“Do nothing from selfish ambition….”

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete:  be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

– Philippians 2:1-4

This piece of advice given by St. Paul to the Christians living in the ancient city of Philippi seems, at first glance, something of a pipe dream.  Is it really reasonable to expect people to be “in full accord and of one mind?”  Paul immediately tells his readers how that can be achieved, of course:  “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”   The method seems as unrealistic as the goal.  Does Paul really expect people not to look after their own interests, but to put the interests of others ahead of themselves?  Good grief.  What sort of world did Paul live in?

The reality is that Paul lived in a world in which human beings were not much different than they are today.  As his extensive writings preserved in the New Testament clearly demonstrate, Paul was well acquainted with the realities of being human.  As he writes in his Letter to the Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”  These are hardly the reflections of a man who had too idealistic a view of people.  He was well aware of how difficult it could be for people to do the right thing but rather to give in to their worst selves, which Paul identifies as “the sin that dwells within me.”

Yet, for all his consciousness of human weakness, he was still able to write those words to the Christians in Philippi, urging them not to give in to their shadow selves, but rather to live out of their deep connectedness with Christ, putting others before themselves and working to be of one mind sharing one love.  Despite Paul’s intimate awareness of how hard it is for people to do the right thing sometimes, he never doubted that for someone who was “in Christ”, this high ideal was a possibility.

With all of our recent national soul-searching following the shootings in Tucson, I was deeply struck by Paul’s vision for us when the Philippians passage was read at our healing service today.  It seems to me that we have gotten into the habit of not expecting very much of ourselves or one another.  I was powerfully reminded of a conversation I had with an 18 year old recently who made it clear to me that his basic outlook on human beings was that “most people suck.”   It is a philosophy which is ultimately rooted in a very low estimation of the human condition, and taken to its logical conclusion, it suggests that we shouldn’t really expect much from other people.  And if we take in that perspective deeply enough, it’s not very hard to conclude that we therefore shouldn’t expect much of ourselves.

As Paul reminds us, however, the true Christian vision of humanity is not so dismal.  The Christian tradition affirms that while human beings often make bad choices, the human capacity for love is deep, wide and broad.  Our tradition affirms that human beings are made in the image of God, and thus our basic orientation is love.  Within the long spiritual tradition of Christianity, there are many teachers who make the observation that we mistakenly believe that the ugliness of life is inevitable, that it is part and parcel of being human, and we must simply accept the ugliness as a given.  The Christian concept of the Fall, however, despite the many ways in which it has been distorted and misused, does contain an essential truth:  that the ugliness that so often creeps into our lives is not supposed to be there.  It is not who we are, but rather is a corruption of our true nature.  With God’s help, accessed through a set of spiritual practices or tools, that ugliness can be redeemed.  That is, it can be overcome and replaced with the beauty of authentic humanity.  It is this authentic humanity that Paul describes to the Philippians, and it is this authentic humanity that we should seek to manifest in our lives.

An authentic Christian perspective does not take a low view of people.  Rather, it shines a bright light on the amazing potential of human beings to be people of compassion, sympathy, joy and love.  These are some of the marks of the Spirit, and as we find these qualities in ourselves, we can manifest them in our lives.  And as we manifest them in our lives, we can encourage others to do the same.

This coming weekend, we will remember as a nation the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He had every reason during his life to think the worst of people, because so often, it was the worst of people that he experienced.  Yet, he was able to have a dream of people at their best, and he believed that people could achieve their best not by giving in to their shadow sides and pursuing a path of violence, but by manifesting the best qualities of the human spirit.  His vision was rooted in the Christian vision, and we remember him today in part because he was willing to believe in us.  God believes in us, Jesus believes in us, and even Paul believed in us.  May we have the courage to believe in ourselves and work for the kind of world that Paul, and Dr. King, dared to dream.

Words Matter…and They CAN Hurt, Even Kill

Most people probably heard this at some point growing up:  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”   It’s one of those pieces of “folk wisdom” that has always bothered me, because it discounts the power of language.  As a priest, I have met a lot of wounded people over 20 years of ministry, and none of those people were struggling with wounds inflicted by sticks and stones.  Their wounds really had their roots in words:  wounds from words that had demeaned and devalued them;  wounds from words that had judged them; wounds from words others had used to try to define them.  And wounds from words that were never spoken:  people who had not been told that they had been loved or cared for.   Yes, words have power.  They can comfort, challenge and inspire, or they can inflict deep, invisible wounds that leave scars on the soul and psyche.

