A Dangerous Message

A Dangerous Message

January 27, 2019        Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21

A dangerous message!

            Human beings are very lazy creatures! I know many of you would respond to this statement with a frown. Which in itself is a good thing: The Nobel prize winner, Daniel Kahnemann suggests that we frown more often. Why? This is what he says: “Just putting on a frown, experiments show, works to reduce overconfidence; it causes us to be more analytical, more vigilant in our thinking; to question stories that we would otherwise unreflectively accept as true because they are facile and coherent.

            Being more analytical, vigilant in our thinking, questioning stories that we would otherwise unreflectively accept as true, is good because all of us, especially experts, are prone to an exaggerated sense of how well we understand the world. We all think we understand the world better than we actually do. And because we are lazy we don’t do much to try to understand the world better!

            But before I go on or lose you completely let me explain: Daniel Kahnemann won the 2002 Nobel prize in economics. In his book titled, “Thinking fast and slow” he essentially debunks the view from the 1970’s that human beings are rational beings and that their thinking is normally sound. The 1970’s thinking explains that emotions such as fear, affection and hatred are to blame when people don’t think rationally. If emotions such as fear, affection and hatred are not present, human beings, as rational beings will make rational decisions.

            Not so, says Kahnemann. He shows that instead of being rational beings, our thinking is based on biases and therefore not very rational at all. Our thinking is essentially “rule-of-thumb-thinking”.

            According to Kahnemann we use 2 systems in our judgment and choice. The first one, or system 1, is our fast, automatic, intuitive and largely unconscious mode. The second system is our slow, deliberate, analytical and consciously effortful mode of reasoning about the world. The second system, the slow, deliberate, analytical and consciously effortful mode of reasoning about the world, takes time and effort. The first system, our intuitive and fast thinking takes no effort at all.

            Because we are a lazy species, most of the time we rely on the intuitive, fast thinking system when we assess the world and people. And then because we are so confident that we understand the world, we accept our assessment of people and the world as 100% correct. And we stick to our assessment even if proven wrong!

             It is a fascinating book!

            The bottom line is that we are not very rational beings. We use lazy and intuitive assessments of the world and others. We are influenced by random and external factors that we are not even aware of. In one experiment, for instance, experienced German judges were inclined to give a shoplifter a longer sentence if they had just rolled a pair of dice loaded to give a high number.

            We use our biases and intuition assessing and judging other human beings. You see a picture in the newspaper, you read a tweet or text, you hear a word or see an expression on a stranger’s face, you look at how someone is dressed or behave without knowing the context and you immediately jump to a conclusion. And once you jump to a conclusion you accept that conclusion as the final truth. It has always been like this, for as long as our species existed. But I suspect that with social media, with a shrinking world and a 24/7 news-cycle is even worse now.

             Furthermore, based on our biases and being lazy, we intuitively divide the world into clearly defined groups. They become a faceless entity, they cease to be individuals with individual needs and emotions.

            Then we go one step further, we find examples of what they do as a group, and who they are as group, and these examples confirm our biases. There is even a word for this: confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or biases.

 And because I am overconfident that I understand the world better than anyone else, I am sure that I am right and those who disagrees with me are wrong!

            Now as a theologian and someone who practices theology to try to make sense of human behavior and the world and to determine what God wants us to do, I have to admit that people of faith often use the Bible in the same way: We read the Bible and find texts that support our biases. 

            How can we avoid doing what we, as human beings, are programmed to do? Sure, one way is to be less lazy and to be more deliberate and analytical before we jump to conclusions. Another way is to take more time to hear different sides of a story before we take a position. Perhaps it would help if we are less certain, less arrogant and not so overconfident that we understand the world. Maybe we should be humbler in our approach to the world and more hesitant to judge others. And perhaps we should see the other, not as a faceless group who confirms our biases but rather see and acknowledge the individual person in the group. Because after all, the group consists of individual human beings! And as the Apostle Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians, in God’s kingdom everyone counts – not only the important people.

The Bible provides guidance on how to live as God’s people. Take for example the Gospel of Luke. Jesus is in Nazareth and he goes to the Synagogue as was the custom. At the time worship services at a Synagogue consisted of the creed or shema: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the LORD is one”. There were prayers, a reading from the Torah, from the first five books of the Bible, a reading from the prophets followed by a sermon. Any Jewish male had the right to choose a reading from the Torah or Prophets.

