March 4, Stop it

 Stop it

John 2:13-22


In a recent opinion piece, blogger and writer Paul Waldman offered some reflections on why he thinks the Parkland student activists have made defenders of the NRA and “second amendment rights” so angry (Washington Post, The Plum Line: “Why the Parkland students have made pro-gun conservatives so mad,” 2/21/18)

He starts by pointing out that the high school students turned activists – these young persons personally touched by gun violence – are “old enough to be informed and articulate, but still children,” which makes them “extremely sympathetic advocates.” This creates a dilemma, he says, for those who are used to winning their arguments in the current political climate by vilifying those with whom they disagree.

I would put it this way: These students have credibility and they have sympathy. Sometimes we listen to people because they have credibility (let’s say they have some unassailable experience or some sort of special expertise) or else we listen to them because they have our sympathy (we feel for them in their pain, for example), but rarely does it all come together.

In this case it does. These newly minted activists have credibility and they are worthy of our sympathies. And not only that, but who in their right mind would attack (or vilify) children who have already been attacked? And that means that these children who have suffered violence have the moral authority to speak about children suffering violence, and then to speak as well about everything else that falls into the orbit of that concern.

Paul Waldman, in his opinion piece, does a nice job of putting this into the context of philosophical (and, I would say, theological) language. Listen to this part of what he says:

“The truth is that in politics, people on every side try to find sympathetic spokespersons with personal stories that give them authority to speak on particular issues. More than 2000 years ago, Aristotle wrote that there are three modes of persuasion: logos (facts and logic), pathos (emotion) and ethos (the character and credibility of the speaker). While conservative (critics of the student activists) might complain that the Parkland students are using ethos and pathos to overwhelm logos, in fact it’s their ethos that forces (these critics) to argue on the basis of logos.”

“Once you rule out personal attacks,” Waldman continues, “what’s left is arguing substance. No one is going to criticize Tucker Carlson or anyone else for disagreeing with the students, for saying “Here’s why the ban on AR-15s they’re proposing is a bad idea.” It’s only personal attacks on the students, which we so often accept as just how politics gets done, that come off sounding so despicable.”

Logos (facts and logic), pathos (emotion) and ethos (the character and credibility of the speaker) – that’s an interesting set of words, an interesting set of concepts, isn’t it? Often, when we are trying to make our case or persuade someone else about our cause, we arm ourselves with logos (facts and logic) and then accuse others of lacking logos, claiming that they are arguing only in terms of pathos (emotion). We are smart, in other words, and they are just emotional. 

What should win such arguments? Logos, right? Let’s stick to the facts! That’s our first position. That is, until we have something happen that stirs our pathos (emotion) and then we become passionate that our feelings make us right!

And beyond that, is this question: Who, in this day and age, has ethos (personal credibility)? Well, not very many people, in our opinion. When it comes to political or social issues, it seems more and more difficult to find persons with real, personal credibility and moral authority.

And the institutions in our society? Where are the institutions that clearly and consistently express moral authority, and true integrity, and a clear view of things? At one time, maybe religious institutions carried things in that bucket, but how much do people even trust that anymore….?

But those students. Yeah – they are highly intelligent, they are people of deep feeling, and they have the moral authority, the credibility that comes when you are speaking and acting from a place of costly experience and understanding, and therefore of clarity and determination; when children who have been attacked speak up about children being attacked, there is something uniquely and powerfully compelling about that. You can not ignore it.

People who don’t like their messages like “ban assault weapons,” or “enact universal background checks” or “don’t sell weapons to people under age 21” may choose to attack the messengers, but the messengers in this case know how to make their case: from a logic perspective, from a passion perspective, and from a personal experience perspective.

They know what is right and just and necessary, not because someone gave them an assignment on the debate team, but because they have the experience and perspective and moral authority that comes with surviving something so horrific and then deciding: It’s time to make sure this doesn’t happen anymore. It’s time to stop this killing; to overturn the status quo – things as they are.

It’s interesting then that the scripture text that comes up in the lectionary today is the story of Jesus clearing the temple. Because although it is often presented as simply a story about anger – even righteous anger – it’s not just about anger.

Oh sure, Jesus is angry. You don’t chase animals with a whip and dump out the cash pots and turn over tables without a bit of angry passion. But this isn’t just about anger.

It’s about what happens when logic isn’t enough. It’s about what happens when something is not right, and logic or argument or making your case is not enough to bring about change. It’s about what happens when what’s “right” needs more than just a clear understanding, but also needs passionate feeling and some moral outrage. Logos needs its partners, pathos and ethos.

Change can come – social change, moral change – but the forces of change cannot stand on one leg. There needs to be someone or something (an event or a moment or a movement) that brings everything to bear: clarity, integrity, the experience of pain, passion, intelligence, determination, credibility, and willingness to take things to the next step.

I talked last week about our willingness to take up the cross, and to deny ourselves, and to even lose our lives (our control of our own little space, our commitment to our own self-importance) in order to follow Christ, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the good news of God’s love and mercy. And maybe this story can add some nuance to that, some texture 

Maybe this story is the reminder that passion does not need to be passive; that argument needs more than just words – it needs direction and determination; that credibility, while hard to come by, sometimes comes into view when people who have suffered commit themselves to prevent others from undergoing the same sort of suffering; that injustice, especially toward the least powerful and the most vulnerable in our society, must be confronted, opposed, and ultimately overturned.

