Saturday, February 25, 2006

Living Out the Greatest Commandment in America: Irony or Truth?

Penny Carothers

I had an interesting email exchange with a gentleman named Kevin in response to my “Flag-Waving SUV” article that really got me thinking. Those of you that read Blue Like Jazz may know that I had an unconventional upbringing by two fairly eccentric folks. I know very little of the life of growing up in the church, and even less of growing up in the Midwest or the South. I am a Northwesterner through and through. I don’t know where you live or how you grew up, but I do know that our surroundings in great part explain who we are and what we believe. So, you say - yeah, Penny, we got it.

But seriously, does it not ring true on a deeper level? Over the past several years I have watched with growing dismay as the quality of our interactions and our conversations “across the aisle” deteriorate and seem to hit new all-time lows. How polarized will our country - and our community of faith - become before we realize what a wretched waste of time it is to attack and build walls rather than accomplish the hard work of growing to understand one another? I am convinced that where we grew up, who raised us, and what we’ve experienced in our lives is becoming more important than the One who defied death to bring us all together. I don’t have to say where this despicable untruth comes from?

The thing that is truly abhorrent to me is the sad truth that the rhetoric and division of politics has found its way into our discourse on faith. I am often guilty of perpetuating the same divisions that I claim to abhor. Politics are important, but how important should they be to those who claim Christ? If I voted for John Kerry, do I really get dismissed as a flaming liberal who has lost touch with reality? And if you voted for George Bush, do I immediately assume all you care about is abortion and gay rights? With the direction we’re headed, these assumptions are automatic. This route is the wide and easy path - not the narrow. We have to change; starting now, starting here, starting from your next conversation. Are you a tree hugger? Get to know a logger. Do you oppose gay marriage? Get to know someone whose life is affected by banning same-sex union. How many people do you regularly associate with who have different views than you? I’ll be honest — not a one. I have to do something to change that.

I read a very thoughtful email from a man who felt judged by my introductory article because he drives an SUV, voted for Bush, and is a man of faith. My first reaction was, “No way, man, you got me wrong.” I wasn’t trying to condemn, I was trying to repent of my judgment! But I had a creeping feeling that there was a ring of truth in what he said and more than a hint of hypocrisy in my caricature of those who I portrayed so much differently than myself.
I’m not trying to say that I simply go around judging people because of the car they drive - I also judge for the clothes they wear, the sunglasses they sport, and the handbags they carry. I hate this part of myself because I am letting frustration get in the way of seeing people as Jesus sees them. I regularly fall into the sin of vilifying the rich and exalting the poor. We all do, in different ways. How about you; what’s your prejudice? Whatever it is, God says not to play favorites, and I know very well that this is a great struggle.

Finally, in spite of everything that I have said about doing my best not to judge, I must speak out (I can’t help myself!) about the blatant decadence of our society that turns a blind eye to the poor and engages in condemnation and back-biting over disagreements about belief. This is the critical point - the problem is with our society, not the people in it. We must be careful to follow the spirit of Christ, not the spirit of the Age. And Christ is about unity, not division; love, not hate; righteous anger, not self-righteous condemnation.

I’m not trying to condemn when I say that I do not like SUVs. To me, SUVs demonstrate the American penchant for decadence and the pursuit of extreme wealth at all costs (which is not an “American” problem, but a human problem with a wash of fallen historical characters as testament). SUVs say something very profound about our national priorities. Let me quickly explain some of the reasons why I care about the cars we drive and the way we spend our money:

Less than 5% of the world’s population (that’s us) consumes 25% of the world’s resources
30,000 kids under the age of five die per day of preventable illnesses.

One billion people survive on less than $1 dollar per day and barely have enough money to live - they are at constant risk of death because of starvation and disease.

Meanwhile, the US and EU spends $1 per day on each dairy cow on its soil (this is because of subsidization of our agricultural products, so Americans enjoy low prices).

We could provide clean water and save millions of lives for the same amount of money that Europeans and Americans spend on bottled water each year.

Shocking? I hope so. However, these facts do not give me, or anyone else, license to judge someone else for their possessions or their political affiliation. Rather, we are called to do something with the privilege we enjoy because of our place of birth and with the measure of faith we’ve been given. We are supposed to give to those who have need, but the point is not to make loads of money so you can give it away. Instead, we are called to reach out in love and honesty and vulnerability to the people around us - removing the barrier of political affiliation, or class, or race, or sexual orientation, or whatever - to get to know one another, and to learn from one another.

I learned a lesson from my email exchange with Kevin, someone with a humble heart who has very different political views than myself. Frankly, I was a bit surprised that our differences didn’t stop us from communicating, but this is why: God lives in each one of us, and He is much more interested in seeing us become part of a living, functioning body rather than one that is constantly fighting, pulling apart, and stalling His work while we worry about our earthly disputes.

In the end, where does this leave us? Are we to condemn or to love? Listen or argue? Repent or decay? As my friend Lisa likes to sing whenever she gets discouraged about these divisions, “They will know us because of our love for one another.” What do you think: irony or truth? It’s up to you to decide — and to make it reality.


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