An Invitation to Civility and a Different Way of Public Engagement - Reservoir Church
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Children of God in a Fractured World

An Invitation to Civility and a Different Way of Public Engagement

Steve Watson

Mar 18, 2018

Have you felt some anger out in public recently? Maybe even some over-the-top, crazy, mind-boggling anger?

My wife Grace was driving the other week and she passed this car on the side of the road. It was pulled over – all the way to the curb – and she passed slowly, legally, all that. A few minutes later, she sees a car racing up behind her in her rear-view mirror and thinks: That looks like the stopped car I passed back there. And she was right. Because when she pulled up to the next stop sign, the other car, pulled up to her left, in the middle of the road, rolled down its window and stared screaming at her: blaming her for passing her, even yelling that she could have killed someone’s child. Grace was speechless at first, but then she was like: you were pulled over on the side of the road, and I slowed down and then… just kept on driving. I really have no idea what you’re talking about. And the other driver – stopped right in the middle of the road now – just kept on yelling. She pulled out her cell phone, told Grace she was taking pictures of her license plate, and that she was going to report her. For what, Grace had no idea, so Grace left her with her phone out, and calmly pulled away. A little shaken, though.

Has that kind of thing happened to you this year? Have you maybe done that kind of thing? I asked over Facebook, and my friends said yes.

A lot of us are angry these days.

Ann Bauer wrote a column in the Washington Post last week about this. She titled it: “Our Anger is Poisoning Us.” It took her a while to notice, because just a few days before the presidential election, her 28-year old son died, quite suddenly and mysteriously. And for about six months, she withdrew from a number of parts of her day to day life, and the people she interacted with largely knew about her tragedy, and these folks – of a range of political persuasions and demographics and situations in life – they were uniformly kind and decent and downright sacrificially loving to her.

But as soon as she started to re-engage with day to day working and commuting and social media use and all the rest, she thought, My God, everybody is absolutely enraged. And it’s killing us. She recounts a number of stories like Grace’s and worse, and notes that while there are some things for sure that are worth being downright, livid angry about, anger alone doesn’t save anyone or anything. It rips up the angry one inside, and tears our civic life apart, without replacing it with anything better.

What do you think about that? How do you feel, I wonder, about the levels of rage in our public discourse, and maybe even in your extended family or social circles or workplace or day to day public life?


We, of course, are not the first people to be dissatisfied with the state of our world and the state of our public life.

Much of the New Testament is made up of the stories and letters to little house churches – little communities of Jesus-centered faith much smaller than Reservoir. And in the mid to late first century, the Kingdom of Rome had gotten bigger and stronger. Rome claimed to be an empire of peace and prosperity and victory that would last forever. But on closer look, this wasn’t at all the case. Colonies were held and exploited with high taxes, public executions, and other state-sanctioned violence. Money flowed toward the wealthy in the empire’s big cities and away from everybody else. Slaves and children were subject to rape and beatings, and women were second class citizens at best. This was a Kingdom of violence. And as the first century moved on, it was increasingly hostile to followers of Jesus.

What were they to do? Get angry and fight? Give up? Assimilate?

At their best, they made a different set of choices, which I want to explore today. I want to talk about the choice to take the person and teaching of Jesus seriously in our public engagement and to consider the civility we’ll practice as well as the power that we’ll find if we do that.

Many of us have been reading the last book of the Bible, Revelation, this past month, as part of our practice of Lent we call 40 Days of Faith. And in Revelation, we encounter some strong language about the times those faith communities are living in.

The author, named John, looks at the Roman Empire they’re living under and names it Babylon, the Jewish symbol for a city of violence and evil. He calls out greedy merchants, slave traders, business associations that push their members to moral compromise, civic celebrations that encourage spiritual selling-out. And he says the Roman government and the local collaborating kiss-ups are like ugly and aggressive beasts and dragons. Revelation speaks truth to corrupt power, it unveils the lies and manipulation of commercial and religious and civic propaganda. It does not mince words in naming what’s wrong in its times.

And yet, Revelation’s call to faith centers on a God who doesn’t play by the same rules. Specifically, it centers on a God who looks like Jesus – a Lamb, that even after resurrection, is still stained with its own blood. Jesus wields power, John says, symbolized by a sword and a rod of iron. But the sword is always coming out of his mouth, not in his hands. Jesus’ power is his words, not in violence. And the rod of iron is an old Bible quote that is transformed as the Lamb becomes a shepherd. Jesus isn’t a charismatic, narcissistic leader but a shepherd who takes care of his followers, and wipes their tears away while he leads them somewhere better.

Revelation writes a story about God and about power and leadership that is better than the civic and religious life its age had ever known.

And so the call to action for these communities is not angry venting and violence, but instead a call to come out of all that, and to be like Jesus. John’s call to action is to witness, for the faith communities to use their words and especially their actions to live like Jesus did, to engage in public life as Jesus would, even suffering and dying if necessary, because even if that happened, they like Jesus would rise again.

