Many, many years ago, when I was a young boy in Kentucky, I had my first real encounter with someone who had lost touch with reality. This event happened at a video store in Florence, KY and it was so long ago that the video store was still an actual video (VHS) store. Our family was on the way into the store to rent some harmless Disney production in the Old Yeller genre when a woman asking for money to use the payphone approached my father. She had, she claimed, broken down in the parking lot and needed to call for help – note please that these were also the pre-cell phone days! Dad gave her some money, mentioned something to us boys about always helping a lady in need, and we went on our way. However, when we later returned to the car Dad noticed that the woman he had just given money to had gone into the video store and rented a tape. We then proceeded to watch from the car as she approached another man and his family and asked him for money. My father was livid and he shouted to the other man to hold onto to his cash. My father confronted the woman, asking why she had lied to him about “needing help” with her broken down car and before he could get two sentences out she went into a full blown tirade.
“How dare you accuse me of lying! I am a member of the ——– Pentecostal Church and I know you when I see you Satan! Get thee behind me!”
She went on like this for some time, invoking the name of a well-respected local church and its pastor and accusing my father of being the Devil, arisen from hell to confront her here on the sidewalk in front of the video store. Finally, when it became apparent even to me as a grade school child that this woman had only the loosest of grips on reality my father walked to the payphone and called the police. The woman then ran to her (miraculously?) operating car and sped off.
The fact that I still remember that incident all these years later is testimony to the profound effect it had on me. Dad assured us that he would still continue to help strangers and contended that there were worse things than being conned out of a few bucks. But the other thing that stuck with me was the fact that my dad made it a point to contact the local minister whose name the disturbed woman invoked and let him know that someone out there was misusing the his name and besmirching the reputation of his church.
In light of recent events, I ask you, what kinds of responsibility do we bear for the behavior of those who do evil or harm in our name? What responsibilities do we have for the actions our governments do in our name? Most importantly for us here at LiberalEvangelical.org, I ask, must we or can we answer for those who do harm in the name of Christ and the Church?
Answers? I have none, so I’m legitimately asking for your help in thinking this one out, because recent events in American politics are thrusting this same question to the forefront.
Recently the NAACP began work on a resolution condemning racist elements in the conservative Tea Party movement. However, the actual text of the resolution has yet to be voted on and has not been made public. The President and CEO of the NAACP, Benjamin Todd Jealous, recently released a statement in response to a separate Tea Party incident and the full text of that statement is worth examining.
“Williams’ recent letter, in which he reiterated a litany of offensive racist stereotypes against African Americans and called Abraham Lincoln a “racist” because “colored people” liked slavery reflects a long history of racist statements. Williams wrote that Muslims worship the “terrorists monkey god” and called the NAACP “a vile racist group that makes more money off of race than any slave trader.” But it was the thousands of people of goodwill calling for the Tea Party to repudiate its racist factions that result in this good first step.
“We call on the major leaders of the Tea Party such as Sarah Palin and Dick Armey who have not spoken out to do so.
It is encouraging to know that the Tea Party can act in unison through the Tea Party Federation and take decisive action. We call on the Tea Party to police its events and make it clear that there is no space for racist signs and hate speech.
We look forward to being able to have a civil political discourse with the Tea Party on the serious issues facing all Americans.”
The implication here by Mr. Jealous is that Palin and Armey, neither of whom have any official control over what anyone choosing to use the “Tea Party” label says or does, have a responsibility to speak out against those who invoke their names or the name of their groups. On general principle I agree. I agree that Conservative leaders in the Tea Party movement should speak out against the racism that seems to permeate the Tea Party. I wish that Christians in the mid-twentieth century had taken more responsibility for condemning the anti-Semitism that permeated so many Christian movements and helped to generate the Holocaust. I wish moderate Muslim voices would more vehemently condemn violence in the name of Islam. But I wonder, at what point do our obligations end?
Let’s visit fantasyland for a moment and pretend that Mr. T. Party, a recognized conservative leader, has come forward and condemned racism in the movement. Does this end his obligation? How specific ought we expect him to be? Each time a new racist slogan or sign appears at a rally, should he come out with a denunciation? Should we hold Mr. T. Party responsible for reacting to every blog post written by someone claiming the Tea Party moniker? It seems to me that we are in danger of entering an endless cycle of recriminations and GOTTCHA! games in which real dialogue comes to a screeching halt.
Unless you’ve spent the summer with your head in the sand, you’ve no doubt heard about the accusations of voter intimidation put forward against the “New Black Panthers.” (Note please that the “New Black Panthers” have no affiliation with the original “Black Panthers” and have been entirely disavowed by The Black Panthers, the Anit-Defamation League and the South Poverty Law Center.) Seeing a rhetorical opportunity, many Conservatives pounced on the behavior of the New Black Panthers and demanded that the NAACP come out and condemn their actions and positions. My point: We can all play this game Ad nauseum! There are extremists at both ends of the political spectrum, in every religion, in every nation, and there will probably always be some fanatics who are willing to go to wild extremes on any given issue. Pushed to the extremes, Conservatives become fascists, Liberals become Communists, and Libertarians become Anarchists. Pushed to the extremes Christians butcher entire cities of Muslims and Jews, Muslims blow up buildings, and seemingly docile environmentalists destroy research facilities and kill loggers. The extremists, like the sick, we will always have with us. The question is whether we should allow them to dominate public discourse.
I for one refuse to become a Christian hall monitor!
But I also know that as a Christian with a tiny public voice I do bear some responsibility for calling evil done in the name of Christ what it is: EVIL. Thus, I condemn Christian sponsored anti-homosexual legislation in Uganda, legislation that would make being homosexual punishable by death.
So you tell me. How do we split these hairs? We cannot spend our lives chasing after extremists and repudiating their every action or word, but we cannot wholly ignore evil done in our names? Can we find a recipe for knowing when to respond and when to move on?
I’m stuck in the middle, Lost in the Middle?…and it’s becoming something of a habit. Help!