Rearranging the Deck

Matthew 5:13-16
February 5, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Before I begin, I want to share with you a comment that Conner Stephens made to me many years ago. For those who didn’t know Conner, he was a cheerful, positive person and as he greeted me after the service, he always looked for something nice to say about that day’s worship. One day he came through the greeting line, grasped my hand, and said with vigor, “You know, lots of times I have no idea where you are going in a sermon but somehow you always manage to get there.”

This will be one of those sermons. It is going to start out in left field with seemingly little to do with the scripture but stay with me: you may have no idea where I’m going with this but I will try to get you there nonetheless!

I’d like to start off with a hypothetical case study. Imagine that you are trapped on a deserted island with no visible means of escape and it is very likely that it will be months before anyone finds you. You crashed your airplane in the middle of the island and you are surrounded by rocky cliffs that keep you from the shoreline so you cannot depend on the ocean for your food. Fortunately, there is fresh water on the island and the island is also inhabited by flocks of easily captured and nourishing birds so without much effort, you will be able to survive for those long months before rescue if you eat the birds.

Unfortunately, you are marooned on this island because you were coming here to study these birds because you know that this particular species of bird is an endangered species and this island is the only place left in the world where they still live. There are no natural predators on this island and if they are left alone to breed and flourish, you know they have a good chance of recovering as a species but you also know from your studies, that if even just a few of the population are killed, they will go extinct. They are that fragile as a species.

So, here is your choice: will you eat the birds to survive thereby dooming an entire species to extinction or will you choose to die to give the species a chance to live? Is it going to be you or the birds?

This is a pretty tough choice I have given you, but let me make it even tougher. What if I said that you were stranded on this island with some children who will die if you don’t kill some birds for them to eat. Now it’s not your life you would have to sacrifice to save the birds from extinction but the lives of these innocent children, children who were entrusted to you by their parents when they signed their kids up for this once-in-a-lifetime ornithological expedition with you as their guide. You can be a hero and help these children survive until their rescue by hunting the birds or you can let the children slowly starve to death before your eyes choosing to preserve the species instead. Rationally, you know that there are billions of human beings in the world and the human species will be fine without you or those kids whereas dining on the birds will doom them to extinction forever. What do you do? Or to put it in stronger terms, what do you think would be the morally right thing to do?

I have used this admittedly annoying hypothetical scenario with college students as an introduction to discussing ethical issues and I deliberately describe this question as a “moral” problem because while there are some choices we might regard as simply a matter of taste or opinion, there are other choices that we as human beings view as moral choices, choices that say something about a person’s value system. You may think, for example, that a man who chooses to withdraw his money from a bank to put it under his mattress is making a foolish choice but you don’t think of it as immoral. He has every right to be stupid if he wants to; it’s his money. If, however, that same man withdraws his money and everyone else’s money from the bank at gunpoint, and along the way kills twenty people in the process, now we say that he is committing a morally atrocious act. This isn’t just a foolish act but it is an act that violates our trust, shows a lack of concern for others’ welfare, and is contrary to our understanding of what it means to be human beings in community with one another. That’s what morality is. Our decisions about what is right and what is wrong — what is moral and immoral — come from an agreed upon vision of how we should act toward one another and of what has value to us as people in community.

The problem, of course, comes from that phrase “agreed upon” because it appears that we don’t always agree on what has value and what our moral obligations are to one another. When I present that hypothetical scenario to college students of whether to eat an endangered species to save a human life, inevitably they move from discussion about what is the proper moral choice to whether or not a person is immoral if that person makes a different choice from their own. Those who want to protect the birds from extinction will accuse those who choose to eat the birds as selfish and human-centric, accusing them of arrogance for elevating human life above the lives of animals. Those are morally loaded words. Those on the other hand who choose to eat the birds to save the children will call their disagreeing classmates inhuman, and careless of their responsibility to the parents of those children, putting the lives of birds above our moral obligations to one another as human beings. The debate usually stays very civil but that’s because we are in a classroom and not facing off on Twitter or in the streets. You don’t have to look very far these days to find people moving quickly from debate to character assassination because in today’s climate every difference in belief is couched as a choice between morally upright (my choice) and morally depraved (your choice.) We have strong convictions about what is right and what is wrong — and I think we should. Let me say right here and now that I am not in any way going to tell you to give up your convictions. I think we need to be willing to stand up for what we believe, to say it loudly, and to work to bring about the change we feel society needs. What I am going to say however, is that we have to be careful in our fight for those values about the way we view those whose convictions are different from our own. Too often, especially in the heated climate of today, when we are dedicated to particular ethical values, it is hard for us to accept that a person who disregards those values can be a moral person in the same the way that we are. At best, we think, they are deluded or blind; at worst they are selfish, narrow-minded, and intolerant because if they really were a compassionate morally caring person as we are, they’d see the world the way we see it.

