In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. * * * And the Word became flesh and lived among us . . . . (John 1:1,14a)
Many years ago when I was a kid and The Twilight Show was a brand-new television series running its episodes for the very first time, a program entitled The Obsolete Man was broadcast. I saw it when it premiered and I have seen it many times since. Written by series creator Rod Serling, it is (in my opinion) a marvelous piece of television.
The plot is very simple: a totalitarian state has decreed that Romney Wordsworth, a librarian played by Burgess Meredith, is obsolete and will, therefore, be executed. His disposal is overseen by the Chancellor, played by Fritz Weaver. During the hearing at which his sentence is pronounced, Wordsworth and the Chancellor have this dialog:
Wordsworth: I am a librarian, sir. That is my occupation. That is my profession. If you people choose to call that obsolete…
Chancellor: A librarian. Having to do with books?
Wordsworth: Yes sir, books.
Chancellor: And since there are no more books, there are no more libraries. Therefore,it follows there would be little use for the services of a librarian. Case in point, a minister would say his profession is preaching the word of God. And,of course, since the state has proven that there is no God, that would make the function of a minister somewhat academic as well.
Wordsworth: There is a God!
Chancellor: You are in error, Mr. Wordsworth. There is no God. The state has proven that there is no God.
Wordsworth: You cannot erase God with an edict!
Chancellor: You are obsolete, Mr. Wordsworth.
Wordsworth: A lie. No man is obsolete
Chancellor: You have no function, Mr. Wordsworth. You’re an anachronism. Like a ghost from another time.
Wordsworth: I am nothing more than a reminder to you that you cannot destroy truth by burning pages.
Chancellor: You’re a bug, Mr. Wordsworth. A crawling insect. An ugly misformed little creature who has no purpose here, no meaning.
Wordsworth: I am a human being!
Chancellor: You’re a Librarian, Mr. Wordsworth. A dealer in Books and two cent fines and pamphlets and closed stacks and the musty insides of a language factory that spews out meaningless words on an assembly line. Words, Mr. Wordsworth, that have no substance and no dimension like air, like the wind, like a vacuum that you make believe has an existence by scribbling index numbers on little cards!
Wordsworth: I don’t care. I tell you, I don’t care! I am a human being! And if I speak one thought aloud, that thought lives, even after I’ve been shoveled into my grave!
Chancellor: Delusions, Mr. Wordsworth. Delusions that you inject into your veins with printer’s ink. The narcotics that you call literature. The Bible, poetry, essays of all kind an opiate to make you think you have a strength when you have no strength at all! You have nothing but spindly limbs and a dream and the state has no use for your kind!
Serling’s dialog, drawing the parallel between published words and God for which the state has no use and thus has declared obsolete, is brilliant. I often think of this dialog when I read the prologue to John’s Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word . . . . ” and it turns out that the Chancellor’s words were correct! The Word had no substance and no dimension like air, like the wind! “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Gn 1:2) And then the Word became a human being; “the Word became flesh and lived among us” with nothing but spindly limbs and a dream and the state had no use for his kind.
In doing so, in becoming human, God the Word gave infinite value to the simple declaration Mr. Wordsworth makes in this dialog: “I am a human being!” That simple statement is the ultimate opposition to tyranny and subjugation. Again and again in the history of our world, it is the cry of the oppressed in answer to persecution. It is the demand the subjugated make on the rest of the world for recognition of their right to existence and freedom.
“The state,” whatever it calls itself and wherever it may exist, cannot silence that demand. Wherever it tries to silence it, it fails. Wherever it subjugates persons, oppresses persons, declares persons to bugs or insects or ugly misformed little creatures who have no purpose, it fails. The state tried to silence the human being who was the Word Incarnate, and it failed. The truth that “I am a human being,” that I am that which the Word of God became will always prevail because it is just that, the truth . . . and as God the Word declared, “The truth will make you free.” (Jn 8:32)
Yesterday, after I finished at church and made a couple of home visits, I went on a field trip. A colleague with whom I had recently made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land had told me of a Middle Eastern bakery and delicatessen about 30 miles from my home. With what my grandfather would call a hankerin’ for halvah, which I’d been unable to find in local shops, I decided to pay the store a visit.
What a find! Kudos to my colleague! Not only did the store have halvah, it stocked labne (a yogurt cheese), sumak (a Middle Eastern spice), fresh-baked pita, Palestinian pickled turnips, and (wonder of wonders!) freshly made kanafe (a Palestinian pastry). I met the owner, Ishmael (who was born in Nablus, a Palestinian city we’d visited), and his two adult sons who run the store, Fareed (who was born in Jerusalem) and Ahmad (who was born in the United States).
“How do you know about sumak and kanafe?” they asked and I told them about our trip. Of course, the tragedy of Gaza came up and we talked about that while I gathered things from the shelves of their small store. As he was ringing up my order, I asked Ahmad about getting a large order of kanafe, enough for 30 or 40 people.
“Why?” he asked.
“Well,” I said, “I’m doing a thing. . . .” He gave me a quizzical look. “We’re going to have a supper at church, and my wife and are going to make a presentation about our trip to Israel and Palestine. We’ll tell them about the places we visited and the wonderful people we met.”
“You’ll tell them . . . ” his voice broke and the pain I could see in his eyes broke my heart. “You’ll tell them that we’re human beings . . . .”
And the Word become a human being and lived among us. Yes, Ahmad, I’ll tell them.
The Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, an EfM mentor, and a writer of Daily Office meditations offered on his blog, That Which We Have Heard & Known.