Rev. Molly Baskette ~ First Church Berkeley UCC
Matthew 18:15-20 ~ Fourteenth Sunday in Pentecost
“Agitators”
September 10, 2017

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Parent in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
~

Two weeks ago today, on Sunday afternoon, our sanctuary runneth over. We were gathered here with neighbors from all over the East Bay to pray and sing and prepare ourselves to meet white supremacists coming to make a stand in downtown Berkeley.

As we all know by now, though we feared terrible violence on the order of Charlottesville, the encounter went almost as well as one could hope in such a high-pressure situation. A few fights broke out, but the overwhelming atmosphere was one of hallelujah joy and a holy peace.

A couple days later, I was interviewed on Channel 4 about Christian nonviolence and the role of Antifa in the counterprotest. And on the Monday following that, I got this voicemail from an anonymous caller:

“Yeah, Rev. Baskette, I hope you don’t really believe what you said on the news the other night, that the right is more violent than the Left. I am not affiliated with ANY kind of group, and I’ve been watching the news, and in every one of them, it’s the Left that starts throwing the first blows, and pushing and shoving. The arguments go back and forth, but the violence starts on the Left. And in all these groups, these agitators, these anarchists that are getting paid millions of dollars by George Soros, to go out and do this stuff, but you gotta watch the news clips. The Right isn’t the ones starting this violence It’s the Left, these agitators. I hope you really look at this and find out what is going on.

…I couldn’t believe you said that–go back and look at what happened in Berkeley, not even the rest of the country, and see who starts this! I hope you pass this along because the Left has to stop this violence. It’s getting worse and worse and worse. Everybody as a right to free speech. And they’re trying to silence one whole part of the country. And not let them have their speech. And we need this violence to stop! And it’s the agitators and the Left who are starting this. And the agitators start it, and then the others, the crowd-mind, they get involved in it too. I hope you tell the people up there in Berkeley to stop doing this. I do watch the news, and I see what’s going on, and it’s not what you said. Thank you. *click*”

I understand the impulse of the woman who called me. We are living through scary and exhausting times. The human need for order and normalcy is SO visceral, as is the craving for a simple solution–just tell those people in Berkeley to stop the violence. I want it to be that simple. I wish we could all just hold hands and sing Kum Ba Yah with white supremacists and Betsy DeVos and Steve Bannon and Kim Jong Un and Hurricane Irma and have this whole horrible chapter of human uncivilization resolve peacefully. But one reason you are here today is because you know it is not that simple. We are living through enormous changes, in chaotic systems, at an historic moment, and it will demand a lot of complex thinking and feeling and acting.

What struck me most about this woman’s message was her use of the word Agitator, over and over. That word has come up in every major struggle for civil rights since the American Revolution, and it is always used to try to maintain the status quo. It was used by slaveholders against abolitionists and slaves themselves before the Civil War. It was used by men who didn’t want to grant women the right to vote in the movement for suffrage. It was used by conservatives and moderates in the Civil Rights movement to try to distract the public from the real issue of institutionalized racism.

To call someone an agitator is to blame the victim while absolving the perpetrators. This happens not just in wider culture but in families too: the messenger who tells about the abuse, or names the addiction, or exposes the secret, gets shot. Just leave well enough alone, we hear. Why you want to go into all that mess? How could you do that to this family? But we reach a point, in family and in culture, where we understand the cost of silence in the face of sin. We become willing to agitate, to stir the pot, to expose the lie, to unearth the shadow, in order to save lives, literally and figuratively.

Of the 700 or so folks who sat in the pews here two weeks ago, many of us had been trained earlier that week in the principles of nonviolent direct action and deescalation. Among the things we learned: that the counterprotest was not the time or place to try to have a reasoned conversation with someone who thinks differently than us. If we were marching downtown to try to convert a white supremacist with the sheer force of our love, not to mention our carefully honed theological arguments about the original sin of slavery or the finer points of Levitical law in welcoming the immigrant, we were likely to be frustrated and perhaps even put ourselves or others in danger by actively engaging someone from the ‘other side.’

If someone engaged us, we were told to keep our voice low and soft, and to be prepared for someone from our group to move us gently aside, and step into our place if the conversation started heating up. This tactic would confuse our opponent, disrupt their fight or flight mechanism, and function to make them “start from scratch” in trying to provoke a confrontation into violence. If our group saw a person or color, or a visibly queer person or some other vulnerable person getting targeted, we would likewise move into their place, and send them to the heart of our gathering, giving them a buffer zone.

