Treating Terrorists – March 26, 2017
Let us pray.
O God before whose face
we are not made righteous
even by being right:
free us from the need
to justify ourselves
by our own anxious striving,
that we may be abandoned
to faith in you alone,
through Jesus Christ. Amen.
In April 2011, the conservative commentator Glenn Beck was at the height of his outrageousness and on the verge of being fired when the Rev. Dr. William Willimon made Beck the focus of his Sunday sermon. Willimon, who was then working as a bishop of the United Methodist Church and now serves as a professor at Duke Divinity School, is a well-regarded religious leader and is also an author whom we are currently reading in the Race and Social Justice Book Discussion group. On this particular Sunday, Willimon was the guest preacher at a large Episcopal church attended mostly by socially progressive elites. “I can’t stand Glenn Beck,” Willimon declared in his sermon, before launching into a cheeky tirade about Beck’s most egregious offenses. The response he received was rapturous, with the normally staid congregation spontaneously erupting into enthusiastic laughter and applause.
But what the congregation didn’t entirely seem to understand was that the joke was mostly on them. By going after what he knew to be easy prey, Willimon was showing them just how effortless it is for even the most well-meaning of people to shun and ridicule others because of their lack of adherence to respectable orthodoxy. Willimon wasn’t agreeing with Beck; he made clear that he personally didn’t like Beck and that he thought many of Beck’s antics were offensive and wrong. Rather, Willimon was revealing the danger that can arise when we let our commitment to goodness and morality be overtaken by our drive for order, superiority and control.
After all, I don’t think that many people set out to be Pharisees. At their root, most Pharisees aren’t trying to be a pain; they simply want what is best for society. They point to the holiness of the Sabbath because they believe that a society that respects the Sabbath is a better one. They criticize rogue actors from outside the established religious tradition because they believe in the integrity of that tradition and don’t want unsuspecting others to be fooled by a fraud. The Pharisees aren’t trying to be petty or nasty; they’re just standing up for what they think is the truth.
At least in the way that Jesus presents it, the Pharisees falter not in what they believe to be true or right but in their certainty that they alone know what is true or right. “If you were blind,” Jesus tells them, “you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘we see,’ your sin remains.” Jesus seems less concerned that the Pharisees get it wrong than that they attempt to impose their ideas about rightness and truth on others. Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees is that they fail to recognize the inadequacy of their own perspective and, in insisting on filtering what they observe solely through their own convictions and experiences, they prove themselves unable of stepping outside of their own shoes and seeing the world from other points of view.
Both the Pharisees and the blind man do admit that there are things about Jesus that are beyond their knowledge or understanding. But for the Pharisees, this strangeness is something to be alarmed about, further evidence that Jesus is a sinner. “We know that God has spoken to Moses,” they say, “but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The fact that Jesus is unknown does not make them question their ability to evaluate his behavior. Instead, it bolsters their suspicion that he must be dangerous and problematic. The blind man, in contrast, embraces the ambiguity of Jesus, pointing to the good that Jesus has already done even though his underlying nature is still unclear. “You do not know where has he come from,” the blind man tells the Pharisees, “and yet he opened my eyes.” When the Pharisees declare, “we know that this man is a sinner,” the blind man responds: “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” The blind man is willing to admit his uncertainty and welcome what is strange even as he refrains from making definitive determinations one way or the other; the Pharisees work to eradicate uncertainty, to cast out what is strange, to shut it all down.
These days there aren’t many controversies about blind men getting healed on the Sabbath, but there is a lot of uncertainty in the air and strangeness in the water, and most of us don’t seem terribly inclined to think of either uncertainty or strangeness as good. “We know that this person is a sinner,” we shout at anyone that’s new or scary, desperate to rid ourselves of any hints of hesitancy or fear. Rarely do we consider that the strangeness of others might be a gift or that the uncertainty they bring about within ourselves might lead us to the truth. Perhaps the greatest danger in dismissing others is that we can so quickly become the evil we deplore. All too often, our attempt to defeat sin brings out the sin in us, and our battle to get everyone to see what we see turns us blind. We find Pharisees everywhere we look, but seldom do we notice the Pharisee inside.
The day after this week’s attack in London, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, spoke in the House of Lords, a legislative component of the British government. He told the assembled, still numb in shock from the unexpected events of the day before, that he wanted to offer them three pictures. The first, he said, was “of a vehicle being driven across Westminster Bridge by someone who had a perverted, nihilistic, despairing view of objectives of what life is about, of what society is about, that could only be fulfilled by death and destruction.” The second, he said, was “of that same person a few minutes later, on a stretcher or on the ground, being treated by the very people he had sought to kill.” The third, he added, was “of these two Houses [of Parliament], where profound disagreement, bitter disagreement, angry disagreement is dealt with not with violence, not with despair, not with cruelty, but with discussion, with reason and with calmness…Those three pictures [he continued] point us to deep values within our own society” that come from a narrative that has been “within our society for almost 2000 years,” a narrative that “speaks of a God who stands with the suffering, and brings justice, and whose resurrection has given to believer and unbeliever the sense that where we do what is right, where we behave properly; where that generosity and extraordinary sense of duty that leads people to treat a terrorist is shown…that there is a victory for what is right and good; over what is evil, despairing and bad. That was shown yesterday [he said]. That is shown not just in our expression of values, but in our practices which define those values. And that is the mood that we must show in the future.”
Welby didn’t defend the terrorist. He didn’t tell the House of Lords not to stand up for themselves or to mindlessly accept the awful things that can be done to them by others. But he did urge them to show care, compassion and respect even to those they disagreed with and even to those who attempted to do them real, physical harm.
So what about us? Do not our Christian faith and our human values commend us to love our enemies, to treat terrorists? Do they not challenge us to proclaim goodness not only in how we express our values but also in how we practice them? And if they call us to love the most difficult, those who go as far as to threaten our lives, do they not also call us to love those we merely disagree with, to check our pride and look our fellow Pharisees in the eye and say, “I know we see things differently. I know we have profound disagreements. But, for once, let’s put aside the venom that gets between us. Let’s approach each other with discussion, with reason and with calmness. Let’s consider the possibility that each one of us might be wrong. Let’s sit down and have a conversation.”