No intro to this one; just the text and sermon.
For the leader. By the descendants of Korach. On ‘alamot. A song:
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we are unafraid,
even if the earth gives way,
even if the mountains tumble
into the depths of the sea,
even if its waters rage and foam,
and mountains shake at its turbulence. (Selah)
There is a river whose streams
gladden the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High —
God is in the city.
It will not be moved —
when daybreak comes, God will help it.
Nations were in turmoil,
kingdoms were moved;
his voice thundered forth,
and the earth melted away.
The Lord of hosts is with us,
our fortress, the God of Jacob. (Selah)
Come and see the works of the Lord,
the astounding deeds he has done on the earth.
To the ends of the earth he makes wars cease —
he breaks the bow, snaps the spear,
burns the shields in the fire.
“Desist, and learn that I am God,
supreme over the nations,
supreme over the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us,
our fortress, the God of Jacob. (Selah)
I’m tired. Are you tired? I just don’t know what to do or say anymore. I’m tired of giving the mental energy to arguments that, quite frankly, just won’t sway people. I’m tired of all the violence and the hatred; I wish it would just stop. I wish everyone could just love each other and get along, I really do. I’m tired of the injustice I see everywhere, and the fact that people have been fighting for too long for too little. I know they are tired, as well. I’m tired of the immaturity I see on full display all across the United States, from privileged protestors setting things on fire to elected officials failing to accept responsibility for their harmful, sometimes hateful words. I’m tired of ignorance. I’m tired of defensiveness. I’m tired of corruption. Frankly, I’m just tired of people, of human nature. Don’t you feel that way sometimes? It’s that same sentiment that fictional character Professor Farnsworth expresses in one episode of the popular T.V. show Futurama – “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore!” We are exasperated, we are frustrated, we feel that we are not being heard or understood – that the other side doesn’t even want to try to understand. That ignorance and name-calling are somehow now the preferred methods for winning an argument. Do you feel it? It doesn’t matter who you voted for, what “side” you’re on (and at this point I think it’s safe to say we’ve taken sides), I am sure that you can relate to the exasperation I now feel.
We are hotheaded, we United Statesians. We are proud. We put great emphasis on self-sufficiency, on winning, and that makes us prideful. We do not easily accept criticism or correction. We are fantastic blame-shifters. It’s almost always someone else’s fault. And through it all, we have driven ourselves into opposite corners of the room. We’ve drawn a line down the middle, planted our feet firmly, and begun a shouting match for the ages, because we believe that if we can just be the loudest, suddenly everyone will come over to our side. Many of us will experience this on a small-scale at Thanksgiving dinner with our families this week.
I wish I could tell you that there is an easy solution to the division in our country. That this Psalm, for instance, right here, this is it. But there are no easy answers here. There are deep wounds, and strong convictions. And the words from our text today, comforting as they may be, don’t fix those problems. They don’t automatically heal those wounds. If we get anything from Psalm 46, it’s that we are called to cease and desist from our present course; to take a deep breath and realize that God is still God in every messy human situation we’ve ever found ourselves in. That is very true; God will still be here; God will still be our refuge and our strength in times of trouble. And yet, for those who would take this text and say, God is in control; we just have to trust God and everything will be ok; just relax and don’t worry; I would remind you, that though, yes, God is still God, horrible things still happen! God was still God through slavery; God was still God through two world wars; God was still God through the Holocaust, but that doesn’t change the horrendous nature of these things, and the fact that we should seek to prevent them from ever happening again. And yet, God remains God, and God remains outraged and flabbergasted at our ability to destroy ourselves, at our inability to find true reconciliation. I mean, how else do you interpret these words? After the Psalmist describes all the ways in which God seeks to end war and violence, God speaks, “Desist! Stop i! Cut it out! For the love of all things good and pure, just stop! Remember, know, realize – I am God. I rule over the nations and the earth, so you can all stop squabbling over who has the power; over who gets to be in control of things. And just live peacefully with one another, would you?” Even God, I think, is tired. Even God is overwhelmed. Even God wants it all to just stop.
