By now I’m sure you know that, while in Iraq, over the weekend, President Bush was the target of an Iraqi reporter who threw his shoe at him. As is my custom on this blog, I’ll avoid political comments but draw an interesting catechetical lesson from the event.
At first glance, throwing his shoes may seem like a rather silly and feeble gesture, like a woman hitting someone with her purse. Howver, a little knowledge of Scripture points out why this gesture is more accurately an expression of great insult.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with the following words uttered by John the Baptist: “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.” (Luke 3:15-16).
As I point out in my book, God’s Library: A Catholic Introduction to the World’s Greatest Book, (in a chapter teaching about the importance of reading footnotes in the Bible), a man’s sandal was considered his lowliest possession in middle-eastern culture. John the Baptist was making quite a profound statement when he referred to Jesus’ sandal.
In the same way, we hear the prophet Amos speak the following words: “Thus says the LORD, for three crimes and for four I will not revoke my word; because they sell the just man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals.” (Amos 8:6)
And finally, in the Book of Deuteronomy, we find the following strange passage describing the penalty for a man who refuses to marry his sister-in-law after his brother has died without leaving a son: “If he persists in saying, ‘I am not willing to marry her,’ his sister-in-law, in the presence of the elders, shall go up to him and strip his sandal from his foot and spit in his face, saying publicly, ‘This is how one shoud be treated who will not build up his brother’s family!’ And his lineage shall be spoken of in Israel as ‘the family of the man stripped of his sandal.” (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). Strange to us Westerners that he’ll be remembered, not as the man who had his face spit into but as the man who had his sandal stripped, clearly the more powerful gesture to the original biblical audience.
Whether a sandal or a shoe, that which covers the foot is considered dirty in Mid-eastern culture. To throw your lowliest, dirtiest possession at someone is an expression of profound insult.
All this to say that the Iraqi reporter was not just throwing the only thing he could get his hands on at the moment. He was executing a calculated insult – a message that was understood loud and clear in the Mid-east but lost on many of us in the West.