Holidays can be a time of difficult conversations; those who love us know exactly the ways to get under our skin! That goes for colleagues at work as well. The common word for this agitation is being “triggered”: just like pulling a trigger on a gun, a small thing can cause a big reaction. It’s striking how much psychic energy we consume in preparation for and following these kinds of interactions. Sometimes our conscience, or the basic responsibilities of our job, or just being a good family member, compel us to say something directly we would rather not say.
Several years ago, I came across a book, aptly named Difficult Conversations. The authors had one major point of emphasis: taking responsibility for one’s own role in the “dynamic, because it generally takes two to tango. Instead of leading with accusations, ask questions, and figure out what you might have done to cause this situation.
For example, my wife, Nicola, and I have a “dynamic” about doing the dishes. This is an area where I tend to feel quite confidently in the right, occupying a morally superior position. After all, my insistence that every dish be washed, every counter wiped, every floor swept after every meal is the only civilized way to run a household. I grew up with a Mom whose idea of relaxation was designing chore charts, with a Dad who bragged about how his parents would have all the dishes done—even before dinner was served. I think you can see how this would set up a “dynamic” if I were to marry anyone slightly to the left of my fascist inclinations towards cleanliness.
If I saw a pan left to “soak” overnight in the sink, the authors of Difficult Conversations say I should not lecture my family on the health hazards of standing water, extoll the virtue of “elbow grease” as the key to life’s success, and remind Nicola of a previous agreement we had explicitly made that contractually obligates her to wash the pan at this exact moment. Instead, I should ask some questions to figure out how Nicola was thinking about the whole situation. Perhaps she was planning on getting to the dish right after dealing with something urgent. Or perhaps I had forgotten to do something which caused her to do more work elsewhere, and that explained why the dish was there. Maybe I could help more with other chores and avoid this situation. In other words, conversations go best when self-righteousness is held to a minimum. If people aren’t defensive, they are much more likely to do the dishes.
We are all prone to believing ourselves morally superior, inventing self-justifying stories about our behavior. I heard a fascinating example of this on an Ezra Klein Show podcast this week. They were discussing an experiment that scientists conducted on so-called “split brain” people, individuals where the right and left hemispheres of the brain could not communicate with each other. Apparently, one hemisphere of our brain takes in information and makes decisions; another comes up with narratives and explanations for that behavior.
Here’s the interesting part. Our optical nerves connect our eyes to just one hemisphere. Our right eye goes to our left hemisphere, and our left eye goes to our right hemisphere. Taking advantage of this, researchers would have split brain people close one eye and look at a poster that only the decision-making half of the brain could see. The other half of the brain had no idea. The poster would have directions on it, like “walk across the room.” Seeing it, the person would get up and walk across the room, even though the other half of the brain had no idea why this was happening.
But when asked why they walked across the room, the person didn’t say they had no idea. The narrative-making part of our brain was simply too powerful. Instead, it would make up a completely bogus reason, like they were thirsty and they wanted a glass of water. They would be totally convinced of it, with no sense of the fact that they were basically lying.
That is how profoundly we are self-justifying creatures. Half of our brain is hardwired to explain and justify decisions we have already made. We do not sit back, weigh our options, and make morally righteous, rationale decisions. By and large, we have inclinations to do things, which we follow without really thinking them through, and later come up with smart explanations for them. The smarter we are, the more convincing—not necessarily the more accurate—those explanations become.
This year, nothing illustrated this dynamic better than the appointment of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, over the brave testimony of Christine Blasey Ford. Everyone—including Kavanaugh and the Senators like Susan Collins who voted for his appointment—had to admit her testimony was completely credible. She was clearly sexually assaulted and had no motive for lying about any of this. Yet the self-justification hemisphere of so many brains went on overdrive. Both Kavanaugh’s statement and Susan Collins’s floor speech were prime examples justifying behavior that they were already committed to. In the hands of smart people, fantastically elaborate explanations result. Both argued that, while we should believe Blasey Ford on everything else she said, we should doubt that she could identify Kavanaugh as her assailant. From that fact flowed all the legalistic arguments about why Kavanaugh simply had to be appointed to the Supreme Court, regardless of the need for further investigation, on a timeline that just so happened to coincide with the mid-term elections.
Thus continued the endless cycle of American politics, in which we seem to be caught. No Senator did anything differently, despite the actions of Blasey Ford. We can blame others for this—Fox News, Breitbart, Trump, etc… Or we can ask ourselves: what could we be doing to make this world operate differently.
If we want ideas on that, the Bible is a good place to look. Anyone who has read the Old Testament has seen this play out on the broad sweep of the national history of Israel. In the books of Judges, first and second chronicles, first and second kings, and all the major and minor prophets, Israel, its neighbors, and God, go round and round. The same mistakes are made. The tempers flare. Conflict and resolution. But after a while, even the resolution of individual conflicts becomes unsatisfying, as the repetitiveness of the whole dynamic becomes itself frustrating. Such a simple thing— worshipping idols, for example—how hard can it be to stop doing this? Will Israel never learn its lesson? Can God not figure out a better way to get through?
