And you know what I did?
I took half a breath, hunched down, and with words sharp as razors I spat, “Where is your mother!?”
He looked at me defiantly, unrepentant. Another mother intervened and delivered the boy to his mom. She was across the playground, not paying attention at all.
I knew in that moment I could pick a fight with the boy’s mom. I could go over and hold her accountable, mandate an apology and cause a scene.
It was a safety issue, really, this delinquent boy at the playground. Truthfully, I wanted him deported from the playground. I wanted him locked up in timeout until I had proof of changed ideology.
But instead I scooped up Molly and took her home. She cried the whole way, but I don’t think she cried so much out of pain as surprise. We went to the park to see friends and instead encountered an enemy of sorts. Sometimes the two look alike.
I’m reading the news. I’m skimming news outlets and social media, not just reading the stories but the pages and pages of comments. This is my favorite part about the news—- the comments. I think the comments narrate the most extreme compulsions of human nature, which makes them entertaining and occasionally even insightful.
As I write this, Paris and Beirut are reeling from terrorist attacks. France is toeing the line of war. And in reaction, twenty-six states in America have announced public opposition to admitting Syrian refugees. It’s unclear what this statement means, exactly, since it’s ultimately up to the federal government to accept refugees. But from where I’m sitting the headlines, the comments, the politicians are all using different words for the same compulsion: FEAR.
I read articles about how the conflict is a security issue…. how it’s a humanitarian issue… how it’s a faith issue. There are so many lines in the sand. Which one do you confront first? And how, exactly, do you confront it?
What exactly does it mean when we hashtag #prayforparis beneath an old vacation photo of the Eiffel Tower?
On the walk home from the park, I kept rethinking what I should have done about the bullyboy and his mom. Initially, I began drafting an angry monologue that I could deliver to this woman on the occasion I got a do-over. I imagined aggressive finger pointing. I practiced the fierce-yet-lucid look I wanted my face to display.
I clenched my jaw until it ached.
Then I started recalling sparse personal details I knew about this family. That little boy was the youngest of three rowdy boys. He likely has grown up in an environment of youngest-sibling-oppression. It’s so normal, I know. The youngest always gets picked on. Boys wrestle and fight and problem solve with a scrappy sort of violence that is foreign to me as mom of a girl. And soon I considered that this boy knows one way to get what he wants: he fights.
He knows exactly one line in the sand— to be the bully or the bullied.
He becomes one or the other. Because this is what he has seen.
In the comment streams on news sites, I read the opinions of people who claim to be insiders, who have “seen how the system works.” Insiders to immigration or border patrol, insiders to non-profits and NGOs. Faith leaders. Political leaders. Humanitarian leaders. They make it seem like we only have two choices: either we accept all immigrants willy-nilly or close the borders altogether.
They imply that America can either be a bully or the bullied.
Some call the immigrants refugees. Some call the refugees “refugees.” They add quotations, as if innocence is alleged instead of actual.
There is constant, relentless alleging on both sides, on all sides.
What is true?
As I walked up the driveway, I remembered that the mom of the bullyboy homeschools all three of her boys. She mentioned it to me a couple months ago when I first met her at the park. Now every time I see her I’m reminded that she homeschools three kids because she looks so very tired. She sits down on the bench to watch her kids, and though one might call this lazy, I see it as a clear sign of overwhelming fatigue, of overwhelming overwhelm-ment.
Really at 4:30 in the afternoon, what mom among us is at her best?
I remembered one last thing. The exact details are fuzzy, but I recalled that her husband, the boy’s dad, is deployed or maybe he just returned from deployment. Also, they recently moved from the opposite coast. So much transience, so much forced migration. They are a family that has known the heat of crucible.
So by the time I closed the front door behind me, this really annoying thing had happened. As much as I wanted to stand for justice and draw an impenetrable line of security around my daughter, I started to feel compassion for the exact people I had resolved to fight.
Several years ago, Mike deployed to fight the war on terror. His job was to train Afghans to patrol their own borders. For seven months, Mike did not live on a base surrounded by tall walls or barbed wire or locked doors. He lived in a tarp tent on the Pakistan border and slept alongside Afghans that were armed and equipped by NATO forces.
“So wait,” I asked him, “Couldn’t some of those guys be Taliban? How do you recognize ally from enemy? ”
“Exactly,” he said. “You don’t know. You keep your guard up. You drop it a little at times. You hope your discernment is right.”