Christians should understand the power of words, for one of the principal images used for Christ in the New Testament is the image of the Word made flesh and blood in the humanity of Jesus.  The Gospel of John understands that the Word made flesh in Christ is the same divine power through which the universe came into being.  “Through him, all things were made, and without him was nothing made that was made.”   From a Christian perspective, the Word of God is a dynamic, creative power that is experienced preeminently in Creation and in Christ, but also touched through the Scriptures and sacraments.  Biblically, the Word is associated with life, liberation, salvation, wholeness and blessing.  And as such, the Word is never separated from action.  The Word of God is a kind of agent of God’s “thought” and intention, bringing that thought and intention into reality in the world and the larger universe.

Words and language, when used by us human beings, also carry power.  They have the power to express our thoughts and intentions, and they become inextricably linked with actions in the world, both our own actions and the actions of others.  But whereas the Word of God is always about life, liberation, salvation, wholeness and blessing, our words and language can either be about these things or they can carry us in a very different direction, towards death, oppression, division, fragmentation and condemnation.

Sadly, much of our public political discourse falls into this latter category.  For both politicians and pundits, politics has transitioned from being the art of compromise meant to serve the public and common good to a tool to demonize the opposition, insist on our own way, categorize people into “real Americans” and something else.  During the most recent election cycle, there were candidates and members of the media who suggested that if the election didn’t go the way they wanted it to, people should basically take up arms to enforce their will in defiance of the election results.  One woman who had made such public suggestions, a radio talk show host in Florida, was actually briefly appointed as a new congressman’s chief of staff until, apparently, he thought better of it, after her advocacy of violence in response to an election loss became public knowledge.

While it is tempting to dismiss this dangerous use of words as belonging to fringe elements, there are those in our society who take these words seriously.  Tragically, we witnessed that this past weekend in Tucson, when a young man set out to assassinate a congresswoman, injuring and killing a number of people in the process, including the death of a 9 year old girl.  Of course, his motives are not yet entirely clear, and undoubtedly he was and is disturbed in a tragic way.   The very fact that he has been described as disturbed makes it possible to dismiss him as an unusual kook.  The reality is, however, that it is quite possible that this young man has been influenced by violent and hateful words spoken against the congresswoman he targeted.

This would not be the first time.  A few years ago, when I was living in Tennessee, a man walked into the Unitarian Univeralist Church in Knoxville and opened fire, killing two people.  The subsequent investigation revealed that the man had been deeply immersed in negative and hateful political speech from various conservative commentators.  Their consistent message that liberals were dangerous to American society had entered into him deeply, and he had come to the conclusion that the Unitarian Church was somehow a symbol of this liberalism and he decided to take action, with tragic results.

In American society today, we need urgently to learn the power of words.  And those who have the benefit of having a public platform from which to speak need to learn that in particular, and to understand that they have a public duty to be accountable for what it is they say and advocate.  It is one thing to express one’s opposition to a public policy, piece of legislation or candidate position.  It is something else entirely, however, to suggest that one’s opposition is unAmerican, dangerous or deserving of death.  The use of violent words and images in our politics has become tragically commonplace, and the power of those violent words and images can translate into violent actions, as the latest incident in Tucson and the violence in Knoxville a few years ago demonstrates.   Such actions may indeed be unusual and exceptional, but even one such unusual and exceptional event is unacceptable.   It demeans our community, compromises our humanity and endangers our democracy.

Equipped with a renewed understanding of the power of words and ideas, we should begin now to change those words and ideas, and it needs to begin with our politicians, pundits and community leaders — those who have the benefit (and responsibility) of having a public voice.  Violence is unacceptable, and violent words should be just as unacceptable.  We need to recover a sense that diverse perspectives enrich our national life, and recover an ability to engage in public debate without demeaning and demonizing others.  The future viability of our democracy may depend on it.