On Deescalating (A Sermon on Matthew 5: 21-37)

A few weeks ago I saw a photo of three Orthodox Monks standing in between protestors and the police in one of the central squares in Ukraine. They merely held a cross and prayed.

Although there are times when a priest must take a side, in that moment they illustrated Christ by being in the way, interrupting the escalating dynamic, offering space for each side to stop the violence. It may be that one side is more righteous than the other, but the solutions are available without further loss of life.

Last week we heard Jesus make some rigorous demands upon the faithful: don’t get angry; don’t be lustful; don’t divorce. Reconcile. It’s easy to get caught up in the prurience of the passage (Matthew 5:21-37) and lose sight of the fundamental challenge. Jesus is not becoming a puritan, suppressing our sexuality.

He’s saying: don’t escalate.

Deescalate. It’s easy to get wound up, to become overwhelmed, to create more problems, to enter into a frenzy. So if you are getting into one, stop. Do what you need to to get your mind back on track, centered, calm.  Don’t become your own obstacle.

The intuition: be careful – we don’t know who else we will harm.

Yes, sometimes in our current context it chafes to be told to rein in one’s emotions. And perhaps there are times when that control is avoidance, merely delaying the inevitable emotional outburst. Instead, Jesus pulls us out of the frenzy. It’s a mistake to hear this only as Jesus wagging his finger. He is equally encouraging us to let ourselves be soothed.

Last week, a man named Michael Dunn was on trial for shooting Jordan Davis, a black teenager, at a convenience store for listening to hip-hop music loudly. It may be another example of racism; or why Stand Your Ground (or “Shoot First”) Laws are immoral; or why we need further gun control. At the very least, however, we had one man who could not negotiate with his own anger, and his racism and weapons exacerbated the event, the murder of a young man.

When Jesus says, even anger leads to judgement, it is precisely this sort of case he illuminates. The man could have responded with humor or simply left the scene quickly. Instead, he chose to escalate.

Deescalating is a mechanism of reconciliation; it is a crucial precursor to the challenge of forgiveness. Deescalation changes the dynamic between individuals and groups, allowing for the possibility that our responsibility, our impact upon each other, for each other, is shared. We all go to heaven, or send each other to hell.

Deescalating may be difficult. Yet discerning and identifying the complexity of our shared life is one of the purposes of prayer and faithful action, and we affirm that the benefits of stepping back, from letting honor be God’s and not our own, we diminish the possibility of creating hells for ourselves, or for others.  All over, from cyberspace, to Stand Your Ground, to political protests evince the dangers of rapid escalation, and how it creates an obstacle for healthy relationships.

When we are in the midst of conflict, when we must negotiate the valleys of community life, let our words be simple and plain. May we work first to support one another, perpetually offering space for reconciliation.

Jesus and the Billionaires

Are billionaires being persecuted? Certainly they feel under attack.

I understand the sentiment. They are easy targets. There are a few of them. They have a lot of power, and have access to the political elites. They may not know a lot about politics or economics, but they can make money, which always calls people’s attention. Personally, I don’t think there’s much evidence that billionaires are more thoughtful, intelligent or tasteful than anyone else; they are simply better opportunists.

Still, certainly billionaires are not necessarily the fundamental source of the problem our world faces. On this they might be right. They don’t cause all of us to pollute the air; nor do they all deny evolution and climate change. Some are libertarians when it comes to sexuality; or support projects they think effectively reduce suffering in the world.

So blaming them as a class is not exactly just. Continue reading