Peace, peace, when there is no peace

As I write this, another mass shooting is underway, this one in southern California. At the same time, I have my Bible open to write a sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, the Sunday on which we light the candle of Peace.

candle-11797-1024x576How does one preach the Prince of Peace when violence surrounds us?

We  begin with a Gospel of peace that blossomed in defiance of violence.

Jesus was born into a world infected with the darkness of oppression under Herod, Pilate, and Caiaphas, names that struck terror in the hearts of all who lived under their jurisdiction.

We cannot ignore, however, the Christian church’s perpetration of violence in the name of the Prince of Peace. From the crusades to the support of slavery and opposition to civil rights, the Church has shown itself capable of profound faithlessness while only a remnant had the courage to defy the culture of violence.

So, while we speak with one foot on the path of peace, we speak with the other foot in the culture of violence. Though it is in complete opposition to the words of Jesus, the culture’s message is seductive, telling us that the only solution to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. And we are the good guys, right?

To quote Jesus, “No one is good but God alone.” (Luke 18:19)

I want to make sense of the violence that surrounds us. What is the motive, or agenda, or diagnosis of a perpetrator? What led him (or them) to pick up a gun and start shooting people? Were the victims chosen, or just random?

But, there is no real sense to be made.

Mass shootings emerge from reactivity, not reason.

When we can make no sense of violence, we can still defy it. We can use all our gifts of love and reason to work to build a more peaceful world to hand off to our children and their children.

In the depths of despair after the death of his wife and the terrible injury of his son in the Civil War, Longfellow wrote these words even as the war continued:

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

We lift our prayers for the victims of violence. If, however, those prayers absolve us of our responsibility as Christians to be the presence of peace in this world, then we have only half-prayed. The other half of a prayer for peace is to serve the Prince of Peace.

Without faith that the Ground of All Being will ultimately bring peace, defiance looks very much like denial.

Denial ignores evil in the world.

Defiance works against it with the confidence of the children of God.

On our own, our efforts as peacemakers would be futile. With God, all things are possible.

Refugees, Reactivity, and Jesus

Hello, Friends. I’m back, after a long hiatus from blogging. I’ve been working on a few life goals away from the computer this year, but now I’m settled back in to our home in Sherman, Texas and serving a church part-time in nearby Whitesboro. Beginning today, I’ll be blogging about once a week with a post each Wednesday evening. With the recent attacks in Paris and Beirut, and with the refugee crisis intensifying, I have been thinking a lot about emotional reactivity and its relationship to the practice of faith.

Nature provides us with a part of our brain that reacts instantly to a perceived threat with an instinct to fight, flee, or freeze. That part of our brain has been provided to save us when there is no time for reasonable thought or moral judgment. A striking snake, for instance, will trigger a reaction in us that will be faster than our higher brain could possibly handle. We do not observe the snake and say to ourselves, “Hmm, that snake is in a striking posture. It has the triangular head typical of many poisonous snakes. Let me look closer and see if it also has the elliptical pupils of a venomous snake or the round pupils of a non-poisonous snake. Ahh, it does have all the marks of a venomous snake. I think I will move out of its way.”

By that time, of course, we would have a viper hanging from our nose.

Refugees, however, are not snakes. The reactivity that serves us so well when we do not have time to think or make moral judgment can derail our attempt to be faithful followers of Jesus. My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., along with most major Christian denominations, has been active in refugee resettlement since our nation began, but especially in the aftermath of the World Wars and the devastating wars and genocide in Vietnam and Cambodia. The biblical mandate to care for the refugee carries with it challenges that the reactive part of our brain cannot handle. It requires reason and love to be the one out of step with a fearful and reactive society; to be the Samaritan who stops to help the Jew, the Egyptian who welcomes the fleeing Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, the rebellious daughter of the pharaoh who pulls Moses out of the river and raises him as her own.

In times such as these, the verse from Hebrews 13:2 printed on the banner that hangs in the front of our sanctuary calls us to a deeper love and faithfulness, a love and faith that conquers all fear: Remember to welcome strangers, for by doing so some people have entertained angels without knowing it.Version 2

Is American Idealism Obsolete?

