Dueling, Pax, and the Election Process
A Sermon for Pentecost 26, Proper 28C
Most of us are pretty conflict avoidant. Over generations of evolution, we have learned that you last longer if you keep your head down and don't make too many waves. Avoid stirring up trouble and trouble won't find you. In our house, the Hamilton musical soundtrack has become a constant companion. At their first meeting, the Aaron Burr character sings to the exuberant Alexander Hamilton, "talk less, smile more, don't let them know what you're against or what you're for. You wanna get ahead? Fools who run their mouths off end up dead." Hamilton, of course, has a different method for getting ahead. He cannot stop talking or writing or pressing his case to fight for the vision of America that he can see so clearly in his Federalist imagination. Hamilton was not conflict avoidant and he gets ahead, all the way to be George Washington's right hand man, and then Secretary of the Treasury. Eventually though, Hamilton uses his big mouth and his pointed quill to poison the House of Representatives against Burr in the presidential election of 1800. Thomas Jefferson is elected president and Burr cannot smile anymore through this insult . . . Aaron Burr shoots Hamilton in a duel, early one morning in Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton is mortally wounded and dies the next day. It's a good thing we've outlawed duels to settle political character insults these days, don't you think? Who would be left standing? Looking at the election season of 2016, the tension and division and fighting between political candidates continues to be part of our American story, along with the constitution, we may have inherited it from our founding fathers.
Political conflict is, of course, deeper than our American story. It is even the setting of our Gospel story. God chooses to become human and born into the world at a time when political strife cost people their lives and the raw power of Pax Romana left all its opponents impoverished, orphaned, widowed, or dead in its wake. Even though Rome ruled every street corner, the Jewish community still had one symbol of their power and the power of their God, The Temple Mount in Jerusalem. So, it is no wonder that Jesus' disciples are impressed by the jewels and gifts that adorn the massive structure. Certainly, this is the evidence that their God is more powerful than the Roman powers. Certainly, they can feel safe protected by the massive stones that are used to build God's house.
Jesus challenges them, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."
The disciples are panicked. How does their Rabbi know this? Who could imagine that this massive temple could be demolished? They begin to ask, "When will this happen? How will we know what to do?"
Then Jesus begins to explain to them, in apocalyptic language, the future that awaits them. This is my paraphrase, "Don't be led astray. Many people will come when you are afraid and say that they will save you. They will tell you that the end is near so that you will forget your faith and follow them instead. The will be wars and violence, but these things do not signify the end."
"Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven."
When we hear Jesus use this kind of language in 2016, and we are filled with fear, and the rising social conflict is all around us, we might be tempted to connect the dots and say, "I think Jesus is talking about our time! There is war in the Middle East, there is violence in our cities, there are earthquakes in Haiti and famines caused by global warming and Zika virus is knocking on our door." We might even be tempted to place this year's election in the context of end—time predictions . . . I think I have read a few social media posts that say as much. But when we do this, we are missing the point of Jesus' words.
The truth is, that any era, 1st century Palestine, 1800s in North America, or 2016 in Frederick County can describe itself in the crosshairs of conflict. It is a signature part of our human condition — wherever two or three are gathered, conflict will be in the midst of them . . . and Jesus, Jesus will be there, too.
You see, the bare—knuckle conflict revealed throughout this election cycle has forced us to recognize that the Pax Americana myth has been a nice façade, drawn across our country to hide a lot hurting people. A large number of our American brothers and sisters have been feeling anger, fear, disenfranchisement, and resentment as their lives have been diminished by those in positions of power. Depending on who you ask, progressive or conservative, this group of disempowered people are inner—city African Americans with failing schools, no employment and urban food deserts, or they are rust—belt white working—class people who used to be the back—bone of American industry and now, nothing. Or they are immigrants looking for a better life and finding discrimination against their religion, their language, their culture, their skin color. Or they are the blue—collar families whose income has not kept pace with inflation and now groceries are a luxury. Or they are the 25% of women who will be sexually abused before they turn 18 in our rape permissive culture. Or they are the unemployed who have watched every good job move overseas and their source of income and identity evaporate with trade deals that support other nations. Or they are the LGBTQ community who fear for their lives because someone might murder them for who they love and how God made them.
A lot of people are hurting, everywhere. And when we are in pain and afraid and wondering what to do to save ourselves we look for the enemy who has caused this conflict and we challenge him or her to a duel. Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump dueled mercilessly against one another in their election campaigns. And, the danger for us today, is that we might begin to look at our neighbor and say, "You are the source of my suffering." We might look for a way to remove that person from our lives. Fueled by the vulgar violent language that went into the campaign rhetoric, many people are afraid that their lives are in danger because abuse has been made permissible by partisan campaign chants. We may have outlawed the pistol duels of the 1800s, but we are still skilled at taking aim at our social enemy and seeking to annihilate them in order to end the conflict and save ourselves.
Where is the Good News in what has felt like the apocalypse of our era?
Here is what Jesus says, "This will give you an opportunity to be martyrs. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict."
I know, I changed one word in there from the text in your bulletin. The Greek word for testify or witness is martyr. I think it holds more meaning for us in this context. Jesus' counsels us not to assemble our briefcase full of evidence and closing arguments so we can go into battle and win. He says, I will give you the words you need to say, so you have the opportunity to witness to your faith, be martyrs, no one will be able to withstand or contradict you. I think that the duel Jesus is imagining removes all the weapons, all the ammunition, all the ways that we might take aim at each other and instead turns the duel in to a conversation. Jesus' signature response after all the conflict that this world can dish out on the cross is not more conflict, but the simple words, "Peace be with you." These are the Gospel words that we carry into battle and suddenly every duel becomes a dialogue, enemies become relationships, and we cannot withstand or contradict one another.
Right after the election, I looked at the voting results for the state of Maryland broken out by county. Frederick County voted 45% Clinton, 49% Trump. The curtain of our conflict has been pulled back and we can see that our opinions and world views are going to differ from our neighbors, here at All Saints', in our neighborhoods, at schools, the grocery store, the library, wherever we go. If we allow ourselves to believe that the source of our suffering lies in those who voted differently than ourselves, we will all walk 10 paces, ready, aim, fire and pretty much annihilate the entire county. But we also cannot be conflict avoidant, talking less and smiling more, while the suffering continues to degrade all around us. We have to be brave enough to engage in relationship with those that our pain and fear tells us to fight or flight. We are the church, we are called to walk by faith and see a future that does not consist of winners and losers, but rather a wounded and suffering Body of Christ that is made whole when we can each reach across the aisle and heal the wounds of our brother's or sister's suffering. This is how we all get saved and our suffering is ended, not by our own efforts of violently eradicating the source of our suffering, but rather by the healing salvation of Jesus' love and the healing salve of our brothers' and sisters' compassion. Our challenge today is to hold the conflict and the suffering in the midst of our relationships and see what words of witness Jesus invites us to speak. Today, we will start with, "Peace be with you." Practice it at church, carry it out into the world, listen to each other's suffering and bring with you the peace that surpasses all understanding.
—The Rev. Adrien Dawson
Nobmer 13, 2016