Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (I Cor. 9)
I’ve always wondered what Paul meant when he wrote that line, “I have become all things to all people.” It seems to run so contrary to our usual attitude that that is exactly what we should not do. Trying to be all things to all people will only frustrate us and disappoint everyone else.
But I wonder if in the current day, we might not take an important hint from Paul about what is in fact necessary if we are to reach across the divides that separate us as a people—what might be called, according to the old adage, putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. I, at least, feel a huge gap in myself in trying to understand the sense of alienation and anger that is said to drive the religious right. Maybe you do too, or maybe it’s some other religious or political grouping that you don’t get. But I would really like to understand what it is that drives that anger, because truth be told, I too find myself sometimes thinking (as I drive along the urban wasteland of Coors Boulevard), how have we managed to create a world such as this, that at some level we don’t really wish to inhabit?
So when I picked up last Sunday’s NY Times, and saw an article titled “How to Reason With Unreasonable People,” I thought, “Oh good. Here’s a practical piece that will help me to have a productive conversation with someone who thinks very differently from myself.” It seemed like a potentially positive and welcome way forward.
Except that, the title should have already been a give-away, that this wasn’t really about having a two-way conversation. If I start from the attitude that I’m reasonable, and the other person who is … a liberal, a conservative (you fill in the blank), is unreasonable, well you’ve already undercut the premise of trying to step into their shoes. You’ll actually be trying to get them to step into yours.
At any rate, the article started out by advising against the impulse of trying to change someone’s mind by arguing for why I’m right and they’re wrong. OK. So far so good. Then the article moved on to suggesting instead what it called “motivational interviewing,” that is, instead of trying to talk someone into changing, try to help them discover a motivation to change, by asking open-ended questions that hold up a mirror to them so that they can see the inconsistencies of their own thought more clearly. So, for example, to a person opposed to receiving the Covid vaccine, rather than arguing for vaccines’ effectiveness, pose the question of how he or she would propose stopping the pandemic instead. And then perhaps ask the question of whether vaccines have any place in that strategy. You get the drift.
The article carried with it a drawing of one person holding up a mirror for the other person to see himself in, which at first seems like an attractive image. But on closer inspection, what stands out is that the person holding the mirror (and asking the questions), doesn’t turn it on himself, only on the other person. There is still built in to the conversation a self-righteous assumption of being right.
The harder strategy—and the one which I think Paul had in mind in trying to become all things to all people—is to reckon with the limitations and distortions of our own assumptions first, in order to clear the ground, for finding common ground. I’ve been struck, for instance, by the revulsion with which many of my liberal Episcopal friends view the Christian nationalist movement, forgetting that it is our own church that owns and operates the self-proclaimed “National Cathedral” in Washington—where we are all too eager and willing to put ourselves forth as the referee of what an appropriate national religious life should look like. And I find it deeply instructive that at one point, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States (our church) seriously considered dropping the words “Protestant” and “Episcopal” from its name, so that it would have been simply been known as “The Church” in the United States of America. If that isn’t hubristic, I don’t know what is!
So with Lent fast approaching (Ash Wednesday is only 10 days away!), I want to propose that we as a parish adopt as our Lenten theme, “In the looking glass: knowing ourselves to understand others.” Rather than focusing this year on penitence for things done wrong, it might be more helpful to focus on increasing our self-awareness of what lies behind those shortcomings. We might, in other words, let God do some “motivational interviewing” of us. What shapes our attitude toward other people, especially toward those whom we so easily dismiss as “deplorable”? What assumptions of privilege and entitlement do we each carry into our social interactions? What blocks us from being able to imagine the lived reality of other people? In short, what limits our ability to find empathy in ourselves, for people different from us?
At the annual meeting, I spoke of building bridges to people outside of our personal worldview and social realm, which seems to me to be the essential challenge of our day. But before we can authentically begin to build those bridges, we first need to have a brutally honest, clear-eyed understanding of ourselves.
So be thinking about what you want to learn about yourself in the days to come. What needs unpacking in the structure of your life? What blocks you from true relationship with other people—whether it’s a son, daughter, spouse, neighbor, immigrant, colleague, radical, conservative … the list goes on.
Somehow, we have to find the humility of spirit that will allow us to ask these hard questions of ourselves, to become like Paul willing to become all things to all people, meeting them where they’re really at, rather than where we think they ought to be. You might even say, that is precisely what Jesus did, and does, for us. Amen.