Rachel Howard: ‘What kind of Christian are you, Mr. LaMalfa?’
I am writing in response to Jo Ann Rebane’s column on the protestors who attended Congressman Doug LaMalfa’s community coffee meeting in Grass Valley.
I am one of the protestors who attended, though I did not speak during the meeting. I stood at the back, outside the room’s glass window, holding up a sign. The sign asked “What kind of Christian are you, Mr. LaMalfa?”
I am a Christian who converted in my mid-20s and have since made faith the center of my life. My question was a sincere one.
I would ask Ms. Rebane to consider the possibility that many protestors attended the meeting not out of any desire to be rude or rabble-rousing, but only with reluctance and after great deliberation, and at personal cost. Such was the case for me.
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As a Christian, my exemplar of compassionate action is Christ. But I have also found the Buddhist idea of “right speech” helpful, and have taken it into consideration in attempting to communicate with Rep. Doug LaMalfa. (Some current religious scholars find evidence that Jesus himself may have been influenced by Buddhist believers who traversed the Silk Road during his time, so I do not think I am completely off-base in finding “right speech” to accord with Jesus’s way.)
According to Buddhists, “right speech” is: “Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter.” I find this guideline helpful (if difficult to live by), and so I have no desire to put forth divisive speech to Mr. LaMalfa simply for the sake of making a scene. However, when I have called Mr. LaMalfa’s congressional office to attempt communicating in a non-divisive way, no meaningful conversation or action has resulted. Neither Mr. LaMalfa nor his staffers have seemed to care that the changes to health care regulation Mr. LaMalfa supported would have killed members of my family.
When I called to ask Mr. LaMalfa’s thoughts on our president telling members of congress to “go back” to other countries simply because they feel a duty to bear witness to injustice here in the country they love, I was told only that Mr. LaMalfa does not get involved in non-official presidential statements. This seems highly impractical and disingenuous given that our president now conducts most of his communication with the country via Twitter.
Mr. LaMalfa has frequently proclaimed his Christian faith. Shortly after the election, during a town hall meeting at the fairgrounds, he opened with a prayer, inviting only Christians to pray with him. I did not understand the motive behind this, other than to enforce a sense of “us” and “them” — Christ may have said he was the way and the truth and the light, but he invited people of all faiths to pray with him.
All of these interactions, and Mr. LaMalfa’s voting record, lead me to genuinely wonder: What kind of Christian is he? I do not see Christian compassion in his speech and actions, but I do see Christianity being used in exclusionary and self-justifying ways.
Discussing the idea of “right speech,” the Buddha added qualifications, including: “In the case of words that the [Buddha] knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing and disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.”
In other words, sometimes words that are disagreeable are necessary, in the right time and place.
Is a public meeting with an elected representative the right time and place? I searched myself and felt that it was. I genuinely desire a sincere discussion of the question: “What kind of Christian are you, Mr. LaMalfa?”
It was not easy for me to attend the protest. I was sick with a cold (I was even running a fever that day). I was behind on work I needed to complete to keep my family housed and fed. I had to pay for child care. Of course, these sacrifices are nothing compared to the sacrifices being made by public servants and community members who are tirelessly speaking out against injustice because they feel they must.
The Buddha concludes about “right speech”: “It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”
In this challenging year ahead, may we all strive for right speech, and work hard to discern when unendearing and disagreeable speech is necessary.
Rachel Howard lives in Nevada City.
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