Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 26, 2019
“Abortion and the Bible”
Psalm 139: 1-4, 13,14 – New Revised Standard Version
Now O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Sometimes it’s easy to say, “Thanks be to God!” as a response to, “The Word of the Lord.” For example, in today’s gospel, I desire the abundant life of which Jesus speaks. So, I can easily respond: “Thanks be to God.” And then there are other times. The Bible offers lots of those other times!
Listen for the Word of God in the Book of Exodus, chapter 23, verse 5: “When you see a donkey that belongs to someone who hates you and it’s lying down under its load and you are not inclined to help set it free, you must help set it free.”
Exodus has a lot of those very specific instructions, some of which we might think of as trivial. “When someone leaves a pit open or digs a pit and doesn’t cover it and an ox or a donkey falls into the pit, the owner of the pit must make good on the loss. He should pay money to the ox’s owner, but he may keep the dead animal.” It’s not trivial to the owner, but to say, “The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God?”
But then there are instructions like, “When you buy a male Hebrew slave…” and what follows is a list of do this and don’t do that. And then chapter 21 verse 7 begins very matter-of-factly, “When a man sells his daughter as a slave…” Well, I’d just as soon keep God out of all that.
These laws all follow after the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Among them is “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt. Don’t treat any widow or orphan badly. If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I’ll hear their cry.” Thanks God! But then it continues, “I’ll hear their cry and be furious, and I’ll kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows, and your children will be orphans.” Thanks God?
Where am I going? Well, interspersed with all these laws and very specific instructions is this one: “When people who are fighting [happen to] injure a pregnant woman so that she has a miscarriage but no other injury occurs, then the guilty party will be fined what the woman’s husband demands, as negotiated with the judges. If there is further injury, then you will give [what it’s worth]: a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, bruise for bruise, wound for wound” etc. If a woman gets injured so as to cause a miscarriage, the penalty is a fine.
What’s the point of this obscure text? Placed within a Mosaic legal context, it is one very specific answer to the question – when does life begin? Theologically we could answer the question of when life begins by quoting such passages as Psalm 139. The Psalmist beautifully and poetically proclaims of God, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” It’s one of my favorite passages in the Bible.
Likewise, Jeremiah 1:5 reads “Before I created you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I set you apart.”
Theologically, what this is saying is that God knew us before we even existed. God is the Alpha and the Omega. Theologically, God existed before the beginning and will exist after the end. But when does life begin legally, in the time of Moses? The fetus was not considered a “life.” It did not equate to a life in the way that one must pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc. The loss of a fetus resulting from an injury sustained during a fight required the payment of a fine.
There is one other bizarre example I want to cite from the Book of Numbers. Bizarre and horrible. If a husband suspects his wife has committed adultery, he can take her to the priests. The priests will then make her drink a potion that, if she is guilty, will cause “her womb to discharge” and her “uterus drop.” If she is not guilty, “then she shall be immune and be able to conceive children.” It’s right up there with burning witches. We’ll know she’s not a witch if she burns to death. The Word of the Lord? No thanks.
And yet this bizarre and horrible passage in the Book of Numbers makes the point that the life of the fetus was not to be saved under every circumstance. In this case, the circumstance of adultery – or as I suspect more likely, the result of rape. After all, how much consent could women really have? In fact, that’s an important point in all these cases. These examples fall right in the middle of a bunch of laws about saving oxs and donkeys and the treatment of slaves. All examples involving property. Men did with women’s bodies what men wanted.
In the last few weeks states like Alabama have enacted extreme bans against abortion even in cases of rape and incest. I felt it was important to look at this more deeply than all the clever memes on Facebook and chants at rallies. To recognize that even for those of us who are firmly pro-choice or pro-life, we are likely all conflicted to some extent about what is wise, moral, and ethical. I believe it is especially important to be conversant with the biblical and theological considerations so that we can talk with one another, especially those who use the Bible as their reference point. Those who say about abortion, “The Bible clearly says…” It doesn’t.
