I am offended these days, quite often. I get myself worked up about neo-Nazis and Q-Anon and my immediate reaction is to just scream “Shut Up”! And it does certainly feel better, I get a little shot of dopamine, especially when I post something on-line and get a few ‘likes’. The problem is, it does nothing to move us forward. And in fact, if a neo- Nazi or Q-Anon disciple sees my post, they scream “Shut Up” back at me, and now the venom I have thrown is thrown back at me, and I get angry again and throw more venom. I get bitten by my own stuff; the toxicity I try to throw at my opponent is poisoning me. My opponent and I are simply further entrenched in our silos, throwing poison at each other in a vicious cycle of violence. Might there be a different way? I believe there is such a way, and there are clues in our texts this evening.
Our Hebrew Text is the story of the Bronze serpent in the Book of Numbers and it may be a starting place for that different way. As the people of Israel come upon fiery serpents in the wilderness, many are wounded and die. The ancient rabbis connected this story with a force known as the "yetzer ha-ra." The rabbis would say that God implanted into every human being yetzer ha-ra, a drive that combines features of ambition, greed and sexual desire. These drives are not "evil" absolutely, but only when they are allowed to move beyond their legitimate domain. For example, we need a sexual drive to share intimacy and love with our life partners, and biologically, to procreate. And ambition and greed are not necessarily bad in and of themselves; wanting to have a job with more responsibility, or to make a little more money are not bad desires. But they become fiery serpents when twisted into unrestricted covetousness, when we lose our way and become focused on sex for sex’s sake, ambition for ambition’s sake and/or greed for greed’s sake. God instructs Moses to construct a Bronze Serpent, so that whenever one of the people is bitten by a fiery serpent, bitten by their own yetzer ha-ra they can look upon the bronze serpent, and see a kind of mirror of themselves, and in doing so they’ll live, they’ll find a new way of being, with their yetzer ha-ras in their rightful domain.
And it is this looking in the mirror that I think is a vital first step in work to engage with the people with whom we disagree. I want us to use the idea of a yetzer ha-ra as a way of reflecting upon our own thinking and behaviour when we encounter a view with which we disagree. That is, the emotions I am feeling are mine, they come from within, and so it is within I must turn first. I have an image of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings stories in my mind. He was a hobbit, who saw a shiny, golden ring. A good thing perhaps, and something within him, perhaps like a yetzer-ha-ra takes him over, transforming him psychically and physically. “Precious.”
I think that being offended by racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia and antisemitism is a good thing, most especially when any of those lead to violence. That offence is coming from within me, it is a kind of yetzer ha-ra. And I do feel better by expressing how offended I am, especially when people agree with me. The challenge is, does my reaction to say, homophobia, enable my own Gollum? Does my offence become ‘precious.’ Am I turning to violence in my thinking and reacting? Am I spending too much time swimming in my feelings of offence, so that they drive too much of my behaviour? I think the answer is yes.
And imagine now that my opponent is experiencing the same internal drive. They and I are now two Gollums, just screaming ‘precious’ at each other.
So, I recognize that I can become Gollum-like in the face of some right wing statements and behaviours. That is my ‘reaction.’ But what if rather than releasing my Gollum, my better angel, my deeper self, my tenuous and sometimes strained connection to The Christ, was able to ‘respond?’ What if I used say, the Confederate Flag, or even the swastika flag as a Bronze Serpent? What if I asked myself, what do these flags specifically represent that angers me? So, specifically, my list would include, exclusion and enslaving other people, believing that one person is more human than another. And here is the difficult part, for me anyway; I then ask myself, where in my life am I excluding and enslaving other people? Where in my life am I believing one person is more human than another?
And, before I go off thinking I am so wonderful and would never do that, what about the times I tried to emotionally tie a lover to me, being so hurt when they left? Was that a kind of enslavement of them? What about when I think that people who believe the Q-Anon nonsense are just ‘stupid’? Does that not dehumanize them?
A recent (March/April 2019) study on feedback published in the Harvard Business Review found that more than half of what we consider ‘feedback’ to other people is in fact about ourselves. I think that is important for me to keep in mind when I sense my Gollum is rearing his head. Perhaps I am angry, at least in part because I am aware of my own tendencies to see myself as different, if not better than, some of the people with whom I disagree. I need to view my own thinking and behaviours, perhaps as transgressions, with humility.
So then, after I have done some work exploring my own thinking and behaviour I need to be able to find the Grace of God. In Ephesians we learn God’s Grace is there, we do not need to do anything for it, it is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:5). I don’t know about you but I know I need to remind myself of this gift, a lot. Some days are better than others in my being able to receive this gift. God loves you, God loves me, God loves our Gollums. I need to keep reminding myself, God loves you, God loves me, God loves our Gollums.
And now I might be able to move into the next stage in this alternative way. I’ve done some reflection about myself, I know (most days) that we are all loved by God. What might dialogue with someone with extreme right-wing views and behaviours start to look like? And so how might we enter into dialogue, even debate? Shift from our venomous Gollums to two human beings debating in search of truth.
The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers a very interesting view about how Judaism, (at its best) views debate. And he offers a story, also from the Book of Numbers, a few chapters before the Bronze Serpent story. In this other story Moses faces rebellion from populist leaders of the people. (Numbers 16:1-3) Moses ‘reacts’ and says, in effect, ‘if I am not right in this, these populist leaders will die natural deaths, but, if I am right, the “ground opens its mouth and swallows them up… and they go down alive into Sheol…” (Numbers 16:28-30). Like me too often when I get offended, Moses’ Gollum appears and violently reacts. And guess what, the ground does swallow his opponents up. Moses wins the argument, hooray! But, almost immediately the people rebel again (Numbers 17:6).
Now here is where Sacks’ discussion gets really interesting. He explains that the rabbinic framing of this terrible scene is not to say that the populist rebels were wrong and Moses was right, but that the intention behind the debate was itself dangerous. The argument between Moses and the rebels was “not for the sake of heaven” to use the rabbinic language. Disagreement itself could be a unifying force. Disagreement is a divisive force when it is for the sake of ‘victory’ and it is a unifying force when it is for the sake of truth, in effect, for the sake of Heaven.
Rabbi Sacks writes, “in argument for the sake of truth, if you win you win, but if you lose you also win, because being defeated by the truth is the only defeat that is also a victory. We are enlarged thereby. …Moses won the argument against [the populist rebels] but only at the cost of invoking a miracle in which the earth opened up and swallowed his opponents ….this did not end the argument. In this kind of confrontation [for the sake of victory], there is no benign outcome. … There is such a thing as truth, and collaborative argument in pursuit of it [is possible].”
And so, rather than yelling on-line or in person at each other, there is an alternative way. It is the collective pursuit of truth, as difficult and seemingly impossible as that journey may at first appear. Once I and the person with whom I disagree have humbly seen our own yetzer ha-ras, and viewed our transgressions. Once we have faced our own poisonous snakes. Once my opponent and I know that we are all loved by God, and set aside our venomous Gollums, then we might pursue the truth, as elusive as it may be, together. And to connect our Gospel this evening, “those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”(John 3:21)
Let us seek truth together so that all of us might see the light, for the sake of Heaven and Earth.
And that is a journey upon which I am willing, with God’s help, to embark. I wonder if you are too?