Speed Leas

herd mentality

On Palm Sunday, we remember an ancient practice.  When the conquering hero would ride into town, people would welcome him by carpeting his path with palm leaves.  In the case of Jesus, the people are expressing their hopes.  He’s there to lead them against the Romans!

Of course, he’s not mounted on a mighty stallion; he’s riding a lowly donkey.  Connection has been made to the book of Zechariah, which says in chapter 9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (v. 9).

In his gospel, St. Mark tells us, as Jesus rides a colt into town, “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (11:8-9).

1 palm sunday

Are the people cheering really interested in being his disciples?  What would that mean for them?

I’m not the first to point out how the crowd on Palm Sunday bears little resemblance to the crowd on Good Friday.  Or does it?  In neither case is the spirit of discipleship demonstrated.  Jesus shows how fleeting and fickle fame really is.  In a matter of days, the people go from calling for a crown on his head—to calling for his head.  In doing this, the crowd has a mind of its own.

Our reading in the book of Isaiah has an interesting Hebrew word.  In verse 4, we hear, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher.”  The word used for “teacher” (לׅמֻּד, limmud) can also mean “disciple,” one who is taught.  God has given me the tongue of a disciple.  That word is also at the end of the verse.  “Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.”  Those who are taught:  to listen as disciples.

According to the prophet, the teacher is a disciple.  The disciple is a teacher.  This is a person who always wants to learn, and who always wants to share what has been learned.  We’re reminded that “the speaker is aware of his need to learn, and has the humility to confess that need.”[1]

The path of discipleship is one of endless training.  It is one of endless training of others.  That’s a calling that we share with the prophet, the Servant of the Lord.  Being a disciple of Christ means wanting to be like Christ.  That requires both meekness and courage.

On the point of the crowd having a mind of its own, I have a story to tell, one I’m not too happy about.  It involves the Texas state Capitol, the KKK, some hardened clumps of dirt, and a moment about which I’m not terribly proud.

In 1983, during my freshman year of college, I went with a friend (and more than a thousand other people) to watch the Ku Klux Klan as they marched on the Capitol building in Austin.  Police and news helicopters were flying all over the place.  It felt almost like we were about to be occupied by an army!

2 palm sunday

Among the crowds were people carrying signs, people yelling at the Klansmen, and others (like me) who were just curious and wanted to see what was going on.  As the marchers made their way toward the Capitol building, they moved through thicker and thicker crowds along the road.  You could feel the hatred in the air.  It was just a matter of time before someone got bored with hurling insults and decided to hurl something else.

It began with a couple of small stones and quickly escalated into a barrage of rocks.  Even though the Klansmen came equipped with plexiglass shields (maybe they expected this kind of reception!), some projectiles managed to hit home.  There was more than one bloody face among them.  (I should say they were wearing their pointy hoods, but they were unmasked).

When they reached the spot where their cars and vans were parked, demonstrators started smashing the windows.  It was the final angry act of the day.

There’s one moment, though, in that afternoon of violence that remains with me.  At one point, when the Klansmen had circled around behind the Capitol, people were running in all directions.  I had stopped and was surveying the scene (being careful to avoid the crossfire of rocks!).  Suddenly, a young black man who was about my age stopped running and knelt about ten yards from me.  He was gathering some hard, dry clumps of dirt to fire at our white-robed friends.

He must have noticed out of the corner of his eye someone was standing there; he just froze and looked up at me.  There we were—two young guys, one white and one black—the black one probably wondering what the white one would do.  And what the white one did was to give the black one a little smile, as if to say, “Go for it!”  He returned the smile, picked up his weapons, and disappeared into the crowd.

I believe now, as I did then, that the constitutional right to peacefully assemble is vitally important.  Even a group I find as repugnant as the Ku Klux Klan has the right to express its opinion, as long as they’re not advocating violence.  (Admittedly, that’s a tough sell with a group like the Klan.)

The irony on that day was the KKK was being peaceful, if it’s possible for them.  Still, wearing those bedsheets stirs up the legacy of terrorism.  At the very least, they were just walking; they weren’t shouting or shaking their fists.  It was the onlookers who were violent.  And I was a part of that violence.  In my own way, I became a contributor to mob mentality.  That’s not a good feeling.  I allowed the crowd to do my thinking for me.

