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.

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

  1. 3boxesofbs says:

    Why is the focus only on the shooter in the Florida case?
    I’m not arguing his actions were wrong, criminally in this case. He has been tried and sentenced for his actions.

    Yet, the focus of the issue isn’t on both parties but only on him. The youths — including a convicted felon – originally did the right thing and turned down the music. Then — and this is according testimony, deliberately escalated the situation. Are you going to call them to account like you did the shooter? They had a chance not to ratchet up and consciously chose an action.

    Please understand, I am in no way justifying the shooters actions. They were criminally wrong, morally wrong.
    But let’s hold all people to the same standard unless you are implying the victims of the shooting are to be held to a lower standard.

    • padremambo says:

      Yes, certainly the music could have been turned down, which doesn’t excuse the person who chose the final solution. In a civil society, we hope that people do not take the law into their own hands, and will back away. In my view, the person who seeks to take the more drastic action bears the greater responsibility for deescalating. I also think that in this specific case, Michael Dunn was in particular need of hearing the gospel, as he had serious anger management issues. And last, there’s a bit of a difference between teen rebelliousness and an angry adult. That said, many teens could benefit from learning to deescalate themselves; if only because, in particular, young black teens must always be wary of the rage that armed white men might have.

      • 3boxesofbs says:

        That said, many teens could benefit from learning to deescalate themselves; if only because, in particular, young black teens must always be wary of the rage that armed white men might have.

        Racist much?
        Sorry but it isn’t just ‘young black teens that must be always be wary of the rage that armed white men might have’. Ever hear of the Knock Out game — physical assaults usually by minorities against white people mostly?
        Or the racial violence prevalent where most of the violence is against people of the same color?

        I find it offensive that time and time again young black teens target people with violence and little is said. High profile but rare cases like the Sanford Florida or “Loud music” cases get instant attention and the violent one gets instant condemnation. Where is the blog posts calling for young black teens — who are committing crimes out of portion to the population – to deescalate, to mimic Christ?

  2. padremambo says:

    I would also add, that those who use guns, by the very nature of the weapon, are morally obligated to be more calm and collected than other people, precisely because guns are effective at ending a life. Having such a ready weapon makes deescalation even more imperative.

    • 3boxesofbs says:

      Is violence not violence? Does it matter if a rock (oldest Murder weapon recorded) or firearm is used?

      It is a matter of the heart, not the tool. Too many people are willing to use violence to get their way. While a firearm is more effective at ending a life; it is also more effective at saving lives, stopping crimes. There are less than 12,000 firearm related homicides a year. Less than 400,000 firearm related violent crimes in a year. Those firearm related violent crime account for just 8% of all violent crime. Meaning hundreds of thousands of violent crimes.
      And according to the FBI; 50% of all homicides and 85% of all violent crime — not just firearm related — is gang or drug cartel related.

      Those are staggering numbers but pale in comparison to the 2,500,000 defensive gun uses per year. Uses where a gun owner stops or prevents a crime through the use of a firearm. Most never fire a shot.

      Gun owners are for the most part more calm and collected than other people. Texas tracks convictions of those with a Concealed Handgun License — at no point since the inception in 1996 have convictions ever been above 0.50% of all convictions – HALF a percent.

      Please focus your message not on the rare exception but the bulk of the problem.

  3. padremambo says:

    I think it does matter. Guns are useful because they are more effective than rocks, which is why people buy them. I’m skeptical of the quarter million defensive gun uses (of course, why not just use a rock, anyway?).

    I don’t make the connection between guns and violence, although I think there is some evidence of a connection between gun ownership and aggression, especially in the American South (not, however in other gun cultures like Switzerland or Canada). But those are certainly cultural issues, and not about the tool itself. There is a well-documented culture of honor and violence in the American South that’s hard to ignore.

    I’m skeptical about the statistics regarding the knockout game. However, there are a number of organizations that are encouraging teenagers to learn how to deescalate. As I have worked with people getting out of jail, deescalation is an important tool for them to learn. Michael Dunn could have learned it himself. As far as the posting about young black men deescalating: I blog on what I want to blog about. It’s a red herring – and I’m not denying that kids should deescalate.

    I think that black teens should be very wary of armed, paranoid, white men. But this is the point, isn’t it? Who deescalates first? In my view, it should be whoever would let anger become murder. Yet, Jesus knows this is an imperfect world: so in a world where young black teens are killed, sometimes the weaker must also deescalate as well.

    • 3boxesofbs says:

      Why not use a rock? Multiple criminals? Physical frailties or deformity, how about just a desire to use a firearm instead of a knife or a rock.

      I don’t understand how you can’t make the connection regarding violence. 1/3rd of all homicides are not firearm related. 92% of all violent crime are not firearm related.

      There is a well-documented culture of honor and violence in the American South that’s hard to ignore.

