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Presented September 30, 2018, by Doug Muder
"The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works." - St. Augustine
When I was growing up, I wanted to be good, but I just didn't have the memory for it.
So sometimes Mom in the kitchen would tell me to go get something from another room. And I would set out with every intention of doing what she asked. But my path would take me through the living room, where my sister was watching something on TV. And I would think I had seen that episode before, and then we would argue about what was going to happen next. And then Mom would be yelling: Where was that thing she sent me to get?
Did you ever have that happen? You know what you're supposed to do, but you just can't hold it in your head long enough to get it done.
So this is a story about that kind of memory problem. It's a very old story. We know it because the early Christians wrote it down almost two thousand years ago in the Acts of Thomas, one of those books that didn't quite make it into the Bible. It goes like this:
A long time ago, there was a kingdom far to the East of the Bible Lands, probably somewhere near India. And it had a prize possession: the biggest, most perfect, most beautiful pearl in the world. People would travel for weeks just to see this pearl.
One day, though, a dragon stole the pearl, and flew away to the West. So the King and Queen sent spies out to try to find out where the dragon had taken their pearl. Eventually one reported back. In Egypt, there was a city next to a great sea. In the sea was an island, and on that island was the dragon's lair. The pearl had to be in there somewhere. All the top people in the Kingdom debated about what to do, and then the Prince volunteered. He said, "I will go to Egypt and deal with the dragon and bring the pearl back." And everyone cheered. So the Prince went to Egypt and found the city by the sea and found the island and saw the dragon. And he realized: This was going to be harder than he thought. So he retreated to the city by the sea to study the dragon and its weaknesses.
Now Egypt at this time was the center of civilization, and the city by the sea was maybe the most fascinating place in the world. There was always something interesting to do. There were festivals and parties, good food and drink, music and theater and art. The wisest people in the world lived in Egypt, and would talk about the most amazing subjects. So while the Prince went there to study dragons, little by little, he began to live the life of Egypt. And then something strange happened: He started to forget. He forgot about the pearl and the dragon. He forgot about the Kingdom in the East. He even forgot about his parents the King and Queen.
But the King and Queen didn't forget about him. When he didn't come home, they sent someone to Egypt to look for him. And he reported back that the Prince was fine, but he seemed to have forgotten all about them.
So the King and Queen wrote the Prince a letter, and the letter was just three lines long. It said: "Remember who you are. Remember where you come from. Remember what you came here to do."
When the Prince received the letter, he wondered who in the distant East might be writing to him. At first he found those three lines very confusing, but little by little it came back to him: He was the son of a king and queen. He came from that kingdom in the East. And he was here to recover the Great Pearl from the dragon who had taken it.
So he went back to his studies, and learned from the wise men of Egypt about a potion that puts dragons to sleep. And he went to the island, and used the potion and searched the dragon's lair until he found the pearl. And when he brought it home, there was a huge celebration.
Now that's an entertaining story. But it leaves us with another mystery: What is it doing inside the Acts of Thomas? When the early Christians wrote books like that, they weren't usually just trying to entertain. Usually they were trying to make a point. So we what point could they have been trying to make?I think they were trying to say that we are like the Prince. He was the son of a king and queen, but we are something even better than that: We are children of God. And like the Prince, we were sent to this world with a mission: to take care of each other, and to make the world better.
But the world is a fascinating place, and once you start living a life, it's easy to get caught up in all the things that are going on here. We get caught up in what's going on at work or in school, in what our friends are doing. We think about the things we want to do, the places we want to go, and the stuff we want to buy - and we forget. We forget about taking care of each other, and making the world better. So all of us, for time to time, need somebody to do for us what his parents' letter did for the Prince. We need somebody to say to us: "Remember who you are. Remember where you come from. Remember why you're here."
And that's why we come to places like this church. We take a little time out of our week to put aside the distractions of our lives, so that we can remember who we really are, and what we're really here to do.
All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren is a Pulitzer-prize-winning novel published in 1946. In this segment, ?which would have taken place some time in the 1920s, the narrator, Jack Burden, ?is describing his high-school romance with the love of his life, Anne Stanton.
