A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 7, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Isaiah 11:1-9 and Luke 1:46b-55
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Today’s reading from Isaiah has inspired lots of art, none perhaps as famous “The Peaceable Kingdom” by the American artist from the early 19th century, Edward Hicks. That might be because Hicks painted 61 versions of inspired by these verses.[1] It is not surprising that a Quaker would embrace these verses as an inspiration for his painting. The Quakers are an historic peace church, a church that views all war as immoral and that one cannot follow Christ and fight in a war at the same time.

I find it interesting that in at least a few of his versions of “The Peaceable Kingdom,” Quakers and Native Americans are in the background meeting peacefully, maybe even agreeing to a treaty establishing peaceful relationships between them. In the foreground of the paintings you find the animals (including children) listed in the verses from Isaiah 11, hanging out together.

If you look at the list of animals and which animals are listed next to each other, you’ll find predator next to prey. The wolf and the lamb will live together. The leopard and the baby goat will sleep with each other. The calf and the cattle fattened up to get ready for slaughter and the lion will hang out together, and a little child shall lead them. Remember, lions once ranged from what is now South Africa to Greece and Morocco to India, so they were a real threat to farmers’ herds and even to children.[2] And speaking of children, Isaiah adds that infants and toddlers will play with poisonous snakes and not be hurt. And, though Isaiah doesn’t mention humans, it seems that everyone is becoming a vegetarian – the cow and the bear shall graze and the lion shall eat straw like an ox (never mind that oxen eat hay, not straw).

As I contemplated what it would take for this actually to be possible, my first thought was about power and fear. The predator would have to give up being a predator. The predator would have to give up the power the predator has over the prey. And the prey would have to give up being afraid of the predator. Then my scientific mind kicked in and I thought about the evolution that the meat-eaters would have to go through so they could be nourished on a vegetarian diet. But if you’ll set aside my scientific meandering and stick to the poetry of the text, you’ll see that overcoming fear and giving up of power is a pretty important step to fulfilling the hope within this text.

Our Gospel lesson for today is Mary’s song. It is the culmination of Luke’s story about Mary’s pregnancy. The angel appears to her, she finds out she’s pregnant, she goes off to see her cousin who is also surprisingly pregnant, and she bursts into song. Before we get into the song, let’s go back to the beginning of the story. The angel appears and, after he offers a perplexing greeting, he tells her, “Do not be afraid.”

Have you noticed how prevalent fear is in our culture? All you need do it turn on the news (and I think cable news networks are the most guilty of this) and you’re bombarded with reasons to be afraid. The three primary tools of advertising are lies, fantasy, and fear, with fear being an important tool used to hook parents to buy stuff for their kids. The use of fear doesn’t stop with advertising.

Peter Block has noted, “The marketing of fear is not just for profit; it also holds a political agenda. Fear justifies the retributive agenda, fundamentalist in the extreme, that has been on the rise for some time. The retributive agenda believes that a just and civil society is one that gives priority to restraints, consequences, and control, and underlines the importance of rules. It gets packaged as spiritual values, family values, the American way, love it or leave it, all under the umbrella of law and order. It helps build the incarceration industry and the protection industry, it creates a platform so that those in power can expand their power, and it discounts the rehabilitation industry. Fear forms the basis of our recent foreign policy and drives much of our legislation. Fear also fuels the allure of suburban life and is a subtle but clear argument against diversity and inclusion.”[3]

We’ve seen exactly what Block writes about on the streets of cities across the United States these past few weeks. We’ve seen how fear has been used to manipulate us into prejudiced feelings and assumptions. We’ve seen how fear has been used to try to rally political support for one cause or another. Do you remember how panicked the airways were about Ebola right before the election and how, as soon as the election was over, headlines about the crisis disappeared?

If we can get past fear, if we can get past the ways fear controls us, we will be substantially freer and we will be a step closer to the peaceable kingdom Isaiah describes.

When Mary bursts into song, she proclaims some amazing things that God is doing: God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

A power shift is occurring, Mary proclaims. When the predators no longer hunt the prey, when the powerful are brought down and the lowly are lifted up, we are a step closer to the Peaceable Kingdom. Is it any wonder that, when the angels proclaim the birth of Jesus in Luke’s gospel, they come to shepherds and not to the elites?

Isaiah says how this power shift will occur. The shoot that shall come forth from the stump of Jesse – remember, Jesse is the father of King David, so Isaiah is talking about a descendant of King David. And this shoot “shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”

Today, our criminal justice system is really a criminal punishment system. Even if it ran ideally, it would be a criminal fairness system – all people who committed the same crime would be treated equally, “fairly.” But equality is a far cry from justice.

You may remember a sermon Pastor Brenda preached a few months ago. The cover of the bulletin had two pictures of three kids of differing heights standing on boxes to look over a fence to watch a ball game. In the picture on the left, each kid is standing on a box. That’s equality – each kid has a box. But even standing on a box, the shortest kid can’t see of the top of the fence. The other kids can, but the shortest kid can’t.

In the right picture, it seems that the tallest kid’s box has been given to the shortest kid. The tallest kid is still tall enough to see over the fence, the middle kid can see over the fence standing on one box, and the shortest kid could see over the fence standing on two boxes. That’s not equal: the short kid got two boxes and the tall kid didn’t get any. It’s not equal, but it is what justice looks like.

