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Zacchaeus, angelic troublemakers and hearts broken open
Note: This post is the prepared message by Wess Daniels offered to the AFSC Corporation meeting this past weekend during semi-programmed worship. Wess is the pastor of Camas Friends Church in Washington state and he offered this in the context of the meeting theme which was, "Steadfastly working for just and lasting peace in Israel-Palestine." I found his words moving and challenging and hope you will, too. - Lucy
The Eagle, Chickens and Single-Stories
A man found an eagle’s egg and put it in a nest of a barnyard hen. The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and grew up with them. All his life the eagle did what the barnyard chicks did, thinking he was a barnyard chicken. He scratched the earth for worms and insects. He clucked and cackled. And he would thrash his wings and fly a few feet into the air.
Years passed and the eagle grew very old. One day he saw a magnificent bird above him in the cloudless sky. It glided in graceful majesty among the powerful wind currents, with scarcely a beat on his strong golden wings. The old eagle looked up in awe. “Who’s that?” he asked. “That’s the eagle, the king of the birds,” said his neighbour. “He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth – we’re chickens.” So the eagle lived and died a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was. - Anthony de Mello.
This is, of course, not meant in any offense to chickens, but the old eagle has been duped into believing that he is what he is not. We do not know the motives of the chickens, but we do know that the eagle is himself was misled and therefore is unable to come into the fullness of knowing who he really is.
He is a victim of what Chimanmanda Ngozi Adichie calls a "single-story."
A single-story is a story we tell about someone or a group of people that collapses that person's experience, history, feelings, his or her uniqueness down into a flat stereotype. It allows us to "understand" them without knowing them, and often works as a justification for mistreating of other human beings.
Adichie is telling this within her context of growing up in Nigeria as a little girl and reading all of the books available to here, which were all about white characters. And how those stories shaped and influenced her own storytelling and illustrations she’d draw as a child. She says that all of her early stories were about white people with blue eyes, who played in the snow, ate apples and talked about how lovely the weather was now that the sun had come out despite the fact that none of these things reflected her own experience having never travelled outside of Nigeria herself.
Part of the point Adichie is driving at is how impressionable we are in the face of a story, especially stories we hear as children.
And doesn’t the idea of the power and danger of “single-stories” reflect exactly the kinds of things we have been talking about during the AFSC Corporation meeting? Just last night we heard stories about what it’s like to go to the Mall in a Jewish area of Israel, where the clerks ask customers questions and wait for them to respond so that they can make “accent checks” and be sure that no Palestinians enter their stores.
One of the reasons I love this story about the eagle and the chicks so much is that it exposes the power a single-story has over another being and how much it can damage one’s true self. Once we are able to categorize and label others - or even ourselves - it becomes nearly impossible to break through that barrier that has been created.
So the eagle lived and died a chicken for that’s what he thought he was.
Zacchaeus breaks open
This brings us to another single-story that we may or may not be familiar with. Do any of you know Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) or his song?
“Zacchaeus was a very little man,
and a very little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see."
Zacchaeus has become one of my absolute favorite characters in the bible and it's not for the reasons you might suspect.
Here’s why: The traditional way of hearing this story goes something like this.
There is this bad man named Zacchaeus. He was bad because he was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And we know how the rich fair in the Gospels. Not only that, but the text goes to some length to tell us that Zacchaeus is so short in stature he has to climb a tree to see Jesus. Finally, he is able to see Jesus and Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, I’m coming to your house.” I don’t know about you, but I think I would have been slightly annoyed that Jesus is so presumptuous as to assume he was invited! And on the way people are grumbling because Jesus is going to eat at the house of a sinner.
So Zacchaeus has all kinds of labels working against him. Tax collector, rich, short and a sinner.
Well the way the story is typically translated, even here in the NRSV, is that in the presence of Jesus, Zacchaeus confesses just how terrible a person he really is:
“Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
And then the story goes: After the repentance of this sinner, Jesus then announces salvation upon this house.
And that’s it, which is frankly kind of a boring story, right? We have Jesus, a sinner, a confession, and a forgiveness and salvation granted. I mean, it’s like the same old script we’ve heard a million times, right?
Wrong. Something far more interesting is happening here.
Leading up to the story of Zacchaeus, The Gospel of Luke shows us a Jesus who has been interacting with all kinds of people, but there’s something very common about all of them: they are all the non-elites, those on the margins of society, those who have little power or privilege within their social structure.
Even in the chapter preceding Zacchaeus’ story, we see Jesus tell a parable about a widow who confounds an unjust judge and a tax collector whose prayer is justified against the Pharisees’ self-righteousness. He blesses children. He turns away a rich young ruler who won’t sell everything he has and give it to the poor. And he heals a blind beggar.
