Threats of violence from the right

Threats of violence from the right September 18, 2009

Last Saturday, a friend of mine from Dayton, Ohio described an encounter he had with the anti-Obama protesters gathered in his city:

Today as I was driving through Dayton, Ohio a number of people were out on the street corners with signs saying, “Support our Troops… Obama doesn’t!” “Down with healthcare!” “Obama is Hitler…” Yes, they were all white and all upper-class.

I kept asking myself, “What would a nonviolent, creative response be?” As some people were honking their horns in support, I decided just to shake my head in shame and give a thumbs down…

Immediately one of the Tea Party protesters got in their SUV, started cussing me out with hand gestures, and followed me to the local grocery store. They went inside with me all the time starring at me with contempt and hatred.

It’s hard to know what to do… What really struck me is that next to my car were a couple of cars with Obama stickers on them. In one car was an African American couple in the other was an Hispanic mom with her young child. They all looked very scared!

I went home and prayed…

His story made me think about the countless instances of threatening reactions my wife and I have received because of a bumper sticker on our car which reads “God is Not American.” We put the sticker on our car around the time we moved to Canada, about three years ago. On nearly every trip back home to West Virginia, we have been honked at, flipped off, screamed at, followed, etc. just because of this simple, theologically accurate bumper sticker. It usually makes me want to inquire if the offended person is a Christian. If so, presumably he or she worships Jesus Christ as God. Last I checked Jesus was not an american. Last I checked, the God we worship is bigger than that.

On one occasion, I stopped at a grocery store to pick up some adult beverages. My wife and our newborn baby stayed in the car and as I started to walk away from the car toward the front doors of the store, a fellow next to me was getting into his mini-van. His young daughter was already inside. The man looked at me, looked at my bumper sticker, looked back at me, and frowned. I gave him a “what?” sort of look and kept walking toward the store. I looked over my shoulder, concerned that he was going to do something to the car, as my wife and child were inside. Lo and behold, he had walked closer to our car, looking like he was circling around it.

I shouted across the parking lot, “Don’t like that sticker?” “No, no, I don’t!” he yelled back. I waited until I saw him get into his van and drive away. When I came back to the car, my wife informed me that as he drove past, he and his young daughter, probably no more than nine years old, were cursing and flipping her off. Contrast this to the responses we get to this sticker in Toronto, especially from immigrants. For as many violent reactions as we have received in the U.S. (especially in West Virginia), we have received just as many thumbs-up, waves, nods, and verbal affirmations that “No, God is NOT American!” here in Canada. For as much as Canada and the U.S. are similar, in other ways it’s like living on another planet.

We have talked about removing that sticker from our car when we move home. It’s not the dirty looks and middle fingers from “patriotic” republicans that worry us. Nor is it their tribalistic, idolatrous theology. It’s the increasingly violent rhetoric and actions of the Christian right in america that troubles us. They claim to want “free speech” and the room to express their ideas, but what they seem to really want is the violent destruction of their enemies. And there are increasing examples of acting on this desire, in words and in acts of violence. When these potentially violent individuals come close to my daughter, it confirms for me, viscerally, how much work we Christians who follow the Prince of Peace need to do in turning these hateful hearts around.


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  • Powerful post, Michael. It’s personal stuff like this that resonates.

  • Navy Vet

    Michael,

    Of course, it is a shame that anyone would threaten or actually cause harm to someone simply because they hold political beliefs different than one’s own beliefs.

    But please do not delude yourself to think that violence and intimidation is an issue solely for those on the right side of the spectrum. I would invite you to walk down the street behind me as I simply walk down the street in my Navy uniform and see the reaction in such centers of non-conformity as Berkley and Palo Alto. Even more apt, how about a stroll down the streets of almost any leftist college town?

    Those who have spent even a small amount of time studying the history of the fruits of ultra leftist regimes should recoil in horror at the oceans of blood spilled by dictators enthralled with ideology. No one should be frightened by a group of people who’s ultimate wish is for the government to leave them alone as much as possible. The poisonous touch of bureaucracy has taken a terrible toll on many nations and continues to sap the freedom of many societies.

    Please excuse those who are angry with you simply for a snarky bumper sticker, but it is a small step for some to take the message as a personal insult and react personally.

