Saturday, March 22, 2014

Bullies (Judges 9:50-55)

     Abimelech went to Thebez camped against it, and captured it. There was a strong tower inside the city, and all the men, women, and lords of the city fled there. They locked themselves in  and went up to the roof of the tower. When Abimelech came to attack the tower, he approached it entrance to set it on fire. But a woman threw the upper portion of a millstone on Abimelech's head and fractured his skull. He quickly called his armor-bearer and said to him, "Draw you  sword and kill me, or they'll say about me 'A woman killed him.'" So his armor-bearer thrust him through, and he died. When the Israelites saw that Abimelech was dead, the all went home.
Judges 9:50-55 HCSB

Abimelech is a bully. His story is not told for us to emulate. The book of Judges is about the emergence of Israel as a political and cultural unit among her neighbors, a "coming out" of the twelve tribes. In Abimelech's story we encounter a coming out gone wrong in horrid ways with dire consequences. 

Abimelech is one of the sons of Gideon. At the end of Gideon's story the tribes offer him the office of king. Gideon humbly refuses the office and in the refusal denies his son any hope of a "family ascension" to a throne. Abimelech obviously disagreed with his father's choice. After Gideon's death Abimelech conspires with the leaders of Shechem to kill his other brothers and proclaim him king or chieftain. The rest of Abimelech's story is a fated struggle to enlarge his kingdom. 

Abimelech's strategy for territorial advancement is to bully his way around the surrounding towns. Before the scene we encounter here, he has a similar encounter that ends with him torching a tower in which the town's people has sought shelter, essentially burning to death the children, women, and men gathered within. Here Abimelech is again bullying a town refusing to submit to him and facing a populace that ran to the safety of its tower. We expect a repeat of the former strategy to subdue those resisting. Here however, a woman has the wherewithal to toss a millstone down on Abimelech. I love the picture above which shows men cowering behind the unnamed woman who is carefully taking aim almost within reach of Abimelech's hand. Courage in the face of danger, courage in the face of fear, courage to do what others should be doing that seems to be thrust of the picture.

Sexual and gender diverse people are aware of bullies. We know that bullies somehow work with importunity. They have an ability to get away with their behavior even when caught in the act. I have always been surprised at the fine-tuned ability of bullies to target the most vulnerable. Narcissistic, driven by hate, and singlemindedly determined, no one really wants to be the target of bullies. As Abimelech amply demonstrates, life is made a living hell by bullies.

In a former ministry I worked with children and especially middle school age kids (13-15 year olds). Those that were of an ethnic minority often spoke of being bullied at school and finding teachers unwilling to intervene. I wonder if those teachers allowed the bullying because they agree that these kids had to be kept in their place? I wonder if the same dynamics are in play when the bullying of sexual and gender minorities take place whether at school, work, or out in public?

Unfortunately this behavior by those in authority leaves those being targeted with little options. It might be that the "It Gets Better" campaign has a worthy insight that sometimes we simply have to wait it out until circumstances changes. It is not an option that thrills me, but I am realistic and can agree that sometimes the changing of our circumstances must wait until better options become available. 

Yet, even in these circumstances we are not at the total mercy of the bully. The actor Michael J. Fox has said, "One's dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered." I see the woman with the millstone as casting it with a determination not to surrender her dignity, whereas those cowering behind her have already surrendered theirs. If it is to get better, it will do so because we have guarded our dignity and did not give it away under assault, vandalization, or cruelty. 

Now it would be easy to stop here. Feeling good that we can out-survive the bully and enter into a life where that presence does not oppress us. But the scriptures never leave us so easily situated. This story is about an Israelite who as he "came out" blew it big time due to his ego needs and inability to be empathetic with others. In this reading then the behavior of Abimelech may mirror our behavior in our own coming out processes.

While I have never been a bully as Abimelech was, the text does ask me to reflect on what ways I may participate in bullying behavior as a bravado to my own coming out. I think of some of the ways I have responded to negative attitudes with a bullying attitude of my own which stopped me from entering dialogue and instead allowed me to belittle the other person. I think of this blog itself and the one friend who related an unease to post opposing opinions because he is concerned of the comments he would need to endure. I think of the church I serve which is extremely pro-lgbtqia and tends to "silence" those who are not. 

Looking at Abimelech I begin to understand that this behavior is also bullish, if not bullying. I know hurt and pain plays into some of these reactions I slip into. I know that historically I may have a "right" to respond with all I've got to respond with. Yet, if I am seeking for someone to surrender their dignity to me - then am I not the bully in the situation?

I am no Pollyanna, and don't live with a sense that if we can all just set down and talk, we'll end up holding hands, singing Kum-Ba-Yah. I totally agree with Bishop Desmond Tutu:"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." Yet, I also think that to become a bully in order to answer a bully leaves us all less.

I come away from Abimelech, seeing him as a tragic figure of egomania and power mongering. I applaud the woman who did not surrender her dignity, even as others had, and I ask the Holy to help me watch my own behavior so that I never end up demanding the dignity of someone else.

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