1 Corinthians 1:18-31
In our lesson from 1 Corinthians Paul proclaims that Jesus has turned the world upside down. Paul confronts us with the foolishness of Jesus. Who in their right mind would ever follow the message of an executed criminal who lived and taught foolish living? This fellow wouldn’t even defend himself. He didn’t even take the opportunity of life offered by his executioner, Pontius Pilate. What sort of way is that to live? He had every chance to cooperate with the authorities and to accept the social norms. And even if he wanted to start a revolution, there were expected ways to do that … his followers were waiting for him to do the expected – not the unexpected. No one forced him to be otherwise than expected. He was a fool.
The wise of Jesus’ day knew better than Jesus. And the wise of our day know better too. They know how to get things done.
When St. Paul talked of the wise, he was talking about those who were in authority. They were the ones who kept society running. They were the governors, the priests, the military and the merchants. They were the ones who know how to make sure society didn’t fall apart. They were also deeply invested in the system. They were wise in the ways of the world and society. They know not only how to keep it running, they know how to profit from it … either financially or authoritatively or both. If you needed something from society, they were the ones who could help you … if they wanted to. If you wanted to prosper, they were the ones you wanted as allies.
And like in Paul’s time, we have our wise ones too. They are the leaders who keep our society humming along: our politicians, our clergy, our military, and our business people. And today we can add the mass media that not only keeps us informed, but also reflects our society in words and images and attempts to shape our actions and beliefs. These are the wise ones of today. They keep our American society humming along through thick and thin. They uphold the values we cherish so much: happiness, wealth and patriotism.
Even when things aren’t going so well, somehow the structures of which the wise know so well and help keep intact will pull us out of the bust times for another boom time. But the wisdom of Paul’s age and our age is based on the belief that the world is a harsh and dangerous place. Moments of love and beauty occur. But by and large the world is a battle ground. There is the constant struggle for survival. And even when we are reasonably secure from want and war, want and war are just around the corner and can hit us any day. We must construct our defenses against all of this.
We know that today. We struggle for jobs, for health care, for security against terrorists and assassins. We struggle with our relationships as they are pulled apart by all of these and the free wheeling social world we live in.
But the wise people of today know, that by and large we Americans are the best: the most creative, the most prosperous, and the most free. The rest is just the way life is. There is no better alternative … so wisdom says. We don’t need an alternative … particularly one that is likely to unravel our security and prosperity.
Yet Jesus teaches us a foolish alternative full of foolish actions and values such as forgiveness, love, and compassion. He taught us to love our neighbor … and our neighbor was every human being whether good or bad, friend or foe. He taught us to speak truth to power with love: to speak out when something is wrong, but to do it with love and respect. He taught us to condemn wrong action, but always love the perpetrator. And he taught us to forgive … and forgive again and again. He also taught us to take responsibility for what we do and say. He taught us that we are not always right. We can be wrong too.
But probably the most foolish and dangerous idea that he teaches is his commandment condemning violence in any of its forms for any reason whatsoever. He taught people to turn the other cheek … not to give up, but to stand for what is right without resorting to violence. He ordered Peter to put away his sword in Gethsemane when Peter wanted to defend Jesus. And by ordering Peter to put away his sword, Jesus disarmed every Christian everywhere and for all time. And by the way no where in the NT, even in Revelation, do Christians ever resort to violence.
This is what the Messiah brought: the challenge for us to have faith in God so deep and so committed that we will stand up for God and righteousness despite the ridicule and the danger – despite what the wise demand.
Yet to this day, we not only live in a world of violence, many people proclaim that it is necessary and some even rejoice in it. We had a taste of this a earlier this month when Mr. Loughner attacked Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the people attending her event. As you probably know, he killed 6 people and wounded 14 others. Since that event, we have learned that Mr. Laughner is struggling with a lot of psychological demons. It’s difficult to understand from his own talking and writing what triggered him to commit this terrible crime.
But almost immediately after the event occurred many people thought he had been pushed over the edge by all of the hate talk that occurs in the media. Now that we understand that he is a very confused man, most people don’t believe that the media had much to do with his shooting spree. And I think no one believes any of these commentators intended for anyone to be actually harmed.
But we have to ask why did people jump at that explanation? Well, as I have mentioned before the discussion of issues in the media is almost entirely consumed by commentators who trade in character assassination and questionable “facts” in order to play on folk’s fears and angers. The media discussion is far from civil and far from responsible.
Quite frankly it was easy to jump to the conclusion that Mr. Loughner was egged on by all of the toxic words in the media. People are feeling the power of the words used in the media.
Remember the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? Well, that’s a falsehood. Words can hurt you and often do. Words can be as violent as a machine gun. Words have been used to destroy reputations and to drive people to suicide.
Jesus understood how powerful words are. Indeed, in the Book of Revelation, Jesus is portrayed with a two-edged sword coming out of his mouth: this is an image of the power of words to lay low the forces of violence and to raise up the forces of love. Words are powerful.
In our land of free speech, we talk a lot. There are words everywhere and their ubiquity in many ways has cheapen words … they are just too common. So we forget the power of words. We forget how terrible they can be. We forget that calling someone a “liar” or “an idiot” can go deep to their souls and wrought damage.
Free speech is a right that we have. But like any right, it requires responsible exercise. A right is not a license to do anything we want. It is an opportunity to work together for a better life for all of us. Speech can bring about great good and terrible harm. In particular public speakers … and that’s about all of us … have a responsibility to express their opinions in a civil manner. They have every right to express their opinions, but they do not have a right to incite with them.
Just as torture and concentration camps can dehumanize a person, so can words. Bullies do that. Their words are design to be “put downs” and take away a person’s dignity and personhood. Once a person is dehumanized it is much easier to destroy them … after all they are no longer human, but just mere objects.
Jesus came to proclaim an alternative why to live that would put an end to all of this violence, be it verbal or physical. Jesus requires us to be vulnerable without any defense except our faith and God’s love.
There are straight forward ways to do what Jesus asks us to do when we engage in dialogue. For example, it was shameful for someone in the NJEA to voice a prayer for our governor to die. That was wrong. It was toxic. And it was an abuse of God’s gift of free will. A better prayer would have been one that asks God to help both sides to come to the table and listen … listen first, then judge the ideas, but not the people.
We as Christians are witnesses to Jesus’ foolish way of living. We need to set the example. And we can set the example:
When we engage in conversation and dialog, we can do so civilly, listening and expressing our opinions in polite and graceful terms … and never criticize a person’s character.
We can refuse to listen to hate talk, character assassinations, and bullies. We can insist that such language is reprehensible and if used, we will walk away … no matter how good an idea someone may be promoting. Let them describe their good idea civilly.
We can be honorable citizens accepting the responsibility of being one person among many and recognize our dependency on each other. After all we are all in this together.
If your representative to some branch of government is prone to uncivil speech, call him or her on it … send them an e-mail stating that it is unacceptable public speech. After all your representative works for you.
Jesus calls us to live foolishly. And what he asks is often very simple to understand: put away your sword; turn the other cheek; love your enemies; forgive … and forgive over and over. But it is so hard to follow. We are left vulnerable to danger, to resentment and anger, to ridicule, and to isolation. That’s why it is so foolish to do what Jesus calls us to do.
But we live in a small world with many people. We are a global people now whether we like or not. We can’t afford to be wise anymore. 2000 years ago Jesus showed us a foolish way to live. For the sake of the world, we Christians need to witness to the foolish Christ.
Just maybe we can help God save this world.
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …