Taggrace

The Perpetual Victim: Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf”

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Everybody whines and complains on occasion.  It can be how we process disappointment.  Some, for one reason or another, whine and complain all the time.  This can be a defense mechanism; “If life is going to suck anyway, I might as well anticipate the disappointment.”

In “Greenleaf,” Flannery O’Connor describes the perpetual victim and provides the antidote to this poisonous view of oneself.

The Perpetual Victim

Mrs. May, protagonist of “Greenleaf,” declares, “I’m the victim.  I’ve always been the victim.”

Mrs. may owns a small farm and she believes it functions entirely by her efforts and hers alone. She declares to her city friends,

“Everything is against you, the weather is against you and the dirt is against you and the help is against you.”

No wonder she considers herself a victim, if she thinks weather and soil are her antagonists.  She is blind to the fact that without weather and dirt, there is no farm—these things aren’t adversaries; they are gifts.   And so is the help against which she rails—the help is Mr. Greenleaf.

The narrator tells us that Mrs. May “had set herself up in the dairy business after Mr. Greenleaf had answered her ad.”  Mr. Greenleaf‘s arrival precedes the establishment of the farm.  Good thing too, because he is the reason her farm is as successful as it is.

This is not, at first, apparent because the third-person narrator tells the story from Mrs. May’s perspective and is, therefore, not to be trusted.  For instance, when the narrator reports a field had come up in clover instead of rye “because Mr. Greenleaf had used the wrong seeds in the grain drill,” we are receiving Mrs. May’s interpretation of reality.  Mr. Greenleaf likely ignored her instructions because he knew better.

Mrs. May frequently speaks of how hard she works.  She believes she “had been working continuously for fifteen years” and that “before any kind of judgement seat, she would be able to say: I’ve worked, I have not wallowed.”  Interestingly, she doesn’t do a stitch of actual work through the whole course of the narrative.  Conversely, Mr. Greenleaf is always occupied with farming tasks.

Everything Mrs. May has, comes to her through the created world and her good fortune at the arrival of Mr. Greenleaf.  But she doesn’t see any of it.  She places a high value on her own, relatively insignificant, efforts and a correspondingly low value on the many undeserved blessings she has received.

Mrs. May’s Faith

Two quotes will suffice to give us the state of Mrs. May’s faith:

“She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

“She thought the word Jesus should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom.”

Symbolism

Mrs. May seeks no relationship with God and her rejection of Grace is shown through various symbols.

A stray bull has arrived on her place.  In the opening scene, he is compared to a Greek God, complete with a wreath upon his head.  He stands beneath her window like a bovine Romeo.  Not only is this an allusion to Shakespeare’s play, it is also a reference to Zeus who, in the form of a bull, rapes Europa.  When the wreath “slipped down to the base of his horns . . .  it looked like a menacing prickly crown.”  The bull has become a symbol of Christ.  Mrs. May’s view of this transcendent visitor is far more terrestrial–“an uncouth country suitor.”  As a symbol of Jesus, the bull is persistent in his pursuit of Mrs. May.  She consistently tries to get rid of him.

Another symbol in the story is the sun.  Among these is the “black wall of trees with a sharp sawtooth edge that held off the indifferent sky.”  The sun, a symbol of providential grace, is blocked off from Mrs. May’s property.  In one of her dreams, “the sun [was] trying to burn through the tree line and she stopped to watch, safe in the knowledge that it couldn’t, that it had to sink the way it always did outside her property.”  Her dreams reflect her stance toward God and his gifts.

The symbolism of the bull and the sun as two figures of the Trinity some together in description of Mrs. May’s view out her window.

The sun, moving over the black and white grazing cows, was just a little brighter than the rest of the sky. Looking down, she saw a darker shape that might have been its shadow cast at an angle, moving among them.

The “shadow” is the bull, a manifestation of the sun on this side of the impenetrable trees.  Mrs. May lives in rejection of God and all his gifts.  She believes herself to be self-sufficient and autonomous.

Lillies of the Field

The Greenleafs, on the other hand, absorb grace in all its forms. The name is suggestive of their familial attitude toward grace, for green leaves soak up the sun and flourish. When Mrs. May takes a trip out to the farm belonging to Mr. Greenleaf’s twin boys, the “the sun was beating down directly” onto the roof of their house. Their milking parlor “was filled with sunlight” and “the metal stanchions gleamed ferociously.” By contrast, from Mrs. May’s window the sun was “just a little brighter than the rest of the sky.”

It is not accident that both Mrs. May and Mr. Greenleaf each have two sons.  In this way O’Connor can compare the generational affect on rejection and acceptance of Grace.  The May boys are as unhappy and resentful as their mother.  The Greenleaf boys are flourishing.