It was kind of mindblowing to learn these strategies of deescalation. But in a way, it was frustrating, too. Ever since last Election Day, one of the topics that has surfaced again and again amongst us believers in our beautiful Bay Area bubble is: how can we make relationships and learn from people who think differently from us in such a polarized climate? How do we rehumanize ourselves to our enemies, and understand their pain and struggle? How do we find common ground? We are taking it so seriously that we are making Nonviolent Communication the topic of our All Church Retreat group time, and planning a full-day NVC training here in November. We want to get to WORK.

But how are we ever to heal the polarization in our country if we’re not even allowed to talk to white supremacists when we come face to face with them?

Jesus has given us a blueprint for how to handle interpersonal conflict. It’s a roadmap that, given all we’ve learned about neuropsychology and organizational behavior, still makes sense after all these years.

Surprisingly enough, Jesus does not encourage us to sit down and write our adversary a long carefully written email to convince them of the justice of our position. He does not suggest using all caps and some choice expletives in the comments section of our favorite online publication. He does not advocate mentioning your problem to a third party in hopes that the message will get communicated to the one who hurt you and they will magically see the error of their ways.

He says, if someone sins against you, the thing to do is sit down and talk it out, face to face.

Whoa. Radical!

It is obvious why this is the thing to do. In being together, incarnated and vulnerable, not in a crowd or with a mob behind us, we can see each other’s faces and fullest humanity. We can communicate not just with words but with our whole bodies. We can have a dialogue in real time. And because pride, the bad kind, is such an obstacle to peacemaking, we are more likely to acknowledge where we have messed up or made a mistake or actively sinned, when we are confronted in private than if we are called out in front of others.

Only if this face to face encounter fails, Jesus says, should we enlist others. Sometimes, safety determines that we should have others with us. But when possible, 1:1 is the way to go, so that the confrontee doesn’t feel ganged up on.

If the 1:1 dialogue doesn’t go so well, nor does the group dialogue, nor does censure by the whole community–well, Jesus says, treat that person like a tax collector or a Pharisee. We know what everybody thought of them.

Except this is a confusing ask. William Barclay wrote of this passage, “It is not possible that Jesus said this in its present form. Jesus could not have told people to take things to the Church, because it didn’t exist…what is more, it speaks of tax collectors and [Pharisees] as irreclaimable outsiders. Yet Jesus was accused of being the friend of tax gatherers and sinners; and he never spoke of them as hopeless outsiders, but always with sympathy and love, and even with praise.”

Which is why it makes sense that Eugene Peterson would translate that phrase about Pharisees and tax collectors this way: “If the sinner won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.”

Offer God’s forgiving love. Offer a reckless, undeserved, bridge-building, wall-destroying Love. Face to face. Barclay says this means “speaking even of enemies with sympathy and gentleness and an appreciation of their good qualities.”

Jesus said, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” What this line from scripture says is that, above all, God longs for reconciliation between Her children. Not a cheap grace, and not a peace that papers over reality. But God longs that we continue to encounter each other, and so encounter Her.

And it occurs to me that one way holy encounter is happening right now is in storm shelters all over Texas and Florida. They are two of the reddest states and yet states also filled with poor people of color, people whose lives are being shredded by this president’s policies. I’m going to attempt to speak of my enemy with sympathy: People lambasted Trump for going to Houston last week and saying he saw “a lot of happiness” at the convention center where displaced people had taken refuge. But it is entirely possible that that was the first time he had ever encountered naked human suffering, face to face, and the amazing things that humans do for each other in desperate situations. Maybe what he was responding to, maybe what he saw and what spoke to his soul, which has to be in there somewhere, was the generous and humanizing encounters that happen in crisis. DACA students and MAGA men working side by side to save lives. Black and Latina and conservative white moms thrown together by circumstances, sleeping side by side, spelling each other with child care, becoming a village. I don’t believe God sent the hurricanes, but I believe God will use them; God will use every storm to bring us together when we want to stay apart. God is always popping the bubbles we believe we live in, so that we can meet face to face.

~

Go forth to burst bubbles, especially your own. Go forth to deep human encounter across all our glorious difference. And keep in mind that there is a lot of diversity right here in this room, both visible and invisible. We do not all live in the same bubble. So let us burst those bubbles, may we connect face to face, literally, right now, bridging this aisle to hold hands to sing Kum Ba Yah, singing so that our neighborhood and the whole world might hear. Amen!

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