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If God attacks, don't let him get away with it.

Jacob, sitting at home one evening, hears the floor creak. He listens for a moment. The house is quiet because he has sent his family ahead. The floor creaks again. Suddenly, Jacob feels a hand on his shoulder. The grip is viciously tightened and he is flung above the intruder's head and thrown to the floor. As Jacob tries to recover, the visitor lets out a growl and leaps above him, prepared to land on his chest and knock the life out of him.

It is no common thug who has broken into Jacob's house. It is, according to the story, God. Jacob does the only thing he can. He fights back (Genesis 32:22-32). One shocking feature of this familiar story is rarely stressed: God is the aggressor, and violent in a very personal way.

This puts a troubling spin on "the will of God." What does it mean to conform to?

Far from being an indictment, this attack by God is a watershed in the life of the patriarch. This is when Jacob is renamed Israel, "because you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed."

The authors and editors of Genesis advocate that the people of God stick up for themselves and repel any attempt by God, or any attempt made in God's name, to drive them to their knees.

In a kind of pre-Christian incarnation, God takes human form and wants to pin Jacob to the ground. It is a sweaty, contentious encounter as the two men (the passage refers to the assailant as male) engage each other, arms locked. Jacob won't let go, even after he is wounded in the hip: "I will not let you go, unless you bless me" (Genesis 32:26).

This is critical for people who wish to be fully Christian and fully human, who want to belong to God and to themselves. This story suggests that there exists a faithful defiance, and it urges us to stand up for ourselves with redemptive contentiousness when God and other people attack. How can we do this?

The entire world saw Rodney King pinned to an L.A. freeway, being kicked, clubbed and taunted. When the policemen were first tried, they were found not guilty of excessive violence. In the days following the verdict, a howl of defiance screamed across the country. Blacks and other minorities got the message: If you are violated by authority, you should blame yourself.

Their response, swift, instinctive and at times misguided, has at its best been Jacobesque. They are saying, "We will not allow ourselves to be abused and humiliated in the name of justice." They refused, once flung to the freeway, to remain there with a boot in their belly. They will fight back, struggle to stand up and demand a blessing instead of humiliation.

There are other examples. The initial response of many Christian denominations to the gay movement has been to attack. We should not be surprised that many felt the attack was from God as well as the church, and responded to rejection by withdrawing from their churches.

But some have stayed, and they insist on being true to their experience. They stay in church contentiously, hanging on, fighting for their dignity, waiting for the day when, like Jacob, they will receive a formal, official blessing.

Women, too, have been struggling with God, the world and the church for their dignity. There is also the individual experience of disappointment with God. Those rejected by parents, lovers and friends; those who have been victims of violent crime, seen loved ones die, lost jobs -- it feels like an attack. What does it mean, in these situations, to contend with God? And what kind of identity-changing transformation can we expect if we prevail?

Jacob is transformed by his encounter with God into a wounded leader. He emerges from his night of struggle eager for reconciliation with his brother Easu (Genesis 33) and treats humans as the image of God: "Truly to see you is like seeing the face of God."

It is a frightening thing to trust a God who attacks. The fact that scripture at some level condones an ethic of resistance is of some relief. We are not asked to blame ourselves and assume that any attack by God came because of our moral flaws.

This story has much in common with the Book of Job. Like Job, Jacob receives friction from God. Like Job, Jacob refuses to curse God. Most important, though, is the fact that both Jacob and Job also refuse to curse themselves.

What it means to cooperate with God's will in these instances is to find something in yourself worth fighting for and not to become a doormat for the Lord. The task is not to find God's will, but to find our own will. What, deep down, do we believe about ouselves? What is holy that we cannot allow to be crushed? When we find the answer, we will be free.

Bill Peatman is studying ministry and lives in California.
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Title Annotation:Starting Point
Author:Peatman, Bill
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 19, 1993
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