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Michael Caldwell: Pilgrimage to constructive confrontation

This commentary is by Michael Caldwell of North Wolcott, a member of the international ecumenical Iona Community and author of The Radical Center, a syndicated monthly column transcending current fractures in culture and religion. 

When we give vacations the character of pilgrimage, we see things, remember stories, notice encounters that escapist vacations miss. A recent distant trip to visit a friend had that character. I’ll not soon forget how much my long-term pilgrimage toward constructive confrontation was enhanced by one particular experience during the trip.

We shy away from confrontation for good reason. In many cases, a bad situation easily becomes worse. But sometimes it’s impossible to not take a risk in circumstances that beg for intervention. The end result depends on the approach and the preparation.

When I arrived at my friend’s place after a long journey and settled in for the evening, I mentioned my renewed interest in the art of restorative justice, restorative practice, restorative community. I told him it’s all about addressing people who have been offensive (whether technically “offenders” in the criminal justice system or otherwise just plain offensive) with care, curiosity and an expectation of accountability. With a dram of Islay single malt, he launched into a story.

He said he’d gone to a public square in his urban neighborhood to sit in solidarity with an anti-war activist group “Women in Black.” They sit in silence on benches, vigil-ing with signs: “Women Against Militarism and War.” As he sits, he watches people walking by, some stopping to notice, most appearing oblivious. 

Into this peaceful scene comes a right-wing evangelist with a megaphone. He derisively harasses the women, and shouts statements about Jesus as the only savior. He tells them they can be saved from the personal hell which awaits them, saved from the coming end of the world, prophesied, he said, in the Bible, if they repent and believe in Jesus.

My friend, a mild-mannered guy with a mystical bent, listens with a growing infuriation. Enraged with a strong sense of injustice and abuse, he finds himself unconsciously standing up from his park bench and walking over toward the heckler. He takes a breath, inhales a prayer, contemplates the words he will say to confront the confrontation. He remembers, in the moment, to exercise his training in nonviolent civil disobedience.

The evangelist sees him slowly walking toward him, lowers his megaphone, stops his rant, and stands in a posture daring an altercation. My friend stops when he’s eye to eye with the fellow, looking for the light of God in the man’s eyes. He speaks in a low tone.

“Who do you think you are? What do you think you are doing here? You’ve got it all wrong. These women are peace-loving. They are vigil-ing in peace. Why harass them with your venomous mistaken theology of damnation? Stop it. Just stop it. And start reading your Bible rightly. The Book of Revelation is John’s dream about the end of the Roman empire, not the end of the world today.”

My friend’s prayer worked. The strong irenic tone of his voice, disguising his denunciation, jarred the evangelist more effectively than returning his shouts. At that moment a flock of geese flew into a pond in the park, their honking interrupting the interruption. 

“Look,” my friend says, “like geese getting ready to fly south for the winter, you want to be ready for the winter of your life. Good. But these women don’t need your honking. Neither do I, nor any of the people in this park. These women? Their quiet witness? So much more filled with the presence of God than your rant.”

“You liberals are all alike,” says the evangelist. “You think anything goes. Well, anything doesn’t go.”

“OK for you. But you’ve got us all wrong. It’s God’s will to confront grotesquely obese military dependency. And it’s a free country, so far, including the freedom for you to stop your harassment.”

The evangelist shakes his head and looks at my friend staring at him, still looking for the light of God in him. He turns to leave, but can’t resist one more megaphone shout as he exits the scene. My friend approaches him again.

“Good to take a walk to cool off… you’ll feel better. God bless you, sir.”

Something in my friend’s story convinced me again: interventions can work if they lower the temperature, change the tone. When the interrupter looks into the eyes of an offender with compassion, then the savior preached by the offender becomes the savior not only of souls, but the savior of a crucified earth. 

When Christ turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple, he was confronting those who exploited the poor, and profaned sacred space. 

When my friend confronted the heretic heckler, he did what he had to do. He did the only thing he could do. He couldn’t not speak up in the face of the ignorance, the abuse. The situation needed a shift. He saw a way to intervene, to protest, to assert with care.

The hellish heckler bowed out because he didn’t feel threatened and because he was challenged in a way at least his unconscious could hear. He didn’t bow out gracefully, but he bowed out. 

Change happens when fairness asserts itself. Fairness happens when caring people stand together, not letting bully hecklers call the shots.

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