My friend Barry is a Jew. We connected almost by accident many years ago, and he has taught me a number of lessons about relating to someone different from me.
In the early 1970s Barry--a native of Southern California--took it upon himself to see the Deep South. I'm not sure of the details, but believe he flew into Mississippi and rented a car. He drove to Oxford just to see for himself the university where James Meredith had been forcibly installed as the first black student, an incident much in the news back then.
In Jackson, Barry drove around, found the Capitol, and walked into the governor's office. Everyone was gracious--he had not been sure what to expect--and next thing you know, he showed up in the office of the First Baptist Church across the street. The receptionist, Mickey Brunson, stepped across the hall to my cubbyhole of an office, and said, "Joe, we have a gentleman here who would like a brief tour of the church. Can you do it?"
That's how we met. And started corresponding. In 1981, when the Southern Baptist Convention met in Los Angeles, Barry picked me up at the hotel and gave me the grand tour. We attended a baseball game in Anaheim and checked out the campuses of UCLA and USC. And I embarrassed him.
In a restaurant, we ran into some of Barry's friends, all Jewish. I was the odd man of the group, being Baptist and the lone Southerner. At some point, they started telling Jewish jokes. We all laughed and then--anyone who knows me will shake his head "yes," because I know a lot of jokes and stories and am irrepressible once I find an audience--I told one. Yep. I told a Jewish joke to some Jewish men.
I have long forgotten the joke and have no memory of how it was received. What I will never forget in a lifetime is what happened when we got back to the car. "Joe, you embarrassed me back there." I said, "Then tell me what I did, because I don't have a clue."
"You told an ethnic joke to my Jewish friends." I was incredulous. I said, "Barry, they were telling them. Theirs were worse than mine. Mine was pretty tame." He said, "No matter. You had no right to do that. It was humiliating."
I thought then and still think it was a rather unfair standard he had erected, and I quickly decided my friend was thinner-skinned than I had known. I apologized, and I learned something.
It's one thing for a minority group to tell their own jokes and even use put-downs to one another. But don't you try it as an outsider. It's a vastly different thing.
Barry continues to have these quirks that seem a little unfair. For instance, I used to try to witness to him about the Christian faith. One day he told me pointedly that he did not appreciate it, that he was Jewish, always had been, always would be, and was fiercely proud of his religion. I protested, "Barry, you don't even practice it! You don't go to the synagogue. You're critical of your faith and have nothing good to say about the rabbis."
I wanted to go further and say that he did not have a faith--at least nothing he was practicing-- that he simply had a religious identity, but it was clear he was shutting down any further discussion on this topic. So, we changed the subject and I went away scratching my head about this enigmatic fellow.
The funny thing is after that he began sending me materials on Judaism. I wanted to reply, "I know about Judaism--I've read the Old Testament, remember?" But the subject was off-limits. He wanted me to do what he refused to do--read up on his religion--so I thanked him for the books and scanned them and made some comment on them to which he never responded.
These days--some 35 years after our first contact--Barry is semi-retired, still living in Southern California. He calls me every six months or so, out of the blue. No one sounds like him on the phone. I answer and he begins talking without identifying himself, making comments on what some college football team has done or some coach is doing. He sends me stuff in the mail. When Marlin and Mike McKeever died--legendary USC football stars of the 1960s but no relation to our clan--he sent me the clippings.
Last week, he sent the quarterly magazine, "Teaching Tolerance," a publication for schoolteachers. The cover article deals with the integration of Central High School in Little Rock fifty years after the event. Inside, teachers share their stories of teaching respect and tolerance for "those different from us" in their classrooms. It seems to be a good magazine. Emphasis on "seems".
Evangelical Christians know about tolerance. We get blasted with reminders to be tolerant from every side. In almost every case, the speaker or teacher or critic urges us not to share our faith in Jesus Christ with others, since everyone has their own religious identity and to witness to them is to disrespect that.
We've come to distrust a lot of teaching on tolerance. The last thing we want taught to our children in schools is that all religious differences are superficial, that all faiths are equally good and equally right, and thus to be accepted and honored. Listen to some tolerance-advocates and you would come away with the impression that the only difference between the religious faiths of an Osama Bin Laden and Billy Graham is that the former isn't practicing what he believes.
On the surface, tolerance sounds so right, and properly understood and practiced, it is indeed needed. Our family's moving to a West Virginia mining camp in 1947 exposed us to a taste of intolerance. And believe me, one taste will last you for a lifetime.
