Monday, March 19, 2012

March 18, 2012 - Ancient Stories and Timeless Truths: The Importance of the Minority Report

Numbers 13:26-32

Living in a democracy, we are very familiar with the principle that the majority rules.  The good news of democracy is that we have a vote; the bad news of democracy is that sometimes our vote goes to the losing side. 

But democracy also has a strong tradition of the dissenting minority.  Even when we lose, it is our right to say what we believe and to praise or criticize the winning candidates.  It’s a wonderful part of democracy that the minority opinion is allowed free expression. 

This is a time-honored tradition, for example, at the Supreme Court, where those who hold to the minority opinion can give a blistering dissent, and where time sometimes proves the minority opinion to be the correct one.  John Marshall Harlan was an associate justice of the Supreme Court.  A Kentuckian, he was born in Boyle County, attended Centre College and went to law school at Transylvania University.  In 1896 he wrote the sole dissenting opinion in a case that established the separate but equal principle.  Harlan wrote, in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.  Even though his was the only dissenting opinion when the ruling was handed down, time has certainly proved that Harlan’s opinion was the correct one.

Scripture also has some minority reports, and today’s message comes from one.

Moses and the Hebrew people were in their second year after being released from slavery in Egypt (9:1).  It had not been an easy journey for them to this point.  Time after time they faced difficult challenges and again and again the people struggled to trust and to have faith.  After the months of difficult travel, after many conflicts, and after much complaining, they arrive at the edge of the Promised Land. It had been many generations since Abraham had received the promise, and now his descendants are so close.  It had been about four centuries since God first made his promise to Abraham, so imagine the anticipation in this moment.  Centuries of waiting are about to come to an end.

Before they would enter the land Moses has everyone wait while he sends twelve spies into the land to check it out.  He instructs the spies to determine if the people living in the land are strong or weak, if they are few or many, if the land is good or bad, whether or not the cities are heavily fortified, to see if the land is productive, and to bring back some of the fruit of the land (13:18-20).

Notice this is not the same story we usually think of when it comes to spies being sent into the land.  That story comes later in the book of Joshua, when there are only two spies and those two spies were given shelter by Rahab.  The episode we’re studying this morning takes place thirty-eight years before the event recorded in Joshua.

When the spies return from their forty-day mission and give their report it is a good news/bad news report.  They tell Moses and the people that it is indeed a land flowing with milk and honey and showed the fruit they brought back with them.  The grapes they brought with them are so large they had to carry just one bunch on a pole between two of the men.  The land is rich, productive – all the things they could hope for.  That’s the good news. The bad news then takes the rest of the report, and the news is really bad.  The people in the land, they report, are very strong.  The cities are very large and fortified and the people are as giants.  There is no way, in the opinion of these spies, that the inhabitants of this land could be defeated.

But then Caleb and Joshua offer the minority report, and it reminds us how important it is that we hear the minority reports in life, those words spoken that go against the grain of the accepted wisdom of the time, a wisdom that time sometimes proves as not being wisdom at all.

The Sermon On the Mount is another minority report.  In the Sermon On the Mount, which we studied last year, Jesus spoke against many of the accepted opinions of his day.  He challenged people’s thinking and attitudes in very powerful and necessary ways.

I believe that as followers of Jesus we are called to be the minority report in our world; we are to be the dissenting voice that speaks for the will of God.  I want to take a few minutes this morning and talk about four ways in which we need to be the minority report in today’s world.

I feel that I must also add a disclaimer.  In our world, where everything is seen in such a political context, my words are not meant in a partisan way.  I believe there are issues we must address and they do not have to sink to the level of partisanship.  Talking about issues, especially those that have political implications, is not partisanship.  Partisanship is when we discuss the particulars of how we are going to address an issue and who is going to lead us there.

1.  Relationships.
We must learn how to talk to one another in our society.  The level to which we have sunk in our public discourse in this country is very discouraging.

I wrote about this in my most recent Cup article so I don’t want to retread what I said there, but I do want to add a few words to that article.  When people resort to the kind of name-calling we are now witnessing, something is very wrong.  People engage in name-calling that would have resulted in many of us having a mouthful of soap when we were kids, and these are influential adults!  I don’t like the name-calling of Rush Limbaugh, but I don’t like the name-calling of Bill Maher either.  I don’t care what a person’s political or religious perspective may be, when you resort to calling people names it is only evidence that you are completely lacking in the needed imagination to make your point.

We are also called to be the minority report between societies.  We live in a very dangerous world, and I believe we must have something to say about when and how military power is used.  I will admit that I have a gap in my own thinking I can’t quite put together – I believe Jesus was a pacifist, but I am not, and I have to ask why I am not.

I believe military force is a political action, but a spiritual voice must speak to the question of military force.  It is such a huge decision to send our men and women into harm’s way, and we must bring to the conversation some important questions to consider.  The men and women who serve are willing to risk their lives, and some of them give their lives.  Many of them suffer from wounds or other difficulties of war and we must advocate on their behalf that they receive the care they are due.  But we must also remind our leaders there are civilians who will end up in the middle of war zones, and their lives also matter.

2.  The environment.
I grew up in West Virginia, in the northern panhandle.  My hometown of Wellsburg sits in the midst of steel and coal country.  In that part of the country, the Ohio River was so polluted it caught fire.  It is a strange thing to watch a river burn.  But we didn’t use the word pollution; we used a different word – paydirt.  We called it paydirt because the pollution represented many jobs and a booming economy.  When the skies cleared, it meant the economy was faltering.

God has given us a beautiful world that we are destroying, and too often the church doesn’t say much about it.  We’ve got to remind people that it’s not just an economy that we pass on to our children and our grandchildren, but a world as well.  We are stewards, not owners of this world.  This world belongs to God, and we are given charge of caring for it.
Wendell Berry says that we have mastered the art of thinking big but it is now necessary to master the art of thinking small, that is, considering the role each of us have in caring for and protecting the world God has entrusted to us – not given us, but entrusted to us.

3.  Freedom.
There is an undeniable connection between the gospel and human freedom.  We ought to be advocating on behalf of all people for freedom.  As followers of Jesus we ought to be the first ones to say that the people of Syria ought to be free, that no people should have to live under tyranny. 

Jesus lived under the rule of Rome.  It was Rome that crucified him.  It was Rome that persecuted the church.  But the church outlasted the Roman Empire, because the desire to be free will overcome tyranny, because God planted the desire for freedom in the human heart.

If you read history you find it was the church that said people should not live under slavery.  Yes, there were those Christians who were in support of slavery, but the opposition to it came from within the church.  It was the church that birthed the movement for equal rights.  The leaders of the civil rights movement were mostly ministers.

4.  Fairness.
It’s easy to look around the world and find a lot of unfairness. 

The gospel calls upon us to advocate for fairness to all people.  We must be the ones to say that society cannot be structured to favor the rich and to work against the poor.

We often talk about how some things that happen in the world are because that’s just the way things are, as though we should accept the way things are.  We are not called to accept things the way they are when it means some people are not given equal rights or people are treated unfairly.  We are called to be the dissenting voice – the minority voice – that will speak for those who are treated unfairly.

There are many people who are uneasy about the direction of our society, fearing that the church is losing its influence.  I happen to believe there are some positives in this trend.  Maybe we have spoken too long from a position of power, when we need to speak from a position of love.  The early church spoke from the margins of society, not from the echelons of power.  Our voice may be stronger when it comes from the margins of society rather than from its centers of power. 

But the larger question will be – how will history look upon us?  Will we be the dissenting voice, the voice eventually proven to be correct, or will we be content in the majority, and allow history to judge us as being wrong.

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