The last two years, June has been a rough month. Two years ago, on June 15th, a lone gunman opened fire at a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC, killing 9. June 12th of last year, another lone gunman shot and killed 49 people at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. This past Wednesday—June 14th—a third gunman opened fire at an early morning baseball practice of Republican members of Congress.
What’s going on? Why are people turning on each other with such ferocity?
Sociologists and historians will have to explain the broader contexts that are giving rise to the greater violence. Looking at violent acts through my pastor’s eyes, though, I see a common thread–an unwillingness to see other people in their full humanity. Violence can occur only when the target of that violence is dehumanized. The shooter at Wednesday’s baseball practice didn’t see human beings on the field; he saw enemies. The same was true of the shooters in Charleston and Orlando. Violence begins by failing to see the full humanity of the other.
Where does the failure to see others in their full humanity begin? I believe it begins in our thoughts, in discounting someone else because of who we think they are. Thoughts lead eventually to words. Do you ever listen to the words coming out of your mouth…or your social media feeds? If so, what do you hear? Do all your words acknowledge the full humanity of other people? Most of us don’t allow our thoughts or words to escalate into physical violence… but for those who are more psychologically fragile? It doesn’t take much for them to cross that line. I am convinced that increasing physical violence in our country has its roots in increasing verbal violence. Rhetoric matters. Words matter. (Pause) Kindness matters.
We’ve been struggling a little here at Pilgrimage here of late. A couple of months ago in Christian Century, Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote that, in the current political climate, he’s not worried about pastors of congregations mostly on the left or mostly on the right. The pastors he’s worried about are the ones serving congregations with significant political diversity. He didn’t have any answers for those pastors; he just said he was worried. Thanks, President Barnes. 🙂 I guess we’ll have to figure this out on our own.
Because of the increasing number of people who are coming to me distressed about politics–and how it’s talked about in our own church community–I’ve come to realize that it’s important to set some boundaries around talk of politics. For some folks, faith and politics are completely separate categories. For others, being engaged in social and political systems is a key part of their faith. How do we do community when we’re in such different places? How do we–as a community–follow Jesus in the midst of our political diversity?
I don’t think there’s any program or secret formula for how to do this. Even if there were a secret formula, we’d still have to figure out how to make it work here at Pilgrimage. Our focus this summer is building a stronger community. Our community will become stronger only to the extent that we can figure out how to disagree on some things and, even in the midst of that disagreement, still remain connected to each other. As St. Augustine said in the 4th century: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Remember, “that they may all be one” isn’t about ideas or opinions or consensus. “That they may all be one” is about seeing each other in our full humanity in the midst of our differences and diversity.
Last week, we began an experiment. Instead of offering prayers for political issues in worship, we’re going to have a specific time of prayer for those issues after 10:00 worship. As I explained it last week at 10:00, I reminded those gathered that this community is safe only to the extent that we make it safe for each other.
So, how do we make Pilgrimage safer for each other? As we work together to figure all this out, the Apostle Paul will be a good guide.
The book of Romans was written about 20 years into the growth of the Jesus movement. The question of whether the Way of Jesus was a subset of Judaism or something else altogether was still being worked out….which means the tension between Jews and Gentiles was high. Those who saw the Way as a subset of Judaism strongly believed Gentiles should become Jews before joining churches. Others—like Peter and Paul—didn’t see a need for that.
One of the issues being fought over was whether it was okay to eat meat that had been offered to idols. Jewish law was clear on the issue—absolutely not. Paul understood the faith of Jesus to allow the eating of such meat. He ‘knows and is persuaded’ that nothing is unclean. For some people, though, that very thing is unclean; it’s forbidden. That being the case, Paul says, why partake if you know it’s going to offend a fellow believer? 15If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, Paul writes, you are no longer walking in love.
The political landscape in our country has changed drastically in the last year….not so much in terms of how each party understands the issues. What seems very different is the way we talk to each other. In fact, it seems like we’re no longer talking about issues so much as we’re assuming the character of people based on whether they’re Democrats or Republicans. Once we know the label, we presume to know the person. That’s stereotyping at its worst. It is an insidious form of dehumanizing the other, of refusing to see his or her full humanity.
The shooter on Wednesday, based on what I’ve read so far, didn’t see human beings on that baseball field; he saw only Republicans. To be sure, he had to be psychologically fragile to do what he did. Lots of folks have been and are very angry about politics right now and, as angry as they are, they will never—would never—engage in physical violence.
But what about verbal violence? What about violence in our thoughts? Have we dehumanized others in our thinking, in our conversing about people holding ideas with which we disagree? I’ll answer for all of us—Yes. The answer is yes. We’ve all done it…because we’re angry. And frustrated. And frightened. And weary.
So, what do we do? What do we do as followers of Jesus? What do we do as followers of Jesus in this community of faith? I’m going to say something I’ve never said before: As we seek to create safety for each other, we might do well to act like members of Congress.
I thought Paul Ryan did a terrific job addressing Congress on Wednesday. He spoke of all we have in common. He spoke about Democrats at their baseball practice stopping to pray for their Republican colleagues. Then Nancy Pelosi introduced her remarks by saying, essentially, “What Paul Ryan said.”
The most poignant thing I saw on Wednesday was an interview with team captains, Reps. Joe Barton and Mike Doyle. At one point, Mr. Barton–whose two sons were there the morning of the shooting–teared up, overcome with emotion. Mr. Doyle gently put his hand on Mr. Barton’s arm and let him cry. It was the most hopeful thing I’ve seen in Washington in a good long while.
We create safety for each other, first, by seeing each other in our full humanity. How we vote is not who we are. While it might be perfectly fine for us to say one thing or another at church gatherings—including worship—if what we say is hurtful or disrespectful to others, then why do it? If our words cause our sisters or brothers to stumble, then the way to act them and our community into wellbeing might be to think twice about how we say something before we speak. Hear me well. This isn’t a matter of silencing ourselves or anyone else. It’s a matter of making decisions about what to say to each other a spiritual practice. It’s about making wise decisions about what to say where and when. It’s about thinking about the impact of our words on our brothers and sisters in this community before we utter them. The Apostle Paul said it well in today’s Epistle Lesson: Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
Want to know what that looks like? We need look no further than Bono and George W Bush. Bob Hammitt of Portland, OR, made this Facebook post a couple of weeks ago the day after Bono visited George at his ranch in Crawford, Texas:
At U2 concerts in the early 90’s, he wrote, a regular part of the show featured criticism of George H.W. Bush. In fact, front man Bono used to call the White House in the middle of the concert to try to get a chance to speak to the 41st President.
When George H.W. Bush’s son George W. Bush became President in 2001, Bono was also a critic of his.
George W. Bush didn’t go to war with [his] critic… Instead he invited him to talk about something they had a common passion for, saving lives in Africa. They had lunch together in the White House Mess hall, then Bush took him to the oval office. For 40 minutes they discussed A.I.D.S., malaria, and debt relief.
After the meeting, in 2003, Bush started a program in Africa known as PEPFAR (US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, http://www.pepfar.gov), which 14 years later is credited with saving over 11 million lives.
Yesterday (May 26), Bono was in Texas as part of the current U2 tour, and paid a visit to his old friend. It is amazing what can be accomplished when mature people find common ground for the good of all.
If Bono and W can do it, we can, too, don’t you think? We who—together—believe in Jesus? We who—together—seek only and always to act the world into wellbeing? We who—together—worship the same loving, wholeness-hoping, justice-seeking, still-speaking God? Let’s take a minute to check in with the still-speaking God about how we might contribute to the mutual upbuilding of this community. (Silence)
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2017