November 26th 2017
If President Abraham Lincoln had begun his Gettysburg Address with the words: “Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature; but the duty to which you have called me must be performed;—grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy…” there is little doubt we would remember them with the reverence we recall his succinct “four score and seven years ago.” Those first words were delivered by the Honorable Edward Everett, considered the finest orator in the land in 1863 and invited as the primary speaker, as he spoke for two full hours – prior to Lincoln stepping to the lectern and addressing the crowd at Gettysburg, for just over two minutes.[i] But had Lincoln not stopped with the iconic words we still remember today, and went on to flourish and expound upon his remarks, the effect would only have served to diminish their solemn impact.
There is such a thing as too much of a good thing – too much sugar in your coffee… too much salt on you vegetables… too many words in a sermon; even in the most desirable endeavors, excess tends to have a negative rather than a positive effect. There comes a point in the spoken word, rather than risk taxing the attention of the listener, it is preferable to exercise restraint and allow the listener, not to just hear the words but understand their implications. Lincoln spoke just 271 words. The response of the crowd was mixed, but all reports agree when he concluded, there was silence. Mrs. Sarah A. Cooke Myers, who was 19 on that July 19th day, later described it: “it seemed short. Then there was an impressive silence like (at) our Menallen Friends Meeting”[ii] where she worshipped.
I imagine that, following Jesus’ final sermon to his disciples, a similar silence hung over them. The message was brief; He spoke of caring for one another, of actions motivated by compassion; He left more unsaid than what was actually said. He did not need to include things like: when my possessions were taken, you gave me your own; when I was being beaten you protected me; when I was vulnerable you stood against my abuser; when I was helpless you assisted me; those things were left for the listener to understand. He struck a perfect balance between detailing the works of the righteous and the omissions of the sinner, without risking losing his listeners.
He didn’t have to go into the ugliness that surrounded them; didn’t have to discuss the way slaves were treated inhumanely, that their lives held no value, that women in their society were virtually no different than their slaves, and in many respects lived lives that were worse. All those things were implied in what he did say. And they were silenced, because his words, both said and unsaid, left them uncomfortable because they knew they needed to search themselves.
It began several months ago, we began hearing the accusations, reports of sexual predators, people in powerful positions who prey on those in positions of vulnerability; it has been shocking, and it has made many of us uncomfortable. Accusations against personalities we thought we knew, leveled against giants of the entertainment industry, against movers behind the scenes in the media; revelations of scandal made against leaders of our houses of worship, against respected newsmen, politicians and presidents of the United States have become a daily occurrence, until almost no accusation has the ability to shock. I fear we have reached a saturation point where detailing them may be causing many to, at the least, be numbed to the horrific nature of the charges, and at worst to question their credibility. The sheer number of accusations being made against society’s elite is, unfortunately having the accumulative effect of overwhelming the listener, and as a result, we are not having the crucial discussion about the prevalence of this predatory behavior in the every-day-lives of the people closest to us.
For some, that conversation is simply too uncomfortable to talk about openly, and in their silence they ignore the prevalence of this ugliness. Many more remain silent because they have experienced the ugliness first-hand, and the pain and humiliation of those moments remain too difficult to reveal, so they retreat into silence – to you, I apologize. There are still others, who even as the accusations mount, remain in the tight grip of that ugliness; for them it is far too dangerous to acknowledge it, or to make assertions themselves, and they hide in silence. Some excuse the ugliness as just how we are, and see little wrong; they will be held accountable one day. But many simply cannot fathom that this ugliness is as prevalent as the conversation insists, and have chosen to remain silent in disbelief.
I thought that my eyes had been opened to the ugliness of sexual predators, four years ago, when I served a two month term on the grand jury. We met every Tuesday and Thursday for nine weeks; Tuesdays were reserved for “minor” crimes: thefts, drugs, etc. Thursdays were reserved for more serious offenses: shootings, murders, but overwhelmingly, sex crimes. Week after week, we were presented with one case after another involving sexual abuse. At first I was stunned, that the vast majority were cases involving a victim who was underage, and in nearly every case, it was a relative or someone close to the victim’s family, who was accused of the crime. By the ninth Thursday my eyes were open, but sadly it no longer had the ability to shock.
But it was not until recently when wave after wave of allegations began hitting the media, that I was reminded of a conversation I had with a woman I have known for many years. We were discussing a violently abusive individual, and that she had been just one of his many victims. During our conversation she made a veiled remark, did not explain further, which strongly inferred she had been the victim of far more than physical abuse. I thought about it for a time, and then it faded. What I did not realize, but should have understood, is that she was another of the unnamed victims that surround us, whom we have yet to hear from.
Jesus’ metaphor about the “least of these” is, if not my favorite, my most frequently referenced. He spoke for under four minutes – 371 words, and when he concluded, his disciples were silenced, understanding that the compelling message left unsaid, was his assertion that, the things we overlook as minor offenses, the things we dismiss entirely as inconsequential, the times when we fail to ‘do’ for others, the Divine God views as damning as all the sins God thought to include in the Law given to Moses. It is, I believe what Jesus’ brother James must have been thinking about when he wrote, “My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, ‘Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!’? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs?”[iii]
This past week the President’s daughter Ivanka Trump made the comment, “there is a special place in hell for those who prey upon children.” I don’t think there is any theological support for the partitioning of hell into sections for one sin or the other; nor that one sinner, one predator, is worse than the next. She was, of course, using a metaphor to emphasis her abhorrence for the unforgivable actions being alleged in a specific report. But it is relevant to understand, that when Jesus said, “as often as you did not do it for these, you did not do it for me” it was in the context of describing how we each will be called to judgement, for the way we have lived our lives; whether as predator, as someone who has offered protection, or as someone who has merely stood by silently, and done nothing to aid the another.
While it may be an extremely uncomfortable conversation to have, maybe we need to be made to feel uncomfortable because, as he separates the sheep from the goats, Jesus’ words call us to search ourselves. When he says, ‘when you did not do it’ He calls us not to shirk from the difficult discussions about those who live among us who are abused, not by the elite but by those they live with, by their co-workers and employers, by their teachers and fellow students, by their brothers and fathers, their babysitters, their boyfriends and neighbors, and then he calls, demands of us, to act out of compassion… to provide the care each of them so desperately need.
— Amen ―
[ii] Hark, Ann. “Mrs. John T. Myers Relives the Day She Met the Great Emancipator”. Recollections of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg. Abraham Lincoln online. Retrieved November 30, 2007. Citing the Philadelphia Public Ledger of February 7, 1932.
[iii] James 2:14-16 (CEB)