“We do affirm God as the Source of life – our life, all life, life to the fullest.” That’s how the United Church of Christ General Synod began a resolution in 1971. It said, God gave us privileges and responsibilities and freedom, freedom bound to responsibility. And then affirmed the right to legal abortion. Before Roe v. Wade. In 1971 the UCC General Synod called for the repeal of all legal prohibitions of physician-performed abortions, as well as to give protection to physicians who wish to be “conscientious objectors.” Among a long list of things, it called upon pastors, members, and local churches to support and expand programs of sex education in schools and the availability of contraception to prevent unintended pregnancies in order to achieve a “wholesome family life.” And to consider the impact of bans especially on those who are poor.
Even the Southern Baptists in 1971 called for a more nuanced view of abortion. The Convention called upon “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”,
Why have Christian conservatives since then taken such a hard turn to the right on abortion? It did not primarily arise out of a biblical and theological concern but was a cynical ploy by political operatives in search of a base of power, birthed in opposition to desegregation efforts at Bob Jones University.,, They took the name “Moral Majority.” It’s a fascinating but too long a story to tell here. However, by the framer’s own admission, hard core opposition to abortion was built directly on the framework of white supremacy and Jim Crow laws, and as a result, kept women subject to the same kinds of property laws as slaves and donkeys. Although, slaves in the Bible had many more rights and protections than they did in the American South. But like so much in our country that divides us, opposition to abortion has its roots in racism.
Support for legal access to abortion by the United Church of Christ is part of a larger framework of reproductive justice. The concept of reproductive justice was formed by a group of black women in Chicago in 1994. It asks such questions as What are the racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on women’s power? The right to have children, the right to not have children, and the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments.
Reproductive Justice includes the question: What happens to a child once it’s born? Not just when does life begin but how can one continue to live? Not to just barely survive but to thrive, like the Gospel reading. Jesus offers another decision-making framework when he said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” When we ask, when does life begin? At least one answer is: When we have it abundantly. And take a moment to notice, Jesus is talking about life here and now; not something that comes as a reward in heaven.
What makes a life abundant here and now? At its most basic, life requires food to eat, clean water to drink, shelter, and access to health care. Seriously, what good is a heartbeat in the womb when later it can’t afford to go to the hospital so that heartbeat can stay alive? I don’t want to make light of such a serious situation, but migrant children have heartbeats too. Children shot while they are in school had heartbeats. Prisoners on death row have heartbeats.
Catholic Sister Joan Chittister says so clearly, “I think in many cases, morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. That’s not pro-life. That’s [just] pro-birth.”
As the UCC said in 1971, if we want to reduce unintended pregnancies, studies prove that comprehensive sexuality education and an abundance of options for contraception will do exactly that. Abstinence-only curriculums result in more abortions, not fewer. To deny those things is just evidence that this is the enforcement of women as property more than any concern for the unborn.
But what comes next? Abundance includes support for that life including such things as parental leave, child care options, quality education, and the list continues. Clean air to breathe… An inhabitable planet.
So, when does life begin? Some say conception. If you use Jeremiah to answer the question, it would appear that life begins before conception! Another answer is that life begins upon our first breath. The life of the first human began when God breathed life into him. In Ezekiel, dry bones came to life when God breathed the Spirit into them.
Theologically, that is a lovely sentiment, but it doesn’t exactly help determine when life begins since there is clearly life in the womb at some point before the first breath. Life that does in fact deserve protection. So where do we find common ground? For one thing, doing everything we can to reduce the need for abortion, though it must remain legal. And then, support for whatever life is born for as long as that human is alive. But fundamentally, it still comes down to whether we trust women to make that decision. And if not, why not?
