Learning from stories that stink

Feb 2, 2015 by

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As I took down my string of Christmas cards and letters, I smiled as one friend noted the danger of a Christmas letter becoming “a list of stellar achievements accomplished by perfect people.” Ours had no mention of the rats that invaded our basement and the smell they left. It didn’t recount the times I offended people or branded someone narrow-minded.

Yoder-Short

Yoder-Short

MWR’s congregation reports can sound like lists of wonderful worship times and missional accomplishments, with added marriage and death info. We wouldn’t think of reporting divorces or struggles with declining membership.

Recently, among all the usual Mennonite news, we’ve been reading of the bizarre behavior of John Howard Yoder. I’ve heard some question whether we need to rehash all the horrific details. Yoder was our theological hero. We want our heroes to come with stellar achievements and smelling perfect.

Israel’s news writers didn’t gloss over horrific details. They never got the word to leave out the smell of rats or the sins and flaws of their leaders. We hear of rapes and murders. We have Dinah’s rape (Genesis 34) and a concubine’s fatal gang rape (Judges 19). From David’s palace we hear of Bathsheba’s embarrassing pregnancy, Uriah’s murder and Tamar’s rape. What use are such scandalous stories?

Let’s see what can be learned from the story of Tamar, the beautiful sister of David’s son Absalom (2 Samuel 13). Amnon, the firstborn of David and the heir, obsessively desires her, but she is his half-sister. Tamar is off-limits. His shrewd and crafty cousin, Jonadab, comes up with a plan.

Amnon pretends to be sick and asks David to send Tamar to feed him. Tamar arrives and prepares food. When Amnon sends everyone away, his request for food turns into an unwanted sexual advance. Tamar insists such a thing may be done among the Canaanites but not among the people who follow Yahweh: “Do not do anything so vile.”

Amnon overpowers and rapes Tamar, then sends her away. But she won’t go along with a coverup. She tears her long robe, the sign of virginity, and cries aloud. David is angry but does nothing. Two years later Absalom kills Amnon.

Why tell this story? Was it to prove that Samuel was right about the dangers of consolidating power (1 Samuel 8)? Was it to show the price of acting like corrupt Canaanites? Was it to teach how domination leads to dehumanization and corruption?

Both the Yoder story and the Tamar story make us angry — angry at the abuse of power, angry that innocent victims suffered, angry that more wasn’t done.
As we look back on the messy Yoder story, can we learn that none of us belong on pedestals — no matter how great our writing, how perfect our Christmas letter, how important our role in the world or church? We all fail. Can we learn that when something stinks, we might as well own up to it and air it out before more people are hurt?

Let’s expect our institutions to shed light where there is darkness. As church communities, let’s find ways to offer healing and hope to victims, to abusers and to the families of both. As individuals, let’s search for ways to hold each other accountable and to value the healing power of honesty and repentance.

Let’s keep learning from the stories that have shaped and still shape God’s people, both the stories that make us smile and the ones that make us cringe.

Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.


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