The neighborhood where my wife, Jessica, and I live in Grand Rapids is close-knit. We know all our next-door neighbors on a first name basis and, before the pandemic, would often get together and help each other out. One of my neighbors is a guy named, Aaron Plattner; and he’s the ringleader in an ongoing exchange of “dad” jokes… groaners, if you will… jokes that are funny mostly because Aaron gets a kick out of telling and hearing bad jokes… But I’ve realized that silly one-liners actually capture a lot of truth. Over the last few months, I’ve been reading up on political and religious conflict in society for obvious reasons; and recently I came across a website of dad jokes about conflict… I’ve gotta share one of these groaners with you all today… because I’m a dad now twice over….
Two Star Wars super-fans who hated The Last Jedi die and are at the gates of heaven. St. Peter is there and tells them that before entering the afterlife, they may ask God one single question that He will answer truthfully for them. “All the secrets of the Universe, past, present, and future, are all available to you. Ask, and God will answer.”
They whisper with each other and decide on a question to ask. The first guy steps forward and says, “Did Mark Hamill actually like The Last Jedi or did Disney force him to say nice things about the movie, despite him knowing it’s the worst movie ever and ruined Luke Skywalker?”
God replies, “Mark Hamill had some conflicting thoughts when he first read the script. But by the time he had finished the movie, he had come around and realized that Rian Johnson’s vision for Luke’s character was much better than any idea he himself had. Mark is now very pleased with how the character developed. Disney never forced him to say anything. He was never even pressured or talked to. Mark’s biggest disappointment was that fans took his words out of context to push a narrative of hate for a movie he worked hard to make and is very proud of.”
The two guys look at each other in shock. The second guy whispers to the first guy, “You know what this means?” “Yup…” the first guy replies: “Disney’s influence goes even higher than we ever thought!”
This is a dumb joke, but it makes me laugh because it captures the struggle we’re all in… the struggle to listen and believe that our version of reality might need to be revised. In this joke, these guys are so disappointed with the movie they think anyone who says anything good about it must have been pressured by the producers. They can’t imagine that anyone could feel differently about the movie, and they won’t even take God’s word for it. Sound familiar?
It should, because this is how Americans behave on every single issue these days. Everything has been turned into absolutes, there’s no nuance, and there’s a decreasing willingness to listen and an unwillingness to admit that our versions of reality have a lot to do with what we’re able to perceive. We’ve got 75 million people, for instance, who think that the folks who voted for Joe Biden are nuts and maybe evil; and we’ve got 80 million people who think the opposite. And it’s pretty clear that not even the Word of God is going to change anybody’s mind. But we’ll give it another shot today anyway. Let us pray:
Holy One, you’ve tried to show us who you are:
you’ve sent prophets, you’ve given us scriptures,
and you’ve come among us by your Spirit and your Son.
Forgive us for wanting you to be in our image;
forgive us for wanting your help in our hatred.
Guide us now by your Spirit,
so that we might learn what it means to answer your call.
In Jesus’ name: amen.
I’ve got a sign on my office door that reads, “To LISTEN means to be SILENT,” and the way the words are lined up, you realize that “listen” and “silent” have the same letters. I’m not sure what any of you might think about that, whether you think it comes across as “preachy” or not. But keep in mind that I look at that sign when I arrive, while I sit at my desk, and as I leave. And if you’re anything like me, the sign feels like criticism because contradicts the bedrock assumption that I know everything I need to know to be right. The invitation to listen and to be silent, however, is what we all need to hear. So I leave the sign up, because making peace with those I dislike begins with making space in my life for them to speak.
Last Wednesday, President Biden confessed that while unity is our only way forward, it remains the “most elusive of things in a democracy.” I would go farther to say that a unity of purpose remains the most elusive and unrealized goal in human history. And this is strange, because unity is what gave our species an adaptive advantage over other animals, especially primates, who far outmatched us physically. One person can’t kill a tiger; but ten people can. One person can’t survive the Winter in a cave; but ten people can. So why is unity so hard for us if it’s deeply embedded in our survival instincts? The answer is that our unity has only ever been within our tribe.
