Jason Byassee: A pastoral response to meanness

What does a pastor say when a visitor curses her at the church door? Would "And also with you" work?

A pastor friend greeted a visitor after church Sunday. Normally, it’s a joyous moment. If as a pastor you don’t feel the joy, you had better fake it. Look the person in the eye. Thank them for coming. And do everything you can to figure out who they are so you can visit them, encourage them to come back, and bring them into the church.

None of that happened this time.

As the pastor extended her hand the visitor took it, told her she was “a goddamn liar” and stomped out, muttering something about abortion and tax dollars. Apparently the pastor had offended the visitor during the prayer requests, when she referred to the vitriol on display at a political rally in Washington the day before. The pastor’s sermon wasn’t even about that. It didn’t matter.

This verbal assault on a pastor by a stranger struck me as strikingly similar to the “You lie!” that Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted at President Barack Obama during his recent address to Congress. The public yawp of rudeness -- whether at the church door or in the House chamber -- is what is most striking. We do not have a tradition of heckling our head of state in this country. We don’t impugn their characters to their face in front of a world audience. To the best of my knowledge, the same has generally been true for pastors as well. We certainly don’t curse at them in the brief post-worship doorway visits. Or at least we didn’t until recently.

What do these two nasty instances of rudeness, one a public scandal, the other a private exchange, mean? One, as several evangelical authors have pointed out in fine, but clearly underread books, we need to retrieve a culture of civility. Wherever basic kindness has gone, wherever at least minimal deference for positions of authority may be hiding, we could stand to get some of it back. Blame whomever you like (my preference is hate radio). But people used to believe in respect for the office that an authority occupied, even if not for the individual currently holding it. Liberals were naturally guilty of the same disrespect for individuals that blurred into disrespect of an office during George Bush’s presidency. And clearly one visitor to a church needs to learn how to mind her manners.

Second, I’m struck by the enormity of the claim that someone is lying. It’s an extraordinarily high bar to clear to show that someone is knowingly contravening the truth. It’s much easier to claim that someone is wrong, and grant that there may be legitimate difference of opinion on a matter. But to claim that a pastor or president knows a truth and intentionally misleads away from it is another thing altogether.

My third observation is that pastors have a responsibility to stand up and confront rudeness, whether at the doorway on Sunday or in a congregational meeting.

This reflection comes from an incident recounted by another pastor friend. In a contentious congregational meeting, longtime members thundered away about how terrible a proposed new ministry initiative would be, while newer members mostly cowered on the sidelines.

Thinking about the incident later, the pastor asked “Why have we let people think it’s ok to act like that?” As in most congregations, her older members had been faithfully attending, participating and tithing for decades.

But we pastors, being peacemaker types, have not confronted them when they bullied others. This has been a pastoral disservice. To treat a pastor or anyone else like dirt is to act in a way unworthy of the life we are called to as Christians.

Maybe the best way we can push back is with a counter-assault —of kindness.

I’m talking about an aggressive kindness that takes sheer meanness, absorbs it and responds with love. This is not a proposal for wimpiness, but strength. It’s the sort of answer Jesus gives to those who murdered him. Not acquiescence, or passive acceptance, but active, engaged, love -- often of enemies. Brian McLaren writes that the best way to respond to the fanatical hatred we see among fundamentalists is with equal fanaticism— fanatical love. But at the same time, I’m talking about an aggressive kindness that also holds others to account.

Perhaps the best model of aggressive kindness is the civil rights movement, which used engaged nonviolence to hold others accountable and changed the world. Given the rise of angry public discourse we may need a new infusion of it just to survive the average congregational meeting or random angry visitors.

What would kindness have meant in my friends’ situations? At the door, maybe nothing. Maybe a simple “We don’t talk that way in this house,” would have been kind enough.

In routine congregational life, a pastor might not be the best person to insist on kindness from parishioners. Healthy churches often have a leader or two who is willing to take another aside and talk sense to them. Pastors come and go. Fellow patriarchs or matriarchs stay behind. One who has the guts to insist on kindness from a fellow parishioner goes a long way toward a healthy congregation—one in which would-be bullies aren’t allowed to gore the innocent without challenge.