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Speaking Out Is Complicated (And So Is Staying Silent)

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For 24 years of my life, I was a church planter and pastor. At the beginning of those years, I would have gladly called myself an Evangelical. But those years coincided with the rise of the Religious Right, and at the end, Evangelical meant something very different than before.

I couldn't use the word without a lot of explanatory and qualifying adjectives. In my book "A Generous Orthodoxy," I called myself (among other things) "a small-e evangelical," but sometimes, it was just simpler to say "post-evangelical" or to avoid the whole "e-word" altogether.

Whatever I am, every election cycle, I feel, as I think many [E]vangelicals feel, that major media -- whether it was Fox News, MSNBC, CNN or whoever -- just don't get people like me. They consistently pick evangelical spokespeople who don't even remotely speak for us. Tony Perkins, Richard Land, Albert Mohler and company ... they have every right to express their opinions, and I'm sure they speak for a lot of folks, but I also know that a lot of us feel completely unspoken-for whenever their faces come on the screen.

This time around, it's been almost comical to see the same old stories recycled -- one can hardly call it reported -- again and again as news. Evangelicals are losing their influence, Evangelicals are flexing their muscles, Evangelicals are dead as a political force, Evangelicals have resurrected as a political force, Evangelicals are right wing fanatics, not all Evangelicals are right wing fanatics, et cetera, ad nauseum.

As a pastor, I did not want to be sucked into the Religious Right, but I didn't want to be labelled religious left (if there is such a thing) either. So I studiously tried to avoid politics altogether. That created problems of its own, as Paolo Freire said: "Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral."

Since leaving the pastorate, I've felt more free to be politically outspoken for several reasons. First and foremost, doing so won't disrupt the community I was paid to lead and help keep unified. Second, being misunderstood -- which always goes along with speaking out -- wouldn't be as costly to others, only to myself.

But in this election cycle, even though I've felt free to speak out, I haven't really wanted to so much. There is already so much noise, and every day brings a new outrage. "I'll just sit this one out," I've said to myself more than once. But then old Paolo Freire's words come back to mind.

So what do you do when you aren't comfortable being outspoken, aren't comfortable being silent and aren't comfortable being uncomfortably in between? If you are of a literary bent, you drift from direct to indirect communication, from trying your best to tell it straight to following Emily Dickenson's old dictum, to tell the truth but tell it slant.

For me, that's meant a foray into comic short fiction, maybe the literary equivalent of a sitcom. Short, light, a point, but not point-heavy ... flavored with some sugar and salt and fat like a snack, but maybe a little shot of vitamins in there too.

Meanwhile, with the election cycle and its daily outrages rolling on, I've been finishing up a major book about Christian identity in a multi-faith world. Talk about a serious subject! What could be more serious than how we can forge a religious identity that is characterized not by strength with hostility, and not by tolerance with weakness, but rather by strength with benevolence toward other faiths? The release date -- Sept. 11 -- underscores the seriousness of the subject. But even there, as the title suggests ("Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?"), it has seemed important to keep levity close at hand.

After all, when taking ourselves too seriously is part of the disease, we'd better not overdose on seriousness as part of our therapy.

So this last year or so has been a time to indulge in humor, fiction, fantasy, comedy, and other flights of imagination and fancy. The first three ebooks are highly comedic -- "The Word of the Lord to Democrats," followed by "...to Evangelicals" and "...to Republicans." The fourth, "The Girl with the Dove Tattoo," is a bit more dramatic than comedic, but no less fictional.

As I worked on them, I kept thinking about Jesus' use of short fiction -- often highly comedic -- that we call parable. And I saw the biblical Book of Jonah in a new light too. Like my projects, it is ultimately serious -- about how we demonize and dehumanize the other, often using religion to do so. It goes to great lengths to let God get a word in edgewise ... but it does so with a twist of comedy and fantasy, and maybe even what we might call political satire.

Dr. King captured the frustration of trying to speak, calling it "a vocation of agony":

And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation's history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movements and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.

Dr. King was right. Paolo Freire was right. We are all caught in the same struggle -- in what we say and how we say it, and in our silence as well as our outspokenness and our "slant-spokenness," to find some new way to kick at the darkness so a little more light can sneak in through the cracks.