Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Sunday Sermon

January 30, 2011
The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
The best defense is a good offense.

This simple motto is ingrained in kids almost from day one. Head on, flat out, face-to-face confrontation has been the most popular form of combat for centuries. The Roman Empire gave us gladiators - two men armed to the teeth facing each other across an enclosed coliseum. Medieval combatants came up with jousting - two opponents mounted on horses, rushing straight towards each other with long pointed poles, otherwise known as lances. In the 18th century European battles were fought by lining up all the soldiers in neat rows, their weapons pointed directly at the tidy rows of the opposing army across from them in the battlefield.

In contrast, Eastern forms of self-defense, the various "martial arts", have been considered mysterious and almost magical by uncomprehending Westerners. A whole host of martial arts movies attest to growing interest in Eastern forms of "self-defense." The principles behind Eastern methods have very little in common with the "bigger is better" or "whoever has the most 'toys' wins" that seem to lie behind Western tactics. Just look at our militaries; we spend more money on war machines than we do on the poor, it would seem. When one studies Eastern traditions such as judo, karate or tai chi, they will discover that they actually consider themselves philosophies for life more than they do defensive practices to avoid pain or death. Their internalized, zen-like focus serves as a foundation for any exterior, physical actions that might need to be taken. Expertise in a particular martial arts tradition is a way of life - not a way to inflict death.

Yet few would argue about the defensive effectiveness of a numbing karate kick or disabling judo blow. For all its nonaggressiveness, the Eastern martial arts provide superb protection. The key to the success of all these traditions is basically the same - use your enemies' strength and weight and agility to your own advantage. Never simply "react." Always move from an integrated, centered, flexible position. Allow enemies, if they insist, to defeat themselves. The best defense is often times no offense at all.

Some of the best statements of this position and philosophy are Jesus' words in Matthew and Paul's words to the Corinthians. In the Beatitudes Jesus offers a series of what appear to be intentionally self-destructive personal choices, which he then reveals as the way Christians will ultimately "win" against those who seek to harm them. Maybe we can call it "Jesus Judo"?

The Beatitudes stand as the pre-eminent example of “Jesus Judo” stance. Jesus said, "Congratulations to those who show mercy;" "Congratulations to those who love their enemies." Unfortunately, the church which bears Jesus' name has often found more pragmatic ways of dealing with its enemies: torture, persecution, burnings, inquisitions, intolerance. However, as it should have been then, it is now time to return to the source and explore Jesus' method for dealing with opposition.

In the art of “Jesus Judo”, instead of pitting strengths against strengths, one steps aside and turns another's strength to one's own advantage. Don't attack your opponent's position. See what lies behind it. Don't reject their position or defend your own. Sidestep their attack by getting behind where they are coming from and where they are going.

Similarly, Paul uses the same rationale in this week's epistle. He boldly boasts of the foolishness and folly contained in the message and symbol of the cross. But instead of hiding the cross like some crazy relative, he makes this most unseemly, unsightly image the focal point of faith.

The whole point is not to return tit for tat, an eye for an eye, strength for strength. The point is to step aside and let the attacking person's strength benefit and bless you. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount gave us the best outline - how to deal with those who are attacking us. Jesus' surprising defensive technique ultimately leads to a truly shocking final conclusion. In Matthew Jesus contradicts the Torah by rejecting the right of retaliation and instead counseling listeners to turn the other cheek.

How can we become postmodern practitioners of the ancient art of “Jesus Judo”, learning to meet aggression and hatred with passiveness and patience while redirecting blind hostility into wide-eyed activity? Those who wish to become skilled in one of the martial arts spend hours and hours performing kata - a serious of carefully choreographed body movements that mimic the correct responses the body should take when faced by an opponent. It is not an uncommon sight in any Eastern country to see parks and public squares (or many California beaches) filled with people carefully, silently moving their bodies along the prescribed paths of the kata. They know that it takes daily practice, constant discipline to train the body so that it will react automatically when challenged or threatened.

Christians trying to become better Christians could well benefit from this same strategy. In our everyday dealing with people we should move according to a Christian kata. These require mental and emotional stamina and spiritual savvy, rather than physical strength.

Compose: Don't oppose. Let the other person make the first move and develop a strategy and approach based on their angle of attack. Listen and be creative. Refrain from reacting: Don't attack your opponent or defend yourself - ascertain and discern instead. Rather than coming at your opponent and attacking their position, sidestep their attack while ascertaining where they're coming from. Rather than defend yourself - which locks you in and gives them a target to hit - discern what's behind their arguments and attacks. Search for the underlying premise that motivates their hatred, fear and uncompromising motivations. Once you understand the bedrock principles behind and underneath the attack, you can deal with fundamental forces of opposition rather than the overt expressions of hostility.

Suppose and Expose: Don't dispose. Assume that those opposing you have a genuine and legitimate concern, one that you share as well. Expose why your opponents energies and activities are destructive of the very ambitions and ideals they defend. Rework and recast your position in terms they might understand.

Interpose and Counterpose: Don't propose. Without imposing your position, question your opponent. Ask questions rather than make declarations or statements. Invite criticism of your ideas. Don't resist attack or defend your position, but open the way for their release of hostilities. Ask them why they hate you so, or why your beliefs are so bothersome or offensive to them. No position is so strong that it cannot be bettered by the insights and help of others. Ask your opponents what they would do if in your position. You learn more from your enemies than from your friends.

Transpose: Convert an attack on you into an attack on the problem. Even when the fight gets nasty, don't respond in kind. Embody the understanding and compassion that Jesus counsels. Transcend the personal nature of the attack by retreating with your ego to higher ground. It’s not about you; it’s about the idea.

Repose: Pause - let the other person make the last move. Strategic silences are disarming. Your best offensive weapon is silence. People can't stand silence; it drives them crazy. Let them depose themselves. It's the best way to win them to your side.

Of course every one of these strategies will sometimes fail to diffuse an explosive confrontation. There were plenty of well-fed Roman lions who could testify to the fact that sometimes aggressiveness and violence overwhelm and destroy the practitioners of “Jesus Judo”. Even then, however, the philosophy behind Jesus remains untarnished. Jesus' promises in the beatitudes are not that we will be victorious, but that we will be blessed.

It is the loving technique of Jesus that transforms cursing into blessing, which turns blows into benefactions, that turns hoods into heroes. It is Jesus that can turn the church from the business of ladder-climbing and crown-clutching and Joneses-upkeeping to the cross-lifting and stone-rolling business.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.