Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sermon for February 12, 2012

Principles of Spiritual Activism: Double Justice

“Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you." Deuteronomy. 16:20

I just read a story from the newspaper in Salem, Massachusetts. Jan 4, 2012. Headline: Mother asks police to arrest her squabbling children. When police arrived, the mother lamented that her five children were fighting all day. The mother couldn’t stand the bickering, so she went out for a while to run a few errands. While she was away, her oldest son, a 15-year-old, punched his 8-year-old sister in the arm. That provoked an intervention from the 16-year-old daughter, trying to protect her sister. When asked what she felt the Police Department could do to assist her with the issues she's having as a parent, the mother replied, "I want them both out of here." According to the report, she then asked to have the brother and sister arrested.

This is a complicated little story for me. On one hand, what parent, after listening to a child tattle on a sibling for breathing, doesn’t want to deport the little angels for a day (bless their little hearts)? Everyone needs a little break now and then. On the other hand, I see an escalation of conflict that, if not stopped, can have disastrous consequences. How will the children respond to their mother from now on? Does the mother regret her decision to arrest her children? Will this family be able to forgive, or will they instinctively seek revenge against each other. Will anyone get justice?

Unfortunately, when people talk about justice, they mean vengeance, punishment, pain for pain, and an eye for an eye. Some people are impatient with anything that delays the gratification that comes from the exercise of retribution.

Some Christians actually have a theological rationale for revenge. At one point in my life, I was taught that God’s job is to punish wrongdoing. Since God is holy and perfect, God cannot put up with sin. If God has any contact with sin, God must destroy it immediately. Because of this holiness, I was taught, God is not free to act with unconditional mercy and compassion toward rebellious human beings. Compassion without satisfaction is not possible for God.

This theology may be a projection of our own impulses onto God. In a more forgiving world, we would realize that the people who hurt us have often been hurt themselves. We would remember that those against whom we struggle are actually “us,” not some impersonal “them.” In real life, when we’re hurt, we want to hurt the enemy worse than we were hurt. Our motivation is neither the common good nor the upholding of justice and truth. We simply want to get rid of our own pain by seeing ourselves as holy and perfect and our enemies punished for their evil behavior. Part of what makes us human is that we are not above taking revenge and bearing a grudge.

Justice, in this framework, requires payment for wrong-doing. Let’s call it the dance of double exclusion. In the first move of the dance of double exclusion, victims cry for justice. their bonfires of rage burn against their perpetrators, inflamed by unredeemed suffering. The second step in the dance of double exclusion happens when the victim’s sense of justice seeks revenge. It would be unjust to forgive. In the dance of double exclusion, a person can be both a perpetrator and a victim. Both the perpetrator and a victim are locked in a dance of mutual exclusion, united in a knot of mutual hate.

Forgiveness flounders when victims feel free to commit the same crimes that victimized them -- when victims want justice for themselves while dehumanizing their enemy. The dance of double exclusion plunges victims into a plummet of proud purity where they may forget that we are all human, that we are all sinful, and that we all answer to God’s call to repair the world.

The counter-move to double exclusion is double justice. The idea comes from our second reading. Deuteronomy 16 summons Israel to appoint judges and officials who will govern the tribes with due justice. The law of Moses insists that justice is an eternal religious obligation. We hear it in the Hebrew words of Deuteronomy 16:20: צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף (tzedek, tzedek tirdoph), “Justice, Justice, shall you pursue.” Jewish scholars have long wondered why the word “justice” is repeated twice. Are the words repeated for poetic emphasis, or is there more to it?

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף (tzedek, tzedek tirdoph), “Justice, Justice, shall you pursue.” What if the repetition is intentional? What if God expects people to work for double justice? Double justice means both victims and victimizers get treated fairly. If we want to stop rounds of revenge and reprisal, if we wish for marginalization and exploitation to end, if we seek to stop perpetrators from claiming victimhood, then we spiritual activists must offer double justice. Yes, victims get compassionate justice -- but not at the expense of dehumanizing the foe. Our spiritual tradition is quite clear: our enemies get compassionate justice, too. As Dr. King once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an ines­capable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirect­ly.” Double exclusion means that I only get justice when my enemies are obliterated. Double justice means that my enemies get fair and humane treatment under the law. Double exclusion means that when wish harm on my enemy, I sacrifice part of my own humanity. Double justice means that I seek fairness for the oppressor and the oppressed.

