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Thanks, but No Thanks

Some lettuce is bitter, some lettuce is succulent and some lettuce is completely flavorless, but it’s lettuce to most folks. So it’s easy for progressive Christians to be lumped in with evangelicals the way different kinds of lettuce all mean salad to those who don’t much like their greens.

And the evangelicals have again made headlines with their efforts to begin proselytizing Muslims. Their plans for Iraq include distributing humanitarian aid to a people captive to their basic needs—and thus vulnerable to having their own faith traditions dismissed or supplanted.

This doesn’t bode well for anybody. It continues to allow the media-stereotyping of all Christians as narrow-minded Bible thumpers, and undercuts the work of mainline and progressive Christians who seek to promote interfaith understanding, as well as humanitarian aid with no strings attached.

So why is the evangelical approach dangerous? And why is it a bad thing to lump all Christians together like lettuce?

Because the paternalistic evangelical approach to a people in dire need leads to coercion and disrespect. And lumping Christians together under that banner leads to stereotyping, which only fosters prejudice and resentment.

So here’s a little fable that tells us why paternalism and stereotyping don’t work—or why women aren’t stupid and not all men are bad.

It was 1984, the year that Geraldine Ferraro made headlines as the first female in United States history to appear on a presidential ticket, as Walter Mondale’s running mate.

It was 1984, the year my roommates and I got our Master’s degrees at the University of Virginia. Annie and her beau thought that was a good time to get married.

So the three of us housemates—Annie, Vanessa and I—went down to Charlottesville’s fancy pedestrian mall to look for wedding dresses.

Annie was a working-class kid from Rochester. She drove a beat-up Renault whose stick shift she had just—barely—mastered. I drove a beat-up Plymouth Fury station wagon, bigger than my boyfriend’s Chevy Luv truck and way uglier. Vanessa didn’t have a car at all.

And we were all Yankees. Democrats.

You’ve figured out that this is not a story about a wedding dress. Annie didn’t find one that day. Not one she could afford, anyway. So we decided to pool together the week’s dregs of our teaching-assistant salaries and go out for Mexican. Wedding dresses would wait.

Problem was, when we got back to the cars, we’d discovered that Annie had left her car running. For an hour and a half.

And she’d left the keys in the car.

And then she’d locked the car.

Maybe a case of pre-wedding jitters.

Fortunately, it was rush hour in Charlottesville. Which is to say that a lot of men in very nice suits and clean white shirts and club ties were walking to their cars from the law offices they were leaving.

One of them fetched a wire coat hanger from his office and tried, in vain, to work on the door lock. He gave up and Vanessa went to a phone booth to call for a locksmith.

Another guy in a very nice suit and tie came by and put his foot against the exhaust pipe until the car sputtered and stalled out, explaining we wouldn’t waste gas this way. We smiled, thanked him and he walked on.

The locksmith came and Annie wrote him a check that would probably clean out her account for that week. Then she got into the car and turned the key.

Nothing. She tried again. Nothing.

The nice man who’d put his foot against the exhaust pipe so we wouldn’t run out of gas had instead helped to drain the battery.

I had my very large Plymouth Fury station wagon. But I didn’t have any jumper cables. And Charlottesville’s rush hour was pretty much winding down. There weren’t too many more men in nice suits, clean white shirts and club ties strolling to their cars.

But there was one who saw us, a trio of distressed damsels, standing next to Annie’s beat-up Renault.

And this nice man in his tidy suit swung his little jaunty little Jag nose-to-nose with the Renault. He whipped out a set of jumper cables. He pulled on a pair of butter-soft leather gloves. (Yes! Leather gloves!) Then he directed his well-tanned face and Wedgwood-blue eyes beneath the hood of Annie’s car.

“This is what happens,” he started, “when women think they can run for president. You three girls can’t even use a set of jumper cables, yet you and Mrs. Ferraro think that putting a woman in the White House is such a darned brainy idea.”

And that was just the beginning of his lecture.

The three of us looked at each other. From the fire in Vanessa’s eyes I could see she was thinking of slamming the lid shut on his tidy blond head. But we sure needed those jumper cables. We were stuck with having to listen to his sermon on the inadequacies of our gender.

(Now, in real life, poetic justice is about as rare as economic justice. And because of that, I can’t resist telling you what happened next. Because things this satisfying never actually happen. Only, this one did.)

When Mr. Club Tie switched on his engine to jump-start Annie’s little old car, nothing happened. He just didn’t have enough firepower. His Jag lacked the juice. Try as he might, that little sports car just couldn’t make the connection.

But I, I had that big old Plymouth Fury station wagon, bigger than a Chevy Luv truck and twice as ugly. And I got behind the wheel, waited till the Jag was out of the way, put myself nose-to-nose with Annie’s Renault and used Mr. Club Tie’s jumper cables to give Annie the boost her battery needed. It was, as they say, a moment.

But it was a rare moment.

You can draw your own conclusions from the story. The Iraqi people need aid, but don’t deserve having Islam belittled or demeaned anymore than Annie, Vanessa and I needed to be told what was wrong with our gender.

And not all Christians are like the Jag-man in the story, with his leather gloves and weak connection. Vulnerability is no license for coercion.

—Jo Page

 You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org.


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