One night as I was traveling along a dark blurry road in a taxi, my attention was pulled to the right. Two shadowed figures, one above and one below, were engaged in a battle. One was clearly dominating the other. The vehicle, all of a sudden, came upon a man and a woman. As we passed, time seemed to slow and my heart remained disturbed by the series of snapshots now etched into my life. A raised arm, a fist coming down. Another hand reaching up, trying to block. An open mouth with blood on the left corner. An angry glint in the man’s eye. Two, three more blows. The woman slides off the curb. Arriving at the corner, I furiously argue with myself about why I should, and should not, do anything.
I have witnessed bullies overpowering helpless people. I have been bullied and taken advantage of by people more powerful than myself. I have also bullied people less powerful than me. I usually take some kind of action when those who are close to my heart are being hurt or bullied, but I usually just watch when things happen to people I don’t know. Especially when I am holding something valuable, like the new camera in my lap.
All of this and lots more crossed my mind in the ten meters from the point of struggle to the corner.
This time, however, my conscience would not let me stay seated. The taxi driver reluctantly obliged and we reversed back loudly and quickly. I exited, still thinking about the camera in my hands. He was screaming, so was she. I addressed him, and said he needed to stop being abusive. Cursing me, he turned back to her and continued. “No!” I declared more forcefully, now grabbing his shoulder firmly but not too aggressively. “You are going to stop now!” He did stop hitting her, but did not let go. Between obscenities, he said something about me “not knowing what this was about.”
All that I could think to say was that yes I did know what this was about, a man abusing a woman. And I told him just that. Then I was shocked to my core as the woman, finding a moment of release, also spoke to me. Her eyes grew larger and somewhat crazed. “Go away!” I looked at her and suggested that we go to the police station. She screamed this time, “Go AWAY! You don’t know what this is about.”
At this point the conversation was enough of a distraction that the woman wriggled herself free, stood up and began to walk away. The man pursued. I stayed put and watched. He grabbed her again; they started arguing. She looked at me; my gaze was fixed on her. I watched and waited for a signal from her. There was none. I chose to walk away.
Recently I read about a survey that was conducted by our local newspaper about the most trustworthy professions. Topping the list were firefighters, then nurses. Towards the bottom were the usual suspects. Bankers, lawyers, members of Congress, and…Evangelical pastors? Catholic priests were a little higher on the list, but still far from the top. The survey affirmed a sentiment that in the public eye, firefighters exhibited a kind of disinterested service garnering the greatest trust and respect. “They risk their lives for others and don’t get paid much.” said one person interviewed. “But not like the police and soldiers who risk their lives for others at the same time they abuse their power and take lives.” Religious professionals were viewed so poorly for the well-known public scandals of money laundering, sexual and emotional abuse, and hypocrisy.
Apparently, even our institutions that exist to support those pursuing a life of service to God cannot create a strong enough hedge against our drive to hoard for ourselves, and hurt and abuse others to satisfy our cravings. What stings more is that this survey was taken among a Christian (according to some) public in a Christian (according to some) nation.
Jesus is quoted in the Bible in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels as saying, “I am among you as one who serves.” Luke locates this within his retelling of Jesus’ final intimate moments with his closest followers, his disciples, before he was betrayed by one of them, brought to trial, abandoned by almost everyone in his life, and executed as a criminal. The choices that Jesus made with his life and how he reacted to his circumstances are diametrically opposed to our universal tendency to hoard, abuse, and take others’ lives. Jesus served those whom he liked and with whom he got along well and those who aggravated him; Jesus gave himself to those who praised him and those who cursed him.
Jesus makes service to others a central event of his life and purpose. Serving others is a kind of gravitational center to Jesus’ own self. It is therefore a plumb line against which we are measured and judged. But few of us want to accept this truth, which is why even Jesus’ followers have always struggled uphill to follow along.
In Jesus’ way, the self, when it is rightly centered, serves others. Some have termed this self-less behavior, contrasting in this way selfishness to selflessness, but this is a misnomer because another great truth about our human condition is that we can’t ever really be, or do, anything without our self present. Other possibilities have been offered, contrasting a self-centered life to an other-centered life. This too can mislead us into a kind of amnesia about the role of the self in our lives. And more than that, it tends to elevate self-abnegation as a virtue, e.g. the best self is the self that gets out of the way and is forgotten.
But Jesus, being delivered over to punishment and death at the hands of the powerful, recognized the willful presence of his self in both the choices that he made and the circumstances of his life. “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” (John 10:18) Jesus lived his life, and served others, from his centered, very present, self. What we need is not a self that goes away, or is pushed off to the margins, but a divinely transformed, centered self.
Regardless of our belief system, where we live, or how much money we have, we all live in a world where every day people with power take the upper hand, where someone with a bloodied lip slides off a sidewalk in pain, where another sees it all happen, or doesn’t see anything happen- or wants to pretend they have seen nothing. A world where these images remain etched in our memory, and where the scars are etched on our bodies. And where the pain of all this leads to widespread cynicism. Jesus offers the way of the centered self in service to others as a healing balm for a cynical, scarred world.
The woman I came upon that night knew that no matter what I did or didn’t do she was going to wake up the next morning with that man in her life. She knew there was no easy way out of her current state of powerlessness. She assumed, correctly, that I was not willing to commit to serve her, in her situation, by risking myself over the long haul until she was free. The man knew that too. They both “knew what this was about.” It was about how little we really care what is happening to other people. It was about how we all feel trapped, abused and abusers. It was about how we feel like we can’t change and that things can’t really change. But more than this it was about the yearning to live in a world where these power struggles can be transformed. A world where the abuser, the abused, and those who see it happen can all be transformed. A world where there are no longer just service professions, but where all choose a profession of service. A world where this strangely compelling way of centered-self service for others becomes how we all act. Let it be so in our times.