  • digbydolben

    Well, Michael, I agree with you, but, realistically speaking, why in the name of God do you want to go back and live in that country?

    Can’t you read the “signs of the times”–among which are what you’re citing?

    That society is heading toward cultural, political and financial melt-down.

  • How about replacing it with “God is love”?

  • Excelsior

    This is so utterly unlike my experience, I have a very hard time not thinking it either imaginary or exaggerated.

    In speaking to police officers handling the Tea Party gatherings, their comment was: “This is the good crowd. It’s a relief to work a demonstration where, when they leave, there are FEWER wrappers and beer-cans on the ground than when they got there.”

    But I grant that I myself sometimes have clenched muscles in reaction to a bumper-sticker in which someone expresses a viewpoint opposing mine. It’s not so much the disagreement that causes the reaction. It’s the tone; some slogans are voiced with the triumphalism of a majority smirking in the face of a powerless minority, or of a culturally-empowered minority snubbing an unregarded and benighted majority.

    If I get clenched muscles and inner grumblings in reaction to such things — and I guess I’m not alone in that — then less-disciplined and forgiving folk, whose parents didn’t raise them to have a little class, wouldn’t surprise me by waving a middle finger.

  • “How about replacing it with “God is love”?”

    How do you plan to accomplish that noble objective?

  • Francesca

    This run away authoritarianism, as explicated by Bob Altemeyer, is certainly very disturbing. I think, though, that most Americans stil value both freedom of speech and good manners, and that these thugs you’re encountering are nothing but a self-righteously vocal minority.

  • “This is so utterly unlike my experience, I have a very hard time not thinking it either imaginary or exaggerated.”

    Doesn’t Michael’s story square with the phenomenon of “road rage”, which has been a topic of national discussion for a couple of decade?

    The anger and vitriol directed to one another in the U.S. is troubling, to say the least. There is a profound spiritual alienation that suffuses our society and it is manifested in fractured, and even hostile, relations. Social science statistics offer a litany of testimony to this fact.

  • What is it with Americans and bumper stickers? I live in South Korea, and no one has a bumper sticker, except me: “Ron Paul for President.”

  • Judging from the recent elections in South Korea, Ron Paul’s influence has waned. You need more bumper stickers!

  • G-Veg

    Good question Confucian.

    Right and Left it looks like the same problems attend the bumper sticker phenomenon.

    Those who agree with you don’t need to know and I am not aware of any evidence that bumper stickers are likely to change minds. Bumper stickers lead to “keyed” cars and confrontations. They detract from the value of an automobile and look terrible.

    Sometimes they are funny. Sometimes they are ironic – like the time I attended a Bush speech and saw a woman taking hand-made signs out of her H2 that read “No War for Oil.” Almost always they become irrelevant with the passage of time and simply look worn out and awful.

    A girlfriend of mine collected bumper stickers without regard to their content leading to a remarkable level of contradiction that was at least clever… plus, it probably kept her rusting Taurus on the road longer due to the adhesive.

    However you cut it, it makes no damn sense… unless you intend to offend, which, as our Poster has established, will most assuredly work if the bumper sticker is inherently political.

  • G-Veg – FYI, I did not find your previous comments helpful or civil.

  • I love the “God is not an American”. As for bumper stcikers in general, my wife won’t allow us to put any on our car, and I can kind of see the point.

    Western Confucian lives in South Korea? I envy you for the food – there’s nothing quite as sublime in the world as kalbi! I ate so well when I was in Seoul…

  • muennemann

    MM:

    Agreed: Korea has probably the world’s most under-rated cuisine. Does anyone know where I can buy an “I heart banchan” bumper sticker?

  • …and that these thugs you’re encountering are nothing but a self-righteously vocal minority.

    Did I mention that this happens nearly EVERY trip we have made back to the U.S.?

  • muennemann

    Michael:

    The “problem” with bumper stickers, especially when driven internationally, is that they give everybody the same message, but not everyone has the same readiness to receive that message. Where I live (Silicon Valley), “God is not an American” would probably draw zero response, positive or negative, because few people give a damn where God lives (or not) and of the few who care, even fewer base their personal or tribal identity on such concerns.

