Vision as Prophetic Imagination

“Vision as Prophetic Imagination,” Bob Ryder

READING

Luke 6:27-42
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other cheek also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them back. Behave toward others as you would have them behave toward you.”

“If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good only to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do as much. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive what they have loaned and then some. But you are to love your enemies, treat them well, lend expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be gracious, just as your Father is gracious.”

“Do not judge, and you will not bejudged; do not condemn, and you will not becondemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you – a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over will be put into your lap. For the measure by which you give will be the measure by which you receive.”

REFLECTION
Observing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for our worship this morning is as obvious as it is fitting. It hardly needs to be said that Dr. King was and remains a towering figure in human history.  His accomplishments in the American Civil Rights Movement are as relevant today throughout the world as they were in the American south of the mid-20th century.  Dr. King provided an example for humanity of the social progress that can be achieved by cultivating disciplined spirituality in the pursuit of justice.  He was surely a prophet in the tradition of Isaiah and Amos, Jeremiah and Jesus, Mohandas and Malala, and this morning we take the occasion to consider a few of his teaching and try to integrate them into our lives.

Let’s begin with an exercise.  For the first part, take the blank page in your bulletin and for 60 second write down on one side as many synonyms as you can for the word “love.”  I’ll signal at the 1-minute mark.  Then please turn the page over and for 60 seconds write down as many synonyms as you can for the word “hate.”  Again, I’ll signal at 1 minute.

For the second part of the exercise, one more minute to read through the lists you just created.  As you do, place a check mark next to any of the words for which that quality or experience comes easily and consistently.  What did you notice about the lists?  Was it easier to think of synonyms for one word than the other? Does one of the lists have more experiences that come easily than the other?  Listen to these quotations by Dr. King.

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PRINCIPLE FIVE (From the Six Principles of Non Violence) (slightly paraphrased)

Avoid Internal Violence of the Spirit as well as External Physical Violence

Nonviolence choses love over hate. Dr. King stated, “In Nonviolent Resistance we not only refuses to shoot our opponent, but we also refuse to hate him.” Violence is not just physical harm, but mental and emotional as well. Mental violence is the most common form of violence.  If we participate in violence by word or deed or thought, we send a clouded picture and a clouded message. One objective of nonviolent direct action is to send a clear picture to those watching. The way we practice nonviolence is shown through our actions, which reveal our attitudes. Violence of the spirit saps our creative energy and deteriorates our moral position.

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“Hate is just as injurious to the hater as it is to the hated. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Many of our inner conflicts are rooted in hate. This is why psychiatrists say, “Love or perish.” Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

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“Man (sic) must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.

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Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is an entirely “neighbor-regarding concern for others,” which discovers the neighbor in every [one] it meets. Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both.

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“Let no man (sic) pull you so low as to hate him.”

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Candidly, the reason I chose those specific quotations is because I need to hear them.  Occasionally – when I can make myself notice my own state of mind – I’m aware of how I easily gravitate into aggressive thoughts toward people I blame for making the world an uglier and more dangerous place.  It’s not a pleasant thing to see about yourself, but it’s important to acknowledge if you can summon the objectivity to look at it. This month we’re exploring the idea of being “people of vision” and it seems to me that no vision is complete without being able to take an honest look at your own inner landscape.  What was that proverb written above the door to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi – “Know Thyself!”  So, I’m trying to listen, to watch the causes and effects as I curse my enemies and think about the divine retribution they deserve, I’m trying to catch myself as I look down on them while ignoring my own faults and our shared humanity.

In my more mindful moments, it’s clear how much additional suffering I inflict not only on others but on myself when I indulge that way of thinking.  Whatever fleeting satisfaction might come of loathing is quickly eclipsed by misery, which is also very easily camouflaged. Reflecting on Dr. King’s words can help me get back on track to cultivate the better angels of my nature, striving for empathy and kindness even while trying to resist whatever evil being perpetrated. The creative generosity and good will we are called to bestow is not a reflection of the recipient, but a projection of who we are striving to be. Hatred and love are both potentially contagious.  As Dr. King taught, “Hate is just as injurious to the hater as it is to the hated. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity.”  “Agape begins by loving others for their sakes.” I’d do well to memorize those words.  If I were the sort to get tattoos, those quotes would be worth having – one on each forearm.  We’d do well treat Dr. King’s words as the Jewish religion treats the words of the Mezuzah, inscribing them on our doorposts so as to be constantly reminded of their wisdom and immediate practicality.  “Avoid violence of the spirit as well as physical violence.” “Let no one pull you so low as to hate them.”  Amen.