For those interested in being interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires two weeks of training, at least six months apart.  One of the main things we looked at was the congregation as a system: a family system, an emotional system, and so on.  We also looked at how systems get stuck—how they get paralyzed and can’t seem to progress.

There are a number of reasons, but one of them is something I’ve been talking about.  It’s the mentality of the mob, the herd mentality.  Maybe some of us have had an experience of church like this.  There can be a group dynamic in which the congregation bands together and shames those who have questions.  There can be cult-like behavior.  Compulsion is used to whip people into shape.

Many studies have been done about herd mentality.  As individuals, we can feel anonymous in a crowd—or sometimes on the internet.  No one knows who we are.  Sometimes it leads us to do things, that if we were by ourselves, we would never dream of doing.

This doesn’t have to work for the bad.  When the community of faith works in a healthy way, those things we would never dream of doing are awesome and beautiful.

For example, by ourselves, it takes added courage to protest for justice.  With others, we are heartened in an amazing way.  By ourselves, singing and praising the Lord is definitely a beautiful and soul-enriching thing.  But with others, singing and praising becomes a powerful and magnificent wave.

In the Palm Sunday story, along with the sincere adoration of Jesus, can’t we also sense an element of desperation—the desperation of a people who feel beaten down?  When these desperate people realize that Jesus won’t comply with their wishes, things get ugly.  They get anxious, with a vengeance.  (But that’s the story of Good Friday!)

3 palm sunday

When we’re anxious, we become reactive, as opposed to responsive.  A good way to think of it is to compare “reacting” to a knee-jerk “reaction.”  It’s automatic.  It doesn’t take any thought.  When we respond, we’re taking a moment to actually think things through, to weigh the options.

Being reactive is often a good thing; it can save our lives.  If our hand is on a hot stove, that’s probably not the time to think and weigh our options.  Get your hand off the stove!

Getting back to my story about the Klan, we see an extreme example of reactivity.  (I would say that throwing rocks at people qualifies as “extreme.”)  Of course, it helps if there’s a group that is easy to hate, like the KKK.

Going along with this, we see violence cloaked with righteousness.  Too often it seems like justice has to be served by wiping out somebody else.  If I disagree with you, then you’re my enemy.  Forget for a moment what Jesus says about loving our enemies.

Church consultant Speed Leas has done a lot of work on congregational conflict.  He says that situations sometimes get to the point where people “won’t stop fighting because they feel it’s immoral to stop.  They believe they are called by God to destroy the evil.”

At our interim pastor training, a story was told of a minister who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

To use a term which seems to have become popular, maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test.  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

As we can see, giving in to the herd mentality can lead to some unpleasant, even fishy, outcomes.

So, today on this Palm Sunday, where are we?  (Presumably, not gathering up rocks or thawing out fish!)

The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr reminds us, “Once we let the group substitute for an inner life or our own faith journey, all we need to do is ‘attend.’  For several centuries, church has been more a matter of attendance at a service than an observably different lifestyle.”[2]

Sometimes we’ve been swept along with the herd; we’ve disappeared into the crowd.  At such times, we have lost ourselves; we have forgotten who we are and whose we are.  Sadly (and speaking for myself), we might have chosen the path of cowardice.

But much more importantly, we have also experienced communion, the solidarity of the saints.  We have discovered and welcomed the courage of Christ.

4 palm sunday

So, regardless of what the herd says or does, be it the cheering and joy of Palm Sunday or the jeering and rage of Good Friday, we take hold of Christ and confidently say with the prophet in Isaiah 50, “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (v. 7).

 

[1] George A. F. Knight, Deutero-Isaiah (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1965), 201.

[2] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago:  Loyola Press, 2010), 276.


can conflict be a gift?

After looking at my sermon title, I realize that it could lead to some unintended conclusions.  Raising the question as to whether or not conflict could be considered a “gift” might suggest that I enjoy conflict—even possibly that I seek it out.  I’m just itching for a fight!  I assure you, that is not the truth.

One day, Banu was looking through some old files.  That tends to happen when one frequently moves from one place to another!  She found a folder that contained some documents from when we were at seminary, when we were just beginning the ordination process.  We were in the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and their Committee on Preparation for Ministry had us fill out some forms.

There was one that asked about our challenges / weaknesses.  I wrote something along the lines of needing to be more assertive, especially in situations of conflict.  That was 1994.  Two decades later, I think I might say the same thing.  I realize that it’s something I still need to work on.  I’ve made some progress in being more assertive and a less anxious presence in the midst of conflict, but I still have a long way to go.

So, no, I do not enjoy conflict.

It would seem from the reading in Matthew that Jesus doesn’t either.  In fact, it looks like when presented with conflict, he simply wimps out!  Look at how our scripture begins.  Jesus tells the people, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (vv. 38-39).

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

The “eye for an eye” Jesus starts with is the lex talionis.  That’s Latin for the “law of retaliation.”  It appears three times in the law of Moses (Ex 21:23-25, Lv 24:19-20, Dt 19:21).

We often hear calls for law and order, for greater security, based on this idea—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  This one often finds its way into arguments for the death penalty.  It seems to provide for a very stern, no holds barred style of justice.  However, that’s only true if we take the principle of “an eye for an eye” completely out of its context.

It’s been said, “The lex talionis was in its time a social advance of great magnitude [in modern times, we can compare it with the outlawing of slavery]; it put an end to the vendetta, the blood feud, which allowed unlimited retaliation for an injury done to a member of the family or tribe, so that an entire group could be wiped out before the demands for vengeance were satisfied.”

To our 21st century ears, that law “sounds savage, but it was actually a softening of the primitive fierceness of the feud, which set no limits to the revenge” that could be taken.[1]  The idea was that, if you kill one of ours, we’ll kill ten of yours—and then, it would escalate from there.

Still, Jesus doesn’t say limit revenge to “the same injury; Jesus declares that we must take no revenge at all.”[2]  When he says, “Do not resist an evildoer,” he says don’t worry about getting payback (v. 39).

There’s one verse that isn’t so much a question of revenge.  Jesus tells his disciples, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42).  I wonder, would that include lending your car to someone who returns it with an empty gas tank?

It looks like everything that Jesus says in our gospel text runs contrary to what we usually do.  (Or at least, we might do it with a great deal of hesitation!)  Why is that?  Is this ethic he lays out something that can actually be done?  Many people simply say “no.”  Many people say that Jesus is exaggerating to make a point.  I’m not sure I’m totally convinced by that!

In any event, I find the phrase in verse 39 especially interesting: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  Again, there are many takes on what Jesus means by this, but I find the comments of Speed Leas, a consultant on congregational conflict, to be useful.

“What that means to me,” he says, “is that when the battle has begun, I do not leave, nor do I attack.  I stay there.  I stay in range of getting hit again.  I take the risk of not destroying the other person or leaving the scene.”[3]  According to Leas, Jesus tells us to resist the “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction.  You know what that is:  the temptation, when faced with a conflict, to lash out, to take off, or to become paralyzed!

There’s something that tends to handcuff us when dealing with conflict.  This is true for all people, but I think it’s especially true for those in the church.  We have a tendency to see conflict as inherently bad, something to always steer clear of.

Episcopal priest Caroline Westerhoff talks about this.  “Conflict is not just inevitable…  Instead it is part of the divine plan, a gift.”[4]   So here’s the question I raise in my sermon title—with a little emphasis.  How in the world can conflict be a gift?

According to Westerhoff, conflict is part of the creative process.  Almost any story or movie has an element of conflict.  There’s the protagonist and the antagonist.  Conflict is indeed inevitable; it’s built into creation itself.  Animals engage in conflict for food.  In a way, humans do, as well.  We certainly find ourselves in many different kinds of struggle.  A big part of the artistic process is struggling with ourselves and with God.  Westerhoff says that “newness cannot come without conflict.”[5]

The truth is, we have differences.  We look, think, act, smell, vote differently!  That’s how we’ve been created.  One of the main reasons for conflict is due to the fact that we’re not all alike.  We aren’t copies of each other.  We often try to impose a level of sameness on each other, but it’s a mistake.