      And does that explain the well document gang violence in places like Chicago, L.A. – violence based on ‘honor’ – people being shot because some one was ‘dissed’ by another gang member? Or a just an average person didn’t kowtow to a gang banger / drug dealer fast enough?

      It is a complex issue. Mexico with it’s restrictive firearm laws (literally only 1 legal gun store in the country) has a greater homicide rate, greater firearm related homicide rate than America. Same with many other countries, Jamaica, Brazil for example.

      Love how you are skeptical about the knock out game — despite frequent reports — but take an isolated case like the “loud music” murder and extrapolate that white guys are the problem.

      From the Bureau of Justice Statistics

      Most murders were intraracial. From 1980 through 2008, 84 percent of white homicide victims were murdered by whites and 93 percent of black victims were murdered by blacks. During this same period, blacks were disproportionately represented among homicide victims and offenders. Blacks were six times more likely than whites to be homicide victims and seven times more likely than whites to commit homicide.

      The number of homicides known to involve adult or juvenile gang violence has quadrupled since 1980, increasing from about 220 homicides in 1980 to 960 homicides in 2008. From 1980 to 2008, gang violence increased from one percent to six percent of all homicides. During this same period, gun involvement in gang-related homicides increased from 73 percent to 92 percent.

      Who deescalates first?

      And that is the point — who deescalates first — the people blaring music so loud that other people are offended or the person who asked for it to be turned down. We rightful judged the shooter for his actions but seem to let the others go.

      The statistics, the evidence — indicates that it isn’t the angry white guys who need to hear the message the most. To continue to denounce one group without focusing on the group needing to hear the message the most is hypocrisy worthy of a Pharisee.

      • padremambo says:

        First of all, I will deescalate and admit that I’m being a little flip about angry white guys. However, they will continue to have a public perception problem among lots of black teens – just as, I’m sure, white men consider black teens threats as well. My father was a very nice white man, and a pretty old school, industrious Yankee type. Admittedly, he saw shooting as a game (he was a skeet shooter), rather than as a form of effective protection. And he worked in the inner city in very dangerous neighborhoods (he’d bicycle through the projects, looking very white).

        I think your implicit arguments that guns are essentially similar to other weapons remarkable. If they were equal in effectiveness, I’m not sure why our military and other public servants wouldn’t just use rocks or knives. Guns are technically a great equalizer, and one reason why most institutions in the business of killing use them. This does not diminish the fundamental argument that violence begins in the heart; but the consequences are a lot more severe when the technology improves.

        In an ideal world, everyone having guns would mean there’d be a lot fewer assholes. That’s kind of the utopian dream, right? I’d be a lot nicer to others because they might be packing. But then, the reality is that people remain mean, inconsiderate and difficult. And even then they don’t deserve to die. The kid night have played N.W.A. and been a pretty mean person, but being inconsiderate doesn’t mean one should live in fear. They should instead be forced to go to etiquette classes. Dunn, however, because he considers guns his primary form of protection is obligated to be much LESS eager to use it, not more. It’s actually a common warrior’s paradox: use words and the mind first. Unfortunately, the evidence seems to be that guns (and this might be cultural) seem to make people more aggressive. Guns + a culture of aggressiveness is a dangerous combination – and thus the national examples you offer.

        Let me say that: I would not say that guns cause violence. I’ve never said such. Most guns, after all, are harmful mainly to the gun owners themselves and to their own families. I do think that individuals who have been accused of violent crimes should be restricted in their ownership of guns, but the violent heart should be illustrated first.

        As far as Chicago and the number of homicides, I would affirm that the Chicago Police have a right to be active in using any way possible to reduce the number of guns on the street. It means that the state should be given the resources available to enforce the regulations available. “Stop and Frisk” in these cases are legitimate uses of police time, when used with the proper procedures. Dealers who circumvent the laws already in place should be actively prosecuted. Unfortunately, even the laws we have are not enforced in part because the resources required are not funded. I’m not aware of what the statistics about illegal guns are, but it seems that the NRA in its efforts to protect legitimate gun dealers, makes it very hard for the police to actually go after people who get guns illegally. Part of this is the fiction that bad guys always seek guns. Actually, bad guys are opportunists: they get what’s easily available. Fewer guns, and they’ll look for rocks and knives.

        My impression is that the “knockout game” is simply “robbery.” But perhaps I’ll look into it a bit more.

  4. susan moritz says:

    Father Gawain, Thank you very much for this post. It came at a time when de-escaltation was really needed in my family, and it helped calm a situation that could have caused deep hurt. Susan

  5. In all walks of life de-escalation is a must for our survival.If we can’t control our anger our urge to gain unfairly we are likely to face unpleasant and unwanted consequences.The most important thing is to remember at all times,”The Lords commandment “Love thy neighbour as thyself.”

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