Feast of Beginnings Sermon
Read Perkins Dean Craig C. Hill's sermon, “A Modest Proposal: Let's Tell the Truth About Each Other,” preached Aug. 25 at the annual Feast of Beginnings – the first worship service of the 2021-22 academic year, which welcomed new and returning students and recognized new faculty, staff and student leaders.
“A Modest Proposal: Let's Tell the Truth About Each Other"
Sermon for the 2021 Feast of Beginnings Service at Perkins Schoo of Theology by Dean Craig C. Hill
Texts: Exodus 20:16, I Kings 21: 1-16; Matthew 5:43-48
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).
To this we should add another well-known scripture about neighbors, Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Turn a few pages, and we come to a story that began with a selfish desire, was followed by a grudge, and ended in vengeance: “Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. Ahab said to Naboth, ‘Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house…’” (1 Kings 21:1-2).
Ahab and Naboth were neighbors. One high; one low. One powerful; one at the mercy of power. One whose life seemed hemmed in by law and tradition; one whose very life depended on law and tradition.
How were ancient mores concerning a family’s right to the possession of ancestral land overturned? By misrepresentation. By lies. By secrecy. By the willingness of others to participate in the deception, whether for personal gain or from fear of loss, or both.
The first move was an appeal to position and pride: “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful.” No reason to be upset. You make the law. You decide what is true.
And so, truth became the first victim. Jezebel wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal. The letters told the elders and nobles to manipulate the structures of religion and justice: proclaim a fast, call a solemn assembly. Set Naboth up, then knock him down.
The nobles and elders complied. They kept their hands clean by getting two “scoundrels” to do their dirty work, to bear false witness, and so to have Naboth killed—all for the sake of giving the king something he coveted but did not need. “Love your neighbor as yourself?” Hardly. But rather, use your neighbor for yourself.
Centuries later, when Jesus quoted Leviticus 19:18 as the second greatest commandment, an enquirer asked, “But who is my neighbor?”, at which prompting Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan. The true neighbor was not even an exemplary Israelite, not “one of your people,” but a Samaritan, who acted out of compassion, who bore the cost of that compassion without recompense.
That’s the parable. Here is the commandment:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be God’s children…For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:43-48)
What more are we doing than everyone else?
I work in and prize higher education, but my truest home is the church. It therefore troubles me greatly that the academy at times holds to a higher standard than the church when it comes to telling the truth about others. A stellar academic reputation is built on the foundation of intellectual fairness. You are free to disagree with others, but you must do so honestly, representing opponents’ views in a way that they themselves would judge to be accurate. Only then do you have a right to challenge their opinions.
It also means being honest about the nature and quality of your own evidence. Caricaturing the views of others and overstating the quality or quantity of your own data undermine your argument and demonstrate its weakness. Admittedly, by no means do all scholars live up to this high standard, but the best consistently do. I vividly remember being called out for an unintentional misrepresentation of another’s perspective in a minor footnote in my doctoral dissertation. I learned an enduring lesson: fairness is to be taken very seriously and so to be sought diligently.
An important caveat is required. I do not mean to imply that all scholars conduct themselves in this way in the more private domain of the classroom, where a professor, especially a tenured professor, is at a significant power advantage. It is all too easy to move without even knowing it from being a passionate advocate to becoming an overbearing autocrat. Professors profess—they have the right to attempt fairly and honestly to present their views persuasively—but to persuade, not to vanquish. None has the right to berate or to misrepresent.
I would add that the shoe can be on the other foot. Students are capable of acting disrespectfully and unjustly toward a professor, whether in class, amongst friends, or online—selectively quoting, even misquoting them, and so caricaturing their teacher’s views. Worse still is maligning a professor’s motives and character. Passions can run high both ways, especially in today’s divisive climate.
Contrast this ideal with the debased and highly polarized political discourse in America today. “All Republicans are QAnon sympathizers; all Democrats are communist sympathizers. We’re good; they’re evil. We’re smart; they’re stupid.” “All who disagree with me are mindless or heartless, or both.” Most often, that is demonstrably wrong but, unfortunately, it works.
America today is the most polarized it has been in over a century. This is obviously true politically. To quote a comment made on Meet the Press (Aug. 6th, 2017):
The ideological diversity is gone out of both parties...look at the House of Representatives. In 2002, 137 [of the 435] members fell in what was described as the ideological center... Meaning those members of Congress had voting records somewhere in between the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican. In 2013, that number was down to four.
Much the same is true of the population at large. According to the New York Times (June 12, 2014):
99 percent of politically engaged Republicans are more conservative than the median Democrat, while 98 percent of engaged Democrats are more liberal than the median Republican
Surveys show that liberals and conservatives are increasingly segregating themselves. They want to live around people with similar views, they oppose having members of their families marry outside of their ideological group, and they tune in only to those news feeds and other media that reflect their perspective. In short, “voters silo themselves into echo chambers where dissenting opinions are rare” (NYT).
Among other things, this division of opinion and narrowing of discourse gives far more opportunity for the cultivation and dissemination of extreme ideologies that demonize others and so justify violence.
When we magnify our differences, we create a climate in which those who see only differences are emboldened, when vilification becomes the common discourse, when conspiracy theories run rampant, and when we can no longer differentiate between disagreement and disdain. If the great body of us who share common ideals, beliefs, and aspirations cannot see what unites us, then we give power to those whose very purpose is disunity and division.
It's a complicated situation, but at least some parts of the explanation are simple. For one thing, it is in our DNA. We are hardwired to respond powerfully, immediately, and largely unthinkingly to threats. Our distant ancestors would not have survived had they not done so. But the brain in that state greatly narrows its focus. The fight or flight impulse disfavors deliberation.