Only when we move away from fear and power over and create a court system that seeks restorative justice for all will we have real justice.

I read story[4] online about almost two weeks ago about a lesson a high school teacher taught. He had his students, sitting at their desk in their neat rows, each take a piece of scrap paper and crumple it up. He placed a recycle bin under the whiteboard and told the kids that the assignment was to throw their wads of paper into the can from their seats. The kids in the back immediately called out, “Unfair!” The kids in the front row, especially the kids in the center of the front row, had a privileged position for this assignment. Interestingly, none of the kids in the front row objected to the unfairness of the assignment. And not only was it unfair, it was unjust because some of the kids were great at beanbag tossing and other couldn’t hit the side of a barn.

Of course, that was the whole point of the assignment. My point, so far in this sermon, is that we’ve got a ways to go before the work of the shoot from the stump of Jesse is complete, that we have a lot of work to do before the visions of Isaiah’s Peaceable Kingdom and Mary’s song of justice are fulfilled.

This is true, but it’s not the whole story. It turns out that we’re actually on the way. The 20th century was the least violent century in human history and we are learning that nonviolence is actually more effective than violence.

I realize those two statements are hard to believe. The 20th century included two world wars, so how could it possibly have been less violent than other centuries? There’s a British woman who attends the Bible study I lead each month at Alma Via (or whatever it’s being called these days). Her mother grew up in Kent and she told me at our last Bible study that every household on the street where her mother grew up lost a son or a father in World War I. Every household. How could the 20th century possibly be the least violent in human history?

Well, according to Harvard Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker, it is.[5] Looking at the percentage of population that dies violently, Pinker says that we have come from 15% of the population in the pre-state area (before agriculture and the city) to less than 1%. His research documents five shifts that have led to this decline, interesting reading but more detailed than you need for this sermon. If you’re interested in reading the details, I’ll include a link in the manuscript I post online.[6]

When Professor Pinker looked at violence in the first decade of this century, he found, “documented direct deaths from political violence (war, terrorism, genocide and warlord militias) … is [at] an unprecedented few hundredths of a percentage point. Even if we multiplied that rate to account for unrecorded deaths and the victims of war-caused disease and famine, it would not exceed 1%.”[7]

Pinker also notes the import impact of nonviolent direct action at reducing violence in general and violent deaths in particular due to lynchings, pogroms, violence against women, and homophobia. He adds, “In recent decades, the movement for children’s rights has significantly reduced rates of spanking, bullying, paddling in schools, and physical and sexual abuse.”[8]

And, as I said a moment ago, it turns out that nonviolence movements are more successful than violent movements. Erica Chenoweth, an Associate Professor at the University of Denver, and Maria Stephan, a strategic planner in the U. S. State Department, found that “nonviolent resistance is more than twice as successful as violent resistance, even in the face of brutal regime repression.”[9]

They examined 323 social change campaigns that had 1000 people or more in them from around the world between the years 1900 and 2006, and those were their results. They also found “that countries experiencing nonviolent uprisings are much more likely to emerge from the conflicts democratic and with a lower risk of civil war relapse compared to places where insurgencies were violent.”[10] They suggest that nonviolence works better than violence because it gets a broader and larger base of support and because when violence is met with repression, the repression gets some support because the violence it’s repressing is, well, violent. If you want more details, you can watch her TEDx talk here; it’s worth the 12 minutes.

For their research, Chenoweth and Stephan purposefully set aside the question of which method of resistance is right or wrong morally and assessed, instead, which was the superior strategic choice. Since it’s my job, I’ll bring morality back into the discussion. I’m really glad to find out that nonviolent movements are twice as likely to be successful than violent one because even if the data showed the opposite conclusion, nonviolence would still be the moral choice for change. Nonviolence requires discipline and courage. Without moving past fear, nonviolence is not possible. Interesting that one of the hallmarks of the Peaceable Kingdom is a necessary element of building it.

So, that’s what this sermon is about. God’s intention for us is a peaceable kin-dom. Establishing it requires those who are marginalized to give up their fear. Establishing it requires those who have power over others to relinquish it. Establishing it requires us to let go of “fairness” as our sense of what is right and to embrace a justice that restores wholeness. The good news is that we are on our way.

Amen.

[1] “Edward Hicks,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Hicks (accessed 6 December 2014).

[2] “Lion,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion (accessed 6 December 2014).

[3] Peter Block, Community, p 38; quoted by Diana Butler Bass on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/d.butler.bass/posts/10152883835729496 (posted and accessed 5 December 2014).

[4] Modified from Nathan W. Pyle, “This Teacher Taught His Class a Powerful Lesson About Privilege,” BuzzFeed, http://www.buzzfeed.com/nathanwpyle/this-teacher-taught-his-class-a-powerful-lesson-about-privil (posted 21 November 2014; accessed 25 November 2014).

[5] Steven Pinker, “Violence vanquished,” The Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424053111904106704576583203589408180 (posted 24 September 2011; accessed 6 December 2014).

[6] See previous note.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Erica Chenoweth, “Why civil resistance trumps violent uprisings,” CNN, http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2012/09/19/why-civil-resistance-trumps-violent-uprisings/ (posted 21 September 2012; accessed 1 December 2014).
Chenoweth has an interesting TEDx talk on this work that you can see at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJSehRlU34w.

[10] Ibid.

Advertisements