Posted by: Carl Magruder | September 22, 2008

Laughing at Frog

Laughing at Frog

                When I was a kid, my Dad and Mom used to read me a story from the book, Frog and Toad are Friends.  There were several stories in the book, but my favorite one was called, “A Swim.”  In it, Frog invites his friend Toad to go swimming with all the other animals on a hot day.  Toad does not want to go swimming because he is afraid that the other animals will think that he looks funny in his bathing suit, and they will laugh at him.  Well, Frog cajoles him down to the swimming hole, but Toad still won’t disrobe.  The other animals are having a great time and assure him that they won’t laugh at him, so finally Toad drops trou’.  There is a long silence, and then a twitter, followed by a snicker, and a giggle, and a snort, and finally a guffaw, and then all the animals are laughing their fool heads off.  “What are you laughing at?” demands Toad, and Frog says the most amazing thing.  He says:

                “We are laughing at you, Toad, because you DO look funny in your bathing suit.”


                I love that story because it was True.  All the stupid adults who thought that nobody would notice the things that I was self-conscious about as a kid, much less that anyone would be so crass as to laugh at them just didn’t know the kids I went to school with.  Those kids would laugh at you for striking out at baseball, falling down during dodge-ball, having orthopedic shoes, playing the violin, wearing a bicycle helmet (which nobody did in the ‘70’s), being good at spelling, wearing Sears Toughskins jeans, riding a Schwinn Sting Ray with a banana seat instead of a Mongoose BMX bike, having a lazy eye, being double jointed, or vegetarian, or not having a TV, or looking funny in your bathing suit.  (Don’t ask me how I know these things…)  What I liked about the story was that in fact Toad had correctly understood just how tough the situation was, and he had moved forward and taken a chance anyway.

                There’s another story, I think in Scott Savage’s Plain Reader, about a man who moves to a new home in a rural area.  As he is moving in, his Amish neighbor comes over to help.  They are moving the washing machine into the house together when the Amishman says, “If this thing ever breaks, just let me know.”

                “Oh, do you know how to fix appliances?” the ‘English’ man asks.

                “Oh, no,” says the Amishman. ”But I can teach you how to live without them.”

                A few years back President Bush said that “The American Way of Life is non-negotiable.”  I’m not picking on Bush here, because I think that the reality is that politicians who would publicly disagree with this statement are few and far between—neither Obama nor McCain has, certainly.  We are still trying to fix the washing machine of “the American Way of Life.”  The truth is probably nearer to the necessity to learn to live without it.

                Now, I don’t mean to suggest that we forgo the real American Dream, here.  I’m not talking about the American Dream that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about so powerfully.  I’m not talking about the promise of our founding documents, written by men whose lives were less enlightened than their beautiful vision.   I’m talking about the unfortunate confusion of the great promise of life, liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness for all persons with the impoverished vision of our nation’s promise which conflates that authentic vision with material riches, which is NOT the same thing. 

                In fact, there have been some interesting experiments with this very question in recent years.  There has been extensive research done on what are called GPI’s, or Genuine Progress Indicators.  This theory was first developed by Redefining Progress and can be read about here.  It is based on the observation that Gross National Product, the total of all goods and services produced by a nation, is a very flawed indicator of true wellbeing of the general citizenry of a given country.  For instance, a man who goes to public school, puts himself through college without borrowing much money, gets a job as a social worker and keeps that job for all of his working life, marries one woman, has two kids, and recreates by bicycle touring and building furniture in his garage until he dies quietly at home after a short illness is not nearly as good for the Gross National Product as a man who goes to private school, gets into cocaine addiction, does time in prison, gets married and divorced several times, vacations extravagantly with borrowed money, has kids whom he parents poorly and who consequently spend lots of time institutionalized, and dies slowly and horribly of long term illnesses resulting from alcoholism and obesity.  More goods and services are used in the more dysfunctional life, increasing the GNP.

