This story begins with a book recently read
Severed Heads and Strawberries
This story begins with a book recently read, an historical novel, by Nathaniel Philbrick, entitled "Mayflower." It tells the story of the religious separatists from England who, with considerable help from those not so separatist, established the Plymouth Colony in the 17th Century along the shores of Cape Cod Bay. The book was presented to me as a gift from a couple at whose wedding I presided last October on the front steps of the Old Court House in Hartford. The groom had heard me brag about my wife's claim to being descended from a Mayflower immigrant, Stephen Hopkins.
So I curled up (as much as 75 year old legs curl!) in my recliner and assumed I would get a detailed retelling of the old, old story, reenacted ten times in my closing years in the pastorate in Valley Stream, by schoolchildren dressed as Puritans and Native Americans on the stage at Forest Road School. You know, something that would make me feel all tingly about the great initial melting pot experience that is the USA.
Instead, Mr. Philbrick introduced me to the terrible truth of the bloody beginnings of the American experiment in New England, especially King Philip's War. King Philip was the name taken by a Wampanoag sachem out to wreak revenge for his people on the pious Englishmen who cheated his tribesmen out of their homeland murdering or enslaving those who protested.
(Evidently King Philip's bad name never filtered down to the West Hartford town fathers. The middle school our grandsons attended is named King Philip, after the boulevard on which it is situated, in a section of town locally identified as "the reservation" due to the proliferation of tribal names on many street signs. Either that, or the town fathers chose the Native American names in a fit of political correctness.)
So there I am, curled up in my recliner, reading about severed heads, Indian and Puritan, placed on stakes at fort entrances and other prominences. Where, oh where, was the brotherly love and Edenic harmony of that first Thanksgiving celebrated at Forest Road School by the children of doctors and lawyers with origins more disparate than the gathering at Plymouth?
With the fourth report in "Mayflower" of severed heads, I read no further, even though only twenty pages remained.
For all my childhood admiration of Tom Mix, and my adult bluster notwithstanding, I am a wimp when it comes to seeing or imagining bloodshed. The evening of November 22, 1963 I phoned CBS to complain about its repeated showing of the moment of impact of Oswald's bullet on Kennedy's brain. Three years earlier I could be seen closing my eyes in the movie theatre watching "Psycho" when Tony Perkins in drag plunges the knife into the torso of showering Janet Leigh. Horror flicks I flick past while surfing with the remote. When Joe Theismann's shin was broken in two in living color on the gridiron I turned away unable to bear the sight. I could never have been an orthopedist... or a policeman.
But I confess to a deeper worry, opened wide with "Mayflower"... and the mayhem in the Middle East. Maybe we are what that old pessimist William Golding insisted we are, as in Lord of the Flies and, especially, The Inheritors. In the latter he tells the story of the ascendancy of our ancestors, the violent homo sapiens, how they accomplished the genocide of the peaceful Neanderthals. No wonder my grandsons are fascinated with video violence.
And when I seek refuge in Jesus meek and mild, the Prince of Peace, someone invariably reminds me of the cleansing of the temple, while on the big screen Mel Gibson manages to turn the Passion into a horror flick of dripping blood.
I know, I know, this mortal life is besieged with brutality. But why must we be fascinated with it, gathering like flies to dung at scenes of accidents, flocking to TV stories about little girls raped and murdered, keeping O J Simpson on the front page for six months of jury trial?
I would prefer to dwell, however, on the fragility of this mortal life, and the concomitant duty of those of us living out our days in the sunlight to reach out and help fellow travelers. The fragility forced its way into my consciousness last Saturday evening when I unintentionally picked a strawberry in front of the USLTA building in Flushing Meadow. We had just been shuttled by bus from Shea Stadium to a distant parking lot. The shadows were deep in the late twilight. I looked ahead when I should have looked down. I caught my foot on the curb and slammed head first into the asphalt. In the fraction of a second between uprightness and prostration the thought came to me that "this might be it." The brain wobbled a bit inside my skull, the skin broke at my temple, and the cheek blossomed with a strawberry. Who needs brutality in a world rife with pratfalls?
Speaking of which, pratfalls and their cousins, homely hazards, our daughter Betsy that same Saturday was the victim of a tiger at the door, our bichon, literally biting the hand that feeds her, spiking Betsy's pointer finger above and below, as a playful routine went wrong.
There you have it, the meanderings of a used-up preacher about the violence we do to each other and the violence which happens willy-nilly. As to the former, the violence we do to each other, the message of Jesus is unequivocal: don't. As to the violence which finds us, the message of Jesus is equally clear: persevere, the victory goes to life and love.
And he raises a cross to prove he means it both times.