Sometimes, when I stopped the car she wouldn't even open her eyes until I had leaned over to kiss her, and I might have to kiss her enough to stop her breath.
Or again, she would wait till just the instant before the kiss, then open her eyes wide, all at once, and say, "Boo!" and laugh.
Then she'd be all knees and sharp elbows and little short laughs and giggles and serpentine evasions and strategy worthy of a jujitsu expert when I tried to capture her for a kiss.
It was remarkable then how that little seat of a roadster gave as much room for deployment and maneuver as the classic plains of Flanders and a creature who could lie in your clutch as lissome as willow and soft as silk and cuddly as a kitten could suddenly develop that appalling number of cunning, needle-pointed elbows and astute knees.
I read that to you to point out what's not in it. It apparently never occurs to Jack (either at the time or years later when he's telling the story) that maybe some nights Anne just doesn't want a kiss. That's not a possibility he needs to account for.
David Wong is a novelist and writes for the website Cracked.com. The second reading is from his 2016 essay "7 Reasons So Many Guys Don't Understand Sexual Consent".
Here's the first lesson I got on sexual consent. I was six years old. My hero and lifelong role model, Han Solo, approaches a woman who has told him at every opportunity that she's not interested. Han comes up from behind and presses his body against hers.
She's a strong woman, a fighter, so she physically shoves him off. Undeterred, Han moves back in, grabs her hands, and starts rubbing them. She says, "Stop that," and looks nervous. When he doesn't stop, she clearly says it again. He still doesn't stop. Romantic music plays.
And he kisses her.
Note: Her head is pressed up against a metal wall and all of this occurs in a sealed spacecraft floating in the cold vacuum of outer space. Even if she wanted to leave, she couldn't. The result of this encounter is that she falls in love with this man and they spend the rest of their lives together.
I'd estimate that 95 percent of the action movie cool guy role models of my youth molested women into loving them at least once. James Bond did it in ... every movie, I think In Goldfinger (1964), he rapes Pussy Galore in a barn, which causes her to abandon her life of crime and join his side. In The Mask Of Zorro (1998), a woman tries to kill Antonio Banderas, and in response, he strips her naked with his blade and forces a kiss. As a result, they fall in love.
Let's be clear: During my formative years, I was absolutely taught that rape was wrong, many times. But "rape" was defined as a man with a ski mask in an alley forcing himself on a stranger under the threat of violence.
. . .
If someone had come in and told teenage me that "groping" a woman or forcing kisses was a form of sexual assault, I'd have been very, very confused. You just called most of the action heroes of my childhood serial rapists! "And what if it makes her fall in love with him"
I never, in any of my public school years, had a lesson saying you needed to wait for verbal consent before touching a woman. I saw the quarterback of the football team slap girls on the butt. I saw guys reach around and grab girls' boobs as a prank. I saw mistletoe hung over doorways and was told if you and a girl stood under it, she had to kiss you. One time when we were playing volleyball at the beach, Dr. Dre ran up and unhooked a girl's bikini top.
Wong goes on to say that he never did anything like that himself, but only because he didn't think he was cool enough or courageous enough.He felt bad about that. Have I mentioned that yet How much shame I felt at the time for not being a "real man"
The point of this isn't to defend [insert subject of most recent scandal here], but to prevent people from insisting that guys like him are rare, incomprehensible monsters. They're not. Ridding guys of toxic attitudes toward women is a monumental task. I've spent two solid decades trying to deprogram myself, to get on board with something that, in retrospect, should be patently obvious to any decent person.
I sometimes wonder what kind of a slave-owner I would have been.
I know that sounds weird, because in spite of America's continuing racial injustices, by now we're far enough removed from slavery that the evil of it is obvious to us. So it's hard for us to imagine that we wouldn't have seen it at the time. Of course, we'd have freed our own slaves and become crusaders for abolition. What other choice could there be?
But to all but a few of the people who really did own slaves, the evil of it wasn't obvious at all. So I have to wonder: Would I have seen it?
