David, Contraception, and the “Defenders” of “Religious Liberty”

Posted on June 20, 2012


When the Lectionary takes up the beloved story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49) this Sunday, many preachers will be sermonizing on a narrative with themes that have been embraced and reframed over and over again in American culture. Indeed, many of our nation’s favorite cultural tales favor the “little guy” as he or she faces the full might of an evil empire (think  Star Wars, the tall-tale of John Henry, or those situations in which James Bond finds a way to escape from an enemy base crawling with Soviet soldiers). However, when conservative Christians, largely white men, attempt to make the case that “religious liberty” needs to be “defended” when women are guaranteed contraceptive coverage, they forget one thing: they have privilege only afforded to white, educated, Christian, men. They are not a David, but a hulking giant threatening the livelihood of an entire population.

Clear Power Dynamics in the Narrative

The story is a familiar one. The armies of Saul the Israelite king and Philistines line up for battle on either side of a valley. Then, emerging from the Philistine lines, a large man steps forward, a champion, measuring “six cubits and a span”: Goliath of Gath (17:4). The giant’s armor is of gleaming bronze and “the shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weight six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield bearer went before him” (vv. 6-7). His challenge is clear:

“Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to . . . kill me then we will be your servants . . . If I prevail . . . you shall be our servants.” (1 Samuel 17:8-9)

In their fear, Israel’s army begins to doubt their own abilities in the face of this champion and, on his way to send food to his brothers, David hears of their plight. Refusing Saul’s armor and weaponry, David declares to his king that he will step forward and fight as the Israelite champion (vv. 31-39).

The narrator provides vivid imagery in this passage, most notably in describing the power differential between the two champions. Goliath walks onto the battlefield with such a large spear and shield that he needs a shield-bearer. David, on the other hand, is his father’s youngest son (17:14), and is in fact Saul’s armor-bearer (16:21). Yet, the narrator and David both make it clear that the deciding factor in this battle is neither the giant spear Goliath swings nor his size; and David’s victory is certain not brought achieved through his size or prowess in battle. Rather, at three different points in the narrative God is cited as the reason for David’s success:

“This very day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth will know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the LORD does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the LORD’s and he will give you into our hand.” (17:45; cf. vv. 26, 36)

Two things are of note here. First of all, God saves. The identity performed by God in this passage is one of saving, not an identity of needing to be saved. Second, the character in this passage puffing his chest and swing his weapon is not the one to be saved. Liberation here comes to the person who wields hardly more than “sticks” (v. 43).

Davids? Really?

When Religious Liberty Isn’t Threatened: for Example, Now.

The other day I came across an article written by a prominent Catholic theologian, George Weigel, titled “Don’t Know Much about Theology . . . “ Besides his incredibly offensive title, which presumes all criticisms of Catholic theology are uneducated and unfounded, Weigel spends most of this piece ranting over the the deteriorating of American culture and its abuse of Catholic doctrine within the media. He pleads patience over the Vaticans assault on feminist nuns and its stance on reproductive rights, arguing,

On the Roman front, according to the Washington Post, the Vatican, in its statement of concerns about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, uses “the word ‘feminist’ and even ‘radical feminist’ the way third-graders use the word ‘cooties.’” The same paper reported, with barely repressed glee, that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recently released critique of Sister Margaret Farley’s study of sexual ethics, Just Love, had resulted in a sharp spike in the book’s sales on Amazon.

On the American front, innumerable media outlets have claimed for months that the U.S. bishops’ opposition to the Obama administration’s “contraceptive mandate” is an attempt to cloak the Catholic Church’s essentially misogynist cast of mind behind a campaign for religious freedom.

Trouble is, these statements do misunderstand “feminism” and they are “mysognynist.” Why? Because theologians like Weigel  are white, educated, wealthy, Christian men. They are privileged. Furthermore, they burnish their doctrine like a weapon, showing off their “shaft the size of a weaver’s bow,” so that their opponents might shut up. Weigel demonstrates my point beautifully:

There is even less room for the notion of “the truth” as both binding and liberating at the same time. Yet that just happens to be the Catholic understanding of doctrine: a “doctrine” is an authoritative truth that invites (indeed compels) assent, and that liberates the believer into the deep truths of the human condition and the divine life. So when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, citing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’s own documents and program, avers that the LCWR [Leadership Conference for Women Religious] has come up short in what was specifically and deliberately called a doctrinal assessment, the Congregation is concerned about truth, not power, and about the integrity of religious vocations, not misogyny.

He claims some “authoritative truth” that “liberates the believer.” Unforutnately, this doctrine, as Weigel paints it, clearly cannot liberate some, such as Sister Margaret Farley, who have been driven to explore more liberating theologies. Indeed, if this doctrine “both binds and liberates,” we must ask, “Who is bound and who is liberated?” Is not the author of this article a member of privileged classes? Certainly he is, which makes claims such as these even more offensive. How can such a man, in good conscience, accuse those with less political privilege are taking his authority? Yes, men like these want to play the role of the David, in his threatened state, and the Goliath, with all of his weapons.

But is David not clear? “The LORD does not save by sword and spear for the battle is the LORD’s and he will give you into our hand.” Sure, laypeople, like some who will read this piece might not “know much about theology,” but they don’t need such a weapon as “authoritative doctrine,” because “the battle is the LORD’s.” So, religious liberty is not under assault. If you think it is, then either find comfort in your theological systems or, preferably, remember David’s message.

And, if I have not make my point clear enough, I will instead turn to an old friend, Junior Asparagus: