“Oh, those were simpler times,” I can hear you saying. “Back when a man could solve geopolitical questions with food.”
But were the times simpler? My grandfather grew up amid lynchings. In his home of Tate County, Mississippi, he saw black men pursued with hounds by lawless mobs and hanged for crimes they did not commit. His neighbors across the fence-line were a black family, and when they were ill, he called on them with food and prayers, and when he or my grandmother were ill, they paid him in kind. How instructive for a young boy like me, from the very heart of American racial evil, to see this bold witness from his white grandfather?
Of all the memories of Monk, I remember one most vividly, when my parents were out of town and he took my brother and me to the swimming hole.
It was a wide sandy creek. You could see to the bottom in places, little bream darting in clusters. Monk fished upstream, as we played down. Soon enough, our horseplay turned into horse-fighting, when my brother and I attempted to express our fraternal love by drowning one another. Monk told us to cut it out, but we didn’t listen.
“If I have to tell you boys one more time,” Monk said, “I’ll whip the both of you.”
We had been whipped many times, at school, at home, never with fists or open palms, usually with items purchased at hardware stores, flyswatters, canoe oars, fan belts. But Monk had never whipped us. He was the peacemaker, the Good Cop to my father’s Bad, and so we ignored him and commenced to murdering each other again, as quietly as possible.
And then the water turned dark with his shadow.
“Boys, get out,” he said, prying the leather belt off his trousers.
I felt such grand shame, that our behavior had made Monk no longer the lover of mercy but the doer of justice. I said a prayer, and looked up to see a miracle: Just as he raised his hand to whip me, over his shoulder, poking through the leaves, I saw the face of an angel.
No, not an angel.
It was Monk’s son. My father, Pop. He stepped into the clearing.
“We just drove in,” Pop said. “I seen the truck and reckoned you all was swimming.”
Bird and I waited for Monk to explain our terrible malfeasance, but when I turned back to look at my grandfather, the belt was back in its rightful place, caged and quiet.
“We was just fishing a little,” Monk said.
We all drove back to the farm. Monk never said a word, from then to the day of his death.
In that moment, so very long ago, the just act would have been to punish my brother and me, and then to tell our father what we had done. Monk probably wanted to drown us both just for ruining his fishing. Justice would have felt good to him. It often does.
You read the papers, you check Facebook, and it looks as if today’s men want justice for others and mercy for themselves. But Monk did not choose justice. He chose mercy, for us.
In the New Testament, Paul exhorts his readers like some kind of juiced-up ball coach, “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong!” And then he says, as if in rejoinder to himself, quiet, calming, “Let all your things be done with charity.”
At this point in my life, where I am statistically halfway between birth and death, I have finally come to see that being a man has much less to do with chopping your own firewood or growing your own tomato and far more with this impossible marriage of strength and compassion that Micah and Paul write about.
Together, these impossible qualities are what made my grandfather a man, and all the good men who have come before us.