What is—and isn’t—bravery?
By Fedwa Wazwaz, Engage Minnesota
The David and Goliath story is used by people around the world as a structure and a storyline to help them understand their own actions. The story has a wide appeal: It’s empowering for any of us to see ourselves as a small, unlikely “David” figure fighting against a behemoth of a “Goliath.” After all, justice was on David’s side, while Goliath had brute force and worldly power. And David won.
This story has been adapted to the purposes of people across many political and religious spectra. Ultra-right-wing commentators have called themselves Davids against a Goliath entity of the mainstream media; ISIS fighters paint themselves as a David against the Goliath of the United States military might. There have been heroic David-figures as well. Nelson Mandela has been called a David against the South African apartheid regime’s Goliath. Or a small whistleblower standing up to corporate corruption might also be called a David.
It’s an easy story to fall back on. As important and appealing as it is, when read simply the story can blind us to criticism, allowing us to see ourselves as a tiny hero against powerful aggressors.
But what was David’s story, really?
David and Goliath in the Qur’an
King David’s honor and import spans religious traditions. In Judaism, he is remembered as the legendary second King of Israel and ancestor of the coming messiah. In Christianity, he is known as the forefather of Jesus and the psalmist. In Islam, he is a king and a Prophet revered for his righteous wisdom and willingness to stand against oppression.
According to Islamic teachings, David was an honorable king who acted according to God’s teachings. He was called upon to fight because part of faith is fighting against oppression, and he had to fight Goliath in order to end the oppression. But this wasn’t a simple matter of deciding that he was going to fight Goliath. First, David honed his self-discipline. In the time before battle, he and his followers were not indulging themselves: They were focused on doing what was right.
From the Qur’an:
When Talut(David) set forth with the armies, he said: “Allah will test you at the stream: if any drinks of its water, He goes not with my army: Only those who taste not of it go with me: A mere sip out of the hand is excused.” but they all drank of it, except a few.
Then when he had crossed it along with those who believed with him, they said: “This day We cannot cope with Goliath and his forces.” but those who were convinced that they must meet Allah, said: “How oft, by Allah’s will, Hath a small force vanquished a big one? Allah is with those who steadfastly persevere.”
Second, David was not looking to become a hero, and he didn’t believe he was saving the world. Indeed, he was relying on God, and acting for God.
From the Qur’an:
By Allah’s will they routed them; and David slew Goliath; and Allah gave him power and wisdom and taught him whatever (else) He willed. And did not Allah check one set of people by means of another, the earth would indeed be full of mischief: But Allah is full of bounty to all the worlds. These are the Signs of Allah: we rehearse them to thee in truth: verily Thou [O Muhammad] art one of the messengers. (Qur’an: 249-252)
This complicated story of perseverance and listening to God has been boiled down to tough, brave, little David stood up to big, powerful Goliath and brought him down.
Am I David or a troll?
We’re all called on to be brave, to stand up against oppression, but that is not a simple matter of targeting any powerful group and standing against them. But we might feel like a “David” when we’re acting like an internet troll just as much as we might feel like a “David” when we’re confronting an unjust power.
How to tell the difference?
It seems an easy thing, but the human ego is very treacherous, and it can whisper in our ears, encouraging us to tell stories in a way that build us up and tear others down. This doesn’t mean, if we see ourselves acting in a self-aggrandizing way, that we should hate ourselves or our stories! Instead, it means we should be mindful about how the human mind can rationalize. We should always be in a state of listening and investigating, and not divorce ourselves from the fact that we’re always in a state of needing God’s assistance.
Even when we’re fighting nobly, we need to be careful not to hype up vulnerable and impressionable people, and always to listen, love, and be humble. That is real bravery.
1) Are you being a listener?
To truly follow the path of the brave, we must listen even to those who oppose us. Always, the fight is not a fight of hatred, it’s a fight of love.
Brave people are not interested in silencing others. The way to falsehood is through silence. If a person who thinks they’re following David’s path is shouting down their opponents, they need to immediately stop and reconsider. And listen.
Many people see themselves as tough, outsider renegades. Far-right commentators often praise themselves for “taking the heat” and “saying what needs to be said.” And indeed, they might feel strongly criticized, and as though they’re standing up to a giant power, even if they also have many followers and listeners.
When the TV host Trevor Noah had far-right radio host Tomi Lahren onto his show, he asked why the actions of Colin Kaepernick—who knelt during the US national anthem in support of Black Lives Matter—bothered her so much. After all, wasn’t he just kneeling in his own space, harming no one?
Here, Lahren doesn’t acknowledge Kaepernick’s grievances nor does she address his rights. She seems to want only to silence her opposition. She wants the right to speak, while she does not want to listen. This is not the path of David, who listened well.
2) If you have followers—or are a follower of a “David”—what sort of connection is there between followers and leader?
Followers should be able to call their leaders on their bad behavior, and there should never be a herd mentality where followers all attack as a herd. Sometimes to know a person, we need to look at their followers.
There is a story of Muhammad, peace upon him, and one of his close companions, Omar ibn Al-Khattab, that comes to mind. When Omar ibn Al-Khattab became Muslim, he was of such noble rank and influence that some stopped attacking the nascent Muslims immediately.
A man who had loaned money to Muhammad came to claim it from him, and did so in an aggressive manner. Omar ibn Al-Khattab stepped in and roundly criticized the man, shooing him off. Muhammad chastised Omar and told him to repay the money-loaner extra for his sharp words.
Here, we can see that they didn’t all attack an outsider, even if he approached them aggressively. Muhammad did what was just, and addressed the man’s tone later.
This is important because of how the Prophet resolved conflicts and received criticism from those who came to claim their rights from him in an abusive manner. He addressed their rights first, before their abusive behavior.
3) When you win a battle, are you humble and loving?
One of the great manifestations of a brave and real victory is that, when you win, there is no revenge. After all, we are fighting to remove oppression, not to be in power.
When a person tastes victory, as David did, the first thing they should feel is a sense of humility, because this victory didn’t come from them alone. They should bow in gratitude, as God and many others made this possible.
When you’re fighting others, your aim is not to destroy them, but to nurture them and remove oppression. The brave person fights not from hate, but out of love.
This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, currently titled Reflections of Faith: Lessons from the Prophets.
Fedwa Wazwaz is a Palestinian-American born in Jerusalem, Palestine and raised in the US. She was the chair for the Interfaith Relations at Islamic Center of Minnesota. She has completed training in restorative justice at the University’s Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking. She was a 2008-2009 policy fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. She lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.
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