A Church That Models Civility

A Church That Models Civility

August 22, 2021 • Rev. Rob Fuquay

In one of Glenn McDonald’s recent Morning Reflections he tells how in 1954 psychologist Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues conducted one of the most famous experiments on the origin and nature of conflict. Two dozen boys ages 11-12 were invited to a special summer camp in Oklahoma. They were randomly assorted into two groups and encouraged to build togetherness and identity. They gave themselves names—the Rattler and the Eagles. 

They camped at different sites and at first, they didn’t even know the other group existed, but then they were brought together to compete for prizes. What ensued is still being studied. 

As competition ramped up so did the commitment to their separate identities. Pulling for each other started turning into fierce attacking of the other side. Name calling started, then fights broke out, attacks on each others’ camps. Us vs Them dominated every thought and action of the two sides.  

Now think about that, two groups, same gender, same age, from the same state, became distrustful and even hateful of each other. Dr. Sherif said, “When two groups have conflicting aims…their members will become hostile to each other even though the groups are composed of normal, well-adjusted individuals.” 

How much would you say the Eagles vs Rattlers is being played out today? 

For the first time in over 200 years the US Capitol was overthrown earlier this year not by foreign invaders but citizens of our own country. Just a few months ago a Southwest flight attendant was punched in the face knocking out two teeth because a passenger wouldn’t follow instructions. And then, of all places, school board meetings across the country are becoming vicious and vitriolic.  

Just this week the Carmel Clay School Board suspended a public comment forum at their meetings, because of what school superintendent Michael Beresford called “the divisive anger and personal attacks that the board, teachers, and administrators are receiving via email, phone calls, social media, and (public comments at meetings).” (Indy Star 8/19/21)

Again, just this week I got an email from a teacher in Hamilton County talking about the fear and weariness his colleagues are experiencing from parents angry over diversity, equity and inclusion curriculum and social-emotional learning. He said, “This viciousness is beginning to take its toll on my colleagues--physically, emotionally, and spiritually. They have succeeded. We are rattled.” 

This person reached out to me to say that he is working with a pastor in Noblesville to form a group of parents and students who want to promote civil engagement and would welcome any St. Lukers interested in supporting. If you are, just send an email to… 

In his book, American Gospel, Jon Meacham says, “If totalitarianism was the great problem of the 20th century, then extremism is, so far, the great problem of the 21st.” (p17) 

Clearly the Rattlers and the Eagles are still with us. 

What does it mean to be the church in times like this? How do we foster basic Christian values like grace, compassion and understanding in one of the most divisive, uncivil periods in our nation’s history?  

Well, considering the church struggles with division as much as any secular institution, and our own United Methodist Church is facing a divide, perhaps we should look to a non-Christian for guidance. And I have just the person in mind. His name is Gamaliel. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council of Pharisees and Sadducees, located in Jerusalem in 35AD. And he is the leading character in the scripture story we heard a moment ago.   

Shortly after the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples of Jesus empowering them to continue his ministry, they started boldly preaching in Jesus’ name in the temple courtyard. This infuriated some of the religious leaders so they called for a meeting of the Sanhedrin. At this gathering, members of the group took a hard line against the disciples. They called for a decision to strike them all down, murdering each of them. Gamaliel spoke up and was a voice of reason at a critical moment. 

But I want to pause at this point in the story to ask, what could make them so angry that they would take this position? After all, the disciples had not threatened them with violence. They had not hurt them in any way. They were simply preaching in the name of Jesus who had been crucified. Why such a zealous reaction? 

Perhaps it was fear. Perhaps the religious leaders were afraid. Maybe they feared the influence of the disciples, that they would lead people away from the truth as they had taught it. Maybe they feared for their children who would be susceptible to the theories of these disciples, espousing an understanding about the way things are in the world that is different from their own world view.

Honestly, I understand this. If my children were being influenced by a theory that didn’t represent the values I teach them at home, I’d have a problem with that. For instance, if they went to a school teaching that discrimination is okay, prejudice has a good value, I would speak up and stand against. But I wouldn’t kill. I wouldn’t do what the Jerusalem Council was proposing. In fact, when my fear causes me to behave in ways that I am not proud of, that’s when I know I need to get my fear in check. And too often people allow the value of what they believe to be undermined by the way they go about sharing their belief. 

