From the Psalter:

Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 40:6 (NRSV) – June 7, 2013.)

Religion BulletIn the Psalter in the Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer this verse (numbered “7” there) is rendered: “In sacrifice and offering you take no pleasure (you have given me ears to hear you).” I rather prefer the NRSV’s translation because the “open ear” can hear more than God, and that open-eared hearing of others is much on my mind this morning.

Earlier this morning I was surfing around on Facebook when up popped a “meme” — one of those pictures over which a caption of some sort has been superimposed — from one of the liberal political pages I “follow.” (Yes, I follow liberal political pages. I also follow conservative political pages. And I follow pages with cute pictures of kittens and puppies. You can find just about everything on Facebook.)

The meme features a cartridge. I’m no expert, but I believe it to be a Russian 7.62x39mm round, or possible a 308 Win cartridge. In any event, on the bullet are inscribed three religious symbols: Judaism’s Star of David, a Christian Latin cross, and the Star-and-Crescent of Islam. The superimposed caption reads: “Religion. The Number One Cause of War.”

I commented that the meme reflected an historically invalid assertion and that there are many mixed causes of war, some of which (e.g., economics, nationalist politics, famine or natural disaster) may be more causative than religious belief. The first response to my comment was, “Bullshit!” Some other less scatological responses told me I was wrong. What followed was a fairly reasonable discussion with some commenters agreeing with me and arguing my point further, and others disagreeing but arguing their position rationally. The discussion came to an abrupt end when a dissenter called me a “f—–g fundamentalist.”

Although there was that brief rational discussion between the first response and the last one, it is those two replies — together with the nature of the meme itself — that frame my thoughts about the Psalm verse. In addition, my meditation this morning is informed by the gospel lesson from Luke:

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

It seems to me that too much of our civic discourse is not civil discourse. Too often conversations, particularly political or religious discussions, are framed in obstinate, polarizing absolutes. These absolutes plug the ears of the participants, to use the Psalm’s image. The Pharisee in the parable represents this closed-minded, plugged-ear way of thinking: he is so certain and self-assured as to brook no contradiction. “Thank God I am not like other people. In everything I do and think, I am right; nothing anyone can ever say will change my opinion or belief.” The ears of the Pharisee are not open; he is impervious to inputs from outside his own mind. He inhabits a world of absolutes in which he is the paragon of virtue and rectitude. This is not someone one can talk to.

The tax-collector, on the other hand, represents a different approach. “I am a sinner. Something in my life and in the world which I inhabit is not right, and I cannot make it so. I need the help of someone or something other than myself.” The tax-collector is not self-assured; his ears are open and listening for the inputs of others, especially from God but also from others in the society around him. He is willing to admit (and does admit) his own fallibility. Not only might he be wrong, he is willing to accept already that he is. This is someone with whom one can converse.

The discussion of the meme on Facebook, insofar is it involved me and two others (and, to a lesser extent, the other participants, as well), can be cast as a conversation between the two characters of this parable:

Pharisee – “Religion is the cause of war.”
Tax-collector – “I think there may be other causes.”
Pharisee – “Bullshit, you f—–g fundamentalist.”

End of discussion.

I can’t really debate the assertion that religion is a cause of war. (It is, but not its principal source.) However, I believe that a “glittering generality,” an absolutist assertion like the meme — an unconditional statement that is not susceptible of historical validation — is not helpful to a reasoned discussion of war’s causes and, more importantly, its solution.

How have we arrived at this highly polarized state of civic discourse? I don’t know and that’s really not the issue either. The issue is how can we back away from it? How can we unplug the “open ear” that God has given us? How can the church, which once fostered and encouraged open debate of issues (that’s how the Reformation got started, for example) promote civil debate?

Many congregations across several denominations sponsor forums and workshops on the issues of the day. This is a step in the right direction but, more often than not, the participant audiences at these debates are merely our own people. My question (and I have no answers to it) is how to begin to dialog with the Pharisees of the day: what does one say in response to “Bullshit, you f—–g fundamentalist” that will allow the conversation to continue?

Jesus once told Peter to forgive someone “seventy times seven times” (Matt. 18:22). I struggle with finding one productive response to “Bullshit, you f—–g fundamentalist”! Coming up with 490 of them is going to be really, really difficult!


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.