How to Stop Killing Your Enemies
Every culture has a way to determine which sort of beliefs and practices are acceptable to them. Sometimes these cultural values are obvious and ordinary–sometimes they aren’t so simple.
For instance: I went to Disneyland with my family when I was still in high-school and ended up in the middle of a conversation with one of their “Cast Members” (a fancy name for their staff). My mom and sister were shopping and I wanted to know if this kindly retiree had any secrets about the underbelly of such a massive theme park. Only one thing stuck out to me: the specific and ironclad Pointing Rule.
“We are not allowed to point with one finger,” she said. “Two is permissible, and three is okay too–or we open our palm towards things.” She demonstrated, looking like she retired from being one of Bob Parker’s presenters on the Price is Right.
“Why can’t you point with one finger?” I asked.
“I think the reason has to do with making sure strangers don’t feel like they’re accused of something. If you’re across the way, and you see two people talking, and you think one of them is pointing at you… well, that could create unhappiness.”
And of course, Disneyland has to be the happiest place on earth.
I don’t want to speculate about how insecure you’d have to be to think two strangers are talking and pointing at you. It would be a weird form of narcissism to think tourists are asking Cast Members for directions to see you–unless you are wearing a large Donald Duck costume and pretending to do some rudimentary break-dancing.
Then again, I’ve caught myself–more than once in my life–thinking someone else is pointing their one finger at me.
When is it okay to point the finger at someone?
We’re okay with pointing the finger at people if they’re in the wrong. Our cultural value for individualism means everyone must take responsibility for their own choices. If they don’t want to, we reserve the right to try to force them. Think about little kids caught in the middle of a mess. Think about bankers and politicians in the middle of an economic meltdown. A booming voice yells, “Who did this?!”
All the sudden it’s okay to point.
Accusation is a powerful force. It has this way of drilling all the way down to our bones. It makes us self-centred and insecure and dangerous, because it forces us into an existential crisis. We recite childhood nursery rhymes like scripture, (“I’m rubber, you’re glue!” Or the classic, “sticks and stones may break my bones…”) but accusations still make us feel naked and vulnerable and much afraid.
We’re afraid they’re right.
We worry that they have the right to point at us because our choices fit the description of their labels. Maybe we stand by our actions–maybe we don’t.
We feel condemned by other people’s conclusions, even when they’re claiming to just “stand up for the truth”. We’re marginalized and dismissed when someone draws a line and puts us on the other side of it, even when they seem to have a good reason to exclude us.
How will we ever create community, in a world full of differences?
Cultures need defined values and practices to function. I’ve never seen someone transgress against the “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” rule, but I’m sure glad it’s present in certain restaurants. I’m already having a hard enough time with the guilt about this McDonalds I’m choking down, and seeing a sweaty person in only their shorts behind the till would ruin what little motivation I have left to finish my meal. Without boundaries, cultures lose their distinctiveness.
Without distinction, can you really even call it a culture?
Any culture–from Disneyland to Detroit–will accept and reject certain behaviours and beliefs in order to create continuity. The President will tell you what it “means to be an American” and the Pastor will tell you what his church is “not going to stand for”. The Principal will tell you what she “isn’t going to tolerate” in her school. This is the ancient practice of “binding and loosing”. It’s how we mark the borders on our cultural geography.
The question is: how do you create a culture without accusation? How do you make a place where everyone is accepted and loved and celebrated, without losing cultural distinction?
What does it look like when everyone belongs?
The first place I’d imagine is somewhere like Disneyland, where they have stringent rules about how you point across the park. But that isn’t realistic. First of all, everybody visits and nobody stays. Disneyland isn’t built as a lasting Utopia–we’re here for five minute rides not fifty year pensions. Second, and more important, Disneyland can only function because it’s an attraction: we’re here because of what they’re offering to us. It’s easy to create the illusion of culture when you’re entertaining people. Nobody thinks the parking lot is the most magical place on earth.
The matter we don’t like to admit is that our cultural boundaries feel exclusive and accusatory to some people.
When someone else is wearing a label we don’t like, we have to decide: do we keep them on the outside to protect our culture?
One of my favourite stories in the Bible is full of scandal.
In John’s account of Jesus, he tells the story of when Jesus’ enemies try to trap Jesus in the middle of the Temple by throwing a woman caught in adultery at his feet. There are no security cameras. They would’ve spied on her when she was being intimate with a man. (It makes you wonder why he is not on trial here.) And they dragged her into the Temple right away, so she might not be wearing much more than a sheet.
They say, “Teacher, the Law says we must stone her. What do you say?”
If he lets her off the hook, he’s guilty of breaking the Law. Not only would he lose credibility, but they might kill him for the infraction.
If he says he agrees with the Law, they’ll kill her.
How did they end up with a law that allows cheaters to get stoned to death, anyway?
Catching an adulterer in the act is the stuff of reality television–we may ridicule such people, but we would never kill them.
Or would we?
Have you ever seen the devastating effects of adultery firsthand? I have. It’s sickening. It shatters lives and breaks trust. Adultery violates the most sacred bonds of a community. A culture can't sustain itself if cheaters get to prosper.
It was not enough for them to say adultery was “wrong”. They had to back it up. They had to “bind” the transgression so that nobody would ever be tempted. You think the punishment is extreme? That was exactly their point. They were essentially saying:
“We’re going to stand for righteousness. We’re going to make sure this kind of thing never happens in our community.”