And that’s not to say that the work of justice is unimportant; that we should just drop all our causes and sing kumbaya together without doing the work of justice, the work that God very clearly calls us to do throughout Scripture. As Martin Luther King so eloquently points out, peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice. So no, as much as I and everyone else would like us to just “all get along”, we cannot do that so long as there is racism, misogyny, homophobia, classism, elitism, and all those other things that are really just power-grabs by the folks who espouse them. Just as abolitionists and, more importantly, slaves, could not abide slavery in ante-bellum America, we cannot pretend that everything is alright when it’s not. We are called to do the work of justice.
But remember, even in that work, God is still God. God is our refuge and our stronghold, a help in trouble, very near. Why, when God is our help, when God is supposedly on our side, when God is supposed to be the impetus for the very justice work we are called to carry out, would we be using tactics unfamiliar to and despised by God to bring about the Kindom? Why would we resort to calling people names? To shouting them down? To putting on arrogance and self-righteousness in our arguments? Why not instead lead with persistent love and empathy? That does not mean being weak or equivocating on strong convictions, it does not mean not calling out racism and other things when we witness them, but rather attempting to understand where another person is coming from and treating them with all the dignity of a person reflecting the image of God. Even if they do not treat you the same way.
Honestly? We need to figure out a way to talk to each other without getting angry and defensive. We are in the political climate we’re in because we’ve refused to talk about politics with anyone but those with whom we agree. It is absolutely not true that politics is off the table for polite conversation. We can’t afford to do this anymore. Clearly, politics matters. It affects people’s lives. It needs to be discussed, and it needs to be discussed respectfully and empathetically with people who have different views from us. And let me qualify that real quick – if you have the privilege to do so. I am not calling for patience from those who have been far too patient already, and still are disrespected and have their human personhood degraded on a daily basis. That is not my place, nor is it anyone else’s. However, for those of us who are privileged enough to not be the target of racism, sexism, homophobia, or other denigrations of human personhood, I believe we are called to treat all with respect, civility, and empathy, because that is the only way I know of that gets people to listen, and can even change hearts and minds; I believe it works, and I have seen it work in my own life. And I believe changing hearts and minds and getting enough people to recognize injustice is the best way to bring about lasting justice.
I’d like us all to do a little thought experiment. I did this earlier this week, and I found it really helpful. Let’s all close our eyes. Now, forget your world view for a second. All those things that you know to be true and right, vs. those that are wrong and sickening. Imagine that you voted enthusiastically for Donald Trump. Imagine that you are excited and hopeful about all that he will accomplish. Imagine that you are tired of being told you’re insensitive, that you shouldn’t say what you’re thinking, even though it’s true, and you feel you are now able to speak freely. That this will be a time for prosperity in America. Imagine that you feel like a political outsider in a big, largely liberal city. That you feel like everyone hates you because of the way you voted; they think you’re a racist and a bigot, and that hurts. This is how you feel. Ok, now let’s do the other side. Again, forget your world view, everything you think is right and wrong and truly horrifying. Imagine you voted enthusiastically for Hillary Clinton. You believed she was going to be the first woman president, and you felt proud of that. You truly admired all of her public service. Imagine that you are now upset, perhaps even afraid. That the things Donald Trump said hurt you, and that you have seen or even experienced hate crimes citing his campaign as motivation. Imagine that you are truly afraid that the Trump administration might take away your human rights, your healthcare, perhaps even deport members of your family, who have done nothing wrong other than fail to obtain citizenship after they moved here. This is how you feel.
Open your eyes. Was that helpful? Fruitless? Did it make you feel dirty to imagine yourself as someone on the opposite end of the spectrum? Just because someone holds what you consider to be hateful views, it does not make them less of a person. Hateful opinions and actions must be challenged; the people who espouse them must be loved. Empathy is crucial if we are going to come together, even if we disagree. Yes, there are hard lines we must take. As Twitter user @SonofBaldwin points out, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” But for those of us who have the privilege of not being the one whose humanity is denied – because, again, I would never tell someone who is oppressed not to be angry at their oppressor – for those of us with privilege, we have the responsibility to call out racism, misogyny, classism, elitism, etc. with empathy. Without allowing the hatred that we perhaps rightly feel over this behavior to affect how we treat the person exhibiting it. Hatred will never change any hearts; it can only harden them.
