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Reality, Perception, and TEA

One of the great experiences of my life was meeting a Calvinist evangelist. His name is John Blanchard, and I only “met” him in a fairly large group, but it was clear that he was genuinely an evangelist and genuinely a Calvinist. He was asked during a question and answer session just how he reconciled evangelism with predestination. He said: “Predestination is a doctrine and I believe it; evangelism is a command and I obey it.”

Now I had grown up in a Seventh-day Adventist home, then left the church altogether, and returned in a United Methodist congregation. That is a solidly Wesleyan-Arminian background. To me, Calvinists were always “the other guys.” We knew what we believed, we knew what they believed, and they were incomprehensibly wrong. We couldn’t understand why they would evangelize or how they could stand the thought that God might unconditionally predestine someone to eternal torment.

But my perception ran apace into an actual Calvinist, and he wasn’t what I thought he was. Now my disagreement with Calvinism is undiminished, but my perception of Calvinists has changed because of him, and because of numerous other Calvinists I have personally encountered.

“Some of my best friends are black,” became a cliched excuse for racism in decades past. But if one applied it in reverse, it could be very helpful. Make “best friends” of some people who are not the same as you are, and you will learn things that you might not otherwise have any opportunity to learn.

I have noticed this while watching responses to the tea parties. There are several odd things about this. I heard one person say that all the tea parties were simply racist and nothing more. The people involved were just upset that there was an African-American in the White House. Others focused on the word “tea-bagging” and its sexual meaning (Google if you don’t know–and want to), as though “tea-bagging” was the biggest part of the protest.

The picture you get in the media is that these are a group of really crazy people who are protesting nothing that is very important, and are probably not really patriotic Americans after all. Another line is that the protests are not spontaneous, but rather are corporate or party sponsored. (What protest doesn’t involve an element of both?)

Where have I heard that before? Oh, I remember. It was in right wing comments about war protesters and pacifists. You could generate all this commentary with a computer program. Alternatively, you could just recycle it, inserting new slurs regarding all sides.

Now doubtless there are racists at tea parties. Just how are you going to block them at the gate? Doubtless there were some people who truly did hate America at anti-war protests. How could you identify them and stop them? It’s the nature of protest that crazy people will latch on. It’s the nature of extremist commentary to latch on to the crazies on the other side while ignoring the crazies on one’s own side.

Now my perception of tea parties is impacted by the fact that I know personally some of the people there, and the ones I know are not insane, or at least no more insane than I am (which may not be saying much!). I might prefer a protest of excessive spending and thus excessive deficits, though I actually think the worst threat to our economy right now is neither excessive spending as such, nor excessive taxation as such, but the offensive concept of government bailouts. Bailouts involve excessive spending of money we don’t have, thus building the deficit, and the money goes to reward people who have done stupid and destructive things, thus encouraging behavior that should be vigorously discouraged. Bailouts are, in my view, complete stupidity, carefully packaged, and not even reasonably well disguised.

But you know, these weren’t my tea parties, so the people who organized and attended them get to protest what they want in whatever way they prefer.

There are valid points for debate in here, but in general these valid points, some of which I addressed in my post on my business blog Democracy – Taxed by a Feeling–are not getting any attention. The simple fact is that most of us don’t really know what “fair” taxation might be. Just as we have been fighting terrorism for years without a real strategy, so we fight economic hardship without any sort of strategy or plan.

(Note: A strategy requires a goal, a plan, and some reason to believe the plan will reach the goal. Lacking any of the above, it should not be called a strategy.)

There is a way out of this approach to politics, and I think the internet facilitates it. Get to know people with a variety of perceptions. Read their blogs, follow their tweets, friend them on Facebook, or whatever method you prefer. Find some locally as well. The internet isn’t a substitute for personal contact; it’s an adjunct. I regularly read as diverse a set of blogs as Levellers, Pseudo-Polymath, Pursuing Holiness, Thoughts from the Heart on the Left, Shuck and Jive, and Elgin Hushbeck: Politics and Religion.

And those aren’t all. I have 233 subscriptions in my Google reader, and I at least check the titles every day, reading a selection. I follow a variety of people on Twitter, and try to get to know as many as possible. (Twitter still challenges me with its 140 character limit and fast moving data stream, but TweetDeck helps.)

The point is that meeting people who are different will challenge your perception of who they are and why they think the way they do. This may or may not impact what you believe yourself–that should be based on better reasons than the people you happen to know. What I’m interested in is your perception of the people involved. Get to know them, not a brief stereotype of them.

For Christian readers, let me reference 1 Corinthians 12, often known as the “gifts chapter.” The thing is, I think we miss the point when we treat this as Paul’s dissertation on spiritual gifts. What Paul is doing here is drawing on the fact of different gifts, and the way in which they are necessary to a functioning church body, as a way to teach about Christian unity and service. The focus is not on a list of gifts and offices, but rather on how those are brought together.

Diverse people with diverse gifts, called to different types of service are brought together by one Spirit to work in unity for a purpose. Note that we are not told that the people are made the same. Rather, they are made part of the same body.

This would be a wonderful demonstration for Christians to make to the world. It will require us to behave differently, get to know one another, and learn to differ constructively. I think that starts by letting our perceptions crash headlong into reality.

Yes, some of the people you think are crazy, probably are. Most of them, on the other hand, are probably much saner than you think, and if you stepped past the stereotypes, you might find you could learn from them. I have!

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