Miss Martin, where are you?
Where is Brenda Martin when you need her? Who is Brenda Martin you ask? She was my first grade teacher at Howard Perrin Elementary School in Benton, Arkansas. The reason I ask this is Miss Martin had a real knack for getting to the bottom of what was causing incivility between folks. It’s been 39 years since I first met her, but I can still recall her familiar inquiry “kids what seems to be the problem?” This question got your attention quickly because at times she could be as intimidating as Darth Vader. The response to her inquiry was usually finger pointing and the all too familiar “he/she started it” blame gaming teachers and parents know all too well. I remember Miss Martin’s words so clearly because more times than not I was one of the kids on the receiving end of her inquisition.
In elementary school, as now, I enjoy a good conversation. Well…let me offer a few words of recent self-revelation: I have always enjoyed talking. It is only recently that I have come to realize that many of my “conversations” in this life have consisted of my talking until I have concluded my remarks and then resulted in my hanging up the phone or my physical departure from the premises. One wonders if there is a connection between my liking to talk so much that I am a pastor and a former journalist who sought out a venue to publish my writings because apparently I have a lot to say. But I digress, this isn’t a therapy session and I am starting to allow my ADD to creep into the task at hand. Sooo…back to Miss Martin and her holding folks accountable for their self-centered disruptive behavior which interrupts the formative process of education and her mandating children seek to understand their peer’s perspective so they can move forward to resolving the conflict at hand.
I would like to suggest that perhaps the United States House of Representatives and society at large might benefit from someone with the authority and perspective of a first grade teacher like Miss Martin to make the people’s House and society get over their childlike squabbling and move forward in resolving conflict. Whether you want to quote Jesus or Lincoln, both spoke profoundly when they spoke the words “A house divided against its self cannot stand.” Lincoln used the words after he was nominated in 1858 as the Republican Nominee for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. He was talking about our nation’s division over the issue of slavery. Jesus’ was addressing the topic of evil and how the powers of darkness do not operate in opposition to each other for that is not in their best interest to accomplish their objectives as opposed to those of the Light. (God) While it may be a bit of a political/theological stretch I think looking at the current state of affairs in congress though both of these lenses Jesus/Lincoln might offer us some insight. I think there is a state of slavery in the U.S. House of Representatives to the point that I might be in favor of changing the name from the House of Representatives to the House of the Beholden. I mean let’s be honest who are the majority of this Congress representing? Hearing anything really thought provoking or groundbreaking from anyone other than the demonizing campaign lines you’ve been hearing for the last thirty years has been all too rare. Different perspectives are great, but being blindly loyal to ideology may get you press, notoriety and elected but it won’t solve one problem and usually deepens conflict. This is true in our own personal and private lives as well. This country was founded on ideals not ideology. To be fair, this is an issue at all levels of government…and too often in our personal and professional lives. Voter registration and actual voting are at an all- time low over the last few decades. I recently went door-to-door to get signatures for someone who was going to run for city council on a petition and was astounded to find out how many folks in nice, upwardly mobile folks in one of the neighborhoods I was walking were not registered voters. I found this to be true across a spectrum of folks the longer I walked. It was true from the well-heeled-many well educated folks to those who are struggling to get by. Both groups and many in between are so turned off with the behavior of candidates and the media covering them they have just opted out of voting. I can’t help but wonder if both don’t love this low level of voter participation. I mean think about it, both parties benefit by having to target their message to a smaller audience, which means spending less to get out the vote and the ugliness of the campaigns keeps all but their party loyalists away from the polls.
“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand”
It is disheartening and it seems they/we spend the majority of their time interrupting one another, demonizing one another and calling each other names. When this happens, things don’t get done we the people point our fingers at our neighbors instead of accepting any responsibility ourselves. There seems to be a plague of unwillingness to hear the perspective of others with an open mind and a teachable spirit so we can work towards the common good. So if this is the case amongst adults how can we expect kids to grow up to be responsible, civil adults who care about something beside themselves and getting what “they want.” Some say it’s a sense of entitlement, I say this is partially right. This is true with some of the nation’s wealthiest top 2% of income who feel they should get out of paying taxes in a nation whose very system gave them the freedom to earn their billions and stretches all the way across to some folks on the poverty end of the scale who want a free ride. The majority of folks all across the board to quote former President Clinton, “are working hard and playing by the rules.” However, we tend to paint with a broad demonizing brush. We tend to demonize only one side based on our partisan stripe. Is this what Jesus taught? Is this Christian? Is it what our founding fathers envisioned? Is it what your parents and grandparents tried to instill in you? The thing about stereotypes is while they may contain some truth in some situations, they also contain some narrow-minded preconceived. prepackaged prejudice. We think our perspective is nobler and forget the teachings of Jesus and Lincoln.
My Dad used to tell me quite frequently as a young lad “There is a difference between needing and wanting.” Most of the time I heard this refrain on Saturday mornings when we watched cartoons and I would follow up every other commercial directed at kids with a hearty, “Oh Daddy I want!” We and our leaders get too get caught up in “I want “ instead of what we need.
I am not asking you to agree with everything I am implying, but just to read it and see if you feel if any of it has merit that those in serving in government and maybe… ourselves as well need a Brenda Martin in their lives to hold us accountable for our actions when conflict arises and make us hush and actually listen to a perspective different than our own instead of spending the entire time others are talking contemplating how we are going to respond and one up them in heated dialogue. It’s a pattern that does not serve any of us well. I have great friends that I respect, who I don’t agree with on a variety of topics, but that doesn’t make my perspective superior. However, I think the place our political/social/religious/family/financial dialogue too often resides is Mt. Arrogance instead of Mt. Sinai where Holy, Sacred, Conversations about doing things that push us out of our comfort zone for the common good of all people. I would challenge everyone who reads this to do something that is going to stretch you emotionally, intellectually and possibly spiritually over the next month. I plan to do this very thing I am challenging you to do and it won’t be easy for me as well. If you have a friend or colleague who you have a long standing disagreement sit down and break bread with them (Coffee is not an option unless it’s decaf because it raises your blood pressure!) and in a civil, non-threatening, non-passive aggressive manner ASK THEM POLITELY AND WITH A CONTRITE HEART to share with you why they believe, feel and think the way they do on the issue at hand. Now, the hard part for you will be to keep your mouth shut, not roll your eyes, fidget, cross your arms and huff…all things Brenda Martin would have either gotten her paddle out for you doing or made you go stand in the corner until you decide you could conduct yourself like a Lady or Gentlemen. In this “land of milk and honey” and our abundance I fear civility and respecting others is on life support and I think we as Christians have a goal to cultivate and promote it in our own lives and society in general. Who knows? Maybe it will start a groundswell and we can live into the teachings of Jesus and Lincoln. My frustration with government does make me wonder if there is a connection between parents who let their kids run wild and yell at educators for disciplining their children and the incivility we see in Washington, PTA meetings, School Boards, Little League games and when talking to our neighbors. “Love the Lord your God with your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Jason Ferguson grew up in Benton and after sneaking out of UALR with a degree in journalism he worked in public policy, campaign politics and journalism before shocking the world by attending and then graduating from seminary. For the last 12 years he's served as a pastor and hospital chaplain in Kansas & Arkansas. He is the pastor of 1st Christian Church of Sherwood (sherwoodfcc.org). Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.