Before homo sapiens became dominant on the planet, and before homo sapiens became the only humans left, tribalism provided a pretty good chance of acquiring the things necessary for life. But tribalism didn’t lead to our adaptive primacy over all other animals: this success belongs to the ways tribalism taught us empathy. It is empathy and mutually affirming organization which vaulted our species to the crowning pinnacle of technological and ecological primacy on this planet. You see, empathy not only allows individuals to work together, it allows tribes to work together. And what we know now is that tribalism is necessary for the survival of a few, while empathy and organization are necessary for the survival of everyone. Empathy prevents us from discarding or attacking those who seem threatening, or with whom we disagree. Empathy allows us to imagine that every other human being has the same basic cares and struggles that we do. The great American psychologist and ethicist, Jonathan Haidt, addresses this in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt says:
[Very few of us use empathy] in moral and political arguments because our righteous minds so readily shift into combat mode…. but no matter how good your logic, it’s not going to change the minds of [your] opponents if they are in combat mode too. If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or policital matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way – deeply and intuitively – you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to [self] righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide. (p. 58)
Haidt’s insights here make it clear why it’s so hard to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, because “fishing for people” means going to others and luring them into vulnerability with the generosity of your open heart and open mind. And when it comes to forming a community or society in which everyone can flourish, empathy is the only thing which will overcome the profanity of our tribalism. And herein lies our problem.
At the root of our brains, we still seem to have a hard time caring about persons beyond the boundaries of our emotional safe zones. There’s the self in the family unit… then the extended family… then the wider community in our cultures of origin… then the national interests which draw diverse cultures into harmonious enterprise… And that’s it. Humans have yet to progress socially or economically or ecologically beyond nationalism, and nationalism remains dependent on tribalism. And if one subset of the national tribe seems to be taking the national interest in the wrong direction, other factions rise up to protest. If we perceive that another person or another group threatens our self-interest, we wage war: wars of words, wars of resources, and sometimes wars of physical violence.
In the fable about Jonah, we find the problem of human tribalism in full view. Jonah does not want to proclaim the word of the Lord to Nineveh because he wants them to be destroyed. Nineveh, you see, was the capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire and the wealth of the city represented the economic and political slavery of Assyria’s vassal kingdoms, including Israel. So in Jonah’s mind, the mind of an Israelite prophet, they don’t deserve to hear the word of the LORD. The word of the LORD should be reserved for the people of Israel and not be wasted on the empire which had destroyed the national interest of the northern kingdom and burned its capital, Samaria. Jonah is determined to be the last person to deliver a warning from the LORD about their impending doom.
In fact, Jonah is not wrong. This divine call to go to Nineveh is very strange indeed. As the eminent biblical scholar, Robert Altar, points out: among all the prophets of Israel, “…only in Jonah is a man called to deliver a prophecy to the general populace of an altogether foreign, and hostile, nation” (The Hebrew Bible, Volume 2: Prophets, p. 1286). All of the other prophets rail against the kings and rulers of Judah and Israel for their unfaithfulness. Why is God branching out here? The simple answer is that the Jonah story isn’t about Jonah at all: it’s about God… a God who isn’t only the God of Israel, but the God of all creation. This may not seem controversial, until one realizes that the other references in the Hebrew Prophets to God’s universal authority serve to explain Israel’s special prominence over all other peoples. Here we have God giving the warnings usually reserved for Israel to the nation which destroyed Israel. So we begin to see why Jonah is mad at God… God has breached the national interests: God has gone outside the tribe… ‘This is not our God,’ thinks Jonah, ‘Our God would never serve the national interests of these sinners!”
This universal God should make us squirm, because you never know just what this kind of God might be up to. And, hard as it is to think about, this God might even be speaking to the people we dislike the most! And even worse than this, this strange God might even ask you to be the emissary to the people you dislike!
