Respect the Right to Be Different
A few months ago the kids each came home from school with one of these lovely yellow T-shirts as a part of their school’s Anti-Bullying Day.” Of course their cynical father’s mind instantly began to wander down all kinds of philosophical and theological rabbit-trails (the intellectual problems of pluralism, the political challenges of multiculturalism, etc), but on the less arcane level of how people actually treat those who think/look/act differently than them, I of course happily affirmed the T-shirt’s message!
So, this morning, as they both walked out of the house having (independently) selected this shirt for their morning attire, I thought it would be a good springboard for a reflection on the nature of our discourse, especially from a Christian perspective. How are we talking to each other—especially those we disagree with, those who are different? How are we doing with that whole “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have… with gentleness and respect” thing?
Last night I had the opportunity to see Steve Bell perform up in Comox. I had missed his concerts in both Nanaimo and Victoria earlier in the week, and I figured a one hour drive was a pretty small price to pay to see a guy that I really admire on a whole bunch of levels. His musicianship is fantastic, but many people—myself included—appreciate the storytelling and theological reflecting he does throughout his concerts almost as much. Last night was no exception. Like every Steve Bell concert I’ve ever been to, it was an evening well spent.
Interestingly, one of the things that Steve talked about at length between songs was the degradation of discourse, specifically within the Christian sphere. Steven had just done a weekend conference with the lightning rod for criticism that is author/speaker/activist Brian McLaren. McLaren’s political and theological views have obviously been the source of some controversy for a while now. It seems that among the topics that had come up during the weekend was the hateful and sub-Christian ways that many have spoken to/about McLaren over the last decade or so. He is often vilified in some rather shocking ways in the online world by those claiming to follow Christ.
One of the things Steve reminded us of at the concert last night was that the character of our discourse as followers of Jesus ought to match the message of the one we claim to follow. Far too frequently, this is not the case—especially in the online world! Far too often, when discussing some controversial issue or person, Christians can take not respecting the right to be different to amazing heights. We can be among the most nasty and insulting people out there. In our zeal for truth and doctrinal purity, we use language in disgraceful ways. We “bully” those we are called to love and respect. Rather than seeing our differences as motivation for further dialogue, we draw sharp lines, label and demonize those we disagree with, and, in a triumph of tragic irony, walk away feeling like we have somehow “defended the truth.”
The ironic thing is that while it is theoretically possible to “bully” someone into accepting this or that understanding of the truth, it is impossible bully them into love. And love is, after all, the point of the whole show. It’s what we claim God wants from us. It’s what we claim motivated and continues to motivate God’s dealings with his people. It’s fundamentally who God is.
So if God is love and he created us for love and if love is the point of this whole show, then hate-mongering and fearful and disgraceful speech are both inappropriate and ineffective. They are inappropriate because they do not reflect the character and intent of the God who made us, a God who we see most clearly in the person of Jesus; they are ineffective because they do not and cannot produce the very thing that God most wants and that our world most needs.
I don’t think bullying is a reaction to people who are “different.” I think it is something that begins inside a bully and the target of a bully is not necessarily someone who is different.
I don’t know the origin of the anti-bully movement in schools. Richard Rorty was a critic of bullies and has had a great influence on educators. I wonder if the origin has anything to do with that. He was bullied as kid and I think he may have always thought of himself as an oddity, as different from others. Clearly he was a prodigy, a genius victim of neanderthals.
My impression from McLaren’s writings is that he is himself quite critical and condemning, especially of conservative Christians. I imagine being a lightning rod has added to his attractiveness among his followers and certainly enlarged his royalties.
Recently here in the southern California a large group of teenagers have been playing a game called “beat the Jew.” It is an ugly anti-semitic game, a way for many to practice their bullying skills and hone their hatred. I don’t know the exact details of the game but it apparently involves a blindfold, a busy street, a chase and a tackle. Incredibly, when the game was reported in the news many people rallied to the support of the teens. The school where the teens attend says it is unable to do anything about it. They already have their tolerance and anti-bullying curriculum in place. The police say the game is not illegal.
I don’t know… I don’t think it’s just something that comes from within this peculiar species called “bullies.” I have seen an awful lot of otherwise mild-mannered people get swept up with a crowd who is picking on someone because they are different. It’s pretty rare, at least in my experience, that the person being bullied isn’t somehow different—whether in behaviour or belief or appearance or whatever—from the person/group doing the bullying. At the very least, under certain circumstances people who are somehow different seem to draw out an bullying impulse that is latent within most of us.
Re: McLaren, he might be be critical but I haven’t seen much condemning. I think that many of the things he criticizes in conservative Christianity deserve to be criticized. Has his popularity made him rich? Probably. But being popular and rich doesn’t necessarily make someone wrong or not worth listening to :). I’ve not kept up too much with his writings over the last few years, to be honest. From what I have read, I find myself agreeing with some things and disagreeing with others. But regardless of the rightness or wrongness of his views, I think he has a right to expect better from those who claim to follow Jesus and yet treat him shamefully.
(The game you’ve described sounds downright horrible!)
