The Seduction of Self-Righteous Anger

 A Sermon by The Reverend Barbara Mraz

St John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

St Paul, Minnesota

September 20, 2012

Mark 9:38-50


          Drowning in words…

Strangled by accusations…

Outraged by stupidity…

Reeking with self-righteous anger…

Consumed by certainty…

No, I’m not talking about the Republicans, Democrats, the Tea party, political ads or even the latest Facebook post from your Friends.  I’m talking about the Disciples.

In today’s lesson, they come whining to Jesus that they saw someone using Jesus’ name to cast out demons  so they tried to stop him “because he was not following us.”

Jesus tells them there is no ownership here.  A good deed is a good deed regardless of who does it.  Compassion – however labeled – is holy.  You, Disciples, are serving as stumbling blocks to people who are trying to do the right thing and who yet may be faltering and tentative in their efforts – the ones Jesus calls “the little ones.”

However, I think that Jesus calls us here today to humility and restraint in our judgments as well.  Not exactly what we want to hear right now,

For it is election season and emotions are running high, passions are strong, arguments are everywhere. Not bad things, in themselves.  But divisions are wide and deep.  Congress has become so polarized that even across-the-aisle conversations are rare; the credibility of candidates is attacked on both ethical and outrageous grounds; our rage is inflamed by the latest candidate blunder; some say even an act of apology conveys weakness. The humility to which we are called, the empathy and respect that is our mandate as Christians can be very hard to implement in this climate and when we are certain we are right.

But let’s step back for a moment and consider this: How do you know what you know?  Of course, you have firsthand knowledge about some things: your family, your job, maybe your neighborhood…

But do you know, really know, if the planet Mars exists or if John Lennon wrote “Imagine” or whether Neil Armstrong really walked on the moon or who actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays?  Few of us have access to primary sources to support what we think we know.  We rely on things, on people.

Science helps us.  That is, until it learns more and changes, and we find that eggs are not bad for us but good, that the universe is way older than previously thought, and that he earth isn’t flat.  For many years in the Nineties and later, the very best science encouraged women to take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to protect their hearts and bones as they got older.  Then in 2002 a major study using nurses as subjects was stopped midway because so many of them were getting breast cancer.   This scientific mind-change had major implications for my own life.

The truth is that most of what we know we learn from other people.  But the vast majority of us listen almost exclusivity to people who already agree with us.  Consider what’s going on now on Facebook with your friends!

Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein’s extensive studies on the psychology of influence revealed that “after an allotted time when liberals spoke only with liberals and conservatives only with conservatives, the divisions between the two groups grew dramatically and people become more confident, more unified and more extreme.”

So now when a third-rate filmmaker amasses inflammatory and violent images and statements against Mohammed and the Koran – and attributes them all to Americans – then puts it on a ten-minute video which spirals around the world and is viewed by whom?   The people who already agree with him —  cities erupt and the lives of exemplary people are lost.  The crux of Sunstein’s argument is that the Internet, for one thing, has become fundamentally antidemocratic—though it is a public sphere – because it allows us to filter out content we disagree with and so serves poorly as a marketplace of ideas.”

Personally, I love argument and debate; I have written political speeches for candidates I support. I have taught communications and advocacy and like most of us, I’m sure I’m right.

But —-some things catch you off guard.  A week ago, Professor Mark Osler was here, making the case for something other than an in-your-face type of advocacy, explaining the difference between expression and influence.  That is just because you express a point of view – even loudly and repeatedly and eloquently – doesn’t mean that you have necessarily influenced or changed anyone.  Influence comes from a more gradual and painstaking process, often starting with finding common ground with those who disagree with you..  Finding common ground through cultivating relationships; making phone calls; knocking on doors; respecting the humanity of the opposition as hard as that may be. It can also be found in the courage to be vulnerable, to be honest, to put your own story out there and listen to others.  To ask questions instead of making arguments.

Many, many people who had been suspicious and critical of homosexuals confess that what changed them was getting to know gay or lesbian people as neighbors, church members, co-workers, even family members.  And it’s not just gender.  My father was a lifelong racist until he was tenderly cared for in the nursing home by a gracious black man from Somalia.

But how do you find common ground, not only with people who disagree with you, but people whose actions enrage you? People who, by any moral code, have committed vicious acts ?

Like convicted criminals on death row.

This being America, Osler said that the common ground could be food. Evidently many of us are fascinated by what people about to be executed choose for their last meal.  One photographer assembled a coffee table book of photos of 24 meals along with descriptions of the inmates.  The meals ranged all the way from hamburger and fries to lobster and crème Brule to a single black olive in the middle of a white plate.

In his book Jesus on Death Row, Osler says that when we go to Communion, we are sharing in the last meal of a condemned man, one that will be executed the next day, the object of what we now call “capital punishment  The trial of Jesus that follows the last meal is largely decided by a mob of like-minded people – bolstering each other’s certainty and rightness.

Frankly, I have been skeptical that progressive Christians and conservative Christians can agree on much.  But Osler has done a lot of work with these groups and says this:

“Even on the politically charged issue of gay men and women, we often find common ground. When we talk about reducing things like drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and homelessness in gay teenagers, we find that many pastors, youth ministers and lay people share our concerns. While many conservative Christians do not believe that the Bible permits same-sex marriage, they do agree that concepts of grace and charity as taught in the New Testament argue for a more loving, affirming approach to gay men and women… Both social progressives and conservative Christians are fellow travelers who care about something more than money, who seek deep meaning, and who take joy in the uplifting of others.

These are hard words for many of us to hear, when demonizing our opponents is so much easier. When so much is at stake.  When we see our friends and family members being treated unjustly.  And yet how clearly they echo today’s Gospel when Jesus warns the disciples not to chastise anyone who acts to “uplift others,” who acts to ease suffering and pain.

This has been a hard sermon to write; this is a daunting Gospel to confront: acknowledging the good people do, even though you disagree with their beliefs. It commands a level of maturity and grace, or respectfulness and humility that I, at least, need a lot of help to reach.

So I was heartened to read the story of Randy Roberts Potts grandson of televangelist Oral Roberts, one of the most influential fundamentalists of our day, whose ideas live on in many places, including Oral Roberts University in Tulsa.

Oral Roberts’ gay son Ronnie committed suicide in 1982 at age thirty, unable to survive as a gay man in an evangelical culture which condemned gays to hell.  Now Oral Roberts grandson, who came out at age 30 and has been pretty much shunned by his family, says this:  “I think a lot of Christians are saying they are not going to stick with the status quo,” Potts said. “I do think it’s getting better…”

Interestingly, although he wasn’t invited to his grandfather’s funeral, Potts did get to visit Oral Roberts at his California home six months before he died. Even though he lived near his grandfather growing up, they were not close. But at their last meeting, something was different. He met Potts’ children and gave them presents.  “He knew I was gay, but he didn’t bring it up,” said Potts. “It was a really warm and friendly meeting. It was the first time I felt embraced by him. He repeated several times that he loved me.”

As we go forward today to take part in the last meal of a condemned man, we are also called to fight fiercely for justice but to do so with humility and empathy, having the patience to be people not only of eloquent expression but also enduring influence. And to be open to the promise of transformation – for ourselves, for those with whom we disagree, for our country and for the world.                          Amen.


 Dallas Morning News Dec. 22, 2011

           Mark Osler, Jesus on Death Row, 2009.

 Presentation by Mark Osler at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Sept.18, 2012

Minneapolis Star-Tribune, September 16, 2012

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