The most sincere and consistent Christian fundamentalist I ever met, Don Middleton, served as a radio and electronics teacher instead of a paratrooper during World War II because, he said, he could not read Jesus’ sermon on the mount, then pick up a gun and shoot somebody. In his negotiations as a conscientious objector, he offered to serve as a medic, but was rejected when he refused to carry a sidearm. He fervently prayed for the defeat of National Socialism in Germany and the Imperial Rule of Japan, but his conscience and faith prevented him from participating in violence of any kind. I am not a fundamentalist and I am not a pacifist, at least not a very good one, so we had our share of lively theological and political arguments, but always with a respect for one another borne of our shared and feeble attempts to be disciples of Jesus.
As we approach All Saints Day and remember with thanksgiving the great cloud of witnesses that surround us, Don Middleton has been on my mind: His wisdom has led me to declare myself a conscientious objector in the culture war.
I have been wondering what Don would have to say about our current state of affairs in this nation: both the war of words between our president and the North Korean leader and the culture war raging around sports. I think he could point to all the headlines today and say, “See? What did I tell you? War is stupid, including the culture war.”
To be clear about my own position, I think Colin Kaepernick’s cause is just and I think our current president is the most incompetent and therefore dangerous person to inhabit the Whitehouse since the dawn of the nuclear age. When the leader of North Korea sounds like the adult in the room, we are in a world of trouble.
I am a conscientious objector in the culture war because I cannot read Jesus’ sermon on the mount and then pick up my phone and fire off a tweet or a Facebook meme that restates my point in some aggressive and belittling turn of phrase like the last sentence of the previous paragraph and think I have accomplished a damned thing.
Moving our nation forward toward peace, unity, and justice for all will require an army of people willing to lay down their memes and pithy Twitter attacks and engage in real conversation.
It’s not easy and I often fail in my attempts.
It was mid-December a few years ago when I went to get my haircut in a barbershop that played Fox News all day long. As my hair stylist finished cutting my hair, the talking head on the TV railed against some company that trained their employees to wish people “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
“I’m never shopping there again,” the stylist raged, waving her scissors around, “and I tell you what, somebody comes in here wishing me ‘Happy frickin’ Holidays,’ and I’ll tell ‘em to step outside and see how happy they are with my fists.”
I had several excellent points I could have made about inclusiveness, the etymology of the word “holidays,” and Christian grace, but she was waving those scissors around. At least for that moment, I found pacifism to be a viable and prudent position.
I paid my bill and wished her “Happy Hanukkah!” as I walked out the door.
It was satisfying for a moment, but I doubt that my smart-aleck retort did anything to bring the conversation forward.
I am reminded every day of how counter-cultural it has become to carry on a civil conversation about important issues with someone on the other side. It is so much easier to verbally dehumanize others (a war tactic) than to develop and practice the skill of diplomacy—taking a stand without alienating those who disagree.
I invite you to join me in declining to participate in the culture’s war-like speech and have a meaningful face-to-face conversation with someone this week.