Do you have words that serve as a form of shorthand when used among your family and friends? Yet, heard by those not in-the-know, those words are easily misinterpreted.
As fans of Arthur Ransome’s charming book, Swallows and Amazons, our family adopted a sentence that appears early in the story. On summer holiday in the early days of the 20th century, Mrs. Walker is unsure whether to let her four children head out on a boating/camping trip in the nearby lakes. She sends a letter asking her deployed husband’s advice. The Royal Navy officer responds, “BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN.”
Never for an instant did we or our children think that the father didn’t care if his children drowned. He was conveying his confidence that they were capable and responsible. However, when our thirteen-year-old boat-owning son invited a young friend to accompany him on an overnight sailing trip on Lake Washington, my husband’s use of that sentence almost sabotaged the trip. When the friend’s father came over to discuss our son’s skills and the seaworthiness of his boat, my husband blithely said, “Better drowned than duffers; if not duffers won’t drown.” Having no inkling that this was a meaningful quote rather than a callous dismissal, the father retorted rather strongly that he did actually care if his son drowned. (The boys did go and had a wonderful—and safe—time.)
I thought of this story after reading an opinion piece by a college teacher that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Crispin Sartwell raised an interesting idea, that the inability to hear an opposing point of view and the demonization of anyone whose opinions don’t mirror one’s own is a result of the self-esteem movement. It is an idea worth discussing, but that isn’t the part of his article on which I want to focus.
In what I assume is an attempt to show balance, Mr. Sartwell opens his piece by mentioning how the knitting site Ravelry has banned anything, including knitting patterns, that suggests support for President Trump. He then cites how preacher Paula White spoke of breaking “every demonic network” working against the president in a prayer preceding the kick-off of President Trump’s re-election campaign. In other words, both those on the left and on the right believe that if you think differently than I do, you need to be silenced.
I’m going to speak very plainly now. It is possible that you think that I am way off base and, if so, I expect you to tell me. Maybe I only have part of the story and you can fill in more. But, I do want to share my thoughts.
I have probably spent more time with various leaders and members of Evangelical churches than most non-Evangelicals. I include in this group not only Jews, but Catholics, the unaffiliated, atheists, members of other Protestant denominations and of other religions. My husband and I appear at dozens of Evangelical churches every year. From my vantage point, I heard Paula White very differently from how Crispin Sartwell heard her. Let me explain.
I sometimes hear a rabbi whose views should parallel mine as we share a belief in the written and oral Torah. Like my husband and me, he also restricts his diet to that which is kosher and like us he also observes the Sabbath and he conducts himself similarly to how we do in other important ways. Yet I hear him speak in a way that mortifies me. I consider his words to be a desecration of God’s name. I think his words or actions are so mistaken that they misrepresent the God I know and drive people away from wanting a relationship with Him. That is embarrassing, but it shouldn’t be shocking. No group is composed only of those who always make other members of the group proud or who reliably represent the correct path. The words may not even accurately represent the speaker’s views.
Yet, there are other times when I agree with a Jewish religious leader’s words but cringe at his lack of awareness of how those words will sound to a crowd that has no background with which to make sense of what is being said. If he (or she) said those words to students or peers who will put them in context the words would be fine, but speaking in a format where his words will be public for even people with no background to hear is a different case.
When I read Paula White’s words, I understood her use of the words praying for the crushing of a “demonic network” and “enemy” to refer, not to individuals who don’t support President Trump, but to evil spiritual forces at work. I have heard words like that used when my Evangelical friends are praying for a relative who has cancer. There it is obvious that the reference is not to an individual, but to a force with which they are grappling. If Pastor White was speaking in her church, everyone would understand the context. But she wasn’t. She was speaking at a political event.
I don’t believe that those of us who are religious should change our views or pander to those who don’t share our faith. But we should accord them respect. Retaining integrity in what one says while being aware that the crowd is diverse and of different faiths and backgrounds is a challenge that I think that we can, and must, meet.