Friday, January 15, 2010

A Punch in the Face

I broke up a fight at the school grounds today.

Saw one boy land a pretty brutal flurry of punches and in turn have some food and taunting thrown at him by a group of his peers. Saw him run off and take out some serious pent up anger (desperation?) kicking a trash bin. Tried to talk to him and saw tears overtake him. Saw his mom come and try to speak to him and saw him run away. Saw parents and kids alike huddling around and keeping to themselves.

I don't usually meddle, and probably to my shame am actually fairly aloof when I drop my boys off every morning. But this morning it all happened so fast. I was drawn in against my will. I saw it, saw no adults nearer than I, began to walk over, yelled the loudest and most commanding "hey!" I could muster, and got over there and broke it up. I got one kid's name but could not cajole anyone into coming to the office with me, or even really talking to me.

I told them what I saw and thought at the school office, and they seemed to think they knew all the complexities of the story before I even told them. Maybe they do. I tried to represent empathetically all sides of the event. In the end I had to leave it to them and to trust them to handle it on their turf in their way.

All I have left of the situation now are my questions.

Questions about getting involved, and how deep that can take you, and where do you stop?

Questions about imposing one's values outside of one's own home. When and when not?

Questions about children, and how everything they do (good or bad) is a mirror on their adult society. By that I don't mean just their parents (or lack thereof). I mean all of us.

Questions about darkness; and the chaos and confusion that smothers it like leeches. I wanted to speak to this punch-throwing boy with empathy and care, but there was no way he wanted anything to do with me. Whatever he was pissed off about would only be trivialized by the interference of some stranger, no matter how well meaning. My unpractised little light could not come out of its bushel and even hope to penetrate this cloud. Not even close.

Questions about just letting stuff like this go. And how that often seems like our only option, even once we become somehow involved---let alone when we are only partially aware of the existence of such events and the circumstances that must lie behind them.

Questions about how we're all, all of us, pretty much paralyzed in the face of this kind of darkness. It seems our whole society is built on the mechanisms to stay comfortably aloof, so we can hold on to our illusions. We do not have a real hope in the face of evil. We keep it away with our mechanisms of fear and tolerance and we reason against it with our false mirage of human progress. But whether we are directly involved or not, all of us are implicated in it.

Questions about our church communities, and about how that paralysis, and not some kind of holiness, is probably a better explanation for our set-apart-ness most of the time. What with our private schools and safe places and home schools and small groups. Are we just afraid and hiding? Are we just making the most of life in our paralysis? We say we are people of faith, hope and love, but it is mostly in the abstract. Most days we are people of fear, guilt, and grateful safety.

I should not sound so accusing here. I'm talking about me. There are plenty of Christians I know who are right there in the thick of it, salt of the earth, loving the unloved and seemingly unlovable, hoping for the hopeless, holding faith where there are no shafts of light.

The sad thing is that these folks are sometimes the apparently un-theological sort, the kind that we make light of with our stereotypes of the church, and our theological elitism, and all its talk of "bad words" and so on. Don't get me wrong. Truth-talking is as important in the face of darkness's falsehood as anything else. But it is at times like this when I remember that it is these people, the people with real faith, hope, and love in the face of and not in oblivion to darkness---these are the real heroes.

I'm not accusing anyone here. Unless you are like me. Then with me you stand accused. I realize today that I am a far cry from being a man thoroughly ingrained with faith, hope and love. I am paralyzed, and retreat to my comfortable place, and analyze the situation from here. And this is all I can do. Maybe it is even the best I can do.

But somewhere nearby a boy is crying alone.

I can't even fathom Granville Street. Let alone Haiti.


Colin Toffelmire said...

"Questions about our church communities, and about how that paralysis, and not some kind of holiness, is probably a better explanation for our set-apart-ness most of the time. What with our private schools and safe places and home schools and small groups. Are we just afraid and hiding? Are we just making the most of life in our paralysis? We say we are people of faith, hope and love, but it is mostly in the abstract. Most days we are people of fear, guilt, and grateful safety."