It is because they are flourishing that Mrs. May resents the Greenleaf’s. She means it as criticism when she says, “They lived like the lilies of the field, off the fat that she had struggled to put into the land.” Here we see that she takes credit for God’s gifts, and she derides the Greenleaf’s for living out Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:28,

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.

Once, Mrs. May flippantly says, “I thank God for that.” Mr. Greenleaf sincerely responds, “I thank Gawd for every-thang.” He lives out the Biblical injunction to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thessalonians 5:18).

Victimhood and Gratitude

Mrs. May was so ungrateful for her undeserved blessings that she poisoned herself and her two sons. She created a false reality where Mr. Greenleaf was a parasite feeding off of her family.

O’Connor’s point with Mrs. May is to show that a denial of grace necessarily leads to ingratitude and resentment.  Mrs. May’s life is defined by ingratitude, but she is blind to this failing. Ironically, while lecturing Mr. Greenleaf on the supposed ingratitude of his sons, she says, “Some people learn gratitude too late . . . and some never learn it at all.”  She doesn’t know that she’s speaking only of herself.

The cure for Mrs. May’s form of perpetual victimhood is gratitude.  Unfortunately for her, Mrs. May’s ingratitude and victimhood is terminal.  She never receives the cure, although in the moments before her death, she does see what she’s been missing her entire life.

She continued to stare straight ahead but the entire scene in front of her had changed—the tree line was a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky—and she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.

As she dies in the unbreakable embrace of the bull’s horns, she sees the insignificance of the tree-barrier that separated her kingdom from God’s.

Ghetto and Good

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Because I dabble in philosophical questions, I sometimes make comments that don’t go down very well at parties: I suggested that I thought human beings are naturally evil.  There was some disagreement, and then all conversation, as it always does, turned to Donald Trump.

There’s quite a bit of evidence that human beings are naturally evil–watch the evening news or read the comments on pretty much any post where someone offers an opinion.  But there’s also quite a bit of evidence that people are basically good. Everyone knows lots of people who are good and not too many who are bad–bank robbers and such.  I know lots of people who are good too.

The Ringelblum Archive

I picked up a book in Warsaw at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.  The book contains excerpts from The Ringelblum Archive, a collection of documents and testimonies collected by Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum and his team of researchers between September 1939 and January 1943.  Dr. Ringelblum did not survive, but his collection did.

In one interview a man named Aron Einhorn says,

It is difficult to say whether this moral swamp which we see around us nowadays is the result of the abnormal conditions prevailing in the ghetto, or whether the ghetto uncovered that which had previously been covered up, masked.

He goes on to describe this “moral swamp” of thefts, looting, cheating, cruelty, indifference, oppression, and corruptionWP_20160804_16_57_37_Raw.

They Used to Be Good

The ghetto was filled with a large proportion of people who used to be good.  They were good because they had homes, clothing, food, and hope.  Many had money, respect, freedom, and safety.  It’s easy to be “good” when you have these things.  When these things were taken from them, or at least became scarce, their true nature came out to the surface.

When I look around my community, I see a lot of good people.  I also see a lot of people who have homes, clothing, food, safety, and hope.  Many have money, respect, and freedom.  But are they really good?

We are so individualistic that we actually think we will be judged only for the sins we commit.Click To Tweet

Am I Really Good?

Am I really good?  If I’m honest, there’s some self-centeredness slithering around inside me, but I’m not too bad.  As I walked around the area that was once the Warsaw Ghetto and stood at the site where the residents of the ghetto were put on trains bound for Treblinka, I wondered what I would have done if I had lived there in 1942.  I’d like to think I would have been good, but there’s a very good chance I would not have impressed Aron Einhorn.

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The only remnant of the wall that surrounded the Warsaw Ghetto.

If the Bible is right, we are naturally evil, and we will be judged accordingly.  What people don’t realize is that we will not be judged by what we’ve done.  It’s not what we do that is the issue, it’s who we are.  What I would have done had I lived in the Warsaw Ghetto is a much better indicator of who I really am, than living in my townhouse near a lovely golf course.  I will be judged for who I am.

This is pretty scary,  but if the Bible is right, there’s also some good news–the best news.  It’s been arranged that, if you want, you can be judged as if your very nature were perfect and someone else will take the judgment that your actual nature deserves.  You need only ask him to take your place.

Share Your Fries

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Over two million people “liked” this picture on Facebook.

Shockingly, the person that “shared” it was a Christian.

I felt a rant coming on.  I really wanted to hit Reply.

“Taxed to the ‘breaking point’? Come on!”

