I preached about a gun rights advocate. He wasn't who I thought.
I'm a liberal. He's a conservative. But we found common ground in the Bible and the idea that nobody is the stereotype we believe they are.
Here’s how it all went down.
A few months ago, as part of a sermon series on the teachings of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel, I preached a sermon called The Hardest Commandment. It was about the desperately difficult instruction Jesus gives us to love our enemies, and in it I talked about an article I’d read that week that introduced me to Todd Underwood.
Last year, Todd participated in a social experiment sponsored by a group called Narrative 4 in which people from both sides of the gun debate agreed to meet and get to know each other. On his New York trip, Todd met Carolyn Tuft, a self-employed artist and mother of four whose youngest daughter was killed at a mall while buying Valentine’s Day cards. Carolyn was there too and was shot so many times that she now lives with debilitating pain.
The story of Todd and Carolyn's meeting is powerful and illustrates the hard work of Jesus’ commandment: not to be right or to be a victim, but to be in relationship, to hear each other’s stories, to search and search until we find even the smallest piece of common ground on which we can stand together.
And then, sermon finished, life went on. That is, until several weeks later when Todd tweeted at me, asking to talk.
I didn’t recognize his name at first, but when I clicked on his Twitter profile I immediately knew who he was. You can’t read that story about Todd and Carolyn and not be impacted by its power, because it is about all of us. It’s about awkward Thanksgiving dinners and an America filled with polarized zealots who immediately assume the worst about one another.
I was a little nervous when I sent Todd an email at his request. Still, we set up a time to talk.
When he picked up the telephone, I could hear his kids in the background. After exchanging a few pleasantries, I asked Todd why he had reached out.
He said, “Well I read your article where you mentioned me…”.
“It’s a sermon,” I interrupted, pretty sure he didn’t approve of women pastors. (He has questions about whether the Bible allows for women to lead churches.)
But he was gracious at my interruption and went on, “I read your sermon where you mentioned me and I know you were talking about loving our enemies and I wanted to know if you thought of me as the enemy in that story.”
I immediately took a step back and realized I was going to have to set aside some of the assumptions I’d been making about Todd. His action and his inquiry took courage, thoughtfulness and vulnerability, and that started to shake my easy assumptions about him.
“No,” I told him. I explained I thought the story was a great example of the tremendously difficult work of human relationship, how when we love our “enemies” — that is, see their humanity and risk relationship with people who believe the exact opposite that we do — we sometimes find there are things we share in common.
“Do you think it’s wrong to own a gun?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “But I am so alarmed about the proliferation of gun violence in our country.” (He is, too.)
“Do you think it’s wrong not to own a gun?” I asked. After a short silence he said, “No. No, I don’t think it’s wrong to choose not to own a gun.” (But protection of the Second Amendment is critically important to him, he said.)
We went around for a while about Scripture and how we interpret it in relation to gun ownership. Finally I asked him, “Todd, if you could sum up the Bible in one sentence, what would it be?”
“You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself,” he replied. After a couple of beats I said, “Wow. That’s exactly what I would have said.”
In that moment I felt we stepped onto a small piece of ground that was shared, where each of us moved over to make room for the other and where we understood each other in ways that surprised both of us. And where I was jarred by, well, his humanity. His personhood.
As our conversation continued it was clear: we disagree on quite a few points. He’s deeply anti-abortion; I’m urgently pro-choice. He voted for Donald Trump; I voted for Hillary Clinton. He’s really concerned about Benghazi; I’m really angry about ties to Russia and their influence on the election. I am deeply offended by Donald Trump’s easy talk of assaulting women; he regretfully says that’s just the way men are, and it’s not assault if it’s consensual. He sees his decision to allow George Zimmerman to sell the gun that killed Trayvon Martin on his online platform just a matter of course — Zimmerman qualified to be a seller and that’s the end of the story; I am alarmed by pervasive systemic racism that has come to be represented by Trayvon Martin’s death. He’s obviously a huge pro-gun advocate; I hosted a conference last year to help train faith leaders to discuss gun violence with their congregations.
Seriously, on almost every single issue, we do not agree.
But he listened to me. And I listened to him. And we landed in an easy alliance where we agreed to disagree and not to allow that disagreement to preclude friendship. It was the strangest feeling. I wonder if he felt the same.
“I’m coming to New York next week,” he said at the end of our conversation.
“Why don’t you come up and visit The Riverside Church?” I asked.
“Okay,” he said.
A few days later, Todd was in my office at The Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We chatted about the weather, about how he’d missed his flight the day before and the party in Manhattan he’d attended the night before. I showed him the view of the Hudson out the tower windows, then I took him to see our worship space. He said, “It’s so beautiful,” and I was surprised.
As he was getting ready to leave he asked, “So, what’s next?”
I sat there, startled briefly by the unlikely situation in which we found ourselves. We couldn’t be more different. But Todd and I share at least one fundamental belief: nobody is the stereotype we believe they are.We do ourselves and our world a fundamental disservice when we won’t summon the courage to listen to each other and try as hard as we can to find the things we share, small as they may be.
Todd loves family, country and God. I do, too.
I think it’s critical for the future of society that we learn to listen to each other, even in our differences. Todd does, too. Both of us don’t know what’s next for this country or even for our conversation. But we definitely agreed: We have to keep talking.