September 10th 2017
Romans 12:9-19a, 21 Luke 6:31-35a
News coverage filmed last month in Charlottesville, VA literally nauseated the naive (myself included) as we witnessed (possibly for the first time) black-shrouded “defenders of the left” standing with make-shift weapons toe-to-toe, opposite Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazi White Supremacist, in Maryweather vs. McGregor-like pre-fight publicity stances. What was shocking was, it was all-too-apparent this was not staged to boost pay-per-view sales; this was the real thing. This was anarchy about to explode before our very eyes! To be sure, it was not the first time we’ve witnessed two conflicting sides in our country come to violence, but it continues to shock those who desire a peaceable solution.
The vast majority of our citizenship understands there is no equivocation when it comes to the ideology of the white supremacist in our midst; and most are equally clear, there can be no compromise, justification or rationalization when we are toe-to-toe with the ideology of those who have adopted the label “antifa” (or anti-facists). Nearly all of us had moms or dads, or someone who taught us that “two wrongs don’t make a right,” and despite the crime-fighting heroic images our culture loves to embrace, like “Dirty” Harry Callahan and a whole genre of vigilante movies, some of us still cling to that lesson… we just need some support from the scriptures to counter the human need for good to conquer evil, rather than overcome it.
The Rev. Dr. Amy Lindeman Allen, Co-Lead Pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno, NV writes about this morning’s scripture, that, “Although Roman Christians would later face fierce persecution at the hands of the Emperor Nero, Paul’s letter to the Romans was written before this fate. As a result, the evil he is addressing is not of an outside force seeking to defeat the Christians but, rather, of the subtler, though perhaps just as dangerous, pressure of their own neighbors, family, and friends. The suffering … Paul addresses is a suffering caused by the experience of Roman Christians finding themselves on the ‘outside’ of their social circles due to their new religious beliefs that forbid the worship of idols.” 
Although Rev. Allen’s observation is correct, I suspect that through his long history of confrontation and conflict, Paul intended his words to be interpreted both with the specificity of the Roman situation, as well as the more encompassing scope of what Christians encounter every day in our secular existence… which is why we continue to rely on them to guide and inform our lives, so many centuries after he wrote them. While white supremacist in our country will never be our ideological brethren we cannot ignore, their existence, the evil message they spread in our society, nor that by definition they are our neighbors. But Jesus has always called into question that definition of who we consider our ‘neighbor’ to be, and therefore Paul’s words should be used to guide our response to even broader conflicts.
One of my children, when he was a teenager, made the dramatic remark that his generation lived with the constant fear of nuclear annihilation. At the time, I remember being really shocked by his assertion, mostly because the Cold War generation, at its height, was my generation – commonly described as beginning in 1947 and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, just about the time he could call himself a teenager. If any generation had cause to fear a nuclear holocaust it was the generation which lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis – my generation. That was true, until the events of the past few weeks, when the leaders of the United States, President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Supreme Commander, Kim Jong-un, stood toe-to-toe, threatening each other with annihilation if the other does not back down.
Despite the undeniable seriousness of this most recent confrontation, the fact remains we have never had a shortage of conflict and confrontation to legitimize our anxiety over what the future holds. And yet we stubbornly insist on ignoring the historical reality, that angrily threatening harm to the other, while remotely possible, is not likely to cause him to retreat.