Rebecca Todd Peters believes it’s because people think womanhood is motherhood and “motherhood is a moral end that supersedes all others.” She also believes progressive Christians need to move from a conversation that tries to justify abortion, a place of weakness or defensiveness, to one of strength in which we are the advocates for reproductive justice. SisterSong, the framers of reproductive justice, focus more on the question not of choice but of access. Do women have access? Abortion, after all, exists within a context; it’s not an isolated event. It is a legal issue. For people of faith, it is a theological issue. And for everyone, abortion is a moral issue within the context of other moral issues like quality of life and the agency of women to make decisions. Who gets to decide?
If, theologically, we believe God created us with free will, then we must be free to practice our free will – women and men equally. And if we believe in grace, then we must live with an attitude of grace for one another on opposite sides of this and every other issue that divides us. And forgive each other when we are wrong. But most of all, have respect for life. “Not just life for the sake of survival, but rather for flourishing. Not just that we get by, but so that we all thrive. Not just that we have existence, but that we have joy. Not just life, but life in abundance.”
I’m pro-that life.
Thanks be to God.
For more resources, see http://religiousinstitute.org/issue/reproductive-justice/
 All citations are from the Common English Bible
 Exodus 22: 21-24
 Exodus 21: 22-25
 Thanks to several authors for directing me to these verses, including Cheryl B. Anderson http://www.ecclesio.com/2012/09/christians-and-reproductive-justice-hearing-new-voices-by-cheryl-anderson/
 Numbers 5: 11-31
 David Lose
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 12, 2019
“Kendrick: The Child Sacrifice”
Acts 9: 36-43 – New Revised Standard Version
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
Another school shooting this week. “Another.” Let that word sink in. “School.” A school with children in kindergarten. And 1st grade. And 2nd grade. Since there have been so many times we could say “another school shooting,” lessons have been learned along the way. Among the lessons learned is that law enforcement should immediately rush in, not wait as they did at Columbine. Another is that the media should spend more time honoring the dead than repeatedly saying the name and showing the picture of the alleged killers. That’s been easier to do this time because Kendrick Castillo is, was, in every conceivable way one could possibly describe, an exceptional human being. Kendrick Castillo is the definition of a hero. Selfless. Sacrificial. Honorable. The contributions he would have made to the world are staggering. One death shouldn’t matter more than another, but it sure feels that way sometimes. Not as in suggesting it should have been someone else, but rather, why someone like him?
It occurs to me that this is a little like the question we could ask about Tabitha, also known as Dorcas. Why someone like her? There was something about her. She was compassionate. Exceptionally compassionate. She was charitable. Other widows depended on her. That’s why people rushed to find Peter when Tabitha died. And that’s why Peter rushed to her bedside. Notably, she was also a disciple. She was not described as one of the women who followed Jesus. She was a disciple. You know, like Peter, and James, Thomas and the rest. Tabitha, the exceptionally compassionate disciple.
Kendrick and Tabitha were both really good people. Why was one of them brought back from the dead and not the other? Whether it’s healing from blindness and hemorrhages, or the resurrection of the dead to feeding 5,000 people, that’s a basic, fundamental question of miracle stories. Why some and not others? It’s a fundamental question to the concept known as theodicy. A question of suffering and divine justice. If God is good, then why is there evil? Rabbi Kushner famously asked, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Or rather, more to the point today, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
In the same way, what about the other students who rushed to subdue the shooter. God forbid, but why didn’t they die? Thank God they didn’t, but they are going to suffer from survivor’s guilt for the rest of their lives. They will forever ask, Why him and not me? Their survival will no doubt be described as a miracle. It’s a miracle it wasn’t me or a member of my family. That’s how I would describe it for myself. With the inevitable struggle, but why not me? Perhaps it’s something you’ve had to ask yourself over the course of your lifetime.
It is honorable to honor the heroes. It also happens, in this case, to be a handy deflection. Lesson learned, it’s a new strategy since we know that “Now is not the time” was always just means of saying it is never the time to talk about guns. And claiming “It’s all about mental health” was revealed as a lie the minute legislators went apocalyptic over the idea that a judge could rule that someone who is dangerous should not have a gun. Of course, we all know that offering someone “thoughts and prayers” has been spoiled with its overuse by those who are trying to deflect from the fact that beyond thoughts, actions will save lives.
