The squirrel wavered, teetering on a branch high above the heads of my friend Taryn and her husband James, who were enjoying a picnic lunch at a concert in Central Park. They noticed the squirrel and commented to each other that it looked . . . off, somehow. Maybe it was sick, maybe it was injured. They sat listening to the concert amid a happy crowd of other picnickers in the grass. It was a lovely day, the music was mellow, and the air smelled of sunscreen and good food. The city was out in full force, families and couples and friends sunning themselves with blankets spread out. The quintessential New York summer day.
Suddenly there was a dull thud, and everybody turned to see what it was. The squirrel had fallen from the tree and landed right in the middle of the crowd. You might assume that New Yorkers who can saunter past the “naked cowboy” in Times Square or nonchalantly report to work downtown after someone tries to blow up the Federal Reserve Building would be unfazed by the sudden airborne arrival of a squirrel. But no. Pandemonium ensued. People were screaming, running, scattering in all directions, parents shielding their children’s eyes as they dragged them away.
The squirrel lay writhing in the grass, clearly in pain, unable to drag itself any farther. James, who had grown up on a farm, knew what had to be done. He went and found a large rock. He came back to where the squirrel was lying. They made eye contact. He covered the squirrel with a plastic bag. He picked up the rock and euthanized the squirrel. The screams of the onlookers subsided to whispered awe—“What happened?” “Did he just kill that squirrel?” “Is it dead? Is it dead?” And people slowly came back and gathered around.
It is tempting to say that there are two kinds of people in the world: people like James and people like the retreating onlookers. But it’s probably more accurate to say that we each have two impulses within us—the impulse to engage with the challenges that drop out of the sky and the impulse to retreat. I fear that, all too often, the impulse to retreat wins. Many of us are squeamish or timid about matters much less grave than life or death. We can be timid about flouting convention, being impolite, seeming pushy, telling the truth, or changing direction after we’ve started down a certain road. We can be squeamish about getting our hands dirty in an awkward social situation, asking for something when we have already been told no, saying the wrong thing, making mistakes, or taking on that project that will make our lives messy and out of control. These are all ways that we tend to retreat a little bit from a full and bold engagement with life.
Some of us religious progressives are especially wary of bold action because, having criticized traditional religion as dogmatic and heavy-handed, we know the dangers of hubris and loathe the overreach of power. We pride ourselves on seeing the multiple perspectives of every issue. We don’t barrel through life, Rambo-like, running roughshod over people’s feelings with no sense of nuance and no time for reflection on the meaning of it all. We are humble about all that we don’t know. Compounding our reflexive wariness of certainty is a sense, stemming from the days of Martin Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses,” that religion is an interior, private thing. In today’s discourse in schools, the media, and even law, being religious is a matter of faith and belief; its personality is contemplative, gentle, quiet, apolitical, and sensitive to people’s feelings above all.
This portrayal of the religious life fatally undersells what religion can be and do in the world. To me, it is precisely because we are religious people that we are called upon to act boldly, not just in our private lives but in the public sphere as well. We are called upon to not shy away from life’s complex decisions and...