Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 † Psalm 34:15-22 † Ephesians 6:10-20 † John 6:56-69
The Hubris of good Intentions. That’s how one author[i], characterizes the force central to the story of the social media giant Facebook. Author and University of Virginia scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan is among scholars examining the way that social media keeps us from the work of real community building and the type of face-to-face constructive problem solving that makes for a vibrant democracy. This is a conversation that has become louder in the last year or so as we get increasingly clearer glimpses, and first-hand experience, of all manner of ills that me must guard against as we engage social media. Everything from a momentary vent of emotion from a well-meaning friend that can escalate into an embittered and hurtful debate to sophisticated nation-sponsored propaganda that has serious implications for the way we are governed. But the phrase that this author uses to try to help us understand the story of how we got here really caught my attention. The hubris of good intentions.
A friend and I were talking this week about how so often the thing we call out in others, that thing that offends us so much, just rub us the wrong way, or that turn of phrase that makes us doubletake as we are reading or talking with others, is ironically, so very often, something that powerfully exists in ourselves, something our sub-conscious knows to be true for us too, even as it somehow offends us when we see it in someone else. In some strange way, maybe it’s the Holy Spirit at work , but the thing that catches our attention is oftentimes, it seems, something that we might want to look at in ourselves – something we can or need to learn from or learn about.
The hubris of good intentions. I know that one. Maybe you do too. It’s that thing when you are sure you know what’s needed. When your God given gift, gifts that hunger for righteousness, are ignited by something you encounter that’s just not right, but at the same time we tear ahead with our sense of what’s needed without listening for the wisdom of those who go this way with us. The voices of history, the voices of those who see the world differently, the voices of the powerless, the voices of the expert, and the critic. The hubris of good intentions takes sway when our desire for justice and goodness, a God-given desire sure enough, a thing deeply good and needed, pushes us ahead of and away from others. Others that we need if the goodness that we seek is going to be strong and real and enduring. Instead we press on and often find ourselves in a place of unintended consequences and pain.
In social media’s case, many of the founders and developers of the platforms we use everyday are indeed propelled and convey with great conviction by a desire for goodness, even justice. A desire to connect the world, build community, get around systems that promote and give space to only the powerful. The intention, the work put in, is laudable and bears the potential, has indeed in many cases delivered, great service to our world – raising the voices of the underserved, sharing stories that are silenced, reconciling folks estranged by distance or old wounds, or just offering encouragement, desperately needed encouragement, to get us through the valleys of life, valleys deep or shallow. But the power of this medium has been unleashed without deep attention and serious conversation with those who have studied or experienced the dangers inherent in mass media. The ways it can and will be used for evil as well as good; the powers that lurk in each of us and in the larger systems of society ready to leverage good intentions for the sake of greed and power. There is a hubris, a type of blind self-confidence that exists when we think our desire for good and our abilities are such that we are somehow immune to forces that history and scholarship and reflection have shown are powerful and real and very dangerous.
But such a road: the road towards real justice, real goodness, well is arduous and it’s hard. We know this. It takes time and thought, deep conversation and learning from each other. It requires constant questioning and recalibration, deep humility and a willingness to share power. It involves admitting of our mistakes, asking for forgiveness, making things right, dying to our own desire for praise and glory, and continually working to prioritize the dignity of all persons, all creation. This hard and complicated road is the only way to a life that will last, and we make it on this way only if we rely on and remember a goodness, a beauty, a mercy, a God, and that exists beyond any one of us.
Jesus’ whole life – and his whole death - was dedicated to this way. And he took the difficulty and the arduousness of the work of justice and peace very seriously. He knew it would take everything he had – his whole life. He pursued this life with courage knowing that life that lasts would come for him and for the world.
In today’s gospel we witness many, who had hoped in Jesus, baulk at the idea of following him and relying fully on his promise of life by going the way he offers. In these weeks of August, we have listened to him try to tell his followers that he is the way and that they should rely on him fully, like the very bread they eat. Today he explains again. It’s like you are the Israelites on a wilderness journey. Yes, the journey is hard but it holds the promise of a life that lasts, and I am bread that God sends. Rely on me and trust me. But why is he not coming as a king, they have asked, how can we possible rely on, literally be fed by this man, this carpenter’s son. This call offends them, and they cannot abide it. They leave…except a few who begin to see that there really is no other way.
The way of kings, you see, does not work. Its hubris to think that one powerful human being can overcome with their might, their ability, their self-assuredness, the wrongs and the evils of this world. This way, God’s way, is different, it relies of a power outside of ourselves, a power that prioritizes and gathers us together around the love and care of all creation. This power offers a life built on the things that last: life-giving sacrifice, love in the face of hate, and whole-hearted, courageous undeniable love of neighbors – all neighbors. It might seem like there are other ways that are easier, but they are not based on anything real. If you’ll rely on me, the one who wants peace for all, Jesus tells us, then I will abide with you. I will nourish you with hope and love and I will be with you as you take this path that is, for sure, fueled by the good intentions I place in you, but that also involves the hard, day-by-day humble work of community building and real peace.
I was browsing social media this week and I came across a post from another friend. It was a picture of an empty bench in a park, with a smoke covered sun casting an orange glow on some eerily still waters. A place where kids should have been playing, and friends should have been walking and talking, breathing deep and fully of the clean air of God’s creation. Below was this poem:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all.
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably,
he may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them all at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes
because each has been sent
as a guide from above.[ii]
Meet them at the door, the things that offend you. Engage them - in safety, in ways that you can manage, maybe just with a prayer. Meet them with good and wise company, and in good time. As you are ready, with God’s help, with the community’s help, see what you can learn from them. We do not know all by ourselves what it will take to make things right, we need others – as difficult as we might sometimes find each other – to enlighten and enliven the good intentions that are planted in and between us by the God of all time to get where we need to go. This bread, this table, this body of Christ, the creation that it binds us to, bring us, thank be to God, into the presence of the one who will give strength for the way.
[i] Vaidhyanathan, Siva. Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy Oxford university Press 2018
[ii] The Guest House. Jellaludin Rumi translation by Coleman Barks
St. Andrew Sermons