In the last number of months, I’ve returned to working in a Belfast office for a few days each week, and am now parking at the outer edges of the city’s Titanic Quarter. That has meant regular glimpses of what are arguably Belfast’s greatest icons: Samson and Goliath, the two gantry cranes that dominate large swathes of the city’s skyline and can be seen from miles around. The cranes generally inspire me, reminding me that I can only be in one place: a city that speaks to me of many good memories and milestones, alongside friends and family.
But over the last number of weeks, some personal thoughts have started to crowd in around the cranes, with two dominant questions recurring. How did a city steeped in so much evangelical faith and Biblicism come to give these icons the names of two of scripture’s most inglorious figures? And was there an almost prophetic symbolism in them starting to watch over the city just as more than two decades of horrific violence started to unfold?
I realise, of course, that it could not have been anticipated how deeply the names of both cranes would become baked into the city’s vernacular. I am sure that when they were first used, they were almost certainly a witty nod to their size and strength. But it now seems to me that just as the cranes cast a literal shadow at certain times each day, so in their names, they also represent Belfast’s dreadful shadow side.
Incredibly, Goliath – the first and slightly smaller crane (315-ft) – was constructed in 1969, the year the Troubles started, with Samson (348-ft) following on in 1974 (source: Wikipedia). They went on to loom over a city that saw over 1,500 deaths during the Troubles, a figure that we today lament, but that would have prompted little to no sorrow or sadness for their Biblical namesakes.
Goliath – the champion from Gath – only appears in one chapter of the Bible (1 Samuel 17), but made a very memorable name for himself. He was armour-clad, stood at nine-feet-nine-inches tall, and happily volunteered to play for the Philistines in a one-man-versus-one-man settling of their conflict with the Israelites. His goading went on – morning and evening – for forty days, before a youthful David took him out with only a catapult and five smooth stones. Goliath’s pride literally went before a fall, as it turned out that God’s answer to a nine-ft Philistine was not a ten-ft Israelite.
Samson’s story plays out over Judges 13 to 16, the tale of the man whose long hair was the secret-sauce of the strength given to him by God. He’s as violent a figure as any in the Bible, a brutal man who seems to enjoy the capacity for cruelty his outsized strength affords him. A penchant for revenge is a dispiriting part of his makeup, and a weakness for women fills out his moral portrait. He ends up blind and humiliated, but as stubble turns to hair on his previously shaven head, his last prayer to God is for the fortitude to carry out a suicide attack that kills three thousand Philistines in one act. The lesson of Samson seems to be that even the greatest spiritual gifts are worth little if not submitted to God.
Together, Samson and Goliath are the proverbial strongmen. They strut and swagger, and throw their weight about. They know that they can intimidate and terrorise as much through their personal myth as through actual presence and deeds done. In the words of Mark Heard’s song How to Grow Up Big and Strong (made famous by Rich Mullins), they are ‘fit and dominant’, they don’t bow to circumstance, and they don’t have the words that mean love.
And as the gantry cranes watched over the city during the Troubles – and right up to this day – I wonder how many little-Samsons and little-Goliaths they both saw and still see. Men who rule by fear and dish out capricious violence, ostensibly because of ideology or to defend their own community, but mainly – honestly – because they simply enjoy cruelty and power.
As I’ve reflected on the destructive nature of Samson and Goliath, I’ve got to thinking about whether Christians in the city could start to have conversations about the Biblical figures we’d want to watch over their city, if we had a choice. I recognise that it would be next to impossible to ever think the cranes could be renamed, so widely accepted have their names become, but that doesn’t mean that as Jesus followers we should ignore the spur to prayerful imagination that such discussions could be.
I have two starters for ten. The first is David and Jonathan, partly because it was David who brought Goliath down, and also because David and Jonathan’s friendship was so intense and strong that it endured despite the enmity between the House of Saul and David’s destiny to kingship. Love that transcends boundaries is surely something that Belfast could do with more of.
My second suggestion is Ezra and Nehemiah, two great leaders of post-exilic leadership in Israel who worked together, Ezra as teacher and Nehemiah as builder. Post-Troubles, Belfast could experience genuine spiritual renewal through Ezra’s hunger for confession and repentance, and Nehemiah could help to rebuild its social fabric and heal the scars of deprivation.
Maybe these are foolish thoughts, but maybe not. I hope they might inspire some holy debate and discussion among God’s people and their leaders. Because if I could choose the people who would watch over Belfast, Samson and Goliath would make it nowhere near my list.
Colin Neill works in local economic development, and is a PCI accredited preacher and spiritual director.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.