I fear that “Honor the Heroes” will suffer the same fate. Kendrick Costillo was a hero, but that doesn’t make it OK that he was also just the latest child sacrificed at the altar of people who demand the “right” to arm their own militia. Thank God there weren’t more this time. “This time.” Every school child in America fears it might be them the next time, or the time after that. They are reminded of this every time they do another lock-down drill. Lock-down drills, of course, are an added lesson from so many school shootings. But that has also led students like the 6th grader who grabbed a bat and declared he would “go down fighting” and Kendrick to believe they need to take things into their own hands, no matter the consequences. Kendrick was a child sacrifice.
We don’t know the reason why Tabitha died. Clearly it wasn’t from old age. It was sudden. Unexpected. As the widows cried, they held up pieces of clothing that Tabitha had made for them. They were real people who needed her to be alive. And then she was. Peter said, “Tabitha, get up.” Just as Jesus said the same thing to the daughter of Jairus. “Daughter, get up.” And she did.
Tabitha is a miracle story. More than a few times, people have asked me about miracle stories, “Do I really have to believe this?” Among them, Tabitha’s is one of the easiest to explain away. For example, she was just in a coma and came out of it at just the right time. Logical. In a similar way, scholars have suggested, for example, that Jesus didn’t walk across water. He walked on a sandbar that no one could see. Other miracles in the Bible, however, are harder or even impossible to explain. Sometimes the explanations are more ridiculous than the miracle itself. And therefore, even more difficult to believe.
In fact, I don’t believe in miracles. But “believe” is the key word. There are miracles. It’s not our place to tell God what God can and cannot do. I just don’t think we are supposed to use our heads to believe in them. Rather, they are to inspire faith in our hearts. To have faith, not in miracles as such, but to have faith in God. Ultimately, miracles don’t make sense because that’s not what miracles are. They don’t make sense. They disrupt what makes sense. But, believe in them or not, we can recognize their purpose. More often than not, they are a sign to point to something of greater significance. I am grateful that there is more to this world than we can explain or understand. I am grateful that there are things capable of opening our eyes or minds or hearts to possibilities we are not aware of. Sometimes miracles are just seeing something that was already there.
One purpose of today’s story, among other things, was a sign to the early church that disciples, not just Jesus, were also capable of performing miracles. Or more accurately, that God was capable of working miracles through disciples. Which, we might say, means disciples can do something more than offering our thoughts and prayers.
But what that “something” is today, I don’t know. We can reason and talk and offer rational explanations until we are blue in the face – vote, protest, picket, and even pray. But if one is OK with child sacrifice, then frankly, at this point, I fear only a miracle will change people’s minds about whether we should choose kids or guns.
But one possibility is to pray for a miracle. An article I read this week in the Harvard Business Review, you know, the other Bible, opened my eyes to something else too.
A researcher in Behavioral Economics conducted a study. She gave participants difficult ethical dilemmas. In one scenario, participants imagined they were the president of a nonprofit working to end child labor in Southeast Asia. They had to decide whether to accept a significant donation by a company that is known to violate child labor laws or risk letting the nonprofit shut down completely. The researchers then divided the group and asked one, “What should you do?” They asked the other group, “What could you do?” The “could” group came up with more creative solutions to the dilemma than the “should” group.
Her conclusion: Approaching problems with a “should” mindset gets us stuck on the trade-off choices and narrows our thinking to one answer, the one that seems most obvious. But when we think in terms of “could,” we stay open-minded and the trade-offs involved inspire us to more creative solutions. That kind of blew my mind. So simple. Seeing something that was already there. Chances are you and I feel stuck about something in our lives right now. What if, no matter the issue, when I feel stuck, I asked what could I do instead of should? I already feel freer.
