Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What They Fear

In his podcast "The Metamorphic Man", Stephen Tobolowsky recalls the advice given him by an acting teacher. To find the heart of a character, ask yourself what is his greatest hope and what is his greatest fear. I would add figure out which is the stronger force in the character's life. Some people are driven by their hopes; some are impelled by their fears. In Tennessee Williams' play "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," almost all of the characters are driven by fear--of disease, of death, of disinheritance, of deception. Only "Maggie the Cat" lives primarily for her hope--of reconciliation with her husband, of her father-in-law's favor, and, at the end, for a child.

It works for real people, too. If you want to know what motivates someone, find out their fondest hope and deepest fear, and then work out which is greater. It's easier to understand a man's actions if you know that he fears looking weak above all. You will have great insight into a woman if you understand that her highest hope is to be popular and her worst fear is being left out. If you realize that domesticity is a potential partner's idea of a living hell, you can avoid that fate for both of you.

The reason I bring this up, besides hearing the podcast this week, is that our passage from 1 Peter has some unusually specific advice. Normally, we are told "do not fear," but here, in talking about persecution, the writer tells us "do not fear what they fear…" By they, he must mean the persecutors. And it makes sense. Why do those in authority lash out at others? Usually because they consider them a threat. In the case of Christians, who were pacifists, the authorities weren't afraid of them but their ideas. Which ideas?

The Romans, like Alexander the Great, were generally very tolerant of the religions of those they conquered. It was easy because almost all of them were polytheistic. All that the Romans required was that their divine emperor be given a place in their pantheon. And none of their subjugated people had a problem with that. Except the Jews. They believed in one God. There was no compromise. Rather than wipe out the nation, and all the Jewish communities spread throughout the empire, the Romans let Judaism stay as it was and made it an official religion. But not Christianity. It didn't need another religion that couldn't accept the divinity of the head of state.

But was that the only reason? Wasn't Christianity otherwise an ideal religion, with its emphasis on loving others and treating others like oneself? Wouldn't faithful Christians make great citizens? It was, after all, one of the few religions that did not combine church and state. Jesus said that citizens should pay their taxes and give to Caesar what was Caesar's. Paul said to obey the authorities. How could they object to that?

The reason why religion and state were combined in almost every society until quite recently is that otherwise they are rivals. God by definition should come before the state and temporal authorities couldn't have that. But if they were combined, then there was no conflict. If the emperor and God were one and the same, one's duty to one's religion and one's duty to one's state were in harmony. That's why a lot of kings were either called a god or the son of a god.

And that's another way in which Judaism differed from other religions. It had prophets, people who spoke for and answered only to God. This independence allowed them to hold kings and even priests to God's standards and criticize them for their actions. Nathan could accuse King David of adultery and murder. Jeremiah could be a thorn in the side of several kings. Amos could even go off reservation and pronounce God's judgment on the King of Israel, to the north of his native Judah. The inclusion of these prophetic books into the Hebrew Scriptures, when they often went against the official line of their royals, is unique. Most nations would have suppressed them.

Jesus and his followers were part of that tradition, something Rome really didn't want spreading. As it became clearer that Christianity was something other than just another Jewish sect, it became a target. Eventually, Rome required Christians make a religious sacrifice to the divine emperor and punished those who refused. Caesar was a jealous god who brooked no rivals.

But what specifically did they fear? In earlier versions of the Dungeon and Dragons role playing games, you had to choose a basic moral stance for your character. You could be good, evil or neutral. In addition, you could be lawful or chaotic. A lawful good character was committed to the rule of law, like Sir Galahad. A chaotic good character put following his conscience over the law, like Robin Hood. Rulers don't like rebels, even good ones.

Because Christians' primary allegiance was to their Lord, Jesus Christ, Rome feared them. For those in power, law and order trump conscience every time. If delivering justice threatened to upset the civil peace, justice could be jettisoned. People with principles make authorities nervous. They want obedience, regardless of who gets hurt.

