Lord of the Flies or Law of the Fugitives?
Texts: Deuteronomy 5:1-21; 6:4-9
Speaker: Joel Miller
Here’s a story: A plane crashes near an uninhabited Pacific Island. The only survivors are a group of youth. The boys come ashore and elect a leader, establish plans for survival, and light a fire to alert potential rescuers. But the order soon falls apart. Many of the boys don’t do their share of work. Some believe there is a monster on the island. One of the boys gains popularity when he pledges to kill the beast, even as he carelessly allows the fire to go out. He becomes leader of a rebel tribe who continue the slide from civilized British youth to wild savages. They kill a pig and make its head an offering to the beast. They paint their faces, dawn spears, and dance around a fire. They kill one of the boys, mistaking him for the dreaded beast. Eventually the tribe sets fire to the forest and hunts down the boy who was the original leader. As he flees out to the beach, he falls, right at the feet of a British officer who is part of a rescue party. When the pursuing tribe emerges, ready to make their capture, they see their adult superiors and stop in their tracks. As if lifted from a trance, they hang their heads in shame that they have descended so quickly into violence and chaos, the forest still ablaze behind them.
This is Lord of the Flies, a 1954 novel, adapted to film in 1963. It’s fiction. In other words, it never actually happened. It is a parable that caught the cultural imagination – it speaks to human nature, power, and how civilization can save us from our worst tendencies – although let’s put a question mark on that one and come back to it. I confess I’ve referenced it once or twice myself, mainly to parents picking up their children at our house after an especially rambunctious large group play date. As in, “Whew, good timing, it was starting to get a little Lord of the Flies around here but I’m pretty sure everybody’s OK.”
Here’s another story, nonfiction: This is the only known instance of youth actually being stranded on an uninhabited island and living to tell about it. It happened in 1965, two years after that film, when a group of six native Tongan teenage boys ran away from St. Andrews Anglican boarding school by stealing a boat and sailing off the main island of Tongatapu in the Pacific. They were not experienced sailors and that night a storm broke their sail and rudder and they drifted for eight days until they sited ‘Ata, a formerly inhabited but now abandoned island.
They initially survived by catching fish, unsuspecting birds, and eating coconuts. They captured rainwater in the hollows of tree trunks, a method they remembered in stories from their parents. They rationed it evenly among themselves. They managed to light a fire by rubbing sticks together and kept it burning continuously for the 15 months they were on ‘Ata.
Realizing it may be a long time - or never - before they were rescued, they planted gardens and set up an enclosed area to raise chickens they had discovered living wild from the previous inhabitants 100 years prior. They established divisions of labor for different duties – including a spiritual leader, and a planner who would go on to become an engineer. They made a badminton court, a workout area with weights, and composed five original songs. When one of them fell down a cliff side and broke his leg, the other five climbed down and brought him back up, set his leg with a splint, and joked that he would now lay back like a king while they did the work. The leg healed and he rejoined the labors.
They did have conflicts, but practiced timeouts. One would later recall that when things got heated he would go off into the woods by himself, sometimes have a good cry, before coming back to the group. They were rescued when an Australian captain of the fishing boat Just David noticed signs of life on the island. All six youth were reunited with their tearful families who had already held funerals for them. (Short documentary/reenactment HERE)
Here’s another story: Descendants of wandering herdsmen settle in the land of Egypt. At first, they enjoy the benefits of this ancient civilization. But soon the Pharaoh deems these foreigners a threat, and enslaves them. Their slavery lasts many generations, 400 years, until a family produces three siblings who will deliver them out of Egypt – Their names are Miriam, Aaron, and Moses. Through a series of plagues that proves the God of these Hebrews superior to the gods of Pharaoh, the people are allowed to leave Egypt, free at last only after they escape through the parted Red Sea.
The fugitives enter an uninhabitated desert, away from the shelter of civilization, away from the life support systems that had sustained them, even in their slavery. They have escaped. They are free, and they are on their own. And, as Toni Morison writes in her novel Beloved: “Freeing yourself was one thing. Claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
On the other side of the Red Sea, alone together in that wilderness, questions of survival come quick. What will we eat? What will we drink? They were, quite literally, in a food desert, otherwise known as a desert. No storehouses of Egyptian grain here. No pigs or feral chickens from previous inhabitants either. Famously, they are sustained by water that comes from a rock, quail that fly in so thick there’s meat enough for everyone, and manna that forms like dew on the desert floor each morning, just enough for daily bread. Also famously, there was arguing, not a little grumbling, there were challenges to Moses’ leadership, there was longing for the days when they knew there was going to be enough food, back in Egypt. But the group manages to hold together.