I have seen many cases where bullies attack whoever they think they can overcome. I have seen executives and managers bully their employees, husbands their wives, cops whoever they want to bully, and pastors bully associate pastors, among many other cases. The victims are not peculiar people. They can be anyone. Certainly it is also true that majorities bully minorities. And when minorities have a representative of a majority isolated I have seen them bully that unlucky soul.
Re: “But being popular and rich doesn’t necessarily make someone wrong or not worth listening to.”
I did not mean to imply anything like that. I was only observing that it is tough to depict McLaren as a victim – he is too big of a success for that. I have not heard him vilified – I am not in circles that pay any attention to McLaren, positive or negative. I can imagine, however, that his critique of evangelicalism has created enemies. In my experience, the church is a very easy place to make enemies. It is the most hostile environment I have ever seen, even more hostile than politics.
I am not able to agree with McLaren because his polemics are aimed at a group that I have never been part of. In addition, my impression is that his understanding of postmodernism and its implications for theology is weak. He does not adequately deal with the death of God that is bound up with the linguistic turn. I think he does not inhale. He only blows smoke.
Re: “But being popular and rich doesn’t necessarily make someone wrong or not worth listening to.”
Sorry if I missed a joke here. As we know, on the internet it can be hard to read things the way they were meant, meanings we would be more likely to get if we were talking and could hear inflections and see facial expressions.
Yeah, it was a bit of a joke, but no apology necessary. In general, I don’t think that McLaren’s success or lack of success factors in to whether or not the label “victim” fits. He has been verbally abused and mistreated by those claiming to follow Jesus, and that isn’t right.
It is not right.
Unfortunately, it is common. I have served in business, academia, politics and the church. I found verbal and physical abuse more severe and common in the church than in the others. Politics was a close second. I found it occurring much less often in business and academia, although it certainly happens there too. I think in business building goodwill is profitable, and so there is an incentive to avoid negative exchanges, although I remember one time a banker being cruel to a client, so cruel I will never forget it. And certainly tenured professors, deities that they are, are known to be cruel to whomever they choose.
In the PCUSA I was verbally abused numerous times and physically threatened once. I cannot think of a pastor who has not been verbally abused numerous times. Nothing in my experience has stayed in my memory like the cruelties I saw in the church.
The church is not a safe place – too many pious bullies.
Your experience is lamentable on a number of levels. There is never a shortage of pious bullies, unfortunately, and they leave a path of destruction, mistrust, and bitterness wherever they go. Fortunately, the church is home to many other, better examples of piety as well. If it wasn’t, it would be tempting to just walk away.
I’ve said for years that the church should be a place where disagreements should be avoided/ignored. Rather the church should be the place where we know how to disagree well.
It occurs to me that the nature of the rhetoric itself is what needs addressing not the validity of the position of victim or the natural nature of the bully’s actions.
Ryan you do well to point us back to the need to moderate the quality of our rhetoric so that exercise of power is as benevolent as possible in our speech.
I agree, Dale. The church should be the place where we know (or at least are trying to learn) how to disagree well. But it isn’t—at least not yet. And I fear this is damaging our witness in the world. Often times how we say something says more than what we say, and if we can establish a consistent example of gracious speech people just might be inclined to take what we have to say more seriously.
I’ve been reflecting lately on Ben Franklin’s adage: “Let thy discontents be thy secrets.” I have more peace of mind when I do. This would include discontent with another person’s opinion or theology. Peace to you.
That’s a great quote. Thanks for sharing it, Chris.
I find that my passion can overtake my sense of reason and decency. Too often I care so much that I don’t necessarily care well. This seems to often turn up when I am reacting strongly to someone else’s strong/unloving comments. In my effort to support the idea or person that is being shot down, I shoot down the other guy.
It is usually best for me to write and reread my comments before hitting the ‘publish’ button. More than once I have realized that things need to be worded differently.
Face to face conversations don’t have a delete or edit button. But they do have a better chance for seeing deeper than just the words on a page. And they provide a place for instant feedback, rebuttal, or retraction.
I’m glad to have found your site. It’s great to meet a fellow islander on a similar journey. I was at the McLaren/Bell conference in Victoria, and enjoyed seeing Brian in person. I also have a great story about Steve that I posted on my site. He’s a great guy. This was the first time I have heard him, and I enjoyed him immensely.
Thanks for your comment, Al. I resonate very much with what you say about the instinct to “shoot down” rather than dialogue, especially online, and about the need to reread before posting! And there’s certainly a lot to be said for face to face…
Interestingly, I read your article about Steve Bell yesterday and I’ve already been sharing it with friends (for those interested, you can read Al’s article here). What a great (and well-told) story! I’ve admired Steve as a musician, a writer (he’s got a fantastic blog), and a person for a long time now and your story only confirmed my estimation of him. I remarked to someone yesterday that I just admire Steve’s “way of being in the world.” I don’t know how else to put it, but that seems to fit.
Thanks again for stopping by. It’s always nice to “meet” fellow pilgrims—especially those in the same neck of the woods!