Ordinary 26 (Proper 21), Year B
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16 † Psalm 19:7-14 † James 5:13-20 † Mark 9:38-50
In his book of essays called My Story as Told by Water[i], northwest writer David James Duncan writes of the chasm between his father and himself. His dad was a World War II vet whose perspective had been forever fixed by the searing experience of liberating a Nazi concentration camp. Duncan was a product of the protest culture of the 1960s Vietnam era. His experience was not unlike many in that age. He describes it this way:
In 1966, when I was fourteen, I began to question the war at our family supper table. The instant I’d speak up, my father would snap that the only reason I could criticize the war at all was that our troops in Vietnam were protecting my freedom to do so. I would argue back by saying that my freedom did not strike me as being dependent upon the clique of Saigon businessmen whom Americans were actually protecting, or on the deaths of the civilians our troops kept “accidentally” killing. Dad would then go off like a bomb, bellowing that I would never talk such rot if I’d seen a concentration camp.
Duncan describes the escalating series of arguments and tensions that grew night after night at the dinner table as both father and son found themselves dug-in deeper and deeper like fox-holes in perspectives that were shaped as much by their stations in life—Duncan as a student watching young men his brothers’ ages going off to a senseless and unwinnable war, never to come back, his father as a veteran of a more comprehensible war with an identifiable enemy, a clearer finish, and now a defense-industry salary that supported his family, including his son of fourteen years.
“I know now,” Duncan writes, “that no argument I could have constructed would have changed my father’s mind, any more than his ‘Nazi’ mantra could change mine. We needed wisdom.”
We needed wisdom.
He continues: Not “rote dogma,” not “ideology” or “research material.” Not “something we stuff into one another.”
The inner feeling that brings light to the eyes, the humor that helps create empathy, the fresh angles of vision that can waft into a room when hearts remain light, were gone; we had stopped creating the suppertime atmosphere in which wisdom could reveal itself. To stop creating this atmosphere is to move beyond help.
I suppose the events of the week centered around the hearings for the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court got me thinking again about this essay. If you saw anything at all about this, you have no doubt been struck by the spectacle, and perhaps felt again the deep wounds of fragile experiences of your own.
While waiting for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford to arrive at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Fox News Channel anchor Chris Wallace said that conversations surrounding allegations against Judge Kavanaugh prompted two of his own daughters to tell stories he had never heard before about things that had happened to them in high school.[ii]
During the same hearing, people started calling into C-SPAN to share their heart-breaking stories. “This brings back so much pain,” said a caller recalling a story from second grade. “Now I’m 76 years old, and I thought I was over it until I heard that it’s happened to someone else,” the woman added. “It is just—such a shame.”[iii]
I suspect there are many who grew up in my own era who have been reflecting on past stories of abuse both experienced and perpetrated. I know I found myself going back to my teenage years, thinking again about my own life, about the culture of violence, about changing standards, about the ways I treated others, and what I’ve learned along the way.
It seems to me, no matter what the outcome of these hearings, that we are in a moment that is filled with both danger and possibility.
“Control is a curious thing,” writes Foster Kline in the book Parenting with Love and Logic.[iv] “The more we give away, the more we gain.” “Parents who attempt to take all the control from their children end up losing the control they sought to begin with.” A corollary to this is even more striking. “A child who knows his problems are the concern of another, concerns himself with none of his problems.” The idea here is pretty simple. Consequences, more than anything else, have the power to teach. And when we take the consequences away or try to tell someone the lesson they are to learn, we can deprive that person of the opportunity to learn it. They are talking about parenting, of course, but the axiom is transferable.
I think that is what’s going on in the present moment, and it is funded by the likes of Dr. Ford who, it seems nearly everyone including those most ardent supporters of Judge Kavanaugh perceived to be credible. She spoke about what she knew, not about what she thought others knew. She told her story, and she named her own pain not someone else’s. She resisted the temptation to project theories of conspiracies or even to assume she could speak to the motivation of others, even her attackers. Like others before her, she did her work, she found her courage, and she told her story and hers alone, and in doing so, she got us thinking about ours.
This does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination that the world will change overnight, or that people with much power to lose will chose not to learn from those whose real experiences have been for so long silenced. It does not mean that we are done with lament or that rage over a long injustice is inappropriate, that other stories, your stories are yet to be told and those of us who have had the floor for a long time need to be quiet and listen. It does not mean that truth is not still truth, that facts can and should be determined. It does not mean that this work of reforming and renewing cultural expectations and norms will not be a struggle.
When we are under pressure, we are rarely at our best. I suppose you could take that as one of the lessons from the dramatic week around the Supreme Court nomination hearings. I would imagine that both Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford would attest to this, if they were allowed a safe space to do so.
But I do think Dr. Ford gave us one example of what Jesus meant about not being a stumbling block, that offers us some hope when there is a very real possibility we will continue to participate in cycles of injury and retribution that will spin us apart when it doesn’t have to. And sometimes all it takes—and I do not mean to suggest this is anything but excruciatingly difficult—is offering a cup of water, and maybe an open mind to the idea that someone else’s experience—no matter how different they are from you, may have something to teach.
This may be the only way something transformative might happen within our culture and within each heart. One of our confessions, the Brief Statement of Faith, gets to that inner work of the spirit: we “trust in God, the Holy Spirit everywhere the giver and renewer of life.”
In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.[v]
[i] David James Duncan. My Story As Told By Water (Sierra Club Books, 2001), 69.
[ii] Lindsey Bever, “Fox News anchor says Kavanaugh case prompted his own daughters to reveal their stories.” The Washington Post, September 27, 2018. Retrieved September 28, 2018 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/reliable-source/wp/2018/09/27/fox-newss-chris-wallace-daughters-stories-show-it-would-be-a-big-mistake-to-disregard-christine-blasey-ford/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.2172d1b7a57f.
[iii] Lindsey Bever, “’This brings back so much pain’: Hear the wrenching C-SPAN call from a sexual assault survivor” The Washington Post, September 27, 2018. Retrieved September 28, 2018 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2018/09/27/kavanaugh-c-span-calls-sexual-assault-survivors-share-stories-during-christine-blasey-ford-hearing/?utm_term=.cda4d840fe6b.
[iv] Foster Kline & Jim Fay. Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility (Piñon Press, 2006), p. 80.
[v] “A Brief Statement of Faith.” Book of Confessions. Presbyterian Church, USA, 2016, 11.4.
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