Our Better Angels

The old expression about sticks, stones, and words has never rung more hollow than in our present day. I wish that weren’t so. I wish I could believe that we all believed “words can never hurt.” I wish flamewars didn’t draw people “offsides” and push them to say things they sometimes regret later. But time after time, we have proved the adage about sticks, stones, and words….wrong.

Our social media culture of outrage and offense functions like tinder soaked in kerosene, in an age when small and angry embers of the past are always buried, just beneath the white-grey coals of everyday life.

Almost every day, somebody is outraged about something. Somebody is pushing somebody’s buttons.

The challenging line to walk —one I cannot claim to always walk well— is how to be prophetic and speak up about real matters of justice, in a way that effects real social change, and not just “outrage?”

Because speaking up is important. Insisting that our voices be heard is also important. But speaking up is never and end to itself, and must always be in the interest in creating real, permanent, and positive change in the world. How, and when, to best do that…what methods to use…these are important, and often overlooked, questions.

I’ve been meditating quite a lot on this as it pertains to my own life. Specifically, to Facebook and my blog. I’m pretty plugged-in to social media. I’ve been known to write a a blog or two in response to things I find outrageous or offensive. (OK. Maybe hundreds…)

My posts on Facebook have been known to generate comment-threads that can number into the hundreds, and can spiral into conversation that often has nothing to do with the original point I was trying to make.

Worst, I often find that the tone and rhetoric of commentors to be unhelpful. Some of them seem like tinder and kerosene, more than light and hope. And I am not just speaking of those I disagree with. I often find myself wincing on social media, at the tone of conversation on all sides. Maybe you do too.

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Somehow, my thoughts hark back to Abraham Lincoln, and his wonderful phrase “the better angels of our nature.”

As the nation stood on the brink of Civil War —something almost all his readers would have thought inevitable— Lincoln still used his first inaugural address to call us to our better selves. He reminded us that, despite all feelings to the contrary, we are not enemies. He said we were friends.

In our age, I might push the metaphor even further. From the perspective of the nation, we are all brothers and sisters. From the perspective of faith, we are all God’s children.

We are all stuck on this globe, together. But, buried deep within the code of our DNA, are powerful messages that instruct us to create enemies —to take ordinary human beings who are somewhat different from us, and to remake their features into something subhuman— in order that we might be justified in fighting them.

This desire does not original in either religion or politics, even though both can make these tendencies worse (or, better).  This desire comes from something even more primal.

It comes from our earliest survival-instincts, as the animals we really are. Lest we forget, we are animals. And those instincts to kill or be killed, to survive or be eaten, those are are still lodged within us, no matter how refined our “culture.”

I first learned of this process of enemy-making from writer and thinker, Sam Keen. His book, “Faces of the Enemy” is still one of the most important I’ve ever read. Keen wrote the original book in the shadow of the Cold War. But he’s been updating the ideas every since. The basic ideas is that all of us, cross-culturally, racially, religiously, engage in the process of “enemy-making.”

Here’s a short video of image and Keen’s voice, describing just how it works:

In all of the world’s cultures today, there are demagogues, politicians, military and religious leaders who use this process. They use it to create and foster fear. And it’s working. People in all countries, people on all sides of the issues, are more and more fearful.

Make no mistake: demagogues use politics and religion. They take that genetic predisposition that we all have toward creating enemies, and exploit it for their own purposes.

They take actual current events —a shooting like California in our land, an invasion like the original Iraq War in the Middle East— and grow these events like viruses in a petri dish. Then, they spread spores of infection through Mass/Social Media.

There are real dangers in the world, to be sure. There is terrorism. There is brutality.

But we must all consider the following…

If we know that the goal of terrorism is to make us afraid (and it is), then we should do everything in our power to NOT be afraid.

Choosing fear —or engaging in fear-based religious and political rhetoric— simply gives terrorists exactly what they want. The goal of terrorism is MORE hate, anger, and fear. The only antidote to it is love, hope, and peace. 

Love, hope and peace are intentional choices that sometimes take reflection and prayer…especially in those angry/fearful moments when all we WANT is to just kick somebody’s ass.

This gets me to Donald Trump and Rev. Robert Jeffress. Both purport to be leaders. But both are not actually leading. They are trafficking in fear, and that is not leadership. I frankly don’t pay a lot of attention to Mr. Trump, since I am absolutely convinced he has no chance of being elected president.

But the harm of both Trump and Jeffress is not in their actual, personal influence. In both cases, their actual influence is really quite small. (When seen from the nation as a whole…)

The harm of the Trumps and Jeffress’ of the world is in the viral load of their words, spewed into the air, and into the hearts, of those who are already fearful, lonely and disaffected.

Their words become a dog whistle for those —especially middle aged White men in our country— who feel the world shifting beneath them.

Ironically, ISIL blows a similar dog whistle in the Middle East. They speak of the evils of the West. And their dog whistle appears to be working on the many poor and desperate young people in the Middle East.

The Trumps, Jeffress’, and ISILs of the world actually all using the same tactics. Yes, ISIL is actually murdering and blowing up people. And yes, that is by far worse. But the rhetoric is the same.

The goal appears to be the same:
Fear, not faith.
Anger, not civility.
Hostility and mistrust, rather than love and friendship.

The final irony is this: Both those of us in the West, and the vast majority of Muslims around the world, fear the same thing. We all fear being lumped-in with the worst of our cultural extremists.

I hear life-long Republicans speak of their fear of Donald Trump. Increasingly, I hear them call themselves  “Independents.” People I have known as “Republicans” for forty years abandoning, at least in private conversation, their party.

I personally still don’t worry about Trump’s actual political chances. But, among these Republican friends, I sense that the fear of Trump, the Tea Party, and other right-wing extremists is quite real. They don’t known what to do about them, and they are increasingly afraid of them.

But! I also hear Muslim friends who fear the extremism of ISIL too. And, like my Republican friends, they often don’t know what to do about ISIL either. They are afraid that they, their families, and their Mosques —law abiding and peace-loving citizens— will be painted with the same broad brush as ISIL. They rear it could lead to them being rounded up, harassed and humiliated.

And while most of us think, “That could never happen here,” as if on cue, Donald Trump jumps in to say say we should do just that! He says we should prevent law abiding US Muslims citizens from entering and exiting the country.

Friends, do you know is SO happy to hear that? ISIL!!!

I promise you that sound-bytes from Trump’s recent statements are already on their way to an ISIL recruitment video. Look for it on the internet later today.

In fact, I was in a meeting with a local Imam last week (ironically, an interfaith meeting, called to talk about how we can combat all of this….). This Imam described some ISIL training videos that he once was shown from the internet. He was seeking to learn more about ISIL, the way I sometimes have to strain to understand Christian fundamentalists.

The ISIL videos actually used racists and Islamophobic clips from FOX News, interspersed with impassioned pleas for Muslims to “rise up” and fight in the infidels.  In other words: There is documented proof that ISIL is using the hard rhetoric of American political and religious fundamentalists, to recruit MORE terrorists to their cause.

We are playing right into their hands, friends. Those leaders who “otherize” peace-loving Muslim neighbors among us are aiding and abetting the enemy. If not in practice, most definitely in rhetoric.

The irony of our modern world is that there are people in both the Middle East and the United State who use demagogue rhetoric to create “the enemy.” And there are people in both cultures who take the bait, and then spread the virus.

Now, I am virtually certain that some of my friends on the political right are cracking their knuckles, adjusting their keypads, and ready to type back  a response like “But the Left does it too!!!”

And they most definitely do. Everybody, even me, get’s drawn “offsides” sometimes.

But two questions leap to mind for me:
Whose rhetoric is being used against us by our enemies?
It’s clearly the rhetoric of right-wing politicians and religious leaders….
And what are the actions we can take in this situation?
It seems to me our primary calling is to speak to our own culture…to our own fellow Americans…and to call the back to “our better angels.”

So, this gets me back to me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues, and how each and every person can either be a flash-point, or a circuit breaker for fear and anger. Understanding that nobody can ever fully control how our own words are taken and “heard,” before I speak or write anything these days, I stop to mediate on these questions:

— Are my words helpful and edifying?
— Will they help calm and inspire others? (Do they have the chance of this?)
— Will they get us to peace, justice, and love? (Do they  have the chance of this?)
— Do they do “no harm?” (As Mr. Wesley would ask)

Again, I am not perfect. In the heat of passion, I’m still gonna be likely to be the biggest hypocrite about this that you know personally. Hell, I’ve got a blog with close to 800 entries that you can throw back in my face anytime you wish, if that’s what you’re in to.

We’re all hypocrites at some level. There’s no avoiding this. But we all also get the chance, every day, to be circuit-breakers for fear, anger and resentment. We all have the ability to call our world back to our “better angels.”

Which finally gets me back to Lincoln. I can’t help but see a direct connection between his time and ours. In his time, “enemies” warily eyed each other across state lines. In our time, demagogues foster fear, anger, and “enemy-making” across lines of race, religion, politics, and culture. Lincoln’s challenge to America in 1861 could be one for the all the world today.

So I’ll let him have the last word:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
— Abraham Lincoln

As I’ve mentioned in other holiday posts, Christmas is the time we hear the message of peace, and the challenge to “Fear Not,” given to us by the angels.

Pray that we not only call upon our “better angels” for help, but that we might also live as them in our world today.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

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