This is written in an oral style. If you prefer to hear me reading it while you listen or read along, click here. It may take a moment to load the file.
Note: there is a caveat or disclaimer with this tale. It’s at the end. Your choice as to which you read first. Just know there is one.
Part One: On the way to lunch
A member of the congregation I currently serve was elected to the State senate as a Republican last November. And it is wonderful to see. He is a good man for the job, making the surprising-to-him progression from farmer/manager to County Supervisor to being encouraged to run for the Senate. And then getting elected. In a parallel journey he had been growing in his leadership role in this congregation. The last year of his journey to the Senate has been interesting for me, a Canadian (read: presumably flamingly liberal communist worse than the Democrats) pastor, to observe. This area – or at least the circles I circulate in – is a zone in which “you-are-presumed-Republican-until-proven-otherwise, and even then, you have to slip up sequentially and persistently for others to really believe you aren’t.” I have been in meetings where someone is holding forth on the necessity of singing patriotic songs in church for Veterans day and 4th of July, and that person saying “everyone thinks it should be that way!” while ignoring two people around him quietly shaking their heads side to side.
To be Republican, true American, and a Christian are one inseparable triune truth. At least that is how the cultural water presents to me.
So it may not surprise you then that eager eagles (in Canada we would say “eager beavers” but I’m trying to be contextual) were shocked to find out that a planned fundraiser for his campaign could not be held in the church at no charge and should not really be publicized in the bulletin. By reason of law. Tri-une Americans are law abiding, so they chose to take the event elsewhere, huffing about the tragedy it is that we can’t even have a fundraiser for ‘one of our own’ in our own church. But, from this, they drew intensified motivation since that is all the more reason to elect more Republicans so those laws can be changed and the (Republican American Christian) church and the state can work ever more closely together to fix what’s wrong. If I told them a similar tale from the perspective of being an Imam in a mosque — that would first of all be a big risk on my part — but I suspect I would hear a “You’re darn right they shouldn’t have a fundraiser for Obama in a mosque!” I’ve never tested that. I hope I’m wrong. As a side script, I prescribe for everyone some “Little Mosque on the Prairie” a Canadian TV comedy that does exactly that kind of turning of tables.
Well, the now Senator and I have had many conversations about numerous subjects, and many times they felt partial, incomplete. He would challenge me on a subject like abortion and I would be flumoxed by the intensity of his passion to protect the innocent and his no-room-for-other-options in presenting it, not daring to gently raise my thought that what we are maybe wandering into with this is a form of foamy mouthed idolizing life that makes it much more important to preserve it at it’s beginning and especially at it’s end than really scripture calls for, in fact, life is quite disposable in much of scripture, and death for many is a transit into something much better… We’d also touch on things of the church, where we agreed on a lot more. It got to where he said a few weeks ago when yet another teaser conversation happened that we should sit down over lunch and have a longer conversation where we had a chance to test and explore each others’ thinking in more depth.
That lunch happened December 31st. It was worthwhile. And memorable. When that happens, I write about it. I feel compelled to.
On my way into the coffee shop that noon, a coffee shop just off the real-life Norman Rockwell Town Square complete with massive bandstand and nativity scene (with an obligatory Santa and Tree to make it passable by Federal law) a coffee shop that many wannabe presidents have come to asking for votes, (yes even the current president has been there), well, on the way into that coffee shop, with icy patches on the ground which called for cautious walking, I came up behind a tall, decade or so older-than-me gentleman who was picking up bits of litter from the sidewalk. When I passed him I felt a strong temptation to say something grumpy, like “Kids these days!” or something of that nature, but instead remained silent, slowing down and almost pausing, waiting to hear what grumpiness he might exude. Surely he must be disgruntled with the litterers and eager to bond with me in a lament over them, or elicit sympathy from me over what they were making necessary. But no, he was not about this being a publicly noted action, nor about communally miserating over disrespect. He, I must presume, was just about keeping his town clean.
So I went in, and met up with my Senator. We began chatting as we stood in line to order, and a constituent identified him and wanted to talk about a political issue right then and there. I smiled understandingly to myself, as this happens in my profession too. He effectively and politely rebuffed the man with “we should meet up and talk about that some time but right now I’m out for lunch with my pastor.” The constituent moved on, seeming both accepting and disappointed. Others passed by coming in the door and some offered him congratulations. Then the man who had been picking up litter showed up, and, sort of to my surprise, the Senator was eager to introduce me “Joe, this is my pastor, Pastor Pete – he’s from Canada, Pastor, this is Joe…” I immediately forgot the last name as I generally do, and I want to encourage any reader to not become obsessed with his last name, but to focus on the character traits I am pointing out about him.
Formalities done, Joe immediately went to the reason he had come to talk to my parishioner, which was to discuss who might be a good candidate to take his place as County Supervisor, and then to mention he was having lunch with the governor in a few days to discuss something that upset him. That turned out to be the subject of children of illegal immigrants being arbitrarily denied drivers licenses by edict of the Governor. It was wonderful to see both his compassion for those kids and his passion for a more just and considerate solution. I may have seen an emotional quiver of the lip and a corner tear developing on him as he spoke. But then, we were in the cold draft of the doorway, still not managing to get in line for lunch, so who knows. It’s dangerous to read emotion into breeze effect. Diminishes manhood and all that.
