“Can’t We All Just …?”

January 26, 2020
Psalm 27: 6-9; Matthew 4:17-22; I Corinthians 1:10-13

Good Morning.

This is the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany – when the Three Wise Men deduced that the star moving before them was leading to a baby who was god’s son and a human being. For those of us who are not wise men and for whom single stars don’t march off by themselves, an epiphany also means an “aha” moment, a point in time when something unknown or mysterious becomes clearer – like a flash of insight.

I can’t promise you an “aha” moment this morning but I hope that there’s something here worth thinking about, either pro or con or as a nudge toward our own insights.

I’ve spent my working life doing history and creating narratives, among other things, out of the materials that I have. So, when I saw these texts, I thought, “Aha, there’s a narrative here. I can use this.” So let me sketch out the narrative that I see in these three texts.

Oh, spoiler alert: the narrative takes us to questions of how we handle deep disagreements that threaten our very sense of who we are. So, think about that with me as we move along. What do we do in cases where the question is “can’t we all just agree? Can’t we all just get along?”  What does it mean if we don’t agree or we don’t get along?

This question takes us to the texts. The first one is in Psalms where the writer rejoices that his enemies, who sought to “devour” him, will be totally defeated and he will triumph because god is on his side. When the enemies are defeated and suffering, the writer will shout with joy and praise god. Its schadenfreude all the way down. Rejoicing in the suffering of others.

Parenthetically, in case you actually read the lectionary text from Psalms, I’ll just say that the lectionary excised these gloating thoughts and only used the nice ones. Historians believe in archival integrity – you use the whole document that you’ve got, not just the good bits that we like – so I put the excised verses back in and used the passage as it actually is.

Well, here’s a narrative about disagreements sprouting and festering until people unleash their weapons on each other. That’s one way to handle deep disagreements. Fight it out and gloat over the misery of the defeated. The Old Testament is rife with these stories so the New Testament passages try to rectify that narrative. Since the world is so divided, and humanity so fallen, someone needs to create a new way, a new beginning. So the scene is set for fishers of men as Jesus embarks on a new way and kickstarts it by enlisting men to join him and then go out and enlist others. The idea is that unity and harmony can grow in this community and the schadenfreude of the past can take a hike. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus says. It’s an arresting metaphor. Fishers united in harmony. But I wonder if that metaphor conceals a problem.

The metaphor of “fishing for men” once seemed innocuous and generous to me. But let’s stay with this metaphor a bit – using the tactics of fishing on people? Really? Having seen how this “fishing” can play out, I can’t help but be on the side of the fishes a bit – they don’t ask to be fished. They just want to be what they are – fish – swimming in their own environment. They don’t want to be cajoled or forced into conforming to someone else’s ideas of what fish are made for and should be. They’d like a bit more autonomy, maybe, a sense of space and freedom to be who they are. They don’t actually want to be a dangling piece of food frying over someone’s seaside coals. If the fish knew everything now that they would know later, they’d refuse to take the bait. Maybe using the tactics of fishing on people doesn’t improve things much.

Well, how did all this fishing and forming new communities work out? Let’s turn to the passage in Corinthians where Paul is in a scolding mood. “What’s wrong with you,” he demands. “Why can’t you get along? Some of you follow me — your fisher – others say they follow another fisher. “Be in agreement,” Paul orders. Be united in the same purpose. Why can’t you all just agree and get along? Compromise, I suppose Paul is saying.

The problem of how to live when there are intractable disputes is an age-old one and Paul provides a good scolding but offers no guidance, really, on how to live with these realities. This is still our world today. After all these admonitions to get along, we are divided everywhere with people the world over split over how to police the borders, how to live out religious impulses, how to manage our earth’s resources, how to manage women, or not, how to be equal, or not, how to care for the least of these, or not, how punitively to deal with wrong-doers, how to welcome, or not, immigrants and refugees looking for a place to escape to. And now, the veneer of civility, the social glue that requires attention to habits of decency, seems to be coming unglued.