            Jesus chooses a reading from the Prophet Isaiah. His quote from the prophet however is not from one part of the book: he cites various verses from a number of chapters: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

            These words in the prophet Isaiah refer to the Jews who were in Exile in Babylon at the time. They are the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. The year of the Lord referred to the expectation that God would intervene and liberate them from their Babylonian oppressors. So in the book of Isaiah, these verses had to do with an expectation of a specific group of people in Babylon.

            Dutch theologian JT Nielsen is correct when he points out that in the actual Isaiah text the Messianic expectation had a nationalist-political meaning. The Jewish people in Babylon, expected the Messiah to intervene to restore the Jewish nation.

            Jesus however, when he cites these words and when he says that these words are fulfilled, departs from the narrow nationalist-political expectation. Jesus now is introducing the Kingdom of Godfor all people.

            And as we know Luke’s Jesus has a soft spot for the poor and marginalized. So, he starts with them, the poor as the first recipients of God’s promises. In the ancient world, the poor and the marginalized did not have any say. Peter Garnsey, one of the world’s leading historians of the economy and society of ancient Rome, argued that in antiquity the worst consequences of temporary food shortages were usually successfully avoided, but that poverty and malnutrition were endemic. He goes on to say that people’s attitudes to poverty and the poor changed with time. At some point in time the poor both became more visible, and were looked at more charitably. But he says it is likely that poverty became both deeper and more widespread in later antiquity. Generally, the poor was tolerated but left to their own devices. 

            And because human beings have not changed much over the millennia we can safely assume that our ancient sisters and brothers, assessed the wealthy and the poor with their system 1 thinking, the fast, intuitive assessment, and with their own biases. They jumped to easy conclusions: Wealth was a sign of God’s blessings. Poor people had themselves to blame for they were lazy! They most certainly did not take time to deliberate, to analyze and consciously reason about reasons why they were poor.

            The fact that Luke’s Jesus sides with the poor is an important departure from the general accepted view of the time! Jesus shows a different approach to the world in general and to the poor in particular. Jesus is turning the world upside down: those who are excluded, like gentiles, are now included. Those who are invisible and who do not matter, they become the focus in God’s Kingdom. Those who are seen as property of males in a male dominant society, women and children, are now the primary audience of Jesus. It was a radical message at the time and it still is a dangerous one.

Maybe this message urges us to slow down and to look at the world and groups of people from a different perspective. Maybe it is encouraging us to think carefully and deliberately about groups of people and not simply use are biases and intuition to assess them. Maybe the Gospel wants us to see the world through a different lens.

            What if we, as people of faith adopt an approach to the world, where we don’t simply jump to conclusions about others, but take some time to get to know others, listen to others, hear their stories and find out what their fears, anxieties and uncertainties are? What if we take time to put ourselves in their shoes, show empathy and understanding, hear their concerns and dreams?

            Everyone agrees that we live in a very divided society. The divisions in our country run deep  -politically, economically, socially and even culturally. These differences divide the country into groups and our biases reinforce these divisions. Our political views makes us part of a particular group and split our society into them and us. As lazy human beings, we see what we want to see and because we are biased, our biases are confirmed by what we see. Our society is divided into those who are becoming wealthier and those who are left behind. Our biases give simplistic answers on why some people are becoming richer and others poorer. There is a social divide between people living in urban areas and rural areas. Our biases see confirmation about the other. Hot button cultural issues divide us and here too we see confirmation about those who are my side of the argument and those who are not. And the shocking reality is that most, after jumping to simplistic conclusions, are convinced that they are right and that there is no need to assess more, to be more analytical or to get to know the person who has a different view.

            We are not the only society in the world where this is happening. There certainly are greater forces at play in the world at the moment.    The question however for us is: How do we respond? What guidance does the Bible give us to live and interact with others? What role does the example of Jesus play in our lives when we look at other people? What do we do now that we know that our natural instinct is to quickly assess others and then use our biases to confirm our views? It seems to me that Jesus shows us that whenever we deal with human beings, we need to take more time to get to know them, understand who they are, what their hopes are. We need to do this even if it takes time, effort and emotional energy. It calls for humility and openness and perhaps a frown now and then to remind us that we don’t have all the answers. It asks for patience and the willingness to journey with others instead of judging them. In world where people are quick to jump to conclusions, we should perhaps be more cautious to do so. Why? We believe after all that the year of the Lord’s favor has arrived. Amen