The Rules We Live By; Hero stories

One beautiful June day I sat under a tree in upstate New York with Hugh Hollowell, pastor and director of Love Wins Ministries. I could tell you how Hugh very quickly hit my list of my favourite people almost 3 years ago, but that would only make him blush.

When I started having conversations about non-violence and the church, people said, “You have to talk to Hugh. He’s a Mennonite.” I thought that was kind of like saying, “Oh, you want to learn how to snowshoe? You should talk to Dawn. She’s a Canadian.” Hugh’s response to my invitation was, “I would LUUV to talk to you about non-violence. But I need coffee.”

Hugh became a Mennonite later in life and so has a beautiful perspective on living as a pacifist as well as struggling with the default to violence we all have. For example, imagine you were awakened by a noise in your house, and it becomes immediately obvious someone has broken in. The hero mentality of our society would say grab the baseball bat you keep by the side of your bed (don’t we all?) or, especially in the United States, grab the handgun in your night stand, go down the stairs and, threaten the intruders in hopes they will leave. Of course, there is no guarantee an intruder will submit to your threat and leave quietly. Another solution is to call the police and wait for them to respond, assuming they arrive in time to prevent any injury.

The Mennonites Hugh has come to know that were born Mennonite don’t think that way, because, from the time they were raised, violence was not an option or, if it was, it is far down the list. The first response might be to leave the baseball bat with the sports equipment where it belongs, go down the stairs, quietly make your presence known and ask, “Hey, why are you taking my stuff?” or, if one sees “stuff” as not belonging to anyone, “Do you need some of this stuff?” If Hugh’s friends were to write a list of possible responses, the baseball bat wouldn’t appear on the list or, if it did, it would be far down.

The problem is in the stories we choose to tell. We tell the stories of the hero on the subway who, upon seeing a young man rip a woman’s purse off her arm, takes him down in the aisle. We don’t tell the story of the woman who, when approached by the young man says, “Listen. There are things in this bag that are very important to me. Some things I need like my calendar and my credit cards, but also pictures of my children, and the prescription I just got from my doctor that I need filled. But I’m sure you need money for something important to you, so why don’t I give you $30 from my wallet and we’ll both go our separate ways?”

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Vigilantism is on the rise in the United States, particularly in economically poorer cities like Detroit. One article quotes a citizen, “We got to have a little Old West up here in Detroit…”. Between 2011 and 2012, the number of “Justifiable homicides” in Detroit increased by 79% from 19 to 34. We are becoming a more defensive, violent society, quicker on the draw than ever before.

Think of the stories we love to hear at the water cooler or at a party? Don’t you just love the stories of how someone got bad service at a restaurant and told the arrogant waiter off? It’s coming from the same place. It’s more satisfying to tell the waiter off than to think about our possible unreasonable expectations, or imagining what pressure the waiter is under aside from our instant meal and drink needs.

Deeply ingrained in each of us is a set of rules that justify our violent defaults and guarantees we all have an equal chance to be on top. But that is impossible. And…what if there is no top, only where you are at any given point in life?

Here are some of the rules:

  • If you work hard you will climb the ladder. If you work hard and do not make it up the ladder, you have to fight your way up.
  • You can achieve whatever you set your mind to. Any obstacles are in the form of people who want to push you down, so fight back.
  • Your ideals and values are worth fighting for, as are your possessions, the things you have rightfully earned.
  • If it will make you happy, then you deserve it.
  • If you are happy, then others around you will be happy, too.
  • God wants you to be happy.

I’ve shared a lot of these rules with discouraged friends and children in my life, but they are hugely problematic. They assume you are at the centre, and that your success is your only moral concern. They are based on the lie that if we all seek our individual success then the world will be a more peaceful place. And yet, so much of the rhetoric around these rules is fighting for what is right, being our success and happiness.

When I reflect on resisting violence in my own life, it is often resisting these rules as they creep into my daily life and work.

I’m tempted to start writing new rules. That might come later. Right now I need to sit with these for a while, articulate them more fully, Recognize other rules.

What other rules do we live by that enforces “might is right”? 

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