Leighton speaks to upside of embarrassment

CAITIE MCMEKIN Multimedia Editor
Presbyterian minister Christopher M. Leighton lectures on the topic of “Faith Without Fratricide: Wrestling with our Scriptures” last Friday in the Hall of Philosophy.

Most people seek to avoid embarrassment at all costs, but to Christopher Leighton, it’s evidence of the divine.

Leighton, director for the Institute of Islamic and Christian Studies, delivered last Friday’s Interfaith Lecture, “Faith Without Fratricide: Wrestling With Our Scriptures,” in the Hall of Philosophy.

Throughout the lecture, Leighton hinged on two maxims. The first: “Embarrassment is the gateway to the spiritual light.” The second: “I don’t care what religion or tradition you belong to, so long as you are embarrassed by it.”

While society typically encourages its members to have pride in who and what they are, Leighton encouraged people to reconcile embarrassment with hubris and faults as both individuals and collective units.

“Serious interfaith remediation requires us to pass through the gateway of embarrassment,” Leighton said. “There is no way to establish interreligious bonds of trust without the disruption that comes when you are educated by emotions and experiences that we instinctively do our best to avoid or deny.”

To illustrate his point, Leighton used two stories: a personal tale of a harsh interaction between two of his students of different traditions and the biblical tale of Cain and Abel.

The first anecdote took place during a screening of a film about the Holocaust. During the film, a Christian and a Jew — close friends — sat next to each other. The Christian ate his lunch during the film, extremely frustrating the Jew, leading him to condemn his friend for his faux pas after the movie. The conflict ended the two’s friendship.

According to Leighton, both were in the wrong. The Christian chose an insensitive time to eat his lunch, and the Jew was more hostile than the situation called for. They both, Leighton said, were wrong in allowing their pride to keep them from accepting their faults and reconciling the situation. Leighton, however, did not spare himself in the story.

“The episode has haunted me since the spring of 1979,” Leighton said. “I often wonder if this event did not signal a larger failure. The embarrassment is that the school and I did nothing.”

A similar — though more violent — tale Leighton shared was that of Cain and Abel. In the story, Cain, the elder of the two brothers, becomes infuriated when God favors his younger brother’s gifts over his own. Enraged, Cain murders his brother and tells God he is not his brother’s keeper.

This story, as with its historical retellings, is layered with a lack of embarrassment that could have saved the characters and relationships between religions. Leighton said Cain could have used the opportunity to empathize with the inferiority complex of a younger sibling, but he instead let his anger guide him toward rage.

Centuries later, Leighton said, Augustine retold the story as a parable in which Cain represents the Jews and Abel the Christians. Leighton argued that this narrative is an unfair depiction of the Jewish people, one that and needs to be reconciled in history. In short, there should be embarrassment.

Both stories worked in tandem to fortify Leighton’s argument that the absence of embarrassment leads to conflict, stress and hatred. Embarrassment, he said, leads to growth.

“We are still struggling to break a code of hate and disarm deadly sibling rivalries,” Leighton said. “If we are not embarrassed about that, then something has gone terribly wrong. We cannot steer around this anguished history and we cannot leap over these texts. Instead, we must find a counter-narrative.”

In closing, Leighton said reconciling and coming to terms with a collective past is the only way to move on from it. It is the embarrassment of yesterday’s blunders that makes for better people today and tomorrow.

“If we dig deeper and trace the contours of embarrassment if we really see it, hear it, feel its unnerving touch, embarrassment brings us face to face with a sacred discontent,” Leighton said. “Embarrassment startles us and alerts us to the distance between who we are and who we are called to become. Between what our traditions will claim and what our communities will actually do.”