The Eggplant – Distance does NOT lend enchantment
*Spoiler alert: The following contains spoilers of Game of Thrones Season 7, used for illustrative purposes.*
As a priest, and someone who believes in the importance of confessing one’s sins, I should confess that, for the past couple of months, I have been actively cheering for a romance that undeniably violates the Biblical rules of proscribed sexual relations. Specifically, I have been rooting for two characters in Game of Thrones who are aunt and nephew to fall in love and begin a relationship, in direct contravention of Leviticus 18:12 (“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister”).
In my defense, there are mitigating circumstances. Because I read George R. R. Martin’s books, on which Game of Thrones is based, long before the show was even in development, I’ve known Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen for many years, and they’ve been favorites of mine just as they’ve been favorites of many fans of both the books and the show. In addition to being interesting, likeable, and mostly competent as leaders, Jon and Daenerys are two of the few characters who’ve survived to this point that fans can imagine in something resembling a healthy romantic relationship with another character, though to this point in the books the two have never been in anything approaching geographical proximity.
Season 7, however, is the second season in which the show has advanced beyond the books, treating fans to some long-anticipated moments, a few big surprises, and the confirmation of a very popular theory about Jon’s parentage. Up until the end of Season 6, Jon was believed to be the bastard son of Ned Stark, the series’ first protagonist, but based on careful study of the books, fans had theorized that Jon was actually the son of Rhaegar, Daenerys’ much older brother, and Ned’s sister. The Season 7 finale not only confirmed the theory but established that Jon’s parents had gotten married in secret.
Over the course of July and August’s episodes, Jon and Daenerys met as potentially rival monarchs, considered the possible shape of an alliance between them, and brought out the best in each other as leaders (and as actors). As we watched the obvious physical attraction growing between them, Daenerys risked her life to save Jon, he pledged fealty to her, and we saw him enter her cabin by night while we listened to voiceover from two other characters putting together the pieces that revealed Jon as Daenerys’ nephew.
For me, and many other fans if the internet is any indication, this raised all kinds of mixed feelings. On the one hand, we love these characters, they fell for each other while ignorant of their familial relationship (how they react when they find out is a mystery awaiting us in Season 8), and we’ve seen how good they are together and for each other. On the other hand, nobody likes cheering on incest, especially when so many of the show’s tragic events are consequences of the ongoing affair between the queen of the realm and her twin brother. In the balance, I’ve concluded that, for Daenerys and Jon, I’m okay with it, even though it does violate my Biblical understanding of acceptable sexual relations.
My purpose in making this confession is not to justify my enjoyment of entertainment featuring plenty of morally reprehensible behaviors, but to wrestle with a deeper issue. In cheering for the incestuous romance between Jon and Daenerys, am I offering grace to familiar, beloved fictional characters that I wouldn’t extend to strangers in real life? Do I condemn a behavior in the abstract only to offer absolution when I know and like the practitioners?
This is a not insignificant problem. The less well we know a person, the easier it is for us to denounce their sin; the better we know someone’s story, the more likely we are to forgive the errors they commit. Although the Gospels don’t explicitly state this, the Pharisees and Jesus embody this tension: the former named tax collectors and prostitutes as irredeemable sinners and avoided them like the plague, while the latter ate with them and loved them as children of God. Once you’ve heard the story of a woman forced into prostitution by her boyfriend or kidnapped and trafficked halfway across the globe, you cannot consider prostitutes a bunch of hopeless, wanton temptresses.
Or look at King David, who abuses his power to commit adulterous rape and has a loyal soldier betrayed to his death to cover it up. Such behavior is really difficult to excuse, and yet, in Judaism and Christianity, David’s story is often told and his egregious sins are absolved. Like Daenerys and Jon, we know and like David enough to continue rooting for him even after what he did to Bathsheba and Uriah, and he remains a central and revered figure in the history of our forebears in faith.
As followers of Jesus, we must navigate between an ethical Scylla and Charybdis here. There is the danger that, with our friends and loved ones, we know them so well that we will readily excuse their sinful behaviors without considering the real harm they might be doing to themselves or others. But there is an at least equal danger that we will condemn people over a behavior viewed from a distance, without asking for their story or considering the possibility that they made the most moral decision they could in the circumstances.
I noticed this in myself as Hurricane Irma approached Florida. Although I assumed without asking that a friend who chose not to leave was making the right decision, I found myself judging the masses who didn’t evacuate as foolish. It took reading an article that spelled out the reasons interviewees weren’t leaving (such as being unable to afford gas, lacking transportation options at all, and having no place to go beyond the hurricane’s path) for me to understand that failure to evacuate is not just a product of unthinking stubbornness. And as I waited for the predictable headlines about looting, I realized that I had already read the looters’ stories: the same constraints that prevent people from evacuating can also result in a closed store being the only available source of food.
I could go on with examples: I was a homophobe before befriending a couple of gay men in the Episcopal campus ministry, I didn’t really understand the need for feminism until I dated a woman who told me about the discrimination and dismissal she faced, I avoided the post-9/11 Islamophobia only because one of my quiz bowl teammates was Muslim. My point is that, when all we see is a forest defined by a common behavior or trait, it’s easy to judge the whole forest sinful and worthy of burning; when we see even one individual tree in that forest and know their story, we must confront the fact that every tree has their own story, and on hearing that story, we might find ourselves identifying their sin as an expression of love and not a sin at all, or might forgive that particular sinner as doing their best under the circumstances, or might just be willing to leave judgment to God and love the person anyway.
So while I continue to believe that incest is sinful behavior and I would have a much harder time cheering for a marriage between real practitioners thereof than I do the fictional Jon and Daenerys, I do wonder if there are groups of people who I perceive as sinners in the abstract to whom I would extend grace if I knew one of them individually. And that, in turn, reminds me that my first duty is to love my neighbors, which I cannot do without knowing them, which I cannot do if I’ve already judged them in the abstract, before listening to their story.
The Rev. John Adams