Obtuse Is As Obtuse Does

Okay, let’s face it, we have a lot of differences that are not easily reconcilable.  We are split over dozens — maybe hundreds of issues.  So, why do we go out of our way to misunderstand one another and to ascribe negative (even malicious) intention where there is none?  Obviously, the current political campaigning is an excellent illustration, but let’s not go there.  Let’s keep it close to home.  I’ll use a personal example.  I attended a conference last week, then came home to a long holiday weekend.  When I checked my email, I found seven angry messages about “what I said” about Imagine No Malaria.  Now, this is news to me, since I can’t remember the last time I said anything about Imagine No Malaria, but I guess someone “quoted” me at a recent regional gathering.  Interestingly, the “quotes” are actually quotes, but taken out of context they are being used to convey a very different meaning.  Here are three quotes pulled from things I have written:

  1. “…the United Methodist Church creates a bigger problem by saving all these lives.”
  2. “It is irresponsible to take such a simplistic approach to such a complex problem.  This isn’t just about combatting one disease.  The solution just shifts the problem elsewhere, but let’s us feel good about ourselves.”
  3. “…anything less than a systems approach to global health is indefensible.  …we are compounding a tragedy.”

Man, I sound like a real jerk, don’t I?  Badmouthing our efforts against malaria!  What was I thinking?  Well, first of all, these quotes all come from a panel discussion at Vanderbilt University in 2008, when our Nothing But Nets emphasis was in full swing.  I had been working with three professors on a critical examination of what is happening in Africa — specifically in areas of economic sustainability, continent-wide health concerns, and the growing problems of malnutrition, starvation, and tribal/gang/domestic violence.  My role in the discussion was to explain what The United Methodist Church was doing, and to set our war on malaria in a larger context.  The bottom line was simply this: saving a baby’s life is just the first step in a lifelong commitment and responsibility.  It might only take $10 to buy a net and save an infant’s life, but it requires over $7,500 of support to raise the child to adulthood.  The sustainability experts laid out a bleak view of unintended consequences — growing malnutrition, starvation, various childhood diseases, overcrowding, tribal competition for diminishing resources, rising youth violence, and a half-dozen other ills — all supported by World Health Organization reports and statistics.  The more successful Westerners are at saving infant lives, the greater the burden placed on African infrastructure.  The example used was that it costs $2.5 million dollars to save 250,000 lives; it will cost one billion, eight hundred seventy-five million ($1,875,000,000) to bring those children to adulthood.  My challenge — then and now — is: are we truly willing to assume responsibility for the lives we are saving?  The price tag for saving a life is not $10, but $7,500+.  We need to be honest about this.

So, my quotes were actually these (in context):

  • “Whenever we ignore responsibility for the larger picture, the United Methodist Church creates a bigger problem by saving all these lives.”
  • “It is irresponsible to take such a simplistic approach to such a complex problem.  This isn’t just about combatting one disease.  The solution just shifts the problem elsewhere, but let’s us feel good about ourselves.  True, fewer children are dying of malaria, but more children are dying due to malnutrition, starvation and violence than ever before.”
  • “No one is saying we shouldn’t do everything in our power to save lives, but saving a life takes more than a net — it takes food, clean water, medicine, education, and providing hope for a decent future; anything less than a systems approach to global health is indefensible.  Unless we are willing to feed, shelter, clothe, care for, and nurture the lives we save, we are compounding a tragedy.”

Now, you may read these quotes in context and still think I am a jerk.  That’s cool.  I am okay with anyone disagreeing with me — when they deal fair and square.  I hate being misquoted and misrepresented.  Anyone who says I have ever claimed we should not fight malaria is lying.  I have been a staunch supporter of this effort.  In fact, I have been almost a lone voice saying we need to do MORE rather than less.  I have been critical that we took the path of least resistance and tackled something that seems simple when it is not, but that doesn’t mean I am against the effort.  I just think if we’re going to do something, we should do it with integrity.

