Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Attacking what we don't understand

1 Samuel 8:4-20

Mark 3:20-35

The people of Israel didn’t understand God enough to trust that they could have only God as king and not need a human king.  And when they didn’t understand, they responded by attacking what they didn’t know, demanding something different, refusing to listen to the warnings coming their way. The Pharisees assumed that even though he was actually healing people, Jesus must have been doing this by the power of Satan.  They didn’t understand how Jesus could successfully have driven out the demons, so they attacked and accused him of evil, even in the face of the amazing good he was doing.  Even Jesus’ family, when they didn’t understand his behavior, decided he must have been crazy and tried to get him away from the people. 

We do this too.  When we don’t understand another person’s perspective, or what is happening around us in the community, in our country, in our world, it is so easy to simply attack that which we don’t understand.  If we can vilify the other, then we don’t ever have to understand it.  We can simply discount it as evil or crazy.  How much harder is it to actually listen to another opinion, to actually pay attention to what someone else says just for itself without our preconceived ideas.  How much easier if we don’t have to look, don’t have to listen, and don’t have to be open to learn or to grow when we can just discount the other as evil or crazy or just completely wrong.

We all do this.  No matter where we stand theologically or politically, there are things all of us don’t understand and therefore refuse to even consider.  These may be things that scare us, things that don’t fit in with our vision or our worldview, things that may challenge us at our core, things that make life feel that it might not be the safe, contained, organized world that we know – all of these we may refuse to even consider. I would like to invite you to take a moment and think about what you won’t even entertain.  What will you not allow your mind to even consider as possibly true?  As possibly accurate?  As possibly good? 

I want to remind you that as we see in Jesus, that it is in the unknown, the uncomfortable, that which we would never consider in which we find God.  God shows us this in Jesus, who was completely other than what the people of God, the religious people of the time, expected.  He healed those deemed unworthy and rejected by the people.  He cared for those whom others knew it was illegal by law to even interact with.  He appeared crazy and even evil to the Pharisees, who again were the religiously righteous of the day, and even to his family.  That’s where God is: God is in the unexpected, the unknown, the unseen.  God is in the mystery, those things we don’t understand: those things that are beyond our understanding and sometimes those things we refuse to consider. The Israelites were God’s people but they could not see or accept God as the only king they needed. The Pharisees were the religious people of the day and yet they who were most faithful to the synagogue and the religious laws of the time could not see that the healing Jesus did was by the Spirit.  If we think that we are better than these faithful people, we need to look at ourselves again.  What is it that we block out that God could be saying to us, speaking to us, calling us to notice, see, love, and take in as God’s people?

I shared with you before that Scott Peck describes evil in his book, “People of the Lie.” He has a psychiatric practice, but he is also a strong Christian who believes in the existence of evil, as well as the power of love to confront it, overcome it, and change it.   As he worked with people, both the victims of evil and those who perpetrated it, he came to believe that people who do evil are people who simply cannot accept truth.  They cannot accept the truths of their own sinfulness and they project it out onto others and then try to destroy it in others.  As he puts it himself, “it is characteristic of those who are evil to judge others as evil. Unable to acknowledge their own imperfection, they must explain away their flaws by blaming others. And if necessary, they will even destroy others in the name of righteousness.”  We see this happening on a regular basis: televangelists who condemn and criticize a certain behavior only to be discovered engaging in the very behavior they condemn.  Politicians similarly who push for certain rules only to be found engaging in the behaviors they are working so hard to make illegal.    We see the truth in this as we learn that people like Hitler who may have had Jewish blood himself.  We see this reflected in our literature, such as the way Voldermort was trying to kill anyone who was not “pure blood” when he himself was only half-Wizard.

Dr. Peck also put it this way, “evil is…the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt or covert coercion – in order to avoid spiritual growth.”  And also, “(those who do evil have) a brand of narcissism so total that they seem to lack, in whole or in part, this capacity for empathy…..This narcissism permits them to ignore the humanity of their victims as well….There is only one particular kind of pain they cannot tolerate; the pain of their own conscience, the pain of the realization of their own sinfulness and imperfection….  They never think of themselves as (doing) evil; on the other hand, they consequently see much evil in others…evil people are often destructive because they are attempting to destroy evil.  The problem is that they misplace the locus of the evil.  Instead of destroying others, they should be destroying the sickness within themselves.  As life often threatens their self-image of perfection, they are often busily engaged in hating and destroying that life – usually in the name of righteousness.  They are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity….  Since the evil, deep down, feel themselves to be faultless, it is inevitable that when they are in conflict with the world, they will invariably perceive the conflict as the world’s fault.  Since they must deny their own badness, they must perceive others as bad.  They project their own evil onto the world.  They never think of themselves as evil; on the other hand, they consequently see much evil in others.”