Most U.S. Marines know the story of the battle of Iwo Jima. Soldiers knew that the ancient Japanese warrior code did not believe in surrender, or being taken as prisoners. Unfortunately, during the battle some U.S. Marines began to follow suit with the killing of wounded, captured, or surrendering Japanese soldiers. One day on patrol, Dr. Robert Humphrey and his men came upon a young, emaciated Japanese soldier in a torn, filthy uniform. The young Japanese soldier was at the mouth of a cave, waving a white flag. It looked unusual. At the time, many believed that Japanese troops faked surrender in order to kill Allied troops, often with a concealed grenade. Convinced that this was some kind of trick, A Marine raised his rifle to kill the young man. Humphrey ordered the Marine to put down his weapon. A short, intense confrontation occurred between Humphrey and the Marine. But good order and discipline prevailed and the Marine lowered his weapon. It turned out that the Japanese soldier’s surrender was genuine and he was taken safely to the rear. The prisoner even turned out to be of some intelligence value.

Humphrey thought little of the incident at the time. There was so much killing before the incident — and so much afterward. Yet nearly fifty years later, when asked to share his proudest achievement, he cited this incident. He said, “On Iwo Jima, it was life or death every minute of every day. There was unavoidable killing every day. When I saw that Japanese boy trying to surrender and understood that this was perhaps the only time that I didn’t have to kill, I took the opportunity. I believe that action saved my humanity.”

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף (tzedek, tzedek tirdoph), “Justice, Justice, shall you pursue.” Only double justice will save humanity from itself. We protect the humanity of all people -- even our enemies, even those we’ve been taught to fear, even those we’ve been taught to hate.

Spiritual activists look for opportunities to practice double justice. No spiritual activist can be comfortable as long as there is a spirit of vengeance in our communities of faith. No spiritual activist can be comfortable as long as there is emptiness of spirit or bareness of soul among us. No spiritual activist can be comfortable as long as there is injustice and inequality in God’s world. No spiritual activist can be a worker for justice as long as one’s enemies are treated unfairly.

Make no mistake. God hates injustice and wants it to stop. The Church is invited to take part in God’s plan for bringing an end to injustice. And the work of justice can be achieved. But God’s justice is double justice -- a power for life, a power for salvation, a power for love, a power for peace

So when you see the hungry and the homeless, and those who give a cold shoulder instead of a warm meal, justice, justice shall we pursue.

When people are discriminated against because of the color of their skin, or their gender, or their age, or their sexuality, or their religion, justice, justice shall we pursue.

When power is held by those who wage war instead of long-lasting peace, justice, justice shall we pursue.

When some care more about winning when the Savior cares about who is losing, justice, justice shall we pursue.

When there are people who suffer because of war, poverty, injustice, fear, hate, greed,
sickness, or oppression, when a child dies of hunger, when a woman is raped in war, when our brothers and sisters in Africa die from AIDS, when nations threaten each other with mutual annihilation, when our world is diminished the earth is mistreated for profit, justice, justice shall we pursue.

When both victims and victimizers dehumanize each other, justice, justice shall we pursue.

When we believe that God’s aims for the world have been compromised, justice, justice shall we pursue.

I often get overwhelmed by how huge and beyond reach the world's problems are. I can't save the world. I shouldn’t. It can only be done as we come together as individuals who each do what we can to make the world a fairer, more compassionate, more just place. Look around you. Listen to all the wonderful people in this room. Think about how gifted and skilled we are. Imagine what we can do, each one of us in own way, in different places, doing different things, but with the same goal in mind. We stand together, united as one, fighting for human rights, and for justice -- God’s double justice.

Hirschfield, Brad (2007-12-31). You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism (pp. 64-65, 68, 92). Harmony. Kindle Edition.

