“There is a certain people dispersed and scattered among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom whose customs are different from those of all other people and who do not obey the king’s laws: it is not in the king’s best interests to tolerate them.”
These words, from the King Ahasuerus’ top adviser, Haman, the Dominic Cummings of his day, to his king, the great ruler of the Persian Empire, set in motion a train of events that are described in the book of Esther, and which are commemorated annually by Jews all over the world in the feast of Purim.
Haman is regarded as the bad guy in all subsequent Jewish retellings of the story, and indeed he is. He is descended from Agag king of the Amalekites, whom Samuel “slew before the Lord at Gilgal” in 1 Samuel 15:33. Saul, a Benjamite of the house of Kish, had disobeyed God’s command in failing to destroy the Amalekites.
But actually here, in his discourse with King Ahasuerus in Esther 3, Haman demonstrates a flash of insight about the Jews: A people whose customs are different from those of all other people and who do not obey the king’s laws.
This affected him personally when Mordecai, another Benjamite from the house of Kish, refused to bow down to Haman, who had been recently honoured by the king. Whether the failure to bow down to Haman was for reasons of worship or simply because Mordecai knew he was descended from the Amalekites, and the Benjamites and Amalekites had form, we do not know.
The Jews were called on by YHWH to be a light to the Gentiles, to demonstrate a way of living that was under YHWH’s hand, under his laws, in the shalom that came from peace with the land, peace with God and peace with each other. By this way of living, they were to subvert the ways of the nations and their gods, to demonstrate to them a better way of life. YHWH’s promise to Abraham, in a part of the world not that far from where Mordecai and Haman played out their drama, but a good thousand or more years earlier, was that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him (Genesis 12). This they were to achieve in the land that YHWH would give them, and there they were to engage in rituals and customs, notably circumcision (Genesis 17), that would mark them out, as Haman noticed, “from all other people.”
The failure to do this, to live that corporate life of worship and justice and shalom, had ended in bitter exile for the Jews, scattered as they now along the length of the Tigris and Euphrates, and beyond, as a result of at least two major invasions and forced removals. A similar charge was levied at them by Jesus as he approached Jerusalem in AD 29-30, lamenting that the affection of their God was now hidden from their eyes due to the hardening of their hearts. Exile and the destruction of the second temple was the inevitable judgment.
However, there is something else here in Haman’s mind: the possibility of subversion if compliance is not enforced. He knew enough of Jewish history to know that they lived in a different concept of life from other middle eastern peoples. And that was a threat. Mordecai threatened him just by not doing what he was told, a simple act of subversion that at a single stroke undermined the preening vanity of Haman. There was no way, as there was none for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that he could bow down to such a puppet-ruler, given his Jewish roots. This was not disrespect for authority – Mordecai sat at the king’s gate each day, and later accepted a high-up civil servant role in the government – but an unwillingness to worship that which arrogated authority where it had not been earned or deserved. Mordecai was deliberately and provocatively subversive.
In his book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin uses Peter Berger’s concept of plausibility structures in order to describe the “structure of assumptions and practices which determine what beliefs are plausible and what are not” (p.53). This is a highly useful concept to us when trying to place our systems of thought and belief as Christians (necessarily a minority one) within the reigning plausibility structure, informed by modernism, post-modernism and the neoliberal governmental structures we live under, even post-Brexit.
Within each plausibility structure, reason is at work. Reason cannot be “opposed” to revelation, Newbigin argues, because both a revelatory tradition (such as the Christian faith) and one built on modernist assumptions (such as that that dominates the Enlightenment) use reason to argue their cases. They are both “a tradition of rational discourse” – continually changing in order to make sense of experience, embodied in the language we use, and descriptive and interpretive of a reality we hold to be valid and true and useful. In the same way beliefs and facts cannot be put into opposition, as the modernist would want them, because facts change and are themselves interpretations within a tradition of rational discourse. Newbigin argues that when “facts” and “beliefs” are held to be in opposition, and “reason” placed in conflict with “revelation,” all that is happening is that the modernist, Enlightenment-driven plausibility structure is functioning well:
The Christian, on the other hand, will relativize the reigning plausibility structure in the light of the gospel. There is no disembodied “reason” which can act as impartial umpire between the rival claims. (p.57).
So in Esther, we have a Jewish plausibility structure, rooted in worship of YHWH and situated in the long narrative of YHWH’s choice of, and subsequent dealings with, Abraham’s family, in opposition to the reigning plausibility structure of (first) the Babylonian imperial world and then the Persian imperial world, similar in most features to its predecessor. For a short exposition of the Jewish plausibility structure, the speeches by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3, and by Daniel elsewhere in the book, are a help. Rooted in a distinctive and challenging worship of YHWH, trust in His deliverance, desire to serve the common good, and a strong understanding that YHWH spoke to, revealed himself to and interacted with people, the Jews lived their plausibility structure right in the midst of the reigning one. They were willing to accept and undergo the humiliation and the conflict with the imperial plausibility structure because of the narrative of their own history and the reality of YHWH in that history. They lived fully in their own plausibility structure, and related as best they could with the reigning one. Newbigin puts it this way:
As a Christian I seek so to live within the biblical tradition, using its language as my language, its models as the models through which I make sense of experience, its story as the clue to my story, that I help to strengthen and carry forward this tradition of rationality.
But as a member of contemporary British society I am all the time living in, or at last sharing my life with, those who live in the other tradition. What they call evident truths are not self-evident to me, and vice versa. When they speak of reason they mean what is reasonable within their plausibility structure. I do not live within that plausibility, but I know what it feels like to live in it. Within my own mind there is a continuing dialogue between the two.
Insofar as my own participation in the Christian tradition is both healthy and vigorous, both in thought and practice, I shall be equipped for the external dialogue with the other tradition. There is no external criterion above us both to which I and my opposite number can appeal for a decision…. (p.65)
I think that this is extremely important and helpful. The requirement of Christians to adopt an attitude of subversion to the powers that rule a country is not one that finds much of a home in Anglicanism, and to posit it as a stance for Church of England schools is controversial. But nonetheless it has to be argued, because there is too much happening in the way that education is governed and managed in this country – and in many other western nations – for our voices as Christians not to be raised. Like Mordecai, we cannot wait for authority to be given us to be subversive. We start by subversion, living out a humble way of life that at every point challenges what the reigning plausibility structure counts as success, as progress, as a good education, as the common good, as….as…. These arguments have to be made not on the basis that they somehow fit into the reigning plausibility structure, but because they flow directly from the fact of God demonstrated in the birth, childhood, life, teaching, ministry, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension to glory of His son, the messiah, Jesus.
Taking Newbigin’s internalised debate between the two plausibility structures is useful, because it legitimises both “embodied traditions of rationality” for us, even though we know that the one (the Christian understanding rooted in the Kingdom of God and the lordship of Jesus Christ) will eventually supplant the other. It means that we can strive for a fully articulated way of being Christian in and as Church of England schools whilst simultaneously engaging with, dialoguing with, debating with, and possibly suffering at the hands of, the dominant plausibility structure.
Newbigin’s argument is a call to arms to develop and flesh out the contours of what such a lived life in a Church of England school could become, as we seek to subvert, under the Lordship of Jesus, the dominant imaginary in our educational culture.