If we can’t, or shouldn’t, avoid conflict—if it can’t be prevented—what we can and should do is to manage it.  We need to guide it, set boundaries around it.  (Recall what I said about the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye” being a boundary, a limit.)  We have to use conflict for constructive, and not destructive, purposes.

Westerhoff continues, “To manage conflict then would be to allow it, not suppress it; to open our doors and windows to its fresh wind.”[6]  I must say that I don’t often think of conflict as being a breath of fresh air!

“Following this line of thought to its ultimate conclusion, violence and war becomes not conflict…out of all bounds, but the final outcome of conflict [when it is stifled].  They result when we will not allow the other to be different, when we deny our life-giving dependence on the different one with all our might and means.”

This is the first Sunday since the presidential election.  There’s no debating that our country is divided.  That’s been true for a long time.  No matter what your political orientation, no matter who you voted for, I think I’m safe in saying that this past year has had a distinctly different feel.  I think I’m safe in saying that there has been a narrative of not allowing the other to be different.  There’s been a narrative of denying our life-giving dependence on the different one, and doing that with all our might and means.

The “other ones” who have been insulted and verbally attacked for over a year from on high have found a green light, permission has been given, implicitly or explicitly, for them to be physically attacked, to have fear instilled in them.

In that context, Jesus seems to wimp out again in verses 43 and 44.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Really, that sounds outrageous!

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

Far from wimping out, what Jesus proposes takes a great deal of courage.

In another congregation, I asked the session to read the book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter Steinke.[7]  (I mentioned that people are always anxious at some level, so this book would probably work any time.)  He doesn’t exactly use the language of “loving the enemy,” though sometimes it might feel that way when we’re in the midst of conflict.

In the book’s Acknowledgements, he salutes “the unnamed congregational leaders and members who have influenced my thinking through their wisdom, counsel, and especially courageous action.  They deeply cared for their congregations in such a way that they were willing to risk the displeasure of others, even to the point of being demonized.”  Remember, these are church folk!  “They resisted giving in to the pressure of the moment if it meant forsaking their integrity.”[8]

Remember what I said at the beginning about recognizing my own need to keep working on being assertive in situations of conflict?

Steinke goes on, “Some leaders patiently and calmly stayed connected to people with opposing viewpoints and to those known to be troublesome…  To their credit, they did not regard their own judgments as placing them on higher moral ground.  They simply could not set aside distressing circumstances or avoid a difficult decision even if it meant individuals would be hurt or the congregation would suffer.  They spoke ‘the truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15) so that the truth could set people free (John 8:32).”

Friends, this is not easy.  That’s why we let things go for so long that we know in our heart of hearts need to be corrected.

Twice in our scripture text, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…  But I say to you…”  In the midst of conflict, Jesus shows us the way forward.

In the midst of conflict, it can feel like the walls are closing in.  We can feel tightness in our chest.  We need to remember to breathe.  We need to remember that the Spirit is within us.  But we also need to remember to actually breathe!  There’s nothing like being still, taking some deep breaths, and getting oxygen into the lungs to help us regain some perspective.

Jesus closes by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).  That sounds like a tall order!  But this isn’t “perfect” in the sense of being flawless; this is “perfect” in the sense of being “perfected,” of being made whole.  That is the Lord’s desire for us.

We are fragmented, broken creatures.  We are not whole.  Still, in the strange and unwanted gift that is conflict, we come together.  Sometimes we come together by crashing into each other.  But thanks be to God, in all of that craziness, the Spirit is there to lead us into new avenues of truth, returning insult with blessing.

We need that now more than ever.

[1] Francis Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1981),158.

[2] Beare, 158.

[3] Speed Leas, “The Basics of Conflict Management in Congregations,” Conflict Management in Congregations, ed. David Lott (Bethesda, MD:  The Alban Institute, 2001), 30.

[4] Caroline Westerhoff, “Conflict:  The Birthing of the New,” Conflict Management in Congregations, 56.

[5] Westerhoff, 56.

[6] Westerhoff, 57.

[7] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006).

[8] Steinke, xv.