Riots, Looting and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

8 08 2011

London is in shreds. Rioting has begun to spread: First in Tottenham, then Enfield, and now many other places, including my neighbourhood, Brixton. It’s shocking and saddening when you hear the reports and see the footage of buildings you pass by every day, with bricks through windows and flames tearing their hearts out. Each shop represents a staff of dozens; people’s livelihoods. Each person injured is a son, or a daughter, or father or mother. Each person arrested is a needless waste of human liberty.

I’m not in London at the moment. I’m on holiday outside the city for a few days, and my news is coming from TV reports, online newspapers and twitter searches. It’s strange watching the whole raft of people commenting on the various riots; some in proud approval, some showing off their haul from various shops (a few seemingly oblivious to the inherent stupidity of posting a photograph of your own face next to a stolen plasma screen!), some in shock or fear. Every time I hit refresh there’s a new threat, a new rumour, a new precaution. People speculate about how it’s all been organised and where will be hit next. Who knows how far this will spread?

It’s hard to know if any of the protests were legitimately warranted, even in their nascent form. It’s not yet clear whether Mark Duggan’s death was due to police malpractice, or whether he shot first, and I dare not speculate.

But what is clear is this: responding with violence will achieve little. Violence has a nasty habit of escalating. We could cite hundreds of examples, but one leaps immediately to my mind.

In the Bible, the book of Judges chapter 15, Samson’s father-in-law gives Samson’s wife away to someone else; perhaps a legitimate reason for him to be somewhat irked! Samson responds aggressively, the Philistines up the ante, and the whole thing spirals out of control:

‘Samson said, “This time I have a right to get even with the Philistines; I will really harm them.” So he went out and caught three hundred foxes and tied them tail to tail in pairs. He then fastened a torch to every pair of tails, lit the torches and let the foxes loose in the standing grain of the Philistines. He burned up the shocks and standing grain, together with the vineyards and olive groves.

When the Philistines asked, “Who did this?” they were told, “Samson, the Timnite’s son-in-law, because his wife was given to his companion.”

So the Philistines went up and burned her and her father to death.  Samson said to them, “Since you’ve acted like this, I swear that I won’t stop until I get my revenge on you.” He attacked them viciously and slaughtered many of them. Then he went down and stayed in a cave in the rock of Etam.

The Philistines went up and camped in Judah, spreading out near Lehi. The people of Judah asked, “Why have you come to fight us?”

“We have come to take Samson prisoner,” they answered, “to do to him as he did to us.”

Then three thousand men from Judah went down to the cave in the rock of Etam and said to Samson, “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us? What have you done to us?”

He answered, “I merely did to them what they did to me.”’
(Judges 15:3-11)

What is striking about this scenario is the futility of it all. Things so quickly leap from the actions of one person, to the burning of crops, to murder, to mass murder, until over 3,000 men are involved, and 1,000 Philistines get pummelled to death with a donkey’s jawbone!

How quickly too the threats, excuses and defences leap to the tongue:

“I have a right to get even” (v3)
“Since you’ve acted like this, I swear that I won’t stop until I get my revenge on you” (v7)
“We have come […] to do to him as he did to us” (v10)
“I merely did to them what they did to me” (v11)

Humans have an uncanny ability to legitimate their actions and defend the indefensible, at least in their own minds. Even if Duggan was the victim of police malpractice, a violent retort is hardly the answer. How does burning buildings to the ground establish justice? How does robbing a shop, or decimating a bus?

But let’s be clear: most of what has been done this weekend is in no way related to the Duggan incident. I don’t know what motivated the hundreds of youths to smash, maim, burn, destroy and steal, but I doubt that for many of them it was a passion for justice.

Just this week I’ve been thinking about a talk I’m due to give in a month or so. It’s on the latter chapters of the book of Esther, and at this point in the story, the Jewish people are facing extermination. The Persian King Xerxes permitted the Jews to defend themselves, to kill their attackers and ‘to plunder the property of their enemies’ (Esther 8:22) and yet three times we are told that ‘they did not lay their hands on the plunder’ (Esther 9:10, 15, 16). I don’t know why they refused to take the plunder, even when the King had permitted them to. I assume it was to show something of their character: they were not in this for selfish motives, to make money at others’ expense; rather they were trying to establish justice. So they protested strongly, they fought, but they refused to cross over into greed.

Looting would only have undermined their cause, but they demonstrated the purity of their motives by refusing to plunder their enemies.

