Tuesday, June 30, 2015

when being nice isn't enough

Today at the convent we’re celebrating St. Peter and St. Paul (transferred from yesterday).  I was asked to find the short non-scriptural reading for the Noon Office to go with a portion of the scripture for the day. When I found it, it spoke to me about so much of what we’re living in.  Peter and Paul were so very different, yet we celebrate them together.  When I think of all the issues we’re working through as a church and as a country, it seems a very appropriate feast to model our learning to live together.

Here is the reading I found. It’s the first few paragraphs of a sermon I found online.

Homily on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul Sunday June 29th 2008
By a monk of the Orthodox Monastery of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

 Today the Church sets before us the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul: the two mighty pillars of the Church; St. Peter, the Apostle to the Jewish Nation, and St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. When we venerate the icon for this feast, we often see Peter and Paul embracing one another in fraternal (brotherly) love. They both certainly were different people with different temperaments. They both ministered to two mutually opposed groups of people (the Jews and the Gentiles, i.e., the rest of the world.) And they both certainly had their differences, recalling when, to use St. Paul's words, he (Paul) at one time even “withstood (or opposed) Peter to his face, for he was to be blamed” (Galatians 2:11.) In spite of this apparent tension, however, we see today within this feast an example of how we are to live with each other in the Church. Certainly, as people from all walks of life, we will have differences. We are all different people with different needs. However, today's feast shows us that the Church is first and foremost a place where God's love reigns (as the Lord said, the world will know us by the love we have one for another.) It is this love from God that enables us to overcome our interpersonal difficulties and it is this love that reminds us that with God all things are possible, and hence, when Christ commands us to “love our enemies” it is with the full knowledge that it is His love and grace that will empower us to do so. God doesn't ask us to “like” our neighbors and enemies, He commands us to “love” our neighbors and our enemies, a task which is far greater and is not predicated on how we feel but it is a choice: it is a conscious decision on our part to will the highest good for everyone we come into contact with. Love is therefore a choice. It is how we choose to act/respond. The great Saints Peter and Paul exemplify to us that even if we are different and even if we have disagreements, we can still live and work together in the Church and we can find reconciliation one to another through God's grace and love, that is, if we are willing. Often times the only thing that stands in the way of us being truly reconciled one to another is a conscious choice to be humble and to say with heartfelt meaning to those who offend us the two words that literally BURN the devil: “Forgive me.”

Love is hard work.  Love is a choice.  Thanks to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, this is not a new idea. (What do you mean, you haven’t read it? Go do so immediately.)

And love isn’t about being nice. 

That one took me longer to grasp.

How many times I have heard my mother’s voice echoing in my head: “Why can’t we all just be nice to each other?”  What a difference it would make. 

And yet it’s not enough. Trying to do that, just that, is better than nothing most of the time – except when it’s not.  Just ask me about the dangers of mistaking niceness for love or for holiness (or so it looks to me in retrospect) and thus making things worse by not dealing with them right away.  

Case in point: hate groups. 800+ of them in the US at last count.  In 2015. Really.  Here’s a tweet I just saw that illustrates this.  (No idea who the original poster is, but he sure has a point.)

I used to think the racism problem was in the past… too many cheerful grade school books ingested and a sheltered childhood will let you believe such things until they smack you in the face. Apparently thinking people should know by now isn’t enough. Thinking that people will be able to see how false their assumptions are through simple logic isn’t enough. Being nice isn’t enough. Sometimes you just have to tackle things head on and get to work, or nothing will ever change. It's not the way to popularity, but that's not the point. Even Jesus didn't always manage to speak in such a way as to be well received. Looking at the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Proper 9B) reminds me of that yet again.

Being nice doesn’t always work in the best of situations, for that matter, though I usually expect it to. “We just thought if we were really, really nice they would like us,” I heard someone say. In a church context. It didn’t work. This is counter to all my childhood assumptions.

Apparently, however, it’s not just my family. 

*   *   *   *   *  

One thing I do appreciate about my parents is that they aren’t often threatened by argument. I don’t mean nasty arguments, hostility, opposing camps. Thank God I don’t remember that from them. I mean spirited discussion of issues where, when you set out your case, you expect an answer. My father was really good at explaining why he’d made a decision or why anything was the way it was. And he wasn’t afraid to admit he was wrong. From him I learned the value of sticking with an argument until there was clarity, or as much resolution as was possible. Even if it took years (women’s ordination – that one went on for well over a decade).  

Essentially: This is what I’m thinking. Come back at me. Not with guns blazing, but with a real argument about why you think something else is better. You might be right. I’m listening.  I still have a lot to learn.

Most of us do.

We know this. I know this. I’ve experienced it. And I still can’t always do it.

How do we engage in argument without having a fight instead? Without automatic retreat into “being nice” (and avoidant) or into polarized camps shouting at each other? 

I just read the most fabulous post on this by Anthony Baker of the Seminary of the Southwest. 
Here’s the opening of it:

Hospitable Language
What is an argument?  “Argument is an intellectual process,” says a frustrated client at the Argument Clinic in a Monty Python sketch.  “Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.”
“No it isn’t,” is John Cleese’s inevitable reply.
Among the Episcopalians gathered in Salt Lake City this summer, there will likely be a good bit of both argument and contradiction.  In fact, argument, that “intellectual process ”that seeks to persuade by connecting grounds to conclusions by way of strong warrants, is an essential theological task that often gets swept aside because we associate it too quickly with contradiction, contentiousness, or any of the other ugly directions that disagreement sometimes takes.  Arguments seem inhospitable.  Sometimes a necessary evil, but never an act of hospitality.
I believe this is the wrong way for Christians to feel about arguments.  Arguing is theologically important because when we affirm our faith in the Word made flesh, we are reminding one another that the eternal truth became humanly followable in Christ.  Not that we can fully comprehend it, of course.  But we can follow it, as the disciples followed Jesus, opening their eyes and ears to the life and love that he revealed to them.  Jesus is something like God’s argument, presented publicly so that we can gather round, ask questions, make challenges, and ultimately say, “Yes, I can follow that.”
What I appreciate just as much or even more is the careful explanation of the connection between this kind of argument and hospitality:
Far from being an inhospitable response to difference, an invitation to follow an argument is a kind of linguistic hospitality:  I respect you enough that I will place my conviction within a carefully crafted line of reasoning.  Rather than try to manipulate you with verbal tricks or posturing, or let you speak your mind and then take the floor from you, I will invite you to challenge my premises, question the strength of the warrant I offer, and meet my reasoning with an argument of your own.  This, again, is modeling the hospitable descent of the Logos in the incarnation.
Creating well-formed arguments, and following them, is hard work.  Much harder than either nodding passively or rushing to “an automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.”  But, then, no one ever said hospitality of any sort was an easy task.

There’s more in my head: recent SCOTUS decisions and accompanying reactions, the massacre of Charleston and half a dozen churches burned in the short time since, and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (#GC78), which is currently meeting and prayerfully arguing about many things, including hot-button issues and its own continuing structure. However, it’s past time to stop writing this, at least for now.

My prayer is that we all learn to listen. Listen, argue, listen, argue, and remember that arguing actually involves listening and thinking, not just reacting. And praying, in this case. 

Please pray with me. Pray for all of us in this country. Pray for all at General Convention. May God help us to engage in honest, loving, fruitful, thoughtful, prayerful discussion, that God’s will be done.

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