That's one of the best things you've written here. One of the terrible myths of the modern liberal West is that we're all better off if left well enough alone. That's only true if you're on the rich side of the fence, or the "right" side of the tracks. We all need to be more involved in the world around us. Thanks for the kick in the ass brother.

stewart said...

just because "private schools, safe places, home schools, and small groups" can be a cop out of the real stuff going on out there doesn't mean they are not useful in preparing us to care for others. I can think of many examples in those categories where these places have made the particpants stronger, healthier, more caring, "the people with real faith, hope and love in the face of and not in oblivion to darkness". I see validity to your point if these groups/places do what they do to avoid reality. But my experience in small groups especially is that they stretched me to care for others, grow in true holiness, and live the truth rather than just talk about it. If this is a plea for genuine Christianity then yes, yes, yes. But to knock venues which seek to promote genuine Christianity is counterproductive. Having said all that, thanks for the exhortation to be real in all of life.

Jon Coutts said...

I appreciate your added thoughts. I would say its "my pleasure" (the kick), Colin, but its not. You know what I'm saying.

I'm not sure I'm exhorting anyone to anything. I'm articulating concerns that press upon me just when I think I've escaped them.

I don't think I'm knocking venues so much as wondering aloud about what we too easily make of them. Some venues would be more knockable than others, but even then I'm not going to wholesale denounce them all. Regardless, that's not my purpose here.

I think we are easily addicted to our comforts. Perhaps holding them at the expense of our Christianity.

In my experience even the best small groups have to wrestle with this problem. Or I might put it slightly different way and say that only the best small groups will actually wrestle with this problem.

jonkramer said...

Thanks for the transparency.
Here's some of my own:
As best as I can tell, my own paralysis comes from my belief that I need to fix things. It's not that I don't want to get involved - really, I love to help - to get messy with people - but in almost every avenue of life there is no fix to be found. No assurance that the service I give is actually helping. And that frustrates me. Deflates me.
Haiti is overwhelming. Family abuse in my community is overwhelming.
And, I know that Jesus doesn't need my ingenuity - he doesn't need me to solve the world problems - he just needs me to be willing to serve whenever and wherever he prompts me.
I know that. But, really, I don't know that. I'm still not convinced.
One of the main motivators for me in life is the knowledge that I really am making a difference. Sadly, that motivator isn't often anywhere to be found.
Maybe that's why the Bible says something about spurring one another on to good deeds.

ErinOrtlund said...

I think it's good that you got involved. It's good for kids to realize that there are adults other than their parents and teachers who are looking out for them.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

You wrote,
"I wanted to speak to this punch-throwing boy with empathy and care, but there was no way he wanted anything to do with me"
"Whatever he was pissed off about would only be trivialized by the interference of some stranger, no matter how well meaning"

Yeah, how do we decide whether or not to get involved? The moral complexities of each situation make sweeping generalizations dangerous, I guess. One thing I like about what you wrote in this entry is that you make your point by asking questions.

More evidence of the chaos and danger of involvement:

I saw a young man in the metro recently stand up to give his seat to an "old woman" in front of him. She turned around and it hurt her feelings that she'd been considered old enough to warrant an offered seat. The guy's over-eagerness to give up his seat probably wrecked this poor woman's day -at best.

Witnessing that made me want to pause for as long as I could next time to assess the situation.

You were up against violence.
I think love like you showed can be just what it takes sometimes to open up the cracks in people's un-necessary armour.

It's a difficult thing, to live with strangers. The rules are different. How do you love strangers?
No kidding Jon, it's one of your best entries.

You rate 'Sinners' just under 'OK Computer'? You're a crazy person. Thank you so much.

Jon Coutts said...

these are helpful thoughts. i feel the same thing as you Jon. i have been especially challenged reading Barth to have less anxiety about "fixing" things, while maintaining an earnestness (rather than apathy or paralysis) in the face of wrong.

what you've pinpointed there Matthew is a serious question about moral deliberation. What is the proper place, timing, extent, and contributing factors? I think we presume we know what to do more often than we actually do know.

But I like neither the paralysis of feeling overwhelmed nor the paralysis of indecision.

So I am in agreement with Erin that it was good to have gotten involved. But I spent the day considering the possibility that my yelling and trying to take control of the situation in itself may have been a violent act itself. Maybe I've been reading too much Zizek.

