Monday, January 09, 2017

Confounding Expectations

Running gag on conservative social media: “Aaaaaaand ... it’s Muslims.”

The meme tweaks the Powers That Be for their persistent unwillingness to attribute terror attacks throughout the West to their actual cause — Islamic jihad. As each new incident breaks, TradMedia, Lefty virtue signalers and our designated Elected Obscurantists one-up each other in cheerful speculation that THIS TIME it’s one of those dreaded neo-Nazis they’re always carping on about. And each time, greater numbers of perfectly normal news buffs with working memories and the ability to process reality without the aid of a PC filter respond with bemused mockery: “Aaaaaaand ... it’s Muslims.” Which to date it is.

During the reign of King David of Israel, there was probably a similar chorus: “Aaaaaaand ... it’s the Benjaminites.” Because it always was.

Sometimes we develop expectations about others for very good reasons.

The Ravenous Wolf

David didn’t ask for King Saul’s throne. God gave it to him. He took David from tending sheep and handed him a kingdom. And along with the kingdom, God handed David the obligation to deal with the grumbling, abuse and outright insurrections that seem to be the typical response to leadership.

Saul was from the little tribe of Benjamin, and what Benjamin lacked in size it made up in pugnacity. “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf”, prophesied the original Benjamin’s dad, and so it came to be. Benjamin the tribe was also inordinately insular and clannish, willing to defend its own even when its own were dead wrong. In the time of the judges all Israel went to war against Benjamin to the point of near-annihilation, a tragedy that could easily have been prevented with a few concessions or some judicious politicking on Benjamin’s part.

That wasn’t about to happen. Good fighters, but a truculent bunch.

Grudges and Rebellion

But Benjaminites also had a near-insatiable capacity for grudge-bearing and rebellion. Having once had the headship of the nation through Saul, Benjamin seemed entirely unable to concede that it was God’s righteous judgment that had stripped not just Saul but Benjamin of the kingdom and all the perks that went with it. And there were perks: when Saul needed an army commander, he naturally chose a Benjaminite and a family member. He probably did the same sort of thing for other relatives. Not that nepotism was abnormal in those days: David was equally nepotistic in his choices. But my point is that it was not only Saul who took the hit for his sin against God. God’s judgment on Saul affected his entire tribe.

But it was God that passed judgment on Saul’s kingdom, not David. And it was the Philistines that killed Saul and most of his sons, not David. David did everything he could to preserve Saul’s family — quite the counterintuitive move in a day when it was de rigueur to consolidate one’s throne by wiping out the bloodline of every conceivable challenger.

He got no thanks for that. For the tribe of Benjamin, it was a whole lot easier to blame David and to look for every opportunity to undermine him.

Aaaaaaand ... It’s the Benjaminites

Thus, if there wasn’t an “It’s the Benjaminites” meme in Israel, there should have been.

While David was being anointed king in Judah, the Benjaminite commander of Saul’s army was proclaiming Saul’s remaining son king over the rest of Israel. Division and bloodshed resulted. Interestingly, though Abner made Ish-bosheth king over “all Israel”, it appears to have been primarily Benjaminites fighting to establish Ish-bosheth’s kingdom. That sense of Benjaminite entitlement persisted. When opening negotiations with David, Abner boldly asked him, “To whom does the land belong?” Evidently he thought it belonged to him and to his tribe.

Fuel on the Fire

When David fled Jerusalem in Absalom’s insurrection, who was the first to heap fuel on the fire? Of course it was a Benjaminite:
“When King David came to Bahurim, there came out a man of the family of the house of Saul, whose name was Shimei, the son of Gera, and as he came he cursed continually. And he threw stones at David and at all the servants of King David, and all the people and all the mighty men were on his right hand and on his left. And Shimei said as he cursed, ‘Get out, get out, you man of blood, you worthless man!’ ”
Years of wise and effective leadership from David had not sated Benjamin’s misplaced hatred. At the first opportunity, the Benjaminite grudge reared its ugly head.

A Worthless Man and an Agony of Self-Examination

Immediately Absalom’s rebellion was put down, yet another rebellion arose. And guess who was behind it? Right. That would be “a worthless man, whose name was Sheba, the son of Bichri, a Benjaminite”. This particular rebellion was put down near-bloodlessly, but only because a wise woman from the tribe of Naphtali brokered a peace arrangement in which only rebellious Sheba lost his life.