As part of a conference I attended last year, two presenters offered some of their content in the form of an unscripted dialogue. The topic of the conference was animal behavior and training, and one of the observations that stuck with me was shared by a presenter named Kathy Sdao.  She and her co-presenter were exploring insights and techniques for working with animals prone to fear.  In the midst of the give and take, Kathy noted that emotions are themselves internal forms of behavior – just as responsive to the laws of learning as the external behaviors we tend to focus on more because they’re tangible.  The implication was that when an animal performs physical behaviors that coincide with fearful emotions, they’re more likely to feel fearful as a result.  The parallel for our conversation seems obvious – if we entertain and express thoughts that are meanspirited or vindictive, we’re more likely to feel meanspirited or vindictive.  Love and hatred – the states of mind, the emotions and assumptions and attributions, the narratives we recite about why we like or dislike another – love and hatred are also their own intrinsic forms of mental behavior subject to the same effects of practice and neglect as playing tennis, playing a musical instrument, using chopsticks.  The more you do it, the better prepared and more likely you are to do it again.

Maybe one of the more helpful concepts we can look to as we reflect on Dr. King is the idea that you are who you hate.  We tend to think of ourselves in a forgiving, even flattering light, so it’s easy to miss the similarities we share with those we dislike.  Think of some of the worst behavior you’ve seen in people of the opposite political party, then ask yourself if you haven’t had very similar thoughts and feelings. However factually accurate or evidence based, or data driven our politics might be, we are no different than our enemies or opponents or adversaries or whatever you want to call them if we’re approaching issues from a posture of hatred and self-righteousness. Again, the words of Dr. King…

“Man (sic) must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

“Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It [ ] makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both.”

If we hope to have any beneficial impact on society, if we hope to improve things at all and leave the world a bit better off for our having lived, the only possible way to do so is by setting aside our habits of hating others and cultivate a disciplined intention for the well-being of others.

By coincidence, this week I came across an excellent TED Talk given by a man named Dylan Marrow who reflects on hateful comments he receives in response to his work creating internet content that teaches people to examine their prejudices.  He’s an exceptionally creative and insightful person, and I recommend his Ted Talk for your consideration.  “How I Turn Negative Online Comments into Positive Offline Conversations.” The gist is that Mr. Marrow takes the initiative to reach out toward some of his detractors and engage them in genuine conversations asking about their motivation for the hateful comments they offered. The guy has as much courage as he has imagination, and the result of the conversations – at least sometimes – is that he develops a human connection with someone who was an enemy, and helps that person reflect on the origins of their hatred and experience their common humanity.  You should look it up, it’s inspiring.  One of the things that makes his presentation compelling is that he’s realistic.  Mr. Marrow offers these insights toward the end of his talk…

…it can feel very vulnerable to be empathizing with someone you profoundly disagree with. So, I established a helpful mantra for myself. Empathy is not endorsement. Empathizing with someone you profoundly disagree with does not suddenly compromise your own deeply held beliefs and endorse theirs. Empathizing with someone who, for example, believes that being gay is a sin doesn’t mean that I’m suddenly going to drop everything, pack my bags and grab my one-way ticket to hell, right? It just means that I’m acknowledging the humanity of someone who was raised to think very differently from me. I also want to be super clear about something. This is not a prescription for activism. I understand that some people don’t feel safe talking to their detractors and others feel so marginalized that they justifiably don’t feel that they have any empathy to give. I totally get that. This is just what I feel well-suited to do.

So, without beginning with the daunting assumption that the fate of the world hangs on our ability to do this perfectly in every instance and beginning right now, can we see whether it’s possible to resist our very natural inclination to hate our enemy – to despise, to revile, to condescend, to slander, to curse, to insult, to abuse, to ridicule, to scorn, to condemn.  Can we try instead to acknowledge that we the people or groups we hate have things in common with us, and behave toward them on the basis of that perspective?  The chances are good that they like some of the same kinds of food, or music, or sports teams, or books, or vacation spots as we do. Chances are good they have some of the same hopes and insecurities as we do.  The chances are good that they’ve suffered some of the same troubles we have – perhaps they were bullied in school, or lost a job, or feel perplexed trying to be a good parent to their children or good daughters and sons to their aging parents.  As we honor Dr. King this weekend, can we summon the awareness to think and behave toward our enemies on that basis and resist our instincts for the caustic, vicious circle of preemptive hatred?

Our worship theme for the month of January is on being a people of vision.  With that in mind, can we learn to see our own aggressive instincts for what they are and look past them to a larger vision of society grounded in altruistic kindness?  If we are to be a people of a worthy vision, we have to take responsibility for our own state of mind and cultivate a perspective that recognizes the humanity even in those with whom we disagree profoundly, even when they don’t recognize the humanity of others first.  I’ll conclude my remarks with a parable form the Cherokee tradition.

The parable of the Two WolvesOne evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.  He said, “my son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ who live inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, and deceit.  The other is good. It is peace, friendship, serenity, humility, generosity, honesty, compassion and faith.” The grandson though about it for a minute, then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”  The old Cherokee replied, “the one that you feed.”