As Christians, I believe we need to play by a better set of rules than the rest of the world.  Twisting words, ascribing intention, lying and trying to make those we disagree with look bad are all rules of the secular game — but we can do better.  Critics of contemporary Christianity accused us of being obtuse, and when we work so hard within the fold to attack and discredit each other, we merely fuel the fire.  There is a lot of room for us to learn to speak the truth in love.

13 replies

  1. I don’t know you except through your writings. So I read a statement like “A handful of churches whose leaders have no clue what is really happening draw bigger numbers” and yes, I see that as a universal declarative about large church pastors.

    • Say more. If you feel I have twisted the truth to make my point, then I respect your opinion. Otherwise your comment doesn’t make sense. I think the way our denomination has cheapened our image is what makes the world see us as obtuse. The two messages align very closely if you are in agreement that when we make the complex simplistic and facile we are doing as much harm as good. If you think making church/faith popular and easy is a good thing, I can see how you would hate what I am saying in both pieces.

      • These words below from June 14 are not speaking the truth in love, the very thing you ask for in this most recent post:

        Any time the church panders to such low expectations and behaviors, shame on us. And many of our clergy and laity leaders are the primary culprits. A handful of churches whose leaders have no clue what is really happening draw bigger numbers, and like lemmings to the cliff-edge others blindly flock, seeking to learn the great wisdom of these minority churches. There is no wisdom for easy growth. Fundamentally, growth is about context and chemistry and being in the right place at the right time. The vast majority of our “successful” pastors are one-hit-wonders who are popular in one place, then never able to repeat their success anywhere else in their ministry. These are the pastors that write the books and teach the seminars. And generally their only claim to fame is they came to a small church and made it big.

        First, the words are not true because they imply that the larger a congregation becomes, the more unfaithful and vapid it must be. I know plenty of large church that are as deep as they are wide and I know plenty of tiny churches that are small because they are so thin.

        Second, to claim that a whole subset of pastors and leaders “have no clue” suggests to me the words are not loving.

      • You speak as if I made these statements as universal declaratives. Where did I “claim that a whole subset” of anything “have no clue”? I better understand the filters you are choosing to read through, but don’t impose them on what I said — that’s just… obtuse.

  2. Everything, scripture included, needs to be considered in context.

    And our history is one of encouraging intellectual thought and questioning the status quo, and I think it would be good for us to think more carefully, think more deeply, and think things through so that we make thoughtful decisions.

    What I see all too frequently is a race to find a slogan that everyone can get excited about in order to achieve pep rally unity, and which has to be shallow due to our diversity. Anyone who questions the slogan or even inquires about it is then attacked for undermining the “health” of the denomination or disrupting the “unity” achieved.

  3. Hermeneutic charity is lacking in the church and in the world; the “hit piece” has become the norm of communication. We should be better than this. It is hard, though – maybe even harder for us than the world – because everyone thinks Jesus is on their side. You are to be commended, though, because you could have been much more aggressive in your response here than you were, and that took restraint.

  4. Hi Dick, I really agree with this: “As Christians, I believe we need to play by a better set of rules than the rest of the world.” That speaks to the systems approach you advance. My quarrel with the church has been that we seem to content to take very small (reactive) actions as a way of addressing very big problems rather than be proactive. Like cleaning up after floods and hurricanes, instead of taking a look at what’s contributing to such a steep rise in natural and unnatural disasters. Then dealing with those thing. Here I speak of climate change, deforestation, poverty, etc.

  5. I don’t, and can’t see me ever thinking that you are a “jerk”.
    IF ONLY what wendy points out could be reversed (NOT wanting 60’/1-2 sound bites) and we would SLOW DOWN AND RESEARCH stuff — Imagine…..

  6. The problem is that no one wants to actually take the time to read or listen to a multi paragraph position on anything. What we seem to want is 60 second 1-2 sentence sound (or written word) bytes. The idea that any useful discussion can be seriously discussed like that is ludicris. My son was in Benin Africa in the Peace Corp and anyone who thinks that problems there can be solved by just buying some nets is exhibiting wishful thinking.

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