Studies have shown that people in a threat state take in less information, even see less, and so less accurately process what they do take in. They therefore make significantly more erroneous decisions. So it is that one of the most effective ways to manipulate people is to make them anxious and afraid, which bypasses their brain’s higher functions and stimulates its most primitive responses. Manipulators raise the stakes as high as possible, creating the impression that our tribe is righteous and the other an existential threat to whatever we hold most dear.
Such arguments always narrow the field of vision in order to exaggerate contrasts. The fewer facts you have to wrestle with, the more limited your historical and present-day data sets, the fewer people from outside your silo you know, the easier it is to issue assured and blanket judgments. This approach is not limited to politics. Sadly, many in the church are experts at it. Jezebel issued an edict in the name of Ahab, and we may well be tempted to issue self-serving declamations in the name of Jesus.
A related strategy is to focus on the most extreme example from the other side and use it to smear the whole. Again, the less we actually know people on the other side, the more convincing such arguments appear. No nuance, no differentiation, no caveats apply.
A similar approach equates the issue in question with something much greater, something with which no right-thinking, right-believing person could sensibly disagree. So it is that any “patriotic American” must surely support this view of taxation or that perspective on foreign policy. To the extent you believe that is true, there is nothing left to discuss. Both strategies are designed to appeal to our emotions, to keep us from taking account of all of the evidence, and so to prevent us from viewing the question with genuine perspective—and with any possibility of empathy for those with whom we cannot agree.
Another aspect of human nature that poisons the well is our need for validation or, as the Bible puts it, justification. Untruthfulness about the limits of our own righteousness and the extent of others’ culpability is a sure sign of self-justification. In a sense, that impulse is only natural. Both self-congratulation and indignation feel good. They stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain in much the same way as cocaine. So, we face a double-sided dilemma: it pays dividends to make ourselves and our compatriots both feel afraid of and superior to “outsiders.” Is it any wonder that truth gets lost along the way?
Unless our justification is grounded in something much greater, in our relationship with God in particular, we will always be easy targets for false and self-justifying alternatives. It’s probably not a vineyard we want. What we covet instead is to feel that we are in the right, that we are good and important. To that end, we create enemies to prop up our fragile sense of superiority. John the Baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Our sinful nature tells us just the opposite. I increase by making others decrease. Competition, not communion, rules the roost.
Now, I do not mean to imply that all misrepresentation is deliberate. Much of it is instead grounded in ignorance, but all too often ignorance encouraged by self-interest and perpetuated by fear.
We see this writ large in our politics. What matters most to some is power, not truth, much less justice. This engenders a conspiracy of egocentricity. Leaders hold on to power, and followers who support them are assured that they alone are virtuous. Thus, truth is trampled underfoot, and with it the Naboths of the land.
To love is to be other centered. At the very least, that means that we attempt to appreciate others as whole persons, not merely as ideological positions. Love requires that we seek to understand, and to understand others, we need to know them as themselves, to see them as God sees them, not as objects to deride or as trophies to win.
Emphatically, this does not mean that everyone is equally right or that some things are not clearly wrong. It does not mean that students should leave Perkins without strong and well thought-out convictions. Far from it. Jesus is, as always, our example.
We saw that Naboth stood up to the powers of this world and was killed for it. So did Jesus. But it is this same Jesus who asked God to forgive those who crucified him, this same Jesus who commanded us to love not just neighbors, not just “our people,” but even those who oppose us. Jesus was anything but spineless.
Thank God that the greatest commandment is not to be right. That does not excuse us from trying to be right, but it does require us to conduct the quest for knowledge and understanding with genuine humility, as an aid to service, not a service to self. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 13:2, “if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains” [if I get my Perkins degree summa cum laude, if I am elected to the national academy, if I become dean…] “but do not have love, I am nothing.” For love, there is no substitute—not grades, not diplomas, not appointments, not awards…not even being right.
As I told our incoming students last Friday, it is not enough to study Christ, vital as that is. We are, in the words of the New Testament, to “put on Christ,” and to “have the mind of Christ.” The latter is famously enjoined in Phil. 2.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
I have said many of these things in the past, and I repeat them now because it so desperately matters, not least as we begin a new academic year. We cannot train others to do what we ourselves fail to practice. Our students will not do upon graduation what they in turn have not practiced here. Paul warns us in 1 Cor. 13 not to produce a dissonant sound, not to let our practice deviate from our speech, not to speak approving words about Jesus without actually following Jesus, not to be doing without loving.
I know that’s challenging and that we all fall short, but let us realize how much our own defensiveness entraps us; our lack of self-knowledge misleads us; and our self-justifications corrupt us.
There is a way out. It is progressively to know and to be secure in the love of God, and in God to love others. Ironically, the others we no longer need—as supporters or as adversaries—become the very ones we are equipped to see and to love truly.
I began with Exodus 20:16: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” We saw how Jesus both expanded the definition of neighbor and extended the commandment to love beyond neighbor.
It should be obvious: you cannot love someone and knowingly misrepresent them. Instead, love calls us humbly to understand each other. To do otherwise is flatly unchristian. It defies both the heart of the law and the clear teaching of Jesus. Being human, disagreements are inevitable—if you don’t think that’s true, just wait till you pastor a church—but bearing false witness against one another is not inevitable. It is a choice. Let’s put in the solemn effort to make the faithful and right choice. Let’s be honest about ourselves and, especially, about and with each other.
Good as that is, it is not enough. Let’s go even further. Let’s love one another. That, at least, should not be controversial.