My Last Violent Lunch

I am a pacifist. Readers of this blog and those who know me personally can attest I do not believe in violence as a solution to any problem.

Unfortunately, many people misconstrue pacifism. They believe it refers to people who are too timid to confront others, who would never hurt anyone by nature. This may be true of some, but it is not true of me. My younger brother and sister can tell you I have been known to throw a few punches–mostly at them. Though I was not the most pugnacious character in school, I was hauled down to the principal’s office a couple of times for schoolyard fights.

And I am not against standing up for something I believe in or defending someone in peril. I simply choose not to resort to physical violence to achieve this. I believe the New Testament does not allow for it for any reason. More about that in other articles.

But the last time I considered violence, it was at lunch in a rural diner in the middle of nowhere. I am not proud of this, but it illustrates a point I want to make about racism.

Many of the years I was a pastor I lived and served churches in serene, rural areas. The serenity came from the beauty of nature around me, not the people. No people anywhere are more at peace than anywhere else. But when you live in a place with less people and more nature, it is easy to be lulled into a belief that country living equals peaceful living. This is simply  not the case.

In rural areas, I found out that child sexual abuse is higher than urban areas. I discovered that family violence is just as pronounced, the violent crime rate per capita is higher, methamphetamine and marijuana use is much more prominent and suicide rates are at least equal to the largest city.

But it’s quiet and serene. There aren’t many people around and no one talks to “outsiders”. I lived in one rural community for seven years. I was never fully accepted into their culture.  Every time someone gave me directions to their house they invariably included landmarks that no longer existed. As in “go down the dirt road until you get to the field where Joe Smith’s barn used to be. Turn right there and go half a mile until you see the hole in the ground that I dug to remove that old Redwood. Turn there.” I was sure it was a perpetual initiation rite. But after seven years of this, I also began giving people the same directions; only I was still considered an Outsider.

Yes, this is the biggest sin of the rural mindset: Xenophobia. It sounds like this: “You’re not from around here, are you.” I could call it racism, but it often doesn’t apply to people of different races. In the rural north and west of the United States, there aren’t that many races and certainly not that many nationalities.

So though the problem could be racism if enough other races were around, it is simply Xenophobia. You don’t remember that word? It means “the fear of those other people.” Your mind can fill in the blank about who those “other people” are.

To someone in the rural hinterlands, “others” can be Californians, Texans, city-people, rich people (especially if they buy the farm next to yours to use as a hobby ranch), tourists (a tourist is anyone not born here). An “other” can be anyone from another state. If  your accent is different, if you dress like someone from New York or LA, if you drive anything other than a truck or an SUV, if you don’t know where to go to pick huckleberries–you’re an outsider.

Back to my violent lunch. I had been pastoring only a few months in this rural community. I took a week off to go to a friend’s wedding and asked a touring musical preacher to come and sing and speak. I had never met the man, but he came highly recommended by another church whose opinion I respected. When I returned from the wedding, several people in the church said he had done a good job both singing and preaching. One person asked me if I was going to invite him back some time.

A week after I got back, one of the church members asked me to have lunch with him. I knew he and his wife drove 40 miles to come to church, so I asked him if I could come out there instead of him driving into town. He told me about a diner by the side of the road ten miles from his property. He gave me good directions and a half hour later I walked into the most quaint little side of the road place I had ever seen. Most people reading this can probably guess 90% of the menu items. I’m sure I ordered chicken-fried steak or its equivalent.

“Pastor Mike, I hope you don’t mind that my wife joins us. This is an important talk we need to have.”

“No problem Bill. It is long past time I got to know the two of you.”  We bantered back and forth until the food came. The waitress put Bill’s food in front of him and he picked up his knife and fork. And then, as if reconsidering his decision, he put them down again.

“I can’t eat until I get something off my chest” he started. “Had you ever met that preacher you invited to come to the church last Sunday?”

“No, Bill, I had never met the man before.”

Bill’s face changed from his sour expression to a more peaceful look. “That’s what I thought. Boy, I feel relieved. I was sure you hadn’t made that kind of mistake.”

Hmmmmmm. My first thought was “what kind of mistake?” But I wasn’t sure I wanted to ask. So I just ate my mashed potatoes and figured he would elucidate if I gave him enough time. He did.

“Yep. I knew you had a good head on your shoulders. I knew  you wouldn’t deliberately invite a Darkie in to preach. You probably couldn’t tell from his name…it sounded so normal.”

Yes, he used the word “Darkie”.  This man was relieved because I didn’t know I had invited a Black preacher to come to the church! I felt sick to my stomach. I felt all the blood rush to my head. I put down my eating utensils and pulled out my wallet. I took out $30 and threw it on the table.

“There Bill. That should cover lunch. And let me tell you one more thing. Don’t you ever drive the 40 miles into town and darken the door of our church. If you come within ten feet of it, i will come out there myself and escort you off the property as I kick you in the ass. You sick racist!” i stood there in a apoplectic rage. I tightened my fists into balls and almost prayed he would take the first swing.

Until that lunch, I had no idea the preacher/singer I had invited to speak for me was African-American. It wouldn’t have made any difference to me if I had known. But seeing the absolute hatred on Bill’s face was the most evil I had witnessed in years. And I used to work with men in the prison system.

Bill stood up and faced me, but he couldn’t look me in the eye. Several times he tried to say something and words escaped him. He finally sat down and threw his napkin onto his plate. His wife started to cry.

I walked out of that diner ready at any moment to turn around and start swinging at Bill. But Bill never followed me. I never did see Bill again, but I heard he phoned everyone in the church he knew and told the world that I loved “those people”. Fortunately, when the people of the church found out about Bill’s racism, they were of the same opinion as I. That’s how I knew I had found a good church.

You hear stories of groups of people who gather in churches and call themselves Christians but then spew out racist viewpoints under the guise of “protecting our children” or “keeping the gene pool pure” or some such nonsense. But there is no possible way to be a Christ-follower and believe that any other racial group or nationality is superior or inferior to others.

I even hear another wave of this garbage is sweeping Evangelicals again. it makes me sick to consider that any follower of Jesus would be so mixed up in their mind as to believe that Jesus would treat any race differently or see them differently. It makes me so angry I want to hit someone.

And no, the irony of that statement is not lost on me.