Documentarian Michael Moore tweeted the other day “My uncle killed by sniper in WW2…We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren't heroes. And invaders r worse.” This one tweet ignited a firestorm of debate from both the liberal and democratic side of politics. People who really gave no thought to snipers two months ago are now weighing in with their opinions. While I will not even pretend to know what Michael Moore was trying to get at, I can tell you that this is a classic case of attitude reflecting leadership. Life's situations have a way of making someone lean a certain way on hard topics. I had a very close friend who's dad was mugged by some black people in their neighborhood. You can imagine how those little white kids were raised. Black kids that were raised during the LA riots may have a different view of white people because of what happened on their streets. Some Native Americans have stories to tell their children about what happened to them throughout their lives as well stories from their peoples’ history with the US government. This undoubtedly changes the way they look at society. It is odd that Mr. Moore received so many death threats on a day we celebrate a man who was all about non-violence.
In 2012 my family ventured out to the Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota and we heard an interesting story. Many times the US government has offered to spend millions of dollars to complete this awe inspiring sculpture of the legendary Crazy House but they have been repeatedly turned down by the Native Americans living in that area because of the history between them. Once again, attitude reflects leadership.
But what about for the rest of us? For those in society who have no dramatic stories of neglect or social cause to fight for because of what happened to a loved one? I would submit that regardless of our personal involvement, we all feel it is our right to offer our opinions on these matters. Because of who I am and what I do as a pastor I encounter every kind of person from every walk of life you can imagine. Sadly, I find that hatred is alive and well in the world today. It used to boggle my mind when I would hear of an eighty year old saint in the church still having a problem with a fellow eighty year old saint because of what they said fifteen years ago at a church potluck. Now that I am half way to eighty (scary, isn't it?) I totally get where they are coming from. How many times have I had people attend the church I pastor with hesitancy? A LOT. A bad church experience can change you. And as you share what you went through with your loved ones, it changes them too. I hear stories of how this person’s grandparents were kicked out of a church across town because they did not use their pre-printed offering envelopes or they never volunteered. Needless to say that kind of petty junk can turn a person off from being a part of a church. Recently a friend told me of a time they were in the hospital. They attended a church in the area so the hospital called the pastor early in the morning to tell them that my friend was there. The pastor responded, “They have not been faithful with their tithes so we will not be able to come.” It shouldn’t surprise you that this family has not gone back to church. If you hear stories like this often enough, it’s easy to understand why your view of churches in general would be negative. How is that different from Michael Moore's story regarding snipers? His grandfather was killed by one and he has an opinion on the matter based on the hurt it has caused his family. When someone's relatives are hurt by the institutional church, they have an opinion on the matter because the leadership they had in their life is reflected in what they now believe. Experiences matter. They shape our thinking and can mold us into the people we are today.
As a Christian and pastor I can tell you that I have enjoyed some of Michael Moore's works. I have disagreed with some of his statements too. I can honestly say it would be an honor to sit down and talk with the man. I would be interested to talk to him about church and religion. There is a show called Bull$&!* on cable. The hosts are illusionists Penn and Teller. They had a fascinating episode on religion. For that matter, even Bill Maher (a political commentator and talk show host) is very outspoken regarding his thoughts on religion. I look at all of these people and rather than be repulsed and run away, I would love to sit down and talk to them about my love for God and what I do for a living as a pastor. Would I try and convince them to change their opinions? No. That is not my job. To hear their stories and maybe rationalize with them would be a delight. From what I have seen and read, these men make more sense than some of the people on my side of the fence on a lot of issues. They know how to debate and I think we would even enjoy a nice dinner together after it was over. I wish I could say the same for some Christians, who when pigeonholed resort to personal attacks and name calling.
We, as a society become too punchy when we hear things in the news. We focus on the headline and do not take the time to hear the backstory. Those who say, “It is just awful for Michael Moore to say such a thing” really ought to look at the things they personally are against. For example, I was in New York in 2008 while Tracy was at a conference in Harlem. I had won tickets to be in the audience for a taping of Saturday Night Live but I realized I had some down time before I had to be at the theater. I took advantage of it by jumping on my computer and sending a message to Jay Bakker, the son of the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Here is a kid that I knew some things about because I had many friends who went to PTL with his parents. Jay had just released a documentary on the Sundance channel called “One Punk Under God.” In it he drew a line in the sand regarding where he stands regarding churches being gay affirming. Jay was gracious enough to meet with me for dinner at a greasy spoon in Times Square so we could chat. His associate pastor came with him because Jay has many issues with the institutional church and the denomination his parents were a part of. He told me many stories that may never see the light of day due to the sensitivity of the topics and people involved. I listened and he talked. I remember asking Jay and Vince (his associate pastor), “You are gay affirming. Quite honestly I have a hard time taking that stance as a pastor but I don’t doubt you have your reasons. Reasons that I will not try and sway you from. My question is how can we make churches that are against homosexuality more loving and accepting so that, at the end of the day, even if there is not a gay affirming church where a gay person lives they know they can go there and not be bashed.” We went on to have a very engaging conversation about brotherly love. We listened to each other and when the time had come to go our own ways we were not mad at each other and actually rather respected each other. That is how discourse between people who disagree should be. You listen, you share, you find common ground, and understand that there will be areas that you will just not agree with each other about, but that it’s ok.
There is usually a backstory of hurt behind every bold statement or firm stance. I think we would not be so quick to bash someone if we were willing to take the time to listen to their story of hurt. We would understand where they are coming from and regardless of whether we agree with them or not, seeing the person behind the opinion would make a difference. Rather than becoming a sniper behind the keyboard towards people we do not even know, take the time to engage with people and hear their backstory. Go beyond the headline and dig into the details.
Michael Moore, Jay Bakker, and others who are willing to speak out should be applauded. I take our First Amendment that states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” seriously. I want them to keep on doing what they are doing. They are entitled to speak freely and I hope they find the kindness and respect that Jesus would offer to those he had differing opinions with as they interact with members of Christ’s church today. Remember: the only ones Jesus lashed out at were the Pharisees.
As a pastor I feel obligated to throw in a Scripture to close this blog post. The Bible speaks to pretty much every topic imaginable, including this one. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1 NIV) God, help us to give a gentle answer and not offer harsh words that make Christians known for what we hate rather than what we love.