Stafford: 1st Daves leads us to ponder each other’s pain

David Letterman drinks from the Yellow Springs in Glen Helen as Dave Chappelle watches during Letterman's Netflix special "My Next Guess Needs No Introduction."
David Letterman drinks from the Yellow Springs in Glen Helen as Dave Chappelle watches during Letterman's Netflix special "My Next Guess Needs No Introduction."

Credit: Staff

Credit: Staff

Today’s lesson is from 1st Daves, beginning with the 36th minute.

I’m calling it 1st Daves in hopes that the two Daves (Letterman and Chappelle) do a second Netflix interview someday.

I’m beginning with the 36th minute, because that’s the point at which the discussion filmed on Chappelle’s home ground in Yellow Springs begins to take on the tone of a modern epistle.

For those who didn’t get the email, epistles are Biblical letters in which a person writes to a fractured community telling them to shape up and work together – for God’s sake -- before everything falls apart

In that sense, a portion of 1st Daves is an epistle that deserves a place in the canon of the history of our nation. Digitally preserved in the Library of Congress, it can be a message in a bottle reminding future Americans about the time of George Floyd. Because even if the solution it propose is never used or doesn’t succeed, it describes the problem we face.

Before getting to that, we’ll stop at the Zamzam Well, which Chappelle did stop at on a visit to Saudi Arabia.

He’s Muslim. And, in the Quran, the well is the life saving place where Hagar, the second wife of Abraham and their son, Ishmael, arrived with parched tongues and dehydrated bodies.

Located at Mecca, the well’s name springs from the repeated words, stop, stop, which is an expression of how overwhelmed the thirsty mother and child were by the unending flow of water it supplied.

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Symbolically, the story promises that those things after which people most deeply thirst – among them, justice, respect and peace – are abundant and rich, like the Biblical land of milk and honey.

Now, we’re on to the epistle.

Like the epistle writers of old, Chappelle’s expectations are modest.

He’s not aiming for an unending flow of blessings or the richness of milk and honey. He doesn’t even expect a badly divided America suddenly will crown its good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

What he trusts in, he tells Letterman, is that, together, we can manage a world that provides “a livable level of decency” for us all.

And how do we do that?

Well, first comes the disclaimer.

Chappelle insists he never wants people to look to him as a moral or intellectual leader, whom he says have historically lacked pension plans and died penniless.

“I do what I think is best,” he says, “but I don’t know what is best, because I’m just a guy.”

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But a very thoughtful one.

His proposal starts with notion that we all first see our shared living space a common ground of community: “We’re all countrymen, all of us. We live in America.”

Plus, he says, “We all got our problems; we all got our strife.”

And that itself might unite us, if only we weren’t trapped in what Chappelle calls “this game of who suffers more.”

Each time a team possesses the ball in this game, he says, “they act like everyone’s suffering is mutually exclusive from everyone else’s, which we know is not true.”

It’s what Biblical folks might call worshipping at the idol of our own pain.

And that prevents us from being able to go forward together.

“If you’re going to get to the bottom of … any of these issues – the key being race – it’s going to require some honesty and definitely some forgiveness,” Chappelle says.

He compares current conversations about race to a “tight-rope walk” so tense that honesty seems too risky. Says Chappelle, “It just makes everybody not want to get caught” saying the wrong thing.

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What makes it even more difficult, he says, is that “we’re unpacking so much” troubled history.

So Chappelle then reaches for a word that the faithful tend to store on a shelf even higher than forgiveness.

To succeed, “you’ve got to leave some room for redemption,” he says. “The more room you leave for redemption, the more room there is for people to be honest.”

“If we make a context where we can actually honestly address what we’ve (all) done, we can … figure out what is happening, why these things are being perpetuated, and … come to a more comprehensive understanding.”

At this point, I’ll do what I did as a lay reader reciting epistles to a congregation: pause for a moment of silence to let the last line sink in, then say: "Thus ends the reading from 1st Daves.

And be sure to grab a cup of coffee on the way out.

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