Courage and Vision
Barbara (I'm her husband) finally persuaded me to read the novel Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini, a melodramatic story about Afghanistan and a family torn apart by the turmoil in that land during the past quarter century. It's a fast read, a pot-boiler really, with enough sex, violence, and action to propel it soon to the big screen.
I was especially riveted and repelled by the book's description of the stoning to death of two adulterers... as the half-time entertainment during a soccer game! To be sure, I had heard earlier of such "cruel and inhuman" treatment of violators of the law. Reports of the Taliban's excesses filled the airwaves and the bookshelves in the lead up to and aftermath of 9/11. And, of course, I was more than familiar with John 8 and Jesus' unforgettable challenge to those men quick to stone the woman caught in adultery: "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."
But the narratives of the Bible and novels, however accurate they may be, tend to be like a "painted ship on a painted ocean." Not part and parcel of my daily experience. In fifty years of preaching I have directly addressed Exodus 20:14 only once. To be sure, I never have preached on Leviticus 20:27, for which devotees of Sabrina the teenage witch have never thanked me. Another time, another culture, a different sensibility. Or so I thought.
There may be those who find my repugnance to stoning hypocritical or, at best, short-sighted. The argument ameliorating the barbarity of stoning aims at our modern antiseptic means of killing, with "smart" bombs and helicopter drones, the warriors employing them safely insulated from the bloodshed by the thousands of miles between their headquarters and ground zero. And, yes, I have reflected upon my own appetite for medium rare hamburgers and the slaughter that I never see that begins the delivery of the patty to my plate. I just don't know how I could have survived if I had been brought up on a dairy farm. My daughter's vegetarianism is no mystery to me.
Still, the stoning turns my stomach, makes me wonder if William Golding, author of The Inheritors (and, more familiarly, Lord of the Flies), that we are a violent race with a deep strain of malice toward each other. I might like to be able to blame this naked treachery on the culture of the Muslim world, wondering, as have many pundits on op-ed pages, whether or not the Arab nations will ever enter the modern era. But the execution of three young people along a chain-link fence in Newark reminds me that our society too has yet to tame the beast.
Which brings me back to John 8. In the aftermath of the summer's reading I have a new appreciation for Jesus' courage. He not only defies cultural tradition (e.g., the stoning of the adulteress); in doing so he puts his own body in the line of fire. I mean, everyone may be in in favor of forgiveness, especially if it is for himself. But what if saying the kind word costs, maybe plenty? And his logic is persuasive: in so many words, go ahead and throw if you think you are blameless, knowing full well that only the most arrogant among us would ever claim that reputation for ourselves. But like the punchline of my football coach's shaggy dog story about the rabbit that continued to run at the sight of a wolf despite the publicly announced moratorium on preying, the great day of the Brotherhood of the Beast, "there's always someone who doesn't get the word," Jesus' defense of the adulteress succeeds perhaps only because no super-Pharisee was present.
Courageous... and visionary. In this moment (and sometimes I am convinced it may be every moment) the summons to a little humility and a lot of grace is rarely voiced. Religious and political zealots alike shout down the opposition with bullying accusations of "sell-out," as if Jesus and Jefferson would be wont to draw a line in the sand (!) for reasons of purity of conviction. The world has enough proponents of Shiariah, enough preachers ready to consign the other side to damnation, and enough partisans hunkered down in their own bunkers lobbing grenades into the precincts of the "enemy." What the world needs now (and I am convinced it may always be the case) is someone who can draw us together, find our linkages, and draw from us the "milk of human kindness" with which to nourish each other.
Jesus in John 8, like Abraham in Genesis 14 with child sacrifice, pronounces the end of the ritual punishment of stoning. But that's only half his agenda. Breaking down the dividing walls of hostility, not just racial and cultural, but religious and moral: therein lies the Galilean's divine summons into the future.
Compassion, putting yourself in her shoes, desperately needed now more than ever.