We can see that right now in our society because many of us are grappling not only with differences of opinion over policies but also with a fundamental bewilderment about how our opponents — sometimes our own friends, neighbors, and family — can see things so differently. We feel like we are in a great moral struggle with one another over the very definition of what is right and what is wrong, and we are left profoundly puzzled by how people we thought were good people can see the world so differently. Well, that’s what happens when moral values are seen as either-or: if what I believe makes me morally upright then conversely if you disagree with me, you must be morally depraved. There are only two sides to a card — good, bad, right, wrong, human, alien — some creature so different from me that I can’t believe we belong to the same species.

Jesus said that we are supposed to love our enemies, but it is impossible to love them when we dehumanize them. We might pity them or show kindness to them like we might a stray animal we find in our yard but we can’t love them with the love of Christ because that would require that we honor the fullness of their humanity and that we see them as fellow children of God.

In our nation today, there is a lot of dehumanizing going on and a lot of either-or thinking about the choices that we face as a society. I have read innumerable screeds on Facebook about the depravity of the other side, people painting their opponents as ideologues who threaten to undermine the values of our nation, and what’s saddest about these rants is that if you black out all of the references to “left wing” or “right wing”, you can’t tell which side the screed is coming from. If you are on the right, its the left wing that is morally depraved and if you are on the left, it is the right wing that is morally inhuman. That’s what happens when you think about moral values as an either-or proposition: our moral convictions become like a game of cards in which each of us holds a different hand, and we are all just taking turns winning or losing depending on who has the strongest cards that round.

In his sermon on the Mount, however, Jesus describes a different kind of community in which people hunger and thirst for “righteousness” or literally for “right relationships.” The word righteousness in the Bible means “right relationships with one another.” Jesus describes a community in which the humble are those who will take a leadership role in remaking the society because they are not so full of themselves that they have no room for the needs and thoughts of others. They will provide direction because they are likely to listen first and speak second. Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, and blessed are the peacemakers,” commending those who treat even their enemies with respect and who seek peaceful solutions to our differences. When we act in this way, he says, we will be a light to the world.

And I think we can all agree that we could use a little light in our darkness these days.

In order to be that light, in order to be the people that Christ called us to be, I think we have to discard our understanding of moral values as an either/or proposition and see moral values instead as a hierarchy. It’s not that I have this set of values and my opponent has that set of different values as if we hold completely different cards in our hands, but rather that we all hold the same cards but have chosen to rearrange and rank them differently.

To see what I mean, let’s go back for a moment to my deserted island scenario. After the class debates the situation and their choices, I get them to listen to one another closely, hear their concerns and arguments, and the reasons that each would make the choice they do, and eventually what they discover is that everyone agrees that preserving endangered species is morally the right thing to do AND everyone agrees that preserving the lives of the children is morally the right thing to do. What they are debating is not which is morally right and which is morally depraved but the benefits and costs associated with each choice and the subsequent ranking they give to those costs and those benefits depending on the importance they accord to each value. Once the students are able to admit to each other that there are no morally depraved monsters in the room, then they are able to listen more carefully to one another’s ideas, and they even become be more creative in finding solutions that might meet everyone’s needs. Minimally, they are able to mourn together over the cost of the choices they have to make. They are able to be a community together even in the midst of their disagreement and debate.

Our polarized nation needs our light to shine, and the only way that we can be light in this darkness is to be the community Christ describes in his sermon on the Mount: to be humble, merciful, peacemakers. The only way that we can create a community of right relationships is to learn to love our enemies, to insist on seeing them as fellow human beings trying like us to weigh the costs and the benefits of the choices before us. It is no coincidence that Martin Luther King, Jr. insisted on loving his enemy during the fight for civil rights because he knew that in order to change his enemy, he had to assume that his opponent was not an alien morally depraved creature but had a sympathy to the same values King held even if that sympathy was far down on his opponent’s hierarchy of values. King had to tap into that shared human experience and draw out his opponent’s sense of justice, even if concern for justice was buried far below the concern for order and maintaining the status quo. He tapped into his opponent’s compassion for the vulnerable even if that compassion was buried far below his opponent’s fear of change. Even as King refused to relinquish his fight for the rights of African-Americans, he also refused to believe that his opponents were morally depraved and instead found ways of eliciting their shared human compassion: he found ways to disturb their hearts by the sight of the suffering of the vulnerable, and to got them to wonder whether they had miscalculated the costs of holding on to the status quo. King eventually got his opponents to rearrange their hierarchy of values to put a concern for human rights higher than a concern for social order. And he could only do that by letting his opponents know that he would treat them as fellow human beings, showing them mercy, compassion, and peace.

Jesus told us to love our enemies not just because it is the nice thing to do as Christians but because insisting on loving our enemies even in the midst of battle and debate is the only way that we can change the world and make sure that change endures. It is the only way that we will really be able to be light in the darkness.