Lection Texts: 1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15), Genesis 3:8-15
So, as Oxford yesterday celebrated Pride, if I were left in any doubt that God has a sense of humour, among today’s lectionary texts, we find, ‘The Fall’. A timely reminder perhaps of our shared humanity. In fact, today, we find two old testament texts in which God’s people are arguably struggling with just that – choices that they must make in their humanity, and with all the limits of understanding that accompany this.
We find Eve, in the Garden of Eden, having listened to another Earthly being over God, and suffering the consequences of that action. And, we re-join Samuel, this time as an old and wise King, coming to the end of his life, facing a people who are desperate for another King to lead them after him. Indeed, we are told, that the people of Israel wanted a King because they wanted to be like every other nation, having someone to fight their battles for them. Similarly, Eve, in the Garden, was tempted by a serpent who promised she would be just like God.
Conformity – wanting to be just like others – is incredibly human – and incredibly tempting. As a case in point, when I was six years old, my mother took my brother and me swimming. Swimming was a half-term treat, and we went to a swimming pool in Ealing with an elephant trunk slide. This pink elephant was the magical highlight of my six year-old experience. As my short, little brother couldn’t stand in the water alone, I was asked by my mother to wait for her help, to get out of the pool to the slide. She warned me that if I tried it alone, I would slip, and fall. But other children, younger than me, were getting out solo, and screaming with delight down the slide, and I was a big sister; I could manage this; and if I could go it alone, I could have more turns on the slide. I got out of the pool. I took a step, slipped, fell backwards, and suffered concussion. I didn’t even get another turn on the slide that day. And I don’t recommend concussion. I didn’t listen to my mother that day – I looked to other children instead – I looked to be like them – and ended up the worse for it.
Today, conformity – or more specifically– how we learn as children when to fall in line with our friends, and when not to conform – has been the subject of my research for the past ten years. And – as a health warning – I am not trying to suggest that conformity per se is a bad idea. We have a highway code whose operation depends on conformity – and road traffic accidents can often be linked to someone’s lack of conformity to that code. What I would suggest, however, is that today’s texts challenge us not to engage in mindless conformity with others.
Coming back to the research; the psychological studies here are fascinating. People will happily sit in a room as it fills with smoke, walk past others as they scream for help, and join in with harassing others, because, as they report, “other people were doing this, too. Elsewhere, we find that people will deliver deathly electric shocks, to conform to another’s orders. And, for those who heard Faye Mitchell talk about this, and think this study a product of the 1960s – that we live in a more individualistic society today – the electric shock study was replicated in cyberspace in 2010, with equally chilling results. Time and again, Psychology has shown us that the tendency to conform is very readily available, very natural, and oft chosen, even, my research, and that of my colleagues suggests, among five year-olds.
The challenge then, as I see it from these texts, might be framed as choosing between following others, and following God. Certainly, in the reading from Samuel, we hear God tell the king that Israel are rejecting God, His warnings, and trying to find a King, rather than to seek God’s guidance. Looking to God, rather than to others, is difficult. Thankfully, we have been given a Godly example to look to. Jesus Christ – who – with my Psychology hat on again – I could hold up as the ultimate example of non-conformity. To be greatest of all, He made Himself least of all, to show Himself strongest of all, He became utterly vulnerable, and to bring us fullness of Life, suffered death, in obedience to God. When it comes to our choices then,
Let us celebrate everything that Pride represents; God-given diversity in our humanity, our freedom to choose. And, as Catherine of Sienna reminds us, “when we become the person God wants us to be, we can set the world on fire”. Let us all look to God, for the courage to make choices true to ourselves – to be who we are.