Revelation doesn’t get into the details of what this might look like. It’s imaginative poetry, not linear teaching. But we get some sense of what its vision for a life of public engagement might look like a generation earlier in another first century document, a letter called I Peter.

Let me read you an excerpt from the middle of the letter. It goes like this:

I Peter 3:8-17 (NRSV)

8Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. 10For

“Those who desire life
    and desire to see good days,
let them keep their tongues from evil
    and their lips from speaking deceit;
11 let them turn away from evil and do good;
    let them seek peace and pursue it.
12For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
    and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”

13Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.

So, Peter is riffing on this Hebrew spiritual poem, this song, called Psalm 34: I Will Bless the Lord at all Times. It’s a beautiful poem that says that God meets with people who cry out to God. That people who look to God in our need will be able to not just believe God is good, not just hope God is good, but taste and see that God is good.

But, typical for earlier forms of Jesus’ religious tradition, it also says that one way people can taste and see that God is good is when he takes out your enemies.

The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
    and his ears are open to their cry.
16The face of the Lord is against evildoers,
    to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
17When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears,
    and rescues them from all their troubles.
18The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,
    and saves the crushed in spirit.

19Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
    but the Lord rescues them from them all.
20He keeps all their bones;
    not one of them will be broken.
21Evil brings death to the wicked,
    and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
22The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
    none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

You all – people that have reason to be hurt and angry – God’s close to you, the text says. God’s good to you. But those evil folks that could rile you up – relax, don’t worry. God’s gonna get em!

Now, don’t get me wrong. Unpopular as it is in the 21st century, and unsophisticated as it sounds, I still believe in God’s judgment. I don’t think God is angry or arbitrary or violent about it – I think the language like that in the Bible is metaphor. But I do think that people and churches and companies and cultures and countries that do evil and do not repent are going to suffer for it – often in this life, always in the next. I don’t know what that’s going to look like exactly. I don’t think it necessarily means fiery hell forever or anything like that. But I believe in judgment. I think it’s good news that powerful evil that refuses to change is going to have to change and face the pain its made or face consequence.

Now Peter in this letter quotes the Psalm, but do you notice that when he’s looking through the lens of Jesus, he subverts this end-part of its message?

Evil, Peter says, is out to harm. It wants to get what it wants, no matter what abuse or suffering it causes. That driver Grace encountered wanted to not be embarrassed by its own bad driving, or wanted payback for an imagined slight. Other angry people we encounter in our lives want attention or want power or want revenge for the wrong they perceive was done to them, real or imagined. Companies and politicians often want profit or votes, with no concern for the public good of their communities or the flourishing of their employees or customers or their constituents.

And Peter calls that out. He names and validates the pain and anger of the community he’s writing to. But then he says, don’t play their game. Play Jesus’ game by seeking blessing – by being people that don’t try to take back for yourselves but seek everybody’s highest good, your enemies included!

He says when you do this, you’re going to get blessing. You’re going to feel joy, because this is a powerful way to live. You’re going to feel God – tasting and seeing that God is good – because God lives where people live this way. And you’re going to win sometimes, because your enemies will be shamed by how well you treat them. This was famously at the heart of the civil disobedience of Ghandi in India and of the Black Christian leaders of the civil rights movement here in this country.

And Peter says, you’re going to feel Jesus, because this is how he lived. In fact, in addition to riffing on Psalm 34, Peter is riffing on one of Jesus’ most important teachings, called the Beatitudes, which is a fancy word for blessings, because Jesus is telling his students how to find blessing in life. Where to get happiness and well-being.

He says Take joy when people go after you for doing the right thing, because you’ll know you’re in God’s land then. You’ve got the whole Kingdom of God. And – as we printed on your programs:

Matthew 5:9 (NRSV)

9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Want to experience being God’s kid? Want to be a child of God in a fractured world? Get out there in your family, in your neighborhood, in your workplace, in your politics, and be Jesus. Seek blessing, but do it Jesus’ way. Be a peace-maker, which doesn’t mean avoid conflict. Peace in ancient Jewish culture, in languages like Hebrew, and Aramaic, even in Arabic, is some version of shalom, or salaam. It means well-being, wholeness, it means peace with justice. Go after this, by engaging in your pain, but engaging with love and kindness for your enemies, and you’ll get blessing. Go after your own good but the good of your enemy too, and you’ll shine. It’ll go well for you.

This is our calling.

Could you imagine engaging in public life in a way that’s different from the resentment-driven selfish anger of our moment?

Engaging in public life with civility, with radical love that seeks your own deepest blessing, by seeking others’ blessing as well?

What might this look like?

I’d like to tell you some stories.


