You know people want to ask, but they are too polite to risk it. Others just come right out and say it. “What happened to you?”
Late in the evening on July 1, Gary and I were on a commuter plane from Chicago to Detroit. We boarded, stowed our hand luggage and sat down. As other passengers streamed on, I started to read a magazine when, out of the blue, something whipped across my face and whacked me near my left eye.
I felt excruciating pain, lowered my head and began to breathe deeply. What struck me could have been a strap from someone’s backpack, but the person continued down the aisle, most likely oblivious to what happened.
My cheek rapidly swelled up and turned black and blue, so I made my way to the front of the plane, explained my predicament and asked for some ice. Both attendants were very gracious, offering ibuprofen, water and snacks as well as ice. They also called for paramedics to take a look at my eye, delaying the plane.
The arrival of three burly Chicago paramedics dressed in firefighter garb was a bit embarrassing, but they did their job very well. My eyesight did not seem to be affected, and I really wanted to get home. So I signed a waiver, refusing to go to the hospital for treatment, thanked them for their kindness and off we went.
Of course, my journey with a shiner was just beginning. A black eye is a bruise or discoloration caused by broken blood vessels under the surface of the skin as a result of blunt force trauma. The slang name for a black eye is a “shiner,” which describes how the skin around a black eye may appear shiny.
The good news is that black eyes eventually heal and the colors disappear, but it takes a while. Most people with shiners, however, have one overriding concern. What are other people going to think or say when they see this hideous black eye? And how can I cover it up? After ten days with a shiner, I can say with confidence that many people are uncomfortable around me because they’re not sure how to respond.
Some will ask about it right away. Others will avert their eyes, ignore the shiner and act as if I look perfectly normal. Still others (it happened numerous times to me) will attempt a weak joke about domestic violence, “Who hit you?”
At first glance, this last response may seem offensive. Why would someone automatically think that I was the victim of domestic violence? But the reality is that domestic violence is a huge problem in our world, and it is everyone’s responsibility to protect and support the victims. According to the most recent statistics from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:
- Nearly twenty people per minute on average are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than ten million women and men and one-fifth of all violent crime.
- On a typical day, more than 20,000 phone calls are placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.
- One in three women and one in four men have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.
- The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%.
When you see someone with a shiner and have reason to be suspicious, ask them, “Are you okay? Has someone hit you?” I have occasionally asked that question of parishioners over the years when a person comes to church with unexplained bruises all over their face. I have also called domestic violence hotlines to seek help for them.
Unfortunately, domestic abuse is socially shameful, so many people will not volunteer the information unless asked. In fact, one definition of “black eye” is “a mark or source of dishonor or shame.” Not only do victims of domestic violence live in the shadows, without much support or even sympathy, but they are often the focus of blame. “Well, you must have done something to provoke him.”
An attempt to cover up my black eye for a video interview the day after the accident lasted only a few minutes. Realizing that there was no way to hide it, I decided to let those blue, purple, yellow and green colors shine in all their brilliance. I also explained what happened at the beginning of the interview in order to dispel any uneasiness.
My shiner has become a teaching moment. I’ve learned that not covering up my black eye symbolizes the transparency and honesty that I hope to convey in my life and faith. I am far from perfect but believe that my flaws and wounds can become a source of healing for others.
With my shiner I stand in solidarity with those who are victims of domestic violence and pledge never to cover up the tragedy of abuse. In addition, my shiner is an acknowledgment of people of faith who have been bruised and battered black and blue by clergy, laity or “the church,” whether because of theological, moral and ethical differences or simple “church fights.”
My black eye also exposes the “black eye” of political, social and legal systems and structures that systemically alienate, reject or unjustly treat others, especially minorities. The tragic deaths of Alton Sterling, shot and killed on Tuesday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana by police officers, and Philando Castile, shot and killed on Wednesday in Minnesota by a police officer after a routine traffic stop, remind us that these killings need to stop.
Then the shooting deaths of five law enforcement officers by Micah Xavier Johnson in Dallas last Thursday at a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally. Each new tragedy is a black eye on our inability to address the underlying anger of ongoing racial tension in the Unites States. It’s not someone else’s problem. All of us are called to bear the responsibility to break the cycle. We have unfinished business.
What witness can we United Methodists make in the face of such continuing violence? Henri J.M. Nouwen shared this story in his classic book on the spiritual life, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. “One day a young fugitive, trying to hide himself from the enemy, entered a small village. The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became very fearful. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill every man in it unless the young man was handed over to them before dawn.
“The people went to the minister and asked him what to do. The minister, torn between handing over the boy to the enemy or having his people killed, withdrew to his room and read his Bible, hoping to find an answer before dawn. After many hours, in the early morning his eyes fell on these words: ‘It is better that one man dies than that the whole people be lost.’ Then the minister closed the Bible, called the soldiers and told them where the boy was hidden.
“And after the soldiers led the fugitive away to be killed, there was a feast in the village because the minister had saved the lives of the people. But the minister did not celebrate. Overcome with a deep sadness, he remained in his room. That night an angel came to him and asked, ‘What have you done?’ He said, ‘I handed over the fugitive to the enemy.’ Then the angel said, ‘But don’t you know that you have handed over the Messiah?’ ‘How could I know?’ the minister replied anxiously. Then the angel said, ‘If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known.’”
What is our witness in The United Methodist Church in the face of so many black eyes and such violence? What will it take for us to look into the eyes of our brothers and sisters who are victims of domestic and racial violence, oppression, terrorism or prejudice and see grace and hope? What will it take to stop covering up our fear and step out in faith to advocate for justice and reconciliation? What will it take to engage in conversation and listen to one another as we address the issues that precipitate violence? What will it take to recognize our own shiners and use them to bring redemptive, healing love to every corner of our world? What will it take?