The question then would either be whether my "violence" was justified, or whether my involvement could have been less violent and more loving, or what. I don't intend to get into that here, but to point out the complexities of contextual ethics (which I do hold, as opposed to universal principle ethics).

After school I saw the boy leaving school with his dad. We were on opposite ends of a long school ground and so I couldn't engage with him (or I suppose I could have waved). The boy pointed me out to his Dad.

It is entirely possible that he was pointing out a hero or a villain. Or maybe neither. Maybe he just said to his dad: "We were just having one of our fights and that guy made a big deal over it. I cried because I was scared."


stewart said...

I'd like to jump in again if i may. I too am a fixer and identify with the struggles expressed here. So many times i wonder if i've done enough to help someone, said enough to help someone. So many times i wonder if my silence or inaction wasn't just laziness or slow thinking. And so many times i've been thankful i held my tongue until cooler heads prevailed. I realize that not all situations are the same as your fight breakup Jon, but i think the motivation to love our neighbor as ourself is not all that easy to put into real life. The Good Samaritan story intrigues me...what if the wounded guy had merely had been that way because of his own choosing (ie drunkeness instead of being robbed by someone else)...would that have changed the response of the Samaritan. Likey not i suppose...but where does discernment come in as we seek to help others. And don't we put outselves on a higher level when we think we can "help" others (as in counselling situations). It's not easy knowing what's the right thing to do...and also not easy doing it. But we press on, learning, growing, and hopefully helping others in this sometimes horrible journey. Thanks for this post and the thoughtful comments by all.

Tony Tanti said...

Great conversation. I like Stu's last point there, it makes me think of a place like the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver where I sincerely believe that a lot of the "help" being given is actually making things worse. For a long time I thought all God cares about was the heart of the giver but I'm not sure, maybe God wants us to actually help and sometimes that means not doing the obvious thing.

Jon, in my opinion you absolutely did the right thing. Who knows what that kid thinks but that's less important to me than the fact that you protected a vulnerable person. It's shameful that others stood around. Having said that, I think we call a lot of things bullying that would have just been sorted out on their own when we were kids, is it really worse now or do we notice it more? Does that matter, maybe we should never put up with it.

I like Matt's point about each situation needing its own conclusion.

Stu, I'm glad you defended the venues but to be honest I think those venues (while well intentioned) are a part of the problem. It's not just a Christian thing though, our whole society is built around avoidance. We live in our castles and drive into our automatic garages and don't know our neighbours (generalizations with exceptions of course.) I think of so many churches and community groups that don't reflect the actual community they are in. Maybe these groups are making their members better people, but the next step needs to be action doesn't it? Is meeting together every week to become better mean anything if you go straight home and padlock your door?

I've rambled and made no coherent points, so here's one: good for you Jon for standing up in the face of violence and ending it. Sometimes violence must be met with aggression to be ended.

Jon Coutts said...

Thanks tanti. Those are some very coherent points, actually, and quite in line with what I was thinking. very well said. So, I was trying to think of something new to post tonight, but will leave this another day . . .

Jon Coutts said...

I will leave it to someone else to defend the other venues I implicated, but in defence of small groups, these are precisely places where people confronted by darkness in their own lives are coming together to address that in community, or have it addressed together with others under the Word of God. In face of the chaos in ourselves and the world around these are intended to be communities that seek strength and healing.

The people in small groups, and church for that matter, are not people who have it all together and are just hiding out from the pain and need in the world. They are themselves there because they believe the world (themselves included) is reconciled to God in Jesus Christ and they want to be a part of that.

That is why the best small groups do build people who take part in that redemptive work, not just amongst themselves, but ultimately in the world.

But I do question the ethos that does overtake churches and small groups too easily, which says we've got to get sorted out before we can re-engage with our society. In my experience as a pastor this is a big issue, and in the churches I've pastored we've begun to try to address this ethos. How to make it so church people are finding that community of healing, and yet not seeing it as ending there. How to have churches of people who do not simply end up at the end of their discipleship track, when they are finally "ready" to reengage the world, so "out of it" that the only strategy left is in-church events that are meant to bring the world in.

