This Isn’t What I Wrote

A couple years ago I was accused of anti-Semitism. Anyone who knows me will realize how ludicrous such an accusation is. Several people to whom I’ve related this story actually laughed out loud.

This incident occurred shortly after I took part in the 2015 Page-to-Stage Festival, an annual event at the Kennedy Center which allows theater companies to perform readings of new works and works-in-progress. I took a group of actors from the drama team at my church and presented nine short scenes which I had written for use in our weekly church services. One of those pieces, Loving the Enemy, takes place in a courtroom. An innocent young man has been killed by a drug addict during a robbery. The judge is hearing victim statements prior to sentencing. The young man’s mother, his pregnant wife, and his best friend deliver their testimony, interleaved in a “round robin” fashion, which emphasizes the parallels between their statements. Those statements each build in intensity, culminating in anguished calls for the death penalty. Then the father steps forward and gives his statement, uninterrupted. He lays out the case for his son: he was an unimpeachable, upstanding member of society who made contributions to his family, his community, and the world at large. He was cut down in the prime of his life, leaving behind a new job, a new house, and a pregnant wife, and all for $37. And then the father does something extraordinary. Where the mother, the wife, and the best friend became enraged and demanded vengeance, the father becomes remorseful and forgives his son’s killer. And while this scenario might seem unlikely to some, there are countless instances in which real victims have forgiven the perpetrators of heinous crimes in exactly this manner.

The day after our reading, I received an e-mail from a gentleman who said (to paraphrase): “I see what you did there. The ‘enemy’ represents the Jews. The young son represents Jesus. And the forgiving father is a condescending God who is willing to grant the Jews absolution, despite their inherent wickedness.” And then the writer followed up this interpretation with an admonition that I never present the scene outside of a church again.

Needless to say, I was flabbergasted. Leaving aside the fact that I myself was born into a Jewish family; leaving aside the fact that the church I attend — and work for — is deeply rooted in the Jewish Bible and emphasizes the strong link between Judaism and Christianity; leaving aside the fact that anti-Semitism would never be tolerated within the specific community of Christ-followers of which I am a member; even leaving all of this aside, the fact of the matter is that I wrote the piece as a response to Jesus’ injunction that, as Christians, we must “love our enemies.” There was no sub-text. The complex relationship between Judaism and Christianity could not have been further from my mind at the time I set pen to paper. The piece was intended to be exactly what it appears to be on its surface: an illustration of what Christ’s injunction looks like in the real world.

I wrote back to the gentleman who had leveled this criticism (and, to his credit, he was very civil in his choice of words, despite what, to him, must have seemed a terrible affront), and explained to him what I have just laid out. And he was very gracious in apologizing for having mischaracterized my intent. But the whole incident got me to thinking.

We are frequently misinterpreted, despite our best efforts to be as clear as possible. Language is neither wholly opaque nor perfectly transparent, and in the foggy midst of our words, we often perceive phantasms, the shapes of things imagined, but not real. Herein lies the lesson. The only person who can know, with perfect clarity, what my words and actions mean is me. Well, not quite. I am a Christian. I do believe in God. And I do believe that God, too, knows my mind with perfect clarity. It is easy when, for example, one is being accused of anti-Semitism, to second-guess one’s own motives, one’s own intent, one’s own meaning. My initial reaction was to retract Loving the Enemy and never perform it again. But then I asked myself whether, having written this piece, I could approach God with a clear conscience. I found that the answer was a resounding “Yes!”

People will, in this life, ascribe the worst motives to all of us from time to time. I do my best to make myself understood. I do my best to shine the light of clarity and reason through the fog. I do my best to select my words judiciously and precisely. Yet still people will accuse me of doing wrong. They will accuse me of being, in a word, evil. However, I cannot live according to the interpretations of others. I can only examine my conscience and then ask myself whether I can approach God without reservations. If I can, then I have maintained my fundamental integrity. And in the long run, that will speak for itself, and my detractors will be silenced by its unalterable permanence.

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