You know what was happening in the temple, right? Why Jesus was so upset? He wasn’t feeling the need to protect God, to somehow protect God’s holiness. In the other gospels it is clear that Jesus was upset because people – in the very temple of God – were taking advantage of other people, practicing price-gouging in the sale of animals for sacrifice. In Mark’s gospel, for example, Jesus says “You have made the temple a den of robbers.”

It’s not quite so clear here in John’s gospel that Jesus is upset for this same reason. But Jesus is upset. And he is highlighting his unhappiness with, his disapproval of, the temple culture. He’s not just upset with ideas, he’s upset with people and their actions – or inactions. He’s pushing for change in the order of social relationship. He’s pushing for what he thinks is right – right where he is.

Writing about this moment in the “Feasting on the Word” commentary, Paul C. Shupe, a UCC pastor, says, “The targets of Jesus’ displeasure in this particular narrative are not kings in remote places, or the forces of empires seen or unseen, or pagan rulers who may never have heard of the God of Israel. No, driven before him are the money changers, whose tables were tolerated, even encouraged by the temple authorities, who should have known better.”

“They had made a career of studying the word of God. They were committed to building up institutions to proclaim and embody that word, and yet they had somehow managed to accommodate the money changers.”

“It is doubtful,” he continues, “that the system was ever a wholly cynical exploitation of God’s good name. More than likely, all involved had simply settled into comfortable behaviors that enabled them to meet institutional goals, turning an increasingly blind eye to the unsavory possibilities of corruption inherent in changing money.” (p. 94)

And that invites us to ask: What have we accommodated? What injustice? What “comfortable behaviors” that have enabled us to meet “institutional goals”? What blind eye have we turned? What unsavory thing have we accepted?

Look: I’m not saying that there is one answer to those questions. Nor am I saying that everything we do and think and feel is right. And I am not saying that we should go about overturning tables just because we are angry about something. But we do need to be aware that there come those moments when we have to stop accommodating and stop turning a blind eye and stop accepting what the culture says is just fine, or even necessary.

Is this one of those moments?

When children who have suffered attack stand up and say on the basis of logos and pathos and ethos, that we have to do something so that other children can safely go to school and not live in fear or turn schools into armed camps, then we need to listen and we need to say with them, “Yes – this needs to stop.” He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

The head of the NRA makes 1 million dollars a year in salary and in the last several years, through salary and speeches and additional benefits has made as much as 5 million dollars a year. And that money, which comes from the organization’s abundant funds, does not come primarily from membership dues. More than half of NRA money comes from gun manufacturers and other companion corporations.

And what started in 1871 as an organization to improve marksmanship, and whose president said in 1930, “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses,” and whose motto in the 1950’s was “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation,” has morphed into one of the top lobbying organizations in the United States with the motto: “The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall not be Infringed.”

In 2015, the NRA took in $337 million. In 2016, they contributed $30 million to the current president’s campaign. (TIME/Money “Wayne LaPierre Has Made a Fortune as CEO of the NRA. Here’s What We Know About His Money”)

Now with all that in mind, let me re-read a portion of that commentary about the scripture text again, explaining what happened in the temple and why Jesus was so upset: “It is doubtful,” says Shupe, “that the system was ever a wholly cynical exploitation of God’s good name. More than likely, all involved had simply settled into comfortable behaviors that enabled them to meet institutional goals, turning an increasingly blind eye to the unsavory possibilities of corruption inherent in changing money.”

The corruption inherent in changing money. Huh. What do you have that can possibly go up against that? What can challenge the politicians and the lobbyists and the fear-mongers?

How about logos and pathos and ethos? How about children who care about other children, children who are smart and passionate and morally grounded?

Look, I don’t doubt that there’s someone who is going to hear this sermon and accuse me of being too political, or to focused on one issue, or naïve, or self-righteous, or something else. And that’s okay. I’m willing to accept that. I’m willing to admit that I may not have everything right or everything in proportion. I am willing to admit that some people who take a different view of a particular issue have the right to that view and may even have some wisdom I don’t have.

But that doesn’t mean that I can’t be angry – angry about a culture that glorifies violence and believes so foolishly that you can kill all the “bad guys” before they kill you if just have weapons in the hands of the “good guys,” a culture that believes that instruments of war belong in the hands of our friends and neighbors, that children who have suffered should just shut up and not talk about “adult things.” That makes me angry and maybe it makes you angry too. And I suspect (I certainly hope) that it would make Jesus angry as well.

There is no excuse for us not to confront injustice, to not take on the powers that be, to not make our voices heard, to not step into even the most sacred spaces to make a case for right living and right relationship. There’s no excuse to not step up at the right time and say, “Stop it.”

And at the same time, it can be a risky and dangerous thing. Like I’ve said before: joining Jesus in proclaiming the upside-down kingdom will get you in trouble. Is it wise? Is it worth it?

As I said last week: This is about keeping company with Jesus and where else would you want to be? And who else would you want to be with?




Benediction: It is okay to be angry – especially about injustice, about corruption, about manipulation, about the sacrifice of our children. Such anger is energy. Now where does that energy take us. I hope you will think about this week as you keep company with Christ. Amen. 


Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

March 4, 2018