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From the Daily Sip: notes on vipers

From the Daily Sip: notes on vipers


This originally appeared as part of the Daily Sip, a ministry of St John’s Cathedral in Denver, CO


by Charles LaFond


from Marrakech

My theory is that satan’s best work is done in the shadows where we are unwilling to go in our conversation and our internal work.  By our refusal to openly discuss sex, grief, betrayal, sins, greed – we keep them in the shadows and let satan run amuck throughout them.  So what if we were to summon the courage to have a real, honest conversation about forgiveness? (note: the author refuses to capitalize the name).

Yesterday, in the northern part of the Medina of Marrakech I was walking to get away from tourism and to see a new part of the city to the north.  Abdu sent me an hour’s walk north through “blacksmith row” and beyond it a square where a friend of his, a man who raises snakes for the tourist industry.  Fluent in French, we had a good and long conversation over much mint tea and mediated by a written introduction from my teacher Abdu, a Sufi who knew him (everyone is someone’s cousin in this city!)

After the snake-charmer read Abdu’s note – beautiful in its Arabic script – the snake charmer, Mehmet, explained the viper which sits in front of me and to the right behind the cobra.  I was interested because Abdu and I had been discussing my reluctance to forgive a friend who betrayed me last summer and I was interested in his take on the subject -betrayal-  one I am studying here as part of my work.  Matthew’s gospel had John the Baptist in chapter 3 and then Jesus in chapter 12 calling the Pharisees and Sadducees (priests and rich) a “brood of vipers.”  Abdu asked me to spend two days on these verses and asked me to consider vipers in my life and also when I had been a viper.  Hard work.  Are we allowed to discuss betrayal openly in our church or only rainbows and pretty vestments?

A viper is stocky with a small tail and wide head to support very, very, VERY large fangs.  Unlike other venomous snakes, the viper kills by a poison which relaxes muscles rather than paralyzing them such that the lungs so relax that suffocation results, since the diaphragm can no longer work to suck in air.  It is interesting to me that Jesus died of an exhaustion which would have done the exact same thing – made breathing hard until suffocation. They broke men’s legs on the cross so that they could no longer keep breathing by pushing their body into breath-making with their feet.

The sobriquet “brood of vipers” is a harsh thing for our western “Blond-fairytale-Jesus-meek-and-mild” to have said to humans, and yet here he does. He does this because they have betrayed his people.  So Jesus does not simper a rainbow-and-unicorn phrase about forgiveness here – he makes clear that he calls them a name which the first century hearer would recognize as the worst, most violent, most insidious name a person could be called.  Why?

Jeanne Safer, a practicing Jew and psychotherapist is the author of the book I am working through this week called “Forgiving and Not Forgiving: why sometimes it is better not to forgive.” In this tremendous and scholarly work, she teases out different forms of forgiveness and considers that some sappy, marshmallow forms of Christian forgiveness are little more than victims busily re-victimizing themselves in order to remain close to people they loved and who hurt them horrifically (precisely because they were allowed so close and feared abandonment.)

She says “In forgiveness, hostility (may be) expressed, not merely put aside; healthy retaliatory measures initiate more resolutions than selfless love.”  By this she means that a way to face a viper is to name it and cut off relations, no matter what they do to you (and they would kill Jesus.)  To name venom, especially venom from someone you let close to you and whose form was not so easily recognizable as that of a viper or a cobra, is to begin the process of self-differentiation and so, healing.  When she mentions “retaliatory measures” she means:

  • Not fearing abandonment (usually in betrayal that ship has long sailed)
  • Not denying anger as a superficial religious act of false saccharine piety
  • Not rationalizing the viper’s behavior in some sappy, super-spiritual way
  • Reengaging with the betrayer and the experience of the betrayal (not physically or relationally in any way but internally, as a solitary spiritual act with a spiritual guide) and looking hard at the betrayal and our own participation in it, in order to change the meaning of the trauma and its impact
  • Recognizing the real emotional impact – looking at it directly- even as hard as that is – without anesthesia or “just moving on” finding the courage to stop and name it, as Jesus did on behalf of the poor.
  • Reinterpret the meaning of the trauma from a broader perspective which can mean that we cut off all contact from the betrayer and never forget the experience, not as a way of “drinking poison and hoping the other one dies” (as we so often say in our tradition) but rather to say “I see you.  I know what you did. I participated in it but was the victim and will be no more. One day I will forgive when I can, but for now, my retaliation is to live a great life.”

This is what she says (and I love this!) that sometimes the best retaliation is to buy some amazing clothes and “dress to kill” which means not to actually kill the betrayer (that involves a lot of paper-work!) but rather to kill the self-victim mentality you, the betrayed, are nursing in your victim-hood.

Not long after this encounter with the viper caretaker, I went shopping and bought the most amazing clothes -money I had carefully budgeted for a new suit in 2017.  I blew the whole $300 on four (count them… FOUR…) fantastic, hand-made jackets perforce for use with clericals – one of which was made for me and delivered to my Riad last night!) Sorry Joseph A. Banks!

Like my spiritual director says “Charles, your revenge is who they are; and also how you now live!”


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Paul Woodrum

Let’s not knock liturgical costumes as simply “pretty,”then go out and buy four, fantastic, hand-made jackets just for revenge.

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