Richard Rohr echoed these ideas in his column, “Jesus: Forgiving Victim.”  He wrote, “Fighters are looking for the evil, the sinner, the unjust one, the oppressor, the bad person "over there." He or she "righteously" attacks, hates, or even kills the wrong-doer, while feeling heroic for doing so (see John 16:2). Philosopher René Girard sees this tendency to scapegoat others as the central story line of human history. Why? Because it works, and it is largely an immediate and an unconscious egoic response… We are all tempted to project our problems on someone or something else rather than dealing with it in ourselves. The zealot--and we've all been one at different times--is actually relieved by having someone to hate, because it takes away his or her inner shame and anxiety and provides a false sense of innocence.  As long as the evil is "over there" and we can keep our focus on changing or expelling someone else … then we feel at peace. …Playing the victim is a way to deal with pain indirectly. You blame someone else, and your pain becomes your personal ticket to power because it gives you a false sense of moral superiority and having been offended. You don't have to grow up, you don't have to pray, you don't have to let go, you don't have to forgive or surrender--you just have to accuse someone else of being worse than you are. And sadly that becomes your very fragile identity, which always needs more reinforcement.   (Another way to deal with our pain is to)… refuse s to live in the real world of shadow and contradiction. (Some) divide the world into total good guys and complete bad guys, a comfortable but untrue worldview of black and white. This approach comprises most fundamentalist and early stage religion. It refuses to carry the cross of imperfection, failure, and sin in itself. It is always others who must be excluded so I can be pure and holy.… These patterns perpetuate pain and violence rather than bring true healing.”

Richard Rohr goes on to explain how Jesus is the opposite of this because he takes our hatred without returning it, nor does it use it to play the victim. He suffers without making the other suffer..

 The thing is that most evil works from a place of fear.  We fear our own sinfulness.  We fear the other out of a place of not knowing them, refusing to really get to know, understand or have compassion for the other, for that which is different.  But as we know, fear leaves no room for beauty or grace or anything truly good.

I found myself thinking about the movie, “The Devil wears Prada”.  The movie’s main character, Andi, starts as a person with goals and integrity.  She wants to be a journalist, and she has written about injustices such as poor work conditions.  She is in a committed relationship and values her time with her friends and family.  Her values do not include high fashion, expensive things, or working to the exclusion of everything else.  She is down-to-earth, centered, and knows where she is heading and what she wants.  When she first applies for the job as Assistant to the Director of Runway Magazine, she is appalled by the value system that surrounds her – the emphasis on accessories that make no real difference to one’s well-being, the insistence on being thin, on looking “right,” on dressing “right.”  But when she takes the job, she finds her values and her identity being slowly pushed, slowly and subtly undermined.  She finds herself giving up more and more of her time with her friends, family and significant other.  She finds herself being pulled into the drama of fast paced work and eventually into valuing the clothing and accessories she didn’t used to care about.  The choices she is faced with – to choose depth and relationships, or to choose appearance and achievement are subtle, but she finds herself choosing for the latter again and again, and she finds herself saying to those who would challenge those choices, “well, I didn’t have a choice!” She says that when she hurts her friend by going in her place to France because the boss asked her to do that.  She says that when she misses her boyfriend’s birthday.  She says it when she has no time to spend with the people who love her.  She loses and gives up more and more, and slips down the slope into being a person who has thrown out her own deeply held values, all with the phrase, “I didn’t have a choice.”  She didn’t realize that she was choosing “evil”, even when she did something that devastated another human, that took away another human’s hopes and dreams.  She told herself that she had no choice because she had to keep her job.  But that lie that she told herself, that the job was the most important thing, that lie led her more and more into “hell”…she lost her friends, she lost her significant other, she lost her sense of self and her values.  She refused to see the sin in her own behavior and projected it outwards, harming others.  As her boyfriend breaks up with her, she receives a phone call from her boss, and she says, “I’m sorry.  I have to answer this,” STILL not realizing she is making a choice.  She couldn’t see evil.  She couldn’t see she had a choice.  She couldn’t look at herself or consider the idea that maybe there was a different choice for her to make.

Bonhoeffer put it this way, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.” 

While the talk of evil or evil people may not be comfortable language for you, I think it is something we have to look at.  We attack what we don’t understand.  We attack what we are UNWILLING to understand – sometimes parts of ourselves that we are uncomfortable with, parts of ourselves that we would deny, parts of ourselves that simply make us uneasy.  But in attacking what we are unwilling to understand, we refuse to confront the sinfulness or errors or bad choices in ourselves, to change it, to grow.  We ignore the opportunities to grow more deeply with God.  We also injure others, we attack good things, as the case of Jesus and the Israelites show us, we attack that which is godly, which is holy, God’s own children who are different from us but whom God still loves.  We attack that which is bringing life to others of God’s people. 

If the Pharisees had been willing to consider that Jesus was a man of God, their lives would have been changed for the better; they would have met God, they may have found healing for their own souls.  If the Israelites were to have relied on God alone to be king, they might have learned faith and trust at a much deeper level, they would not have risked being exploited by their leadership, as Samuel warned them they would be, they might not have found themselves exiled over and over again.  And if we might be willing to consider that which we refuse to consider, we might find ourselves making friends and crossing bridges with those who are different from us, we might find ourselves called into action that helps those we normally don’t even see, we might see God’s face in an unexpected stranger, and get to know God at deeper and fuller levels. 

An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all.  One is Evil.  It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies and ego.  The other is Good.  It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth.”  The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”  The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

But the good news in this is that there is hope, even when we don’t want to see, even when we don’t choose well.  Because God is a God of love, of healing, and of hope.  And if we turn it all over to God, to really spend time LISTENING to God, there is hope, there is movement, there is possibility for us as well.  Love truly can overcome evil or pain or hate or fear.  We just have to be open, and let God do God’s work within us.  Amen.

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