So what might this look like? As we go into Thanksgiving this week, and many of us prepare to encounter heated political discussions with our family members, I think perhaps a guide for civil discussion might help. First, be prepared to listen without counterarguing everything you hear in your head right away. Second, don’t get defensive; try to understand that people are usually not out to personally hurt or insult you; what they say has more to do with them than with you. Take criticism where criticism is due, and apologize for real mistakes you have made. Finally – and this is the most important – find things you agree on with the other person. Seek out places where he or she is right, where you both have common ground, and commit to working on it. And for those things on which you disagree, agree to disagree respectfully, unless that disagreement is rooted in the oppression and/or denial of the humanity of another. Understand that this is a hard line in the sand that must be drawn. Now, if you’re wondering what this might actually look like, Rev. Shaner and I have prepared a little sample dialogue for you this morning.
T: “Look, can you understand where I’m coming from? The Affordable Care Act drove our health insurance rates way up. I understand that it helped people get medical coverage that didn’t have it before, and that’s a good thing, but it also made health insurance unaffordable for me and my family. I got laid off last year, and now I make barely enough to feed my family, let alone experience the American Dream that I’ve been told I should get to experience if I work hard – and I have worked hard. President-elect Trump gives me hope; I’m excited for what he’s going to do for our economy, and I will be especially grateful if he can make health insurance affordable for me again.”
C: “I hear you, and you’re right. The Affordable Care Act did drive up premiums for many people. We can talk a lot about why that is, but I know just the fact that they went up is what’s important to you. It’s also not ok that you barely have enough to feed your family, and for what it’s worth, I also want the economy to recover and for everyone to have an income that they can live on. I understand why President-elect Trump gives you hope for your economic future, because he promised a period of economic prosperity. I do not believe his policies will accomplish what he promised, but we can agree to disagree on that. What I’m more concerned about, and what I hope you’ll give consideration to, is the fact that his campaign has inspired a lot of hate crimes against people of color, Muslims, and persons in the LGBTQIA+ community. I hope we can all come together and denounce these acts of violence and hatred that are being committed in Trump’s name. Even if there are only a few, they are still a few too many.”
T: “Thank you for hearing my concerns and being respectful of them. I agree that hatred and violence against people in minority groups is wrong, and I recognize that a lot of hate groups saw themselves represented in Trump’s campaign. I will absolutely join you in doing my part to combat this hatred and violence, and I am hopeful that President-elect Trump will do so as well. I do not believe that is what he stands for. However, I am also concerned about the reports of Clinton supporters committing violence at protests across the country, as well as Trump supporters who have been attacked for their views. I think this violence should be denounced as well. I also don’t like being called a racist or a bigot for voting for Trump. I’m not racist or bigoted, I voted for him for economic reasons.”
C: “Thank you for joining me in combatting hatred. I am sorry that people have called you a racist and a bigot; liberals and progressives have indeed been very elitist over the years, and we are not without our faults when it comes to name-calling. However, sometimes people say something racist or bigoted without knowing it. It’s not that they are bad people or intended to be racist or bigoted; it’s just that nobody ever explained to them how what they said was racist or bigoted. The sad truth is that racism is still very prevalent in this country, and we need to find ways to help people understand and combat their racism without calling them names. As for those who are protesting and committing violence, I will absolutely join you in denouncing that violence. However, perhaps we could have a longer conversation in the future about power structures and the use of violent vs. non-violent resistance?”
T: “I’m extremely skeptical, but I appreciate the respect and civility in this conversation, and so I would be willing to have that conversation with you. Would you, in turn, be willing to have a deeper conversation about the impact of globalization and immigration on local economies?”
C: “Absolutely. Thank you for your time.”
T: “You as well. I hope you have a pleasant day!”
I know people are hurting right now. And expressing that hurt is important; having an outlet for that – that’s necessary. But in all the arguments I’ve ever been in or ever seen, anger or frustration only made things worse. If the ultimate goal is to let off steam, come here, yell, be angry. God won’t mind. But if the ultimate goal is healing, then we need to be respectful of each other. We need to be understanding of the circumstances in which people grew up that led them to have the views they do. We need to stop being so defensive. We need to stop lashing out. We need to stop the name-calling. We need to stop what we’ve been doing, because it’s not working. We need to stop. Take a deep breath. Remember who God is. And then we need to start talking to each other differently. Amen.