Thursday, July 10, 2008

The limits of graciousness

Last night we had rather extended family come and stay the night with us. By extended family, we're talking the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of a step-grandparent. A family of four that we've seen twice before. They are back in Canada, visiting for the summer after two years of missionary work in the Philippines, where they "spread the word" and run an orphanage. They are strict evangelical Christian, and their religious practices and beliefs deviate wildly from my own. 

I won't go into a great deal into my own beliefs and spirituality except to say this - I was raised within the framework of an organized religion, and while I do not believe all of the doctrine or strictures of that particular religion I still take comfort in the rituals and routines of the church when I choose to attend. From a belief perspective, I (and Mr Babbler, both) fall on the exceedingly liberal side. I believe that the Bible (or any religious document for that matter) should not be taken absolutely literally, and instead is a mixture of reality, representation and parable, and is reflective of many writers, revisions, place and time and translation. I believe in difference of religion, and that ultimately we are all getting to the same place no matter how or to whom you pray to, if you so chose. I believe in questioning the leaders or organized religion, and that religion is free to expand and change with new realities. These are just a few of my beliefs. I do not impose them on others, and I rarely discuss it, as I believe it is a deeply personal matter and choice.

We approached the visit with trepidation, but figured that at the most at least it would give us fodder - a few amusing stories or anecdotes. To say that the visit was awkward would be a colossal understatement, and that while we have some stories they came at an enormous personal cost.

I did my very best to be a gracious host - I did not swear nor take the Lord's name in vain (wasn't that fucking polite of me for God's sake - heh, get it? A wee bit of gallows humour there. Moving right along.) I was careful to remove literature from the living room that they would most likely find offensive and would not want their children exposed to (an issue of Glamour magazine, and the God Delusion) despite being sorely tempted. We stuck to water and juice while in the living room talking, abstaining from the glass of wine that would have, at the very least, taken the edge of the awkwardness and made everything a little hazy and, perhaps, bearable. At breakfast I refrained from eating or serving Peanut immediately, instead bowing my head while they said their grace before the meal. I was, in a word, accommodating. 

The parents told us of their time in the Philippines, with all the religious and cultural intolerance that seems to only come from those most fundamentalist of believers of any religion, Christian or otherwise. We bounced from one uncomfortable topic or anecdote to another, while terms such as "those Muslims", for example, were bandied about, together with loose quotations of scripture from the Koran to support their assertion that "those Muslims" are more aggressive. All of this couched in language so innocuous and non-aggressive as to be discussed as fact and not worthy of argument or discussion. We are right, and we have God and Jesus on our side. Ergo, you are wrong.

The children, now 14 and 16, are mimics of their parents with no real opinion of their own and a social awkwardness that comes of being homeschooled their entire lives and kept, rigidly, from any exposure to outside or "deviant ideas". Like, say, feminism. Or equality. Or cultural differences. Or freedom of belief and religion, apparently. They do not question, they are not curious. (In one of the only humorous moments, when trying to remember the children's names prior to their arrival Mr Babbler referred to them Rod and Todd - names that stuck for us privately despite the fact that one of the children is a girl.) I would have preferred, infinitely, the sulking sixteen-year-old boy, nose in a video game, and snotty, arrogant fourteen-year-old girl - siblings who either squabble or ignore one another mercilessly, to the wide-eyed religious fervor we were faced with.

The most wrenching conversation for me came this morning, when they took it upon themselves to tell me that the little boy whom they are raising (as "English", or course, with none of the "dirty habits of his country", despite the fact that he will have to live in that country, belonging to neither one culture or another) was not allowed to play with dolls. Because, of course, "they did not want him to be gay, like half the boys there, with all their dirty cross-dressing and freakishness". This, of course, was supported by the assertion that "God does not make mistakes, and that God has a plan for us, and we should be what He intended for us to be". 

