By Bill Leonard
Do you ever whine? Chiding turns to complaining, and morphs into whining before you know it. I feel completely qualified to talk about whining since this month marks my 40th year of teaching students in American higher education. Believe me, I know whining when I hear it. And, as a university professor for 40 years, I can whine with the best of them. One dictionary nails it by defining whining as “to snivel or complain in a peevish, self-pitying way.” Been there; done that.
In “Stop Global Whining,” Jeffrey Holland writes: “No misfortune is so bad that whining won’t make it worse.” And lest we think whining is unique to our times, consider 17th-century preacher/poet John Donne’s lament: “I am two fools, I know, for loving, and for saying so in whining poetry.” Are we there yet? If not, then ponder Maya Angelou’s word that, “Whining is not only graceless, but it can be dangerous.”
The Bible is full of graceless whining, if not graceless whiners. Adam introduces it in the morning of the race when he whines to God: “The woman you gave me, she offered me the fruit, and I did eat.” Cain kills brother Abel and whines: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” when the secret is out. The “children of Israel” whined their way from Egypt to the Promised Land: “We hate this horrible manna!” “Why did we let Moses take us away from Egypt’s wonderful leeks and garlics?”
The 12 apostles turned gospel whining into an art form, constantly complaining to the Son of God: “We’re tired; we’re hungry; we’re sleepy; we’re scared; we’re confused; we don’t understand the stories.” “Why can’t you make more of that really good wine?” (I made that one up, but I bet they said it!) They declare that “the kingdom of God has come near,” reporting to Jesus that they “saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven;” all the while whining that the “kingdom” is not what they’d expected. Even in Scripture, there’s a thin line between whining and dissent. Jesus continually chided folks with phrases like “O you of little faith;” and the poignant, “You are like children chanting in the marketplace.” So whining channeled into action is dissent, while dissent channeled into whining is self-indulgence.
In Dissent in American Religion, the late historian Edwin Gaustad, writes, “Dissent cannot be understood simply in terms of whines against oppression, resistance to organizational corruption, demurrers against the affirmations of others.” Dissenters, Gaustad insisted, are more than “merely noisy nay-sayers.” Instead, “the dissenter is a powerful if unpredictable engine in the service of a cause.”
At their best, dissenters are both a prophetic witness to the insensitivities in church and culture, and agents of action for remedying those deficiencies. Gaustad admits that “history hones dissent to a fine edge: sharp, severe, and unyielding,” citing Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s insistence that dissenters are concerned, “not with process, but with event.” Thus the dissenter may well display “all of the pompous arrogance or heroic sacrifice of which a free spirit is capable.” And they are dangerous, too, “a threat to civilization … or “the restorer or the inspirer of civilization.” Dissent is “elusive and erratic;” it is less an exception to the rule than “an exaggeration of it.” In The Heart is a Little to the Left, William Sloan Coffin summed up the rationale for dissent when he wrote: “If you lessen your anger at the structures of power you lower your love for the victims of power.”
Nonetheless, our most intense dissent may sound like whining to others. The spiritual and theological energies that grip us, may not grip others as well. Sometimes Christians need to challenge the culture; sometimes we need to listen to the culture and its critique of the vision we claim but fail to live out.
When we do choose dissent, however, we may find that we are not alone, that others are willing to bare their consciences with us. A friend of mine tells of the day he visited the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, Ala., directly across from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where four little girls died in a 1963 bombing. The museum contains the jail cell occupied by Martin Luther King Jr. from which he wrote the iconic, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” addressed to area ministers who questioned his dissenting methods in the fight against Jim Crow culture. My friend says that standing near him was an older black woman and a little boy who asked, “Grandma, was this the cell you were in?” Her response was as quick as it was poignant: “No, honey, this was Dr. King’s cell; mine was on down the hall.” In confronting segregation in the South, Martin Luther King was central, but he was not alone. He was aided and abetted by other dissenters, many of them school children, in cells just down the hall.
Across the church’s history, when the times got out of hand, some Christians have constituted communities of dissent. Sometimes they “won;” sometimes they didn’t. Either way they gave a witness for grace and justice. Today, from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to Mother Emanuel AME Church, let’s ask where our dissent may be needed, stop whining, and get to it.