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