September 17, 2023
I watched an interview this week with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy and I found myself secretly cheering, thinking how great it would be if someone put a bullet in Vladimir Putin’s head so he would stop killing people indiscriminately with rockets and bombs. The fact that I was thinking about taking a life didn’t seem to matter in the moment. All I could think was: if only someone could get that S.O.B and change the course of human events. With some time to consider, I wondered about my sudden lust for blood. I’ve spent a little time reflecting on that inner dialogue.
Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly, that inner dialogue is very similar to the one I was engaged in not long ago about football. For some time I really struggled with whether to continue watching and following the Patriots. I loved football. I played football in high school. But the revelations not only about head injuries, but about violent acts by NFL players off the field got me wondering about my support for the game. It’s a brutal, violent game. I know, I got knocked around enough when I played. And why should any of us be surprised that men who pump themselves up and charge up their aggressive tendencies in order to excel at the sport end up carrying those aggressive tendencies into the rest of their lives? My inner dialogue went like this: Is it possible that one reason I love this sport so much is that it touches some of those same aggressive tendencies in my own spirit? And by watching and rooting, am I not only encouraging all that in myself, but am I supporting a mega-industry that profits from preying on the worst in us?
Now, Vladimir Putin and missile attacks may seem to be a far cry from football players beating up their girlfriends, but there is a common thread that runs through both stories. It has to do not with those “bloodthirsty Russians” or those brutal football players. It has to do with me. And it has to do with you.
When I think about actually shooting Putin in the head or beating up a woman like some football players have done, I couldn’t quite picture myself under any circumstances doing those things, but, with a little imagination I did get disturbingly close. I thought about what might happen if a sadistic totalitarian regime took over the government of our nation – a military/corporate coup that resulted in a dictatorship, throwing out the Constitution and Bill of Rights, taking away all our liberties, herding us like cattle, controlling our minds and dehumanizing people. I imagined myself becoming part of an underground resistance movement of American patriots, doing whatever we could to try to bring down this sham government. I even imagined myself planting bombs. I don’t think even under such extreme circumstances I could bring myself to target centers of innocent civilians, but I think I could be driven to some pretty extreme behaviors.
So what’s the point of this little excursion into the strange workings of Mikey’s mind – to suggest that the violent acts of Putin or an abusive football player are in any way defensible? By no means! But it is helpful to consider how any of us, given the right set of circumstances, might be caught up in behaviors that we would otherwise consider “horrible,” or “crazy.” At least I can envision a circumstance in which I could become a “guerilla fighter,” bordering, one might say, on being a terrorist.
To imagine this may be a little unsettling, but it’s also rather illuminating. It doesn’t get us any farther in comprehending the insane bombing of civilians, but at least it helps to understand some of the anti-American sentiment that we keep hearing from the other side of the globe. Indeed, there are many people on this planet who view our government as the heart of a military/industrial complex that goes around the world trampling on the rights of others and trying to conquer the world. I don’t happen to think they see the complete or accurate picture, but then there may be something for us to learn even from their view of us.
All of this is not a particularly comfortable exercise. But, uncomfortable as it may be, I believe it is one example of the only thing that may, in the end, save us all from destroying each other.
You see, the easy and more comfortable thing to do is to label those you don’t understand as “inhuman,” or “insane,” or “weird,” or “a fool” and leave it at that. It’s what Israelis do with Palestinians and visa versa. It’s what many straight people do with gay people, or some “White” folks do with African American or Hispanic folks. It’s what we do to each other when we bump up against one another about politics or values in conflict. We tend to dismiss one another, because it’s easier – easier than going through the uncomfortable exercise of trying to comprehend another person’s world from the inside out. It’s a habit that leads us into withdrawal and confrontation, carelessness and violence. It’s a pattern of behavior that threatens to tear our entire world apart.
If we, as a Christian church, can’t find ways to practice and model a new way of being, then I fear all hope may be lost. I tend to think that we might be the last best hope for saving humanity from itself. My vision of the church at its best is that of a laboratory, where people find the safety to experiment in new ways of learning how to love one another. In the special environment of this laboratory we call the church we have an opportunity to set aside our usual fears and revulsion, to do things like imagining what it would be like to be someone else – maybe even our most dreaded rival, to mix a little understanding with a little temperance, or compassion, or humility and see what comes of it.
