by Ellen Sims
Texts: II Samuel 6: 1-23, Mark 6: 17-29
The literary world is reeling from early reports about our beloved Harper Lee’s soon-to-be published first novel. In Go Set a Watchman, out this Tuesday, we’ll meet a 26-year-old Jean Louise (formerly known as Scout) who returns to Maycomb, Alabama, and comes to realize her idolized father is a bigot. For those of us who have also loved Atticus Finch since our childhoods, we, too, may feel disillusioned. But then a growing recognition may set in. Yes, we’ll admit to ourselves, we should have known all along what it meant to see Atticus through the adoring eyes of his 6-year-old daughter. We’ll realize that Atticus might have been, like some of the genteel white men we knew in that era, kindly and charitable toward poor whites and “the colored,” but our favorite father figure also surely saw “the Negroes” as decidedly Other.
To Kill A Mockingbird, we’re told, was a rewrite of Lee’s first submitted manuscript, Go Set A Watchman. Her editor suggested she move Go Set a Watchman back in time and tell it from the point of view of Scout. To Kill a Mockingbird was the result. It’s not clear to me if Atticus and Maycomb appear kindlier in Mockingbird because racism was more underground in the 1930s setting than in the 1950s, or if Lee was able to attain greater sympathy for her flawed Atticus during the rewrite, or if her editor guided her toward a more saleable story by softening its depiction of the South’s racism. But one critic reminds us:
One of the emotional through-lines in both Mockingbird and Watchman is a plea for empathy — as Atticus puts it in Mockingbird to Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” The difference is that Mockingbird suggested that we should have compassion for outsiders like Boo and Tom Robinson, while Watchman asks us to have understanding for a bigot named Atticus. [i] (Kakutani, Michiko. “NYTimes Review: Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Gives Atticus Finch a Dark Side” New York Times.10 July 2015.)
In lasting literature, complicated characters are not easily labeled hero or villain, and they inhabit complicated situations not easily navigated with simplistic moral codes. In spiritually mature people, people are not labeled in binary terms and our moral choices require careful discernment. We look today at two Bible stories that helpfully destabilize our sense of moral certitude and open us to empathy.
Today’s story of David bringing the recaptured Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem begins with David dancing in celebration. But the festivity turns horrific when the well-meaning Uzzah reaches out to steady the ark after the oxen jostle it—and God strikes him dead. Uzzah touched the ark to save it—and God kills him? Does God have only two categories for us: perfect or deserving of death? We can sigh and say the ways of God are unfathomable to men and women. Which is true. But let’s admit that David’s God seems unmerciful and unreasonable. If we don’t notice that, we’re asleep at the theological wheel. When a story suggests that the God character has not been true to God’s values—when God kills someone trying to perform his sacred duty—we might decide simply to throw away our moral compasses. Who knows what is right or wrong after that? we might say as an excuse. Who can serve that kind of God—however we might then label God?
Some folks right now are confounded because gay marriage is being endorsed by the state and many churches. For them there’s no longer a North Star of morality to navigate by. They cling all the tighter to simplistic, binary rules while quoting Bible verses, so confused are they by changes to laws and public opinion, so indoctrinated to think in simplistic categories.
And today’s story of King David only gets more complicated because YHWH’s appointee to the throne is a mixture of a God-drunk celebrant for some ecstatic cult–and a risqué show-off ridiculed by his wife. David exposed himself physically in public. Queen Michal then exposed him morally—with a sneer and with words.
But can we trust Michal as moral arbiter? Maybe she’s just jealous, prudish, proud. At least from the point of the view of the narrator (but then we have to decide if we can trust the narrator) Michal is herself flawed. We know this because the story ends by slamming steel doors of condemnation on her, locking this female character away from the rest of history.
In verse 20 she scolds the king for dancing with only a small loin cloth to cover his nakedness—“as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself.” David reminds her of his power as her king as well as husband, chosen by her father to reign. Then he played the religion card. David said he danced to please God (not her). Furthermore, he bragged that he would embarrass himself whenever he pleases, thank you very much, even more embarrassingly than he had just done. And when he did so in the future, he predicted other women would love it.
Please. You would think God would strike David mute if not dead for those words to his wife. Instead, the story allows no rejoinder from Michal, only the narrator’s comment implying that God cursed HER: “Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death” (2 Samuel 6:23).
Where’s the moral center to such a narrative? What do we learn from it about God? About human relationships? How do you and I get our moral bearings after reading such a story?
We should ask the same thing about today’s Gospel reading. Where’s the moral center to the story of John the Baptist’s beheading? Again we have a proud king in Jerusalem, a queen who spoke her mind, and a dubious dance. Again we have moral ambiguity. Herod himself was torn: scripture says he imprisoned John the Baptist—but it’s really his wife Herodias who was troubled by John’s accusations that their marriage is illegitimate. Herod kept John in prison but believed John “was a righteous and holy man, and [Herod] protected him.” Herod even “liked to listen” to John. So Herod was “greatly perplexed”—which I read as morally conflicted (Mark 6:20).