We have, in our own nation’s history, plenty of examples of how we created divisions and then tried to deal with them. Our shameful national embrace of slavery is stark and horrific and became a scandal that split churches first, and then split the nation. Slavers always urged “compromise.” Let’s just get along. In all of these compromises, slavery never receded but kept growing. Churches finally split when some determined not to let their churches be a place where some people were demeaned, dishonored, and enslaved. Political leaders dragged their feet longer, until they, too, realized that compromise never helped enslaved Americans — only those who enslaved them. Interestingly, some slavers, as a last ditch effort in the 1850s, offered yet another meaningless compromise plan whereby they promised to end all slavery in the South – by the year 2000.

Today, we live in a world where refugees are scorned, immigrants are targeted, dissenters accused of treason, people with disabilities mocked, democratic values of equality and justice trampled – and that’s just the twitter feed. When our nation’s highest office spews scorn and anger at the innocent and vulnerable, it emboldens those below who once would not have acted on their worst impulses but now gloat in them.

Fearmongering, nationalism, xenophobia are contagious. Sometimes, it seems, our future is fated to look like our past.

And, sometimes we hear people say that this is not who we are. We can’t really say that. It is who we are — but it’s not who we are called to be.

How do we live in a world like this? It’s useless to admonish people to just agree – to just get along. What we’ve learned is that compromise, getting along, often asks us to sacrifice some of us so that the relatively privileged can rejoice in their compromise achievement.

What do we do when our divisions seem intractable and “getting along” requires sacrificing the rights and human dignity of some of us on the altar of compromise and agreement? How do we decide what our core values and unshakable positions are when we are confronted with these realities? Where do we go to build a sustainable framework for responding to these divisions?

Like a lot of people, I slowly developed my values and positions on moral questions as a young adult without first forming a framework or delving into moral philosophy. But at some point, in my early years, I came across the thinking of John Rawls, a political and moral philosopher who wrote a book called A Theory of Justice. I thought about this book when I read Paul’s admonitions to just get along and decided that it might be useful here as another foundation on which to talk to each other and think about, our disagreements.

John Rawls set out a thought experiment. Imagine, he said, imagine that you aren’t yet born but you will be. You don’t know anything about the natural abilities you’ll be born with, you don’t know anything about the family you’ll be born into, you don’t know your sex or your gender, you don’t know your ethnic background, you don’t know your position in society, you don’t know what your personal preferences about anything might be.

Rawls called this great unknowing, “The Veil of Ignorance.” Draw it over your face. You’re completely ignorant about the world that you’ll be born into — and what you will be like. Now, behind this Veil of Ignorance, think about the world that you’d like to be born into and live out your wild and wonderful life. When you consider public policies that distribute rights, positions, and resources in society, use the Veil of Ignorance to inform your thinking. And know that your chances of being born into the bottom of society are great because that is where most people live – never being able to board the train that some of us were born on. The Veil of Ignorance asks us to think about whether we really want to compromise our values and “get along” with those who wield power and foster exclusion or whether we will stand in solidarity with anyone who is told they don’t belong here.

There are going to be inequities and bias in any society, Rawls said, but if there are social and economic inequalities, they should be ones that offer the greatest benefit to the least advantaged.

This, I think, is a congregation that maybe, unbeknownst to itself, has already become comfortable with the Veil of Ignorance. When Dave and I moved here, we asked about churches in the area and then heard about the judgement rendered on this congregation by its own conference colleagues and why, and saw how this church opted not to withdraw, not to ostracize in response, but to stay in, keep its core values and its commitment to all of its members now and in the future, and I said to myself, “I don’t need to go church-shopping at all. This is my church.”

So this is what Rawls might say to those badly-behaved believers in Corinth. Be deliberate in identifying your values. Know yourselves morally – figure out your values and practice them in ways large and small. Think about the rights and the liberties you value and act on them in ways to shape your community. And, if you have a bias, let it be a bias for equality, a respect for the autonomy, the integrity, and the choices of others for their own good lives. Decide who you won’t sacrifice in order to get along. Remember that good acts and moral values are contagious, too.  Join with others to spread that contagion. Keep believing in the power of persuasion. Make sure that you won’t sacrifice anyone among you and in your entire world, just to get to agreement – just to get along.

And, if we ultimately succeed in that, we will have, thank God, a future that doesn’t look like our past.