Standing up for the Little Guy/Gal/God

I really and truly LOVE LOVE LOVE this story about Theodore Roosevelt.

Even if it ended after the first sentence, it would be utterly swoon-worthy:

When President Teddy Roosevelt was a college student, he taught a Sunday School class for elementary school children.
Wow. Just picture that: the historical figure who perhaps most embodies the American mythic ideal of the manly man teaching elementary-aged Sunday School. When I contrast that with our present situation, in which a greater proportion of American children are growing up without fathers, and yet young men showing an interest in caring for other people's children have become so rare that they are automatically suspect, it makes me want to cry.

And he didn't just teach elementary Sunday School, he did it when he was a college student. At the exact age when so many young adults today -- even the devotedly Christian ones -- check out of church altogether, Teddy not only kept attending church, he served it in one of its most important undertakings: the Christian education of the next generation. Phenomenal.

If you introduced me today to a man who had taught elementary-aged Sunday School when he was in college, I would agree to marry him on the spot without needing to know anything else about him.

Ah, but the story doesn't stop with the fact of Teddy teaching Sunday School. It's how he came to stop teaching Sunday School that's the crux: he gave a dollar (A whole dollar! That was a lot of money back then!) to a kid who beat up a bully who had been picking on the girls.

Perhaps the feminist in me ought to be affronted by the patriarchalism inherent in encouraging a boy to defend the defenseless girls. Why not teach the girls to stick up for themselves? But the thing is, there's nothing feminist about failing to stand up for victims of abuse. I love that Teddy saw the broader moral context in which the fight took place and defied the convention of simply punishing any and every instance of childhood brawling in order to teach a lesson about looking out not for one's own interests, but the interests of others.

But I also love the fact that the church called him out on it -- that the congregation was not afraid to exercise discipline over those who taught its children, but removed the perhaps-overly-bellicose young Sunday School teacher from his charge because they did not want their children to be taught that violence is a proper Christian response even to objectionable behavior.

I withhold judgment on whether Teddy or the congregation was correct in their evaluation of the boy's behavior -- I don't have enough information about the particulars of the situation, and deep down I suspect that they were both at least partly right, and also perhaps partly wrong. Perhaps Teddy was too eager to associate Christian virtue with a sort of chivalric vigilantism; perhaps the congregation was too devoted to a sentimental notion of a "gentle Jesus, meek and mild" to respond effectively to the very real problem of childhood bullying. This is part of why I love this story; it encapsulates without resolving an important, enduring conflict in the life of the church.

The story is offered in the context of retelling a lesser-known legend of the Saint whose feast is celebrated today: Bishop Nicholas of Myra, better known for depositing dowry-money into the hung-to-dry stockings of certain poor and vulnerable girls, is also reported to have gotten so incensed at Arius' arguments at the Council of Nicaea that he walked over and slapped him across the face. You gotta love someone who cares so deeply about getting the Gospel right that he can't hold back a passionate response when he hears it under attack.

But I also love the fact that the other bishops present were so scandalized by Nicholas' behavior that they stripped him of the office of bishop and ejected him from the council. Their censure clearly conveyed: this is not the way we settle theological disputes. God's honor is not so fragile that he needs us to hit people in order to defend it.

Nicholas, the stories tell us, was restored to the office of bishop by Jesus himself, who knew that the slap was a manifestation of Nicholas' love for him. (Whether Nicholas first repented of his outburst depends, it seems, on whether the person retelling the tale approves of a saint going Chuck Norris on a heretic's face.)

I've been thinking a lot lately about Christian faithfulness in a violent world -- how to hold together the conviction that there are things that are worth fighting for with devotion to being a follower of the One who laid down his life for his enemies rather than fight back against them.

I'm far from having it sorted out, but I'm finding that stories are essential to puzzling through the tensions -- both to help me make sense of the questions, and to help me keep from making sense too easily of questions that are really difficult. I need the witness of my brothers and sisters who have stood up to evil with violence, and those who have stood up to the evil of violence. So I love these stories, and pray for a world in which the question of violence will finally be answered once and for all. Amen; even so, come, Lord Jesus.


Sarah Sours said...

Love it!! Great stories, both!

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