“Seeking Justice Without Being a Jerk”
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 26, 2018
University Baptist Church
A colleague once gave me a card that read, “I have a lot of trouble remembering names, can I just call you jerkface?”
One of my other colleagues told me that to call someone a jerk is an act of violence, because it is a judgment on their being. We believe that no one is inherently a jerk—they must be taught to do so. So, we can say some people have jerk-like tendencies.
Some of us have jerk-like tendencies. And we are often just responding to another’s jerk-like actions.
How do we seek justice without being judgmental is the question for this week.I’m not sure we can seek justice without making discerning decisions. The old Union hymn comes to mind,
“Which side are you on, which side are you on?
Which side are you on, which side are you on.”
But there are ways to work for justice without demeaning those with whom you disagree. This is particularly hard when people insult and slander you, repeating a sound byte here or there that lumps you in with all of the other so-called scumbags.
The challenge is to stand for your position, listen to the opposing person and respect them, even if they are respectfully wrong.
I got a kick this past week as the First Lady launched her anti-cyber-bullying campaign, even though she is married to one who engages in cyber-bullying on a daily basis. No irony there.
I’ve told you before of the quote from Frederick Buechner:
Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back--in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you. (originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words)
How do we work for justice without feasting on our enemies or ourselves? That’s the hard work.
I don’t think we can avoid making judgments, but we can avoid being judgmental. Being judgmental is to make a conclusion about a person. Being judgmental is often being insulting. Judgmental is defined as “having or displaying an excessively critical point of view.” Synonyms include: critical, condemnatory, disapproving, disparaging, negative, hypercritical, or pejorative. It’s a good thing none of us are like that.
We need to remember that we are not God, who is the final arbiter of good and evil.
The Apostle Paul paints a picture of sin in the first chapter of Romans. In the second chapter, he calls on us not to judge even the harshest of sinners. He says to let God be the judge. He is telling people to not be the judge and jury. God is the final judge and jury.
Why was Paul saying this? I’m sure Paul had his share of followers. People who hung on his every word. People started following Paul and telling him how great he was. And they were also giving backhanded slight to those who did not believe like them. Aren’t we great? Aren’t we better than them? It’s awful easy to judge someone on your high horse. And once you judge them it makes it easier to categorize them and write them off.
One of the saddest part of the current divide is that we get so polarized that we cannot see the people on the other side as people. We see them as enemies—as challenges.
Have you noticed that when we have disagreements, we can tolerate it, but when we call someone judgmental, it closes things off? It escalates things beyond reconciliation.
I find that I am judgmental of judgmental people, perhaps because they hold up a mirror to me.
We don’t like someone who is judgmental, or as the epithet gets used, is someone who writes you off because of who you are, what labels you have. We take that risk when we say we are a liberal church or hang a rainbow flag or a sign that says immigrants and refugees are welcome. While some will be confused by it, others will be gratified to know where we stand.
The question comes, do we welcome those with whom we disagree? Can we disagree without being disagreeable?
When I was in seminary, we had a lot of people who were committed to social justice. People came from across the country if not across the world to study liberation theology at Union. It was an exciting place, especially hearing from the different marginalized groups. Me, not being a part of a marginalized group, needed to actively listen to my classmates.
But God help the student who did not toe the line of the latest liberationist orthodoxy. Righteous rage emanated from the preachers within the school.
One time, there was a proposal to build a tower in the Union quad. Selling those precious air rights above the buildings could address the long-time financial woes of the community. But it meant evicting some people. It meant getting into an unholy partnership with luxury developers. So there formed a tenants union. There were sit-ins and protests in the President’s office. And people were judged in the community based on how or whether they participated in the protests.
All the while, while we fought with each other in our righteous enclave, the larger world continued in its own sinful ways. And the religious left was so busy fighting with each other that we no longer had time to join the larger struggle.
At the Baptist Peace Fellowship summer conference, one of the late night discussions focused around how do we keep our eyes focused on the right things. I found myself saying that our enemies are counting on our despair. They’re counting on our exhaustion. They’re counting on us to be so tired of the constant lies that we’ll simply give up.