In “Lord of the Flies,” the storyline seems intent on illustrating the saving qualities of English civilization. Leave that for even a short time, and you start to act like those wild and violent natives, savages we spent so much time and effort civilizing. That story definitely looks different when you’re about to honor Indigenous People’s Day.
The Bible comes at its story of survival in the wilderness from the other angle, more like the native Tongans who escaped their English boarding school. It’s Hebrews who escaped Pharaoh’s boarding school and labor camps.
And here’s the question that animates the story of the Hebrew Exodus: Is Pharaoh’s way the only way, or will another form of community emerge here in the wilderness? And if so, what will it look like?
This is the context for the giving of the Ten Commandments, told twice, with only slight variation in Exodus and Deuteronomy. This is the context for the giving of the Shema “Hear, O Israel,” and what Jesus will later refer to as the Greatest Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God (loyalty to the Creator above the political regime of Pharaoh or Caesar) with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is our current location in the Narrative Lectionary as the descendants of Jacob the God-Wrestler, Israel - and those who joined them in their escape from Egypt - emerge as a people with a distinct identity through this experience of exodus and wilderness formation.
It’s no mistake there are the same number of commandments, 10, which build up the people of Israel, as there were the number of plagues, 10, which topple the empire of Egypt. And it’s no mistake that the introduction, considered to be the first of the 10 commandments, or words, or declarations, in the Jewish tradition, has God saying: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” That’s what these commandments are about. These are teachings to a newly freed people on how to remain free. Christians, with our quest to contrast the grace of God through Jesus with the heavy-handed law of the Old Testament, have largely missed this point entirely. The law is grace. The commandments are a Divine gift. They are a manifesto for the creation of a community living an alternative to the rule of Pharaoh. They are a toolkit for survival in the desert.
One of the things I’ve wondered about the Ten Commandments, and I don’t think I’m alone, is why they are mostly “Thou shalt not’s”. Eight of the 10 are in fact things you shouldn’t do. No other gods, no idols, don’t misuse of the Holy name, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t give a false witness, and don’t covet. Only two - Keep the Sabbath, Honor your parents - are worded as things you should do.
As most parents and teachers know, this 80/20 don’t-to-do ratio doesn’t work so well with children, or adults for that matter.
One possibility is that this isn’t about a ratio at all. What if there are actually just a few things we really shouldn’t do, and if we can keep those in front of us, we’re free to live our lives in the freest of ways. When you’re trying to survive and hold together as a community, it’s good to know what not to do. When you wake up in the morning, the whole day ahead of you, it’s good to know what not to do. This idea came up a few weeks ago in an unrelated discussion in a small group I’m a part of. One member wondered what it might be like, along side a day’s to do list, to have a not-to-do list. Like:Today, as best as I’m able, I will not cause harm to anyone I encounter. I will not take what isn’t mine. I will not covet what I don’t need. It only takes a few to set a pretty radical agenda for the day. Or maybe eight to set a radical agenda for a community. What's on your not-to-do list?
If we’re clear on a few things not to do, we open ourselves to the nearly endless possibilities that come through the next commandment: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Saint Augustine has a wonderful line, which says “Love God and do whatever you please.” In other words, the list of what we can do is infinitely long. I mean you can even build a badminton court on a deserted island with your friends if you’re so inclined. You can plant a garden. You can compose original music. Go for a swim, whatever. You’re even free to have a Sabbath, nonaction, which I guess straddles the line right between the to do and not to do list.
Remember what not to do. Love God with all your being. And do whatever you please. This is the freedom of the alternative wilderness community.
We do not live on a deserted island, and we do not live in a deserted desert. Perhaps even more of a challenge, we live on a crowded planet, shared by 8 billion humans and countless other species. We still need the basics. What are we going to drink? What are we going to eat? And we’re still working out this alternative to Pharaoh’s way of ordering things. We are among those who are opting in to the practices that bring life. We can cultivate the inner life and the outer life that enables us to live as free people, bound to one another, in the service of love.