Into this drama, our gospel reading enters. Luke wants to make it clear that he is talking about the dynamics of real people, Empereror Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod King of Galilee, the high priests of Annas and Caiaphas. These are the Roman political leaders, like the Persian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires before them, who have again subjected the Israeli people to misery. We think we are about to hear the same story, all over again. Then something different happens. He says that John the Baptist, from the wilderness, begins proclaiming a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Now this is a phrase that we need to dust off. Repentance and forgiveness from sins does not mean becoming a nice person who doesn’t swear, in order to go to heaven. Instead, as NT Wright has discussed, it’s the process by which we—both as individuals and as a people—step off the merry go round. We break the patterns. The circular arguments end. The nation of Israel is restored, once and for all, outside of the pattern of sin, destruction, forgiveness, restoration, and sin again. The lesson has finally been learned. We are no longer trapped in a prison of behaviors we cannot change. The question becomes how we do this.
John is known as the baptizer, and baptism is, first and foremost, a symbol. It is a sign. It is not itself moving away from sign, but it is sort of a grand gesture that allows it to happen. We tend to underestimate the power of this kind of symbolic action, but it makes all the difference.
Let’s start with the most pedestrian example: the dishes. I could investigate the dynamic, and engage in a “difficult conversation” about it, litigiously breaking down all the rights and wrongs my partner and I committed this day that led to an unwashed dish. This is similar to the legalism of the Pharisees. Or, I could make a grand, symbolic gesture, stepping outside the dynamic. I could do the dish myself, even though it wasn’t my turn. Or I could see a dirty dish in the sink as an opportunity to loosen up a little bit, maybe even make a joke about it. Nicola notices. Laughs a little. Maybe she responds in kind, cutting me some slack for something I messed up. Things are a bit more in perspective; we are in a new, wide open, much freer territory.
We call this forgiveness because it acknowledges that none of us are perfect—and at a certain point we have to stop grinding our axes at each other if this world will be a tolerable place to live. It all rests on believe that we really are going to be OK if we are generous to those who have done us wrong. And this is the really good part: when we start acting generously towards each other, breaking the cycle, more good things come. This, in fact, is how we prepare for them. When Jesus comes, if we are still stuck doing the same things we have always done, we will not be able to participate in the renewal of the world, because we are still too attached to the bad, old ways. But when we start on a new path, even if it’s just a symbolic gesture, like washing a dish, or submerging one’s head in holy water, these acts matter. They show we are dead to the old ways, and alive to the new.
Thus, the opposite of forgiveness is not sin. It is resentment. Sin still happens in the best relationships and most just societies. But it doesn’t spiral. Resentment, however, is the belief that we are such fragile, vulnerable, powerless people that the words and actions of others, even if unintended, can control the way we live our lives. People who move through the world this way, always upset about the slights done to them, never able to forgive, are not even really capable of sin. They are only capable of resentment. They are like the split-brain people, unable to really perceive the world, perpetually coming up with bogus explanations for why they are always right and everyone else is wrong. Really doing something bad, lashing out, getting violent, taking revenge, is actually beyond their capacity. Passive aggressive sniping, bitterness, glares, eye-rolls, and self-destruction are all we are capable of in that state.
Forgiveness on the other hand, requires confidence and optimism, feeling one’s solid, still center, beyond the reach of anything the world can do to it, the piece of ourselves that is always in communion with God. As we practice returning to that place, acting from it, we begin to feel a quiet happiness. We are much less interested in litigating who does what why and when. We simply smile and scrub the pan, confident that everything will be alright, that even symbolic gestures add up.
It’s amazing what can be done from this position. Archimedes said that with a lever long enough, he could move the world. Our gospel passage begins by outlining all the rulers of the era, their names and titles and power and territory, the things that seem so set and solid to us, the origins of all the complex structures that inflict injustice on a society-wide scale. And yet it ends with the quixotic cry to change the actual physical terrain of the earth, something far more solid than politicians and governments. We are called to straighten paths, fill valleys, and level mountains. Geology always trumps politics. The power to shape the very structure of the earth far exceeds the powers of Roman rulers. When we repent we can change the structure of our existence at its most fundamental level.
I will close with the first time I ever saw this applied in politics. Both Nicola and I met during a peak of the immigrant rights movement, and we were honored to work with some of the Dreamers, the undocumented youth who came to this country when they were young, and often only realized as they approached adulthood that they didn’t have any papers. The conventional wisdom in most immigrant communities, for completely understandable reasons, is that when you don’t have papers, you should stay in the shadows. Hide. Keep as far away from the police and certainly politicians and the media as possible.
What the Dreamers understood, however, is that there is an even safer way to live, although it requires, paradoxically, a lot more courage. By coming out of the closet, boldly telling their stories, even daring Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to arrest them, they stopped the cycle, got off the merry go round. It is politically disastrous for any administration to be seen rounding up the best and brightest children of the nation, shackling and deporting them away from their families. The Dreamers realized that, and would even engage in sit-ins, daring the government to arrest and deport them. Public solidarity became far safer than isolation in the shadows.
Of course, all this is completely unfair. No one should be required to make these choices. But it is the world we live in. The fact of the matter is that there are valleys to fill and mountains to make low. It won’t happen through resentment or cowering, afraid to step forward to say what it is like to be sexually assaulted or to live in America without papers. It happens when we offer the world another way by taking a risk—even and especially when the world doesn’t deserve it. It’s not that bad things will stop happening; they will continue. But they will no longer be inevitable. And this is just the opportunity that Jesus provides, the opportunity to contemplate a world beyond our vicious cycles. What if they really could be broken? What would you do? How would you treat the people you love? The people you don’t love? What if you really believed that you were OK, that things were going to work out? What risks would you take? What would you stop doing? What power would you have? These are Advent questions. We must ask them to prepare ourselves for miracles, for Christmas, for the coming on the One who sets us free. Amen.