What was the miracle in the story of Tabitha? That someone can be raised from the dead? That the disciples are supernaturally capable? Or a sign that there is no point beyond which we should give up hope. And in the gun violence arena, maybe believing in miracles will at least make us more hopeful. That’s a start. But, more concretely, in any similar arena of competing moral interests, I find the simple idea of setting aside what we should do and instead think and strategize and collaborate on what we could do quite liberating. To free us from feeling stuck. And to free us from gridlock. Which would constitute a full-out miracle.
Where do you feel stuck in your life? There is something out there we could do that we simply haven’t seen yet. How to see starts with prayer.
Prayers in the Aftermath of Gun Violence
Leader: Giver of Life and Love, you created all people as one family and called us to live together in peace. Surround us with your love as we face again the tragedy of gun violence.
For the children and adults who have been killed, the many wounded and hospitalized, the traumatized, grieving survivors, and those known to you alone, Loving God,
All: Make us instruments of your peace.
Leader: God of Righteousness, you have granted our elected and appointed leaders power and responsibility to protect us, and to uphold our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Strengthen their devotion to our common life and give them clarity of such purpose.
For all who bear responsibility, for all who struggle to discern what is right in the face of powerful political forces, Loving God,
All: Make us instruments of your peace.
Leader: God of Compassion, we give you thanks for first responders: police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and all those whose duties bring them to the streets, the schools, the malls and the homes where the carnage of gun violence takes place every day. Give them courage and sound judgment in the heat of the moment and grant them compassion for the victims.
For our brothers and sisters who risk their lives and serenity as they rush to our aid, Loving God,
All: Make us instruments of your peace.
Leader: Merciful God, bind up the wounds of all who suffer from gun violence, those maimed and disfigured, those left alone and grieving, and those who struggle to get through one more day. Bless them with your presence and help them find hope.
For all whose lives are forever changed and broken by the scourge of gun violence, Loving God,
All: Make us instruments of your peace.
Leader: God Who Remembers, may we not forget those who have died, more than 30,000 in the past year, in the gun violence that we have allowed to become routine. Receive them into your heart and comfort us with your promise of eternal love and care.
For all who have died, those who die today, and those who will die tomorrow, Loving God,
All: Make us instruments of your peace.
Leader: God of Tender Mercy, be with those who are overwhelmed, enraged, frustrated and demoralized by the plague of gun violence. Give them a sense of your presence and plant in them the seed of hope.
For those whose hope for life in this world is shattered and broken, Loving God,
All: Make us instruments of your peace.
Leader: God of Justice, help us, your church, find our voice. Turn us from the worship of power. Give us courage to confront our false gods and to protest the needless deaths caused by gun violence. Help us rise above our dread that nothing can be done and grant us the conviction to advocate for change.
For your dream of a world where children are safe and all of us live together without fear, Loving God,
All: Make us instruments of your peace.
From a vigil in 2018 at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. sponsored by Bishops Against Gun Violence
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 5, 2019
“Life After Hate”
Acts 9: 1-9 – New Revised Standard Version
“Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”
The top story on the Today Show on Friday had a surprising resonance for me with today’s reading from the Book of Acts. The story: A man convicted of a plot in 2009 to bomb the New York City subway system will soon be released from prison.
