The Word of the Lord to Republicans: A Review
When was the last time you took a word of advice from someone? I tend to get a bit prickly when, for example, my husband dares to suggest I stand a bit further from the ball on my tee shot or my sister reminds me that I haven’t called Mom and Dad lately. I immediately get defensive, and my mind races for a justifying explanation that preserves my tidy little story about myself as someone who is wise and perfect, a dispenser of golf and relationship advice, not in need of any. And this is how I react to gentle, helpful advice coming from people who love me! Imagine if I thought the advice was coming from a hostile source – I’d probably counter with a big helping of “advice” for them to chew on.
I bring this up because I just finished reading Brian McLaren’s clever e-book, The Word of the Lord to Republicans, and the issue of how we give and take helpful criticism is a theme of this book and its companion, The Word of the Lord to Democrats (which I reviewed here). I was a bit wary of reading Republicans because, as I said, I think of myself as an advice giver, and having strong Democratic leanings, I feared I would feel a bit too closely aligned with God’s dim view of the opposing party for my own good. One bit of advice I always find hard to take is that I need to listen more openly to those who disagree with me – hey, who doesn’t have trouble with that one. So I read the book on the alert for any hint of smug self-satisfaction as the Lord pointed out to Republicans all their many failings through his chosen emissary, a Republican soy-bean farmer from Ohio named Fred Walters who is so out of touch with contemporary culture that he wouldn’t know the internet from a hair net.
I have to say I didn’t enjoy the Lord’s critique of the Republican Party as much as I would have liked because I felt called to account as well. At one point someone asks Fred why, if he is such a devout Republican, he is not bringing the word of the Lord to Democrats instead. Here’s Fred’s answer, “I suppose the Republicans wouldn’t listen if the Lord sent a Democrat, just like Democrats wouldn’t listen if the Lord sent a Republican.” And I suppose Fred is right. It’s hard to listen to critiques, no matter how sound and helpful they are, if they are coming from someone who wants to defeat you in the next election. They certainly don’t have your best interests at heart so you’d be wise to think that what they are saying is meant to be destructive, not constructive, no matter how they sugar coat it. And if the critique is coming loaded with anger and delivered in a scream, a prickly response would be natural.
But is Fred right? Are Republicans any more likely to listen to a fellow Republican? Or more generally, are we more likely to take advice from someone within our own group? As Fred explains that the Lord chose him to speak to Republicans because he (Fred) was one, someone quips, “You probably won’t be for long!… They’ll kick you out if you don’t stick with the party line.” That’s how it works, isn’t it? If you criticize your family, your co-workers, your town, your church, your party, your nation – whatever group it is, they get prickly. The group closes rank to defend themselves against your criticism. They polish up their tidy little story about how right, good, noble or just they are and paint you as the enemy within who must be eradicated for the good of the group. Anyone who critiques from within runs the risk of being expelled and so only the crazies or the prophets dare to try.
So if we won’t listen to critique from without or from within, how can we receive advice at all? I’m always amazed by how big the self-help section in bookstores is. We seem to realize we are in need of advice, that we aren’t perfect, that there’s room from improvement. So what explains the defensiveness? It might be that it’s okay for me to self-identify as needing help. After all, admitting you need help is the sign of a good person! But if you, whoever you are, friend or foe, suggest I might need a bit of self-improvement, well that means I’m not quite as good as I thought I was. Which is hard to swallow.
One aim Brian McLaren seems to have with both these books is to get both parties to loosen up a little bit and let go of needing to have all the answers all the time. In other words, he’s hoping he can nudge us out of wanting to have an exclusive hold on goodness. It’s only then, when we relax about needing to be good, that we will be able to receive advice from within and even accept critiques from without. After delivering the word of Lord to Republicans, Fred’s wife asks him if he learned anything from his prophetic journey, and he tells her: “I realized that some Republicans are very different from what I expected, worse than I thought, and some Democrats aren’t as bad as I thought.” The theme of the book might be this: When we learn what Fred learned and are able to add, “And I’m not as good as I thought I was,” maybe we’ll be able to give and receive advice more constructively. It takes a brave man to dare to hope for something like that during a hostile election season. But I applaud Brian McLaren for his daring and I encourage Republicans to read this short e-book with their defenses down. If you find it hard to do, well, this prickly pear will understand.