Several times during that deployment Afghan soldiers turned on their NATO counterparts, killing the men that were trying to equip them. There were times the Afghans stole gasoline or money or materials and tried— both successfully and unsuccessfully—to take advantage of the people trying to help them.
But Mike also talks about the men that were smart and eager and truthful, the ones trying to do right by their families and their country. He still remembers their names, how many kids they have, and the jokes they told. After he came back from Afghanistan, Mike talked often about wanting to go back, not to deploy, but to visit the Afghan friends he made there.
Sometimes I ask Mike, the Marine, to draw for me a line about war, to define for me the enemy, but he won’t.
“It’s complicated,” he says.
The first time we returned to park after the confrontation both Molly and I were a little nervous.
I came prepared with some mental parameters of how I would interact with the little boy and his mother should we see them again. But they weren’t there. Another little boy was there. He was sweet and respectful and also tried to play with Molly’s toy car. Immediately, Molly lashed out. “No! My car! My car!” I intercepted her hand right as she wound up to strike.
As that other boy learned to fight from his brothers, so, too, Molly learned to fight from him. The bullied become bullies.
Molly and I walked around the playground for a little bit, allowing the situation to cool. Soon other kids arrived and began taking turns on the slide, sharing their snacks, working in harmony and collaboration with one another. When Molly witnessed an environment of generosity, suddenly her territorial posture softened. I could feel the physical change in her body as I carried her on my hip. “Down, Mommy, down!”
Minutes later she was sharing her snack, waiting for a turn on the slide, ignoring who played with her toy car.
And I marveled at how instantly she emulated the behavior she observed.
Often the pastor at my church says, “We become what we behold.”
He says it to guide our eyes towards Jesus.
Jesus. The perfect incarnation of both justice and mercy, full of wisdom and love. Not blind, naïve love. Not reactive, domineering justice. He is sovereign, neither bully nor bullied.
Jesus. The pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
He changes us as we behold him.
What a mercy.
I’m learning about what to do on the playground, but I do not know what to do with the state of the world. I tend to sit and watch from a distance with overwhelming fatigue, with overwhelming overwhelm-ment.
I worry that this makes me appear lazy. I worry that I actually am.
A few days ago I got an opportunity to do something.
A woman and her son visited the playground. She was clearly an outsider because no one recognized her and she arrived in a car, not pushing a stroller down the street like the rest of us.
She was quick to introduce herself and her young son. They both smiled broadly, the boy newly walking on wobbly legs. While guiding him up the stairs to the mini-slide, the woman explained that they had just signed a lease on a house in the neighborhood.
In passing she mentioned that none of the model houses in the neighborhood were available when they asked for a walkthrough. They were moving in a couple of weeks, but hadn’t yet seen the inside of the house.
Because the military likes uniformity, all of our houses in the neighborhood are exactly the same. And I knew the house she was moving into was the exact house I was currently living in.
I knew very well that there was a house available for viewing.
It was mine.
She didn’t ask to see it. I offered to show it. I counted the six times she asked “Are you sure you don’t mind?”Then relief and excitement washed over her face.
We walked down the road together. Honestly, I felt nervous. Was this what Jesus would do? Or what a person does pre-kidnapping?
What if she was a house robber? A con woman?
Or what if she truly was a future neighbor, a fellow military spouse, a new friend?
I opened the front door and awkwardly emphasized the fact that the house came equipped with a “very good, very active security system.” I acted very nice and talked very fast. Hospitality doesn’t always come naturally, even when it’s the right thing to do.
She was only interested in the kitchen, specifically the cabinet storage and counter space. There were dirty dishes in my sink and a diaper bag tossed on the counter, but when she looked at my house she wasn’t evaluating my house. She was dreaming into existence hers. She was putting away her dishes, setting up her high chair.
She was arranging her home.
And I thought of how Jesus restored us into friendship with God. Knowing fully that he would intercept the wrath of our sin, he erased the deep line drawn between us and said:
As I am at home, so too, can you be. (John 14)
It’s easy to exaggerate the purity of our dignity when we look away from our history of exile.
You and I are foreigners, prodigals, immigrants that have been invited into the house of God. And if we are to become what we behold, let us behold the right thing.
From playgrounds and kitchens and sidewalks, from the violence of a war zone to the safety of a computer screen, may we teach our children and preach to ourselves and recall again and again exactly what it is we have beheld:
We have been shown mercy.