Monday, 01 February 2016 00:00

"Increasing Light", January 31, 2016

“Increasing Light”
Isaiah 9:1–7
Luke 2:22–28
A sermon preached by Gayla Marty
January 31, 2016
University Baptist Church,
Minneapolis, Minnesota

This week, that groundhog will be in the news again. In Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, news people will show up on Tuesday to report whether the groundhog called Phil sees its shadow. If he does, the custom decrees, we’ll have six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t, spring will come early . . . which in Minnesota would be about . . . six more weeks?

February 2 is the traditional midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. On the church calendar, it’s Candlemas, a mass for the blessing of candles, the day to take down household Christmas greens, and a day for predicting the coming of spring. From England, this poem predates our American groundhog:

    If Candlemas be fair and bright, winter has another flight.
    If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, winter will not come again.

This week in Minneapolis we have already gained almost an hour of daylight since the solstice—10 minutes in the morning and 40 minutes in the evening. On the shortest day, we had only 8 hours and 47 minutes of daylight. Now we have more than 9 and a half.

Roughly 80 percent of Europe is farther north than Minneapolis. Their hours of daylight between summer and winter vary even more than ours, of course. Weather prognostication has been a preoccupation during northern winters for millennia.

Our text today from Luke 2 has been associated with this day since the early church. It’s 40 days after Christmas, the period for a woman’s purification after childbirth. Sunny Jerusalem is the same latitude as El Paso, Texas. As Christianity moved north into Europe, Simeon’s words about light took on a literal urgency. It became the day for blessing candles, traditionally made of beeswax, to be used as a protection in storms. The feast day about the baby Jesus’ first trip to the temple was joined with the Celtic Imbolc. In Ireland it is the day of the goddess Brighid and her Christian doppelganger St. Bridget, both associated with sacred flames, holy wells, healing, and smithcraft. The sun is gaining strength.

But it doesn’t really seem that way, does it? Our senses just tell us: It is cold. My birthday is February 5, and I grew up feeling it came at a particularly bleak time of the year, in the yawning gap between Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Even with more daylight, it was often too cold to play outside. A sunny winter day is “cold comfort.” We are stuck dreaming of summer, when we’ll have more than 15 hours of daylight. Perception is our reality.

I thought a lot about perception and reality last fall when I read a book by Harvard evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Just saying the title gets quizzical looks. Violence has declined? Really? Here is how it opens:

This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not—and I know that most people do not—violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children. (Pinker, p. xxi)

In 700 pages, plus 100 of notes, Pinker goes on to marshal compelling evidence in what is the most ambitious interdisciplinary book I’ve read, full of charts and graphs and tables of data from around the world and many fields. Brian Atwood, former dean of our Humphrey School of Public Affairs, is among the contributors. I couldn’t stop reading it.    

This is good news. This is increasing light.

But it’s still winter! Our senses are skeptical.    

Because the world’s population has grown, haven’t real numbers of violent acts and deaths remained or become very, very high?

Progress is not a straight or steady line, as Pinker wrote in that first paragraph, and it is definitely not equitably distributed.

Our world has never been more connected. Global communications bring us images from other hemispheres as if in the next room. But as Pinker reminds us, “the news” is not a good indicator of what’s going on in the world (p. xxii). News is the exceptional. The violence that was once routine is now exceptional enough to qualify as news.

I thought about the Bible a lot as I read this book. First of all, its cover is a classical painting of the story called the Binding of Isaac. This is the story from Genesis 22 of Abraham wielding a knife, ready to slay his only son, at the moment an angel stops his hand—not something you want to leave lying around if you have children in the house. How ironic, I thought, that Abraham is the patriarch held in common by Jews, Christians, and Muslims—that this story is the one we all know.

Second, a summary of violence in the Bible and the Roman period takes up more than 10 pages, about a third of the first chapter, I think partly because Pinker, raised Jewish, is so familiar with it—he has struggled with these stories (pp. 6–17). From Cain’s murder of his brother Abel and God’s slaughter of humanity in a flood to the Spanish Inquisition, he lays it all out, and it is painful to read.

The good news, he writes, is that most of the Hebrew scripture in particular is fiction. But “accounts in the Old Testament … offer a window into the lives and values of Near Eastern civilizations in the mid-first millennium BCE. Whether or not the Israelites actually engaged in genocide, for example, they certainly thought it was a good idea” (p. 11).