    Though many of the parables are extraordinarily skillful in the way they deliver multiple messages to different levels of awareness, I don’t know of a Christian analog to the Buddhist concept of upaya (“skillful means”). Upaya means giving an awareness-aware message appropriate to its recipient.

    I don’t mean to say that Christian teaching is stupid, since we present theological concepts very differently to 2nd graders preparing for first holy communion than to high school or college students. What we seem to lack is the communal humility to accept that nobody among us is ready for God’s ultimate truth, and that the approach to God is a lifelong process.

  • Pinky

    Michael, do you have Canadian plates on your car?

  • Pink – Why do you ask?

  • muennemann

    Michael:

    On a car with US license plates, “God is not American” means “We do not own God.” On a car with Canadian license plates, the same bumper sticker means “YOU do not own God.”

    Big difference.

  • Matt Talbot

    While both left and right have threatened and used violence throughout history, in the context of the present, and the location the United States, it is the right that is most worrisome.

    As a wide old lady said recently:

    Let’s be clear about something: if you show up to a town hall meeting with a gun strapped to your leg, the point you are trying to make isn’t a good one. Fear never produced anything worthwhile.

    There is a sizable contingent of folks who have generally rightist positions in this country, and are being fed at the very least tacit, and sometimes open, reasons to use violence. Obama is “tyranny” and is going to “take away your freedom” and “the tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots” and people are taking guns to town hall meetings. This ought to worry any reasonable observer, whatever his or her politics. A guy named Occam is certainly worried.

  • Matt Talbot

    While both left and right have threatened and used violence throughout history, in the context of the present, and the location the United States, it is the right that is most worrisome.

    As a wide old lady said recently:

    Let’s be clear about something: if you show up to a town hall meeting with a gun strapped to your leg, the point you are trying to make isn’t a good one. Fear never produced anything worthwhile.

    There is a sizable contingent of folks who have generally rightist positions in this country, and are being fed at the very least tacit, and sometimes open, reasons to use violence. Obama is “tyranny” and is going to “take away your freedom” and “the tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots” and people are taking guns to town hall meetings. This ought to worry any reasonable observer, whatever his or her politics. A guy named Occam is certainly worried.

  • Big difference.

    {shrug} If you say so. No matter which plates I have, I’d still have the sticker on my car.

  • Michael H

    [Furious, threatening comment deleted. – M.I.]

  • Michael, my only question is where did you get the sticker?

    I’d like to have one.

  • (Shame I won’t have it in time for my drive to Wheeling next weekend!)

  • Bought it at the SOA protest one of the times that I was there. Might be able to find one online.

    Wheeling is where the episode I described above took place!

  • I’ve checked my usual bumper sticker haunts, but I’ll keep checking.

    Hopefully I can avoid that sort of confrontation at the diocesan retreat center!

  • BTW – It’s interesting the number of angry (and even mildly threatening) comments this post has received already. Kind of proves my point, eh?

  • Going to the Paul VI center for something?

  • sfo retreat

  • And yeah, I know what you mean.

    My grandpa wanted a “war is not the answer” sticker for his car.

    It sits right over his “WW2 Vet” license plate.

  • Right on. Enjoy. It’s a pretty retreat center. The diocese bought that land right before my grandparents returned to WV after doing some missionary work. They needed someone to live on the land and look after it before they built the retreat center, and so my grandparents, my dad, and my aunt and uncle spent some time living there.

  • Michael H

    Furious thratening comment? You have to be kidding comrade.

  • dpt

    “There is a profound spiritual alienation that suffuses our society and it is manifested in fractured, and even hostile, relations.”

    My experience is that this is nothing new given what I have seen and heard since the late 1960s and early 1970s. In part, I think we have taken a couple of small steps in the right direction as recent events do not compare to the political violence of the late 60s and 70s. Our leaders in both parties, in our churches, and community organizations need to step back from the rhetoric and hostility so to avoid returning to a period of more overt political violence.

    “How do you plan to accomplish that noble objective?”

    For one, having a “God is love” sticker is arguably a less confrontational sticker than “God is not an American.” I understand the message and the intent of the latter, though it is obvious that it can be taken as an in-your-face provocation by some. Is our role as Christians to rile and tempt others to such anger?

