Defecting in Place
February 20, 2017—Have you ever felt like quitting? Did you ever find yourself in a job, a situation, a relationship, or a circumstance that became so difficult, impossible, untenable, unbearable, or just plain painful that you wanted to walk out? Quitting is certainly an option. That’s what Randall Robinson decided to do. Randall Robinson’s new book Quitting America: The Departure of a Black Man from His Native Land, tells the story of his decision to leave the United States and move to the small, tropical island of St. Kitts. A social critic, Robinson has worked all of his life to fight injustice and racism not only in this country, but throughout the world.
In a recent National Public Radio interview with Tom Ashbrook, Robinson told the story of his decision to quit America. Frustrated and disillusioned by the culture and politics of our country, Robinson said “I wanted to live in a culture where every value was not measured by the yardstick of money. In America, the mall has become the church. I wanted to live in a safer, more civil society.”(1) He described the United States as the only Super Power left in the world, and says that our country is behaving like a “wounded animal, dangerous to the world.”(2)
Robinson left not only to enter a small, more caring society, but because his experience of being a black man in American culture had begun to wear him down. He said “The question of race takes its toll, and the toll is heavy. To live free of it, even for a short while, is a relief.” Reading Robinson’s book is a painful exercise, hearing again how racism diminishes our fellow citizens is a criticism we can not dismiss.
I certainly can not blame Randall Robinson for quitting America, nor can I criticize him for choosing to do so. I have not suffered under the burden of racism as he has, and it makes sense to me that he would want to live in an atmosphere free of such racism. Many of Robinson’s other critiques of the culture, politics, values, and actions of our country are ones that I have heard voiced by many other Americans, both black and white. He is not the only one who wants to quit America. Sometimes quitting is an option, a good one. But as Tom Ashbrook said, “275 plus million Americans can not all move to St. Kitts, or someplace like that…. How do we take stock of what you are saying and what on earth do we do with it? What should we do?”(3) Those are great questions. Even though I don’t like many things I see happening in our country, especially its foreign policy, I can’t imagine myself leaving, giving up citizenship. What do we do when we want to quit, but can’t? What do we do when we feel powerless to change a world that has gone awry?
Sometimes we find ourselves in a conundrum: we want to quit a situation, but we can’t, or for a variety of reasons quitting doesn’t seem to be the best option in the long run. Of course, what we really want is for the situation to change, so that it becomes more acceptable or livable for us, more human or more just for the world. But changing other people is impossible, and changing a situation may require more work than we care to invest or are capable of giving. So, if quitting is not a choice, or not the best choice, then what shall we do? How do we act to impact for change in the most effective way? Whether it is a relationship, our family, our church, our workplace, or our country, how do we leave without leaving? Is it possible to quit without quitting?
Rabbi Ed Friedman talks about the notion of bringing change to a system by what he calls “defecting in place.”(4) In his book Generation to Generation, Friedman gives an example of what it means to leave without leaving, to “defect in place,” and thus to bring about change to an unlivable situation. In his example, a woman named Harriet came to Friedman complaining of problems in her marriage. Given that her husband, a military pilot, was away most of the time, she had raised their children mostly by herself. Her husband was both physically and emotionally absent, and he treated his work like a “mistress.” In their shared finances he was excessively frugal, demanding an account of every cent his wife spent. Not surprisingly, the kids began to act out when they hit the teen years: fighting, doing poorly in school, treating their mother badly. Harriet always seem to find herself in the middle, ineffectively trying to get the children to treat one another better, and the father to spend more time with the kids. She was at the end of her rope, and felt like quitting the marriage and the family.(5)
Rabbi Friedman coached Harriett to “defect in place.” For her, this meant that she stopped waiting on her kids, let the dishes pile up, the laundry sit in a heap, and the house get messy. She then started spending her time pursuing something that interested her: taking voice lessons. Instead of spending all of her time worrying about her family, she started practicing her scales. The response of her family to Harriett’s change of behavior was to act out even more. The son was arrested for driving without a license, and she didn’t move to bail him out, and the husband started drinking. The family started criticizing her for not doing enough for them. Instead of backing down, Harriett stepped up her efforts to “defect in place,” spending one whole Saturday, which was usually a family day, attending a vocal workshop, to much criticism from her family. The big challenge came when a school counselor told Harriett that she should stop separating out from the family because it had a negative impact on her son. Sabotage from every quarter. But Harriett stuck to her guns. She had a hard talk with her son, saying she would take no more guff from him, she asked her frugal husband for more money than ever, and didn’t protect the daughter who needed braces from her father’s stinginess, explaining that she couldn’t have braces because the father wouldn’t give money.
