We have quite a bit of experience dealing with people whose anger is out of control, for the church is one place that will receive you, usually, whatever emotional or spiritual state you’re in.
I had a similar experience on Sunday, on one leg of my flight to Egypt. I’d noticed the same very well-dressed man a couple of times on my way from one terminal to the other - he stood out. When I arrived at the gate, I went over and stood near the door of the gate to the plane, as I knew they would start boarding very soon.
As soon as the door opened, the same man rushed up and pushed in front of me. He tried to get in front of the handicapped passengers who were boarding first. I wasn’t terribly surprised to discover that I was assigned the seat next to him. We stowed our things and sat down. The flight attendant came by with newspapers to offer, and this fellow pushed over me to grab one. I very politely asked him not to touch me, and he began to scream and swear at me. So I simply stood up and asked the flight attendant to reseat me.
She goes on to talk about rage, the rage of this man and rage in Ft. Worth, you can read it all here, and perhaps revealed more than she intended.
I found this particular story incredible. So here’s a guy who’s obviously under a great deal of stress and through some kind of “coincidence” is seated next to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. What an opportunity! But when he begins to reveal his obvious stress (and it's certainly not a happy situation), the Presiding Bishop - oh so very politely - tells him not to touch her. When he responds emphatically and colorfully (obviously he could be a litigator), she just stands up and requests that she be seated elsewhere.
I know a litigator (or perhaps several) who fits the description of this man (no, not one of the Virginia church lawyers!) He could be him, for all I know, except he changed. He’s still very intense, but he used to yell and use rather colorful language quite a lot. One time he came into our offices looking for the supervisor and when he couldn’t find her, he yanked her telephone right off the desk and threw it on to the floor and then started yelling. But when I looked into his eyes what I saw was fear.
What is the first thing the angels say to the shepherds out in the fields that night when Jesus was born? “Fear not.” It is, indeed, so much at the heart of who we are - our fears and the first reassurance from the angels was “Fear not.” We are so often afraid. What is it that we fear?
John writes in his first letter (1 John 4), “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.” It was obvious that that Bishop Schori was also afraid. Her response showed her own fear as well. Love was not near, only fear.
And so she fled.
So while she raises interesting questions, her response to those questions is still based in fear. She was able to identify it, but not able respond in the very way she says we should. In both of her examples, she fled. In fact, in her first example, she literally ran away.
In her sermon, she assumes motives and actions by those who are not in the room, thereby inflaming even more fear. Her words ring hallow because she’s in fact projecting more of her own fear onto these people gathered in Ft. Worth - who may be indeed afraid.
What did she fear from the man sitting next to her on the plane? Did she honestly think he would attack her? What if he did? What if he lost control and started hitting her? Would anyone have come to her assistance? Was she afraid that no one would, that she would be humiliated, that she wouldn’t be able to fight back, that she would be powerless? What did she fear from this man?
Does she inadvertently in both of these stories reveal herself as a victim? She puts herself, especially in the second story, as a victim. She then in her sermon pulls in her audience to feel like victims as well. She gains solidarity through victimhood - showing an elevated sense of pity toward the aggressor, but not standing down from the position of victim. So who then is the aggressor?
Who did she really see sitting next to her on the plane? Stories like that reveal more about ourselves (which is why they are sometimes scary to tell - talk about fear!) then the man on the plane.
I might also wonder, what if I found myself sitting next to a man like that? In fact, in my profession I often have found myself in the company of peopel like - both on the Hill and on “K Street.” God knows what they are dealing with, sometimes stuff right off the front page of The Washington Post. Most of the time when I looked into their eyes - and I would look them in the eye - I saw their fear.
What do we say to fear? Do we choose to be victims, especially when someone does have power, as certainly the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has. Certainly she should, her God is very powerful (and I would hope she knows that). Even without that connection, her position is very powerful. She’s the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, not exactly someone anyone should be yelling at in public. If the man knew, if his employer knew, if his client knew, if his family knew, if his mother knew - would he not be ashamed? She has power - but also the power of a different kind, one that he may not know or comprehend until he is recipient of it, the power to show compassion and forgiveness and yes, love, not fear or contempt for this man.
Who did she see sitting next to her? Who do we see? Who do I see?
Recently, I heard a story about a pastor from New Orleans who was also on a plane flying out from Louisiana and found himself sitting next to a woman who was a chatterbox. She just would not stop talking. The pastor really didn’t want to talk to her and kept answering her questions with single words, “yes,” and “no,” trying to read his book. Finally, he told her that he wanted to read his book and she stopped talking.
As he read his book, it seemed to him that the Lord put in his mind information about this woman that he could not know. The Lord seemed to say to him, that she was leaving New Orleans after having an affair with a man who was not her husband. The pastor thought, oh no.
The woman started again and asked him what he was doing in New Orleans and he then in frustration from having been interrupted yet again, he told her he was a pastor and then he told her that he knew that she had been having an affair while she was in New Orleans. When recounting this story he said her jaw dropped and then his jaw dropped, he couldn’t believe he’d said it.
But it was true. And she poured out her heart to him and he listened and prayed for her and encouraged her to go and find a church when she got home where she could find healing and restoration.
One just never knows why God puts people next to us on planes, or why some are so filled with fear, but the question I ask myself is how am I to respond? Do I ask for another seat (and I know the feeling well), or do I ask the Lord, why did you put me here? What do you have to show me?
And perhaps that is a question for us all, as we continue to work through the issues that face us in and outside the Episcopal Church and in the other avenues of our life. It does cause one to pause.