Driving along one of Louisiana’s many country roads, my son Patrick witnessed a man heave a German Shepherd out of a pickup. Only briefly stunned by the impact, the dog rolled to its feet and scrambled after the truck. Patrick gave chase.
The driver of the truck came to a stop. Patrick pulled up next to him and confronted him. Things got ugly.
The man angrily justified himself by criticizing the dog. Then he became verbally abusive and physically threatening, apparently assuming that intimidation would scare my son off. When Patrick stood his ground, the man sped off hurling a string of expletives.
The dog now lives with a nearby resident. Undernourished at the time of his abandonment, he has put on weight and, from what I hear, looks pleased to have found a new home.
I’m glad this episode had a happy ending. And it’s good to know that my son is the animal-rescue kind of guy. But after he told me about confronting the man in the pickup, we spent some time reflecting on his response to what he saw.
Given the fact that most people around here have guns, this scene could have become deadly. But we didn’t dwell on that. Instead, I asked Patrick to consider what good he could accomplish under those circumstances. We both agreed that rescuing the dog was the main priority.
Patrick could have picked up the dog and let the man drive on. So, I invited him to think about what he hoped to achieve in the exchange with the dog’s abuser. Patrick admitted that in the moment he was simply outraged. He wasn’t thinking clearly. But in retrospect, he still wanted the guy to realize how cruel his actions were. And that would take a change of heart.
We agreed that a heart hardened enough to dispose of a dog like a bag of garbage was probably powerfully resistant to change. And a direct confrontation of the kind that Patrick had had—or even punishment handed out by the legal authorities—was not likely to transform callousness into compassion.
As it turns out, transforming hardened hearts is central to God’s ongoing work throughout the biblical narrative. Listen to these words from the prophet Ezekiel: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)
While we think of the heart as the figurative seat of our emotions, Scripture uses the word “heart” to refer to the very center of the person. Biblically speaking, heart refers to the habitual patterns of thinking, feeling, and willing that guide our actions in this world.
A hardened heart is more than an indifferent attitude or even a tendency toward cruelty. It is a way of being in this world opposed to the way of love that is the Kingdom of God. A hardened heart inhabits a world of things that are useful for or useless to its own self-centered agenda. People, dogs, forests, and streams have significance only for the profit they will bring.
Pharaoh exemplifies the hardened heart. And Pharaoh stands for every Empire. In the Bible, Empire always stands in deadly opposition to the Kingdom of God. Whether it’s the Egyptians, the Assyrian, the Babylonians, or the Romans, Empires make the world according a hardened heart. In her poem “Of the Empire,” Mary Oliver says this:
We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.
By contrast, the hearts of flesh given by God inhabit a creation teeming with the beloved creatures of God. No one and nothing exists for my exploitation. Each being deserves my respect and invites my awe. Everyone and everything vibrates with the presence of our common Maker.
At least, that is the vision and the promise. Jesus came to guide us into this change of heart.
Once, some detractors tried to trap him into contradicting Scripture. They asked him about divorce, figuring that his radical teachings about love would get him in trouble. Crucially, Jesus said that the book of Deuteronomy makes allowance for divorce precisely because human hearts are still hardened. (Mark 10:2-16)
His point extends beyond marriage and divorce to the human world at large. How we organize ourselves socially, economically, and politically. The deep truth is that we are all formed from the same dust. We are bone of bone. Flesh of flesh.
And yet, we form ourselves into competing tribes bent on each other’s destruction. We heap contempt upon victims. We arrange ourselves into higher and lower classes. People become statistics. Disposable. Interchangeable. The spirit of Empire still haunts our souls.
In other words, we need a change of heart.