The first is about the founder of a mosque, who showed a nominally Christian community what the way of Jesus looks like.

Hisham Yasin was born a Palestinian refugee in Syria, and came to America to join family here in 1996, with nothing. He lived in a rundown house alongside rats and roaches, while he washed dishes in a restaurant and his dad collected cans. Eventually, Hisham and his brother started a used car dealership that did well. And in this historically White and Black town, they lived with more and more Muslim immigrants like themselves who had settled in the area, some of whom founded a mosque together. They named it Al Salaam – place of peace. It was a gathering space for Hisham’s community, a place of worship and home, a blessing.

But for a 20-year old white man named Abraham Davis and his friends, it represented something else. To them it was a symbol of the growing Muslim community they resented because they were new to Arkansas and new to America but they were wealthier and more successful.

Abraham grew up dirt poor, the oldest son in a family where his dad regularly beat his mom. Abraham prayed as a kid that God would do something to protect his mom and him and his brother, and months later, his dad got sick and died. Abraham thought it was his fault. He got in a lot of trouble in school, didn’t do well, was a social outsider too, and dropped out at 18 before he could graduate.

In the days leading up to the last presidential election, he had been hanging out more and more with these two friends. All of them resented the changes in their community, all of them were white supremacists, but the most virulent of the three talked Abraham and the other guy into going out one night that October and vandalizing the local mosque.

Hisham was the first leader to arrive the next day. Someone had called him to report what had happened, and he rushed over to the mosque to see swastikas spray-painted onto the bricks, along with slogans like “Go Home” and even a Latin phrase that means “God wills it” that was a rallying cry centuries ago in the crusades.

It was devastating for them. What had they done to deserve this resentment? This damage to their mosque? This hostility?

Thing is, the community rallied to their support. Letters, flowers, phone calls flowed in, day after day.

And then four months later, Abraham Davis was picked up by the police. His family didn’t have the $1500 for bail, so he went to prison while he awaited trial. The DA said they were going to make an example of him and his friends, charge them not just with vandalism, but with a felony charge that would keep them in jail for years.

But then some unexpected things happened. Abraham wrote a letter from jail, to the leaders of the mosque. He wrote: What I did was wrong and y’all did not deserve to have that done to you. I hurt y’all and I am haunted by it. And even after all this you still forgave me. You are much better people than I.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, and that is honestly really scary. But I just wouldn’t want to keep going on without trying to make amends. I wish I could undo the pain I helped to cause. I used to walk by your mosque a lot and ask myself why I would do that. I don’t even hate Muslims. Or anyone for that matter.

“All in all,” he concluded, “I just want to say I’m sorry.”

And then leaders of the mosque went to bat for him. They pleaded for mercy. They showed up at court dates, bargained with the DA, and told him to drop the charges entirely, just let Abraham pay them his part in the cost of the damages.

The DA, though, didn’t want him to get off too easily, and so he comprised. In exchange for a guilty plea to the felony charges, he let Abraham Davis avoid jail time and enter probation, with a series of fines and fees attached to it. And that’s what happened – except Hisham Yasim through a wrench into that punishment as well when he took a donation that had been made to the mosque and used it to pay off all of Abraham’s court and probation fees.

He did it because he felt bad for Abraham Davis, despite the awful thing he had done. He also did it because it was right, because it’s what his faith directed him to do.

Yasim says the whole experience has been great for them. Through people’s sympathy, and through the press coverage of their mercy, people in Arkansas better understand and value and respect their Muslim neighbors. Yasim sees it all as a blessing in disguise.

So does Abraham Davis, whose life has been turned around.

Abraham wanted to visit the mosque and say his thanks in person, but the terms of his probation don’t allow it. So he posted a note on facebook instead. He wrote:

“Well, I’m home now. I just want to say thank you to all those who have been supporting me and a big thanks to the guys at the mosque who have been supportive and helpful and I pray blessings over them.”

The next day, he saw a response from Wasim, Hisham’s son.

“Bro move on with life we forgave you from the first time you apologized don’t let that mistake bring you down,” he had written. And then, Abraham’s favorite line: “I speak for the whole Muslim community of fort smith we love you and want you to be the best example in life we don’t hold grudges against anybody!”

Abraham said it was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to him.

Dang. This is not what I want when someone does me wrong, to engage their wrong with as much love and blessing and forgiveness as it takes to change their life for the better and to uplift my cause as well.

I just want to vent my anger, or forget about it and move on.

This has also not been my sense of how to change the world. Which makes me normal, right, because most people don’t think this is how you bless the world.

Our lobbyists twist truth to manipulate and get their causes favorable legislation or funding. Our politicians and nations freely use coercion as part of a so-called greater good, the ends justifying the means. We all shout each other down on social media, to humiliate our foes or at least to gather our friends so they can tell us how right we are. Our leaders, leaders in the church too, have usually played these kinds of games.

