I’m Afraid of Falling (So What Am I Doing in This Ivory Tower?)

Ivory tower rook piece from a chess setMy undergraduate degree is in Cultural Anthropology, and during my junior year of college an Anthropologist told us that the education we were receiving would very likely distance us from the people we would eventually work with. (Never mind any cultural or religious or economic differences!) I’ve carried that warning in the back of my mind ever since. Now I have a Masters of Divinity and I’m working on a Doctor of Ministry degree and widening the distance whether I want to or not. The problem is, I’m realizing more and more that the distance is not just between myself and the people I work with; it’s frequently between myself and the people closest to me … and sometimes I feel like crying.

Three days a week I’m surrounded by people who have high expectations for themselves and others, who have respect for people who are not like “us.” Three days a week I’m in the company of people who believe in nonviolence and interfaith dialogue. Outside the ivory tower of academia–and specifically religious academia–I often encounter people who think telling ethnic jokes and making fun of people with disabilities (in private, at least) is funny. I have to contend with people who think it’s okay to denigrate any religious beliefs that aren’t close enough to their own.

So what’s a “nice,” left-of-progressive, lady preacher to do? I know, I know—I should be prophetic and call people to account for their ignorance and insensitivity. I find that very difficult. I don’t want to be seen as the humorless religious fanatic, or jeered for being uber “politically correct.” I don’t want to be the “bitch” that spoils everybody’s fun. I don’t want people I love to avoid me. Yep–it’s all about me. And that’s the problem.

The disease of the self runs through my blood
It’s a cancer fatal to the soul
Every attempt on my behalf has failed
To bring the sickness under control [1]

I want to do the right thing. I want to stand up for justice. Really–I do. I also want to be compassionate, humble, nonjudgmental. So I sympathize with the Apostle Paul, who was moved to write, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” [2] It’s a sin of commission and omission. I stand on the battlement of the ivory tower, knees shaking, trying NOT to look down… and paralyzed by fear. I want to do the right thing; I’m just not sure what the “right thing” is.


[1] Charlie Peacock. “In the Light.” Copyright 1991, Sparrow Records.
[2] Romans 7:19, RSV

Feeding the Beast

Yellowstone Wolf Collaring

Later this month the United States will observe the anniversary of the tragic September 11, 2001 attack that killed almost 3,000 people in New York , Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. in a single day, a horror that continues ten years later because of the resulting PTSD, suicides, wars. It probably isn’t a uniquely American phenomenon, but we sure do like to celebrate violence – Independence Day; Memorial Day, which began as Decoration Day; Veterans’ Day, which was originally known as Armistice Day; and most recently, Patriot Day.

Oh, sure, some people will argue that it isn’t war and violence we’re celebrating: we’re commemorating the end of war, honoring the bravery and sacrifice of our troops, remembering the victims, celebrating our hard-earned freedom as Americans. I recognize some legitimacy in those claims, but I’m not so sure that we’re really doing anything more than feeding the beast when we observe national holidays with fireworks, flags, and parades of people in military uniforms. Of course, it isn’t just holidays that contribute to our culture of violence.

Media violence is frequently cited as the source of the problem. Really? Is it the case that life is imitating art or are movies, television, and music just the mirror that illuminates the ugliness that surrounds us? I don’t have an answer; I’m just asking the question.

War, rape, murder, torture – those are impossible to ignore, but smaller acts of violence swirl around us like a swarm of dust devils and are so common that they frequently go unnoticed, sometimes even by the target. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said:

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. [1]

It may be a cliché but it’s true nonetheless: words hurt. Rage, gossip, constant criticism, and name-calling are all acts of psychic and spiritual violence. In his 1996 book Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes, “Words said about us define our place in the world.” [2] Anything – anything –that degrades or devalues any part of Creation is violence, and any act of violence is sin because it creates (or at the very least widens) a separation between creature and Creator.

There is a Cherokee legend about two wolves, one good and one evil, that battle within each person. Which wolf wins? “The one you feed.” [3] I believe that the only people who want to do harm and those who have, themselves, been harmed in some way. We will only end the cycle of violence and abuse that afflicts the world when we stop feeding the beast.

[1] Matt. 5:22 Common English Bible.
[2] Telushkin, Joseph. Words that Hurt, Words that Heal. (New York: William Morrow, 1996), 4.
[3] Two versions of this tale can be found on the website First People, http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/TwoWolves-Cherokee.html.