The lone wolf. We know the trope well, don’t we? The picture of self-sufficiency and individual strength. The phrase likely stems back to a novel written by Louis Joseph Vance written in 1914 by that name. It tells the story of Michael Lanyard, a thief turned detective, who worked alone. But the same archetype has been repeated again and again throughout the generations. Hollywood knows how to take that archetype that we inherently understand and use it: rinse and repeat. Think of all the lone wolves that we honor and respect for their strength and reliance only on themselves:
- Batman is a lone wolf. Working alone, slipping through the streets in the dark, finding and turning in the badguys.
- Most of John Wayne characters were lone wolves. Rooster Cogburn and Big Jake and Davy Crockett. Self-made and self-reliant.
- And in one of the latest twists on the Lone Wolf character, Disney has just released a new Star Wars series called the Mandalorian, the story of a bounty hunter who works alone and gets annoyed whenever anyone else gets in his way.
- Even the Christmas story has its own version of the Lone Wolf…
I want you to think in your mind of a nativity scene. What is at the center? The manger. With Baby Jesus inside. Usually with Mary hovering over the infant. Then the cow and the sheep are nearby. Usually a young shepherd crouches by the manger. And outside, in the light of the Bethlehem star are the rest of the shepherds, and the wise men, and the camels, and the gifts, and the angels. Oh wait, I almost forgot. There in the stable, back there behind the cows, hidden in the shadows. Who is that? Joseph.
Who does the kid want to be whose parents make him be in the Christmas play at church, but who doesn’t want to say any lines? Joseph. “Just stand there in your dad’s bathrobe and you’ll be fine, kid.”
I think that our yearning for stereotype wants to make Joseph into this Lone Wolf. Strong, silent, self-reliant. In the Christmas story, when we think of the model of individual strength, we think of Joseph, don’t we? Mary’s protector, like Batman standing in the corner, ready to pounce.
But let me suggest this morning that our archetype of the lone wolf might not always be a good thing. I think there is a dark side to the Lone Wolf. Unlike the movies which glorify their self-reliance, when we meet someone like that in real life, the result is not usually as heroic.
It is interesting that in the last few years, when we use this phrase “Lone Wolf,” it isn’t a compliment. We usually associate it with someone who is twisted and dysfunctional and violent. Look how often the phrase Lone Wolf has been associated with individuals, whose radical ideas and isolating tendencies have caused them to reach violent and disastrous results. A recent Brookings Institution article highlights this stereotype: “In 2012, the sociologist Ramon Spaaij found that from 1970 to 2010, the number of lone-wolf attacks per decade grew by 45 percent in the United States and by over 400 percent across 14 other developed countries….” The article mentions three examples of “Lone Wolves” who are not men we want to emulate: Timothy McVeigh, the white nationalist who bombed the government building in Oklahoma; Dylan Roof, the white nationalist who walked into a black church Bible study and gunned down churchgoers; and ed Kaczynski, often called the Unabomber, who sat alone in his home and mailed bombs to innocent victims.
And while none of us are disturbed to the point of these individuals, I think that there is with many of us this pattern: fear produces isolation…isolation produces violence. It doesn’t have to be the level of violence of these men to still be problematic. Jon Meacham has written a new book, The Soul of America, in which he talks about the way that fear changes us, every one of us, and deepens our isolation and thus the violence in our lives. Look at what he says about fear in the introduction:
“Fear feeds anxiety and produces anger….Fear is about limits….Fear casts its eye warily, even shiftily, across the landscape….Fear points at others, assigning blame….Fear pushes away…..Fear divides….”
So what about Joseph? Certainly, we don’t associate Joseph with the violence of these terrorists. But I think that when we meet Joseph at the beginning of Matthew, he is teetering on the edge of this pattern…fear, isolation, and violence. Think of the violence that would have been done to Mary if Joseph had been left to his own devices. Here is a man who found out that his fiancé was pregnant, and he knew that he was not the father. At this point, Joseph went into isolation mode and tried to figure out what to do next. The good news is that he opened his Bible. The bad news is that even the Bible in the hands of a Lone Wolf can be a dangerous thing. Joseph knew what the law said, what the Torah, what the Scriptures, what the Bible said: Mary was an adulterer and deserved death. In the culture of shame and honor in which they lived, Joseph had to divorce her in order to save his entire family and his entire community from judgment. It was the law. The Bible said so. Not doing so would have brought judgment on the whole community. Matthew tells us that “he had resolved to do this.” This is the result of a decision reached in isolation and fear. Clearly it wasn’t as violent as the Unabomber, but think about what the violence to Mary’s life would have been. Even if he divorced her quietly, the result very easily could have been that she—and her baby—would be stoned to death. Joseph made his decision in isolation and in fear, and it could have meant violence and death.
