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Essay

Hockey, Rabbis, and Cops

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Three reflections. None standalone blog-worthy. But perhaps one of the three will provoke, nourish, or amuse you.

Last spring, I went to a hockey game. It was okay. Like most minor league sports, the game is the glue that holds together an array of inanities and advertisements. By the third period, I was bored enough to be playing around on my phone. Suddenly, the guy ahead of us turned around and snapped at me, “Stand up and pay attention.” Apparently the inanity of the moment required attention and standing.

I wish I could report that I responded in true Christ-like manner, turning the other cheek or thanking the gentleman for his concern for me. Instead, I shot back something like, “Leave me alone!” Listlessly, I stood up. For the rest of game there was tense silence between his row and mine.

The game over I thought to myself, “I’m never going back to a hockey game. What a bunch of jerks hockey fans are!”

My comments reminded me of what I hear from people who have had a bad experience at church—twenty-five years ago their Sunday School teacher was mean, or their father was mistreated by a church board in 1962—comments I usually am not very patient about. Let it go. It’s ancient history. Go see a therapist if you must, but honestly, get over it. Don’t blame me and my church for something that happened when Gerald Ford was president.

After my hockey game experience, I have a little more sympathy for these people. What would it take for them to give the church a second chance? Why should they? Will I ever go back to a hockey game?

*****

Interfaith dialogue: I’m for it. I think pretty much everyone understands that its goal is not to produce a single world religion or to conclude “we’re all just going up different sides of the same mountain.” If it simply brings some understanding, some mutual respect, and teaches us how to be good neighbors, that’s great.

I was taken aback then, when I read a rather incisive comment about interfaith dialogue. Basically, it made the case that often interfaith dialogue is, unintentionally, a classist activity. Learned Protestants and broadminded Muslims have more in common and find it easier to be around one another than either would have with the fundamentalists of their own faith. Urbane Jesuits enjoy the company of Jewish scholars more than they do some belligerent, blue collar Catholic. Is it so? The real challenge for us isn’t to have fine conversations with that winsome rabbi; it is to talk with that born-again Baptist from Alabama, or even that hardheaded Calvinist around the corner.

Interfaith dialogue is just shuffling the cards into different piles—sorting by class and education rather than religion? I don’t want to impugn or hamper interfaith dialogue, but these claims caught me off guard.

*****

Seemingly every week, or sadly even more often, we see something about a police officer killing someone—usually a person of color—in highly questionable circumstances. Less than a day later, we can expect to hear comments like “I support our police.” “It’s a tough job and we should be grateful.” “#Police lives matter.”

I am part of a line of work that has been rightfully scorned, disparaged, and condemned. If a member of the clergy isn’t molesting children, they’re absconding with funds, running off with the organist, bullying their board, padding their book sales, or wearing a Confederate flag t-shirt while burning the Quran.

It is easy to get defensive. I understand what the police and their supporters are trying to do. We all know there are many fine police and also many fine clergy, of all sorts. But circling the wagons, responding tit-for-tat, trying to excuse or hide bad behavior gets you nowhere.

It took a while, but I think most clergy now understand that the better route is to distinguish themselves from the dangerous and the dumb, to have open, squeaky-clean investigations, to take away their credentials, to come down hard on them, to make it clear that there is no room, no tolerance for their abhorrent actions. I hope the many, many good people in law enforcement, and their friends, will reach that same conclusion.

Book of MormonWhen I went to see the bawdy musical The Book of Mormon, I was surprised and impressed by the advertising from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the program. It was clever, funny, and friendly. “You’ve seen the play. Now read the book” Not a drop of defensiveness, almost self-deprecating. I hear that The Book of Mormon just finished a sold-out run at it’s first-ever appearance in Salt Lake City.

Those Mormons get it. Maybe Christians and cops will catch on.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

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