Sermon for February 5, 2012

Principles of Spiritual Activism: Speaking truth to Power

The apostles were performing many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers were meeting regularly at the Temple in the area known as Solomon’s Colonnade. But no one else dared to join them, even though all the people had high regard for them. Yet more and more people believed and were brought to the Lord—crowds of both men and women. As a result of the apostles’ work, sick people were brought out into the streets on beds and mats so that Peter’s shadow might fall across some of them as he went by. Crowds came from the villages around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those possessed by evil spirits, and they were all healed. The high priest and his officials, who were Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But an angel of the Lord came at night, opened the gates of the jail, and brought them out. Then he told them, “Go to the Temple and give the people this message of life!” So at daybreak the apostles entered the Temple, as they were told, and immediately began teaching. When the high priest and his officials arrived, they convened the high council—the full assembly of the elders of Israel. Then they sent for the apostles to be brought from the jail for trial. But when the Temple guards went to the jail, the men were gone. So they returned to the council and reported, “The jail was securely locked, with the guards standing outside, but when we opened the gates, no one was there!” When the captain of the Temple guard and the leading priests heard this, they were perplexed, wondering where it would all end. Then someone arrived with startling news: “The men you put in jail are standing in the Temple, teaching the people!” The captain went with his Temple guards and arrested the apostles, but without violence, for they were afraid the people would stone them. Then they brought the apostles before the high council, where the high priest confronted them. “Didn’t we tell you never again to teach in this man’s name?” he demanded. “Instead, you have filled all Jerusalem with your teaching about him, and you want to make us responsible for his death!” But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead after you killed him by hanging him on a cross. Then God put him in the place of honor at his right hand as Prince and Savior. He did this so the people of Israel would repent of their sins and be forgiven. We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit, who is given by God to those who obey him” . . . [They had the apostles] flogged. Then they ordered them never again to speak in the name of Jesus, and they let them go. The apostles left the high council rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus. And every day, in the Temple and from house to house, they continued to teach and preach this message: “Jesus is the Messiah.” Acts 5:12-42

For more than two hours, thousands stood in silence on the hill overlooking Prague to pay their last respects to a playwright who became a president. In life, Vaclav Havel was remembered as dissident artist. In death, he was remembered as a spiritual activist. Many of those who watched the funeral on a large outdoor TV screen were too young to remember the days when, in 1989, Vaclav Havel rose from political prisoner to leader of his country in a matter of months. But, as his coffin left the cathedral, the crowd broke into sustained, warm applause, sharing the sentiment voiced in Vaclav Havel's most well-known quote, that truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred. Former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who was herself born in Prague, spoke at the ceremony. She said Vaclav Havel "brought light to the places of deepest darkness.”

Listen to these words from the writings of Vaclav Havel: “I appreciate the fact that, although very often they have no hope, not even a glimpse of success on the horizon, [there are still leaders] ready to sacrifice their lives, to sacrifice their freedom. They are ready to assume responsibility for the world, or at least for the part of the world they live in. I have always respected these people and appreciated what they do. Courage in the public sphere means that one is to go against majority opinion (at the same time risking losing one’s position) in the name of the truth. And I have always strongly admired historic personalities who have been capable of doing exactly this . . . Becoming a dissident is not something that happens overnight. You do not simply decide to become one. It is a long chain of steps and acts. And very often during this process, you do not really reflect upon what is happening. You just know that you want to avoid any debt that would put a stain on your life. You don’t want to become involved with the dirt that is around you and one day, all of a sudden you wake up and realize that you are a dissident, that you are a human rights activist.”

Havel said courage in the public sphere means going against majority opinion in the name of the truth.

What do you think about this? It terrifies me. I know that spiritual activists speak truth to power. But I have three issues with the whole concept. They all have to do with my instinct towards self-preservation.

Self-Preservation Issue # One: I can be gullible. I often think too highly of people in power. I assume our leaders are working for a more just world that supports the common good. I want to believe elected officials represent their constituencies and not their own political ambitions. I realized my gullibility when we were at the clergy prayer breakfast and lobby day for Marriage Equality in Annapolis. Six of us from CCC joined dozens of clergy to let Maryland State Delegates know that we are faith leaders who whose religious ideals compel us to support equal marriage rights for all people. We took our message to three different Delegates who oppose the Civil Marriage Protection Act, including Sam Arora of District 19. Each one of them fed us a line. They listened respectfully, but when it came time to commit, they dismissed us by saying, “Thanks for your time. I need to look more closely at the bill before I decide.” At the time, I left Annapolis thinking they would truly consider what is best to support people’s rights in our State. I wanted to believe they were sincerely looking. It wasn’t until when I realized how much I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt to others. I forget that some in power, don’t always work for the common good.

Courage in the public sphere means going against majority opinion in the name of the truth.

