Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Power of Words

I’m always amazed and saddened when I look at things like Facebook, or a news broadcast and I see how much people seem to enjoy hating one another. The purpose of social media and communications in general has become the dissemination of lies and twisted interpretations of the truth. It’s not about exchanging thoughts and ideas anymore. It’s about bludgeoning someone with our own self righteousness. We keep hammering on someone else until we feel better.

The problem is we never feel better. We are so caught up in the shouting, name-calling and labeling that we don’t see the ricocheting, two-edged blade coming back at us. The scars we inflict on our perceived enemies are mirrors of the self-inflected wounds that we carry. We never heal. We never help anyone else heal. The pain we carry with us is blamed on others and so we retaliate, causing more pain. The vicious circle of hate multiplies.

This week, two things caused me to reflect this dark side of human behavior. One of the patients that I see regularly is a woman in her 80s from Cuba. Carmen and her family left their home during the rise of Fidel Castro and came to America to seek the freedom to live their lives as they chose. She is well educated, as was her husband. Her sons are all doctors. Her grandchildren are studying medicine or law at various schools around the country.

Carmen is confined to a bed or wheelchair most of the time. Her voice is not strong and so I have to listen very carefully when she speaks in her thick, beautiful Cuban accent. Many times Carmen has told me how fortunate we are to live in this country. She says it doesn’t matter who is President because we are free – much more so than in the homeland she left to come here.

The other day, though, she told me a story that frightened me. When Carmen arrived in America, she noted
the problems we were having as a country in dealing with racial issues. She looked at me, wonderingly, and said that she saw a door marked “For Whites Only” for the first time. “We never saw anything like that in Cuba,” she said. We spoke of the scars left on a people because of past injustices. Those scars are on all of us.

Later that evening, I turned on the TV and saw Elie Wiesel, writer, professor and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Wiesel is also a survivor of the WWII concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. As I looked at the photographs of the camps and the appalling images of the people who were sent there to be tortured and murdered, I felt the tears rise. How could human beings, created in the image of God, do these things to others also created in the image of God?

In 1993, I was in Germany. We were teaching conversational English to students in the former East Germany. One afternoon, our group visited the site of Buchenwald. Before we left, my host encouraged me to borrow a thick sweater. “It will be cold there,” she said. This was in mid-summer and the weather was mild, but I took it anyway. I’m glad I did. As I walked the ground strode upon by Nazis and saw the murder rooms and the ovens, I became chilled in a way I had never felt before. It was a chill that went deeper than the bone, all the way to the soul. It’s a chill that I have never quite shaken.

It’s not far from the concentration camps to the apartheid of South Africa and the race conflicts of America, symbolized by the “Whites Only” signs. It’s not far from any of these things to the words of hatred that we see and hear on a daily basis through TV, Facebook and other social media outlets. It’s not far from there to justifying imprisonment and even murder of those who don’t sound like us or think like us.

Can we really afford to allow this kind of hatred to rise again without saying anything? It’s stylish to hate online or in a broadcast. People do it all the time and we excuse it by saying, “They’re just making a point. They don’t really mean it.”

Of course they do. Those words that bully and inflame come from inside them. Words reflect thoughts and attitudes. Words eventually become deeds. We cannot let that happen.

Can’t we call out those who resort to the language of exclusivity and superiority? Not call out in the sense that we return hateful words for hateful words. Instead we must speak the truth that these words and attitudes are damaging to all of us, those who hear them and those who speak them. Instead of pointing out the worst in people, we must call out the best in them. We must help those who hate understand that they are capable of so much that is better and nobler.

Please – before it’s too late. Before there are doors we cannot walk through again. Before there are “special camps” for certain people. Before we, as a people and a nation, become the very thing that we say we stand against.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Clergy for the People

The other day I was reading the blog of my friend, Micheal Elliott. Micheal is a thought provoking writer and he’s even more thought provoking when you’re sitting around with him drinking coffee or something. It’s a gift.

Anyway, on this particular day, Micheal talked about the old TV show Daniel Boone, a product of Disney when they were making regular TV series. I remember the watching Daniel Boone myself. I admired him as he never missed with his flintlock rifle and made a hat of raccoon pelt look stylish and manly.

As good as he was, Daniel Boone (as played by Fess Parker) didn’t fire my imagination as did another character that got the Disney treatment. I remember to this day a three-part movie shown on what was known, I believe, as “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” (Not everyone had color TV. If you had one, everyone wanted to watch TV at your house.)

On those nights, I parked myself in front of our TV set (which got three channels clearly) to watch The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. British actor Patrick McGoohan, before becoming a Secret Agent and then a Prisoner, played a vicar in an English coastal town. His name was Dr. Christopher Syn. A preacher named Dr. Syn (rhymes with sin) – you’ve got to love it!

Dr. Syn served as the shepherd of his congregation but he had a dark secret. By night, he was the infamous Scarecrow, sabotaging the efforts of the military, who were shanghaiing local men for the British Navy and extorting tax money over and above what was legal. The Scarecrow also ran a smuggling ring to help the local citizens obtain much needed supplies. Even his own gang did not know who this feared rebel/criminal really was.

Something about The Scarecrow was exciting to me. It was all about fighting against authority and standing up against oppression. It was also about danger and the possibility of getting shot or captured and subsequently hanged. Still, the cause was worth it and Dr. Syn was willing to do what needed to be done. He inspired the people of the countryside who helped him without knowing his true identity.

It makes me think about the actions of clergy today. Too many of our American pulpiteers are not avoiding the spotlight. Instead, they are seeking it out, making sure that as many people as possible know their names and faces. Instead of avoiding politics, they align themselves with one political party or another. Being a servant of all the people is not as important to them as being adored by a certain segment of the people.

Sadly, many who are identified with the Church are not really interested in saving people who don’t vote, can’t pay and have no homes.

Someone out there is saying, “Hey! A lot of preachers are talking about high taxes and the rights of citizens!”

Maybe. I’ve been looking at it for a long time, from both within and without the system. It still seems to me that the words of a lot of those preachers are promoting candidates, parties and political agendas. They do it while using religious language. If you disagree with them, it looks like you’re disagreeing with God (and we know what happens to people who do that).

Dr. Syn risked his life protecting people without asking them about their politics or where they were vis-à-vis the social order. He laid everything on the line for people who could never pay him back. He didn’t ask for their money, their support in the next election or a commitment to tithe. The Scarecrow didn’t see his actions as something divorced from his calling as a vicar. He saw that taking care of the poor, the oppressed and the weak was his calling.

Sounds like a Nazarene I read about.

I wonder what would happen if those who say they are called to care about the people actually did that. I mean cared about ALL the people without regard for who they are, where they are from, how much or how little money they have or their stance on various political issues. It might be enough to change the world.

Dr. Syn wore a mask, so no one would know his identity. Yes, it was for protection. It was also a symbol, showing that it wasn’t the man himself that was important. What was important was the cause to which the man gave himself. It was the people who were important.

Clergy, it may be time to become a clergy for the people. It’s time to cover the faces that show up on those TV broadcasts and in the attractive ads for those congregations with self-contained schools, gyms and societies. It’s time to go back to work for the people who need it most and can pay the least.

We have to ask ourselves the question: Is mine the face that people really need to see or is it the face of Another?