There is little actual, factual history in the account of David and Goliath. David and his band of terrorists after many years of sniping from the wilderness eventually overthrew the king of Israel, Saul, and installed David as the new monarch. They then set about justifying this seizure of power by rewriting both religious and secular history. Those histories found in our Bible tell us that David was attractive to women, men, and religious alike. He was strong, brave, musical, artistic, and, of course, chosen by God. They are 10th century BCE spin doctoring.
The David and Goliath account is part of the spin doctoring. The young, armour-less, yet brave shepherd boy does what all the mighty warriors of Saul cannot. He slays the giant. Rather than a man, Goliath might have symbolized the collective threat of neighbouring Philistia, or might have symbolized the obstacles David needed to overcome in order to usurp King Saul.
Regardless of actual, factual history the story of David and Goliath has a mythological life of its own. It is about the small overcoming the mighty, the weak bettering the strong, and courage besting power. In 1976 when a US nuclear-powered cruiser Long Beach was confronted at the entrance to Auckland Harbour by a flotilla of small yachts and boats, later to be called the Peace Squadron, at least one news report spoke of it as the little David challenging the Goliath of nuclear armaments. As George Armstrong wrote, “It was a deeply religious occasion as some celebrated their deepest feelings, aspirations, and commitments.”
There are large Goliaths that still need confronting, not least the arms industry. There are Goliaths of self-interest, greed, and oppression that continue to favour the strong over the weak, the rich over the poor, men over women, and straight over gay. When these Goliaths run amok, or simply are allowed to prosper because good people do nothing, the well-being and spirituality of us all suffers.
David chose from the brook five smooth stones. Today the five stones I would choose for the fight against the Goliaths are wisdom, courage, imagination, gratitude, and compassion.
Wisdom is not simply the acquisition of knowledge, nor its application, nor is it intelligence. You can have all the information of the internet, have memorised every word in every encyclopaedia, and still not be wise. Rather wisdom starts with knowing yourself, where you are from, and the threads that bind you to others and the earth.
We must learn to value stillness, the night, and the soul. Stillness is not disengagement, or retreat. It is listening to the self, the soil, and the unspoken sighs of so many. When its dark and still it is easier to listen… it’s also easier to fall asleep!
Wisdom involves falling in love with our unique identity, and our integration with all of life. If we don’t love ourselves we will find it difficult to love our obstreperous neighbours. If we don’t love our neighbours our self becomes bloated – like an enclosed heart that has nowhere to pump its lifeblood.
Wisdom is about knowing when to stop, and when to move quickly; when to believe and when to be sceptical; when to stick to our guns and when to trade them for the sake of our children; and when to give and when to give until it hurts.
This week Louise Nicholas has epitomised the second smooth stone: courage. Seven times she has stood up in court and repeated the details of her rape and sexual assault. She has endured scorn, disbelief, and ridicule. Louise has stood up against the Goliath of entrenched attitudes regarding women, sex, and male accountability. As she said let’s hope that her trials will make it easier for other women in the future to get some semblance of justice.
There are other types of courage too. There is the courage of those police officers who have longed believed Louise and carefully complied cases against their colleagues. Breaking ranks, particularly for the sake of a woman, is seen as a great male crime.
Courage involves endurance, not being thanked or acknowledged, and, unfortunately, repeatedly loosing. The Bible uses the word kenosis or self-emptying. It means costly persistence for the sake of others.
The third smooth stone is that of imagination. It means thinking creatively, playfully, beyond what is anticipated or expected.
Many years ago there was a gentleman who upon his death divided his camels between his three sons. To the first he left half his camel herd, to the second a third of his camels, and to the last born a ninth. The problem was however that he left in total 17 camels and apart from killing and chopping up an animal or two, and thus reducing the value of the bequest, the sons couldn't see a way to follow their father's will. They decided to consult a priest. He simply lent them a camel. Now with 18 camels in total the eldest son took his half – 9 beasts; the second born took his third – 6 beasts; and the last born took his ninth – 2 beasts. In total that came to 17 camels; and they gave the 18th camel back to the priest.
Apart from being a fun story for those of a mathematical bent, the 18th camel is a metaphor for imaginative problem solving. To help people through the impasse of their circumstances we need to offer not only novel ideas, but also something of ourselves. There is a cost to creativity. In this story the camel was returned but in my experience it is usually used to pay the lawyer who settled the estate, and the creative solution itself will quickly become an idea that the brothers dreamed up themselves.
The fourth smooth stone is gratitude. Being thankful doesn’t come naturally. It needs to be both cultivated and practiced. It needs to be spoken, and acted out in gift-giving to others.
I have a little coffee coaster that says, “Don’t forget to pause and thank God for everything”. We hesitate around the word ‘everything’. There are many things in our lives we are not thankful for, and nor should we be. The Goliaths of this world – systems, structures, and powers – trample on many of the things we hold precious and dear.
Yet there is a deep wisdom in exercising a thankful spirit. That spirit is about the beauty that is ours to find, the sun that breaks through the clouds, and the smile that we can elicit from one another. It is the power of recovery after the fall. It is the power of hope. It is the power of a small stone to fell the oppressive Goliaths.
The last stone I choose is that of compassion. It is the exercise of hospitality and goodwill towards both friend and stranger. It is taking the risk of that hospitality, and defending the person who is different when others want to exclude him or her. It is noticing who is not present, who is overlooked or discounted. It is speaking up to counter prejudicial attitudes. It is forgiving what seems to be harm done to yourself. It is putting up with difficult people. It is giving clothes, food, and money away. It is consoling the sad, and going to neighbours’ funerals. It is the love for the many, aroha nui. It is believing that that human community is joined at the heart.
In the final analysis the Goliaths of this world don’t understand the heart. They don’t understand the love that is not selfish, greedy, or oppressive. They don’t understand the spirit of giving with no return. They don’t understand listening to the stillness and cherishing it. They don’t understand courage where there is no gain, but just lots of cost. They don’t understand gratitude when there is seemingly nothing to be grateful for. They don’t understand valuing insignificant people.
What they don’t understand they don’t plan for. What they don’t plan for they don’t expect. What they don’t expect is what will destroy them. David had five smooth stones, but only one was necessary to slay the giant.