On Friday, I listened to a speech by Richard Mouw, president until recently of Fuller Theological Seminary in California and a very prominent Evangelical theologian for whom I have great respect. (I’ll be reporting on my impressions from his speech and from a subsequent panel discussion as soon as I get around to it.)
He told an amusing story about our frailty and our persistent inability to live up to our highest aspirations. He is the author of a book about “Christian civility.” As he was thinking about its second edition, somebody reminded him that civility is needed not merely in large and weighty matters but in small, mundane ones. So he added that to revisions. And yet, shortly after the revised book was published, he fell short of his own resolution:
He was returning a rental car in a distant American city, and arrived rather late to the airport rental car facility. But not quite late enough to have incurred a penalty. He pulled into the return lane and then stood there by the vehicle, with mounting impatience. while the attendant who should have been receiving the car chatted with a customer about nothing in particular. By the time the employee got to him, he really was late.
“I’m going to have to assess a penalty,” said the employee, “because you’re returning the car late.”
“But I was here on time,” Mouw told him.
“Sorry. I can’t help it. I can only go by the rules.”
“But,” Dr. Mouw sputtered, “it’s your fault. You were shooting the breeze with the other customer and you made me late. I’m not going to pay. You pay.”
They went back and forth and back and forth, neither giving an inch.
The rental car employee’s middle-aged African American supervisor noticed the row and came over to find out what the problem was. After she had heard both sides, she sent the underling to take care of somebody else.
“You don’t have to pay,” she told Professor Mouw.
“You’re darn right I don’t have to pay. It wasn’t my fault. And I’m not going to pay!”
“You don’t have to pay,” she said again.
“Of course I don’t have to pay!”
“Honey,” she said, “you need a hug.”
And she gave him one.
Now, the really important thing is that we’ve all — or, anyway, most of us — been there. We’re human. Such things happen. We feel abused, wronged, unjustly treated. And we won’t stand for it. Even after it’s become apparent that, actually, we won’t have to stand for it. We all, in other words, fall short of our own ideal of how we ought to behave. In multiple ways.
But my question right now is, Do the race, age, and gender of the supervisor add anything to this story? Dr. Mouw expressly mentioned that it was a middle-aged Afro-American woman.
I think her gender and race add a lot to the story. They make it believable. I can easily picture her and imagine her action. And I would have a considerably harder time “seeing” this story had she been a white Episcopalian from the Midwest or an Italian-American in New Jersey or a Mormon lady of Scandinavian heritage living along the Wasatch Front.
Some will eagerly brand me a racist for this, but the fact is that I think this kind of woman — wise, kind-hearted, and sometimes fairly blunt — is a human treasure. However, she seems to me to be a very specific type. Not completely fungible, as it were.
Does anybody out there disagree?
Is this a harmful stereotype? Should Professor Mouw have suppressed mention of her race? Should I?
Posted from Park City, Utah