Where is the middle of this road anyway?

“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you.” The band was Stealers Wheel, the year was 1972. Maybe the song should be re-released in the angry, divisive cultural scene of 2017.

In June, 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage is legal in all 50 states. The response was swift and vocal from both sides of the issue. My Facebook “lit up” and I was troubled by what I read.

On the one hand, I had respected conservative friends who were upset by the ruling. They shared their convictions about the issues and made it clear they were hurt and offended to be automatically considered homophobic “haters” because of their beliefs. I was not convinced by their beliefs but I was very convinced that they deserved a respect and even a hearing that was often missing from posts by “the other side”. 

There were even more posts celebrating the sense of victory in the court’s ruling. These also came from friends, many of whom I consider to be of like mind with me. But I did not like some of the attitudes that came with those posts.

The language of victory for the cause became mixed with a language of moral superiority and disdain. As much as I believe that conservative complaints about political correctness are blown out of proportion, I was watching PC happen. There was far too little tolerance exhibited from those whose mantra is often tolerance.

Tolerance — now there is a good word that invites plenty of arguments about its practice. In the past week, I have read a conservative preacher with whom I typically disagree make an attack on tolerance that is almost verbatim to the writings of my progressive literary mentor, the Rev. Frederick Buechner. Both these ministers reject any understanding of tolerance that simply implies indifference.

Is it possible that one may embrace diversity and respect for other cultures/religions/ideas without the watering down to mere tolerance/indifference? Perhaps respect for diversity might even be a move toward that hopeful middle of the road. My friends are a diverse lot; my life is enriched, not threatened by the many perspectives they offer.

I write as a Christian pastor, not indifferent to my faith. I practice that faith in part by being open to diverse people and ideas. The key lies in the relationships that are developed across the lines of being different from one another. The stories in the New Testament show Jesus as anything but indifferent to his Jewish heritage but still reaching out to Jew and non-Jew alike. In his ministry he touched lepers to heal them, made a despised Samaritan the model of neighbor, and forgave a sinful woman at a well while telling her to sin no more. In each of these cases and in many others, Jesus broke religious and cultural taboos.

The 12 disciples were a diverse group including Matthew, a despised former tax collector/collaborator with the Roman occupation and Simon the Zealot. Today we would know Simon as a terrorist; his mission in life was to kill Romans. It is absurd to think that people such as these merely tolerated one another — they built relationships which transformed them into men with a common, world-changing purpose.

Those of us right, left and middle who want more than mere tolerance cannot accept indifference. 

But we find it hard to know how to hold strongly to our beliefs and values while still maintaining an open mind and heart. Only the most arrogant claim to always be right and to never have room to learn, grow and change. Accepting change is hard. New ideas challenge familiar ones; new people are different; values change in ways that are sometimes enriching and sometimes destructive.

As I ponder the forces that swirl around us, I find it easy to swing wildly from a kind of naiveté to deep discouragement. I know that one cannot avoid change but can only deal with it. I cling to the Rev. John Claypool’s insight that “despair is always presumptuous” because we truly cannot know the future. From a Christian perspective, that future is a hopeful one even when we fear it.

As we travel together a road into that unknown future, let us look for ways to move from the right shoulder and the left shoulder toward the middle of the road. From that middle, may we more easily walk together as brothers and sisters. Move out of your comfort zone. Develop relationships with new and different people. The invitation remains: Let’s talk.

The Rev. Gary Batchelor, an ordained Baptist minister, is retired after a nearly 40-year local ministry as a hospital chaplain. He writes for the website MOVE GEORGIA FORWARD and may be reached at MoveGeorgiaForward@gmail.com.

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