                On a larger scale, things like spending three trillion dollars on the war in Iraq is really good for the GNP—lots of materials, medical costs, fuel costs, personnel costs, etc. all run up the GNP.  However, can this be considered Genuine Progress?  Does it coincide with our understanding of Christian ethics? Is the benefit from this war evenly distributed, or does it accrue only to a very few? 

                Coal fired power plants, clear cutting forests, over fishing our coastal waters, paving roads with inferior materials, a dysfunctional health care system, and inefficient building architecture are all examples of things that increase the Gross National Product (short term) while actually making things worse.

                The National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.’s Governing Board released “A Social Creed for the 21st Century” nearly a year ago.  It includes the following statement:

                We—individual Christians and churches—commit ourselves to a culture of peace and freedom that embraces non-violence, nurtures character, treasures the environment, and builds community, rooted in a spirituality of inner growth with outward action.  We make this commitment together—as members of Christ’s body, led by the one Spirit—trusting in the God who makes all things new.

                The statement affirms our personal responsibility to live according to the values of the spirit.  When Christ utters the statement, “Render unto Caesar,” it is part of his clever way of teaching in parables and koans.  In Mark 12:13-17, Matthew 22:15-22, and Luke 20:20-26 Jesus is not advocating conformity to the values of money or empire, as the argument has sometimes been made.  He is not saying, “If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em.”  What could be more inconsistent with his teaching?   Note that he ASKS for a coin in these passages.  He doesn’t have one in his own pocket.  Judas, remember, kept the purse of the nascent movement of radical Jews, and he was destroyed by it.  “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” is a statement that says, “If you are going to play by those rules, you’d better do it right.”  However, Jesus’ whole ministry stood for a different set of rules than Rome or the legalistic piety of the Jewish establishment of his time.  “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  Matthew 11:30 is an invitation to this different way of living.  It should not be read as an endorsement of Rome—the “Babylon” of Revelations. 

                Incidentally, this personal responsibility to live Christian principles in the world is the reason for the NCC to have a presence on Capitol Hill.  If the laws and governance of our land are compassionate, fair, just, and reasonable, it makes a life lived according to Christian principles more accessible.  For instance, if Congress enacts green building standards that require all new construction to be the equivalent of LEED platinum certification, and subsidizes the construction and architectural industries so that they can provide such construction  (perhaps with carbon tax funds),  it becomes more possible to live an ecologically responsible lifestyle that honors God’s Creation.  If Congress decides to fund a Department of Peace at the rate that we currently fund the Pentagon, and fund the military with what we currently allot for the U.N., it becomes much easier to feel o.k. about paying taxes, knowing that they are not buying land mines, depleted uranium munitions, and nuclear missiles, but that there is plenty of money to look after our veterans whose need for services is likely to be great in upcoming years.

                What’s the point here?  Frog DOES look funny in his bathing suit, and the Industrial Growth Society has probably gone about as fur as it can go.  As Brian McLaren has said with the title of his recent book,  Everything Must Change.  The only way to weather that change is by faith.  Faith that another world is possible, faith that God is with us, faith that compassion is always the right choice.  Of course the American Way of Life is negotiable—if the whole world can’t be provided for without depleting the biosphere, everything will be renegotiated, even survival.  What can’t be negotiated is the Cross. 





  1. I went in to a bookstore today, and there was the book, Frog and Toad are Friends, so I read “A Swim” again. I hadn’t remembered it quite right, but it is even more apt than what I remembered. Only Toad wears a bathing suit. Frog says that he doesn’t. They go swimming together, and then all these other animals show up and Toad doesn’t want to come out of the water because he knows that he looks funny in his bathing suit. All the other animals in the illustrations have no clothes on whatsoever. Toad gets out, they laugh, he picks up his clothes and goes home. The point is, the bathing suit is not only ridiculous, but superfluous! Kind of like bombing civilian populations, or a 700 billion bailout of runaway speculation, or an energy economy that destroys the biosphere…

  2. So the government has been a bit excesssive like toad with his trunks and if they don’t discard the excess they might sink?

  3. I think that’s right, Kristen. Unfortunately, there won’t be uproarious laughter…

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