Most of you probably know that Karl Marx, the father of communism was not found of religion. He called it the opiate of the people. But why did he have such a dislike for religious faith? Historians say it goes back to an event in his childhood. But there are two popular versions of this story. One goes like this. 

Marx came from a devoutly Jewish family. They lived in a predominantly Christian village in Germany. His father was a businessman and he discovered that if he became Christian, he’d be more popular and his business would profit. He converted for the sake of prosperity. And so Karl Marx saw the sham of his father’s faith, or so goes that narrative. 

But another historical perspective says that the villagers, who despised Jews, boycotted the father’s business. They tried to run him out of town. For the sake of being able to provide for his family, he relented, and became Christian so he could survive. 

Now which story do you think had the power to turn a boy so vehemently against religion? If we aren’t careful the way we pursue our beliefs will undermine our efforts. 

But another reason the religious council in Jerusalem proposed to kill the disciples was that they genuinely believed they were right. Never underestimate the power of being right. Being right not only feels good it drives us to impose our sense of rightness on others. 

Some years ago I was standing in the back of the sanctuary greeting people after worship. A woman I had never seen before came up to speak. She was smiling and explained she was a member of another church in the area and had attended their early service that day, and her pastor preached on the same exact scripture I did. She said, “ISn’t that amazing? But I have to tell you that I believe my pastor was much truer to the interpretation of that passage than you were. And God laid it on my heart to tell you that today.” 

When being right is your aim, it doesn’t matter what you fire at the target. 

To say “I believe” is different from saying, “I’m right,” and what a powerful thing it is to hold onto what you believe without having to make someone else wrong. Too often today I feel people are unwilling to understand others’ opinions because they feel that will weaken their own. But as Doug Pollock reminds us in his book God Space, “Acceptance does not mean endorsement. When we confuse the two we destroy the very space God wants to work in.” (Why Nobody Wants to Come to Church Anymore, p76)Again, as Jon Meacham says, “Light can neither enter nor emanate from a closed mind.” (p232) 

And this is where our hero, Gamaliel, enters the story. He listens to the council as they move in a dark direction, turning their cause into a crusade. So he speaks up, and in doing so shows the first step of practicing civility: letting your voice be heard. Instead of keeping silent or leaving it up to someone else we feel is more qualified to speak, we understand that when we become bothered enough about a matter, that is God’s way of saying, I want to use your voice. Practicing civility begins in exercising courage. 

So Gamaliel reminds the council of a few examples from recent history. He recalled people who started rebellions and were able to incite crowds of people, but in the end they died and nothing came of their efforts. And then he says:  

“Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” His speech persuaded them.” 

Rely on Examples from History 

Why did it persuade them? Think about. In a sense he was saying, pay attention to your history. You’re smart people. Look at the lessons of history! Again Jon Meacham writes, “To fail to consult the past consigns us to what might be called the tyranny of the present—the mistaken idea that the crises of our time are unprecedented and that we have to solve them without experience to guide us….If we know, however, how those who came before us found the ways and means to surmount the difficulty of their age we stand a far better chance of acting in the moment with perspective and measured judgment. Light can neither enter nor emanate from a closed mind.” (p232) 

You could say, that Gamaliel was telling them, “Quit being so closed minded!” But he didn’t say that. 

Be open to the fact that you could be wrong. 

You could also make the point that he was telling them, “You could be wrong! What if God is behind the disciples? If you oppose them, then you are opposing God. You might not know everything you think you do!” Clearly, that’s the point of that argument. But that’s not what Gamaliel said. 

So why did his argument persuade? I believe its because of the way He appealed to the spiritual within them. Yes, what Gamaliel said to them made those points—Quit being closed minded! You might be wrong!—but they received it because of the way he honored their faith. He appealed to them as people who truly want to honor God and simply gave them opportunity to be true to who they really are and want to be. 

Friends, what a difference it is when we approach others with respect, with dignity, and the belief that there is faith inside of everyone whether they express it or not. “All men, said Homer, “need the gods.” The writer of Ecclesiastes, again a Jewish teacher, said “God has put eternity into the hearts of people.” There is an element of faith that lives in everyone. And rather than reacting to what people say, we need to find are ways to connect on the spiritual level, and accept that what we think may not be completely right, because when we do we give God room to work. 

What if we looked at people with whom we have differences not as our enemies, but people we actually need and depend on in order to live in this world as God intends? How does that change the way we look at people who oppose us? It’s a little harder just to cast them off. We can’t dismiss them. We understand that as different as their ideas are, we still need them.  

Martin Luther King Jr said, “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made, this is the way its structured.” 

Each week in this series I want to end describing the church at it best, being who the world needs it to be. So I want to end today telling you about a woman named Nancy Day. She came into a church I served years ago very curious, somewhat eccentric, and some would say even odd. But those who help that impression didn’t really get to know her. Nancy had been on a life long spiritual quest. Her search had taken her in all sorts of directions, investigating all kinds of spiritualities.  

But in the end she came to the decision that the truth revealed in Jesus, not always the truth revealed through the lens of the church, but the Jesus of the Gospels, was what she had been looking for. She told me that what she experienced of Jesus in our church spoke to her. That is was real and genuine. 

At that same time we had another woman in our church who was Nancy’s age. She came from another brand of Christianity, one that placed supreme value on truth, as in you have it and others’ don’t. She became suspicious of Nancy’s type of faith. She didn’t see her as a true Christian. She judges and evaluated some of the contemplative practices Nancy talked about using in her faith as coming from eastern mysticism and non-Christian influences. These did not represent the truth of Jesus to her and she saw Nancy as an enemy, either because she feared the kind of influence Nancy might spread, or simply because she that she was right and Nancy was wrong. Either way, she became more and more critical of Nancy. 

At first the criticisms were whispers behind Nancy’s back, but they became more public. This woman taught a class and begin naming Nancy as someone to be afraid of in the church, someone who led people away from the truth. Soon she began assuming reasons why Nancy was the way she was and began spinning imagined and unflattering stories about her. 

Nancy became aware of this. I talked to her one day about it and said, “I am going to speak with this woman and shut down this kind of talk.” Nancy said, “Please don’t. That will only make things more difficult. Let me handle this my way if you don’t mind” 

So Nancy invited the woman to lunch and paid for it. Surprisingly the woman accepted. Nancy thanked her for coming, acknowledged that she had heard some of the things the woman said, but never criticized her, nor condemned her. She said, “I just want to get to know you better and see if I can learn from you.” Then she complemented the woman’s faith. Nancy said, “I can tell your faith is important, and I think its wonderful that you give so much time to teaching others and mentoring young women.” Then Nancy shared about her own faith and what was important to her about Jesus. 

Now I would like to tell you an ending that said this other woman came to respect Nancy and they became the best of friends, but this isn’t one of those stories. All I know is the hostilities from this woman began to cease. Whether or not she came to respect Nancy I don’t know. But knowing Nancy I’m not sure that was her intent. She could probably endure what this woman was saying just fine, but she knew it didn’t help the church, so she went. But I think she was motivated by even more. I think it was so that Nancy didn’t live with resentment toward another person. That she would have the peace of knowing she shared her heart with this person and opened the door to relationship. For her, that was victory. She believed this woman truly wanted to honor Jesus, so she appealed to the spiritual within her and gave her the chance to be who she truly desired to be. 

Gamaliel didn’t control the outcome of the council being persuaded not to do violence. He simply showed respect, appealed to the spiritual within them, and let God do the rest.  

Let us be that church that our world needs today. 

Let us pray: 

Gracious God, whether we admit it or not, we have failed at times to model the civility we want to see in others. When confronted with differences, especially when those differences are passionately expressed, we have found it easier to unfriend rather seek relationship. When confronted with disturbing statements and attitudes we have sometimes remained silent instead of speaking up. Because of someone’s words or actions we have assumed the worst about them rather than seeking understanding. We at times cling to our rightness rather than yielding the possibility that we could be wrong. Forgive us, O God, by the blood of Him who endured the cross unjustly yet spoke words of forgiveness instead, and hear us as we silently confess other ways we have fallen short… 

Let us hear and believe the good news that in the name of Jesus Christ we are forgiven, and by His forgiveness we can go out to be the church and let our light shine. Amen.