Saturday, September 22, 2012

preachers and hecklers

(I had this up for about half a day, then took it down.  I tried posting it in another private forum I frequent, and it was such a non-issue that I decided I would put it back up here.  Apologies in advance if I'm offensive.  It would probably be better to apologize for how freaking long it is.  That's what happens when you get me up on a soapbox.)

Last Monday, I was walking across campus to the library when I realized there was a preacher and a crowd gathering directly between me and the library.  This isn't at all uncommon on a college campus, of course, and usually I avoid it like the plague, because it brings back too many bad memories of being an evangelical.  I remember standing in those crowds, and I felt nothing but guilt: guilt that I didn't really want to be there, guilt that I wasn't brave enough to be the one up there, sharing my faith; and also the opposite guilt that I couldn't muster up any enthusiasm for this method of sharing my faith, which didn't really seem to me like such a great way to do it.  blecch.

But on this particular occasion, I was in a hurry, the crowd was not large, and the speaker seemed warm and caring rather than abrasive and condemnatory, so I decided to walk through rather than going around.  It was fine.  But to my surprise, I noticed a guy standing next to the speaker holding a homemade poster that said, "This guy doesn't know what he's talking about." Wow, I thought, ballsy.  On both sides:  the people who were with the speaker seemed to be regarding the sign-holder with exasperated tolerance, but weren't bothering him as he stood right next to the speaker; and the guy holding the sign looked determined but like he wished he could be anywhere else.

So I went on into the library, spent about half an hour finding what I needed, and came back out.  By that time, things had degenerated.  The crowd had doubled in size, the speaker had acquired a bullhorn, and there was shouting and heckling.  Lots of it.  You could feel anger crackling.

This time I didn't hesitate, I gave it a wide berth.  I walked well around it, far enough away that I couldn't hear what was being said.  So I can't tell you exactly what happened.  But I've been-there-done-that enough times that I feel like I could practically line it out for you.  I know and love people on both sides of that argument, and I feel both sides.  Of course, I agree with one side more than the other, but the frustration for me is how badly they misunderstand each other.  It makes me wonder if we'll ever be able to live together in peace.

I suspect that the guy with the bullhorn was a local pastor or maybe a staff member of a campus ministry like Campus Crusade or Inter-Varsity.  I wouldn't be surprised to discover that he went home that night and sent out an e-mail to a dozen or so people, which then was forwarded to hundreds and maybe eventually even thousands more, informing them with urgent sincerity of the presence of Satan on the campus in UTown.  He doubtless told them how Christians are being persecuted for standing up and speaking their beliefs, and asked urgently for prayers. If he is connected with one of those national campus ministries, I wouldn't even be surprised to discover that there was also a request for financial support.

Nothing galvanizes a group of evangelicals like news that one of their own is being persecuted.  After all, how else are they going to know that they're on the right track?  Persecution is built into the theology of the New Testament, even in the Sermon on the Mount:  "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me."  You can't argue with them, because it just convinces them they're on the right track.  We must be doing something right, because Satan is raising up attackers.

I've been there, but these days I'm more sympathetic with the hecklers.  I'm not the heckling type, but I'm a liberal, and we all feel it:  the frustration that the Religious Right has been able, despite being a small minority of U.S. citizens, to control the political conversation in our country for years now.  To a liberal, their militant belief that they are Right and all others are Wrong seems to have practically brought the process of government to its knees by insisting that their way is the only way, even when the issue they are discussing--balancing the federal budget, for example-- has absolutely nothing to do with religion.  Jesus doesn't say a single word about the federal deficit, even if you allow an extremely broad range of interpretation of his teaching.

And the Religious Right has been able to do all that (again, from the point of view of a liberal) under the cover of freedom of religion. So there has been very little direct confrontation on that front.  So I can understand someone or several someones or maybe even some kind of organized group deciding enough!! We are fed up!! Fed up with the Religious Right being able to stand up in a public forum and preach about love and mercy at the same time that they are anti-gay, in favor of the institutional use of torture, and intolerant and paranoid about nearly all other religious beliefs.