I am fairly certain that I have no ancestral roots in the “show me” state of Missouri, so I’m not sure where my inquisitiveness (or more accurately skepticism bordering on cynicism) originates, but it has taken me to some interesting places. About a decade ago, long before NBA “bad boy” Dennis Rodman began visiting North Korea, I recalled hearing a story about a guy who owns a BBQ joint in Hackensack, New Jersey, who had an unusual ‘relationship’ with North Korean diplomats in NYC. I think my affinity for ribs comes more from Tennessee than Missouri but I wanted to understand more about this odd relationship, and what better excuse than BBQ ribs? I paid a visit to Cubby’s BBQ, in a not-so-attractive industrial section of River Street in Hackensack, and talked with the owner Bobby Egan while I was waiting for my order. He told me that he had no particular motive or reason for striking up a friendship with the leader of the North Korean diplomatic mission, but it came about through his long involvement in the efforts to return Vietnam War POW/MIAs, in the years prior to the US and Vietnam normalizing relations. He told me, “these guys” (the North Korean diplomats) are no different than you and me – they’re just here doing their job; it just so happens they work for a country we are technically still at war with.” He said Ambassador Han’s daughter (the mission’s top diplomat in the U.S.) was the same age as his own daughter, he said they liked his BBQ, they enjoyed deep-sea fishing, and they just became friends on a personal level. (It’s considerably more complicated than he indicated in our conversation). In the years that followed, his story, of how he acted as an unsolicited, unofficial diplomatic go-between gained momentum, and in 2011 HBO cast James Gandolfini (aka Tony Soprano) as Egan, in a movie version of his memoir “Eating with the Enemy”; Gandolfini died in 2013 and the project was never completed.
Egan’s involvement with the embassy diplomats of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea began during Bill Clinton’s administration and ended under George W. Bush’s, shortly after the North’s announcement of the first successful test of a nuclear weapon, (a test Egan supported). His story, at least the parts he (and the FBI) is willing to reveal, is as accessible as the menu on Cubby’s website, or by ordering his book through Amazon. But Egan’s theory was, standing toe-to-toe, and demonstrating the capacity to cause catastrophic damage to humanity, and in return, threatening to rain down “fire and fury like the world has never before seen,” does not have a pray of a chance to de-escalate an already incredibly tense situation.
Wouldn’t harmony be easier to achieve if conflict only existed on the global or national political scale? But of course that is naïve; conflict and controversy exists, in every level of our lives, and in fact it comes home to roost most often in our own personal relationships. I admit I have been in those situations, (and I’m fairly confident most of you have also), when I’ve allowed emotion and the heat of the moment to spiral out of control and dominate the conversation – if not literally toe-to-toe, then figuratively. It is precisely at these critical moments, when we make statements and threats and draw lines in the sand, that we would be much better served allowing cooler heads to dominate the conversation. Hate speech isn’t restricted to political discourse, nor rhetoric to the international scene; instead of seeking ways to defuse an explosive personal crisis, we strategically use words to inflict pain and push those we are in conflict with to commit the first transgression, which will justify our response.
I’ve never been a very big fan of the technique of “role-playing” to solve problems, but I think in this one area it could be very valuable. If we could only learn at a young age, how to engage in conflict without resorting to destructive behaviors, it could literally change the world… but maybe expecting that is also naïve.
Paul’s prescription for confronting conflict, and those with whom you disagree, has no room for rhetoric or threats – no place for or ninja-like tactics. He doesn’t advocate doing nothing or ignoring a bad situation; do not tolerate wickedness (he says) but hold tightly to what is good. If we oppose those who are doing wrong, with equally wrong tactics, (no matter how benignly disguised), it will only serve to escalate the situation, like pouring gasoline on a fire. Paul suggests instead, that we allow God’s Spirit to guide how we treat each other, with respect and honor; acting like you are the one with all the right answers, and the one you’re in disagreement with is a blithering idiot, is not going to improve the situation. Understanding that the person you’re standing toe-to-toe with is really not that different from you, but you just see things from a different perspective, makes reaching common ground possible. But Paul is pragmatic, he also tells us that through love, we aren’t going to change the world over-night, but love is the only way it will ever truly be changed.
Jesus’ prescription is a bit more simplistic: treat everyone the way you would like to be treated, and do it without motive, without expecting anything in return, simply because it’s the right thing to do.
“Love your enemies” – now that’s not quite as simple, but something to work on… maybe over a rack of ribs and a side of potato salad and coleslaw – can’t hurt.
— Amen ―