I ran across an example of this in the life of a man who may have been one of the models for James Bond. During the Second World War, Ian Fleming was in intelligence. One of the men who worked with him was Patrick Dalzel-Job. Dalzel-Job was a diver, linguist, and sharpshooter who could ski backwards and pilot a miniature submarine. He parachuted behind enemy lines and worked with a Anglo/Polish/French Expeditionary Force in Narvik, Norway. They inflicted great losses on the German navy in the area and denied the Nazis undisputed air control. But when Allied priorities shifted, the force was pulled out. Knowing that the Nazis would take it out on the locals, Patrick disobeyed direct orders and managed to evacuate 5000 civilians. Had the King of Norway not awarded him the Knight's Cross of St. Olaf, he would have been court-martialed. Patrick Dalzel-Job put conscience above lawful orders. People like him give those in power the willies.

Fair enough. The Romans feared the Christians because they put conscience above the law when there was a conflict between the two. That makes Christians heroes. So why would we fear that?

Because we are social beings. It is very hard to go against the group. They've done experiments in which a person can be convinced that 2 obviously unequal lines are the same length when everyone else says they are. (Only that one person was not in on the purpose of the experiment.) Similarly, people will continue to sit in a waiting room while smoke comes from under a locked door if everyone else ignores this obvious sign of fire. The Red Cross found that the hardest part of CPR was getting one person to initiate it. The more people standing around a stranger having an apparent heart attack, the less likely anyone is to aid the victim. But if just one person starts to act, other people immediately will jump in to help. So now they tell you that if someone collapses, the first thing to do is to go to the person and point to someone else and tell them to dial 911. After that, you'll have all the help you need.

The fear of standing out, of acting alone, of breaking the rules when they clearly are in conflict with the law of love, is what stops a lot of potential good works and acts of compassion. Nowadays, when Christianity is mainstream, we tend to identify with the authorities rather than the rebels. We have a stake in the status quo. We are willing to overlook injustice if it means peace.

This is not to say that rebels are always right. In a worldwide Gallup poll of Muslims, it was found that only 7% of Muslims felt that the terrorist acts of 9/11 were completely justified. Those who approved of Al Qaeda's actions did so on political, not religious, grounds. And only 1% of Muslims were actually militants. The reason we think that more Muslims are militant is that 54% of the media coverage concentrates on that 1%. But the majority of Muslims do not support terrorism. In this case, the law abiding majority is right.

But what do we do when what is right is at odds with the rules? Let me share with you a story we were told at the recent Nehemiah retreat. The Rev. Tom Bracket was working for an ambulance company that covered 4 small towns in Maine. During a big snowstorm, all of the ambulances were called out. Bracket, who usually worked in the office, was pressed into service. He went to an intersection where everyone had pulled off to the side, leaving one car in the road. When he got out of the ambulance, he saw that the car had been crushed like an accordion, so that it was only 7 feet long from front to rear bumper. The backseat space had been eliminated and the driver was hard against the steering wheel. All the windows had been shattered. The driver was a beloved city father named Bruce. He kept saying the words, "Why are you standing around? Get me out of here." He continued to repeat them even as his speech began to slow and slur. One EMT had a doctor from the ER of the nearest hospital on his radio. He was taking Bruce's vital signs and relaying them to the physician. The doctor was coming to the realization that Bruce was bleeding internally. Ironically, the pressure of the car around him was probably keeping him alive. But just then the Fire/Rescue people fired up the Jaws of Life. The doctor called for them to give him quiet. Another group was starting up a giant saw. The doctor demanded quiet. The machines were shut down. The doctor was thinking. Once freed from the car, Bruce was likely to bleed out in 5 minutes. The ER was 20 minutes away. In the silence, Bracket heard the doctor say, "There must be a better way."

Suddenly, the EMT with the radio was taking off his equipment belt and walking around the car to the passenger side. As he approached it he called out for a IV bag, some tubing, a needle and a hanger for the bag. Another EMT got and brought him what he needed. The EMT began squeezing into the tiny front passenger seat to get close to Bruce. Fire/Rescue got out what looked like huge rolls of Saran Wrap and started to wrap the car to cover the windows into which the frigid winds were blowing. Another man started to guide a rusty old flatbed tow truck in and they began to hook up Bruce's car.