Truthfully, though, the thing that holds us back often enough from helping people outside of our comfort zone is that we, too, are hurting and broken and helpless.

Now, having said that, and asserting that small groups are good and not wrong in themselves, I do not want to backtrack on the questions this punch in the face raises. There is a common church-ethos thing to reconsider here. This punch in the face was for me a reminder of that need, in myself, and also for the church.

But the truest, most genuinely Christian, church people are not unaware of this. And genuine Christian small groups are places of real healing, and the world would be even darker without them.

In fact, as a pastor I tried for years to help a guy who visited me monthly for a handout and often got one. We quickly got to the point where he confessed me his real problem (beneath the monetary need) was his addictions, and how the whirlwind of debt and relational chaos that took over his life might really be helped at its core if he had a community of people around him to love him and help him get stuff sorted out.

It saddened me that I knew of several small groups that would have gladly and lovingly had him join them, but he never came. You can blame the stereotyped unwelcoming "church" as an idea in his head which the church may or may not have had a hand in feeding, but bottom line is he knew he needed more than a handout but settled for the handout every time.

And it might be said: "Ah, there is your problem, the small groups had to invite him in but didn't ever get out and find this guy." Well, that may be partly true, but most of the people in these small groups gave to the fund generously that fed this guy's handout, never even knowing where that money went. Most of these people also served diligently year in and year out at soup kitchens, community kids programs, and so on. And they were not people who had it altogether. Their involvement in small groups was a huge part of their own personal healing and their own growing experience of real community and simultaneously it also enabled them to engage with the darkness around them.

I don't know of many places where that happens.

For sure: Too many churches and small groups get ingrown. This whole evangelical ethos is problematic. But in defence of the best of them, small groups are places where a little light shines, where otherwise there would only be darkness.

stewart said...

good stuff boys. May I venture into the Christian School (even home school) arena to make 1 point. Your "defense" of small groups was well articulated but keep in mind those are largely adult groups. Schools are largely for children (Sr. High excepted) and should we be expecting our kids to be strong Christians in an environment which would send many older Christians reeling? The way i see it, the developing years is a good time for a certain amount of long as good foundations are laid for a life of true caring for the needs of others...and as long as the school is not hiding reality from them.

Jon Coutts said...

I appreciate that. I won't deny that there may be situations where the private school is the relatively "best" option or that it can't work out okay. But I'm not sure we're called to create our own refuges from the world.

This is way too big of a topic for me to go into here I think. I know it is relevant. After all, I broke up this fight on my own kid's school grounds. I know people who home school to protect their kids from such dangers. I understand the impulse. I'm just not sure I want to call that impulse, in principle, Christian.

I've waded into this territory before, with my previous post called "Out of the Comfortable Quiver" (click on the "quiver" link at the bottom of this post to go see it if you like). I'm not sure if we'll wade back into it fully right here or not. I guess if you want to push me on it I'm willing. But maybe go read that other post first.

ErinOrtlund said...

I don't see why that woman should assume the man gave up his seat for her because she was "old." Perhaps he was just a gentleman who gives up his seat whenever he sees a lady of any age standing? Of course, that's in an ideal world--I was carless in Scotland and there were times even as a pregnant woman when no one gave up their seat to me.

Jon Coutts said...

Yeah maybe she shouldn't see it as a big deal and be aware enough to appreciate the gesture.

Then again, if the cultural givens have changed, and an act that once held chivalrous and respectful overtones now simply communicates ones perception that someone needs their help, then perhaps such a gesture actually makes one self-conscious enough to be taken aback or even offended.

It reminds me of the times when I pat my son on the head in public, meaning to praise him for being a "big boy", and even though I mean it that way he takes the gesture exactly the opposite way. Despite the fact that he has just done something very mature, I pat him on the head and make him feel like a child. (Which of course he is. I'm not saying patting him on the head is wrong. But I have communicated to him exactly the opposite of what I've intended.)

So I think, as trivial as it might be, that example of the lady on the bus is a pretty good illustration of the attentiveness to context that accompanies moral deliberation.

Regardless, you'd think people would give their seat up for a pregnant woman. But it doesn't surprise me that people didn't. Busses are kind of places where you zone out!