“I knew that you are stubborn; your neck is iron and your forehead is bronze.”
My Daily Morning Prayer Zoom group recently discussed a passage in which Moses intercedes with God for his people:
“Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; pay no attention to the stubbornness of this people, their wickedness and their sin…” (Deuteronomy 9:27).
Because the word “stubborn” appears so frequently in the Hebrew Bible (74 times, in fact), we wondered what it meant, and how we might best approach the stiff-necked. As it turned out, I just had a revelatory experience the night before, and thought I could answer.
At our parish Wednesday evening forum, we heard a presentation by the Local Organizing Committee of Pennsylvanians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild (POWER), an “interfaith, multi-racial people’s movement” of which our parish is a member church. During a breakout session, we practiced “one on ones”, in which a questioner tries to learn as much as they can about someone’s priorities and concerns, how they impact their faith, and what they think they should be doing about it.
I mentioned that ever since 2019, just before and after I was finally diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, my ability to function was so unpredictable that I withdrew from most of my leadership and volunteer activities. My friend who was asking the questions, remembering those days when I was confined to a wheelchair, replied, “Well of course; you were really sick then!”
From the time my symptoms first began appearing around 2014, I have had a terror of being thought a malingerer. Even now, I always tell people I have Parkinson’s so they won’t think I am drunk, on drugs, or—worst of all—lazy.
Today, however, after four years of tinkering with my medication, plus brain surgery, my functionality is, while still attenuated, at least predictable and more or less manageable. But I have remained stubbornly defensive about taking up any more volunteer work, lest it appear that I had been slacking for years.
And when my friend said “Well, of course!”—when she acknowledged my feelings and validated my choices—I felt myself instantly relax as all my defensive feelings evaporated. All it took to bend my neck of iron was to feel heard.
What if we were to try this with people we find “stubborn”? For instance, what if we said something like, “You’ve been out of work that long in an industry that’s hiring? Of course you resent affirmative action!” or “Of course you’re concerned about transgender athletes to compete against athletes assigned female at birth!” or “Of course you’ve never seen anything like Drag Queen Story Hour!”
Our fears and insecurities are like the “strong man” whom Jesus said must be bound before we can plunder his house (Mark 3:27). As long as we attack the strong man, he vigilantly protects his own. Once we acknowledge and validate his feelings, we can render him pliant enough to have a meaningful conversation.
Trae Crowder, a.k.a. The Liberal Redneck, described a town meeting in a small southern community where people had filled the hall to capacity to hear a program on guaranteed income. “These people care about mamaw’s insulin, y’all,” he said. Urban liberals could find so much common ground with rural people if only they’d “stop bein’ such insufferable pretentious d**** all the time.” (Warning: Crowder’s YouTube videos are insightful, well informed, and hilarious, but not exactly “family friendly”, unless your family has a high tolerance for Southern-fried profanity.)
So what if, before dismissing people as “stubborn”, we put a little effort into finding out what’s eating them, and acknowledging that? Perhaps we could “bind the strong man” and find our way to common ground.