While driving the other day, my friend Claire and I listened in as our kids told jokes the way only young children can: occasionally with spot-on content and delivery; frequently improvising with varying degrees of success. There was the one about the skeleton who wouldn’t cross the road “because he didn’t have any guts,” and my four-year-old son’s twist on an old standard:
“Why did the chicken cross the road?”
“I don’t know, Macky. Why?”
“Because he wanted to DIE!”
The big kids in the far back seat told about the boy who threw his alarm clock out the window because he wanted to “see time fly.” This spurred first-grader Eugenia to ask, “Why did the boy throw his whole house out the window?” then collapse in snorts of laughter at her own silliness.
Not to be outdone, four-year-old Macky tried: “Why did the boy throw his dog out the window?”
His brother Will thought about this for a minute, then shook his head seriously. “He’s never gonna see that dog again,” he said in a sad voice.
“Yes, he is.” Macky sounded offended.
“No. He ISN’T!” Will shouted back.
“Yes, he IS! HE IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIISSSS!!!”
“Now, boys,” I began. “It doesn’t really mat–” But by then, no one could hear me over the screams. I rolled my eyes, and they screeched for another mile, debating the actual fate of the imaginary dog belonging to the imaginary boy in the joke my son made up.
My children don’t yet understand that some things just aren’t worth fighting over. They don’t listen when some people, like me, say, “Let it go” or “It doesn’t matter” or “There are bigger things to worry about.”
This is a very good thing. Just a few days ago, some people were saying the same things to me.
It started several weeks ago, when the pastor of a Seattle church with 5,000 members – a man named one of the most influential young preachers in American by Christianity Today, Inc. (with a million sermon downloads in a year), and one of the 25 most powerful people in Seattle by Seattle magazine — wrote a blog entry about the Ted Haggard affair: noting that some ministers are tempted into affairs because their wives supposedly “let themselves go.” This pastor — who has been writing a column for The Seattle Times for two years, and who also mentors pastors around the nation through a popular church planting network – also wrote of Katharine Jefferts Schori’s new role as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church: “If Christian males do not man up soon, the Episcopalians may vote a fluffy baby bunny rabbit as their next bishop to lead God’s men. When asked for their perspective, some bunny rabbits simply said that they have been discriminated against long enough and that people need to ‘Get over it.'”
His online sermons contained more demeaning and injurious comments, including outright mockery of women “with opinions” and teachings that the Bible has “a low opinion” of feminists. I grabbed my pocket organizer and scrawled “Seattle” across December 3: the day a protest had been scheduled outside the guy’s church, where demonstrators planned to hold up signs bearing direct quotes of his inflammatory rhetoric.
Thing is, I’ve been around the church block enough times to know that this man’s words weren’t a fluke, weren’t taken out of context, weren’t an aberration. He isn’t the first in this religion, or any other, to say demeaning things about women in the name of God, and he won’t be the last. What was uncommon about this scenario was that, for once, some people were standing up and saying, “Stop. You can’t talk about women this way. Enough is enough.”
Not all those involved in the protest were people who shared his faith, but many were, and I found this encouraging. Because it’s one thing for peaceniks to protest the war; it’s another for people to see injustice within their own religion and respond by telling their fellow believers: “This is not acceptable.” Sometimes standing up to those who share our religion — or our family ties, or our political party — is the hardest thing we can do.
In the online discussion boards where the protest was planned and its merits debated, some people said the pastor’s critics were hurting the church, that we were doing “nothing to display the winsomeness of Christian love,” that we should be ashamed. One man labeled me a “politically correct overly sensitive feminist who disregards the Bible as an authority.” Others called the protesters “hairy arm-pitted feminists” and “whiny little bitches”; not a few threatened us with God’s wrath. All of which told me we were doing something right.
The argument for religious unity is ironic, given that those of the same faith often disagree. It’s a good thing they do; there’s a word for religious groups whose followers are required to agree on all matters: “cults.” Give me and my family spiritual communities where people can speak their minds; where questions are valued instead of equated with heresy; where the issue isn’t whether people believe “the right thing,” but how our beliefs shape the way we live.
In the end, with the protest looming, the pastor issued a public apology, his Seattle Times column was ended, and the protest organizers called off the demonstration. Some people were disappointed and wanted the protest to go on as planned. But parents know that you don’t get a child to change his behavior by backing him into a corner; it doesn’t serve any purpose to force him to admit, “I was wrong.” You let him keep his dignity as much as possible, take words of regret as steps in the right direction, and encourage him to continue making positive changes. Then you step in and tell him “No!” the next time he smacks his brother again.
In religion, as in life, we all have to pick our battles. The ones we wage are crucial. So are the ones we let go. Maybe the best way to glorify God is to have enough faith to fight for what we know is good and right and true. Crossing to the other side of the road is just a matter of a few steps. All it takes is the guts.