Harriett’s defecting in place stirred the family up, but Harriett kept on course, following her interests, taking a stand. Eventually, after the whole system calmed down and everyone got used to the differences in Harriett, things started changing for the better. The son settled down and got serious about his own life, the husband started spending more time at home with the kids and paying more attention to the marriage, and the daughter was doing well in school. (6) Harriett found that she was happier, and no longer wanted to quit the family.
Defecting in place isn’t about behaving in a passive/aggressive manner to get the point of your unhappiness across. It is about being clear about who you are, what your goals are, stating your purpose, and staying on course in living out that purpose, no matter what the sabotage or resistance that comes your way. It is about first changing yourself, the only person you can truly change, and impacting change around you from that position. Defecting in place is about throwing down the gauntlet, taking a clear position about what you will and will not put up with. It is about telling the world, your family, your colleagues, your God, who you are and what matters most to you. It is about leaving without leaving, quitting without quitting. Now, defecting in place may not always get the desired results, in fact, the goal of such behavior is not to change the system or others, but to tend to the seismic shifts inside your own Self. Defecting in place is first about living out of your True Self. How that impacts others is beyond our control or will.
I have come to think of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and the other events leading up to his crucifixion, as one of Jesus’ many ways of defecting in place. Jesus lived in difficult political times. Palestine was an occupied land. The Romans managed to maintain a modicum of peace in the land, but it was an uneasy peace. Rome watched worriedly for signs of uprising, and Jewish leaders found themselves in a difficult position of being caught between keeping the peace and advocating for their own people.
In the midst of this highly charged atmosphere, Jesus takes a stand. He could have quit Jerusalem, quit the whole scene, and given up on his vision of the reign of God. With all of the odds stacked against him, Jesus could have turned away and lived another life. But instead he chose to stay. And he defects in place by embracing a powerful symbol, the symbol of the messiah who will come riding into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey. He aligns himself with the messianic hopes of the people, but he defines the messiah on his own terms. In the midst of a culture defined by power enforced by might, he defines himself as a messiah who comes in peace.
Jesus’ actions that day and in the days following angered many people, but he stuck to his sense of Self and mission. He did not back down, even in the face of death. Precariously perched on the back of a skittish colt, Jesus watched the people making a carpet out of their own cloaks and frantically waving the palm branches that proclaimed the arrival of a king. Weeping over Jerusalem, wondering if the clash of cultures would destroy the people of God, weeping over his own future, Jesus throws down the gauntlet. He will define his position further as he challenges the practices of the temple, as he speaks his mind and lays out his vision of God and God’s world. We watch him and we want to cry out “Stop!” for we know how it will end. The forces of all humanity conspire to silence him, but Jesus steadily moves forward. Nothing can stop him now, not even death. Even in that final leave-taking he doesn’t leave us. But the unintended consequences of his unique witness are staggering: as Jesus defects in place, the world is changed forever. And so are we. Amen.
1. On Point interview with Tom Ashbrook “Randall Robinson Quits America.” Monday, March 8, 2004, WBUR online archives.
4. Edwin H. Friedman. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. New York: The Guilford Press, p. 114.
6. Ibid., pp. 114-115.
From a sermon preached at First Baptist Church in Newton, MA. April 4, 2004-Palm Sunday. This excert first appeared in the newsletter of the Ministry in Leadership workshops.
To learn more about defecting in place, working smarter and not harder, and how to just stop overfunctioning, participate in the Leadership in Ministry workshops at the Center for Lifelong Learning. See the program on our website for dates at the locations: Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, and Lost River WV.
Reverend Dr. Margaret (Meg) B. Hess serves on the faculty of the Leadership in Ministry workshops. She is a graduate of Andover Newton Theological School, where she received a Master of Divinity degree in 1981 and Doctor of Ministry degree, with honors, in Pastoral Counseling in 1994. She is ordained by the American Baptist Churches, USA, where she served pastorates for twenty years in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. She was most recently the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Nashua, NH from 1991-2001, and then the Interim Minister at the First Baptist Church in Newton, MA. Adjunct faculty in preaching at Andover Newton Theological School since 1983, Dr. Hess is a Pastoral Psychotherapist with the Emmaus Institute in Nashua and a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. Dr. Hess also facilitates Labyrinth retreats and workshops. Meg is married to Peter Lacey, and they live in Nashua with their daughter Keziah.