June 30, 2019

3rd Sunday after Pentecost

Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62


Nowadays, heated political debate does not need to happen in a public space; it can happen in the private space of social media. I have my own experience on this regard. Now, although it happened in the digital and not in the physical world, the emotions involved were real.

 Once, I responded to a political statement made by a public figure on his Instagram account. I felt so strongly against his statement and tried to prove to him that he was wrong. It was a mistake. His followers on Instagram responded swiftly to my comment. One person said that he completely agreed with me. But, the rest of them did not. They obviously didn’t like what I wrote and tried to defend the public figure’s statement.

 The discussion became so heated and it got to the point when it became quite personal. That night, I was so obsessed by the comments that I spent hours responding to them. The obsession was exacerbated by the fact that we, the ‘combatants’ couldn’t see one another.

 I only stopped when my clock said 2 o’clock in the morning! It was way past my bedtime, but I didn’t feel tired because the adrenaline was rushing in my blood. I was so gripped by the desire to outdo my opponents that I lost track of time.

 So, did I achieve anything from engaging in that kind of argument online? Did I change their opinions? Did they change my opinion? Did the world become a better place because of our discussion? No, no, no, and no! We only got involved in point-scoring arguments, trying to outwit one another. My goal was only to destroy my opponents’ arguments and proved that I was right. For sure, when I went to bed that night, I didn’t make any new friend.

 My obsession that night is the microcosm of a much larger tendency plays out in international politics. Retaliation seems to be the keyword in our political world today. The world nervously watches as two of the most powerful countries, USA and China, fight in a trade war. An increase in import tariffs by one country is met by a similar increase by the other. No party wants to back down from their retaliatory rhetoric and action.

 Lately, the world is again on the brink of a major war when US and Iran engaged in a dangerous skirmish. A US surveillance drone was shot down by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Both countries blame each other for the incident. Obviously, US President, Donald Trump, reacted angrily. He threatened to obliterate parts of Iran if they threaten anything American.[1]

 And, these are only two examples of brewing rivalries that could turn into major conflicts in our world.

 Friends, no one really wins in a war. Hundreds, if not thousands of lives will be lost. And, that’s only because we cannot find a better way to solve our dispute.

 Daniel Goleman is the author of the worldwide best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence. In it, he introduces two main pathways that the brain takes: the low road and the high road. The low road is what he calls the emotional brain. It is the older part of the brain that is responsible for our ancestors’ survival in the wilderness. It helped them quickly decide either to fight or to flight in a life and death situation.

 But, this part of the brain is highly reactive and fully controlled by emotional impulses. In the modern world, it can misguide us to react excessively or violently to a perceived threat, real or not.

 Daniel Goleman then invites us to develop the high road; the thinking brain. It is the part of the brain that controls and regulates our emotional impulses. It is the part of the brain that evaluates the facts and considers the most appropriate reaction.

 Goleman argues that many people who end up in the prison are those who fail to develop their high road. They readily give in to their emotional impulses and react excessively. They would be in a different place if they learned to let their thinking brain decide.

 Friends, I think this modern neuroscience has its spiritual precedence in Christian faith. The Apostle Paul may not talk about the low road and the high road, but his words are similar. In his letter to the Galatians, he talks about the flesh and the Spirit. We are to live not according to the flesh, but to the Spirit. Following the flesh, and its desire, will only lead to our and our community’s destruction. But, following the way of the Spirit will lead to the fullness of life.

 Let me give you an example from my own marriage. Those of you who are married know who difficult a married life is. It is about putting together two people with different personalities, life experiences, and backgrounds. If it’s not managed properly, it can be a recipe for disaster.

 Once, my wife and I were so angry at each other that we didn’t talk to each other for some days. I myself was so angry that that my mind was occupied by nothing else but the anger. Instead of looking for ways to reconcile with my wife, I looked for more ways to add fuel into the fire.

 But, when I was alone and had a bit of time of quiet, I heard the whisper of the Spirit in my heart. The Spirit reminded me of one very important lesson that I heard before.

 See, the world likes to tell us that the goal of marriage is about finding happiness. Since we were young, we were told to find our prince/princess charming that will make us happy.

 But, the goal of marriage is not to make us happy. This is a modern misconception of the true purpose of marriage. The goal of marriage is to make the other person happy. We enter into a marriage by making a vow to look after and care for our partner, not for ourselves.

 See, in that moment, the Spirit took my focus away from me and my needs, to my wife and her needs. In anger, it’s so easy to look for reasons to justify our anger and blame the other party. But, the Spirit teaches us a different way: the high road, not the low road. The fruit of that road is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

 That’s the way of Jesus as well. When the people in the village in Samaria refused to welcome the disciples, they responded with anger. They wanted to bring fire down on those villagers.

 Now, the Prophet Elijah twice sent fire down from heaven to consume his enemy’s army.[2] Perhaps, the disciples had something similar in their mind. But, whether or not they could send fire from heaven, the main thing was that they wanted to retaliate. They displayed a triumphalist approach. They sought no middle ground: either you are with us or against us. They showed no grace towards those who opposed them.

 But, Jesus would not have a bar of it. He rightly rebuked them for their behavior. Instead of joining the disciples in condemning the villagers, he invited self-reflection. He asked his disciples to look back to their own motivation to follow him. He invited them to choose the high road and not the low road.

 When Nelson Mandela left the prison in 1990, he found a country hurtling towards a bloody civil war. Both the black and white communities were armed to the teeth. Both had committed atrocities towards each other.

 At this stage, Mandela had no formal power or title. What he had was an outsize personal and moral persuasion.

 The breaking point seemed to arrive when one prominent anti-apartheid activist was brutally killed. The last straw had been added and the camel seemed to be close to breaking down.

 Mandela was faced with a daunting task. If he gave in to his anger, the country would be broken forever. If he did not condemn the killing, the country would also be broken forever. So, in national television, he addressed his people saying,

“This is a watershed moment for all of us. We must not let the men who worship war, and who lust after blood, precipitate actions that will plunge our country ...”[3]

 Yes, he somehow found a way to choose the high road and persuade his nation to follow him. The rest is history.

 Back to my heated discussion on Instagram, I had to say that there rare moments of warmth. In the midst of emotionally charged comments, there are moments of self-reflection and openness. One person, who disagreed strongly against me, even invited me to come and visit her one day. Perhaps, I will accept her invitation and choose to follow the Spirit’s way and walk down the high road.

Toby Keva

[1] “Call for calm in Iran amid US tension” on 9News Website (Wednesday, June 9 at 11 am).

[2] 2 Kings 1: 10-12.

[3] Keith B. Richburg’s article on Washington Post.