Gentleness and Power

September 23, 2018

Series: September 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

James 3:13-4:4

13Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

4:1 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 4Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

 Gentleness & Power

The moved Saved offers a caricature and critique of a certain kind of Christianity.  It features zealous youth at a religious high school.  There’s a scene in which one girl chases after another offering all kinds of judgment and condemnation.  It culminates in her throwing the Bible at her yelling, “I’m filled with the Christ’s love!”  The other girl, poignantly named “Mary,” turns around, picks up the Bible and responds, “Don’t you get it; this is not a weapon.”  The language of faith or the faithful mustn’t be fundamentally a language of aggression.  The Franciscan Richard Rohr says that if conservatives lean toward fear, liberals lean toward rage.  Either is legitimate for a moment, but neither is an effective long-term strategy. 

James puts before us that teaching that true wisdom gives birth to gentleness.  If you carry bitter envy or selfish ambition, you’ve got to get back to work, back to prayer, back to contemplation and quiet, where the true desires of your heart can be heard and the Spirit can chip away at your bitterness.  It’s easier said than done, but it can be done and it must be done, or we run the risk of doing so much damage.  James is speaking to the difficulty of being with others.  I can’t tell you how many times people say to me, “I can’t be around…” or “I don’t know how to be with…” you fill in the blank.  It could be a family member or co-worker or even friend where a divide has formed.  They just can’t engage without things escalating, so they totally disengage, and there is a time for that, when it’s too raw to do anything but further damage.

Sooner or later, however, you have to engage.  All too often Christianity gets reduced to some vague notion of being nice, avoiding conflict, “not going there.”  This so-called peacekeeping can end up enabling hurtful behavior.  As Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, while we are called to be peacemakers, calling it “the virtue of the church,” we are not called to preserve false peace.  He writes, “You cannot overlook a fault on the presumption that it is better not to disturb the peace.  Rather, you must risk stirring the waters, causing disorder, rather than overlook the sin.”[1]  Hauerwas is not deputizing us into the personal sin police force, winging around our Bibles like that angry teenager.  He is more concerned with recognizing falseness at work and calling it out. 

Hauerwas, who was at Duke Divinity and Duke Law, is an interesting example to use here, because he has not been known for gentleness.  A fiery teacher, he garnered a reputation for swearing prolifically in class, elevating it to a veritable artform.  As a pacifist from the Mennonite tradition, he came to the point where he recognized the incongruity in himself.  A friend of mine who studied under him said once Hauerwas reported to the class that he had asked the community around him, his colleagues and friends, to hold him accountable to his pacifism not just in his stances on war, but in his personal conduct, and in his speech. 

Hauerwas recognized what James understood so well, that you can’t work for peace while embodying violence, of any form.  “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom…the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3:13-17).  Your work has to be about pure wisdom, not personal grudges or bitterness toward those who oppose you.  It will not only taint your message, but it will give others all the reason they need to find you unconvincing, to write you off. 

Gentleness is not very much in vogue.  I’m not sure it ever was.  It’s a feminine characteristic, and in our culture that means it’s something for women to overcome and men to avoid.  Of course, it is present in us all, and it should be lifted up, not torn down.  Jesus was plenty strong, and he embraced gentleness.  We know the Catholic Church is currently experiencing its own struggles with incongruity; it’s leader has something to say on this matter of gentles.  Pope Francis uses the term tenderness and says:

Yes, tenderness is the path of choice for the strongest, most courageous men and women. Tenderness is not weakness; it is fortitude. It is the path of solidarity, the path of humility. Please, allow me to say it loud and clear: the more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other. There is a saying in Argentina: "Power is like drinking gin on an empty stomach." You feel dizzy, you get drunk, you lose your balance, and you will end up hurting yourself and those around you, if you don’t connect your power with humility and tenderness. Through humility and concrete love, on the other hand, power – the highest, the strongest one – becomes a service, a force for good.[2]

           Francis goes on to talk about a “revolution of tenderness.”  In three words he names perhaps the fullness of the Christian vocation, revolution of tenderness.  You need both pieces, revolution and tenderness, revolution because it calls into question conventional wisdom that oppresses or harms or neglects, and tenderness lest we just replace one violent system with another.  Without revolution all you have is chicken soup for the soul.  There’s a time for that, but it’s not the whole feast.  Without tenderness you have holy war, and in my opinion there’s no such thing.

          It comes down to a choice.  What reality do you want to live into—the temporal false reality that is fading away, or the eternal real, the “real real” as Richard Rohr would put it?  .  In the children’s Bible that Desmond Tutu put together, one of the things he says at the outset is that children should learn to become “friends with God.”  That is the language of James:  “Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (4:4).  It’s not a purity code.  Adultery is a metaphor for having a divided allegiance.  You can’t be friends with the world, which is built on using violence and aggression to gain power-over, and be friends with God, who embodies power-with through a revolution of tenderness led by the Prince of Peace.  Choose your friends carefully, as they say. 

          Now there is an important critique to offer of this, an important caveat to give voice to.  It’s awfully convenient for those in power to argue for gentleness, to argue for divesting of power, to argue for nonviolence to the powerless because it becomes a way of keeping them down.  That’s insidious, and the church in various forms has been guilty of it, whether it’s with respect to oppressed peoples or abused individuals.  Being friends with God, as we see most clearly in the life of Jesus, means standing alongside the most vulnerable people (if you’re not one yourself), and using your power gently to oppose injustice, personal or institutional.  That needs to be clear.

          So, what do you do?  How do you do it?  You practice practice practice your gentleness.  You adopt practices that teach you to slow down in heated moments in order to circumvent your reactiveness.  You develop a robust prayer practice, and I’d recommend one in which you don’t do all the talking.  You live in some form of community.  Hauerwas, imperfect as he may be, is a good example, for what did he do, but reach out to seek the accountability of other people?  And, for Hauerwas, a key is remembering we are a forgiven people.[3]  As Christians we believe that we have been shown tenderness, and it’s from that experience that we draw the ability to be tender with others.  For some of you, it’s going to take a lot of work getting in touch with your forgiveness, because it’s been denied you by circumstance or teaching.  It’s hard work.  It’s good work.  It’s necessary work.  I want to support you in it, for you don’t do it, if we don’t do it, then we add to the list one more unhealed crusader, and Lord knows we don’t need any more of those. 

          We can do the work together, practice here. 

          The great/famed preacher Fred Craddock tells a story about showing up to a church one night where he was to be the featured preacher for services to be held over the next three days.  When he arrives, there is a funeral letting out.  Craddock is welcomed by the local minister who is consoling the widow and is somewhat awkwardly introduced to her.  A stranger to her, Craddock sheepishly expressed his condolences.  She responded that because of the circumstances she wouldn’t be at services that night, but she would be the next two days.  He replied instinctually, “Oh, you don’t need to.”  Think of that, a preacher telling someone they don’t need to be at church, as if it’s some form of punishment!  “Yes I do…you see, this is my church, and they’re going to see that my children and I are okay.”[4]

          There’s the gentleness, the church as a cradle of tenderness.  We practice it in here in easier moments, so when we are called to more difficult ones, it’s gentleness that is our native tongue.  A

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, “Peacemaking:  The Virtue of the Church” in The Hauerwas Reader (Durham:  Duke University Press, 2005), 324-325.

[2] Pope Francis, Ted Talk.

[3] Hauerwas, 321.

[4] Fred Craddock