Mike Pence, Joy Behar, and the Message of Lent

by DR. ROBIN MCFEE March 19, 2018

As many of you may recall, not too long ago comedienne and television talk show host Joy Behar publicly insulted Vice President Mike Pence for his faith. Referring apparently to his prayerfulness, and talking with the Almighty, she offered the notion that such behaviors are akin to mental illness.

When I first heard Ms. Behar's comments, like anyone attacked - and she was attacking my faith, I felt a visceral response - anger was welling up inside me. Here we go again - another liberal secular attacking Christians....Another cheap shot by the media for a quick laugh and bump in ratings....Another example of Hollywood mockery of religion and people of faith. But then a small voice quieted me and I realized what an opportunity Ms. Behar gave for us to respond as Christians ought to behave - with compassion, with grace. We ought to see this as an opportunity for dialogue, not to mention as a chance to reveal who we really are as followers of Christ - people who know how to forgive. And we ought to see it as an opportunity for some well needed reflection on our own behaviors.

Soon thereafter was an outcry from Christians, and even those who aren't particularly religious, calling out Joy Behar's comments as bigotry, and being anti Christian. Our Jewish friends have been on the receiving end of bigotry and anti-Semitism for years.  But Christians are joining them, becoming the new flavor of the month for the media. Not surprisingly, some folks wanted her to be fired, or taken off the air for a ‘time out.' Others demanded a public apology. To be sure, had a Christian uttered such bigoted comments against a group of people, the outcry would be deafening. But tit for tat, an ‘eye for an eye,' and revenge are not what followers of Jesus are all about.

Don't get me wrong, we ought to push back when we are assaulted, and hold the media accountable.

Christians don't push back enough when our faith or the faithful are targeted and maligned. There is nothing "WWJD" about silence. Too often we think the ‘turn the other cheek' is an invitation to be picked on, akin to the cartoon character who wears a sign saying "kick me." Nothing could be further from the truth.  Yes, as followers of Christ we are called to be loving and forgiving. That does not give others a ‘license to kill,' and treat us as door mats. It means we are to stand up and be counted, but in a constructive way whenever possible.

Sometimes we are silent for fear of bullying. There are too many of us to allow any Christian to stand alone.  And the response ABC felt after Ms. Behar's insult to VP Pence probably reminded the network that we are no longer sitting on the sidelines. And there are LOTS of us.

Alas, in all fairness, too often we as Christians make it easy to mock or criticize us.  As the novelist Brennan Manning wrote -

"The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable."

How many of us have visited, or even at one time belonged to a house of worship that would have better served the community if someone put a crime scene tape around the church, and placed a quarantine sign on the front door warning folks "toxic from within." We all know the person, or congregation, parading around as Christian, treating Jesus as a team mascot and not as Teacher, personal Savior, much less Role Model or reason for the enterprise.  I can understand, but not agree with the line of reasoning that wonders if our faith doesn't deserve a spanking from time to time. Reason - simply put - because most of the people of faith that I know (Jew, Hindu, Moslem, as well), and associate with try to make the world a better place - as good parents, spouses, friends, mentors, volunteers, sharing their 3 T's of philanthropy (time, talent, treasure).

And, sometimes, down deep we agree with our critics, on some level. We all know folks who claim to be Christian (and we wish they wouldn't) who talk the talk, but don't walk the walk.

So....in this case I loudly disagree with our critic. Believing in and praying to a Higher power, and listening for God's Voice is not a mental illness Ms. Behar. That is my medical opinion, and spiritual one. But don't take my word for it. Consider....

JFK frequently invoked God in his public addresses. Would Ms. Behar call him mentally ill?

Mother Teresa had a road to Damascus moment on a train in the 1940's. She heard God's calling voice in her soul, and answered with a lifetime of helping others. Would Ms. Behar call Mother Teresa mentally ill? If so, there are many followers of the late nun, who are trying to follow in the way of Christ, and the example of this selfless woman, by alleviating suffering and providing compassion. Are they, too, mentally ill?

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had a road to Damascus moment. His exhortations for peaceful coexistence, forgiveness, and civil rights - from a jail cell to the streets of the South, to the monuments in DC, inspired a generation. He, too, heard the call from Above. Would Ms. Behar call Rev. King mentally ill?

So many of us have heard God's voice call to us. For me, I was inspired to use my medical training as a form of ministry, giving free care to the underserved. Would Ms. Behar call me mentally ill?

Perhaps Ms. Behar hasn't had the privilege of volunteering with Christians in charitable pursuits, and truly doesn't understand us. Perhaps she has lived in an echo chamber of secularism for too long. Or maybe down deep she just decided to get 3 birds with one shot - hitting a Christian, a Republican, and a member of Trump's administration - all represented by Mike Pence.  I can't read her mind or judge her heart - way above my pay grade. But I can tell you I was never so proud to have Mike Pence as my VP reflecting upon how he handled the situation.

Mike Pence by all accounts is a kind, decent, man of faith. Like Behar, Pence has a large media platform. Only instead of returning insult with insult, he used it to invite dialogue with Ms. Behar. Certainly when she and the VP talked, Behar got a first person experience with a sincere man of faith. She got a firsthand glance at Christianity at its best - when we give grace to others, when the world might justify us to give grief instead.

