Saturday, February 26, 2005

Fighting Groucho

I love Marx Brothers movies. I realize many folks have little patience with old black and white movies, especially those folks too young to remember black and white television, but there is something about those movies. There were five brothers when the boys started out in show business, but "Gummo" stepped out of the act to run the business portion. Then after a couple of broadway plays and a few movies, "Zeppo" dropped out. To this day, you have to be a real hard-core Marxist to recognize Zeppo or Gummo. But the other three became true legends. "Chico" was not only an incredible pianist but became a lovable character, complete with fake Italian accent. "Harpo" the silent clown -- goofy and silly as possible, then suddenly picking up a harp and amazing you with his talent.

Oh, and ladies and gentlemen, the star of our show. . . the one, the only, GROUCHO! He of the greasepaint mustache and the endless supply of one-liners. Groucho could insult you, himself and everyone in the theatre in one instant and be completely adorable the next. The quotes are seemingly endless:

"One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know."

"The secret of success is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake those, you've got it made."

"Those are my principles. If you don't like them I have others."

"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it."

I even dressed as Groucho one Halloween. Black suit, glasses, painted-on mustache and cigar and I was set to go. I would have loved to have been Groucho. Imagine always having the snappy comeback or the perfect thing to say. To watch Groucho is to watch a man who didn't pretend to be much of an actor or a singer. In the movies, from the look in his eyes you could tell he wasn't taking himself seriously. He seemed to be saying, "Look you and I both know this is just make-believe. Relax and have some laughs."

Near the beginning of the movie, Horse Feathers, Groucho breaks into his big number. Some of the lyrics represent well what that character was all about:

I don't care what they have to say,
It makes no difference anyway,
Whatever it is, I'm against it!

Groucho was there to be the contrarian -- always disagreeing just to be difficult. And while it's funny to watch, those who are real-life Grouchos can certain foul up anything. Now there aren't many folks who will argue just to argue. But there are plenty of people who are so stuck in their ways that they will oppose anything new that comes down the pike. It doesn't matter how much sense it makes, they're against it.

One of the things I hate to see is arguing among believers. Don't get me wrong, I love a good debate. But when the local Groucho starts calling people heretics for having drums in a worship service or when Grouchette claims that people who use a Bible version not approved by King James, then I have big problems. I've witnessed fights over smaller items than this also, but among some folks there is no room for compromise or even study of the issue. It's my way or the highway! And it wouldn't be so bad if it was a simple debate, or they could agree to disagree. But no, it's a matter of life or death -- heaven or hell, and "those who disagree with me be damned!"

There are people within the family of God whose beliefs consist of what they were told while growing up. That wouldn't be such a big issue, but sometimes these things are just plain wrong. This is the same type of attitude which allowed discrimination against African-Americans in the South well into the 1960s. I still see this attitude where if John 3:16 uses the word "believes" instead of "believeth", then it's not really the Bible. If that mindset was based on actual evidence, then okay. But most always it comes from "That's not the way I learned it growing up, so it must be wrong."

Then there folks on the other side. I've read a few blogs of people who denounce everything the church is doing and has ever done. A church uses pews? Well, we can never use pews. Call a service "morning worship"? Well we'll call it a "worship party" or something like that. Small groups? No, let's do kick-back partners. Mostly it becomes, "If it's the way I learned it growing up, then it must be wrong."

In my denomination, we are in the midst of reorganization. And sure enough there are signs of Grouchos who are singing, "I'm against it!" about anything that isn't status quo and Grouchos who are singing, "I'm against it!" about anything that is status quo. Something's gotta give.

Why do we act like this? Most of us fit the bill every once in a while. Everything's all right or everything's all wrong. I've always been a logical guy. Maybe too much Mr. Spock influence from Star Trek. Whatever. I actually enjoy debating and tossing around issues because it helps sharpen my beliefs. I can learn from someone with the opposite viewpoint, even if he is completely wrong. It is easier to reason when we are reasonable. But within us is a rebellious streak. We don't like to be told what to do. We don't like to be told we are wrong. We are living in the Burger King generation -- we want to "have it our way." And far too often in our zeal to defend our own position, we condemn those who disagree. That is wrong, plain and simple.

Among Christians, not loving our fellow believers is a direct rebellion against the teachings of Jesus. Among all people, not loving another group is usually decked out in wrapping paper of selfishness, tied up with the ribbon of mistrust and wearing a big bow of laziness. "Those people? I'm against 'em!" No time or energy to find out about them. Just paint with a broad brush and be done with them.

This problem isn't going away soon. The Jews and Palestinians. The Indians and the Pakistanis. The Republicans and the Democrats. Cats and mice. We naturally take sides, and whatever the other side says, "I'm against it!" But my hope is for my Christian brothers and sisters. My hope is not merely for a spirit of compromise, but for a spirit of love. . . the same love that is supposed to be a badge for all the world to see. Stand strong for true doctrine, yes. But the hatred and condemnation of other believers must cease or the distinctive which is supposed to prove the truth of Jesus' message will be lost upon those who need that truth.

The Grouchos of the world must wipe off the greasepaint mustache, put out the cigar and learn to reason despite honest disagreement and learn to love before, during and after the debate.

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