Of course, at other points the people of God did take spoils from war, so I’m hardly holding them up as a shining example! But for all the questions this passage does raise about the legitimacy of war or self-defence, it tells us one thing: In standing up against injustice, you don’t have to go to extremes. You have a choice. You can draw a line; saying ‘this far and no further.’ You are able to go as far as is necessary to protect yourself, to prove a point, and yet still resist greed and selfish motives. You have a choice about how you conduct yourself.

There is nothing honourable about the way in which people have conducted themselves these last few days. This kind of mindless looting is immoral, and it undermines the original cause: the pursuit of truth and justice. The higher the injury toll goes, the harder it will be to gain sympathy for the cause, and the death of Mark Duggan, innocent or not, will very soon be irretrievably buried under hatred, pain, bitterness and cynicism.

I pray for peace on my home streets. I pray for the family of Mark Duggan. I pray that justice will be done for all involved. I pray for the police, that they may have wisdom to handle the riots with integrity. I pray for those arrested, that they would be truly repentant. I pray for those who are contemplating rioting tonight; that they would think before throwing away their lives. And I pray that Isaiah 2 will be fulfilled even quicker than expected:

‘God will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.’ (Isaiah 2:2-4)

Angels, be silent…

2 05 2011

‘Rabbi Yochanan said… “The Egyptian army and the Israelites, waiting to cross the Sea of Reeds, were separated by the Cloud of Glory, which kept the two camps separated overnight. The angels of the heavenly court requested permission to recite transcendent song. The Holy One, Who is Blessed, said to them: “The work of My hands is drowning in the sea, and you are reciting song?”‘
(Tractate Megillah 10b)

Thirty Pieces: Throw it to the Potter

9 12 2010

‘Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they took counsel and bought with them the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.”’
(Matthew 27:3-10)

This is a remarkable little incident where a band of conspirators unwittingly prophesy through their actions.  As we’ve seen previously, Zechariah 11 speaks of the shepherd being paid a paltry sum for his work, shepherding an unfaithful flock. The passage continues:

‘Then I said to them, “If it seems good to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” And they weighed out as my wages thirty pieces of silver. Then the LORD said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the LORD, to the potter.’
(Zechariah 11:12-14)

In Zechariah’s context, the Potter was probably a temple functionary who dealt with the incoming donations of precious metal. The point of Zechariah’s prophetic action is to symbolise the rejection of the Temple system. The thirty pieces, given as wages, are thrown back into the Temple, in great disgust. So too, Judas, grieved by what he had done, tried to give the money back to the Priests. When they refused to accept it, he threw the money back into the Temple.

As if that were not already enough of an allusion to Zechariah 11 – thirty pieces, thrown back into the temple – the chief priests then decide to literally give them to the potter, by purchasing his field as a burial place for strangers.

This, they may have thought, was a meaningless action; or perhaps a charitable one. But Matthew sees the ironic symbolism. Neither Judas nor the Priests are a true Zechariah figure; Jesus is the good shepherd. But as Judas stole the Christ’s priestly wages, so now Judas is the one to throw them back to the Potter; albeit by a circuitous, divinely orchestrated route.

God’s plans cannot be scuppered or thwarted by rebellious disciples or conniving priests. Even in murderous plotting, Jesus’ enemies work out God’s prophetic plan with remarkable accuracy.

Thirty Pieces: Blood Money

29 11 2010

‘Because money is paid to secure Jesus’ death, Matthew may also be suggesting what Matt 20:28 states more clearly: Jesus’ death is a ransom, the price paid to secure a slave’s freedom. That this “blood money” was subsequently used to buy a burial ground for foreigners may hint at what Matthew will explicitly highlight in his closing verses: Jesus’ death makes salvation possible for all the peoples of the world.’

(Craig Blomberg in Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament)

Thirty Pieces: Gored by an Ox

24 11 2010

‘Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray Jesus.’
(Matthew 26:14-16 ESV)

I don’t know about you, but I rarely barter with shekels. So to be honest, I don’t actually know how much they’re worth.

I can count to thirty, you’ll be pleased to know. So I am aware, for example, that thirty is significantly more than ten, but less than one hundred. But that doesn’t much help me understand the exact value of thirty pieces of silver.

I think I’ve always assumed that it was a large amount, that Judas was motivated by the desire for money. But actually, a quick look at the cross-references appears to suggest otherwise.

