Texts: Isaiah 45, Matthew 22
Our denomination recognizes Peace Sunday, each year a few weeks before Remembrance Day. For most of us raised in the last century, ‘peace’ was what followed great wars after our fathers won, the absence of armed conflict. Later in the century, we prided ourselves on the blue helmets of United Nations peace-keepers, through Pearson a largely Canadian wrinkle in that status quo.
This century has faced a new wave of armed conflict, the terrorist violence less amenable to conventional warfare or peace-keeping. It’s less a narrative of command-and-control by good guy nations against rogue tyrannies, than of preemptive intervention by ‘special forces’, and ‘homeland security’. Recent posturing by Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump were unfamiliar throwbacks.
We will celebrate our heroes and sacrifices in a couple of weeks. We do it well. However, my heroes of the 20th century also include some contrarians:
- Ernie Best, conscientious objector in the 1940’s teaching children in Japanese internment camps in BC, before returning to teach Hebrew prophets to a generation of UCC pastors, then at Princeton
- George Grant, grandson of the founder of Queen’s in Kingston, Rhodes Scholar in 1939 and conscientious objector serving through the Blitz in London driving ambulances, before teaching universities here for decades
- James Endicott, UCC overseas mission staff in China, arguing that Mao Zedong’s communism might be an expression of love and justice worth Canadian respect – the UCC threw him out, then apologized 50 years later
- Marion Best, lay woman moderator of the UCC steering us through the hot conflicts of the late 1980’s about sexual orientation, lifestyles and ministry, then defending our choice, ahead of its time, to heated opponents
In our time, and in our congregation’s transition ministry time, we do well to reflect on peacemaking other than vanquishing tyrants by force, and consider the more complex arts of influence, of making a difference, even when vindication is much deferred and delayed. I suggested that the legacy of mothers might offer clues to this kind of peace-making authority. Who taught you to choose between “A or B”, and beyond, to ‘neither’, ‘both’, and ‘C’?
Sure, I awkwardly tried this on in the ‘Big Idea’ time. My mother would present us choices between ‘bath then tooth brushing, or tooth brushing then bath’, or between ‘beans or peas’, or ‘apple or banana with lunch’. We did mature to resistance: ‘neither’, ‘both’, or ‘TV, carrots, cookies’. She raised two lawyers, two teachers, and a preacher, all preferring negotiation as a conflict style.
My next attempt this morning to introduce the theme was by pointing out my robes, this week a Geneva gown, academic hood, clergy collar and tabs. That was normal garb at Trinity on Frederick, and many UCC pulpits, through the middle of the 20th century. The outfit, not coincidentally, looked a lot like what lawyers wore across the street, or academics at convocations.
We can thank Calvin and Knox for this dress, signaling the importance of reason and education in resolving disputes, with both church and state expected to obey the word of God. Methodists, 200 years later, subverted the Puritan garb, as the rich got richer and dressed fancier, and we went with black, and backwards collars. My hood of pink silk and white fur is legitimate, but as wry.
Our subculture respected reason, and a learned clergy – but did not confuse academic credentials with education. We were a big literacy movement, lifting up local lay preachers, and ordaining many without university degrees. We are ‘non-conformists’ in British terms, familiar with the importance of adversarial (not antagonistic) pursuit of truth and justice. How will face a ‘post-truth’ age?
Media tell us that we live in a post-truth age, of binary polarized choices being proposed by passionate demagogues regardless of facts, and accepted by devoted followers in mutual isolation, regardless of evidence. Faced with ultimatums to choose ‘A or B’, I find myself assuming my childhood postures: hands on hips ‘neither’, cruciform extended hands ‘both’, or pointing to ‘C’.
There are many things about which reasonable and faithful people may differ. The solution is not just to avoid conflict, to murmur ‘peace, peace’, when there is no peace. We have adopted in recent decades a ‘gospel of nice’. ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.’ Silence follows. We acquiesce to what is said in a room, though friends outside would be hurt to hear it.
We think ‘eirenic’ is the only true spirituality, the only way of being that is godly. (The word comes from the Greek word for peace.) We resist militant religious extremists who don’t seem placid and serene. But the Hebrew word for peace is ‘shalom’, meaning a fullness and balance of competing elements to coexist as God intended and as God promised, not simply blessed as current status quo.
Our tradition includes a feistier spirituality, a militant (not violent), activist one of turning to God more humbly, not simply ‘calling in airstrikes’ from God, telling her what to do. We confess that we don’t comprehend it all, and learn to be receptive to what God is showing and telling us, often through others – even surprising others who are our opponents. We listen, and change each others’ minds and hearts through reason, experience, tradition, and scripture.
‘Getting to Yes’ was a popular 1981 book from the Harvard Negotiation Program, by Roger Fisher and William Ury. They taught ‘principled negotiation’ and dispute resolution to a wide range of pro’s, from family mediators to labour negotiators to international relations diplomats. They encouraged naming of interests, not positions, and objective criteria, openly shared information, if not open strategy and tactics. There is a price to ‘yes’ – and to ‘not yet yes’.
