Just Say Whatever

Mark 13:11
Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.

When I was about twelve years old, in a crisis of faith, I read the Bible cover to cover. I had the notion that the King James version was somehow more pure, so I mostly stuck to that small, zippered, tissue-paged, red-lettered volume (though I also kept a Revised Standard Version and a New Testament version called Good News for Modern Man handy for when my twelve-year-old brain couldn’t get around the King’s English).

The verse above (this time from the New International Version) really stuck with me, in the way that some truths delivered in childhood remain unquestioned far into adulthood. I found the idea comforting, that God endorsed the idea of not fretting about facing unjust accusers and that She would give me words to answer when the time came. For a shy, nervous youth who was, nonetheless, pretty outspoken in his defiance of authority figures (hey, this was the sixties) this concept gave me some respite from obsessive fretting about interpersonal confrontation.

I continued to hold this concept as part of my active but barely conscious thought process, even decades after another crisis of faith caused me to reject most establishments of religion and their artifacts. So it was that, talking with a good friend about the prospect of facing an inquiry, this odd, isolated bit of advice burbled up to the realm of conscious thought. I questioned it. After all, would I want my lawyer following that advice?

I’ll admit it. I broke the rules. I went back to primary sources (well, not all the way back to Greek, but to several different translations). I discovered, without much surprise, that the context was important. In fact, the verse quotes Jesus giving his disciples advice about the End Times: “You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested…” Okay, nothing about lawsuits, administrative inquiries, or board examinations. I guess I won’t be violating any religious tenets if I choose to prepare a defense should I ever be sued (unless, perhaps, the trial is preceded by a flogging in a synagogue).

So what do I make of the three decades I spent semi-consciously following scriptural advice that was clearly taken out of context? Do I grieve the horrible disasters that resulted from my mistake? No, because there weren’t any such disasters. And why not? Because we perceive our world as a series of simplified models of reality. We refine those models with experience (or not, to our peril) but they are always incomplete and always flawed. The crux of mindful existence is this: as long as you remain willing to question the assumptions inherent in any model, then even a deeply flawed model is better than none at all. Each time I have faced some trial or tribunal there was always, at the edge of my consciousness, the knowledge that facing it extemporaneously was an option. I was always compelled to consider whether or not preparation was warranted — and often it was not. Our models, philosophies, exemplars, and touchstones do not give us answers so much as reference points against which to judge our experience. It is only when we refuse to re-assess our assumptions in light of new evidence that they become dangerous dogma.

RonRisley – 26 Mar 2005