Jesus is not exactly building a movement made up of the intelligentsia of the day. I like to borrow a phrase from another minister. She calls this the “Fellowship of the Disqualified.” As far as the Gospel of Luke goes, it seems like there are some pretty clear lines being drawn about the rich and poor, and those who are good and bad.
But then we get to this story about Zacchaeus and if we read it more closely we see something very surprising.
See, the problem is tjat there is a mistranslation in this text that forces Zacchaeus into a single-story we believe about rich folks and Jesus' attitude toward them, which is basically that they are all a bunch of dirty rotten scoundrels.
The word being mistranslated here is “δίδωμι” which is being translated in the future tense, “I Will”, but in this particular story it is in the present tense. It is not “I will give,” It is “I already am giving” or “I give.” So it should read like this:
"Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay them back four times as much.”
Do you see how this changes everything about the story?
Jesus does not find some terrible rich sinner who decides to repent, rather he finds in Zacchaeus someone who has already oriented his life around the practices of the reign of God.
Jesus discovers and reveals to those present at the dinner that Zacchaeus is one of the good guys! He had been a victim of a single-story and because of it he was ostracized from his community and subject to labels that were untrue about who he was.
And then the ending changes too. New Testament scholar Joel Green writes in his commentary on Luke that:
When Jesus said, “Salvation has come to this house, because he is a son of Abraham,” what he was really saying is that Zacchaeus and everyone who lived under his roof were being welcomed back into the community of God’s people of which they’d been excluded (673).
In other words, the breaking of single-stories is the process through which the reign of God comes. And it is seen in people finding and having their true-selves revealed and being welcomed back into the community of God. I don’t know about you, but that is the kind of salvation and liberation I can really get behind.
Convergent Friends and "Angelic Troublemakers"
Another place where I have seen a lot of single-stories is among Quakers. Don’t we have a lot of single-stories we tell about those other Friends? You know, those ones?
I have been a part of building a movement of Quakers who call themselves “convergent Friends.” Robin Mohr originally coined the term as a way to name two impulses within Friends that many of us have seen arising. One is the Spirit of God working among all Friends, to break down walls of hostility, and bring us together. And the second impulse is that we can come together, not as an attempt to develop a new unified group, but to embrace and learn from our differences.
I believe that our different experiences, stories and practices, as well as the challenges we offer one another can bring about the kind of transformation we see in the Zacchaeus story. But in order for that to happen, we have to be willing to transgress boundaries, visit the house of “sinners,” and break stereotypes in pursuit of truth. It is immensely difficult to listen, learn and even be in the presence of those who have been subjected to single-stories.
Bayard Rustin gives us an image that captures this tension well:
"We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers. Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don't turn!"
Angelic Troublemakers are people who transgress boundaries, and break single-stories on behalf of and in solidarity with the truth springing up from the work of God all around us.
Angelic Troublemakers know where to tuck their bodies and what wheels to jam because they themselves have allowed God to free them from ego and open them up to a new way of seeing the world.
Angelic Troublemakers are neither simply nice little angels nor are they devious troublemakers. They are the people of whom Naima Lowe spoke about on Thursday evening, people who believe that spiritual lives should agitate and transform.
Angelic troublemakers embody the tension and complexity of what it means to be a disciple and are constantly working to reclaim spaces once colonized by the lies of deceit, greed and violence.
We need in every community people whose relationships move from the veneer of sameness, to the depth of difference.
We need in every community people who can look into the eyes of friend and foe alike and “answer that of God in everyone.”
We need in every community a group of teachers and mentors who teach us what it means to be angelic-troublemakers.
We need in every community the people of God who will not back down, who will not give in, and who refuse to accept the stories that have been told by empire, patriarchy, racism, homophobia and classism.
We need in every community people like Jesus, who show up in unexpected and unholy places and declare that those places to are holy.
Can we get together on this?
Being broken open into new life
There is an old Hasidic tale that tells us how such things happen. The pupil comes to the rebbe and asks, “Why does the Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts?’ Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?’ The rebbe answers, ‘It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.
Here are some queries to consider as we enter waiting worship:
What are the single-stories that have been told about the people and the places that you work within? The stories that get told to keep people in their place, stuck in the barnyard and unable to soar? Challenge those stories and break hearts open so that new life can emerge. Be the angelic troublemakers in that place.
How about the people sitting in this room right now? Are there single-stories that we have told and perpetuated about one another? What are the single-stories we have told about ourselves as AFSC that may now hinder our work? Where is reconciliation needed and what stands in the way of convergence?
And what about each of us individually? What are the stories that have been told about you, or that you have even told yourself about yourself? That you’re a failure, your voice doesn’t matter, that you’re not welcome here, etc. What will it take to move beyond those stories, to allow God to break open your heart so that new life might emerge?
I exhort you to listen to the Inward Teacher whose desire for you is to be whole, and free and to soar like an eagle.