    Let’s include that angry man in our prayers as God does love him.

  • phosphorious

    Most of those defending or minimizing the behavior MI describes make one important assumption: that the sentiment “God is not American” is somehow “leftist”.

    How the hell do you figure that?

  • phosphorious

    On a car with US license plates, “God is not American” means “We do not own God.” On a car with Canadian license plates, the same bumper sticker means “YOU do not own God.”

    I, too, fail to see this distinction. Are you saying that the sentiment is true. . . but only Americans are allowed to say it?

  • Navy Vet

    I guess it takes a well developed sense of irony for a WWII vet to have a bumper sticker that claims “War is not the answer.” I assume that Messrs. Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini would agree.

    Too bad that monsters like Stalin, Mao, Tito, Ho Chi Minh (pick a lefty murderer) and many more were allowed to stay in/rise to power in the aftermath of the war.

    It may be bloody and ugly, but for some mosters – War is the best and only answer.

  • Navy Vet – It does not take a sense of irony, but perhaps the ability to engage in critical thinking and an ability to reflect on one’s experiences in war. Perhaps you two could meet up and he could help you develop similar capacities?

  • Perhaps 30 years, 3 wars, and one dead son later lent him a measure of wisdom.

  • dpt

    “It may be bloody and ugly, but for some mosters – War is the best and only answer.”

    With the advantage of hindsight, history shows us that “best and only answers” were readily available prior to war.

    But we never learn, so all the violence and failings that we read in the Old Testament get repeated again and again through time.

  • muennemann

    <phosphorious Says:

    I, too, fail to see this distinction.

    Surely you understand the difference between 1st and 2nd person — A self referential statement has entirely different interpersonal implications than an other-directed one. Anyone who doesn’t understand that is likely to wonder why his life is full of conflicts.

    … but only Americans are allowed to say it Who do you think has power to “allow” anything or not?

  • Navy Vet

    Michael,

    Can we invite along some of the victims of WWII, and include some of the widows and orphans?

    People driven by theology or ideology are difficult to stop, and many can only be stopped by force.

    Would it have been moral to use war to stop the genocide of Mao? How many tens of millions of lives could have been saved?

    At what point did civilization need to stop Hitler? Austria? Czech? Poland? France? It still took Hitler declaring war on the US on 12/11/1941 to bring the US into the European war.

    Should we have fought a more gentlemanly struggle? I do agree that unless you are willing to commit to victory, half measures in warfare are inherently wrong. Canada has men and women fighting in Afghanistan, fighting in the name of M.J. Iafrate, remember that as you kneel in prayer each day.

    Also, “the ability to engage in critical thinking and an ability to reflect on one’s experiences in war. Perhaps you two could meet up and he could help you develop similar capacities?” Are you saying that being able to recognize that many leftist dictators engaged in genocide before, during, and after WWII is somehow non-critical thinking? The world was better off with Hitler, Mao, and Stalin, instead of without them?

    I question your thinking if you really think that that trio was willing to quietly ride into the sunset without the use of force. Hitler is third on that death list only because other nations stood up to his evil and extinguished it.

  • Navy Vet – What was that about ideology?

  • Navy Vet

    Unless I am mistaken, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao felt that their ideology was so important that it justified the deaths of millions. The utopia that they envisioned once the – insert a scapegoat here – Jews, reactionaries, Trotskyites were eliminated was worth the death of millions.

    The ideology of using the State to commit mass murder is a tragic outgrowth of the 20th century. Limited warfare might have been pesky, but it didn’t murder on an industrial scale.

  • Canada has men and women fighting in Afghanistan, fighting in the name of M.J. Iafrate, remember that as you kneel in prayer each day.

    I do pray for soldiers. I pray they will do the right thing and leave the military.

  • Navy Vet

    I pray that we never have to take up arms to defend freedom again, but when I observe the state of the world, I doubt it.

    Be glad that you have the almost unprecedented pleasure in world history of not having to pick up a sword and defend your family. But that freedom has been paid for by many GI’s.

    Just be glad that they did not the vets did not go AWOL when it really matters. Your freedom depended on it.

