The Power of Vulnerability
The lessons for this day can be found at this link.
(Note: There is no audio available for this sermon.)
Text: Romans 12:14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”
We are in a moment of struggle and strife on virtually every side these days. It hasn’t exactly been a slow-news summer. I won’t recite the headlines for you; I’m sure you’ve all seen the same news I have. From West Africa to Ukraine, from Iraq to Israel, this has been a summer filled with news that just seems to go from bad to worse.
The beauty of the lectionary is that it brings around to us every three years the same set of texts from the scriptures for us to consider again. Each time we meet up with them we read them a little differently, because our situation is different; our place is different; our needs our different; even our faith, at least if it is growing, is different.
It is hard to read these lessons today and not find in them a fairly direct statement to our condition. We are very much feeling under siege. Twenty years ago, when I first started studying and writing about terrorism, it was easy to see the terrible incidents that got our attention every once in awhile as anomalies. We could understand the motives of the people who committed those acts, and we could study how they had come to have the views they had; but we still regarded them as exceptional, as acting in ways that were so far out of the ordinary that they could be seen as people who were simply ill in some way.
Today what once seemed a matter of psychosis appears to be something very different. It is widespread; it is by no means a matter of isolated individuals. What’s more, it is attracting people who have grown up in our culture, who have been shaped by our values, to leave their homes in order to join them. Young men and young women have traveled from this country, from the UK, from much of Western Europe, to join warring movements in the Middle East.
We are fairly well disciplined not to think of ourselves as persecuted. We think of ourselves as the persecutors. We know that there is a long list of sins we have committed, not just individual but social. We know that we are still beset by the original sin of racism in our country. We know that even though we have worked hard for what we have, our prosperity has been based on a playing field that hasn’t always been level, and that often gave us big advantages.
And this isn’t just about us; we know that throughout human history, there is a long and often violent story about resentment between people and communities, resentment that becomes justified by stereotypes and often bears the fruit of violence. Contemporary theologians like Réné Girard describe this kind of essential human conflict as something he calls “memetic desire”—we get into fights when we want something the other person has. We have a different language for that; we call it original sin.
What seems to be playing out now is something very different. It’s not just simple resentment. It’s something much deeper. It is a movement of people who are opposed to what we regard as some of the fundamental truths of our culture, of our way of life. The plain evidence of this summer is that if given the opportunity, they will without hesitation or apology persecute those who call themselves Christians, and virtually everyone else who sees the world differently.
When Saint Paul talks to a group of people in ancient Rome about how to live out their Christian faith in the midst of a culture that regards them as criminal, crazy, or worse, he is basically advising them as to how to deal with just this kind of persecution.
The advice he gives may seem hard to believe, and it is certainly hard to practice. Our first reflex when we find ourselves misunderstood, or categorized, or just plain hated for who we are is not to bless the people doing it to us; it is first to defend ourselves and our beliefs, and pretty much immediately stand in judgment of them, pointing out why their views of us are not just wrong but evidence of their own defects. Not surprisingly, this becomes a kind of endless cycle.
That’s exactly what Paul is speaking to. It’s also, I think, what Jesus is speaking to in his sometimes confusing exchange with Peter. Jesus is talking with his disciples about how he will be persecuted; Peter has the same reflex we all do, to defend his friend and prevent that from happening. But Jesus isn’t taking the bait.
Both Paul and Jesus are onto something. They are both talking about making yourself willingly vulnerable to the people who don’t understand you, misunderstand you, or just plain hate you.
This is hard advice for us to hear. Our standard reflex in response to persecution looks nothing like this advice. This past week our own leaders have tried to outdo each other with the severity of their suggestions for how to deal with the people who are persecuting Christians now. And it is very hard to imagine simply letting a murderous movement become a murderous regime.
But Paul’s advice, and Jesus’s example, stand right here in front of us, and confront us with this basic reality; nothing about the response that comes most naturally to us is likely to change the fundamental set of circumstances that leads to misunderstanding and persecution.
The only thing with the power to do that, with the power to disprove, and change, the hatred of a persecutor, is vulnerability. That is the fundamental truth that links together the example of Jesus, the advice of Saint Paul, the power of non-violent resistance in India or South Africa, and the history of the civil rights movement in this country.
Here are words of Gandhi’s that sound to me like a song in the same key as the words of Saint Paul: “It is easy enough to be friendly with one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business.”
That is exactly the power of vulnerability to change the human condition. It is the only thing that has such power. Hard though it may be, crazy though it may be, to be guided by that principle, it is the most necessary and the most Christian response we can offer. Amen.