But that is exactly the moment that the angel shows up in Joseph’s dream, with the words, “Do not be afraid.” And with a completely different plan. Each week during this series, we have been looking at a different character in the Christmas story. Each of them is living in some version of a life of fear. But in each instance, God shows up, in the form of an angel, and gives the person exactly what they need. A gift in place of their fear: Zechariah received a season of silence. Mary received the dance of knowledge and imagination. Now, it’s Joseph’s turn to receive a gift: the gift of relationship. A new relationship with God. A new relationship with Mary. A new relational purpose. Biblical scholar David Schnasa Jacobsen suggests here that Joseph is given the chance to respond to God’s grace with what he calls “relational obedience.” Joseph is given an invitation to leave his isolation and engage God and the world and Mary in new ways, which is exactly what he does. He becomes the anti-Lone Wolf, taking Mary as his wife in spite of the shame that it might bring him. He obeys the call of God through the angel to take Mary and her baby as his adopted family.
And that relational obedience is just the beginning. Look again at the end of the passage. What does the angel say that this baby will be called? Emmanuel. God with us. The whole point of the Incarnation, of Christmas, of Mary and Joseph and the stable and all of this, is that God is a God of radical relationality. Of with-us-ness. That God would come into community, into family, into relationship in the radical way that Christmas demonstrates, destroys our stereotypes and invites us out of our isolation, to see the world afresh. God has always been about radical relationality. And God is still about radical relationality. About community. About faithful relationships. About family. About love. About forgiveness. About grace. About hope.
I cheated a little bit in the quote I gave you from Meacham. He indeed says that fear is the cause of deep isolation and violence, but that isn’t the end of the news from him. This is actually the whole quote:
Fear feeds anxiety and produces anger; hope, particularly in a political sense, breeds optimism and feelings of well-being. Fear is about limits; hope is about growth. Fear casts its eye warily, even shiftily, across the landscape; hope looks forward, toward the horizon. Fear points at others, assigning blame; hope points ahead, working for a common good. Fear pushes away; hope pulls others closer. Fear divides; hope unifies.
Meacham illuminates the work of Joseph and his relational obedience here, and calls us to a similar obedience and a similar hope. He suggests like Joseph, that we are teetering on the edge:
- Will we fall into the stereotype of the Lone Wolf, the self-reliant and self-made individual?
- Will we retreat into isolation, harboring our fears?
- Will we hide from the hard work of community, assuming we can figure out all the answers ourselves?
Or will we risk radical relationship?
- Will we move beyond our fears of what we think others will think about us?
- Will we choose to trust God and others, even when the answers don’t seem obvious or seem different than what we had assumed or grew up with?
- Will we engage in “relational obedience” to God and God’s calling, opening our eyes to the vision that God sets before us?
Which is, by the way, the true end of the story of the Lone Wolf. Staying in isolation never ends well, not even in Hollywood. Even the Lone Wolves that we idolize have learned this. Batman has his sidekick Robin, and Alfred the butler is the one who protects the protector. The original Lone Wolf, in the story by Vance, rejects the crime syndicate, but by the end falls in love with the girl and has his own sidekick that keeps him out of trouble. And the Mandalorian: no big spoilers here, but if you’ve seen it you know that even the tough, cold-blooded bounty hunter ends up in relationship, and it is powerful…and adorable.
And of course, the biggest irony in all of this the fact that a wolf is one of the most social and communal animals on the planet. Wolves live in communities together, staying together in their packs for life. They travel and hunt together in relational packs. They are believed to mate for life, and everyone in the pack brings food and cares for the babies, whether they are their own offspring or not. The myth of the Lone Wolf is simply that: a myth.
God doesn’t call us to be Lone Wolves. God calls us to radical relationship with God and others. This season, let Joseph lead the way into community and into grace.