“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” – Genesis 32 22-28
On December 19, 2008, activist Tim DeChristopher obtained 14 parcels of Bureau of Land Management land slated to be auctioned to oil and natural gas companies by placing fraudulent bids at a public auction. His actions were unsurprisingly frowned upon by government authorities, but then again, dominant forces have never appreciated the ethics of tricksters. His actions and the creative resistances posed by generations of marginal activists are however met with celebration in the stories of the ancient Israelite trickster, Jacob. Like DeChristopher, Jacob also defrauded powerful figures in his life in pursuit of his objectives. While Jacob’s goals may be more morally questionable than DeChristopher’s, Jacob’s meta-tactic of deceit has a salient political meaning to persons who lack access to mainstream power structures.
Like the pre-state tribal Israelites who likely incorporated the Jacob narrative into their cultural ethos, activists seeking full humanity for oppressed persons, or in DeChristopher’s case life for the oppressed earth, are often forced to confront imperial powers which are more organized, better equipped, well-financed engines capable of absorbing mainstream dissent without flinching. Here, stories of trickster tactics can empower persons on the margins, or people representing marginalized causes.
DeChistopher defended his actions in his closing statement to the court saying, “those who write the rules are those who profit from the status quo. If we want to change that status quo, we might have to work outside of those rules because the legal pathways available to us have been structured precisely to make sure we don’t make any substantial change.”
Answering the charge that this attitude represents disrespect for the rule of law, DeChistopher responded, “the reality is not that I lack respect for the law; it’s that I have greater respect for justice. Where there is a conflict between the law and the higher moral code that we all share, my loyalty is to that higher moral code.” He continued, “At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like.” DeChistopher understands what Christian ethicists have long known, that government behavior does not define moral norms and government agencies are not immune to scrutiny by legal standards.
Drawing strength from the courage of tricksters like DeChistopher, the church ought to be willing to adapt tactics in order to function as effective advocates for the poor and oppressed, knowing that the systems are structured to prevent this from happening. DeChristopher’s actions have had more than simply symbolic resonances. In fact the confusion caused by his interruption bought enough time for thorough legal review of the Bush administrations auction and eventually the vast majority of lots were taken off the auction and the land’s public status was maintained.
Of course, the story of Jacob at the Jabbock is not the story of the trickster’s triumph, but rather the tale of a perennial trickster called to task, to wrestle directly for the first time in his life, to be wounded, and to be named Israel. This moment provides a vital complication of the trickster motif: sometimes we may be drawn into a more painful struggle. Jacob’s life of scheming and deceiving was ultimately designed so he could avoid confrontation with those who threatened him, be it Esau or Laban, but the story leads to Jabbock where Jacob finally must directly engage the forces he fears.
Jacob’s biography is not a blueprint for activism, but perhaps a helpful model for what the church looks like in a world of empires, or at the very least a reminder that power can exist outside of prescribed structures. The story of Jacob empowers the marginalized to secure their own justice while reminding of the importance of confronting empire directly.
John Allen is a Master of Divinity Student in New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Davidson College. He is an ordination candidate in the United Church of Christ Metropolitan Boston Association.
This post is part of the series, the Politics of Scripture. We welcome submissions on Scriptures from any religion.