I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.–Matthew 25:25

From a family systems theory perspective, we can hear two different conversations occurring over the recently released torture report. One conversation is self-differentiating and the other is reactive. The self-differentiating conversation can help us think through our nation’s moral and national security priorities. The reactive conversation dooms us to name-calling, reinforcement of social and political divisions, circular arguments, and a spiral of ever-increasing anxiety that helps nobody except those who sell advertising on fear-mongering news shows. [No link necessary. You know who I mean.]

In both conversations, we hear voices in favor and voices opposed to the interrogation methods used on detainees outlined in the report.

In a reactive conversation, people speak and act out of their automatic reflexes, especially fear.

In a self-differentiating conversation, people speak and act out of a clearly-articulated moral framework.

In the reactive conversation, even when the participants appeal to reason, they construct reasonable-sounding arguments to support their emotional reaction to the report. Whether one responds with revulsion to the reports of forced rectal feeding and freezing to death a man whose affiliation with terrorism was never established, or with anger that the report was released because it fans the flames of our enemies’ hatred, the argument that follows will be constructed from the foundation of that reflexive feeling. Cherry-picking facts always reveals an emotional reaction rather than a thoughtful self-differentiated argument. Evidence that supports that feeling will be included and evidence that supports the opposite will be dismissed or ignored.

The self-differentiated argument begins with identifying a moral framework and ethical foundation and builds a position and a proposal for action on the basis of that foundation.

John Stuart Mill argued in favor of human liberty based on a cost-benefit analysis. His mentor in utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, advocated abolishing physical punishment, but called the theory of natural rights “nonsense upon stilts.”

For example, arguing in favor of the use of any means necessary to extract information from detainees, a self-differentiated argument begins with John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian moral framework. It builds its argument on the postulate that the ultimate goal of government is the protection of its citizens. Since that goal stands supreme over all else, the argument over the use of torture emerges as an argument over whether or not torture is effective in extracting actionable intelligence from detainees that will give the CIA the ability to catch enemies or prevent plots against the U.S. from succeeding. Killing or torturing some innocent people is the necessary price of attaining a greater value.

While Locke agreed that a government’s role was to protect its people, he argued in favor of natural human rights rather than Mills’ and Bentham’s utilitarian cost-benefit approach.

Within this same utilitarian moral framework, the argument against the use of torture argues that the cost is greater than the benefit—that the use of torture yields very little if any actionable intelligence and that it yields a great amount of misinformation from detainees that just want the torture to stop so they say whatever they believe their interrogators want to hear. Further, the utilitarian argument against torture claims that the use of torture fans the flames of hatred against us and puts our own citizens who are prisoners of war at a higher risk of being subjected to similar treatment at the hands of our enemies.

The argument that I made in a previous post stands on a different moral foundation, a moral framework elucidated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, based on traditional Jewish and Christian religious values and shaped by the humanists of the Enlightenment, both Christian and secular, especially John Locke. On this moral foundation, I argue (along with John McCain) that the ultimate goal of our government and its agents is to act out of the moral foundation of our country: that all people are created equal, endowed with certain unalienable rights, and entitled to due process in the quest for justice.

In the self-differentiating approach to argument, the position we ultimately take requires two steps: first, articulating the ultimate value on which we stand, the utilitarian commitment of government to protect its citizens at all costs, the commitment of government to act out of its foundational values of human rights, or something else.

Second, the self-differentiating realm of argument weighs the evidence of whether torture serves each framework—whether it makes us safer, if one stands on the utilitarian argument, or whether the interrogation techniques used by the CIA violate our nation’s moral foundation, if we stand on the human rights argument as the ultimate value.

Here are the questions I invite you to consider:

  1. Are we too far gone toward reactivity and societal regression as a nation to have a self-differentiating conversation?
  2. Is the idealism of the American revolution (equal rights for all people) obsolete in a day when terrorism rather than tyranny threatens us more?
  3. From what ethical foundation other than utilitarianism and universal human rights might we find common ground in our national conversation on torture?
  4. How do you know when a conversation has become more reactive than self-differentiating?

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