This screed went on for several minutes - minutes in which my stomach turned nauseously, the breakfast we had just eaten roiling uncomfortably. Mr Babbler was at work, and the family was due to leave any minute. Did I say something? Stand up for what I firmly believe in. Argue that God's plan may have very well been for that person to embrace their homosexuality, despite their gender? That the two (sexual identity and gender) are mutually exclusive? Did I fight back, finally, about their ideas and intolerance regarding "those Muslims" whose land they were invading, with their proselytizing and preaching? Did I finally speak up and refute every one of the far-fetched, ridiculous, intolerant, racist ideas? 

I did not. I twitched, I avoided eye contact, I did not agree nor give any sign that I was similar in my belief. I attempted, several times to change the topic and to offer up distraction (look at Peanut? Peanut, want to play with your dollies?), but I did not say outright that what they said, that what they believed, sickened and disgusted me. That I did not share their intolerance and was offended, deeply, by their opinions and their need to verbalize them in my own house. 

In the end, I felt like a stranger in my own home, as they filled the air with intolerance. I felt alone and dirty, and I wished desperately that Mr Babbler was there with me, so I could speak up secure in the knowledge that I had someone their who believed as I do, and who could back me up. I thought of my obligation, as someone who should have defended what I believe in, should have defended those (gays, lesbians, Muslims, Filipino and every other group denigrated by their words) as they were unable to speak for themselves, despite the fact that my words would, in all likelihood, not made a lick of difference - their security in the rightness of their actions and beliefs so strong that nothing I could say would dissuade them). I questioned the limits of being a polite host - of where responsibility and obligation and good manners ends. I thought of my in-laws (whom, I should note, do not believe as this family does) who have been so good to me, and never hesitate to host my friends, and how this was done as a favour to them. How a wrong word could make family relations very uncomfortable for them in the future. All this ran through my head, together with the knowledge that they were leaving imminently, and how (cowardly as it was) I did not wish to delay their departure by opening their Pandora's box of theological arguments.

I am ashamed and sickened and disgusted with myself. All I could think was that I was so grateful that Peanut was not old enough to understand their words. How, if she had been older, I would have had to intervene, to say something, for we are not an intolerant family and I don't want her, for one minute, to think that that gross display of intolerance we were subjected to is either acceptable or moral or right.

Mr Babbler and I have made a decision. This family is no longer welcome to visit us. We will be having a frank conversation with our family about what occurred and how we felt about it, and we will leave it to our family to explain (if they so choose) why this family is no longer welcome in our home. It's not a perfect solution, and it doesn't solve the shame I'm currently feeling, but it is a first step. 


kgirl said...

Yeah, I'm not that gracious. There are certain sentiments that are not welcome in my house, regardless of whose mouth they are coming out of. It's a tough call, and I'm not suggesting that you could have changed their minds at all, but it is your house. Hopefully there won't be a next time.

nomotherearth said...

Talk about a rock and a hard place. Good for you for not welcoming them back ever again, at least. If only they would take the hint and mend their ways.

Adrian said...

Yep, I hear you. My in-laws were a milder version of this, but minus the religious ferver and plus a lot more of the Archie Bunker stuff. I would feel like I wanted to cover my children's ears at the dinner table and I did speak to them about it several times, but there's no talking to people with ideas like that.

So we moved - 700 miles away to be near my parents who were sweet and kind to people. Hey, ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

crazymumma said...

I think you did what you could at the time. In a way you were caught unawares as well. And, speaking to people like that is often like beating a dead horse. You get nowhere. They are so blinkered and righteous. And they only end up feeling pity for you anyhow.

However, were Peanut older, I know you would have risen to the occaision.

Now go put those evil magazines back out and take back your house.

ps. It was great seeing you today. I think she had a really good time!

Lisa b said...

I think you have come to a perfectly reasonable resolution. It is difficult when faced with such ignorance to know what to do. As you say it might only make their convictions stronger.

I think next time you will say something. An important point that as our children get older we cannot be silent about our values. There are several issues related to my experience over the last year related to abortion and euthanasia on which I am feeling I need to speak out in some form. The liberal majority is so often silent and as I was saying to Julia's ped yesterday 'why are the views of right wing nutjobs who have never been in this position considered at all?'

My SIL made a comment last week about Morgentaler's Order of Canada being controversial and I don't think I said enough to let her know how wrong I felt she was about that.

you've got me ranty here b. hope you've got some more stories for niagara!

