The Arena

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Listen to “The Arena” by Fred Smith

 

Long before being appointed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos in an interview spoke about something she had learned on a trip to Israel with her husband, Dick. There is a particular area between the foothills where Israel lived and the coastal plains controlled by the Philistines.  The site of many battles, it was a highly contested territory. However, it was never held permanently and so became the place where two cultures co-existed in tension. Called the Shephelah, it was a dangerous place to live. In the interview, Dick and Betsy described their desire to do just that – to live in the Shephelah. “We could run away and just go back up in the hills and live very safely and very comfortably — or are we going to exist in the Shephelah and try to impact the view of the community around us with the ideas we believe are more powerful ideas of a better way to live one’s life and a more meaningful and a more rewarding way to live one’s life as a Christian?” For that, they were severely criticized and many thought they were declaring a Christian crusade against whoever they considered being the new Philistines.

As the coverage of their comments has died down, I had not thought about the Shephelah until this week as I was teaching one of the more lurid stories in the Old Testament – the story of Judah and Tamar. After he and his brothers had sold Joseph into slavery, Judah moved to the Shephelah and started a new life. He married, had three sons and watched as two of them were killed by God for their wickedness. His own life began to quickly decay and commitments he might have once kept out of honor were broken. So corrupt had he become that his daughter-in-law found it necessary to deceive him in the only way she had left in order to receive what was rightfully hers. Pretending to be a prostitute, she slept with Judah, became pregnant at the risk of her life but exposed him for the arrogant and disobedient fool he had become. That sin on her part not only righted a wrong but it is from her son’s descendants that Jesus was born.

It’s a classic story of living in the Shephelah, I think. Everyone deceives everyone else. None are true. None are righteous. Offenses are never forgotten while revenge is public and terrible. Yet, there is a paradox in this story that I cannot resolve. Was the deception of Tamar justified? Was it her only option in the face of a greater evil? That question took me back to a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer as he was facing the same quandary. Is it ever right to do the wrong thing? Is it sometimes necessary to risk righteousness – even the judgment of God?

“In flight from public controversy, this person or that reaches the sanctuary of a private virtuousness. Such people neither steal, nor murder, nor commit adultery, but do good according to their abilities. But involuntarily renouncing public life, these people know exactly how to observe the permitted boundaries that shield them from conflict. They must close their eyes and ears to the injustice around them. Only at the cost of self-deception can they keep their private blamelessness clean from the stains of responsible action in the world. In all that they do, what they fail to do will not let them rest.“

Shephelah is a place of deceit and corruption. Nothing is plain or clean. Good and evil are often masked and hidden. Friends are false. Commitments are for a moment. Criticism from both sides is constant and vicious.

But, as I’ve thought about the risk of Tamar as well as Dick and Betsy’s decision to give up the certainty of the hills and live in the Shephelah, I remember Teddy Roosevelt’s quote:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Living in Shephelah exacts a price. Thank God for those who choose to take the risk for responsible action in the world.

 

Fred Smith
Fred Smith is a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. He spent several years as teacher and administrator at Charlotte Christian School and The Stony Brook School before co-founding Leadership Network with Bob Buford and serving as President for 12 years. Fred is the Founder of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries. Fred will tell you his true vocation is that of a Sunday School teacher and it is this role for which he would most like to be remembered. Fred and his wife, Carol, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They also have three well-loved grandchildren.
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  • Avatar
    Gary
    Reply

    Awesome article – I enjoy and benefit from your writing. Thank you so much !

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Gary. I appreciate your taking the time to write me. It’s encouraging.

  • Avatar
    Andrew Tyndale
    Reply

    Thank you, again, Fred for fleshing out the ambiguities and honoring the shades of gray. Life is never as black & white as we’d like. The problem with venturing into the darkness and accommodating dark acts, even if to bring light, is: where does it stop? Where does my personal conviction cease to justify my sins?

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Andrew – For sure that is the million dollar question. This is why ethics classes are taught in college! It’s all about risk, isn’t it?

  • Avatar
    Kim Beckham
    Reply

    This blog is by far one the best I’ve ever read, thank you for challenging us to leave the safety of the hills, while recognizing the price that leader who do so will have to pay.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Really? That’s so kind of you, Kim. Yes, there is a price. There are too many of us staying in the hills and throwing stones from a safe place.

  • Avatar
    Thomas Grimm
    Reply

    It is excellent, Fred.

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