But I also know--practically for sure-- that the guy with the bullhorn is not the problem.  I can almost hear the hecklers thinking, "Well, we have to start somewhere."  But I don't think this strategy is the way to do it.  That preacher almost certainly really does believe in love and mercy. I can practically guarantee it, even though I'd never seen him before and wouldn't recognize him if I saw him again.  Individual Christians are usually pretty good people, even the most conservative of them.  They might be opposed to sex before marriage, but if a pregnant 15-year-old showed up at the door of the church on Sunday morning, she would get showered with concern, money, and help of practically any kind she needed (except to get an abortion, of course). They are just practicing, as fully as they can, the beliefs they firmly believe are true.

So, the guy with the bullhorn isn't all that bad a guy, and the hecklers certainly aren't tools of Satan.  So where are we going wrong?  I have nothing to back up my opinion on this except that I believe it to be true.  I think it is with the political spin doctors, the talking heads, the people who increase their audience or their paycheck by playing to people's fears, creating a perceived need for their commentary by twisting every movement toward change into an Attack on the Core Values of the American People, and somehow morphing the central Christian message of love and mercy into one of condemnation, blame and intolerant self-righteousness. The problem isn't that we disagree about how to handle health care or welfare reform or taxes, those disagreements have always been there.  The problem is that political spin doctors have used the language of religious belief to deal with issues that are not about religion, thus leading to a widespread belief that to compromise on any opinion is a moral failure.

You know what?  that is a huge over-simplification.  But it still bears thinking about.

Anyway.  But (of course) it's not all them.  As I've been listening to my conservative friends and reading the occasional conservative commentator, I've realized that you can't pin the refusal to compromise solely on conservatives.  Those of us who are liberal have our moments, too.  The most vocal liberals I know are determined to believe that every single person on welfare is a deserving, hard-working individual who just happens to be going through a hard time, in spite of plenty of evidence that welfare fraud is not uncommon.* We can't wait to jump on the victim bandwagon, anytime or anywhere someone has a sad tale to tell, often before we even bother to check and see if the story is true.  A sad story of "victimization" might just be an unfortunate combination of circumstances that led to a bad outcome, but most liberals jump to believe that it is evidence of a system-wide problem that requires activism and outraged condemnation of the status quo--or even legislation and new government programs.  The fact that someone has been a victim becomes evidence that the whole system is bad, that something is not fair.

Well, yeah.  Life is unfair.  But the fact that one or two or a dozen particular cases have fallen through the cracks of our current system doesn't necessarily mean that more government programs will solve the problem, no matter how sad we might be about it.  It might solve that problem while creating other ones.  Or it might not solve anything at all.

This is new for me.  I would not have been able to say this stuff two or three years ago. It broke my heart (still does, actually) to think that there are children who go to bed hungry. In the past, I would have thought it was worth it to fund a dozen people who didn't deserve it in order to make sure that we weren't missing one person who really did need it. But that's the kind of thinking that drives someone who is fiscally conservative nuts. If we expect the conservatives to compromise, we have to be willing to as well. We can't be afraid to take an objective look at welfare (or any government program) and see if it's actually doing what it's supposed to do.  I don't by any means think that we need to end welfare, or even cut back on it.  But we can be willing to investigate ways to make sure it's effective, and that the funds are going to people who really qualify for them. 

This was unforgivably long, but I'm finally done.  Packing up my portable soapbox, tucking it firmly under my arm, and going home.

* my "plenty of evidence" is anecdotal-- I sat next to a woman (far more liberal than me) a couple of weeks ago at a barbecue and listened to her stories of working in a welfare office.  She quit after a few months because she couldn't deal with all the false claims being handed in, and her superiors' complete lack of concern about doing anything about them.

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