I was driving home from work when I hit a guy. The light turned green, there were no cars coming, so I turned left. My victim was smoking a cigarette and had made it part way across the strip of pavement marked out by parallel white bars. At the last second I saw him and slowed, but I hit him anyway. Bumper to thigh. I stopped the car. Then put it in gear again and pulled through the intersection. He returned to the curb from which he had come and sat down on the embankment. A few people got out of their cars. Some made their world right by giving me the finger. A man in a ritzy SUV gave me a sympathetic look, as though he too had once smacked a pedestrian or maybe more than one.
One fellow, stopped at the line, slammed his door and yelled. It was incomprehensible. He yelled and stomped his feet. He kicked the light pole and threw his coffee. Other drives honked to get him to move his vehicle. He yelled at them too. I sat in my car and watched through the glass. It looked like the anger of foreign wars and destroyed cities, of a lost child maybe and burnt toast, all spewing and frothing there beside the median. It was an obvious case of projection. After about two minutes he got back in his car and drove away with a little chirp of tired sedan tires.
And [Jesus] said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”– Matt. 13:52
I climbed over to the passenger’s seat away from traffic and got out of my car. The man I hit was not dead. That was good, or mostly so. It did mean that I would have to talk to him. He sat on the grass and lit another cigarette. A woman hovered nearby. She seemed like a nurse and it appeared that she wanted to pat the man down. She wanted to get her hands on his leg. He was smoking, which meant he could still breathe. He had walked and was sitting upright, which meant his circulation was fine. I didn’t look at his leg. Maybe there would be a bone sticking out or blood. He batted the woman’s hand away. He seemed fine.
A police car pulled up. The officer walked over to where the two of us sat. His car’s lights were still flashing telling the world something was happening. Right here.
The officer didn’t seem to be addressing anyone in particular. I took that to mean there was no bone protruding and no blood. The officer could see that from his side. It also meant he had no idea who the victim was. Later I thought that maybe I should have made up a story about how the woman had hit him with her farm truck.
Sometimes all you need to do is control the narrative. Didn’t that work for Lance Armstrong? It seemed to be working for a neo-Anabaptist minister I heard once. ‘We must out-narrate them,’ he said. He led a big church in Maryland, a fancy one with lots of video screens. He said we needed to tell better stories. He meant that preachers concerned for peace should tell better stories than the hordes of media that riff on the theme of redemptive violence week after week and year after year. Actually, he didn’t just mean preachers. He meant film-makers and song-writers, visual artists too. I was quite confident that I could out-narrate the fellow I had plowed into. The woman was still messaging the man’s leg. She seemed kind, which meant she could probably be out-narrated too. The challenge with ‘out-narrating’ someone is that you sometimes need to loosen your relationship with the facts. Facts make controlling the narrative difficult. Or maybe it’s the other way around: stories make facts difficult.
‘I was thinking about the Reformation.’
That’s what I said, out-loud, not the way one mumbles when making excuses. I said it the way a guy reports triumphantly on his weekend to colleagues at the office.
The officer looked at me. The pedestrian gave a twitch of acknowledgment. I let loose with a ream of facts: ‘The Reformation shaped the world we know today, it broke up the consensus of Christendom, now it is responsible for this smoker’s additional malady.’ I told this to the officer. He paused.
As a pastor I can tell when someone wants to hear more but doesn’t think they should ask, so I kept going. ‘Due to a number of factors the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century became a breaking point for the church. Of course there were always differences within the church before . . . .’ I went on like this for some time. I had just said something about modern philosophers developing a distinction between ‘religion’ and the rest of life, when I saw the officer shift uneasily. He was enchanted by my story—surely that was true—but I could see the demands of his job tugged at this sleeve.
I wrapped things up with this: ‘So I was thinking about all this and apparently my mode of personal conveyance bumped this man’s mode of personal conveyance.’
‘You smashed into his leg! You might have torn his anterior cruciate ligament.’ That was the nurse. My hunch was she said that because her groping hadn’t actually revealed any problems. A torn ACL doesn’t protrude.
‘He is a smoker,’ I said. ‘Perhaps it doesn’t matter much. Why is the fact that I bumped his knee more significant than his own inhalation of carcinogens? Perhaps if the officer is going to lock me away on account of a moment’s inattention he should also lock up this man for years of intentionally harming one of God’s beloved creatures.’
‘‘Beloved creatures’? What are you?’
‘I am a Mennonite pastor.’
I went on to explain that this was why I was thinking about the Reformation. Next year is the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Witterberg Castle church. He wanted to spark a debate on the spiritual practice of selling indulgences. He wanted reform not a permanent breakup.
The smoker was staring at the sky. Perhaps he saw Luther in the clouds.
‘I grew up Catholic,’ said the woman. She had one of those voices that is frail and sharp at the same time, like a broken wine glass. She said her father died when she was eight.
The officer said he was Dutch Reformed. I could see his name now—Hoekstra. He started to say something else but I interrupted. I told them how most of us Protestants, the spiritual children of Luther and Zwingli and even Menno Simons, weren’t in the mood to protest anymore. I told them how one of Menno’s buddies, Dirk Phillips, was the son of a Catholic priest, which is funny because priests were supposed to be celibate. The nurse frowned at that. I corrected myself, ‘Well, maybe it’s not funny, but it’s at least ironic, especially since whenever Mennonites meet they like to see who they know in common or how they are related.’ Her frown hardened.
