Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tame Tigers

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

A few weeks ago, I went to the circus. They had the usual circus-y things: a marginally amusing clown troupe, acrobats, and tightrope walkers, all “enhanced” by a booming twenty-first century audio system and unnecessary video supplementation (why watch a live clown when you can watch one on TV?). Two things stood out: a fellow named Bello, who, while a clown in name and dress, is a jaw-droppingly good acrobat. Dressed in his silly clothes, he does handstands on a swaying chair fifty feet or more above the crowd (with no net) or runs on the outside of a gerbil-wheel/pendulum contraption that again lifts him net-less far beyond where any sane human being would go. Bello: the LeBron James of clowns.

The other memorable figure was the Tiger Tamer, though here I had a much more mixed reaction. On the one hand, it was amazing to watch one man and his whip (was it electrified, as some in the crowd murmured?) make eight or nine tigers do his bidding. James the brother of Jesus knew that mankind had tamed every type of beast (James 3:7), but I suppose even he would have been impressed by the display of mastery here. Tigers shaking hands, tigers running through hoops, tigers hopping across the circular cage like friendly little bunnies…

And I think it was that last one that turned the tide for me. Watching the tamed tiger jumping on his back legs like that suddenly didn’t seem astounding or frightening or amusing. It was just sad, sad to see a beast of such power and dignity compelled to do something so out of keeping with his nature. Was it the whip, electric or otherwise, that drove him on, or the promise of a few steaks after the show? Where had the tiger in him gone?

Sadder still was the thought that all too often we Christians are the same tame tigers. Bearers of God’s Spirit, heirs of a kingdom that will never end, partakers of the powers of the age to come, we cower when the world cracks its whip of persecution. We, whom God has purchased with the life of his Son, hop around like everyone else and slink back to our cages as long as they toss us a few slabs of beef. It is a pretty sad spectacle.

And while I would not have wanted the tigers to break out of their cages right there in the Boston Garden, I do think the church could unleash a little mayhem to break loose from our Babylonian captivity. I remember the words of Bagheera in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. He had been a pet once, too, as he reveals to Mowgli, but he was a pet no more: “They fed me behind bars from an iron pan till one night I felt that I was Bagheera – the Panther – and not man’s plaything, I broke the silly lock with one blow of my paw and came away; and because I had learned the ways of men, I became more terrible in the jungle than Shere Khan. Is it not so?”

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