I was asked whether the story of David and Goliath is true. My answer was, ‘No and yes’. ‘No’ in the sense of ‘it-happened-just-like-it’s-written’ in 1 Samuel 17; and ‘Yes’ in the sense that sometimes the daring courageous little one does triumph over the powerful well-endowed big one.
David was a guerrilla leader who toppled the reigning king (Saul), and then ruled in his stead. David, as king’s do, then had his ‘spin doctors’ create stories to legitimatize his monarchy and to magnify his prowess. So the stories about his rise to power – humble shepherd, specially chosen by God, incredible warrior – need to be read with this in mind. That said there may have been a Philistine called ‘Goliath’. But I doubt it.
More important though is the myth. As the recent advert says, ‘little can be huge’. Little can sometimes beat big.
Sometimes. Not usually though. For big has lots of resources and power and alliances and bureaucracy, and little doesn’t.
The David and Goliath myth tells us firstly about fear. Fear is like a contagious disease. It gets under the skin and inside you and shuts you down. And it affects/infects others around you. Fear is a mix of rational thought [yes, Goliath was a very big strong man] and the emotions it evokes. Fear tells us to run, hide, protect oneself…
Secondly, the myth tells us that overcoming fear begins in the mind and the heart. A little person decides to stand up, speak out, and have a go. This is called courage. It’s a close cousin of foolishness. A courageous person is still very frightened but the fear does not shut them down. They have a trans-rational, mental strength that is sometimes called self-belief.
Thirdly, the myth tells us that for little to beat big, little often modifies or changes the rules of engagement. Goliath trusted the technology of armour, a shield and a sword. David assessed the deficiencies of that technology – namely the speed of the warrior would slow down when encumbered with all that heavy stuff; and instead David chose a simpler speedier technology – no armour and a slingshot.
Fourthly, the myth tells us that little has to be prepared to lose. The odds are not on little’s side. David in all likelihood would have been killed, and in his heart he would have known it. Yet he went into the confrontation anyway.
Lastly, the myth tells us that just like how fear is contagious, so is courage. David’s actions emboldened the Israelite army. Stories of courage embolden us still today.
Paul Tillich, the great existentialist theologian of the mid-20th century, wrote a book called The Courage to Be in which he defines courage as the self-affirmation of one’s being in spite of the threat of non-being. So, for example, fear is a threat of non-being and the courage to be is what we can use to combat it. Courage is what Christians call faith.
The Gospel reading today[i] relates another mythical story about fear and courage. The turbulent sea is representative of the threatening deep, the unknown, the abode of demons, the abyss... It is this fear that has the sailors, in another biblical myth, throw Jonah overboard.
The extraordinary image of Jesus commanding the wind and the sea is not about climate control. Rather it is portraying the good news as struggle against demonic and destructive powers. The gospel, according to Mark, is about Jesus coming to liberate people from such forces. It is to see Jesus as the embodiment of God’s power, the bearer of God’s Spirit, to challenge and overcome the deep and destructive powers which the furies of nature symbolised.
To be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is to face fear, to be afraid, but to act regardless of probable consequence in a courageous way. It is to act counter-intuitively. It is act for the purpose of the gospel vision – love, justice and peace. This is faith. Faith is not about believing the creeds or the Bible. That’s called beliefs. Faith is overcoming fear through courageous action. It’s a doing word.
Robert Fulghum tells a story about courage.[ii] In July 1992 the photograph of Vedran Smailovic appeared in the New York Times Magazine: middle-aged, longish hair, great bushy moustache. He is dressed in formal evening clothes, sitting in a café chair in the middle of a street. In front of a bakery where mortar fire struck a breadline in late May, killing 22 people.
He is playing his cello. As a member of the Sarajevo Opera Orchestra, there is little he can do about hate and war – it has been going on in Sarajevo for centuries. Even so, every day for 22 days he has braved sniper and artillery fire to play Albinoni’s profoundly moving Adagio in G Minor.
I wonder if he chose this piece of music knowing it was constructed from a manuscript fragment found in the ruins of Dresden after the Second World War? The music survived the firebombing. Perhaps that is why he played it there in the scarred street in Sarajevo, where people died waiting in line for bread. Something must triumph over horror.
Is this man crazy? Maybe. Is his gesture futile? Yes, in a conventional sense, yes, of course. But what can a cellist do? What madness to go out alone in the streets and address the world with a wooden box and a hair-strung bow. What can a cellist do?
All he knows how to do. Speaking softly with his cello, one note at a time, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, calling out the rats (the demons) that infest the human spirit.
Most everyone in Sarajevo knows what a cellist can do – for the place where Verdan played has become an informal shrine, a place of honour. Croats, Serbs, Muslims, Christians alike – they all know his name and face.
They place flowers where he played, commemorating the hope that must never die: that someday, somehow, the best of humanity shall overcome the worst - not through unexpected miracles, but through the expected acts of many. For courage too is contagious.
The David & Goliath and Vedran Smailovic stories are set in the context of war, and the fear it generates. But courage is not restricted to war, and neither is fear.
The fears of isolation, failure, being misunderstood, deteriorating health, bullying, harassment, abuse, financial need, and the same visited upon those we love, creep around our city and invade our homes and our minds. Fear comes unbidden into our lives. And it is as real as any Goliath.
I saw a quote the other day, “Sometimes real superheroes live in the hearts of small children fighting big battles”. I’ve met some of these superheroes.
While I see fear all around, I also see lots of acts of courage.
I see courage when your body constantly aches, and your mind aches too, but you still get out of bed.
I see courage when the world continues to frown at you, but you, sometimes crying inside, choose to respond with a welcoming smile.
I see courage when you notice the six-year-old superhero, and you realize that she wants to see the superhero in you. You don’t feel like a hero, but she sees you as one. And so you try to be one for her.
I see courage when you care enough for one who is deteriorating to put on the brave face that says you are coping. And the one you care for knows you are struggling and honours you for it.
I see courage when you say no to another demand that comes as a request you really want to agree to. The strength to say no is the same strength loves requires.
I see courage when you risk speaking and smiling even though your memory has largely gone to sleep and you don’t have a clear sense of who you are, let alone who you are talking to.
I see courage when you go to walk into a ward to a visit someone in need and the memories of your own personal loss in that ward bombard you. But you walk in anyway.
May we always honour the small, and not-so-small, acts of courage in our midst. For such acts testify that the best in humanity will overcome the worst, even if we don’t always feel it or see it. And that too is faith.
[i] Mark 4:35-41
[ii] Robert Fulghum, Maybe (Maybe Not), 1993, p.229.