  • phosphorious

    “Surely you understand the difference between 1st and 2nd person

    Ahh. . . a patronizing grammar lesson. Very well.

    The original statement “God is not an American” is true. . . and means the same thing, no matter who says it. It is not “token reflexive” as the grammarians say.

    Whetehr a Canadian or an American says it, the proposition is the same. . . and true.

    What sort of person objects to the truth based on the person who utters it?

    Not someone who is interested in truth, but a narrow, partisan hack.

    Can you see the difference between a lover of truth and a narrow partisan hack?

    Didn’t think so.

  • Matt Talbot

    Navy Vet – perhaps we should ask the many thousands of German and Japanese 3 year olds who burned to death in the wreckage of their homes before they got a chance to pronounce the name of the country they lived in what they think of war, or the many millions of innocent civilians who spent lots of time after the war living in holes in the ground and eating their pets.

    In my view, war is (VERY, VERY OCCASIONALLY) regrettably necessary. It only becomes “necessary,” however, as a result of a long series of actions (or lack thereof) that are at root selfish, cowardly, and idolatrous. War is a sign that the belligerents involved have comprehensively failed in their job of standing up for justice and civilization.

  • Matt Talbot

    Navy Vet – perhaps we should ask the many thousands of German and Japanese 3 year olds who burned to death in the wreckage of their homes before they got a chance to pronounce the name of the country they lived in what they think of war, or the many millions of innocent civilians who spent lots of time after the war living in holes in the ground and eating their pets.

    In my view, war is (VERY, VERY OCCASIONALLY) regrettably necessary. It only becomes “necessary,” however, as a result of a long series of actions (or lack thereof) that are at root selfish, cowardly, and idolatrous. War is a sign that the belligerents involved have comprehensively failed in their job of standing up for justice and civilization.

  • Navy Vet

    What should we ask the German and Japanese children?

    Are they glad that their parents allowed Hitler, Stalin, etc. to come into power?

    Who are innocent children in Germany? If your parents did not join in fingering the Jews? If your parents were in the Wehrmacht and not the Waffen-SS? If they just worked at the local ammunition plant? If they lived near Dachau and did nothing to save the Jews?

    And Hirohito and Hitler are certainly proud ambassadors of civilization, selflessness, and heroism. I have extreme difficulty placing any blame on Paul Tibbets and his peers in prosecuting the war as quickly and effectively as possible.

    By admitting that war is regrettably necessary, you admit that war is sometimes the answer.

    The problem that many people have is that they imagine war is a failure of two sides, it only takes one side to begin a war. Once an army is marching across your border, or bombing your homeland, you only can decide whether to fight back or to surrender.

    No one wants to be a pacifist more than the Vet, but people who hide their heads in the sand to the dangers in the world, almost seem to be inviting aggression from the monsters loose in the world.

  • Pinky

    Muennemann – Thanks for the follow-through. That’s exactly what I was trying to get at.

    Put on a Browns jersey, walk through Cleveland saying “The Browns are gonna stink this year”, and everyone will agree with you. Do the same thing in a Steelers jersey and you’ll be dead. In fact, there is such an obvious difference that it’s tough for me to imagine the objecttions to it are sincere.

    Either way, though, no one bought the bumper sticker because of its theological accuracy; they bought it to provoke. Or am I wrong? Would someone with that bumper sticker also have the theologically-accurate “All Blacks Are Born Into Original Sin” bumper sticker?

  • Of course the sticker is meant to provoke. It is meant to provoke conversion.

  • G-Veg

    Dear Mr. Iafrate,

    Your response is astounding.

    You seem to equate “civil” or “helpful” with “supportive.” You display the utter lack of conviction of one who does not believe in what he says and, so, cannot handle opposition.

    No reasonable man could conclude that my reply was other than civil. I do not expect this reply to last but I now fully understand why other men find Vox Nova to be an empty waste of time.

    I wish you peace, whether or not you are able to see the sincerity of that comment through the blinders you have on.

    Sincerely,

    G-Veg

  • G-Veg,

    You mean the kind of “conviction” and “sincerity” that you demonstrate so strongly by using a pseudonym like “G-Veg”? You do not impress me.

  • Once again, the responses prove my point. Thank you all.