Different Eyes, Different Perspectives

An interesting and somewhat distressing thing happened this morning that gives me cause to pause.  I was having coffee at a sidewalk table, sitting near a dozen other people, mostly my own age or older (so, all over 57…).  A young, fairly hefty woman with her maybe three-year-old child, sauntered up talking to a friend.  She seemed totally oblivious to her child, who actively tore around from table to table, shrieking and bumping into things.  I could see the looks on the people’s faces around me, and we were all thinking the same thing:  why doesn’t this woman control her child?  No sooner had that thought crossed my mind for the fifth or sixth time, than he raced to a table where two elderly people were eating breakfast, grabbed the edge of the table and rocked it violently, spilling food and coffee on the couple and the ground.  Instantly, the mom exploded, pulling an eighteen inch thick plastic ruler from her purse, snatching her child up by one arm and wildly swinging to strike the boy.  Everyone was stunned.  She wasn’t just swatting him with a ruler, she was drawing the plastic cudgel back over her head and bringing it down with the full-force of an out-of-control adult.  The child dropped to the ground as the woman continued her assault.  On the fourth or fifth stroke, she hit him on the bare leg at an angle and actually drew blood.  At that point, I jumped up, grabbed her arm, and yelled, “STOP THAT!”  She turned full fury on me, telling me to let go, and threatening to call the police.  I was shaken and shaky and tried to calm her down.  All the while, her child laid face down on the pavement, wailing.  I became aware of other people saying things, and as I tuned in I was stunned.  People were saying to me “Who do you think you are?” and “you should mind your own business,” and “why are you interfering?” and “what is your problem?”  Embarrassed, I gathered up my things and came on into work.

I reflected on this incident long and hard, and I cannot imagine acting any differently were the scene to play out in front of me again.  I saw child abuse; others saw discipline.  I saw a large adult beating a child in public; others saw a private personal family incident.  I saw out-of-control violence; others saw reasonable punishment.  I assumed everyone there saw what I saw, felt what I felt, and agreed with my assessment, when in fact I was the lone perspective that what was happening was “wrong.”  My tendency is to frame what I did as ‘what anyone would have done under the circumstances.’  I would be wrong.  And yet, it still eats at me.  This woman was violently beating a child with a weapon.  Who thinks that’s okay?

It reminds me why we are where we are as a church and as a culture — we all live through the exact same experiences, but we draw from them radically different meanings.  We want to make our own personal perspective normative — we want to believe that everyone should see things the same way, and understand things in the way we understand them.  And we have problems conceiving how anyone could understand them any other way.  Opinion isn’t just opinion; we think we are right and those who think differently are wrong.  And when we try to impose our sense of rightness on others, we get in real trouble.  It is sometimes hard to remember that no one defends a belief, opinion or perspective that they believe is silly, stupid or wrong.

I am trying to think how I could have handled things differently this morning, but so far I come up empty.  I am not sure I will ever stand by and watch an adult pummel a child.  That, obviously, is just me.  I don’t judge the others who didn’t do what I did, but I am flabbergasted that they judged me for what I did in such a harsh and negative light.  Did I butt in uninvited?  Yes.  Was it unwise to physically restrain the mom? Yeah.  And I would do it again in an instant.  Because while I didn’t see things the way everyone else did, I did have a valid view from my perspective and I acted on it, fully willing to accept any and all consequences that go along with it.  Sometimes all we can do is act on the courage of our convictions, even when we are in the unpopular minority.  And this is what I need to remember when I engage some of my theological/political/ethical adversaries: it takes courage to stand up for what you believe in, even when others vehemently disagree.  We will not become a witness to the kingdom of God on earth by making everyone think, and see, and believe, and act in the same way.  We model unity and witness community in the way we live together in all our different perspectives and postures.  Until we come to truly believe that there is a place for all in the kingdom/kin*dom of God, we don’t stand much of a chance of transforming the world into anything much better than we’ve already got.

Categories: Christian witness

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6 replies

  1. You deserve stars in your crown and more! Having been an Emergency Room nurse before my retirement, I can assure you action is all that changes these outcomes….whether that outcome be physical injury, emotional scars (and repetitive behavior when the child reaches adulthood) or even death. We could never understand why someone, anyone, didn’t intervene for the vulnerable in our society. I wish I could hug you! Not only did you change the dynamic, you taught that child there are adults who care. The theological metaphors multiply as I write.

  2. It’s interesting that the comments I’ve noticed, both here and on Facebook, are focused on your intervention. I believe you were appropriate. Bravo. However, there is another aspect that you raise that seems to bother you – and me – even more. The response of the other people gathered all around who got on your case about intervention and then the paragraph about wanting everyone else to believe and see things just the way we do.

    “We want to make our own personal perspective normative” – this is a very powerful statement and, in my experience, true. Reminds me of a meme I saw awhile back. It said, “Dear Atheist, if you don’t believe in God, why do you care whether I pray to him?” Why did the other people see your intervention, rather than the abusive mother’s action, as wrong? Is it their own fears of legal retaliation? Do they believe that what occurs between a parent and child is no one’s business other than that parent and child? Whatever it was that formed the basis for their belief, that child needed someone to step in at that moment.

    How about if it was a young woman being beaten and rapped in an alley? What about a person who crashes into another’s property and runs off? And then there are those who belittle and slander others behind their backs – parking lot meetings after church or at the grocery the next day are great sites for this.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” If we who claim to follow Christ will approve of evil in any form, we are breaking our membership vows and not following Christ. I long for the day when “the lion will lay down with the lamb.” But I’ve sat with a group of pastors who made fun of other faith groups, who put down people who weren’t of like mind as if it were casual conversation. And, I believe, God weeps.

  3. Dan, I experienced something similar twice. The first time i was around 19 and didn’t know what to do. After long pondering afterwards – ashamed that i didn’t know what to do, i vowed i wpuld never again let it go. Next time, when I intervened, I was told to mind my own business. I replied that they made it my business by doing it in public. When I have witnessed verbal abuse or less violent actions, I have spoken directly to the child rather than the parents – sort of saying to the child “I see you and care how you are treated.” (I say things like, “it’s hard staring at knees for so long…”) Thank you for your actions and witness.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with Dale. If the authorities had been called, perhaps the mother might have been put on a watch list. The little boy, if someone does not care enough to intervene, is likely to perpetuate the behaviors he has learned growing up. That’s worse than sad. Good for you, saying it like you saw it.

  5. Dan, I am glad that there are people like you — people who do not / will not stand by and watch an innocent child being abused. I have no idea about this woman who calls herself a mother. I have no idea what pressures she faces, how she learned about parenting, nor anything about the child. What I do know is that abuse is abuse. A parent is abusive when she/he allows a child to “tear around” as this child was allowed, evidently for some time, without appropriate response or guidance from a parent. A parent is abusive when there is obviously so little understanding of the life skills being taught, supported and encouraged by allowing such behavior. And a parent is certainly abusive anytime blood is drawn in the name of “discipline. Bless you for caring enough about this child that courage to get involved overcame fear. Sadly, if this is what happens to this child in public, I can only imagine what happens in private. What a sad situation — for us all. The rippling effects are profound for all involved as well as our society, as a whole.

  6. Dan,
    Thank you for your response in saving that child from the abuses being suffered at the hands of a neglectful and out of control mother. I had a similar experience in a Target store, in which I called in the store security officer. In Michigan, we clergy are rightfully required to report suspected abuse. What you intervened in was more than suspected abuse. You saved the child from further harm – this time. What happens next time when no one is willing to step forward as you did? Bless you. And feel no embarrassment the next time you step forward.

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