Queen Herodias was not. She purely hated the prophet who had preached against her illicit marriage. So when a public banquet presented her with an opportunity, she deputized her daughter—whom one translation names also as Herodias but others leave as nameless and the historian Josephus calls Salome. The queen used her daughter to trick Herod into executing John.
Ah, at last a clear villain! The evil queen can mark the story’s moral boundaries. As can her daughter, who used her feminine wiles for harm.
Not so fast. According to Marcus Borg, “[The Bible] doesn’t tell us how God see things, but how these ancient people saw things” and “their experiences of God or the sacred, their perceptions of God’s character”[ii](qtd. in “Saving Jesus Redux”). And these ancient people lived in a patriarchal culture. Feminist theologians caution that a female perspective has largely been silenced by the Bible’s patriarchal writers. Often female characters in scripture are presented as stock characters, like those represented in the title of a book of feminist scholarship: Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible.[iii] To recognize that male writers have not always represented a woman’s perspective fairly and fully, to recover the voice of other oppressed people from that time and place—is a legitimate approach to biblical study. So let’s at least consider that Herodias and daughter come to us through a male bias. John the Baptist is murdered. We are rightly horrified. But the text seems to let powerful Herod off more lightly than the women.
When a story leaves us morally off balance, when characters surprise us to the extent that the moral foundations shift beneath our feet—we have the opportunity to develop empathy for people we might not otherwise have considered worthy of sympathy and connection. Destabilizing our moral certitude doesn’t mean tossing out morality. But it may mean we test some assumptions. Maybe the patriarch—King David, for instance—is not God’s best representative in the story. Maybe the depiction of God as, for instance, an egotistical, demanding, rule-bound potentate who zaps his subjects for the slightest infraction is more a reflection of patriarchal culture that produced the story than an expression of a compassionate spirituality. Maybe an overly simplistic character—like Herodias’s daughter, often typed as the seductress—has a hidden story that deserves our empathy.
When a biblical story seems ethically off kilter, let’s consider why. To do so does not lead to immorality. But surely what we believe to be right and good sometimes warrants reexamination.
I mentioned the way progress toward LGBTQ rights is gradually inviting people to reassess moral codes we’ve taken for granted. We have not only wrongly condemned homosexuality, our society’s moral code has wrongly, if implicitly, condoned racism. Racism is another oppressive system that cannot be dismantled until the dominant culture feels destabilized by an ethical earthquake. We will not rationalize our way out of racism. We are too defensive. Enough of us will have to hear and FEEL disorienting stories of injustice before we as a people can repent of America’s sin. May stories with the names of Michael Brown and Reverend Clementa Pinkney, of Ferguson and Charleston, teach us to mistrust other stories we’ve been told . . . about the Confederate flag, our justice system, and gun rights, for instance.
Like Jean Louise in Go Set a Watchman, we have a chance to hear old stories with adult ears and recognize heroes like Atticus as flawed. The systems we grew up in and the rules we’ve lived by may not be fair for all. The God we came to know through patriarchal scriptures that we read with oppressive lenses may not be the God we should serve.
Can you give up the God who arbitrarily zaps people and instead embrace the God who stands with the powerless? Can you live with a little disillusionment about your heroes if there’s hope for a world with greater justice and empathy?
Open Table’s friend the Reverend Ryan Sirmons posted an insightful commentary yesterday in response to the buzz about Go Set a Watchman. It addresses the disillusionment many will feel upon seeing Atticus Finch exposed in all his racist imperfection. Ryan calls on us “to wake up and realize that Atticus cannot be our hero.” He explains, “Atticus cannot be the agent of change we need to include all our sisters and brothers in a united country. The old South from which he came is a figment of our imagination, idealized in a childlike light out of which we need to shape our national discourse.” [iv]
There is a dance called empathy. It is not David’s dance of ego in the spotlight. It is not the seductive dance of death and destruction. It’s a grace-full dance hindered by the stilted steps we memorized once in a childhood dance class. It’s a dance that leaves us a bit off beat . . . until we follow a new pattern of compassion. The rhythm of this dance is set by the beat of every other human heart.
God of the Dance, may we follow your lead. Amen
[i] Kakutani, Michiko. “New York Times Review: Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Gives Atticus Finch a Dark Side” New York Times.10 July 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/11/books/review-harper-lees-go-set-a-watchman-gives-atticus-finch-a-dark-side.html?_r=0).
[ii] Borg, Marcus. Qtd in Saving Jesus Redux Living the Questions DVD 2010.
[iii] Bellis, Alice Ogden. Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
[iv] Sirmons, Ryan P. “Why an ‘Evil’ Atticus Finch is Good For Us” Preachsirmons.(https://preachsirmons.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/why-an-evil-atticus-finch-is-good-for-us/).