I desperately wanted to point out that the United States has one of the lowest tax rates in the world. If taxation levels are at the breaking point, I hope I’m in Africa when some actual hardship comes to North America.

I wanted to ask, “Who is this person who is ‘able to work, but refuses to’?” Even if this described EVERY person on government assistance, the number of tax dollars going to these deadbeats would make up a small portion of the tax dollars collected.  The reality is that most of the people on assistance are very willing to work and do.

I wanted to tell a story:

My French Fries: A Parable

Once upon a time, there were three children. They were in the back seat of the car.  They cheered as the driver, their father, turned into the McDonald’s drive-through.  He passed two large fries to each of the older children and told them to share with the youngest child who, he knew, would only eat only a few.

The youngest asked for a fry.  Then asked again.  The pleaded.  Then wailed.

The older child reluctantly surrendered two, the second oldest, only one.  They were very reluctant to share their fries.

The father was angry with the older children.

I’m sure you are angry with them too.

They forgot the fries weren’t theirs.

They forgot behave appropriately given the Grace they received.

You Won the Lottery

If you live in North America, you’ve won some sort of a lottery. You live in an affluent society where the infrastructure fosters wealth and where opportunities for work and education abound. You enjoy the highest standard of living of any time or any place in history. Even if you are in the lower-middle class, you take for granted luxuries not even dreamed of by the richest rulers of the greatest empires in history.

All the stuff you have is not because you worked so hard for it.  Although I don’t doubt you worked hard; you have what you have because you were lucky enough to be born here.

Share your fries.

Have you ever experienced a powerful, unaccountable feeling of Joy?

I took this picture in Renne, France.

This feeling of Joy fell upon me.  I was in the medieval part of Renne, France.  It was a sunny summer afternoon.  I was sitting in an outdoor cafe on an ancient street drinking something called Piçon biere.  It’s hard to describe, but I think it was Joy.  It didn’t last long, but I thanked God for it immediately because I knew him to be the source.

C. S. Lewis was Surprised by Joy

In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis describes something similar.  Of these moments Lewis says, “the central story of my life is about nothing else.”   Lewis’ recounts three such episodes in his childhood.  The first occurred while the young Lewis, looking at a blooming currant bush, remembered a toy garden he had built in a biscuit tin.  A powerful sensation came over him which he describes as an intense desire.  Lewis senses this to be a supernatural encounter in that, following this brief glimpse, “the world turned commonplace again.”  The second event was through Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter when Lewis experienced a “trouble” which pointed toward “the Idea of Autumn”; he became “enamored of a season.”  The experience was again, one of intense desire.  The last glimpse occurred through the poetry of Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf.  Common to each of these experiences is the feeling of “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any satisfaction.”  He called this sensation Joy.

His description of these encounters implies that this was a meeting with the transcendent for they came “without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries” (20).

Later, Joy reprises its invitation.  Lewis uses the imagery of a sudden spring to describe the second summons of Joy.  The encounter came with a quote from and an illustration of Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods which produces the feeling of “pure Northernness,” a deliberately ambiguous term describing the feeling derived from “a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of the Northern summer, remoteness and severity . . . .”  This feeling awakens and fuses with the memory of Joy to create an “unendurable sense of desire and loss.”  He characterizes the feeling as “incomparably more important than anything else in [his] experience.”  From this point in his life, Lewis pursues Joy; he is on a quest to find its source.

What do encounters with Joy mean?

A clearer idea of what these experiences may mean was suggested to me at a recent teacher’s convention.  Syd Hielema was talking about looking at our lives using the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Fulfillment paradigm.  I’ve looked at a lot of things with this template, from coffee to zombies, why not myself?

Here are Hielema’s questions:

  • Creation: How am I wired? What are my gifts? What gives me joy? In what situations in my past have I felt most fully “myself”? (Read Psalm 139:13-14)
  • Fall: In what ways do sin and fear affect me?  In what ways do I pretend to be someone I’m not?  What interferes with me loving God and loving others?  How do the wounds I’ve received from the brokenness of life affect me? (Read Jeremiah 17:9)
  • Redemption: Where have I seen God in my life? What helps me and what hinders me in terms of walking with him?  What am I quite clear about and what am I quite confused about?  Are there particular events or people that stand out on my road to Redemption? (Read Isaiah 43:1-2)
  • Fulfillment:  What might I be like when God has finished his refining work in me?  What might his universe be like?  How might I live anticipating that completion as a new creation?

It’s not very difficult to find creational goodness in ourselves, nor is it very difficult to see how we are distorted by sin.  The movements of redemption are also apparent when we look for them.  But the Fulfillment piece was something I figured was out of my experience–we get that when Christ returns.  But Hielema suggests that we might have the occasional glimpse by which we can extrapolate who we will be when God has finished his work.  And what it will feel like.