The officer still seemed willing to listen. So I told him how maybe after five hundred years and lots of ecumenical work it’s time to think of our different denominations as different monastic orders within the one church. We’d each have our own gifts, old ones and new ones, but our similarities would be more important than our differences.
The officer asked if this wasn’t just a way of giving in. He wondered if we would lose our Mennonite traditions or our Anabaptist distinctives. ‘Aren’t the sacramental differences pretty important? You’re a credobaptist and we Dutch Reformed are padeobaptists. And don’t Catholics believe in transubstantiation? Mennonites don’t believe in that. You’re all rationalists. You’re all obsessed with the idea of free will. You want a world without mystery.’ He was still talking to me but now he was looking at the woman. What he meant was that Mennonites only baptize adults while other Christians baptize infants. He meant that Catholics think the bread and wine are Jesus’ blood and flesh even though they still look like bread and wine. He meant that Mennonites can’t see the world but through their own choices.
‘Officer,’ I said, ‘I’m impressed. The City Police Force’s cultural training must be the envy of the world. I assumed you just learned how to break down doors and wrestle the dark-skinned to the ground. Or is that only in America?’
His hand moved to his Taser; he looked at me: ‘I studied theology in university. Then I realized there was no money in it.’ He looked back out to the street. ‘I can always say you were resisting arrest.’ His hand was still on his taser.
I was about to say something about how Mennonites aren’t intimidated by threats of religious persecution, when I noticed that the woman was actually much older than I first thought. Her face was deeply wrinkled. It almost looked shrunken. I realized too that the skirt that hung beneath her blue coat was the bottom half of a habit, a nun’s outfit.
‘Mother,’ I said, ‘I did not know it was you.’
The officer looked back at me, ‘This is your mom?’
I explained that, in fact, this was not the case. It wasn’t my mother but Mother Teresa. Her given name was Agnes—meaning ‘little flower’ and she was from Albania. At 18, while praying at the shrine of the Black Madonna, she committed herself to becoming a missionary.
‘Not quite,’ the officer interrupted, ‘she’s culturally Albanian but she was born in the Ottoman Empire. Now it’s Macedonia.’
‘Sure,’ I said, ‘but the real issue here is that she was supposed to have died. This woman is one hundred and six years old.’
Mother Teresa offered to light my victim’s third cigarette. She pulled some change from her pocket and stuffed it in his. She put her hands on the grass and pushed herself to her feet. She reached for the man’s hand and pulled him up as well.
‘One in every three Macedonians is a Muslim,’ I said to the officer. ‘Don’t you think you should ask for her papers? Maybe she is hatching a plan.’
Then I added, ‘Go ahead and tas me. I’ll become a Mennonite saint.’
He pulled out his taser and made an arc of electricity jump between the electrodes. ‘Why would that make you a saint?’
‘For suffering. We’re a persecuted people.’
‘You drive a Volvo,’ replied.
‘Sure, but it’s a hybrid and it’s black. I plug it in at night.’
Mother Teresa was helping my victim get on the bus now.
The officer and I stood there and watched. He looked over at me, ‘I’m surprised you think so much of her. I doubt she’s a Muslim but there’s a good chance she’s a Catholic.’
I said, ‘I guess you didn’t see me try and trip her?’
The officer was quite surprised by this. He went off on a long rambling speech about the problem of fundamentalists and religious violence, about how we couldn’t even agree on what constituted a saint. He told me stories about men in yarlyks, women in burkas and barefoot Amish kids maimed by farm machinery. I stopped paying attention and stared at the traffic. And then the officer said something about that being why he became a policeman instead of a pastor, “to keep all you folks from killing each other.” That was dumb. I began listing off the places where secular projects went off the rails, where the bodies piled up. We faced each other like umpire and manager. Saint, persecutor, prosecutor, martyr, terrorist. The words were jumbled. Spit flew. This went on for quite some time. Our lists were long.
I noticed the bus stopping again. It was going the same direction; it had completed the loop. Mother Teresa got off. Her truck was still pulled up on the curb. She walked over to it and glanced at us. She stepped up into the driver’s seat and pulled her dress in with her left hand. She fiddled with the radio. I heard Miley Cyrus and then the CBC. The officer walked back toward his car.
I yelled after him, ‘Can I try your taser?’
I wiped the greasy streak from my bumper. Mother Teresa gave a little wave and drove off. A plastic figurine of the perpetually-virgin Mary bobbed back and forth on her dash. The truck merged into traffic.
Maybe her wave was actually the sign of the cross. That would make it a blessing. I smiled into the review mirror. Of course she couldn’t see me. As I sped up down the ramp onto the highway it occurred to me that the wave also could have been an Albanian version of flipping me the bird. These cultural gestures are hard to figure. It is hard to tell a gift from a threat.
*I read this story/parable during our congregational retreat, where we played a massive multi-generational game of soccer and reflected on what it means for us to be ‘Mennonite’.