What an Hospital Waiting Room Taught Me About America

Hospital waiting rooms can teach one a lot, and this week it helped me to reflect on this historic election and the cultural forces that shape it. Let me share conversations from yesterday that make my point:

Conversation #1 The Waiting Room. A distraught mother from a rural suburb of Nashville arrived with her son and daughter-in-law as they waited for the recovery of her son from a fall. I do not intend to make light of their situation, but the conversation in the waiting room went like this:

“So where are you from?”, she asked me.

“Los Angeles”, I answered.

“Well you have come a long ways. Do you like it out there?”

“I do. I love it.”

“Well, I saw where California just voted to ban those gays from getting married. I don’t know why two men or two women would want to get married. I asked Brother Smith at church — he is our preacher, now — and he said that the Bible condemns such things. I just don’t understand how those gays ‘do their thing’ anyway.”

“Yea, I see. Well, understand how you feel. I didn’t think it was right for voters to take away people’s rights by a simple majority vote.”

“Well, we have to do God’s will if our country is going to be blessed. We are in trouble. We have just elected a Moslem. He says he is a Christian, but I don’t understand how he could sit there in that church for 20 years and listen to that Reverend Wright saying ‘God damn America’.

“Have you listened to anything other than the 1 minute clip from the sermon?”

“Naww, that’s all I needed to hear.”

“Ah ok, because I didn’t like what Reverend Wright said about America either, but his point actually was that America’s foreign policy has caused some of our problems, and we’re now lying in the bed that we made. I think he had some legitimate points though I don’t like how he said it.”

“Well, Obama believes in abortion too. He wants to suck the brains out of babies and abort them after they are born. That’s what our preacher’s wife said. I believe that their heart is beating right from the minute that baby is conceived. I don’t see how he can vote for something like that and call himself a Christian.”

“Well, I think I am going to do go down and get myself some dinner.”

“Me too. I sure like those fried chicken wings, and they have a good salad bar. I will be praying for your Momma, and keep Bubba in your prayers.”

Conversation #2: A Telephone Conversation with a Friend and Fellow Church Member in Los Angeles.

“Hey, Todd. It’s Kay. I’ve been thinking of you and praying for you all day. You are on our church prayer list, and we’ve been praying in our group for you and your family. How’s your mom?”

“She’s much improved. And thanks for the prayers. How is life with you?”

“I’m great. I’ve just been so excited about the elections on Tuesday. I tear up every time I see the television coverage because I can’t believe Obama won. Overnight, it has done so much for our race relations and for our international standing. I love him.”

“Yea, so how did our church class go tonight?”

“It was great. Everyone was so excited about the election, so that’s really all we discussed. And we talked about Prop 8. Everyone was in shock that Californians voted for Prop 8. I don’t understand how Christians can vote to take away the rights of people. They are monsters. I mean, this is California. How did this happen? Several of us are going out to a rally tonight to protest the vote.”

“Yes, it seems pretty unfair to me too.”

“Well, I have to go. Several of us from church are going to the rally, and then we’re headed out for some tapas and wine. I will be praying for your mom.”

Those were two real conversations. Both people professing Christian faith. Both people’s politics and perspectives heavily influenced by their peers and unable to understand the other’s point of view. Both part of communities and societies that impact their theology and their politics. One Red State. One Blue State.

And yet, it occurs to me that what both of these individuals had in common was more than what separated them. Both were people of faith whose commitment to their faith defines their identity and shapes their lives. Both were people of prayer. Both love America. Both believe that the government should reflect their moral ideals. Both believed in the power of prayer, and both were involved in a community of faith. Both of them were more “purple” than red or blue if they could just know each other.

What made the difference in how they see America and the issues before us? The communities of which they are a part. It helps me to acknowledge how much of our theology and convictions are not shaped at all by Scripture or by our morals alone, but by the communities, institutions and churches that interpret that Scripture and give us moral definition — through peer pressure and cultural understanding as much as anything else. For the woman in the waiting room, there was no peer pressure in her church or community to cause her to think otherwise about Obama or about gay marriage. There was no social consequence to her believing this way, and only a social advantage to clinging to these beliefs. For my friend in Los Angeles, the same was true. There was great benefit in supporting Obama and opposing Proposition 8, and to not do so would be to threaten his friendships as well as his own convictions.

It occurs to me then that if we are serious about getting past our divisions, both in the Christian community and in the United States — if we are to end our culture wars that precipitate the Red/Blue divide — we have got to find a way to talk to each other. As long as we sit in our own churches and in our own theological traditions without exposure to the broader Christian tradition, our view of the Kingdom of God will be limited by our own experience of faith and the world. There has to be someone in our lives, or our churches, that help us to understand “the other”. Otherwise, we demonize and stigmatize rather than understand and love.

It seems to me that the Christian church could provide an outlet for building bridges across traditions, and across red and blue. Rick Warren’s attempt to do this at Saddleback was a good beginning. I hope that Obama can live up to his promise to heal divisions and to pursue an agenda that appeals to a broad range of Americans and not a narrow few. As he did earlier this year in his speech on race, his rhetoric must help us understand each other so that we can again be one nation and one people.

Otherwise, Christianity will continue to perpetuate the evils of discrimination and judgment (both on the left and right) when Christianity should be leading the way towards understanding and peace. Irene needs to know Kay, and Kay needs to know Irene.

The Internet and Social Networking makes this possible now more than ever. But the task is great, and the urgency is huge. I hope President Obama, and the leader of our nation’s faith groups, can make this our highest priority in the years to come.

One Response to “What an Hospital Waiting Room Taught Me About America”
  1. Edette says:

    Oh this is wonderful! I was having a very similar conversation with a friend yesterday who just could not understand folks like you met in that waiting room. And I said the same thing, it is all about the community you are from. Still praying for you mom, and Bubba!

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