons, so encompass great and small;
let our loving know no borders, faithful to God’s call.
Let the dreams we dream be larger, than we’ve ever dreamed before;
let the dream of Christ be in us, open every door.
– Words and music by Gordon Light (1994) More Voices # 145