Ms. Behar - whether out of a revelation moment, or fearing network reprisals and a potential ratings decline on her show, offered to make a private apology to Mike Pence. The Vice President was interviewed shortly after, and conveyed that of course he forgave her. That is the Grace we as Christians receive, and are taught to give. He is a classy guy. He also made the point that he didn't take it personally. He took the insult as if it was levied against a faith millions of people share in - Christianity, and moreover, the incident, and apology, as an opportunity for dialogue.

I have no idea if Joy Behar is sincere in her apology - both privately to VP Pence, and most recently publicly. To some it was too little too late, or too tepid. To me, it was a start. It is my hope that maybe a "small voice from Above" spoke to her, and inspired Behar to reflect on her actions. Words have power -to inspire, to insult, to heal, and to harm.

Vice President Mike Pence showed Ms. Behar, and the mocking world what it means to be a Christian - by grace and forgiveness.

What are Christians all about?

This is something anyone of faith - regardless of religious tradition should reflect upon. Moreover the Behar event provides us an opportunity to remind folks what we are like when we follow our better angels - through our actions, not our words.

 For starters, look around any major city in the US, and you will find a medical center named after a saint, supported by the tireless and generous Catholic charities, orders of sisters, and other philanthropies. Or look at the Protestant health care facilities - eponymously named after the respective denominations - Baptist Hospital, Methodist Hospital, Lutheran Hospital, and well you get the idea.  This is Christianity at work. As extensions of Jesus' Judaism, this also applies to the many Jewish hospitals. Look at any city or town in the country - food kitchens, homeless outreach, home visitation, youth mentoring, or other acts of charity - sponsored by and staffed with people of faith. That is the face of our faith Ms. Behar, and I invite you to spend time with folks who believe in God, and live lives reflective of that. This is not uniquely Christian. But Behar didn't insult other faiths.

Besides grace and charity, in our highest form, learning the lesson of the Cross, and adhering to Christ's last words to forgive those who hurt him, we are called to forgive Ms. Behar, but we also expect her to learn something from this experience, and try to avoid making the same mistake twice.  Christians are no less deserving of respect than other people, and are not cocktail party punch-lines.

By the way, forgiveness is not the same thing as absolution. Too often people throw the forgiveness notion in our faces as Christians, when we stand for right and wrong, punishment for crime. Forgiveness doesn't mean unlocking the prisons, or inviting folks to repeatedly offend us or others. Let me share a great example. Pope John Paul II went and visited a prisoner - the man who tried to assassinate him. The Pope prayed with the man (who was not a Catholic), and showed love, compassion, and forgiveness. When the Pontiff left the prison, his assailant was still behind bars. There was no file hidden in the vestments. But what the Pope left behind was far more powerful. Can we do any less? It doesn't mean we ignore the attacks. On the contrary. But we can push back with a sense of power that comes from purpose, conviction, and compassion.

Yes, we as Christians need to use the criticisms as opportunities to look in the mirror to make certain our behaviors are reflections of God's love.  And we need to take the opportunity to engage our critics.

Conclusion

Too often Christians look at the Easter message solely as that of love, and resurrection - a time for us to be reborn, a time for us to reflect upon and improve our lives, and actions in faith. As mere mortals we are wired to love. But the true message of the Cross and one that continuously is lost upon us as grudge carrying creatures is forgiveness. Two of the hardest things for people - say "thank you" and extend forgiveness to folks who hurt them. Consider the family members who haven't spoken to each other in years over some slight. The message of the Cross, which we prepare for during Lent, is really time for us to learn forgiveness. Jesus could have vaporized his tormentors. He chose to forgive. 

Can we do any less to someone who offends us?

At a time when people of differing viewpoints line up akin to pugilists, it is refreshing to see the classy way Mike Pence handled the latest media assault on people of faith. His behavior represented the very best of Christian actions - forgiveness, and grace.  I give some credit to Behar. I am sure she is not used to walking things back. Most of her media associates have a ‘fire and forget' mentality of scorched earth, not retracting or apologizing for insults. She made an effort. Only time will tell if it was for show or for real. Nevertheless there is something instructive about this incident. Now if only the other insults, political divisiveness, and public ranting that occur in our ever increasingly polarized society could be handled in the same spirit as Mike Pence, Joy Behar, and the Message of Lent. 

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Dr. Robin McFee, MPH, FACPM, FAACT, is a physician, and clinical toxicologist. As medical director of Threat Science - and nationally recognized expert in WMD preparedness, she consults with government agencies, corporations and the media. Dr. McFee is the former director of the Center for Bioterrorism Preparedness (CB PREP) and bioweapons - WMD adviser to the Domestic Security Task Force, the former chair of the Global Terrorism Council of ASIS International, and a member of the US Counterterrorism Advisory Team. She has coauthored two books: Toxico-Terrorism by McGraw Hill and The Handbook of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Agents, published by Informa/CRC Press    

 

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