Thirty pieces of silver was the equivalent of about four months’ wages for a labourer. That equates to around £4,750. I don’t know if that sounds a lot to you. I would happily find a good use for £4,750, so it’s nothing to be sniffed at.

But is it much for a human life?

Exodus 25:32 says this:

‘If an ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.’ (Exodus 25:32)

30 pieces of silver. £4,750. Jesus’ life was valued the same as that of a slave, accidentally impaled by an animal.

This leads me to think that Judas wasn’t motivated by money, he surely would have settled on a higher figure. The thirty pieces represent the fact that both Judas and the Priests esteemed Jesus so little. Though Jesus was in the form of God, he made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave, and being obedient to the point of death (Phil 2:4-8). The death of a slave, gored by an ox.

Thirty Pieces: Sack the Shepherd

22 11 2010

‘Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray Jesus.’
(Matthew 26:14-16 ESV)

I’ve been thinking recently about this powerful episode in Matthew’s gospel. It’s such a pithy treatment of a giant ‘hinge’ of a moment, upon which the door of the gospel was swung wide open.

The language of Matthew 26:15, uniquely among the accounts, deliberately echoes Zechariah 11:12, using the word εστησαν, meaning ‘to establish’ or ‘to weigh out.’ When the Chief Priests ‘weigh out’ thirty pieces of silver, Matthew wants to draw our minds to this crucial passage in Zechariah, to which he will return again in the next chapter.

Matthew’s gospel relies a good deal on Zechariah, drawing regular, powerful allusions from his writing. Zechariah 11 is packed with evocative imagery of a shepherd who is tasked with caring for a flock doomed to death. He rescues them, only to be rejected by the sheep. He breaks his two staffs of ‘favour’ and ‘union’ and the sheep are left to the leadership of a worthless shepherd. I’m sure you hardly need a detailed commentary to begin to see the loaded prophetic metaphors. Jesus even quotes from Zechariah 13:7 in Mathew 26:31 – ‘It is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”’

But in Zechariah 11:12-13 we read: ‘And they weighed out (εστησαν) as my wages thirty pieces of silver […] the lordly price at which I was priced by them.

Zechariah’s words are dripping with irony. Thirty pieces of silver is a paltry amount; this ‘lordly price’ is an insultingly low wage for a spiritual leader. And such was the minute cost for which Judas was willing to sacrifice his master.

But leaving aside the similarities, note the differences:

  • Zechariah resigned his position. Jesus refused to.
    Standing in the garden at Gethsemane, he pleaded with his Father for the cup to pass. But he knew he couldn’t walk out on the sheep; he had to die for them.
  • Zechariah received wages for his work, insufficient as they were. Jesus received nothing.
    Another man took his wages and left him to complete the task in agony.

Still, for the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross (Heb 12:2). Truly, a hired hand would have fled, caring nothing for the sheep. But the good shepherd lays down his life willingly (John 10:11-13, 17-18).

Night of the living dead

30 10 2010

In some senses my return journey to Brixton at midnight last night was not dissimilar from any other. Most nights of the year there will be the odd person looking half dead and zombified through an over-imbibing of alcohol. But yesterday was a little more grotesque.

I’m sure it has not escaped your attention, but this weekend is halloween.

Halloween - John Althouse Cohen

Halloween, the one time of the year when all those people who have laboured hard at producing bizarre latex products and tubes of fake luminescent blood, finally get to see the fruit of their labours for 48 hours or so. Slashed throats. Bullet holes in foreheads. Blood-stained t-shirts and women dressed as if witches have some kind of supernatural allergic reaction to non-revealing clothing! Again, not an uncommon Brixton weekend experience.

But why do people enjoy dressing up like thoroughly depressing, undead beings? What is it that people find so attractive about the idea of making yourself look like you have just undergone a grotesque murder, but still lived to drink yourself silly in celebration?

Is it an obsession with defeating death? Perhaps a dissatisfaction with the intangible idea of floating souls escaping a physical world, and a wish for something more concrete? Dead bodies still able to walk, talk, touch. Is it simply macabre, or is it a deep heart cry – a longing for resurrection?

This halloween, why not spend a moment reflecting on this puzzling little section of Matthew 27. How does the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus connect with the wannabe-zombies strolling our streets this weekend? I like this little passage. I’d quite like to see this take place… though if it happened this weekend, I’m not sure anyone would notice:

‘And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.’ (Matthew 27:51-53 ESV)