Picture me growing up in an old Virginia family that has owned slaves for generations. To me, slaves have always been around - in my home, my friends' homes, everywhere. And I personally haven't had to think too hard about slavery, because the slaves belong to my parents, not me. How they handle them hasn't really been my business.
But then, I go off to college at, say, William and Mary, and they give me Ezekiel to be my manservant -- to carry my bags, take care of my clothes, get up early to start the fire on cold mornings, and do all those other things enslaved people do.
And I develop this strangely bifurcated relationship with Ezekiel. On the one hand, he is my closest companion. I spend more time with him than with anyone else, and I rely on him in ways that I don't rely on anyone else. But on the other hand, he is a piece of my property, a legally inferior being.
Does that seem wrong to me, or not?
One reason it might not is that I've been taught all the self-serving myths of the slave-owning class: that Africans wouldn't know what to do with freedom, that they're childlike and need us to watch out for them, that they were lucky to be brought here and introduced to Christian civilization.
And rather than the wrongness of slavery in general, I've been taught that there are good and bad masters. Some are cruel and of course that is wrong. But my family, I am sure, treats our slaves well. Not like human beings exactly, but like prized cattle. They are valuable, and we respect that. So we're the good owners.
Would I see through those myths Would I understand that Ezekiel is a human being like I am, and that his life means as much to him as mine does to me Would I give him his freedom papers Would I take him North myself to make sure no one else re-enslaved him Or not?
And what about years later, after the War, after Emancipation, when Ezekiel has been living his own life without me for some while How do I look back on my days as his owner Do I still think of myself as a good master because I never had him whipped?
Or do I look on my memories with new eyes now Do I recall all the times when I insulted Ezekiel or abused him or decided that his discomfort or humiliation was not really a problem Naturally, I'd like to think that I'd have behaved well. But maybe I wouldn't have.
When you live in Egypt, it is hard not to live the life of Egypt.
One big reason I doubt myself is that in my lifetime I've been part of a group that has mistreated another group. We had our own self-serving mythology that explained and justified that mistreatment. For a very long time I did not see through it. And as a result, I have memories that I look back on with shame and horror. I did that?
I'm talking, of course, about the sexual harassment of women by men, the kind that was described in such volume under the #MeToo hashtag, and that has been such a big part of the national conversation recently because of the Brett Kavanaugh nomination. Kavanaugh has denied all the accusations against him, but what I consider a shocking number of his defenders have taken a what-if-he-did position: He was 17 or 18. It was a long time ago. Why does it matter
The spoken part of that defense is that teen-agers make mistakes, and those mistakes shouldn't follow them the rest of their lives. But there has always been something a little fishy about that argument, because the mistakes of teen-agers often do follow them the rest of their lives, and in other settings that doesn't seem to bother people.
I think the reason the what-if-he-did argument gets as much support as it does from men Kavanaugh's age and older - men not so different from me - is that it also has an unspoken side. It isn't just that 17-year-old Brett Kavanaugh was a different person than he is now. It's that the early 1980s was a different time. Men using force against women wasn't taken as seriously then. It's almost as if we didn't know it was wrong.
Much like slave-owners in the 1850s, we had a self-justifying mythology with just enough elements of truth in it that men who didn't want to see through it didn't have to. It went like this: Society doesn't allow women to admit that they want sex, but they secretly do. So when a man suggests sex, women are socially obligated to say no, even if they don't really mean it. So of course a man shouldn't take that first no for an answer. Or the second. Or maybe the third. If you make a grab for a woman and she bats your hand away, you make another grab just to see if she's serious.
As David Wong pointed out, the movies told us that this worked. Force that first kiss on a woman, and even if she's a strong character like Princess Leia, she may decide that she likes it. Force works. Persistence works. Stalking works. Refusing to take no for an answer is how you show a woman that you're really interested. You should never give up, no matter what she says or does.
And women, we were told, like it that way. In Oklahoma, Ado Annie, the girl who can't say no, sings:
Other girls are coy and hard to catch,
But other girls ain't having any fun.
Every time I lose a wrastling match
I have the funny feeling that I won.