Here is Self-Preservation Issue #2: I don’t like conflict and confrontation. The thought of being a public activist unhinges me. And I know I’m not alone. I like to think its genetic. Actually, scientist Michael McCullough explains that human beings have a hard-wired instinct, almost a craving, for revenge. As long as we experience fear of the unknown and some degree of insecurity and vulnerability in our souls, as long as we feel like we have to defend our honor, there is the likelihood of acting on our primal urge to hurt those who hurt us. But, as someone once said, “There is no revenge as complete as forgiveness.” McCullough thinks that forgiveness is also hard-wired in us. Humans tolerate deficits and excuse mistakes in others all the time -- not just with those we love but people we work with. We forgive people hundreds of times a day without thinking much about it. As a species, it’s in our best interest to forgive others. Our survival depends on being able to collaborate and work together. What happens when you can’t work together, though? What do we do when the rift is too great, when the world seems like it’s gone mad and you no longer want to be complicit in the harmful decisions of those in whom you’ve put your trust?

Courage in the public sphere means going against majority opinion in the name of the truth.

Here is Self-Preservation Issue #3: Speaking truth to power is dangerous business. Just ask the Apostles. We heard about them in today’s reading from the Book of Acts. It is the first account in the New Testament of civil disobedience. Members of the first century church lived under military occupation by the most powerful empire in the world. They faced serious consequences for speaking out against the status quo and violating rules that the authorities imposed on them. The Apostles take stand against an unjust gag order. Luke, the writer, wants us to know that God is on their side. God unlocks the their prison doors so they can go back to the public square and preach the message of the risen Christ. The Apostles engage in deliberate violation of an abusive policy in order to draw attention to the immoral actions of the establishment. The public officials have the Apostles flogged in order to enforce the gag order. You’d think onlookers would see their punishment and get turned off from Christianity. Instead, the decision to break the laws of the establishment attracted people to the cause of Christ. I’m stuck on the public flogging part. If you speak truth to power often enough, you can get hurt.

I can be gullible, cowardly, and non-confrontational. So why think about speaking truth to power? Because courage in the public sphere means going against majority opinion in the name of the truth. Why challenge ourselves to a spiritual activism that confronts others? Because I fear that political, corporate, and religious leaders are standing in servitude to the arrogance of power and its corrupting influences. Because we live in a time when some religious leaders people down twisted paths that exclude people from Christ’s church and its leadership. Because political leaders bring us down irresponsible paths that offer Americans no hope of ever providing for all of our citizens such basics as a sound education, adequate health care, equal opportunity, and meaningful employment. Because governments lead us down villainous paths that lead to war and destruction instead of peace. Because corporate interests lead us down miscreant paths that desecrate the beauty and integrity of God’s creation, and squander earth’s irreplaceable resources. Because we walk down down folly-filled paths that disregard such simple lessons learned by every kindergartner, such as: we should tell the truth and share what we have and do unto others as we want them to do unto us.

This morning, we begin to speak truth to power in the meal we are about to share.This meal offered to us by Christ is the end of false authority and the beginning of true authority. It is the vanquishment of death and the renewal of life. It is the conquest of temptation and the victory of grace. It is the annulment of human domination and the foretaste of God’s reign. Thanks be to God, that in the midst of all the travails and tempests in this world, we have a gift -- the gift of Christ’s gracious, transforming presence here at this Table. We come to a place where we are honest about our failures. It is a place where we are valued not by our paycheck or the color of our skin, our age or gender or sexuality. We are counted as people of God. Period. We gather around an open table, meaning that you don’t have to be a member of our church or the UCC. It is open for those who are in need of forgiveness and grace and the desire to grow in love with God. We gain strength to speak truth to power by partaking of a love that will transform your soul and the world itself.

This table brings us close to God, a God who walked around in our world to redeem the world we’re in. It’s a table which brings us close to Christ, whose body was broken and raised so that we, who are broken people, might be raised to a more compassionate, a more humane life. It’s a table at which the Spirit fills us with grace and leads us into the hurting places crying for justice and looking for advocates. Our communion table is a place where we, who are many, become one with all. On this day and the days to come, may we be filled with compassion which overcomes our differences. And may we find the boldness to take a stand against hatred and injustice, even if it means speaking truth to power.

Krista Tipett, Einstein’s God (2010), pp. 171-195.

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...