I instantly thought of my moment of Joy in medieval Renne. Are those moments that Lewis called encounters with Joy, a small sip of what it will be like when I am made new?

If they are, oh, I’m looking forward to it!

 

 

Christians Must Tip Higher Than 15%

Photo by Sam Truong Dan on Unsplash

Overheard one morning in a New York Subway near Broadway:

“I only made eleven dollars last night because it was a gospel show and the people only wanted the complimentary ice tea and they wanted it now!”

This young man experienced what so many in the service industry already know—when it comes to tipping, Christians are cheap.  Servers do pretty well in tips during the weekday lunch hour because the shopping and business crowd are not cheap.  Evenings are even better for tips because lovers, friends, and partiers also are not cheap.  But the tipping pool dries up for Sunday lunch (and gospel concerts) because here come the Christians.

A friend of mine and an experienced server said that they had never met another server who wanted to work the post-church rush.  The reasons?  Customers on Sunday afternoons are “rude, impatient, and the least self-aware people [they] have encountered while working in the restaurant business.” And yes, Sunday afternoons are notoriously bad for tipping.

Here are some things you need to know if you ever go out to eat:

  • Servers make minimum wage or less.  Where alcohol is served they can be paid less because it is assumed they will make money on tips.
  • Many servers, especially when starting out, work few shifts and those can be as short as two hours.  In general, a server is lucky to get 20 hours a week in one restaurant.
  • Higher-end restaurants have fewer seatings, so, although the tips will be larger due to larger checks, the waiters make less money than they would in a restaurant with higher turnover.
  • The more courses you order, the more your server has to work on your behalf.
  • The person who waits on your table will split their tips with the kitchen staff.
  • In some restaurants, the kitchen tip is a simple 15% of the table receipts.  This means that if you tip only 10%, it is theoretically possible for the server to be out of pocket for the evening.
  • It is not customary to tip in all parts of the world.  The language of generosity is not the same everywhere.

My friend insists that there are some wonderful customers in her restaurant after church on Sundays, but she added that she “would rather work Friday nights with the drunk people than Sunday afternoons.”

What do these this firsthand experience with Christians say about us and our Lord?

1 Timothy 6:18-19 (ESV) describes Christians who can afford to eat in restaurants:

They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

What might we say about ourselves, and more importantly, about a life in Jesus if we were to follow the biblical teaching to be polite and generous customers?

My server friend is a Christian and she really enjoys what she does.  Perhaps it is because she is a Christian that she is such an excellent server.  It’s in how she views other people.  She works hard to facilitate their experience while in the restaurant.  She does this by showing respect and being pleasant.  She listens to what they say and tries to intuit what they need so that she can give them the best service possible.  This, for her, is the essence of the service industry, but is it not also the essence of living in Christ?  To love and respect people because they are created in God’s image and to put their needs over yours?

Regarding tipping: Yes, servers are paid to serve us, but Christian customers are commanded to be generous. Christian tipping should be noticeably higher than the standard.Click To Tweet

Yes, servers are paid to do this, but Christian customers are commanded to do it.  But there is an even more compelling reason—we have been recipients of God’s Grace and, so, out of gratitude we share that grace with every human being with whom we come into contact—including our server at a restaurant or at a Broadway gospel show.

I thought it was awesome that my wife’s reaction to overhearing the conversation in the New York subway was the same as mine.  We both looked at each other, I am convinced by the Spirit’s prompting, and whispered something like, “I want to do something about that.”  It turns out she’s much more generous than I am because she doubled what I had in mind.  When I gave him the overdue tip, I told him that we were Christians and that this means we take joy in giving.  And we were sorry he wasn’t treated more generously the night before.  His face was a combination of disbelief and joy, as was that of his companion.

My wife firmly believes that the cost of the evening is not just the meals and the tickets to the show; it’s the tips as well.  If people can’t afford both, then they can’t afford to go out.  It’s wrong to make your server subsidize your night out.

If you can't afford a generous tip, you can't afford to go out. It's wrong to make your server subsidize your meal. #Christiantipping #tipping #generousityClick To Tweet

For Christians to be considered generous, we need to exceed the standard.  The standard is around 15-20% in a restaurant, five dollars on the bed in the hotel every morning and at least a couple of dollars for every suitcase that someone handles for you.

And then, of course, we need to express the joy and gratitude that comes from living in the generous Grace of our Redeemer.  Perhaps then our servers would prefer spending time with us on Sunday afternoons, or better yet, Sunday mornings, than with the drunks on Friday nights.

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