When the coal mines in our part of Alabama laid off workers, men went north looking for work. My dad and a number of his brothers and friends found jobs at a mine outside Beckley, West Virginia, in a camp called Affinity. Suddenly, that peaceful little enclave experienced an invasion of Alabamians, hard-workers used to putting in 8 hours with a pick and a shovel, then coming home to raise a crop on the farm. Now, with nothing but coal-mining, many would double back and work two 8-hour shifts in one day. Their work ethic offended and frightened the locals who were being shown up by the southerners.
When the families of the miners arrived and moved into the company houses alongside the natives, it did not take long before hostilities erupted. I still recall women and children--our neighbors--standing in the unpaved road in front of our house throwing rocks in our direction, cursing and calling us "Alabama cotton-pickers." Which we were, of course. As a 7-year-old, I could never figure out how that was a putdown.
Before long, they got over it. We all worshiped together in the little Methodist church and the children sat in the same three-room school together and the rock-throwing and name-calling became just a bad memory.
Since my granddaughters and I have been reading the Nancy Drew mysteries together, I began to be curious about the origin of this long-running series and decided to look into it. "Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her," published by Harcourt, Inc., tells the story of two women in particular who wrote most of the books under the pen name of Carolyn Keene. A brief paragraph about one of the women will linger with me a long time.
Harriet Stratemeyer, the daughter of the man who originated the Nancy Drew series and wrote the first ones, was a student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Author Melanie Rehak writes, "In (the religion courses) she believed, she had learned that 'if one strips each of the great religions down to its basic concept one will find that the philosophy is the same: reverence for deity, kindness to one's fellowman, and a belief in life after death. It is only when man himself adds a lot of superfluous ideas and customs that misunderstandings occur, even to a point of bloodshed. The answer is tolerance.' These were the tenets of a noble life, and she held herself to them strictly."
On the surface, that sounds so "noble," so educated and modern and even sophisticated. It's pure rot, but it sounds good.
It's as though one took a few courses in medical science and reported back that all forms of medicine in the world are equally good since they have elements in common such as sick patients, well-intending practitioners, and gunk which they rub on the offending areas. No one in his right mind--or to be tolerant, let us say, no one with an ounce of intellectual honesty or sound judgement--believes that.
Try this flawed philosophy on other areas. All sciences are good since they have elements in common. All physics are sound. All forms of mathematics are equally valid. All techniques of surgery are successful. All cooking methods produce great food. All teaching styles are ideal for children.
Only in the area of religious faith do we take out our brain and suspend our judgment and come to such foolish, fallacious conclusions that they're all the same, they're all equally good, and all are to be respected and honored.
Tell that to the young maiden about to be sacrified to the Incan gods in the river below. Tell it to the child being offered to the fire god of the Old Testament, Moloch. Tell it to the primitives of remote tribes even today whose god is a rag on a stick or the belch of the volcano or the polluted river flowing past their village. Tell that to the families of the victims of the terrorists of 9-11.
Respect people who practice other religions? Absolutely. Treasure these people.
Then go one step further: Give them the truth.
Jesus Christ said, "You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free." (John 8:32) Now, it might be news to editors around the land who often choose this line for their masthead, but Jesus was not talking about the latest news on Paris Hilton or even the latest doings of Congress from Washington, D.C.
He was talking about Himself.
"I am the way, the truth, and the life," Jesus said. (John 14:6)
Admittedly, that's narrow. Worse, it's exclusive, because of the article "the," which would indicate He's the only way, the only truth, the only life.
As if to leave no doubt on that subject, Jesus' next words were: "No one comes to the Father except by me."
If that's intolerant, then so be it. But I don't think so. The truth is the truth is the truth. It is in every field of endeavor in the universe, including this one. No matter what political correctness calls for or demands from us, since Bible-believing Christians believe we must tell others the news about Jesus Christ.
To be sure, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about sharing the Gospel, a word literally meaning "good news." Our goal should always be to practice the very Christlikeness we so admire in the Lord Jesus Himself, whose words were gracious, whose deeds were wonderful, and whose love was on display before the world.
I'm indebted to my friend Barry for lessons in tolerance and respect for those different from us. I am committed to never again tell a minority person a joke about his people.
But we must not let this stop us from sharing the message of the Lord Jesus Christ.
That message is the truth, and people all over the planet are desperately in need of it.
Dr. Joe McKeever is a Preacher, Cartoonist, and the Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Visit him at joemckeever.com/mt.