Sunday, May 10, 2009

David and Goliath

May 10, 2009

MMalcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and other books, has published another thought in The New Yorker (May 11, 2009, p.40-49) called How David Beats Goliath. He looks at how an unlikely group of twelve year old girls were coached to the finals of a basketball championship. He looked at other underdogs who had prevailed by breaking conventions: how David beat Goliath, how Lawrence of Arabia led the Bedouins in his sway to victory and how a computer scientist called Doug Lenat created a computer program called Eurisko that, when fed the rules for a war game involving naval fleets, managed to come up with a series of solutions suitable for underdogs. In every instance the strategy of the underdog involved doing something unexpected that gave an edge unless or until the better prepared or more skilful ‘other’ responded. The girls used a full court press throughout the game (not unlike Rick Pitino in his early days at Kentucky, as Gladwell points out.) David used his slingshot against brute strength. T. E. Lawrence used what we might call ‘guerilla tactics’ against his enemy. Eurisko, asked to design a naval fleet for war gaming came up with a large number of small boats and weapons with no defense and no mobility and so beat gamers who knew history and strategy and computers and the like.

The girls’ team was from Redwood City. Their coach Viveck Ranadive, decided to use the whole court for the whole game as a way of minimizing the skills of the other team relative to his own. Very quickly other coaches started saying that what Redwood were doing was not really ‘fair’, not the point of the game which was to teach girls basketball skills after all. What the girls learned this way, Gladwell points out, is “that effort can trump ability and that conventions are made to be challenged.”

I was reminded of how Dean Smith was using the ‘four corners’ strategy against better teams than UNC in the mid to late 70s. He subsequently supported the introduction of the shot clock which was a direct response to the delaying tactic that helped Dean win games against better teams. I remember how opponents cried ‘foul’ at the tactic which was simply a challenge to convention within what was possible.

Fans of Star Trek will remember how James T. Kirk as a cadet beat a computer simulation by reprogramming the simulation. (This incident reappears in the new movie about the origins of the Enterprise crew.) Was that ‘cheating’? Or was that beating the unbeatable program intended to create fear in an aspiring officer of Star Fleet?

Conservatives in The Episcopal Church have decided to break the conventions and pour money and effort into subverting the Church to the end of ‘capturing the brand’. Happy Episcopalians have responded in part by declaring their behavior to be ‘unfair’ or ‘cheating’. We have responded in part by repeating the rules and our logic. (‘Individuals can leave the Church but dioceses and parishes cannot’) They have said, in effect, ‘watch me’. It is also true that we have acted as an underdog (which we are in respect to the majority of the Anglican Communion.) We have responded by breaking the conventions urged by councils of the church who bemoan the use of lawsuits and be refusing to lie down and take it on the chin, responding to hardball with non violent and legitimate hardball and, on the whole, seem to be prevailing in the courts. Conservatives are, predictably, playing the ‘who started it?’ game claiming that The Episcopal Church ‘broke the rules’ and was ‘unfair’ with the consecration of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire. The problem with that claim is, of course, that we didn’t break the rules at all and now the some in the communion (apparently with the full support of the Archbishop of Canterbury) are trying to change the rules. They want to make it true retroactively that we have broken the rules because we have acted in spite of the majority ‘mind of the communion’ in believing that gay and lesbian people are not perverted heterosexuals and therefore worthy of moral condemnation.

Unlike basketball, this is not a game and human lives (quite literally in Nigeria and elsewhere) are at stake in what we say and do. That is why we should not support a change in the ‘rules of the game’ that outlaw what we have done well within the bounds of our common life, but unacceptable to some from societies. Many of those bishops and others who are upset are from societies who have not yet been able to take a good look at the gifts that could be released if they took a look at women through a different lens that that of patriarchy. Certainly we should not eat meat offered to idols if it will offend a brother or sister, but that is not what we are doing or what we have done. We have stood in the councils of the church like Peter and declared that health and salvation are a divine matter and divine matter only as we are shaped by the story of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We have with Peter declared that no purely human construct, theology, worldview or prejudice should stop the raising of the lame or the bringing of the lepers into the mainstream of community, or the opening of the eyes of those once blind (as I was once in the matter of gay and lesbian people) as the liberating work of God and our claiming of the gospel promise.

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