Note: I now have note cards with images of Anoles available for sale in my online shop, so you can share these fascinating creatures with your friends and family! Click here to check them out!
On Easter Sunday, as we were trying to find the last of the eggs which a mischievous Bunny had so hidden in the shrubbery of our front yard, we spotted two green anoles on one of the posts of our front porch. Anoles are small lizards native to the southeastern U. S. which change color from bright green to dull brown, depending on their level of stress. The variety we have around here are Carolina anoles. We are glad to share our yard with them because they are fascinating in their behavior, they are kind of cute, and they eat bugs. In fact, one time I became worried my wife was being tempted to commit adultery in her heart when I told her I saw an anole in the back yard eating a palmetto bug (which is the classy name for the really big cockroaches which have also made themselves at home here in the south).
I was glad I had my camera handy, because we all knew what was going to happen when we saw the two anoles. They are territorial creatures, living their lives mostly as loners in the small realms they inhabit. So, these two could not share the post; they were about to get into a fight. They circled each other for a few minutes. They stared intently at one another. Then, one launched his body at the other, and the other responded. They pushed, they jumped, they sparred, and they attacked each other with their broad jaws open. I don’t think they have much in the way of teeth, so I am not sure exactly what they were trying to accomplish with the open mouth thing. But clearly, they were in a fight. And the whole time, they were completely vertical, clinging with their fascinating toes to the post on our front porch.
One was on top, facing the ground, and the other was looking up at him. Then, they switched places. Finally, one of them lost his footing, grasped helplessly for something to hold, then slipped to the concrete floor. He scurried away, uninjured, to find another territory to claim for his own. The other remained on the post. I swear he was gloating over his victory: his skin turned just a little more green, he puffed up the muscles on his tiny neck, and he looked mighty satisfied with himself as I snapped a few more photos of him. “No, no, come around here and get my good side,” he seemed to be saying proudly.
I recognize that what we witnessed was nothing remarkable. All manner of creatures struggle with each other for territory all over the world all the time. In fact, such behavior just seems natural. Many very smart people in many different disciplines have said over many years that behavior like we saw on our front porch on Easter Sunday is simply the way the world works. Survival of the fittest. There can only be one superpower. There have to be winners and losers. A man (or woman, I suppose, though that’s not the way most people have said it) has to stake his claim, to stand his ground, and to be willing to defend it.
The thing is, I don’t buy it. It might work for the anoles staking a claim on our porch post; it doesn’t work for me. I have come of age during the culture wars. Ever since I have been an adult, folks have fought over gay rights, abortion, fair ways to rectify racism and sexism, the role of government in providing social services, and tax p0licy. Since I was a young boy, we have invaded, bombed, or otherwise intervened militarily in Grenada, Lebanon, Libya, Panama, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, and any number of other places. Each time, there have been hot arguments between anti-war liberals and pro-war conservatives. In the church which I love, we have fought for decades not only over these social and political issues, but also over other theological issues. A lot of energy, money, time, and other resources have been spent debating the mechanics of how we are saved in Jesus Christ, interfaith relations, and how to interpret the Bible. When I was examined by a church council to be ordained, the questions I was asked included whether or not I think homosexuality is a sin and what I believe about substitutionary atonement.
The purpose of those questions was not to get to know me or my training or skills in theological thinking; the purpose was to figure out which side I was going to fight for. And to many people in that room that night, the questions made sense because that is simply the way the world works. Each time these debates come up, everyone lines up, with the conservatives on one side and the liberals on another, or the Republicans and the Democrats, or the hawks and the doves, or the 47% and all the rest. And the activists from one side and the activists from the other side start circling around each other, and pushing and shoving, and lunging and leaping, and attacking each other with their broad mouths open. Then the vote is taken, and someone is thrown to the floor while the other one gloats and preens and feels mighty satisfied with himself.
No one ever says that there is something wrong with the process. No one ever asks if the porch post is really worth fighting for. No one ever wonders why there is no way once the fight starts for either side to back off and save face. And no one would dare to assert that we do not have to be territorial; everyone anticipates the that the label of “naive” will be thrown at the person who claims that we might all be more satisfied if we cooperate and share resources rather than living as loners. After all, you are supposed to claim your territory, stand your ground, and defend it; wise people know that is just the way the world works, right?
Several years ago, I was in a conversation with someone I know who has spent her career studying and honing her skills in political rhetoric. If you were to ask both of us where we stand on a variety of political and social issues, we would probably agree on many of them. But I was talking with her about strategies which I had learned and used in my work in community organizing. Finally, I said that I was not comfortable with rhetorical argument as a way to solve the kinds of problems we both would like to solve because it doesn’t build community. And she admitted: she wasn’t interested in building community; she wanted to win arguments. That was where our conversation stopped.
I am interested in building community. I am interested in questions of process: of how to respect and preserve dignity, of how to live satisfying lives together, of how to find shared goals that are really worth working for. That may not be the way things work among the wild beasts on my front porch. But I don’t want to be an anole.