That’s the course that the Apostle Paul was trying to set the Roman church on. He knew firsthand the human tendency to line up and take pot shots at each other over intensely held differences. He had spent plenty of time doing it himself. Some believed it was a betrayal of the faith to eat meat that had been sacrificed to pagan gods, and since that included just about all the meat in the marketplace, they were driven to vegetarianism as an act of social and moral conscience. Others in the same church saw this as excessive behavior and most likely branded the non-meat-eaters as extremist flakes (or whatever the appropriate pejorative would have been for that day).
Paul, in a true spirit of behavioral experimentation, offers several ways for these opposing sides to look at it. First, he suggests to the meat-eaters that the vegetarians are “weak,” and therefore need their understanding and support. He says, “Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” Then he suggests that God is on both sides, so they must not judge one another. He says, “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.” He then offers the possibility of considering each other to be more similar than different, perhaps as a way of getting folks to look at life from the other’s point of view. He says, “those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.” He then suggests that we’re all in this life-boat together, so why not enjoy the ride, and keep track of what really matters. Paul writes, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Finally, he removes from each of them the responsibility for judgment. He says, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”
That’s five different ways of trying to forestall the tendency to demonize and attack each other, or shun and exclude each other. Obviously, Paul is setting out a series of ways of looking at our human differences, and suggesting that we try them on to see which one fits.
It’s sound advice. And it calls us to take part in nothing less than the refinement of humanity. It’s a grand and noble undertaking, and it’s extraordinarily difficult and fraught with hazards. But it may just be that if you and I can get it right, there’s hope for Israel and Palestine; if we can figure out a new way of being here at the corner of Elm and Memorial, maybe the Western capitalists and the Islamic fundamentalists can learn to understand one another; if you can comprehend your wife’s pressures and problems, or grasp the motivations behind your daughter-in-law’s angry outbursts, or if I can find a way to stop shaking my fist at drivers who get in my way, there just might be hope for the world.
Stranger things have happened: “In April 1995, Bud Welch’s 23-year-old daughter, Julie Marie, was killed in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City along with 167 others. In the months after her death, Bud changed from supporting the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols to taking a public stand against it. In 2001 Timothy McVeigh was executed for his part in the bombing.” Bud Welch says that, “Three days after the bombing, as I watched Tim McVeigh being led out of the courthouse, I hoped someone in a high building with a rifle would shoot him dead. I wanted him to fry. In fact, I’d have killed him myself if I’d had the chance.” But after spiraling down the rabbit hole of grief and hatred that made him turn to the bottle, Bud finally came to the realization that what he was doing wasn’t working. He had to do something different. He looked up Timothy McVeigh’s family and went to visit. As he stood speaking to the bomber’s father, Bill, and sister, Jennifer, he happened to see some photos on the wall and saw a picture of Timothy at his high school graduation. Looking at the old picture of his son, Bill McVeigh allowed a tear to roll down his face. And in that instant Bud Welch was transformed. He recognized the same love of a father for his son that he had known for his daughter. Bud writes, ‘When I got ready to leave I shook Bill’s hand, then extended it to Jennifer, but she just grabbed me and threw her arms around me. She was the same sort of age as Julie but felt so much taller. I don’t know which one of us started crying first. Then I held her face in my hands and said, “look, honey, the three of us are in this for the rest of our lives. I don’t want your brother to die and I’ll do everything I can to prevent it”’.”
Sometimes, extraordinary differences can be resolved; monumental barriers can be knocked down; life-long biases can be overcome. But it starts with simple things like resolving to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes before branding him a lunatic, or simply recognizing that this world is made to be full of many different kinds of people, so who are we to question the Creator’s judgment?
In 1969 Sly Stone set the words, “different strokes for different folks” to music in the song, “Everyday People.” It was a song about acceptance written in the heady days of “flower power,” when most of the members of my own generation thought the world was about to learn from all the bloodshed and violence and emerge into a new day of peace and love. It may have been youthful idealism, and certainly more than a bit off target, but there was a spark of wisdom beneath it all. Indeed, unless we can get down to the business of learning from our differences and overcoming our instinctive judgment and hostility, we will condemn the world to the fate of endlessly repeating its mistakes until there is no one left to care.
It all begins right here in this place. I hope you will join me in seizing the opportunity to experiment in this “laboratory of love” that we call the church.