journey post 31– At Risk of Repeating History, Part 1: A parable about fear in the public square
“The only thing we have to fear is—fear itself.”
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, 1933
Roosevelt speaking at his first inaugural, March 4, 1933
My agenda in this series of posts is to communicate that there is reasonable historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. It is the resurrection, as I’ve said before, that is the sine qua non of Christianity. If the resurrection never really happened, then the whole superstructure is built on BS: either Jesus was a fraud or deluded, and his followers are to be pitied.
If Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, then his message of the gospel (“good news”) is true. There is something that reasonable people can build trust on, in order to honestly know Jesus Christ and the God whose will and values he sought to live out.
I’ve taken quite a bit of time thinking and praying about presenting this particular post. I’ve found it a great challenge to write something coherent that addresses two of my primary allegiances: God and country, Christian values and American values. I will likely step on everybody’s toes in the process.
My interest here is to “clear the air” so we can focus on Jesus and the resurrection instead of being distracted by all the noise and clamor often raised in the public square when Christians and non-Christians attempt to speak with each other about religious freedom, cultural values, morality, etc. In clearing the air, I need to take some people to task, including both my fellow Christians and my fellow American citizens, Christian or not.
Christians and those who have been exposed to Jesus’ teaching know that he charged his hearers to be “salt and light” in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:13-16). Those hearers certainly included all those he was speaking of in the Beatitudes … the poor in spirit, the merciful, the pure in heart, etc.
Many take “salt and light” as a charge to fight for what they believe are biblical values. Since the 1970s, the “Christian right” et al has pitted itself against changes in moral standards and traditional values in a well-meaning effort to stand for righteousness. The “culture wars” that resulted have succeeded in alienating a growing segment of the American population. Large numbers of these people have launched another well-meaning effort, this one to insure that we are all more tolerant, accepting, and inclusive. This effort has succeeded in raising the specter of fear, even paranoia, among Christians because it appears that their constitutional religious liberties are being systematically circumvented, compromised, or taken away.
I’ve created my own version of the old story of three blind men who happen upon an elephant. You know the story: One runs into a leg and is convinced he’s found a tree; one comes upon the tail, convinced it’s a snake; while the third comes upon the trunk….
My version is a parable to explain what I see happening that is preventing an open dialogue about the resurrection. It has a message for both Christians and non-Christians (i.e., everyone).
The elephant here represents the institutional Christian church, (no particular denomination), and the Judeo-Christian ethic that lies behind our traditional system of law and moral values. Because of age and size, it has dominated everything else in the room—which we’ll call “America.”
Three blind men are in the room. One of the blind men, a convinced non-Christian, comes upon the mouth, feels its shape and size, and hears certain noises coming from it that sound really hostile to him. The thing moves a leg, the room quakes, and the man senses the danger it may pose to him and all else in the room. This blind man concludes that the animal is a hostile creature, ready to trample any and all creatures and he begins to seek a way to neutralize the danger that, he is sure, is about to erupt.
The second blind man is a Christian. For him, the elephant is a friendly creature, ready to welcome anyone and certainly other beings in the room. To him, this elephant was first on the scene, and therefore has a right to establish ground-rules for others that may enter. But the second man has become aware of the first blind man’s alarm and fright, and hears him call out for a rope to bind the legs of the elephant so that it cannot harm or interfere with other people or animals in the room. This second blind man gets frightened and attempts to fight off the effort to tie up the creature.
In the end, the third blind man (everyone else) runs away, afraid of the other two and terrified of the “thing” that they are fighting about. The elephant, of course, has become so upset and scared by now that it turns into a raging beast, kicks both men, shakes off the rope, destroys the walls of the room and leaves it unfit for anyone or any other elephants to inhabit.
A couple of explanations are needed, perhaps. First, the elephant represents the church as an institution, and is not synonymous with the teaching of Jesus. The church is generally made up of all people who claim to be his followers—there are those who think they are followers, yet only warm the pews.
Second, there is no significance in the fact that the second blind man, a Christian, is separate from the elephant (the church). No analogy or parable is perfect.
Here is where the toe stepping comes in. I am telling this parable against both sides: against Christians whose good intentions to stand for righteousness are drawing attention away from Jesus and his gospel—and the resurrection that witnesses to him. I’m also telling it against non-Christians whose good intentions are placing our common constitutional heritage at risk by seeking to squelch what they believe to be narrow mindedness and actual hate speech. Their efforts are allowing fear to grow in the very place in which we need freedom to think and discuss/debate. Our nation was directly founded by good folks who sought freedom and toleration for their beliefs. Any time we allow fear in the public square, we risk the death of freedom and democracy.
I grew up hearing the following statement about who we are as Americans—it’s attributed to Voltaire: “Mister, I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” I hope it’s still true.
Next: Replacing fear in America: “Do your thing, man!”