Nap Warden said...

I agree with everyone else. You made the right decision. It's hard to start a fight with someone in your own home with little ones around. I completely disagree with all they were saying, and quite frankly I don't know what I would have done? I think I would be totally caught off guard. Sorry this happened to you.

Don Mills Diva said...

You did make the right decision. It is pointless to argue with some people - just pointless and I'm sure it would have left you feeling worse, not better, about things.

Good for you for taking a stand going forward though - I guess I was naive in thinking that most missionaries, even if I don't agree with their religious beliefs, are genuinely committed to helping people...

kittenpie said...

I think you are right about not wanting to sour family relations, though. At the very most, you might have asked them not to discuss these things or tried to steer conversation to more neutral territory, but it sounds like they were pretty determined to carry on with their diatribes. Still, there is no reason that, knowing this is what you can expect, you should have to put up with it again. Limits to graciousness, indeed. I actually think you handled this with a lot of restraint, given the situation you were put in, and can't find fault at all. I do hope you give yourself the same, because I think you did the best thing you could think to do. And I imagine that the jaw-dropping held you back for a good bit, anyhow!

Denguy said...

Oh, god doesn't make mistakes, eh? My anglican upbringing says otherwise--come on, the whole Noah saga....

Never mind, don't get me started. We talked about this enough in person, so you know how I feel.

Erin said...

Wow. Just wow.

The description of these missionaries is ... wow. (sorry, that seems to be the best thing I can come up with to say.)

Coming at it from a slightly different angle, I am, though I didn't a) act like it this weekend or b) talk about it much (EVER - as I agree with you that religion, is a deeply personal choice and to me, is probably one of the biggest social rat's nests you can step in) from an evangelical Christian church. It is my church's belief (and to a much lesser extent, mine) that God told us to go out and convert the world to Christianity, to teach them about the bible and the love God has for them.

If this family acted this way and voiced their opinions about "those Muslims" and that "dirty country" when they were in your home, what were they saying and doing when they were in the mission field? One would assume that they acted much the same way as it is hard to disguise THAT much hatred. I sure am glad that they are spreading God's love so thoroughly for us. Cause we need more of that kind of love. [/sarcasm]

Mac and Cheese said...

Please don't feel shame over not saying anything - I would have done the same. Things just would have gotten extremely ugly if you had spoken your mind, which would have fallen on deaf ears.

caramama said...

Oh, nothing you said would have made a difference. You know that, and it's just not worth it. If Peanut was older, you saying something would have made a difference--to her. Therefore, I know you would have. But this? Just not worth it nor worth beating yourself up about.

Good for you making the decision that they are no longer welcome. I hope they realize that they offend people, even if people don't argue with them face to face. Actually, this is really an impressive way to deal with the situation you were in. I really respect it.

BTW, didn't Jesus drink wine all the time? Yes he did. I sometimes wonder if hardcore believers like evangelical Christians even read the books they claim to be so devote about. (Poorly worded sentence, but you know what I mean.)

Bonus points from caramama for the Simpson references! Awesome!

Anonymous said...

I have friends like that, but they've never stayed at my house. I couldn't handle it.

Becoming Mommy said...

This is why I am a "poor host".
I will not tolerate people speaking like that in my home, and have kicked people out. Kudos for you for not letting them back.
It's your home. And as much as it is being a good host to make guests feel comfortable, it's being a very bad guest to offend your hosts to the very core of their being.

Anonymous said...

Gosh this is well written. I have been in this VERY situation. I think you handled it very well. And, you wrote about it very well. You kept things in balance. You took stock of everything in that moment and made the best decision possible. You DID NOT sell out. You did a great job.

BTW Any comments on Todd Bentley, that is a situation we are dealing with here with some of the family members who choose to follow and defend him. I wish I was as articulate as you about my believes re: religion. You did well.

Mad said...

This post made me short of breath. I spent so much of my early life completely silenced by doctrinaire slants on Christianity that I became too timid to speak and had to act out in other way. Too often, now when I do speak my mind I am made to feel as if I am bashing people's beliefs. It's a no-win situation really.


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