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Subversive Stories in a World of Violence

A Theological Whistling

by David McColl

Since finishing my studies at SSU in 2020 I have been working in the peacebuilding sector. Initially I worked for an organization providing training and mediation for churches in the UK who were struggling with conflict and then last year I started a new role working with peacebuilding and reconciliation projects in Israel and Palestine.

My work has led me to regularly wrestle with the question of how do we work for peace in the midst of what is an increasingly violent and divided world? It is an incredibly important question for those of us who consider ourselves to be peacebuilders. How do we as peacebuilders respond when confronted with increasing polarisation and division? How do we work for peace in a time of rage and fury? How do we work for peace when confronted with violence that is as brutal as it is merciless?

I want to suggest something that may sound laughable, but I ask you to stay with me. The answer, I believe, is that we tell stories.

It sounds ridiculous. Our response to war, to missiles, kidnappings, unmitigated violence, polarization and division, is to tell stories? Yes. Because this is the way of Jesus.

Jesus was no stranger to violence, rage and fury. In Luke chapter 9, Luke tells us the story of Jesus sending his disciples ahead of him into a Samaritan village to get things ready for his journey to Jerusalem. However, we are told in verse 53 that when the disciples get there, ‘the people did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem.’ When we read this, it sounds like this should simply be a slight inconvenience in the plans of the disciples. However, their response escalates things to a new level.

James and John turn to Jesus and ask him, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ It is a shocking response. The Samaritans don’t welcome Jesus into their town and the response of the disciples is to pray for fire from heaven. In other words, let’s rain down rockets on them. Load up the missiles. Wipe them off the planet. It is dangerous and incendiary language, bordering on genocidal.

Yet Jesus, the master peacebuilder, could see what was going on. He understood something critically important about conflict which is that at the heart of this conflict, and every conflict, is a story. At the heart of this conflict between Jews and Samaritans, was a story of intractable conflict. A story passed down through centuries which said that the Samaritans were outside of the people of God, that they were tainted theologically, politically and ethnically. A story about an enemy who should be feared and destroyed.

At the simplest level it is the story of us and them. A story of simple moral binaries which paints them as evil and us as good. A story in which God and history is on our side and not theirs. It is a familiar story that is at the heart of many conflicts today. It is a story that dehumanizes the other, rejects the image of God in them, and lays a foundation for unspeakable violence. Left unchecked it is a story that quickly spreads, fuelling polarisation and sucking us all into it. It is a story that unchallenged leads us to call down fire from heaven, or in our modern day, fire from drones.

So how does Jesus respond? Faced with unadulterated violence and rage, he tells a story. A story about a good Samaritan. We all know this famous story, but we have often failed to read it within its wider context. When we look closely though, we notice that one minute the disciples are asking Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans and then, thirty verses later, Jesus is telling them a story about a good Samaritan. Jesus knows what he is doing. It is an artistic, bold and imaginative response to violence.

What Jesus is doing is resisting the conflict story of the disciples by telling a new story. His response isn’t to give them a theology lesson or to explain why they are wrong to respond with violence. His response is to tell them a story in which the moral example is a Samaritan. A story in which the one who most closely reflects and mirrors the compassion of God is one of those people upon whom just moments earlier the disciples were calling on God to destroy.

Read through this lens, it is a subversive story which challenges and deconstructs the conflict story of the disciples. The point of it is to challenge the story the disciples have been telling about the Samaritans. It is an invitation, a demand even, for the disciples to look again at the Samaritans and see their humanity. It is a story that restores the image of God in the Samaritans.

Doing this begins to transform the conflict because it shatters the simple one-dimensional story that the disciples had been taught and had believed. The point Jesus is making through his story, the question he is posing is, what if you are wrong about the Samaritans? What if the stories you have been told about them and have re-told about them, are wrong?

Jesus is creatively and boldly deconstructing the very foundations of the conflict. He is challenging and resisting the simple moral binaries that the conflict has been built upon. His story demands that the disciples look again at the Samaritans and see the image of God in them. He is creating a new story in which the Samaritans aren’t an enemy to be feared and destroyed but fellow human beings who are to be welcomed in as fellow members of the family of God. It is a story which destroys the justifications of violence. It is subversive, provocative and risky and it is an example for all of us who want to build peace in the face of increasing polarisation and violence.

So what can we do in these moments when we feel overwhelmed by conflict, polarisation and violence? Tell stories. Stories that resist and subvert. Stories that refuse to group people into simple moral binaries and challenge the dehumanization of those who are different from us. Stories that remind us of the image of God in others. As we do this it chips away at the conflict stories and exposes the lies that they are built upon. This is what we can do.

I will confess that I am not quite naïve enough to suggest that simply telling stories is how all conflict will be solved. We need diplomacy. We need structural change. We need leadership and we need justice. Yet I am fully convinced too that unless we challenge the stories that conflicts are built upon then violence will continue to flow. We break the cycles of violence by breaking the stories that have created it.

Desmond Tutu referred to his preaching in the face of the evil of apartheid as a ‘theological whistling’ and this is an apt description of the stories we tell. The stories we tell aren’t loud and they don’t force themselves upon people. They are, however, a consistent voice which challenges and subverts the stories we have believed in. They resist the dehumanization of the other and of ourselves and subvert the stories that justify violence and destruction of the other.

In his book, Not in God’s Name, Jonathan Sacks writes, ‘God taught Noah, and through him all humanity, that we should think, not of ourselves but of the human other as in the image of God. That is the only way to save ourselves from violence and destruction. It means that the greatest religious challenge is: Can I see God’s image in one who is not in my image?’ As peacebuilders may we tell the stories that help reveal God’s image in those who are not in our image and in doing so, help the world and our communities see that there is better way.


About David McColl

David's background is in international development and humanitarian work having worked and lived overseas for over ten years. He returned to Scotland to study peacebuilding and is now actively involved in peacebuilding work both in the UK and internationally. He currently works as the programme manager for Israel and Palestine for a UK NGO. He is driven by a passion to help Christians understand their calling to be peacebuilders.


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