catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 4 :: 2012.02.17 — 2012.03.01


Don’t rock the boat, baby

Or the not-nice taboo

If a fish has a tough time seeing water, people in central Pennsylvania have a tough time seeing niceness. I should know. I’ve lived here all my 49 years, and I’m cut from the same Saxon cloth as every Miller, Stoltzfus and Martin in Lancaster County.

But I’ve also been around a bit and have seen different ways of communicating. My best friend’s family is from North Jersey, and I also know a bunch of people from Philly. Nice? Fuggit-about-it!

Curiously, I live in the city of Lancaster, a forgotten treasure, populated with Latinos, Asians and most of the intellectual liberals within a fifty-mile radius. These “imports” from less homogeneously German areas, stand out by their verbal communication. They are louder and looser, both of which are taboos among the Quiet Folk.

My church includes mostly suburban, white, middle-class people. Some of us who live in the city traffic in a more “edgy” rhetoric, I suppose. I, for one, am more comfortable with disagreement, even voice-raising, than most of my peers. I don’t assume that disagreement equals divisiveness or rancor. I like a fair fight.

But our prevailing culture is exceedingly fair, cautious and shy.

I once attended a church core group meeting that began with the leader saying something like this:

We all have dreams about the perfect church. Today we need to bury those dreams and be unified. It’s not our place, as individuals, to think we can make the church what we want it to be. We are blessed to be a unified church, and we have so much to be thankful for. So, we’re going to start by giving thanks for what He’s doing in our midst through us. Let’s focus on the positive, not the negative.

That statement effectively cut out anyone who might have had a problem with the building program or wondered why we’re losing the single crowd or who felt, despite our public rhetoric, we might actually suck at some things.

Fact is, we perpetuate a taboo I call conversational discomfort. Like the carnival game Whack-a-Mole, as soon as that little bugger raises his sneaky head, we gently push it down. (Whacking him would not be nice, of course). And then we hope he stays out of sight.

Now, for sure, unity is what Jesus purchased by his blood for his us (John 17). And certainly, the apostle who wanted the Ephesians to speak “the truth in love" is the same one who pleaded with the Philippians to “do nothing out of rivalry and selfish ambition.”

But why should debate be considered taboo? Why are we so uncomfortable with those who rock the boat, even if they are motivated by love?  I’m going out on a limb here, but maybe we Pennsylvania Dutch tend be just plain cowards. Cowardice is a sin of omission I find myself confessing regularly. I create so many missed opportunities to speak truth lovingly. Guilty as charged. 

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that young Amish men stood by while a serial rapist tied up their young sisters so he could rape them in public one-by-one. The Nickel Mines killer started shooting his victims only when he knew his number was up. Why didn’t any dudes, except the cops, do anything?

If I were one of the young men at the Amish school that day, would I have tried to take the pervert out, at the risk of my own skin? I have prayed many times that I would have. I fear I too would’ve only winced from a distance.

The Plain People of our county have made an idol of peaceable-ness. We who share a bloodline with them also share a similar reticence to get involved, to raise our voices, and to be not-nice when it’s necessary.

I’m told that G.K. Chesterton complained about the color pink because it was neither white nor red (I can’t find the reference for that, but it sounds like him, doesn’t it?).  In the same way, niceness is neither truth nor love. It’s pinkness. Niceness promotes a false sense of unity. It may be better than nastiness, but it’s worse than cowardice. Niceness is propaganda that prevents people, even earnest Christians, from really dealing with human brokenness and human glory.

As a response, I’m trying to model and advocate a willful preparation to  “speak the truth in love.” Such a stance requires three things:

First, that I speak. I take the risk of expressing what I’m really thinking. I trash my passiveness in favor of courageous conversation and action.

Second, that I tell the truth. When I do open my mouth, I do not fear rocking boats. I refuse half-truths designed to create comfort. I stop lying.

Third, that I love.  I check my motives to ensure I’m talking because I love my audience and not because I just want to rock the boat.

And seeing how all of this is pretty much impossible, I need the Lord Jesus to help me pull it off. I’m grateful he’s no coward. Nor is he pink. He speaks his truth in love to me all day and in every way. 

your comments

comments powered by Disqus