William Ury wrote a sequel to ‘Getting to Yes’, in 1999: ‘Getting to Peace’. Renamed as ‘The Third Side’ in 2000, the book lays out three phases of responses to conflicts that present themselves as binary, polarizing conflicts: prevent, resolve, and contain. In turn, he breaks out ten problems, and ten related roles that can be assumed beyond being a partisan or advocate for one or the other of the two opposing sides in a zero-sum win-lose binary conflict.
Today I promised to append them to these online notes (see the end, below). Does any of this sound like women you know, making sense of the world, taking on roles in the world, and ‘speaking truth to power’ amidst conflicts? It does to me, and it offers a way into hearing today’s scriptures again, as if for the first time. I managed to stop speaking after 15 minutes this week, instead of 20, but it did require leaving a lot of details to you, and to the footnotes!
Isaiah 45 comes from the second generation of the voice we call Isaiah. Just as second and fifth generation Methodists may call their kids ‘Wesley’, or ‘Calvin’, so those living in exile echoed a pre-exile prophet. Isaiah warned Jerusalem and Judah before the Babylonians exiled their elite to our Iraq. The children in those camps on the Euphrates continued his spirit, his ‘voice’.
‘Second Isaiah’, in chapter 45, points to Cyrus, the rising ruler of the Persia we call Iran. The prophetic voice says that Cyrus is God’s Messiah, even though Cyrus doesn’t know Yahweh or believe Torah. God, over all, can use Cyrus to beat the current tyranny, Babylon, and that’s good news for Israel and Judah!
The idea is not to join either empire’s armies, but to wait and watch for change. It’s a bit like being a CO in 1939, respecting Mao in the 1940’s, affirming gay Christians in the 1980’s, or embracing AIDS sufferers in those early days.
The gospel reading today appears to be about paying taxes. An unpopular government was raising taxes, partly to pay for the massive expansions to the Second Temple in Herod’s rule, just before Jesus, and partly to pay Romans a tribute and the costs of their occupation of Palestine. Matthew’s editor, 40 years later, is the ‘big tent’ Christian, the ‘spin-doctor’ trying to ease fears that we were a radical revolutionary sect. Opponents try to bait Jesus, and Matthew.
Pharisees, and Herodians, partisans of the establishment in the Temple and in the growing public sector, disingenuously ask Jesus if he pays the temple tax. It’s a simple choice, ‘A or B’. Do you support the occupiers, or resistance? Jesus, in my reading today, declines to answer ‘A’ or ‘B’. He asks to see the coin, and says ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’. Whether that means ‘neither’, ‘both’, or ‘C’, it disrupts the binary polarization.
Today, I wore the garb of our Reformed tradition, tied to Enlightenment and the increased authority of reason rather than tradition or the fiat of leadership. It was a Scot, David Hume, who wrote that ‘reason is and ought only to be a slave to the passions’, and appealed to empirical proofs in moral discourse, while acknowledging the limits of the role of reason.
In our post-truth times, it is American business ethicist Jonathan Haidt who popularized the image of a person riding an elephant, to visualize the role of reason claiming to control passions. However, I’ve enjoyed the rejoinder from Canadian ethicist Joseph Heath who suggests that the rider get off the elephant, change the environment and context, then remount the elephant which will respond differently than before!
Why did I waste your time, on this second Sunday of preaching of a very few months of transitional ministry, with this complex discourse about ‘peace-making authority’? I hope that you’ll remember the repeated shorthand as we continue to make choices as ‘Trinity on Church’ this year. ‘A or B’? Faced with polarizing binary choices quickly shaped as ‘us or them’, I hope we remember: hands on hips with Liam say ‘neither’. Hands outstretched, reaching out and holding on to friends of ours who may not be friends to each other, say ‘both’. Finger pointing to a lateral thinking third way, or a compromise, say ‘C’.
Trinity has been blessed for decades with good planning reports, which presented choices, which were deferred, or changed, or chosen. I hope you can tell me why and how we chose each time. As I conceded, who wants the right answer to the wrong question? Sometimes, it’s better to be kind than to be right. Often, it’s not yet time to choose, but to hold on in a Christian, cruciform position, to our friends as long as we can, till ‘C’ appears.
As the old Harry Emerson Fosdick hymn sings it: ‘Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour’.
Here are Ury’s ten tactics, within 3 strategies, offering a way to think about our roles as peace-makers, reminding us of what our mothers taught us and showed us:
Prevent the Conditions for Conflicts
Be the Provider:
‘What’s needed here?’
Be the Teacher:
‘Here’s another way’
Be the Bridge Builder:
‘‘I’d like to introduce you to…
Resolve the Heat of Conflicts
Be the Mediator:
‘Let’s work it out’
Be the Arbiter:
‘What’s fair here is…’
Be the Equalizer:
‘Let’s level the playing field’
Be the Healer:
‘Let’s make amends’
Contain the Consequences of Conflicts
Be the Witness:
‘Hey! Look what they are doing!’
Be the Referee:
‘No knives! No guns!’
Be the Peacekeeper:
‘OK! Break it up!’
What word do you have for our hearts, O God?
What are you showing us, and telling us?
Open our eyes to see, our ears to hear, our hearts to feel –
Your presence and your purpose here…