Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Being Surprised

You might want to check out a fine article by Cynthia Gorney on the total abortion ban in South Dakota in 6/26 issue of The New Yorker.

What I liked best about it was that it highlighted the complexity of people's thinking on the issue of abortion, and made the citizens of South Dakota seem like a thoughtful people, not like the misogynist anti-choice haters I had so easily wanted to collectively brand them.

The article highlights the effort to put the state's ban on abortion up for a vote in November, reporting in poignant detail some South Dakotan's reactions to the petitioners. A hip young woman declines to sign with a firm "no." An elderly lady "with rheumy eyes and salon-smoothed white curls" grabs the clipboard in her zeal to get her name on the petition.

The Republican mayor of Rapid City, SD, the anti-choice son of the best-known (illegal) abortion doctor in the northern Plain states, says this about abortion,

"Let me say this, so it's real clear -- I loved my dad. But the right-to-life people -- I've listened to what they say, and they're not wrong about a lot of that stuff. If you're going to be fair, you can't just say, 'They're zealots, they don't understand.' This really mushy definition of when it's a fetus and when it's a baby? ...when you have photographic, gestational data that shows what a fetus looks like, you start noticing that it's not a zygote. At some point, it's a human being."

Standard enough stuff, sure, with the added poignancy of the son grappling with his father's work as a provider of abortions.

But then, look what this pro-life Republican says later,

"This country is in deep shit. The United States is in trouble financially, and in many other ways, and people want these problems solved, and when you start coming into their bedrooms because people like Bill Napoli want to make a name for themselves -- coming into their bedrooms, even if someone has been raped -- you really strip our ability to deal with these massive issues."

Surprised? Me, too. It's refreshing to be surprised these days. Being manipulated, as we constantly are, to see each other in terms of black and white (or more specifically, blue and red) it's almost giddying to be reminded that the folks across the picket line are as complex as we are. As thoughtful. As upset. As convinced. More untamed by creed and ideology than you think, and often unfairly and inaccurately labelled.

Another happily surprising moment in Gorney's article comes when interviews a drugstore owner from Sioux Falls who says, "I'm Catholic, so I'm pro-life. I'm a Republican, too. But I think my personal beliefs would not necessarily make good law."

This is where I murmur to myself, "Take that, Miss Blue State Liberal Demonizer of South Dakotans!"

Of course I'm biased. As an adamantly pro-choice American, I will naturally take heart when so-called "pro-choice" individuals are nuanced enough in their thinking to support reproductive freedom for women.

The evidence that some pro-life South Dakotans are dismayed by their anti-choice legislature, as good news as it was, wasn't so much the thrill in reading this article.* The thrill was to be reminded of the surprise of human beings.

I love -- well, I mostly love --- the surprise of people. The surprising unknowability of people provides perhaps my deepest sources of fascination and awe in the pastoral ministry, often even when the surprise is unpleasant.

The staid stockbroker with the porn addiction, the globe-trotting, absinthe-drinking soccer mom, the timid man who leaves his wife and runs off with a woman he met on the internet, the scandalous adulterous affair between the physically disfigured man and his gorgeous female companion, the pathologically shy man whose closest companion is his dog, the well-adjusted, intellectual mother of two who becomes totally unhinged at the death of a mentor. The gentle elder who explodes during a relatively unimportant meeting about, say, music. The pillar of the congregation who falls off the wagon and goes on a bender. The shy teenager who has never driven on the highway before, who takes the family car and runs away to Nashville, sleeping in hospital parking lots along the way. The reliable, jovial minister who checks into MacLean Psychiatric Hospital. The beloved church member who turns out to have been a fugitive from the law and prison escapee. The congregational president who has been torturing and murdering his neighbors.

Shocking. Wild. Scary. We are all of these things; we are largely unknowable to others. When religious liberals worship Community and put it in the place of God, I want to say, "Be careful, friends. Be careful what you are worshiping, for its individual components are far more terrifying and capricious than any dreadful God you might be trying to avoid."

We may not love the surprise of people, but we must be able to live with it, and not romanticize it.

As Jim Morrison wrote, "People are strange when you're a stranger." Hey Jim, people are strange even when you're not a stranger.

Bears thinking about.

*There is, unfortunately, a big, huge depressing bummer at the end of the article for pro-choice advocates. Remember back when the whole South Dakota story hit, and the tribal president of the Oglala Sioux of the Pine Ridge Reservation, Cecilia Fire Thunder, promised to keep the reservation clinic open for abortions? It was a wonderful, brave gesture -- one that I remember applauding in church.

As it turns out, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council voted to suspend Fire Thunder as president and banned abortion anywhere on the reservation. Indian Country Today reported that one of the council members said to the crowd the night of the meeting when the decision was made, "If you were born out of rape or incest, thank you for being here."

[The petition drive was successful, and the voters of South Dakota will decide whether or not to repeal the law in November. Please visit South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families at for more information. - P.B. ]


Blogger Joel Monka said...

I think it was Mark Twain who said "The true life story of almost anyone would shock almost everyone."

Blogger powderblue said...

Your post calls to mind George Will's essay in the current Newsweek, about how Karl Rove has identified, to the Republican Party's advantage, slivers of demographic anomalies within Red and Blue States.

More pleasantly for me, it echoes the haunting epitaphs of the Spoon River Anthology.

Blogger ogre said...

When religious liberals worship Community and put it in the place of God, I want to say, "Be careful, friends. Be careful what you are worshiping, for its individual components are far more terrifying and capricious than any dreadful God you might be trying to avoid."


That's not "... in place of...". (Bad Peacebang! Bad!). That's not what's being said. It's being said that it's where we can find and see a locus of that which we've called God. In all its good and bad and growth and failure (community and God)

Amen to the rest.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Ogre, I agree with you on what you expressed as an ideal. But how about in a community where folks spew their latte at the mere idea of a Transcendent Referent? What are those people worshiping, if not "human potential" or human community totally unmediated by anything beyond themselves? I've been to some UU worship services that really felt a lot like they were worshiping Community. Lord knows they never mentioned any higher source or more transcendent reality than themselves... and that's the kind of worship experience that scares me.

Blogger CK said...

I think that in my church, at least, worshipping community is blatantly what is going on. I noticed this on Affirmation Sunday a few months ago.

Perhaps people give lip service to community as a locus of god (they did in the service), but in praxis, the community = god.

Since I'm agnostic, I don't necessarily have a problem with that--but it makes me feel strange when we get close to 'worship', and yet the focus is community. It gives me a sense of dissonance. That, I think, is why I'm so hard on what I see as appropriation of Christian symbols without careful thought (and the other reason is that I get cranky easily!).


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