I found myself saying that the subversive thing we can offer is joy and laughter. It’s to see the world as it is, absurd, filled with curses and lies and still say, you do not define me. I will laugh in the face of it because my joy comes from someplace else. You don’t control my reactions. I will choose joy in the face of despair. I will choose to be on God’s journey toward joy and reconciliation.
One of the tenets of nonviolence is to believe that your opponent’s motivations are not an issue. They may very well be sincere, albeit sincerely wrong. Our work is to change hearts and minds. The only way to do that is to respect the one with whom you disagree. It’s that whole love your enemies thing. It means not writing someone off because you disagree.
The reality is that we agree on so much more. Find the mutual self-interest of your opponent and find a way to work together on it.
In the Baptist Peace Fellowship, we have a focus not on conflict resolution, but on conflict transformation. In conflict resolution you have a winner and a loser. But the root of the conflict remains. In conflict transformation work, you hear the stories of why people believe what they believe. You get to tell your story too. And you get to imagine what it might be like to work together beyond your conflict. How might you use your best energy? This is what nonviolence seeks to do as well.
We have heard the news that Senator John McCain has died. My friend and colleague Ken Sehested wrote the following words before Senator McCain’s passing and he said them better than I can:
I have disagreed with Sen. John McCain on a whole range of issues over many years. We see the world in profoundly different ways. (And I say this without the slightest hint of having a fraction of his stature.)
However, he is numbered in a rare breed of politicians of his generation—or mine, or any in my memory—who has displayed more character and integrity, the willingness to be guided, more often than not, by moral principle rather than profit or political expediency.
Which is why he has the reputation of being a political maverick. (And, likely, why he has requested that our current president not attend his funeral.)
The testimony of his life is an instruction, to me, in humility. Namely, there are people as intelligent and/or compassionate and/or convicted as me with whom I differ on important matters.
This does not mean I double-clutch my convictions. It simply means there will always remain a bit of slippage between my vision and God’s.
The implication is that the conclusion of the human drama is not in my hands. The presumption that any are anointed to make history turn out right is the source of all violence, and it is the devil’s own lie.
Long live the mavericks.
Ken is saying that on this side of heaven, we will all try and fail to live up to God’s will. And we all will on some level not measure up. So don’t be so hard on each other. Hold people accountable for their actions, but don’t do the violence of writing them off.
My friends, seeking justice is important. Vitally important. And a part of seeking justice is to recognize that your deepest enemy is a human being. If they are insulting you, don’t stoop to their level. Rise up and be counted as one who is powerful and subversive enough to see their humanity. Always point them in a better direction. As the former first lady said, “when they go low, we go high.”
Make them want to have the serenity, peace and joy that you have. Make it so tantalizing that they cannot help but want it too. That’s the work of the gospel. It’s like a sweet peach fresh off the tree, ripened by the sun and soft in all the right places. It’s enticing and you can just taste the ecstasy of that burst of sweetness dribbling down your chin. We’ve been waiting a long time to taste it. And look there’s enough on the tree for everyone. Be an evangelist for that kind of sweetness and watch your enemies transform.
And if they don’t transform, let them see you transform. Let them be infected by your joy.
If you listened to any of the broadcast of the MN Orchestra and Chorale in South Africa, you could hear the joy across the airwaves. People of different races and nationalities coming together to create beauty and joy and music together. It was a Kairos moment of hope in a world that doggedly pursues another narrative. But I heard a passion for justice and no one being accused of being judgmental. These people were choosing to be reconcilers and ambassadors of peace and community. Thanks be to God.
Let me close with a poem by Rachel Barenblat. She’s also known as the Velveteen Rabbi.
Run after justice
the way an eight-year-old
runs after the ice cream truck
chasing its elusive music
sandals slapping asphalt
until panting, calves burning
you catch it
and taste sweetness.
Run after justice
with the single-minded focus
brings to their phone.
Run after justice
the way the mother
of a colicky newborn
Run after justice
whole-hearted and open, as though
justice were your beloved
who makes your heart race,
whose integrity shines
like the light of the sun,
who makes you want to be
better than you are.