On the back of the flatbed, they drove the car to the ER, which opened up its loading dock. With Bruce still inside the car, and the EMT assisting, the ER doc operated and stitched Bruce up well enough that he could be cut out of the car. He was promptly taken to an operating room. Cleaning the glass and wreckage out of the ER was a massive undertaking.

The agency that regulates the hospital ER and the ambulances held hearings to see why it shouldn't pull their accreditation over this outrageous breach of protocol. Why didn't they simply put him in the "box," the part of the ambulance where the stretcher goes and the EMTs start treatment? If he had died, at least they wouldn't be liable. The doctor had to come in and explain that the unique circumstances justified this exception. The agencies still grumbled about setting a bad precedent.

As it turned out, the whole rescue effort was not at all coordinated. The EMT who took off his belt had simply decided that he could not let Bruce die alone. Only after deciding to get in the car with him did he realize he could at least start an IV. Seeing the EMT get into the car, the Fire/Rescue men thought of wrapping the car to keep it warmer. Seeing everyone working in the car, the other fellow realized that one tow truck was unused and started waving the driver back to the wreck. The only thing that they had in common was that they loved Bruce.

All Bruce can remember is an angel who kept telling him to hold on. It wasn't his time to go. When hearing this, the EMT said that was no angel, it was him, trying to keep Bruce fighting as they raced through the snow to the ER. He was wrong. In both Greek and Hebrew, the word for "angel" also means "messenger." The EMT was delivering the right message to Bruce that day.

We have rules for a reason: to keep the peace, to preserve order, to treat everyone fairly, to not have to reinvent the wheel each time, to not overlook anything that has been established as prudent and useful. You wouldn't want the person performing a lifesaving procedure on you to be improvising the whole thing.

But life doesn't always oblige us and fit into the categories and rules we've so painstakingly laid out. Sometimes exceptional circumstances arise. How do we know when to meet them with exceptional acts? For instance, would the people in this story have seemed so wise and heroic had Bruce died? Or would we be saying, "They should have followed the rules?"

That's what we fear. What if our non-conformance blows up in our face? What if we get punished for breaking protocols, for bending the rules, for thinking outside the box? What will we say when others keep repeating, "We told you so?"

First, we need to know what we are doing. Robert Frost said, "Don't ever take down a fence until you know why it was put up." Only those who know the rules well and know why they are rules are really qualified to break them. It should never be done merely because they are hard or inconvenient. Never trust a person whose attitude is that all rules are stupid or one who breaks them all the time. The only valid reason to make an exception to the rules is when it is necessary to heal, to save or to bring life. The ER doctor was probably thinking of the most basic principle of the Hippocratic Oath: "First, do no harm." Jesus said all of the Law and Prophets hung on the 2 great commandments to love God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. When rules like observing the Sabbath or not touching a leper conflicted with healing or feeding others, Jesus opted to obey the laws of love. Similarly, 1 Peter tells us to be ready to give an account of the hope in us. That calls for wisdom and understanding of what it means to be and act as a Christian.

Next, pray. It can be as brief as "help me." If the EMT hadn't been on the radio with the ER doc, he may never have heard the words, "There must be a better way." God knows what we need but we may not see or understand what he's providing if we are not in constant communication with him. Jesus prayed a lot, at the beginning of each day and especially before healing people and facing trials. Don't presume to be better off spiritually than Jesus.

Finally, trust God. Don't let fear or intimidation stop you from doing what is obviously the right thing to do. He gives us his Spirit as our guide and advocate. In him we live and move and have our being. Use him. Rely on him and the gifts and talents he has given you and others.

There are no guarantees in this life, except one. Jesus said, we will have trouble in this world. But, he added, he has overcome the world. The EMTs and Patrick Dalzel-Job received a lot of flack for what they did. They were vindicated eventually. But had they not been, I doubt they would have let it change them into cowards. Because by acting on their consciences they saved people. Had they done it any differently, I don't think they could have slept, however many official exonerations they were given. To tweak something said by Philip Gulley: "Fear (and guilt) can keep us up all night long; but faith (and a good conscience) make fine pillows."

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