Those of us who read Reza Aslan’s book Zealot last year during Lent will find its context in Pinker’s work. Aslan described the incredibly bloody times in Israel in the century of Jesus’ life. When we read in Luke’s gospel today the prophet Simeon’s words to Mary about the rejection of her son, “And a sword will pierce your soul, too,” (Luke 2:35) we shudder at the understatement. No wonder the words of the angel who visited Mary earlier in this account, “Fear not!” (Luke 1:30) It was a terrifying time.

Pinker’s first chapter brings us all the way up to the Holocaust and the Age of Terror. If you can make it through that first bloody chapter, you will probably cry “Uncle!” convinced that the idea of some past golden age is an illusion. Pinker has his critics, of course, but few if any refute his evidence that violence has declined.

How and why it has declined is the subject of the rest of the book, and it matters to us here and now.

Pinker organizes his ideas to describe six trends that make up our species’ retreat from violence, and five historical forces that favor our peaceable motives and drive declines in violence. These include things as broad as “civilization” and “feminization.”

But he takes us further—inside ourselves. This is where we arrive at the end: in our own brains.

Here we meet the demons: human predation, dominance, revenge, sadism (relatively rare but real), and—yes—ideology: ideas that seem to promise such great ends that they justify killing people as the means.

Finally we meet the angels. Empathy. Self-control, which we study today as something called executive function. The moral sense. And reason.

Karen Armstrong described in her 1993 book A History of God the period called the Axial Age, roughly 800–200 BCE, when, for “reasons that we don’t entirely understand,” the primary religions of the world—Taoism and Confucianism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, philosophical rationalism in Europe, Zoroastrianism in Iran and the Hebrews in Israel, began to develop the idea “that human life contained a transcendent element that was essential.” (p. 39)

The Hebrew scripture (or wiki, as Pinker would call it) (p. 11) was written at a time when child sacrifice was ending. The story of Abraham and Isaac is a remnant of this change preserved in scripture: The angel who holds back Abraham’s hand poised above his bound son (Genesis 22:11–12) was added to the story when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon, when it was revealed to them that there had been enough of that. (Friedman, p. 65) This is indeed one of our better angels!

Reading The Better Angels of Our Nature, I thought about Jesus, that nonviolent zealot and his movement, who revealed just how violent the Roman so-called Peace really was. I was reminded of the early Christians’ focus on creation and paradise, not crucifixion and redemptive violence. I thought about centuries of monks and nuns and Mother Theresas, Quakers and conscientious objectors, who acted not because they thought it would make any big difference but because they felt called to change themselves.

I thought about University Baptist Church, because we have been part of the trends and forces Pinker identifies. Since 1850, we have participated in the “rights revolutions” from the abolition of slavery to civil rights and women’s rights and GLBT rights. We have been witnesses dedicated to the power of reason as well as faith. Situated on the edge of a world research university, we count members who are called and driven to understand our demons and empower our angels.

In late 1861, our church was located closer to Saint Anthony Falls on the Mississippi  River than it is now when, far away in Washington, D.C., Abraham Lincoln gave his first inaugural address. It was the eve of what would become the American Civil War, a bloody horror that would bring our nation to its knees, and he could see it coming. He may have been thinking of the angel that held back that other Abraham’s hand when he wrote these words for the end of his speech:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

It certainly didn’t look like increasing light, but roiling skies. Our demons were out in force. And yet Lincoln summoned our angels.

I wonder whether another reason we cannot perceive the decline of violence is that our angels open us up to identify with a greater circle of life than ever, to perceive the violence inflicted upon it. It is often too much to bear.

If angels are known for attending us, I think we need to wait on our angels a little more in return—to acknowledge and defend them, to tell their stories. When someone says the world has never been worse, I can say, “Actually, it has been a lot worse.” In the year ahead, as election season escalates, our candidates will be summoning our demons, you can be sure of it.  Beware. Listen for those who summon our better angels.

    If Candlemas be fair and bright, winter has another flight.
    If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, winter will not come again.

This is the day for remembering the child Jesus in the temple, proclaimed a light to the world. This is a day for blessing candles. Light a candle. Be a light. The light is increasing.

Blessed be. Amen.

Works cited

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Steven Pinker, 2011.

A History of God: The 4,000-year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Karen Armstrong, 1993.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Reza Aslan, 2014.

The Bible With Sources Revealed. Richard Elliott Friedman, 2003.

Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. Wikipedia, accessed Jan. 26, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Lincoln’s_first_inaugural_address.