Now, of course, those lyrics were written by a man, Oscar Hammerstein. At the time, I didn't notice that.
And of course we knew that some men push it too far, just as slave owners knew that some other masters were cruel. But like slave owners, we concluded just that there were some bad individuals, not that the whole system - and our own participation in it - was wrong.
What results from that mythology and that justification is a view of male/female interaction as basically a game: Men are supposed to try to get away with things, and women are supposed to stop them. If you're a man and you get away with something, well then, points to you.
That mindset filtered all the way down to age groups that didn't have any clear idea what sex was. Little boys would bedevil little girls in all sorts of ways, just to see what they could get away with. If you managed to see a girl's underwear, points to you. If you managed to sneak into the girls bathroom, points to you. It was all part of the game.
Of course, we never asked the girls whether they wanted to play this game. That didn't seem important.
The talk I originally intended to give today, the one that got described in the newsletter, was called "The Opposite of Transcendence". And that theme actually does come into play here. Transcendence, to me, is when your consciousness rises up to the highest level it's capable of attaining, and gets what the hymn called "the wide horizon's grander view". In a moment of transcendence you rise out of the circumstances of the moment, and see the whole broad sweep of your life. You rise out of the assumptions of your culture, out of the prejudices of your race or class or gender, and see yourself not just as the bundle of the roles you happen to be playing at the moment, but as the fullness of your human potential. You see other people not just as instruments of your ambition or characters in your story, but as the full human beings they are.
The opposite of transcendence, in my view, is to be in a game. A game is a simpler world that we descend into, a world with fewer options and clearer goals. To play chess is to agree, for a period of time, not be a child of God, but to become the white pieces or the black pieces. When you start a game of Monopoly, for a few hours you give up your full humanity and become the Top Hat or the Race Car or the Little Dog.
Inside the game, our choices are confined to the ones the rules allow, and our motives are shaped by the definition of winning. Along the way, we may act out combat or greed or cruelty, depending on what kind of game we're in.
I intended, originally, to present a more balanced view of games. There are times when you may want or need to live for a while inside the simpler world of a game, to prove to yourself that you can take action and see results and maybe even experience victory. In the course of my life I have spent an enormous amount of time playing games and solving puzzles. I don't think that's a bad thing. So some day, maybe, I'll get to come back to the subject of games and give them their due.
But there is also a dangerous aspect to games, and that's what I need to talk about now: You can get lost in a game. The game can start to take over parts of your real life. The smaller, simpler character you are in the game can replace the real you.
You can get lost in the game of materialism, and start thinking that you are what you own. You can get lost in the game of corporate advancement or social climbing, and think that you are your job title or your position in the community. In playing the game, you haven't just taken a break from being your transcendent self, you've lost track of it completely.
Now let's talk about Brett Kavanaugh. For the record, I don't know for sure that Christine Blasey Ford's accusation against him is true. But I believe it. It rings true to me, and (all things considered) I don't see why she would make it up.
And once I start assuming that it did happen, I get a pretty clear vision of how it could have happened: I think Kavanaugh got lost in the game. He was trying to get away with something, and she was trying to stop him, like men and women do. In his mind at that moment, they weren't complete human beings, children of God. They were players.
And yes, putting a hand over her mouth to stop her from screaming was cruel and vicious. But it was like the way that I might cruelly force the Top Hat into bankruptcy, or viciously destroy black's king-side defense. It was all happening in the game. He had lost track not just of her humanity, but his own also.
You might deduce from that speculation that to a certain extent I identify with Brett Kavanaugh. And you'd be right, I do. But I take that identification somewhere different than his defenders do. It's not that Kavanaugh deserves my sympathy. It's that I deserve to be ashamed of myself.
Male shame has been the missing piece of the #MeToo phenomenon. When the #MeToo hashtag went viral almost exactly a year ago, what was shocking about it wasn't any particular story of some man harassing or assaulting some woman. It was that almost every woman seemed to have a story to tell. Almost every woman had some direct experience that put her on her guard, that made her feel unsettled or insecure in a way that men have a hard time imagining.