Here’s how it’s shaping up for our age: everyone reserves the right to define themselves however they want.
There are good and bad sides to this. The good side is that everyone can eventually be accepted by carving out their own niche. If you are free to define yourself, as long as everyone else accepts your self-definition and you accept theirs, we can all get along. Unlike some parts of the world, nobody gets stoned for adultery around here anymore.
But there are disadvantages to our independence, too.
One downside to this approach to culture is there are an infinite number of ways to be lonely. To find yourself, you have to be relentless and specific. The more you know who you are, and the more unique you are, the more labels you have to carry around. The more labels you wear, the less likely it is that everyone will accept who you are at face value.
Self-discovery becomes more isolating the further along you go. We keep going down that lonely road, though.
It’s the only way we can escape from the possibility of accusation.
In this approach only way to make everyone right is to make nothing wrong. The only thing we forbid is "forbidding". If we get rid of all our stones, nobody will be able to kill anybody. If we cut off all our fingers, nobody will accidentally point at anybody else!
The other weakness is we reduce people to their choices, intentions, and desires. Sometimes the label comes from outside: “we caught this woman in the very act of adultery!” Sometimes, we put the labels on ourselves.
Our culture fractures under the pressure to find people who accept our self-definition. Nobody can disagree with how we see ourselves–and we can’t stand the thought of being stuck with people who only tolerate us, either.
We don’t identify with denominations, political parties, sports teams–or even our own families–like we used to. Everybody reserves the right to make up their own mind. We’re playing a worldwide party-game of “Hedbanz”, but in reverse: we write the label on our own heads and tell everyone else what it should mean to them.
Even though nobody’s dying anymore, and everyone claims to be okay, we still can’t escape the feeling of accusation. The names do break our bones, but the bruises of our internal bleeding only get exposed when we’re dragged naked before the ones who are picking up stones.
So here Jesus is in the middle of church, preaching away, when they drag this uncovered woman before him. He gets to decide whether she lives or dies. He gets to decide whether they show her mercy, or sacrifice her to protect their way of life.
And really, she isn’t on trial. He is.
In a brilliant turn, he gives them permission to kill her. But he adds a restriction.
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
One by one–starting with the oldest, all the way down to the youngest–they turn and walk away. Their trap has failed, because Jesus has raised the standard instead of lowering it.
Jesus is now left alone with an immoral woman who might not be wearing much. And they’re in the middle of an empty church.
Jesus asks an important question. “Woman, where are your accusers?”
She is cowering, but he forces her to look up and all around her. He gives her back her dignity by driving her enemies away.
Did they think of themselves as her enemies?
They probably just thought of themselves as good, law abiding citizens. They might have felt, just maybe, like they were protecting their culture. Their way of life. I mean, how else are you going to reinforce the cultural rule that adultery is wrong?
The priority of protecting the truth gives way to accusation.
Accusation, even when you have a right to it, inevitably leads to murder.
It’s a long road, most of the time. Mostly, accusation just divides and fractures strangers on the opposite sides of the picket line. But sometimes, they throw a naked woman down in front of the preacher in the middle of church. And that tends to accelerate the process.
Accusation begins in the heart. Because you feel justified in doing it, your anger will disguise itself as righteousness. In your mind, the only way to save your community is to sacrifice the offender. Remember: in this mindset, you’re not being judgemental. To you, the Law is what’s judging them.
You’re just doing the right thing by following through.
When Jesus asks, “Where are your accusers?”, he doesn’t make distinctions about when it’s okay to point the finger. It’s interesting how the devil–the villain, in Christian thinking–simply means “accuser”, too.
In Jesus’ thinking, he drove the devil out of this woman’s life by sending the stone throwers home.
It’s always going to appear cowardly to refrain from judgement, because the one person who refuses to pick up their stone exposes the shame and fear of the whole stone-throwing system.
I have no idea what it did to Jesus’ reputation to be left alone with this adulterous woman. I’m sure it didn't help things, but in the story he doesn't seem to mind.
He proved–in the most extreme way imaginable–that he would be in her corner when nobody else would be.
This story is redemptive and shocking in equal measure. Unfortunately, most Christians I know only want to quote the ending without context. Jesus turns to her and says, “neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
You do not have the right to say to someone, “go and sin no more” until you have demonstrated how you do not condemn them.
Do you want to know what the right time is to give people feedback on their moral choices? When you’ve put your life and reputation on the line to protect their dignity. When you’ve risked everything to keep them from the exclusion (or execution) their own choices have earned.
Jesus doesn’t point the finger. He doesn’t buy the labels we try to place on other people, and he doesn’t necessarily agree with the ones we put on ourselves either.
In the Christian tradition, we believe Jesus is God–and, as such, we believe he never sinned. If what we believe is true, then he was the only person with the right to kill her, but he refused. He breaks the Law.
Jesus would rather condemn the system that judges us than condemn the ones he has the right to kill.
He gets in our corner and stays there until we lift our head up to see that the devils are gone. Then he invites us into a healthier kind of life.
I am conscious to avoid pointing with one finger now. I’m not trying to get a job at Disneyland, and I’m not just catering to the oversensitive. I do it because I want to remember what it takes to create a community where we accept others in the middle of their mess. Because I follow Jesus, I know that murder begins in the heart–and it starts with finger pointing. I will not behave like the devil, even by accident. I will not “protect the truth” at the expense of condemning vulnerable people.
I’ll sacrifice my own reputation to save the ones I have the right to accuse.