Sectarian Compassion

& Uncategorized.

As is obvious, I am not a blogger who comments regularly on happenings in the world. And I have been hesitant to break that pattern. The central reason is that a very occasional comment might give the wrong impression: as if I just care about the occasional isolated topic on which I focus. Anyone who really knew me would know otherwise. But I find myself simply too busy with the many tasks related to teaching a full load at Eastern Mennonite Seminary to comment often. But it is the case that my interests vary quite widely—even if I will comment only occasionally and thus on randomly selected topics.

I simply couldn’t pass this up. I am a regular listener to NPR (and when I am not sleeping well in the middle of the night, the BBC). I have been aware for some time that the bright and talented writers and commentators on NPR seem almost tone deaf to orthodox Christianity. Christianity is most often simply absent. When some comment is made about Christianity it is more often than not rooted in relative ignorance of the rich wealth of varied Christian traditions (or particular ones, for that matter). Or when they have a Christian on NPR, again more often than not, it is someone who is quite cynical or critical in regard to orthodox Christianity. (And I mean to refer to what I would call a generous orthodoxy. I mean nothing especially narrow by my reference.)

Anyway, it was on NPR that I heard yesterday (or the day before) about some anonymous individuals leaving large tips (sometimes $1000 or $5000 or more) for waiting staff at restaurants, anonymously. It was mentioned in the brief story that some of these tips come from an organization called “tips for Jesus.” The commentator felt compelled to add the editorial comment: “of course this is not about religion, it is simply about kindness.” (Or words to that effect. I didn’t write them down.)

On the other hand, of course, within the last week (and often) “religion” was to blame when NPR was discussing “sectarian” violence. And it was Christianity (and Western colonialism) that was being blamed for animating anti-gay laws in several African countries as I listened to an interview on the BBC last night. (Although, honesty compels me to add that the BBC interviewer kept pressing the gay Kenyan being interviewed to be honest about the fact that traditional African cultures had also opposed gay and lesbian sex, long before Pentecostals or Anglicans imported Christian views. Both seemed to miss the irony that the “universal” human rights language they were using was also, basically, a Western import.)

After I went to the trouble to read a couple of articles about “tips for Jesus,” I noticed that this anonymous donor added: “Doing the Lord’s work, one tip at a time.”  Another anonymous donor said, “God sent me here to help you.” Why were these statements not quoted on NPR? Why does this not lead at least some commentator on NPR to discuss “sectarian” compassion or generosity?  For after all, there is a good chance that some of these anonymous givers are members of particular churches, i.e. “sectarian” (distinct religious/Christian) groups.

George Steiner, influential literary and cultural critic said: “Even if we cannot believe that God is dead, it is clear that something has died. And that is the capacity of most of us for conducting our daily lives as if He were about, as if His existence and His interest in our affairs were fairly probable. This incapacity may have already had drastic consequences. It may be an honest explanation of the barbarism and confusion that attack our politics, and it may help to account for the turbulence in the private climate of the age.” (“God’s Acres,” The New Yorker, October 30, 1978, quoted in Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 3)

Perhaps many of us—including Christians—have trouble having a living faith in a living God because our “world” too often is defined—narrated—by those who are tone deaf to the Christian story. We need to reflect critically on what that means for how we live our lives. Perhaps we should live with the question: Who Gets to Narrate Our World?



The opinions expressed by the the author of this blog and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Eastern Mennonite University or any employee thereof. Eastern Mennonite University is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied within this blog.

5 Responses to “Sectarian Compassion”

  1. LeVon Smoker

    Yes. And there is a reflection of that “blame religion” game within the Mennonite community. It’s disconcerting as well as ahistorical. I recently heard a comment that went something like this: “the Mennonites figured out how to do relief work after war, but they never figured out how to prevent war.” Hello? Non sequitur alert! Nobody else seems to have figured out how to prevent war either. (This helps us blind ourselves to the fact that folks who want wars are pretty good at creating them.) At least the Mennos (mostly, and imperfectly) figured out that they shouldn’t participate in it. I get the feeling that the first thing a modern, “enlightened” Menno should do in the morning is engage in 10 minutes of self-flagellation – “bad Mennonite, bad Mennonite.”

    Anyway, good points.


  2. Andy

    Mark, could not agree with you more. I would also add that we who claim to be Christians, and I speak from my Methodist view point, often fail to narrate the Christian story in our lives. Some of us might be able to wear slogans on our shirts, but we are unable to narrate the Christian story. Every Sunday I ask for narratives of God’s movement in our lives, but often hear silence come back at me. I often wish I could hear someone say “Doing the Lord’s work, one tip at a time.” Or hear “the Lord, led me to a neighbor’s house to help shovel snow from their driveway.” Or “I gave some McDonald gift certificates to a hungry person today because of God’s greater love for the world.” It is not often that I do, and that is as deafening as the silence of the Christian story in the media like NPR and BBC.

  3. Michael Medley

    There needs to be a button to “like” comments like LeVon’s! Great reflections, Mark!

  4. Stuart Dauermann

    I remember as I am sure you do how seven years ago, Charles Roberts, a milk truck driver, went to an Amish school house and shot ten little girls, five of them fatally. It is what the Amish did subsequently that left the major media stunned and essentially speechless. Now seven years later, his former wife Marie Monville, says this about how the Amish responded. This is Anabaptism and Christianity at its most blazingly glorious.

    Hours after learning about what Charles Roberts had done, a contingent of the grieving Amish came to visit her.

    Monville recalled that she was standing in her parents’ kitchen, and she could see a group of the Amish walking towards her parents’ home.

    Her father offered to go outside and talk to them.

    “And I couldn’t hear the words they were saying, but I could see the exchange that was happening. I could see their arms extending. And the way they laid their hands on my dad’s shoulder. I could feel it,” she said.

    “I could feel the emotion of the moment. You know, it said everything,” she said, adding that her father said they had forgiven her husband. “They were concerned about me and concerned about the kids, and wanted us to know that they supported our family.”

    It didn’t end there. When her family was besieged by media en route to bury Charles Roberts, the Amish stepped in again. Even though they don’t like to have their pictures taken, members of the community placed themselves directly in front of news cameras to shield her family, Monville said.

    “They turned their backs to the cameras so the only pictures that could be taken were of them and not of our family. And it was amazing to me that they would choose to do that for us,” she said. “It was amazing. It was one of those moments during the week where my breath was taken away, but not because of the evil. But because of the love.”

    Don’t we wish this kind of portrait of the life of faith had legs in our culture’s market place? It is so much more penetrating, just, and transformational than what you justly decry in your blog. Thank you for doing so Mark. I guess Mennonites don’t “Fight the good fight,” but whatever it is you do instead, keep on keeping on!