As much national attention is given to terrorism, and along with it the demonization of the Islamic faith, it is surprising that so few commentators have inspected our own Judeo-Christian tradition for traces of violence associated with creed or theological belief.
Are Christians simply missing the entire Deuteronomic history and all the violence done in the name of God? Has anyone read the Book of Joshua lately? Do cities such as Hazor and Jericho mean anything to those of us who claim to know Scripture and live by it?
Acts of violence in the name of creed, or deeply held theological positions, are not monopolized by the Islamic faith. The Judeo-Christian tradition also has its share of violence in the name of God – even violence in the form of suicidal acts of punishment. Samson is one such story.
Samson, the man with a birth narrative eerily similar to those of John the Baptist and Jesus in the New Testament, makes the most of his sanctified status as a Nazarite by killing himself and thousands of Philistines.
Not much of his life is remembered by people who know his story. The brief stories that begin in Judges 13 and end in Judges 16 are shrouded by the ending of his life wherein he says a final prayer for strength before taking his life and those of his adversaries. Thus, the narrative of Samson begs the reader: national hero or terrorist?
Most Christians read the Samson story as one of heroic redemption. Samson, a man sanctified at birth, tragically succumbs to life’s temptations. He spends much of his time in relationships with foreign women and flirting with his enemies. His strength is a source of his own hubris rather than something he uses for the glory of God. He does not adhere to the commands to “neither look to the left or right.”
To the contrary, he seems to invite trouble with his silly riddles and the frequent trappings placed upon him by Delilah. Samson fails to see who he is, and the Philistines help him by capturing him and removing his eyes toward the end of the narrative. Yet, in the end he is redeemed.
Imprisoned and standing as a spectacle in the Temple of Dagon, Samson finds the religion he never really had in the narrative and prays that God would avenge him from his enemies. He places his hands among the pillars of the temple and becomes a martyr for the true God Yahweh. Samson is enshrined as a national hero.
That is one way of reading the Samson narrative.
The other way is to acknowledge that his actions are frighteningly familiar to those of modern-day terrorist activities. Samson performs an act of violence. It is commenced with a prayer to his God. He is willing to kill himself in the process of killing his enemies. It is a battle between deities, as Samson beseeches his God in the temple of the other god, Dagon. This is not just a national disagreement; Samson is invoking a competition of divinities.
Is this not what Islamic militants do today? Could the same not be said of the 9/11 hijackers or any recent terroristic attempt?
Terrorism, according to the FBI, has three characteristics. First, it encompasses an illegal activity and the use of force associated therewith. Second, it is an action that is intended to intimidate or coerce. Lastly, the act is done in support of political or social objectives.
The Samson narrative fits this characterization quite nicely. Samson does use force – force that comes from his God. His act most certainly would have been an intimidation to surrounding enemies of Israel and definitely would have had an impact on the Philistine community. The death of Samson as suicidal martyr, empowered by Israel’s God, would have been strongly intimidating and created an environment wherein Israel could coercively enforce its will.
Finally, the recognition of this act as Divine origin would have created a political environment wherein Israel could thrive. Who would want to oppose such a people? This act would also have lent immediate credibility to Israel’s religion and its God. Israel’s religion, as a strictly social phenomenon, would have automatically enjoyed respect after such an event.
Too often we condone violence or terror, when it is done in the name of a creed or belief we personally hold.
We give Samson a collective pass on his actions because he does this in the name of our God, the presumed Father of Jesus.
Yet, if we just consider the merits of the narrative, what is the fundamental difference in the action of Samson or contemporary militant terrorists? Do they both not accomplish the same goals with the same means? Are not both narratives, present-day terrorism and the ancient story of Samson, fueled by violence with theological presuppositions in an effort to change the behavior of others? Is God not centrally invoked in both instances? Are unbelievers, or those that believe in a false God, not targets? Is the result not terror and intimidation, whether it is directed at present-day Americans or ancient people known as Philistines?
As American Christians continue to engage in the question of terrorism, we should perhaps look at our own ancient backgrounds before we begin accusing others. Judaism has come a long way since the days of the Judges, and Christianity has left the Crusades in the Dark Ages, but the stories of terror are still part of our story today. In the end, stories such as Samson’s will not excuse the contemporary violence of other people, but it might help us better understand it.
Nathan Napier is a minister in the Church of the Nazarene and a graduate of the McAfee School of Theology.
A bi-vocational minister for over 20 years, Napier currently serves as a lay minister at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Tennessee. He holds a Doctor of Ministry from Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, and his current research focuses on faith, culture and ethnography as pastoral practice.