Marching for Sandwiches, Marcus Borg and Civility

Social media lit up yesterday after the Director of Civil and Human Rights in the  United Methodist Church decided to hold up a sign on Thursday during the March of Life.  Bill Mefford held up a sign that said “I March for Sandwiches” with the marchers for the March for Life in the background.  A number of pro life folk were upset and wondered why Mefford wasn’t marching for real.  I’m not here to talk about abortion.  (I tend to be in the “mushy middle” on abortion, I tend to see it not as a “good,” but something that might have to be used in either tragic or desparate circumstances.)  I want to talk about the lack respect that is found at time from progressive Christians when they encounter people that they don’t agree with.

Mefford apologized for his stunt.  Via Rod Dreher, Mefford wrote:

It seems my picture of me holding a sign that said “I March for Sandwiches” has been taken entirely out of context and has caused quite a stir among some in the Twitter and social media world. I tend to hate general apologies – when people say they are sorry for “whatever they may have done that offended people.” I don’t think those are very sincere.

I also want to say that when I was at the event holding my sign I received nothing but laughter and cheers. Making folks laugh was my sole intent – it really was! It was afterward when this started making the rounds on social media that the hurt and anger began to rise. I understand why people are angry.

So, I am deeply sorry for the hurt and anger that this has caused people since the event. I honestly love to make people laugh and think, and the hurt and anger that people are feeling is not something I enjoy. At all.

A reader on Mefford’s blog responded:

Bill, thanks for your apology. I’m all for humor, but next time you should remember the golden rule. Ask yourself this: how would you have responded if the marchers in Ferguson or New York this past fall had been met with mockery? I suspect you would not have appreciated it. Even if one disagreed with them, the seriousness of the situation demanded respect. Same with the March for Life.

It’s good that Mefford apologized, but his antics are not that unusual in progressive circles.  More and more I keep seeing some of my friends and colleagues show more conservative evangelicals nothing but mockery and disdain.  I never understood this lack of respect.  I grew up in evangelicalism.  There are things about it that I don’t feel comfortable doing anymore and viewpoints that I no longer agree with.  Some contemporary Christian music is not so good to listen to 25 years later.  I will disagree with many evangelicals over the role of openly gay people in the life of the church.  But I don’t want to disrespect them.  After all, I would not be the Christian that I am today if it were not for my evangelical upbrining.

Mefford might have been trying to make a joke, but that joke didn’t come accross to many folk who are pro-life as a joke they could laugh with.  In their eyes, a joke was being made at their expense.

I’ve been around enough to know the snickers that come up when talking about someone who might have a more conservative faith than ourselves.  In some ways it shows how progressive Christians aren’t as inclusive as they claim.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include that some of the people complaining about Mefford’s stunt weren’t anymore tolerant of other’s beliefs.  Reading Matthew Schmitz’s response to Mefford you can tell he has very little if any respect for Christians and other who might be pro-choice.  Respect is a two-way street, Matthew.

How do we encounter and deal with people who have different beliefs?  We all give lip service to being able to listen and welcoming opposing views, but in reality, we don’t have much patience in our modern society for those that don’t conform to whatever is the status quo in our world.

Which is why Mefford’s stunt is bothersome.  Maybe it was an attempt at humor, but really was that the place to do it?  If someone held up a similar card in Ferguson, MO or in any number of cities where folks gathered to protest police brutality, I don’t think a lot of people would be laughing and for good reason.

What the joke showed was that Mefford didn’t think what was going on before him was worth any thought.  He may have not meant it this way, but his actions said that the pro-life marchers weren’t worthy of respect.

In our social media age,  we can segregate ourselves into walled silos where we don’t have to engage people with different opinions as…well, people. We can treat them as abstractions, caritchures, gross exaggerations of who they are really.

This past week, many in the Christian community were stunned by the sudden death of theologian Marcus Borg.  What was so interesting to see in the hours following the news was the accolades coming not simply from those who agreed with him, but from those who disagreed with him.  This is what Methodist blogger David Watson had to say, revealing a little about Borg’s true character:

With Borg’s passing, we lose another of a great generation of liberals. I don’t mean liberal in the sense of his theology or ethics, though he fit quite well within the world of existentialist and process theology. (Just read his book, The God We Never Knew.) I mean that you could dialogue with him. He was liberal in an older sense of that term as applied to academics. You could have respectful disagreement with him. To my knowledge, he did not belittle his opponents or caricature their positions. His work with N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, is a model of respectful disagreement and discourse. Borg was truly a gentleman and a scholar.

I read his book with N.T. Wright a few years ago for a Sunday School class I was co-leading.  I tend to favor N.T. Wright’s more orthodox views over Borg’s but I was struck about how the book was really a conversation between friends, not enemies.  Maybe it was that friendly spirit that allowed me to see that Borg did have a few good points to make in the book.

As Watson notes, Borg was someone you could diaglogue with.  Christian conservatives have never been the best dialogue partners, but liberals were supposed to be the ones that craved it.  Sadly that’s becoming less the case these days.

In the wake of Borg’s passing, maybe we should be willing to share his large spirit.  Maybe we should be willing to sit down and converse with someone, not to prove them wrong, but to understand them. Pro-choice and pro-life Christians should be able to disagree and yet get to know and respect each other.  Pro-gay and traditionalist Christians should have a meal together.  Evangelicals and Progressives should do a mission project together.

I don’t know what would happen if we did that.  Maybe we would start to see the other as a person, a person that might frustrate us, but a person that God made nevertheless.

May the spirit of Marcus Borg live on in us as we encounter the other.

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