I recently attended a workshop on using metaphor in writing. The question was asked, “What makes a metaphor bad?” Around the room, writers proposed theories. We debated those theories. This was my conclusion:
A metaphor is bad if it does not make its point.
This week, I was forced to rethink that statement. Over and over, a metaphor has been thrown at me that perfectly makes its point but is still a bad metaphor. It is bad because it makes a wrong point. It leads the reader to a conclusion that is unfounded and inaccurate.
In every debate I read on the refugee crisis, someone uses some version of the following metaphor:
There’s a bowl of grapes. A few are poisoned. Do you still let your child eat a handful?
Every time I hear this, I want to scream.
People are not grapes.
That metaphor does not hold up under close scrutiny. What you are saying, when you use that metaphor, is this:
There are twelve people in a sinking boat. One of them might someday do something evil. So let’s let all twelve people drown.
In the metaphor, the grapes are Muslim refugees. A poisoned grape is a terrorist. Perhaps we should be angry with the person poisoning the grapes instead of the grapes themselves. But I digress.
Let’s look at this another way.
A long time ago, a man named Jesus chose 12 men to be his disciples.
One of them was bad, deceptive, poisoned if you will.
Jesus knew one of his disciples would betray him. He even knew which disciple it was. They were 12 men in a boat, and he did not walk away and let them all drown. He still chose them, all of them, poison or not. He chose them and walked with them and lived with them and ate with them. On the night the poison would be discovered, he served them, all of them, even the one hiding the poison.
You could even argue there were two poisoned grapes among those twelve. After all, Peter also betrayed Christ. He denied him three times in one night. And yet, Jesus still used Peter. Jesus built his entire church on Peter. He milked the poison right out of that grape.
Jesus did not put his own life ahead of anyone else’s, whether they deserved his sacrifice or not. Whether we deserve his sacrifice or not.
To answer your question, no, I would not let my kids eat those grapes. But people are not grapes.
Could you stand in front of a mother and father and their children and tell them you are okay with them suffering and dying because… because they are a bowl of grapes and one might be poisoned?
I am not perfect. I am equally guilty of this kind of thinking. When I drive past a hitchhiker, I do not stop. I have kids in my car. I have to protect my children, and some hitchhikers are bad people, right? I am a woman by myself with no means of protection.
And today I feel convicted. Because yes, I am judging all hitchhikers by the evil actions of a few, just as so many of my friends and neighbors are judging an entire race of people by the evil actions of a few.
We are both guilty, the person comparing refugees to poison grapes and me, the person driving past a stranger who needs a ride.
I don’t know the answer, but I do know the story of the Good Samaritan. I know Jesus’ command to love and serve the least of these. I know about “entertaining angels unaware.” And because I know these things, I cannot go on living like people are no different than grapes. I can’t stand silent while otherwise good people use a bad metaphor to justify the cruelty their fear perpetuates.
Argue against the acceptance of Syrian refugees if you need to. If you truly feel your point is valid. But please, drop this faulty metaphor. If you are going to condemn a group of people, be honest about it. Be willing to own your judgment call. Do not hide behind a bowl of poisoned grapes.
Jesus sees past our excuses.
God saw those twelve disciples. He knew one or two were poisoned. And still, he sent his son. He gave his child those grapes.
*Originally published by Venn Magazine