Because of the prior discussion of Republican party organizational matters I knew Joe was a member –if not an operative — in-and-for that political organization. I was beginning to figure out who he was in the bigger scheme of things locally, putting both disdainful and praise-full accounts about the man behind the biggest company in town (in fact the one which, if gone, would reduce our town to a backwater without water) together in the man before me.
So, when the political subject faded for a moment, I jumped in and said “If I’m figuring out correctly who you are, then you are a person who has had something to do with the wonderful path around the perimeter of town…” — at which point my buddy said in that scoffing way that means you’ve understated things severely “Something to do with! He’s the one person behind it!” — I finished my thought “… and I find it a privilege to meet you and personally tell you that is has been a feature of being here that I have made much use of and enjoyed tremendously.” Ok, I say it more eloquently in writing than did in reality.
What was interesting was the semi-disinterested awkwardness which Joe displayed on hearing this. His body language made clear that although he was appreciative of my appreciation, he did not cause that path to be there for him to hear appreciation.
I bravely continued with another thing I realized it was now a privileged opportunity to to acknowledge to him in person. “And, going to by some small news reports I read, you are the one who, after Sandy hit New York, lit up the Statue of Liberty with donated mobile lights and generators. That was a noble thing you did!” And here Joe showed a quiet zeal that was both wonderful and frightening, in the sense that being in the presence of any true believer expressing their true belief can be intimidating. He said “Well, when I look at that Statue, and think of all it represents… the lives…” and he whist-fully trailed off into what from my perspective was a deep inner movement of the soul that stopped his words.
I was seeing a different kind of Republican than my stereotypes had formed for me. That experience wonderfully stretched the bounds of that category for me.
Part Two: The lunch.
Over lunch we got to have our extended conversation. And it was a fair back-and-forth, he raising issues, me speaking about how his statement of the issues would be perceived by those who don’t live in the same world-view. I told him that for most people in Canada, the NRA guy standing up and saying more guns are needed to make the US and it’s schools safer would strike them as a typical Republican solution to the problem. And it would sound like an absurd solution to those in non-gun-saturated countries. We had a conversation where he began to answer my question about what Republican principles really were, and I told him that the breakdown then was that those principles and values were not being conveyed well. Of course that took us to the role of the media. Can you guess where that went? And it may be so. It may also be a refusal to change the way Republicans communicate (aside from using ‘entertainers’ and starting their own network).
As another instance, we discovered together that when he as a Republican talks about compassion, he means something very different than others might mean. There is responsible compassion and irresponsible compassion. Responsible compassion does not pass debt to the next generation, but in doing that might cause some currently to feel like they are not being treated with compassion. Irresponsible compassion pays for everything now with a credit card, and does not worry about how uncompassionate it is that someone else having to pay that card. Something similar with other words, such as the descriptive use of “promiscuous” that are heard as judgment or perjoratively by non-Republicans, but which are part of the in-house language for that group, and they are surprised when others are hurt or offended when such words are used, and want to say to them “oh chill out and quit whining, it’s just words” not realizing that it is a greater clash than that, it is a clash of worldviews, and that such a clash is not easily resolved, because reshaping either a Republican’s worldview or that of a person who feels hard done by is no easy thing.
We also touched on human depravity (unless I’m imagining that – it might be subject I hoped to bring up and didn’t). We had covered the whole Democrats are ‘all heart and no brain’ and Republicans ‘all brain and no feelings’ and set that aside. I began to wonder about what each groups’ view of depravity was, saying that it seemed to me that Republicans tended to not see their depravity but wanted to protect themselves from it in others. Hence a statement like “what stops bad people with a gun is good people with guns.”
There was one more lasting and lingering bright spot from those two hours for me. It is still churning in the nether spaces of my brain. It started when he talked about Absolute Truth. That part of the conversation had a sense to it of keys being pulled out and inserted into a lock and a door being opened where I had not seen one before, and then the lights being turned on in a new room. It was in a context where we were touching on post-modernism “to each his own” kind of thing.
Exact memory of the words fails me, but what I recall is that he said something like “we believe there is an Absolute Truth and that we know how it is to be applied in the world and we are going to do that.” And I realize only now in reflecting on it that this is the voice of a modern resisting post-modern reality and trying to return to modernity’s norms. We may have to have lunch again to chase that one a bit.
As he said that statement and doors were opening and lights going on, I realized we were touching on a crucial difference theologically between he and I. Between Republican American Christians and my kind of follower of Jesus. I said “I too believe in an Absolute Truth but my awareness of my human limits and depravity has me not as confident as you about much of it’s interpretation and application to public life, and that, coupled with my belief that the God of that Absolute Truth is strong enough to fend for Godself has me more timid than you about doing so. For me, life is more about living with, within, and in relationship with that expression of Absolute Truth myself than interpreting it and applying it to others.” (not an exact quote)
I’m still thinking about it all. And still have a sense it was a moment in which a great divide finds its origin, like the places where rain falling by one foot will end up in the Atlantic, and by the other in the Pacific.
Note: This account has elements of intentional provocative styling, of condensing numerous incidents into one representative one, and is written as much as I can with a compassionate understanding of the people described. But it is not a ‘report’ in the sense of an accurate picture of historic events (which I believe is impossible anyway). My senator friend has read this an did not object to it being published.