The man is Najibullah Zazi. He was a baby in 1985 when his family was forced to flee their native Afghanistan because of war with Russia. For nine years they lived on food rations in tents in a refugee camp in Pakistan. When he was 14 his family was allowed to resettle in New York. In his senior year, he dropped out of school and began working. By 21 he had his own coffee cart in downtown Manhattan. And then, a friend gave him an audiotape of a cleric that began to radicalize him to the point that he went off to fight with Al Qaeda to uphold the honor of Islam and liberate his home country of Afghanistan from the US, which had ironically opposed Russia’s occupation in the 80s when Najibullah was born and forced to flee. During his time with Al Qaeda, he was trained to build bombs. They sent him back to the US. He and two friends planned a suicide attack on rush hour trains below Grand Central Station. He was living here, in Aurora, in 2009 when he began buying the chemicals he needed to make detonators. The FBI learned of their plot and arrested him and his two friends. After his arrest, Najibullah switched sides and began to provide years of what the government called “extraordinary cooperation” that included insight into terrorist groups and information about his friends and family members. Ten years in prison and a commitment to life-long cooperation led a judge to say he earned a “unthinkable second chance.” Judge Dearie lamented that impressionable people had been “hijacked and corrupted by the rhetoric of hate.” Najibullah replied, “Your honor, the uneducated are perfect targets for the unscrupulous.”
An unrelated story later in the broadcast declared that Facebook will be banning all content related to “white nationalism and white separatism” from its platforms. An unrelated story. But they are not unrelated. Both are stories about terrorism and about using terrorism to protect what is “sacred” and under attack. With stories about one synagogue and one mosque and one black church attacked after another, it would seem an obvious illustration that white supremacists are terrorists. Obvious to everyone except a few people in the White House who downplay domestic terrorism as a few bad apples. Right up there with the “good people on both sides” apples at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Just weeks before Heather Heyer was killed, by one of those fine citizens, government agencies dedicated to countering far-right extremism were defunded and their resources directed toward an exclusive focus on Islamic terrorism, even though white men on the far right carry out far more terrorist attacks. But what Judge Dearie lamented is equally true in both cases: “impressionable people hijacked and corrupted by the rhetoric of hate.” And the uneducated, we know well, are the “perfect targets for the unscrupulous.”
So now, according to the story, anyone who searches for words like white nationalism or white separatism on Facebook will be directed to the page of a group called Life After Hate, one of the only groups in the country whose mission is to help people escape from white supremacy and organized hate groups. A group the government stopped funding. There was an excellent essay about Life After Hate and the movement to reform white supremacists in Mother Jones last summer. I highly recommend it.
Shane Johnson is one of the “formers,” what people formerly involved in white nationalism call themselves. He was raised in a family that had been KKK for generations, in a town in Indiana where at one time half the population belonged to the Klan. When he renounced his past, complete with his own Damascus Road conversion story, his family broke nearly every bone in his body and left him along the road as close to dead as you can get. He recovered but still worse was his isolation from everything he had ever known. Leaving a movement with such social cohesion, he said, is one of the hardest parts. According to Shane, most people don’t join hate groups because they are hate-filled but because someone has invited them to belong to a purpose. In that way, Shane’s family background is an anomaly.
Last year he and another man were invited to consult with an agency working on an app that would use artificial intelligence to identify “hate tweets.” The program would reply to each hate tweet: “If you’re tired of living in the darkness of a hate-filled life, there’s a way out. No judgment. Just help.” Shane thought that was ridiculous. And that such a message would actually lead people to double down on their extremism, not leave it behind. You are “shaming them as living dark, hate-filled lives. You need to engage them.” Another “former” described needing a “helping hand, not a hand in our face.” Both argued that denunciation is a mistake. It’s like fuel on a fire, driving people who might be thinking about leaving back into the comfort of their existing social networks.
The essay said, “When it comes to changing individuals, denunciation may counteract rather than hasten deradicalization.” A sociologist from Chapman University said, “The uncomfortable truth is that the best way to reform racists may be to offer precisely what they aren’t willing to offer others, and precisely what many people in this polarized political moment feel they least deserve: empathy. One of the formers, Christian Picciolini, said that receiving empathy at a time when I least deserved it, from those I least deserved it from, was a transformative event that helped pull me out of the hate movement.”
Critics can rightly note that this another form of white privilege – expecting the oppressed to sooth their oppressors’ guilty conscience – and yet, according to a man whose father was one of the Sikhs killed by a neo-Nazi at their temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, empathy remains an effective tool. Extremists want their actions to inspire anger. “To respond with love,” he said, “is the biggest deterrent.” And certainly the farthest thing from our first response. It’s a provocative idea. And challenging.
