Our Social Media Editor has started a series of Lenten posts about Watership Down on his blog. We share this one about strangers and neighbors with you here. I want to begin near the end of Watership Down. After Hazel and his gang get settled on Watership, they realize they need does in order to sustain their new warren. Kehaar, a friendly bird, locates a large—overcrowded, in fact—warren some distance from Watership, and Hazel decides to send an envoy to request that that warren, Efrafa, send some does back with the rabbits from Watership. A few days later the envoy returns, severely beaten, with an unbelievable report: the rabbits of Efrafa live in what we humans would call a police-state.
The Efrafans' leader, General Woundwort, created a system of "Marks"—literally deep cuts on different parts of the rabbit's body that identify which part of the warren the rabbit belongs—and these Marks determine how each rabbit can act. For example, each Mark goes out in turn to eat. On the surface, the reason for this is so that the large warren doesn't give itself away; the number of rabbits outside the warren at a given time needs to be controlled. But more it's so that Woundwort and the Council know where certain rabbits will be at a given time. The Efrafan rabbits find themselves underground for extended periods of time, and the overcrowding has terrible effects on the rabbits. One example given is that many of the does are unable to bear children.
Thus, when the envoy from Watership Down arrived and saw these conditions, they naturally assumed that Woundwort would be all-too-happy to send some of the does away. However, they were gravely mistaken as it turned out. The police-state's policy was to arrest all unknown rabbits; so the rabbits from Watership Down find themselves in front of the Council and ordered to stay in Efrafa . . . for the sake of national security, as it were. Through a series of events that I won't here give away, the rabbits are able to get back to Watership and report the strange world of Efrafa to Hazel and the others, who all realize that getting does from Efrafa will be harder than they anticipated.
Hauerwas' treatment of Efrafa in his essay "A Story Formed Community" is extremely helpful. He notes that the Efrafans are living in a state of self-deception. Woundwort thinks he is providing safety and security, but, in fact, what he provides is the complete removal of community. Hauerwas notes that this self-deception turns Efrafan neighbors into strangers.
I find this helpful for thinking about the way we Americans live. Often, for the sake of alleged safety and security, we know none of our neighbors. We live in apartment complexes where we don't know the family whose door is less than a yard away from our door. We live as strangers to our should-be neighbors. What might it look like if we made our stranger-neighbors into neighbor-neighbors? Perhaps we—myself included—should resolve to get to know the other next door as a late Lenten practice this year.
One more item the rabbits learn is that Efrafans have a short memory. Blackavar, an Efrafan rabbit that makes it to Watership, tells Bigwig information that Bigwig does not act on, and when Blackavar's warning turns out to have been accurate, Bigwig tries to apologize to Blackavar, but Blackavar is not able to remember that Bigwig had ignored his warning. In Efrafa, readers are told, if a rabbit's advice went unheeded, it was forgotten; so, in Blackavar's mind, Bigwig had never wronged him. Short memory.
I wonder if we Christians in America also often suffer from short memory. We serve a King whose kingdom comes through his own execution. As Yoder wrote in The Politics of Jesus, “The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come” (51). As we speed toward Good Friday, let us remember that Jesus takes up the cross for the love of neighbor. May we all learn to love our neighbors as Jesus loved his.
Craig D. Katzenmiller is Tokens’ Social Media Editor. Currently, he is pursuing a DPhil in Humanities, focusing on Liturgical Theology and Ethics, at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg.