The Good News for “Them”

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An illustration of filter bubbles by Ben Celsi for Medium (2017). 

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

If you use the Internet often, chances are that you have, at some point, gotten a message from a stranger. I admit that, due to my obsession with locking down the availability of as many accounts as possible with few exceptions, this doesn’t happen to me often. It happened this week, though.

Messages from strangers can take many different forms, of course — they can be weirdly flirty, laden with viruses, claims to be from your long-lost family, or just the mysterious universally creepy “hey.” 

But this wasn’t just any message from a stranger; it was a startlingly short and particularly insulting message. Mind you, my alarm at getting it wasn’t so much that it hurt my feelings; it didn’t. You see, I care about the opinions of many people, but people who send random insults to strangers on social media are not among them. Mostly, I was just confused. Given the public nature of my job, of course, I began to wonder if this was someone I somehow knew peripherally. The insult itself was quite generic, but an insult possibly coming from someone you’re connected to in person, of course, carries more of a sense of threat than some rando in Nebraska or Texas.

Long story short: I did some sleuthing and found, in about thirty minutes, that this man had commented on a political thread  I had long forgotten, and had said some objectively cruel and stupid things by any standard. This didn’t explain why I got insulted – I had not commented on this thread at all. 

Turns out, someone else had poked fun at him for being such a dillweed, and I was one of five people to give a digital “thumbs up” to that comment. And for that, this man had, I assume, gone to the trouble of finding each profile of not only the commenters who had made fun of him, but the people who had publicly approved of those comments, and had gone to the trouble of personally insulting each of us. He insulted us all, of course, for the offense of laughing at him for the things he chose to say publicly. By the time I discovered this, I felt a deep sense of pity for him — well, and some lingering amusement at his expense. Jesus and I had a talk about it and I’m not sure we agree, but we’re working on it. 

We said goodbye to John McCain this week, and while most of us disagreed strongly with at least some of his actions over his long and storied career, McCain also tended to hold up, at various points in his career, the banner of decency and collegiality that has long been draining out of politics at every level.

You see, increasingly, we have a harder and harder time seeing one another as human. An increasing number of people is saying that those on the “other side” of the political spectrum are a greater threat to the United States than an organization like ISIS. I don’t think it’s alarmist to say that, if this continues we will as a nation either have to figure out a painful separation or we will destroy each other one way or another.

Your social media feeds, if you have them, may and probably are tailored to your desires. Your social circles are too. Those you choose to talk politics with probably do believe similarly. I know that these things are true of me, so feel free to admit it to yourself if they are true of you too. I try, of course, to broaden what I read, but often I only have so much extra time for consuming information not directly related to my life. If you’re one of those folks who goes out of your way to engage opinions different from your own, that’s great — but you are in the minority.

Then there are our own biases. As Ben Yagoda of The Atlantic put it in a great article on political bias this month, biases are “the collection of faulty ways of thinking that is apparently hardwired into the human brain.” (1) In other words, it goes far beyond politics, but it affects politics: we are incredibly unlikely to actively engage with information that contradicts what we already believe. In short, we have so access to so much information that we can choose our own facts like choosing milk at the supermarket, with few consequences.

Before civilization, this kind of thing would get you killed by a saber tooth tiger. Now, we have the luxury of believing what we want and claiming our “right to an opinion.” 

But before we get wistful about the days when those who refused to acknowledge reality got eaten by actual tigers, maybe we should listen to Jesus and admit a few things. 

The first  and key one is that we are all, in some sense, already in realities that we have constructed. This is as simple as the theological concept that none of us knows everything; in short, sweet, orthodox Christian terms, none of us is Jesus. It’s a call to humility. 

The Pharisees in the Gospel lesson thought they had a real corner on truth. They call the disciples out for breaking the law — facts, as they saw it. Jesus responds, quick like the Son of God: “It’s not what goes into a person that makes you unclean, it’s what comes out.” 

It’s important to point out that this was not a poop joke. 

He says there’s nothing that you take in that can make you unclean, but what comes out, because what comes out: things like deceit, envy, slander, theft, murder, sex abuse, and violence of all kinds. This is clearly not about food. 

I think it’s no real accident that this text usually appears around the time that everyone goes back to class to take in new ideas. To that end, I once heard a preacher say,  “So if it is not what we take in, but what we produce, that makes us unclean — I wonder if that doesn’t also apply to ideas.” Read everything. Test everything and keep what is true and reject what is false, but know — there is no need to be afraid of ideas. An idea will not defile you, and the person who brought the idea to you is still a human being created and loved by God.

That’s the second thing: we cannot treat ideas and people the same way.

I say that we all live in filter bubbles, but the honest truth is that, largely thanks to my involvement with the church, that’s only true digitally. The church has introduced me to all kinds of people, and we have all kinds of people here. As I observe the social circles of my nonreligious friends, I’ve noticed that this doesn’t appear to be as true for many of them. They may be friends with a diverse group of people racially and religiously, but their friend groups tend to be pretty static economically and politically. Over the years, the less I’ve been connected to church, the truer this has been of me, too. 

I’ve touted this about us a bunch of times because sometimes I don’t think you all fully appreciate it: this is not common, especially among churches. So rarely do Republicans and Democrats really interact, hold each other’s children, laugh and have a beer together, that we call each other a greater threat to the nation than ISIS. However, after leaving this place, I cannot in good conscience do that. I know too many names and stories. 

That’s not to say that this is easy. If it were easy, everyone would do it and go home feeling warm and fuzzy about it. It pushes against everything that we are to look someone with whom we vehemently disagree in the eyes and say, “If God loves me, God must love them too.” The end. 

If you’ve been going here for very long at all, you’ve already interacted with people with whom you probably disagree about a lot of things. You’ve seen their humanity. God has brought you to the table together.

Now, in the words of the Deuteronomy reading, “Do not forget what your eyes have seen.” Not the next time you watch the news, not the next time you get on Facebook. 

Ideas that are false and harmful must be rejected. The people who hold those ideas, however, are still God’s own children. This is the offensiveness of the Gospel: the Gospel is for you, for me, and for everyone we can’t stand.

Because either the Gospel is for everyone born, or the Gospel is just like every other offer: exclusive, temporary, and here for whoever earns it. 

Because the heart of the Gospel is that God doesn’t love us because we’re right about things. God loves us because God is love, and there’s nothing that we can do about it. We don’t earn it; we only have to figure out how to live in response to it.

In the words of James, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger…” James talks about hearing the Gospel as looking in a mirror. In your fellow human, you must see yourself. Don’t walk away and forget what you look like. 

I came across a very short poem a few weeks ago that’s been attributed to St. Francis.

This is where I end.

Such love does
the sky now pour
that whenever I stand in a field
I have to wring out the light
when I get

May you see yourself reflected in every person here, and may that change how you see all those outside of this place. I pray that such love and grace we pour and receive at this table, in wine and bread and God’s own self, that you may be convinced of your own belovedness and the belovedness of everyone here. 

I hope you have to wring out the light when you get home. Amen.

1. Ben Yagoda’s whole Atlantic piece on cognitive bias is here.

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