Finally, David goes through an agony of self-examination before God in Psalm 7. At this point it should hardly surprise us to find that it is verbal abuse from “Cush, a Benjaminite” that prompts these recriminations. David stands accused of repaying his friends with evil and plundering his enemy without cause, something of which he believes he is not guilty.

Yeah, David, it’s the Benjaminites. Again.

The Bond of Peace

Does any of this sound familiar? Grudges, slights and perceived wrongs among the people of God are not unfamiliar events, are they? Family and tribal grievances can easily be allowed to trump “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”. Such unity must be “maintained”, as Paul puts it. It requires conscious effort, even eagerness.

In the early church some had the impression that the Hebrew Christians were neglecting the Hellenist widows in the distribution of food. Was it true? Perhaps, though it seems unlikely it was intentional. But the perceived slight gave rise to a complaint and created a situation that, had it been mishandled, could have been permanently divisive. I notice the problem was solved by finding seven men “full of the Spirit and of wisdom”. Today, we’d have to appoint seven Hellenists because, as the saying goes, “You can’t really understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes”.

That may be conventional wisdom, but it’s not the spiritual metric.

Statistically Documentable Group Tendencies

Some folks today become greatly offended when we happen to notice differences in the way groups of people normally behave — whether they be Muslim, Benjaminite, male, female, ethnic or whatever — even when those differences are statistically impossible to ignore. “Not all [fill-in-the-blanks] are like that!” they cry, even when most of them are, and when most of us can’t help but notice. Math is not the friend of those who wave such obvious realities away. Our expectations of others are usually, and quite reasonably, based on the way they have behaved in the past.

So we are told the solution is not to notice statistically documentable group tendencies, which is a recipe for all sorts of silliness. Even if it IS the Benjaminites again, we have to pretend it isn’t. That’s ridiculous. Asking government and law enforcement to defend us from terror attacks while pretending they are not almost exclusively committed by Muslims at the moment is a recipe for more terror attacks. It’s patently absurd to shy away from generalizations when they happen to represent reality.

Invective Without Disclaimers

The Lord didn’t do this. He could say, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites”, without interrupting his flow of invective to add the disclaimers that today we consider absolutely obligatory. Matthew 23 would not be improved with a few verses of hedging and qualification: “Of course I don’t mean you, Nicodemus, or you Simon. Thanks again for that lovely dinner.” Likewise, Paul’s prescription to Titus for the treatment of natural Cretan inclinations would not be made more Christian by adding, “Of course, not ALL Cretans are like that,” though some of us not-so-secretly wish he had done so. John the Baptist accused entire crowds because of a general tendency among them. Nobody imagines for a moment there was not a single exception to be found. In fact, John shortly thereafter baptized one.

Sometimes it IS the Benjaminites again. Or the Muslims. Or your wife/husband doing that thing she/he always does. And it’s not wrong to be conscious of it. It’s foolish not to be.

David and the Benjaminites

What’s not Christian is when we allow a perfectly sensible observation about historic tendencies to dictate how we deal with individuals this time out.

For all that they resisted his rule, David, though from the tribe of Judah, turned out to be better at taking care of the Benjaminites than their kinsman Saul. Israel was never greater and more united than under David and under his son Solomon. It is “the Spirit” and “wisdom” that matter far more than old grudges and family identification.

While it’s very evident to any careful reader of David’s life story that the tribe of Benjamin was a perpetual thorn in his side, David does not editorialize about it. Their animosity toward him was hard to miss, but David does not appear to have held it against them. He forgave Shimei for his curses against the advice of his own family. He went out of his way to preserve the bloodline of Saul and to show love to his grandson. He did not discount Benjaminite opinions because “Well, they all hate me anyway”. Instead, he used Benjaminite abuse as an occasion for self-examination rather than self-justification. He rebuked Joab for murdering Abner rather than rewarding him for his loyalty.

David didn’t need to walk a mile in Benjaminite sandals to treat a Benjaminite decently. We don’t either.

Stereotypes, generalizations and other kinds of expectations exist. History creates them, and we all know it. We are not wiser to pretend we don’t. The job of the Christian is not to convince others he has no pre-existing expectations of them and no legitimate apprehension in dealing with them.

No, the Christian’s job is to confound expectations with love even when faced with precisely what he expected all along.

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