john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Tough minds and tender hearts in the Obama years

    Good Shepherd Remembrance Day Service

    Revelation 22.1-5, Matthew 5.1-12

    Wars make us think about things in opposites. Good and evil; right and wrong. Today we rightly and proudly remember people who have stood for good against evil; stood for right against wrong. Moral people, examples to us all.

    Here's another opposite you get in war: hawks and doves. Those who are all out for violent confrontation, and those who favour nonviolence - diplomacy, politics, conversation - as a way of overcoming our differences. And we know that over the centuries some Christians have been hawks and some Christians have been doves.

    Jesus knew all about opposites. He knew that his disciples would face a difficult and hostile world, where they would suffer aggression from those who were protecting the old order, cold and arrogant, hardhearted opposition. So he said to them, "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves." And he gave them a formula for action: "Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves." [Matthew 10:16]

    Now how can one person be both a serpent and a dove, at the same time? But this is what Jesus expects. In wartime and in peacetime this is how we Christians should live. Jesus says that we must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart. Jesus doesn't think in opposites. Jesus brings opposites together.

    Some of those we remember today will have been good, tough-minded people. Their decision to take part in armed conflict wouldn't have come easy. It came after some hard, solid thinking. Other people, of course, decided that armed conflict wasn't for them. And their decision was tough-minded as well. All of these - hawks and doves together - had a strong, disciplined quality that gave them a firmness of purpose and a solidness of commitment.

    Tough-mindedness is something we need today where too often we settle for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Not thinking, being softminded, we are gullibile. We are easily led to buy something because an advert says we need it. We let the newspapers tell us what to think without having the toughness of mind to judge critically what they're saying and to separate the true from the false, the fact from the fiction.

    Being softminded makes us superstitious. Fills us with irrational fears, like a fear of Friday the thirteenth or fear of a black cat crossing our path.

    The softminded person always fears change. They feel security in the status quo, and they fear the new, they fear a new idea. Early in the election campaign an elderly white man in a southern state of America is reported to have said, "I have come to see now that a black President is inevitable. But I pray God that it will not take place until after I die." The softminded person always wants to freeze the moment and keep life just the same.

    Softmindedness often invades religion. This is why religion has sometimes passionately rejected new truths. Instead of thinking through and working through difficult issues we've made new laws to get around them. In our softmindness we sidestep the struggles around science and religion, or sexuality. Our version of the Beatitudes seems to read, "Blessed are the pure in ignorance: for they shall see God."

    Softmindedness is dangerous. Dictators capitalize on softmindedness, and lead ordinary people to do terrible acts of barbarity. Adolf Hitler realized that his followers were so softminded that he said, "I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few." In Mein Kampf he wrote:
    By means of shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated, it is possible to make people believe that heaven is hell - and hell, heaven ... The greater the lie, the more readily will it be believed.
    And what lies he told about the Jewish people... What lies are we being told about Muslims today? Softmindedness is one of the basic causes of prejudice. The toughminded person always examines the facts before they reach conclusions; the tender-minded person reaches a conclusion before they have examined the first fact; they prejudge and are prejudiced. Racial prejudice, all prejudice is based on groundless fears, suspicions, and misunderstandings. How dare we make judgements about other people's behaviour before we have taken the trouble to understand them in all their human complexity?

    Another preacher once said, 'There is little hope for us until we become toughminded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance.' Softmindedness is a luxury we can't afford today.

    But a tough mind on its own is not enough. The gospel also demands a tender heart. Toughmindedness without tenderheartedness is cold and detached. How tragic to see a person who has risen to the disciplined heights of toughmindedness but has at the same time sunk to the passionless depths of hardheartedness.

    The hardhearted person never truly loves. They value other people only if they are useful to them. They are too cold and self-centred to be affectionate or to share other people's joys and sorrows. The hardhearted person can't be genuinely compassionate. They are unmoved by the pains and afflictions of others. They pass unfortunate people every day, but they never really see them. They may give their time or money to a worthwhile charity, but they don't give of their spirit.

    Jesus often talked about the hard-hearted. The rich fool was condemned, not because he wasn't toughminded but because he was not tenderhearted. Life for him was a mirror in which he saw only himself, and not a window through which he saw other selves. The rich man Dives went to hell, not because he was wealthy, but because he was not tenderhearted enough to see Lazarus and because he made no attempt to bridge the gulf between himself and his brother.

    Jesus reminds us that the good life combines the toughness of the serpent and the tenderness of the dove. To have serpentlike qualities devoid of dovelike qualities is to be passionless, mean, and selfish. To have dovelike without serpentlike qualities is to be sentimental, anemic, and aimless. These two opposing things must come together.

    Now today we honour people who have gone before us who have been both tough minded and tenderhearted. They have thought through the reasons to fight for their beliefs and they were motivated by their compassion for other people. It is both those things about them which we celebrate today.

    The events in America this week show us that ordinary people have the ability to identify a leader for themselves who promises to be both tough minded and tenderhearted. They have taken the opportunity to elect a president who promises to trust the people and lead them with prudence rather than distrust the people and lead them in fear. [1] We celebrate with the ordinary people of America and pray for them today.

    Now if you know your American history then you may have realised by now that the sermon I have just given you was based on the words of a preacher far greater, far more tough minded and tenderhearted than I'll ever be. The sermon called "A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart" was given in 1963 by Martin Luther King Jr, and published in his book Strength to Love. [2]

    King has been much-remembered this week because he took such a lead in the conflict over the segregation of black and white people in America. And half a century later his struggle has come to a very significant point with the election of Barak Obama. King, of course wasn't a hawk. He was a dove. But if there is a place to commemorate both hawks and doves on Remembrance Day then church is surely that place.

    King was motivated by a belief in a God who is neither hardhearted nor softminded. He said that
    The greatness of our God lies in the fact that he is both toughminded and tenderhearted. He has qualities both of austerity and of gentleness. The Bible, always clear in stressing both attributes of God, expresses his toughmindedness in his justice and wrath and his tenderheartedness in his love and grace. God has two outstretched arms. One is strong enough to surround us with justice, and one is gentle enough to embrace us with grace. On the one hand, God is a God of justice who punished Israel for her wayward deeds, and on the other hand, he is a forgiving father whose heart was filled with unutterable joy when the prodigal returned home.
    We stand in the presence of that God this morning, to remember those who have gone before us, whose tough minds and tender hearts have been offered to God in the service of a better world.

    We stand in the presence of that God aware that we are in a changing world and in serious times, which call for us to be toughminded and tenderhearted in all we think, say, and do.

    We stand in the presence of the God who said, 'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.'

    And as we commemorate those who have fought for peace and campaigned for justice we know that they stand with us now, in the light that shines from our Lord God, and we commit ourselves again to continuing the good work that they began.


    [1] This line based on a quote by William Gladstone as blogged on Thursday, November 06, 2008: 'Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear.'
    [2] Much of this talk is a reworking of "A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart", Martin Luther King Jr, Strength to Love