Tonight, on the luxuriantly arboreal and Anglophiliac campus of the University of the South, here in the Rebel’s Rest guesthouse, I iron my clerical shirt, cassock, rochet, and chimere. Such garments wrinkle when packed for travel. So I iron and as I iron I think of the string theorists who aspire to formulate a single comprehensive theory to explain the entire physical universe – and I know that I can never come anywhere near understanding just this day. It has been complex.
I suspect that these two things are important parts of the context: Before I arrived (while I was stranded in airports by Carolina thunderstorms) the people gathered here for the 2010 Native Ministries Consultation were dealing with the “doctrine of discovery,” acknowledging the grievances of First Nations Peoples, what native singer Bill Miller referred to tonight as “historic trauma.” The other part of the context is that we have a really tight agenda which strikes one as a cultural oddity but then that could be stereotyping. I’m just saying that it’s part of the context of the day. Here is one mysterious story from the day.
This morning I talked with a Maori man who told me with some pride about the time he had told off Wes Frensdorff. Since Wes is so highly regarded in Nevada, I was surprised and curious. He told the story of a Roland Allen Conference (Roland Allen was a missionary to China who invented the ministry model on which Total Ministry was based) in Hawaii. The Maori people in attendance felt deeply alienated and excluded at the conference. I am not sure I understand why – but I think that following agendas and sitting around tables for structured discussions is just not what they do in New Zealand. So they boycotted part of the meeting, and then showed up for a session Wes was leading.
The Maori man stood up and interrupted the session, saying he had some things to express. Wes said there would be a time for that later but right now they were going to do what the agenda said. The man was not having it. An argument ensued. I don’t know how it ended, but it included the Maori man saying to Wes. “You’ve told us what to do long enough. Bishop, sit down and shut up.”
About a year later, Wes visited New Zealand. He telephoned the man several times, leaving messages saying he’d like to have a conversation. The calls were not returned. So Wes found someone who knew where the man lived and got them to drive him to his house. Wes met him there and apologized. Just a few months later, he died in the plane crash.
Why did Wes apologize? I feel sure I would have done the same thing at the conference, tried to keep the meeting going according to plan rather than let a heckler take it over with no authority other than the intensity of his feelings. But would I have been right? In one of our meetings today, a First Nations person said we “disguise oppression as order.” Did Wes realize that sticking to the agenda was wrong? Or was it a case like Matthew 5 of being on your way to the altar and remembering that your brother has a grievance against you?
I don’t understand the other man’s anger either. There was clearly some sense of insult in the act of regulating a meeting with an agenda. Was it part of an old grievance, a historic trauma? Was it part of the “doctrine of discovery?” As I listened to the story, I identified with Wes and felt an anxiety as if I were the one being challenged, having the meeting wrested from my control. And when I heard of Wes’s apology, I thought that I would like to apologize like that – even though I don’t know what he was thinking.
Tonight we attended a remarkable concert by the Grammy Award winning Mohican musician Bill Miller. Bill talked as much as he sang because he had a message for the audience. It was that living in historic trauma is a dead end. The historic trauma is real, but the way to life is to claim victory over it. Needless to say, one cannot tell anyone else that about their historic trauma. It’s something we have to come to for ourselves, but Bill Miller was able to say it. He told the story of his hatred of his father, a violent, abusive, drunken man. He looked forward to his father’s death, but when it happened, he discovered that his father had been forgiven by God and found happiness for the first time in his life at the end of his life. Bill was able to forgive his father and found freedom from his historic trauma. He was able to live anew instead of living in his old grievance. It was one of the most moving testimonies I’ve ever heard.
I wonder something about apology. I wonder if anything we ever do is so unambiguously right that there isn’t something to regret in it. Philosophers call it a “moral remainder” – the bad part of even the best things we do. So maybe sometimes the question isn’t whether we have been wrong enough that we are obliged to apologize – asking that just puts us on the defensive – maybe the question is: would an apology help the other person move on beyond their sense of grievance? Would it set someone free?