So, to our reading from the Book of Acts today. What do Najibullah Zazi and Shane Johnson and Paul, still known here as Saul… What do they have in common? My difficulty in having empathy for them. At least, before the first two became formers. But Paul, whose words have been used to persecute LGBTQ people and silence women – even if some of his words are radically egalitarian – he’s sometimes the hardest in this group to forgive. Now, to be clear, I am not calling Saul a terrorist or a member of a hate group. He’s certainly been used by hate groups. But Saul is the one of whom the Risen Jesus asked, “Why do you persecute me?”
The story of Saul begins in chapter 7 when one of the 12 disciples named Stephen was put to death by a mob throwing stones. The first martyr. Before the people picked up their stones, they laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. But he wasn’t just the coat-check guy standing by. Chapter 8 begins, “And Saul approved of their killing Stephen.” The next sentence begins, “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem… Saul ravaged the church by entering house after house; he dragged off both men and women and committed them to prison.” These are among verses sometimes claimed by anti-Semites to justify, in turn, their persecution of Jews. But what Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, is describing here is an intra-party conflict, not a conflict between two religions. Acts must not be misused for this purpose.
But, I want to come back to the challenge for all three of them. Can I have empathy for any of them? Before they are former. Before their life after hate.
John Pavlovitz, who is coming here next week, recently wrote in one of his most powerful blog posts ever about a young woman who approached him after an event in Omaha. With her voice shaking, she said, “I’m ashamed to say this but I find myself wishing these terrible people would just… disappear. What do I do with this anger?” John said, I knew what I had to tell her. That these feelings are unhealthy. That this kind of consuming hatred toward another human being was dangerously toxic. To remind her that this level of contempt for a stranger was exactly what she abhorred in the people she feels this way toward. I wanted to steer her away from such negative energy, but I couldn’t. I understood her. Her desperation and hopelessness make total sense. Wanting it to end is a natural human response to unchecked brutality and the unrelenting cruelty of this administration. You don’t actually wish to harm people; you just wish harmful people would stop harming people.
There are things we can do, but when there isn’t, we can control how we respond. Although, just after our reading today, the story continues about a man named Ananias who expresses exactly how hard this is. In a vision of Jesus, he was asked to visit Saul in order to lay hands on him to restore his sight. Remember Saul became blind on that road to Damascus. Ananias protested, “You can’t be serious! Everyone’s talking about this man and the terrible things he’s done, his reign of terror.” But in the vision, Jesus persisted. “This is the man I have chosen.” Reluctantly, Ananias went and no sooner after he spoke the words, “scales fell from Saul’s eyes – he could see again. He got to his feet, was baptized, and sat down with them to eat.”
The followers of the Way had every reason to hate Saul for persecuting them and every reason not to forgive him. So why then, of all people, was he chosen to be an instrument of God? Which means I have to ask, is this scripture even about Saul? Or us?
Eugene Peterson asks us to imagine one individual in whom we have given up hope. They will just never change. (There’re a few people I can imagine.) What would it mean to know that God has chosen her, or him, or them? Not only the people from whom I expect the worst, but who in fact, have done the worst, the most cruel, the most brutal… If I cannot have empathy, then what? Who am I?
Is this the dramatic conversion story of Paul from centuries ago or a question of conversion that we have to ask of ourselves every day? Of course, empathy is not the only response. The idea that we wouldn’t denounce every act of terror, whether foreign, domestic, or personal, makes love incomplete. Empathy an excuse. My sermon is entitled Life After Hate. But not anymore about Najibullah or Shane or Paul. Fill in the blank of the unthinkable. To bring it back home, by the grace of God, what kind of life could we have after hating them?
 Conversations with The Message and Its Translator, Navpress 2002
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