by Pastor Doug Kings
Last Friday the expected emails arrived from our two bishops. They both were writing about the latest outbreak of violence in the Middle East. As long as I have had any awareness of that part of the world, there has always been fighting and violence. It’s tempting to summarize the region saying, “It’s what they do there.”
And perhaps that’s all that can be said about the current conflict and why the bishops’ letters fell flat. What is there to say? Bad people have done bad things. Innocent people are suffering. There is fault on both (all?) sides. If people aren’t careful, this could get way out of hand. We’re all anxious. Pray for peace.
Being bishops and church leaders, both letters carried an assumption that they had to say something. But their attempt to stir their readers collided with the realities of an unending and irresolvable conflict. Boilerplate statements like “We are moved by our Christian duty to advocate for peace, justice, etc.” (Bishop Saurez) and “God has called us to be a people who stand with others amid suffering” (Bishop Eaton) only serve to underline our status as bystanders to the unfolding horror. Eaton shows some awareness of this, however, when she acknowledges, “It is difficult to find words that suffice in the complexity of this moment.”
Must we say something? Must we have an opinion? Elizabeth Spiers doesn’t think so, but she recognizes the pressure on us to do so. Spier writes about the dilemma in a New York Times guest post, “I Don’t Have to Post About My Outrage. Neither Do You.” While she is a writer, foreign affairs reporting is not her gig. Yet she soon found herself receiving messages on social media from complete strangers demanding she take a public stand about the latest Middle East crisis.
It seemed that most of the people on social media had made a statement, including various corporate brands, celebrities and miscellaneous lifestyle influencers…. As I scrolled through my timeline, I saw lots of random citizens being told that if they didn’t speak out, they, too, would have blood on their hands. People speaking from both the right and the left seemed to attribute my silence to depraved indifference to human suffering, though they were divided on which humans were suffering.
But according to Spiers, silence more likely reflects an awareness that a complicated problem defies easy solutions or even understanding.
The impulse toward loud, reductive declarations reflects genuine fear about horrors that lie beyond words. Simple binaries imply simple solutions. And it’s much more pleasant to tell yourself you stand on the side of good, against evil, than to question whether the lines of demarcation were drawn correctly.
Sitting with uncertainty is hard, especially when social media has primed us to expect perfect real-time information during traumatic events and to want instantaneous answers and resolution. Moral certainty is an anchor we cling to when factual certainty is not possible.
The impulse to instant analysis and opinion, however, is the very thing that inhibits real resolution of the problem.
Knee-jerk social media posts are not what bothers me most, though. Instead, it’s the idea that … everyone needs to speak, all the time. It discourages shutting up and listening and letting the voices that matter the most be heard over the din. It implies it’s not OK to have any uncertainty about what’s going on or any kind of moral analysis that does not lend itself to presentation in a social media post. It does not leave time or space for people to process traumatic events in the sanctuary of their own minds or to gather more information before pronouncing a judgment.
The impassioned declarations from friends or strangers on social media, and the incessant chatter of the talking heads on TV, exert an inexorable pull on us to join in with our own, seemingly confident, declarations of opinion on this or that issue or event. Why the pull? Because it makes us feel good. Or rather, as Eckhart Tolle says, it makes our ego feel good. It wants to look confident and assertive rather than hesitant or confused. Writing in The New Earth, our current discussion book, Tolle says,
There is nothing that strengthens the ego more than being right. Being right is identification with a mental position—a perspective, an opinion, a judgment, a story. For you to be right, of course, you need someone else to be wrong, and so the ego loves to make wrong in order to be right. In other words: You need to make others wrong in order to get a stronger sense of who you are…. Being right places you in a position of imagined moral superiority…. It is that sense of superiority the ego craves and through which it enhances itself.
The clash of egos is a valued part of many talk shows. It’s great entertainment. But such drama in our lives and relationships only divides, isolates, and confuses us. Our true self gets buried by an ego out-of-control with fear and anger.
What is an argument? Two or more people express their opinions and those opinions differ. Each person is so identified with the thoughts that make up their opinion, that those thoughts harden into mental positions which are invested with a sense of self. In other words: Identity and thought merge. Once this has happened, when I defend my opinions (thoughts), I feel and act as if I were defending my very self…. That’s the illusion. The ego doesn’t know that mind and mental positions have nothing to do with who you are because the ego is the unobserved mind itself. In Zen they say: “Don’t seek the truth. Just cease to cherish opinions.” What does that mean? Let go of identification with your mind. Who you are beyond the mind then emerges by itself.
“Going beyond the mind” is the literal meaning of the Greek word metanoia translated as “repentance.” Thus, to repent means to transcend your ego and be who you truly are. Spiritual traditions call that self “conscious awareness” or Presence. In the Bible we are called children of God, Spirit, or Love. In last Sunday’s reading, Paul says we have and are “the peace that surpasses all understanding.”
Judgements and opinions don’t bring peace. Rather we need only rest in being ourselves as God made us, enjoying and caring for the creation God gave us, and loving the neighbors we share our lives with as ourselves.
Blessings in your life and ministry.