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Biden and Colbert — when souls touch each other

Two men can be raw and real with each other. We saw it with Stephen Colbert and Joe Biden.

Vice President Joe Biden. Courtesy: Drop of Light
Vice President Joe Biden. Courtesy: Drop of Light

Vice President Joe Biden. Courtesy: Drop of Light

This is not a political endorsement of any potential or possible presidential candidacy of Vice President Joe Biden.

It is simply a conversation about the most powerful moment that I have ever experienced while watching network television — two weeks ago on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Stephen Colbert’s guest was Vice President Joe Biden. At a certain point, they discussed the death of Biden’s son, Beau Biden, from brain cancer this past May.

When you look at the life of Joe Biden, Joe Biden should change his name – from Joe Biden – to Job Biden.

Joe Biden suffered like the biblical Job. In 1972, his first wife and infant daughter were killed in an automobile accident.

Stephen Colbert knows that territory of pain. When he was ten years old, his father and his two older brothers were killed in in a plane crash in North Carolina.

In the midst of this television conversation, Colbert did the unthinkable.

He asked Joe Biden about his faith.

Biden talked about his personal theology, often through tears. He talked about how his faith helped him get through the various crises of his life, and about his connection with religious ritual.

On national television.

I was in awe.

OK, this part is just for the men among us.

Hey, guys: how often do we have those deep conversations with each other?

What do men usually talk about when they are together?

Work. Career. Sports. Television. Movies. Music. Politics.

You take that conversation that Stephen Colbert had with Joe Biden — “tell me about your faith; tell me about what is going on inside of you….”

What would you give to be able to have more conversations like that?

How about just one of those conversations a year?

It was riveting television. And here is why. Our national conversations about religion and faith have been overly politicized, and more than a little vulgar. Candidates use their faith like whips.

Colbert and Biden showed us the real deal. They lifted the issue of faith to an unprecedented high level in our national conversation.

It also illustrated one of the greatest moves in contemporary Jewish thought — I and Thou, by Martin Buber — a short book with short sentences and no chapters, written in 1923. (This past June was the fiftieth anniversary of Buber’s death).

Buber believed that there are two kinds of relationships.

First, there is the I-It relationship. In the I-It relationship, you are involved in analyzing things.  It is a relationship in which we use things and use people.

It is a relationship of control.

  • The boss who cares nothing about the outside-the-office lives of his or her employees.
  • The supervisor who will fire you without a second thought about how this will affect you and your family.
  • The divorce lawyer who cannot respond to the pain that is going on in the client’s life.
  • The teacher who cannot be truly present to his or her students.
  • The kid who hangs out with you because you are the ticket to the cool kids.

Buber preferred the I-Thou relationship — a relationship does not serve a particular purpose. It simply is.

And whenever that happens, Buber said, God is present in that relationship.

Sometimes, children – and adults ask me – Where does God live?

In the moment when you are truly open to another person, that is where God lives.

As Buber wrote:

I truly become a person only when I am ready to say Thou to you.

I truly become a person when I acknowledge your personhood, even as I claim my own personhood.

And you, in turn, become a person by responding favorably to my address to you as Thou and addressing me also as Thou.

All real living is meeting.

You want to see an I-Thou relationship happen in real time?

Just click here and watch Joe Biden and Stephen Colbert.

The Jewish festival of Sukkot, with its ramshackle huts, reminds us of the fragility of our dwellings. The sukkah must be open to the sky, which makes us vulnerable.

Guess what? It is a mitzvah — a Jewish religious obligation — to be vulnerable to another human being, and to really be open.

But we often let those moments slip by — until it is too late.

A friend of mine said to me: “You know, one of these days I want to have a ‘real’ conversation with my mother. I want to ask her about the things she has loved, and cherished. I want to ask her what made her choose the career that she chose. I want to ask her about her values.

“Sounds good. How old is she?” I asked.

“Ninety years old.”

I said to my friend: “May she live to the biblical age of 120.

“But, just in case she doesn’t — when are you planning on having this conversation?”

Like I said: how much would we give for one serious, heartfelt, passionate, compassionate, I and Thou-ish conversation like Joe Biden had with Stephen Colbert?

One a year?

May at least one of those soul-opening conversations happen for you this year.