Shades of Gray

MonochromeBarsSo when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, “Woman, where are thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?” She said, “No man, Lord.” And Jesus said unto her, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”  ~ John 8:7-11

Some of you must be wondering what the heck I’m doing quoting the bible because you know that I do not subscribe to any particular religion. I do, however, agree with the teachings of Jesus, Mohammad, the Buddha and any number of other spiritual teachers (for the most part). What I do not agree with is the later frameworks that humans decided to lay over these teachings. In the case of Christianity, I can’t even say with conviction how many different frameworks have been lain over the simple teachings of a simple man. A simple man, but not – as the above quote exemplifies – a simpleton.

My whole life I have dealt with – as many of us have, I suspect – people making assumptions about me without knowing me at all. For example, there was a woman – Marsha – in my platoon at Fort Gordon, GA who was nasty towards me from the first day of AIT. I didn’t know what it was that I had done to offend her, but by then I had had this experience a time or two before, and decided to ignore it even though it bothered me terrifically. It turned out that she had judged me to be a “bitch” based on a snippet of conversation she had overheard without understanding the context. Just like the men in the biblical passage above, she was ready to condemn me because of one thing she thought she knew about me. I only learned this after she suddenly realized one day that she had misunderstood, and then we were quite friendly for the rest of our time at Fort Gordon.

There are variations on this sort of scenario, of course, such as when one has engaged in an activity that most pass judgment on in a knee-jerk fashion. In the biblical example, it is adultery. We don’t live in biblical times anymore, and most would claim that we have evolved since then, but from what I’ve seen, most of us have not. I’ve seen example after example of knee-jerk judging based on a vague sort of “knowing.” People need only know one fact about a person – he cheated on his wife, for example – and they think they know the person and understand the circumstance under which it happened without knowing one other thing about the person or even one of the intricate details of the situation. Perhaps this sort of thing is exacerbated by a small community in which the mythology of “knowing” other people in the community is stronger. I have stood by for almost three years watching this play itself out time and again in two separate communities in Norfolk. One of these communities is comprised mostly of straight people and the other mostly of gay people, but the dysfunction plays itself out in exactly the same way in each. More and more, I feel like I’m watching a version of Peyton Place or any number of reality tv shows that bring out the worst human instincts.

One of the Oscar-nominated films of this year, The Reader, explores these issues so thoroughly and with such great compassion for all its characters that any thinking person will be forced to see every maddening shade of grey by its end. It is a beautifully nuanced film in which the characters and the situations in which they are involved never let us off the hook. There is no simplicity here, no black and white, no pandering to our collective superiority complex. All of the tension that is built up through the film and would normally be released by catharsis still sits heavily upon us as the credits begin to roll. I hope that everyone who sees the film will feel the weight of that unrealized catharsis, carry it with them, and ponder the ramifications. It is a parable much more complex than the one Jesus used – but then again, one of the problems with the frameworks that we’ve lain over his teachings is the emphasis on duality (“right or wrong,” “black or white”) rather than love, compassion, and forgiveness.

I concede that it is a natural human impulse to keep things simple in terms of morality; to think in black and white, you’re-with-us-or-against-us terms; to have knee-jerk responses without examining them. But we are humans, not animals, and it is one of the hallmarks of human maturity when we can finally realize – not just intellectually or abstractly or in an unthinking, “yes man” sorta way – how fallacious are the dualities upon which our culture (and most others, I dare to guess) is founded.

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