The witnesses to Jesus call for a different kind of engagement, though, to look evil in the eye and to give it back blessing, to love the people we can’t stand with a tender heart, with a humble mind.

Again, this is not withdrawing from society when it gets ugly. And it’s certainly not avoiding conflict and just rolling over and sucking up ill treatment of ourselves or the people we care about. It’s just choosing a different way of engaging, one that looks like Jesus, one that disarms an evildoer and promotes peace and blessing.

We celebrate this kind of life when see it, even if it’s hard to live ourselves.

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, and somewhere in the middle of today’s parade in Southie and Irish pride, green McShamrock Shakes and endlessly flowing beer, there’s Saint Patrick himself, who as a British teenager, was taken as a slave by Irish raiders. When he returned home, God gave him a vision to return to Ireland and share with them, at risk to himself, that God loved them so much, he gave his life for them, even when they were God’s enemy.

Can you imagine anything more beautiful? This risky, loving, absurd move that transformed the history of an island.

It’s the way of Jesus that we catch in surprising places.


Just after Christmas last year, the actor and comedian Sarah Silverman was doing her daily, snarky thing on twitter. When a young man dropped a one word comment on her. I can’t say it here – it’s an expletive, and a nasty, misogynist one at that. But while her followers were coming to her defense, Silverman took a few minutes to read his feed and learn about him – his chronic back pain, his bitter attitude toward everyone and everything. Then she wrote back:

I believe in you. I read your timeline & I see what your doing & your rage is thinly veiled pain. But you know that. I know this feeling. P.S. My back sucks too. See what happens when you choose love. I see it in you.

She then kept up a conversation, gave him some advice, and later made sure his medical bills were paid for. All this because he swore at her.

Later, the guy was interviewed about all that happened. Here’s what he had to say: “I was once a giving and nice person, but too many things destroyed that and I became bitter and hateful,” he said. “Then Sarah showed me the way. Don’t get me wrong, I still got a long way to go, but it’s a start.”

So it is.

Friends, this stuff works. When we engage in life with peacemaking love, we’re more likely to change a bitter heart. We’re more likely to secure justice for ourselves or someone else. And we’re guaranteed to show a violent, bitter world what Jesus looks like.

Wanna try? Let’s talk about it.

How to Engage in Public Life with Power and Civility:


  • Embody humility and love and kindness in your pursuit of truth or justice.

Don’t be an arrogant know it all, even if you’re right. Don’t mansplain or preach back at the world. Speak your truth – be ready to speak, Peter says, but with gentleness and an open mind.

  • Display Jesus to the world – when necessary, use words.

This is an old quotation from St. Francis of Assisi – preach the gospel, tell the good news, and only when necessary, use words. Because the most powerful way to speak Jesus is to embody him. The most powerful good news is seen more than heard.

Be like Sarah Silverman when you’re taunted or slandered. Be like St. Patrick when you face hardship or adversity. Be like Hisham Yasin when your community is under threat, or you want to advocate or come alongside someone else’s community under threat. Be justice cloaked in love. Be the blessed peacemaker.

And – since this takes strength and security, good news power – if you’re not ready yet, just be silent for a bit. Sit with Jesus, who has good news for you in your pain. Meditate each day on Psalm 34, that shares the good news that God is with you, that God sees in justice and will act.

But remember that God’s most decisive action was Jesus, and shaping a community of Jesus followers on earth – who by the power of the Spirit of God will know the love of Jesus and will go out and be Jesus too.

  • Listen to – don’t judge – personal stories attached to public pain.

This is what I’m asking you of your own stories, if you’ve got them. Listen to yourself. Pay attention to your own pain and rage – ask where it comes from and engage the people and forces that have caused it when you can.

And when you encounter other people’s pain and rage – even if they’re behaving badly out of it – try and hear the stories behind them without judgment. See if you can love the person who has that story.

  • Consider participating in our house meeting campaign this year.

We have an opportunity this year to do this work together.

Reservoir is a member of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization that helps congregations in our city engage well in public life together. And this year, our biggest action will be a series of house meetings, where we get to tell and listen to the stories behind why we care about what we do in public life.

These aren’t debates or arguments and if you’re thinking about national political battles, they’re not about that either.

They’re an opportunity to share our personal story of why we’re troubled by how unaffordable housing is, or what’s not working for our kids and or what didn’t work for us in our public schools, or the story you have behind any public concern that troubles you.

And these are gatherings to listen to one another and for our church to discover how we can equip one another to take action, and for the congregations in our city to discover together the stories we most want to tell people in power.

If you’re a community group leader, you’ll have the opportunity in April or May to host one of these gatherings with one of us who’s a trained facilitator joining you. In the next few weeks, you’ll start to see announcements in our Events and Happenings about these gatherings as well. I hope many of you will be able to participate.