So this video has been going around about some guy who does a social experiment to show how easy it is for strangers to abduct children. And of course a national online debate has been sparked about what can we really do, as parents, and what can we help our children learn to do, to avoid being abducted.
You know these debates remind me of the endless ways we tell women not to get raped. You know these lists – don’t wear pony tails or mini skirts, keep your keys out, be aware of your surroundings, and on and on.
Just like those lists sound like victim-blaming to me, these lists of how not to get abducted also sound a little like victim blaming. Oh, don’t get me wrong – we should always practice safe measures and we should always be teaching our children to be aware of their surroundings. Most importantly, even moreso than stranger danger, we should be teaching our children how to listen to their gut feelings. If something doesn’t feel right, come and tell an adult.
And just like with rape victims, it is important to help children know that they will be heard and taken seriously. The greatest gift we can give our children is to help foster their own “gut feelings” and listen to them when they are expressing themselves. One of the most difficult social issues to deal with when working with survivors of intimate partner violence and rape, is always that women have been taught, cultured, that no doesn’t always mean no. And men have not been taught adequately that no means no.
But the sad reality is, that when someone wants to do harm, they are going to do harm, by whatever means necessary. So even if you do everything right, if someone wants to take your child they are going to take your child. In fact, it seems a bit ridiculous to expect children to be able to stand up to an adult and say NO! and be able to single-handedly avoid being abducted. It has happened, and kudos to those kiddos who have been able to accomplish that, but it seems unreasonable to expect all children to be capable of that.
So I thought a little about the theology of strangers. Actually Jesus taught his disciples to go to all the nations and preach and heal and minister, not to friends but to strangers. Jesus spoke with strangers all the time. In fact, Jesus went out of his way to encounter the woman in Samaria. He purposely traveled around the Sea of Galilee and found her at the well.
I realize we aren’t all Jesus and we don’t know people inherently as Jesus did. But I have thought about the many kind strangers I have encountered in my own life, and many of them have been like Jesus to me. There were kind strangers on motorcycles who helped me push my car across four lanes during traffic. There were kind strangers in the subway of NYC, helping us figure out where we were going and which train to take. There were the kind people of Germany, when we landed in a foreign country and could speak no German, who assisted us in acclimating to a strange land.
Strangers have changed my life, altered the course of my life, people I did not know showed me the kindness that is Jesus, time and time again. A few weeks ago a lady stopped in me my car. She was in a wheelchair, and she flagged me down. I rolled my window down and heard her asking for just a few dollars so she could buy her Albuterol prescription. I know enough to know that Albuterol is a medication that helps one breathe. And I was embarrassed that I had absolutely no cash on me.
I went to the bank, and drive back to try to find her and try to help her, but she was gone already. I will never forget how much I felt like I had let her down. The verses rang in my head loud and clear: “I was hungry and you did not feed me. I was naked and you did not clothe me.” I needed medication and you didn’t even have a few dollars on you.
Most people would be like, oh what do you even care? Who was she to you, anyway? She was a stranger. What was she doing stopping your car in the middle of the street anyway? Desperation looks like that, my friends. I vowed to always carry some cash in my purse from that day on. The guilt of how I failed her motivated me – this wasn’t just some panhandler on the side of the road, my friends.
A few days later I came out of Target, and there was someone else, approaching me for a few dollars. She spewed out her story, quickly, before I ran away. I already knew what I was going to do, I already knew to give her just a few dollars and bless her. And the funniest thing happened, because I had already promised to give – it really didn’t matter what her story was, it didn’t matter who she was, it didn’t matter what she was really going to do with that money. All that mattered was that I helped.
These are the encounters of the Jesus kind, my friends.
I’m not telling you to abandon all the things we know about keeping ourselves safe, and about making judgment calls about what feels right or what doesn’t. Sometimes we feel horribly uncomfortable when strangers approach us – especially if I’m in a strange city or I don’t know my way around. I don’t think we are kicked out of Heaven because we don’t help everyone, or because we don’t feel safe enough to roll down the window.
But we are financially empowered to help and assist strangers in many ways in our society. Sometimes helping others looks like donations to United Way or by creating food drives or by writing checks for the pastor’s benevolence fund. Sometimes helping strangers means voting so that the city/county/state/nation can expand healthcare and children’s services and veteran’s benefits.
We have a sense of distrust in our strange neighbors already ingrained and cultured into us. We don’t want our taxes to go to strangers who we think are abusing the system. We are automatically suspicious, even of a woman in a wheelchair, when people ask for assistance on the street. But Jesus calls us to a greater awareness.
Last week I went out to lunch with my husband. It was just a quick bite as he had calls to be on, but we sat and listened to a guy next to us, and his conversations with another woman. The woman was eating her lunch alone, and this man just walked up to her table, sat himself down, and began a conversation with her. They were both older, both from a different generation than my own, and while the conversation was just about every day stuff, I noticed patterns in the man’s language towards the woman.
He repeatedly talked down to her, talked over her, dismissed her opinions, and I’m not really sure she really wanted to eat lunch with this guy, but he remained seated in her booth talking to her! I’m not even sure if she knew she wanted to eat with him, but she did not know she could politely ask him to leave. I’m not sure she recognized how he was subtly demeaning her with his language, but Alan and I both heard it and both shook our heads at his attitudes towards this woman.
These are the types of strangers who make me very uncomfortable. The types of strangers who impose themselves upon you only to talk down to you, and often we aren’t aware of what was going on until they walk away.
Jesus calls us to awareness of these things when he encounters the Syro-Pheonician woman. Her repeated requests to Jesus, asking for her daughter to be healed, go unheard. She is not going to stop until grace is extended to her, and finally she calls Jesus out and says, “Jesus, even the DOGS get to eat the crumbs from the table.” In other words, Jesus we have been treated like and we have been called dogs for years in our own community, this isn’t grace this is hell. Extend grace to us, Jesus, even to those who are less than dogs. She experiences the intersection of racism, classism, and sexism every day in her life, and she stands strong.
A few years ago we sat in a restaurant and heard a guy tell his son,who didn’t want to sit next to his sister, “Oh come and sit over here, I know you would rather your sister sit outside, if you had your way. So you don’t have to sit next to her.” I was appalled at what the sister, a little girl who was maybe 7 or 8 years old, had just heard, from her own father. On my way out the door I handed that man a note that simply said, “Every girl is a princess, and every girl deserves to hear from her father and her brother that she is important enough to sit at the head of the table, or anywhere at the table, but never EVER outside.”
He followed me out the door and proceeded to tell me in the parking lot how he was only just kidding and he wasn’t really like that. And I was like, then you go back in there and you show your daughter that.
Those are the kinds of strangers I am wary of. The likelihood of our children being abducted is pretty slim, but the likelihood of strangers needing our assistance happens quite often. And the likelihood that strangers are going to demean and degrade women and steal from their self esteem and take away their abilities to say I’d rather have lunch in peace and quiet, thank you, occurs every day as well. In the end, our children act the way we model to them. When they see us helping the stranger who needs assistance, they too will be the ones who stop what they are doing and assist. When they see us discussing with others what it means to treat women with respect and dignity, they too will treat others with respect and dignity. And when we empower women to say no, and teach men to listen to the word no, we teach consent and we teach mutual respect. Stranger or not.