Think of the people who, to you, are the most detestable and the least desirable. In our current political climate, this shouldn’t be hard for anyone. Wouldn’t your brain explode, like Jonah, if you discerned that you were being called by God to carry the divine message to the people you think are the very worst?! the people who you believe have destroyed the national interest?! I’m reminded just here of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, where he points out that Unionists and Confederates “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” The absurdity of this applies to our moment and should make us uncomfortable, just like God’s mission for Jonah, because – if we’re honest – we don’t want God to love the people we hate.
So the thing we must come to terms with about God, is that the Divine Being is not our God. We do not own God… we do not give God directions… we do not set God’s agenda with our prayers… and we do not affect the universal love of the Divine for all people by advancing our petty and important grievances. In fact, just at the moment when those who deserve condemnation are about to receive it, this strange God-of-all-people reserves the right to change tactics and offer forgiveness instead of destruction.
Can it surprise us any longer that empathy is the greatest adaptation in the history of animal life on planet earth? If humans are made in God’s divine image, and the work of the Creator is to help us grow beyond our tribalism and cruelty, we must understand that participating in the image of God has to do with empathy. We must understand grace to be the highest form of human intelligence. Indeed, this is so important that this strange God has entered time and space as one of us, even though “all have fallen short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23). This strange God looks at the Sin of humans and understands our need for guidance and a strong parental hand. But this strange God also loves us with an everlasting parental love.
In the revelation of the prophets of Israel, culminating in Jesus, the Christ, God’s puts the whole world on notice that the time of the tribes has come to an end. Especially in Jesus, God wants to point out that the calling of a unique covenant people has to do with the unification of all people. So let me say it again: for this purpose Jesus calls his disciples to fish for people… to lure everyone with grace and captivate them with the love of an exceedingly strange God, who does not belong to us, and who is a respecter of all persons.
Because all of this feels overwhelming, I want to offer a practical word of hope: all we have to do to learn empathy is to listen better and more. Returning to Jonathan Haidt’s book, he offers some encouragement along these lines:
The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people. We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor, just as we are good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs. When discussions are hostile, the odds of change are slight. [Our intuition] leans away from the opponent, and [our reasoning] works frantically to rebut the opponent’s charges. But if there is affection, admiration, or a desire to please the other person, then [our intuition] leans toward that person, and [our reasoning] tries to find the truth in the other person’s arguments (pgs. 79-80).
Remember those people you find most detestable and least desirable? Regarding them, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt. 5: 44-45). What would it take to feel affection, admiration, and a desire to please them? What would it feel like to love them in a way that transformed them from enemies into neighbors, and from neighbors into friends? What would it take to begin to imagine that they are part of your tribe? The fable about Jonah adopts a “universalist theology” through a “rigorously world-embracing monotheism” (Altar, p. 1285), and after we’re done squirming and running away and making excuses for withholding grace, maybe the word of the Lord will come to us a second, or a third, or a fourth time; and maybe then we’ll understand that “God sent the Son into the world that the world might be saved” (John 3:17). This might not be what we want, but it is the Truth of the Living Word.
To conclude, I’d like to share a prayer composed by one of the most generous and empathetic people I’ve ever met. Now the chaplain for Life Flight at the Vanderbilt Medical Center, the Rev. Raye Nell Dyer was the head chaplain at the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital for over a decade and guided me through a clinical residency there during the Summer of 2014. Here prayer touches on our deep need to take our cue from God if we’re going to find away forward together. Let us pray:
Creator of all of us:
We are grateful for a new year… for all the chances we have in this life
to begin again with twelve new & fresh months stretched out before us.
May it be a good year for us…
Not by shielding us from all sorrow and pain,
But by strengthening us to bear it, when it comes.
Not by making our paths easy,
But by making us sturdy to travel any path.
Not by taking hardships from us,
But by taking fear from our hearts.
Not by granting us unbroken sunshine,
But by keeping our faces bright, even in the shadows.
Not by making our lives always pleasant,
But by showing us when it is that people and causes need us the most,
And by making us always ready to be there to help.
May your love, peace, hope, and joy be ours in this new year ahead…
We need it, Lord.