What was eye-opening to men was to look around and realize that the women in their own lives - their friends and wives and mothers and sisters and daughters - had stories to tell. But very few men took the next step, and recognized that this can't just be the work of a few bad men in ski masks. It has to be some large percentage of the male population.
And if President Trump's defenders are right, that his bragging about all the sexual assaults he's committed is just "locker room talk", then millions and millions of men must have been in those locker rooms, talking like that, or approving of such talk, or at the very least letting it go by without comment. Where are the tweets of all those confessions? Where is that sense of shame about that?
What's really needed, I think, to complete the #MeToo movement, is for men to confess and express our shame about what we've done or watched being done or allowed other men to do. The unfortunate thing about proposing that kind of social movement is that you're then kind of obligated to get it started.
So here we go.
Like David Wong, I never thought I was cool enough to go the full James Bond, so I don't have any stories of rape or attempted rape to tell. But if I had been cooler, if, say, I had been a football player at an elite high school, like Brett Kavanaugh, who can say what I would done I will tell you a couple of the stories I do have.
The first one was from when I was maybe 13, I don't remember exactly. My parents took me along when they visited their friends, who had a girl who was maybe 7. As usually happened, the adults stayed upstairs and the kids were banished to the basement. I probably resented that, so I decided to tease the girl by playing an I'm-gonna-get-you sort of game. The form of the game was "I'm going to pull down your pants." Like all I'm-gonna-get-you games, it involved a certain amount of chasing and wrestling. She resisted, and I let her win, so no pants were actually pulled down.
But what was I thinking? What would I think if I heard that story about a boy today? And worse, how did she experience that? I doubt she enjoyed it. Did she soon forget about it, or does it maybe still bother her from time to time? I have no idea.
In high school, I liked to make girls jump. If I saw a girl lost in a book or concentrating on some kind of work, I would sneak up behind her and startle her, either by making a noise, or, if I was really sneaky that day, poking her in some ticklish spot. Then she'd jump, and I thought that was funny. If any other boys were around, they'd think it was funny too. So: points to me. Some girls I did this too many times.
At the time, it didn't seem like a big deal to me. But now I wonder what it meant to my victims, how it changed their experience to know that they couldn't sink too deeply into concentration or lose track of what was behind them. To what extent did I contribute to their impression that school - or the world - was just not a safe place?
But I didn't think about that then, because it was a game to me and we were all just players. I never asked the girls if they wanted to play my game, and none of them ever gave me any reason to think that they enjoyed it. But somehow that didn't matter to me, even though, as David Wong says, that should have been patently obvious to any decent person.
So how do I want to bring this talk to a conclusion? First, I don't want to put pressure on the men in the room to confess something during talkback. Both in terms of time and safety, this doesn't seem like the right setting.
If you want to pursue this idea, maybe you could begin by getting a group of men together to share confessions in a safe setting. (You might already be doing that. I don't know.) After you've told your stories to each other, though, you might consider some way to share them more widely.
I think that's important. Because women need to know that we understand we played a role in all this, and we're ashamed of that fact. That by itself doesn't magically even the scales, but I think it's where the process needs to go.
Because as long as men are keeping our own guilty secrets, we're not going to be the kind of allies women need. Instead, whenever public attention turns to male misbehavior, some part of us is going to tense up and hope somebody changes the subject before the conversation goes too far.
And finally, I want to make a larger point, to everyone and not just to men. I don't think this is the only game we play or have played, and I don't think it's the only one we get lost in. I think there are many settings in our lives, different ones for different people, in which we lose the fullness of our humanity, where we look on ourselves and on others as just players rather than as beings of infinite worth. And that's why I think we all need, from time to time, to seek transcendence, to reach for the highest point of view we can attain, and to rise above all the games and roles and self-serving explanations. We all, from time to time, need to consider the Prince's questions: Who, in the widest possible sense, are you Who are all these other people And what do you think we're all here to do?
"The work of community, love, reconciliation, and restoration is the work we cannot leave up to politicians. This is the work we are all called to do." - Shane Claiborne
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The list of Selected Sermons.