Why so complicated?
Herbert Strong, was a fascinating man, an extraordinary scientist, a humble genius. I got to know him when I was the Associate Minister at First Reformed Church in Schenectady. He shared with me the same story a few times – every time with the same excitement and enthusiasm. And every time he would end by saying: “The solution was so simple!”
His story was about Project Super-pressure. In 1951, Herb Strong, F.P. Bundy, and Tracy Hall, started working building a Diamond Press, an ultrahigh-pressure apparatus, designed to concentrate and sustain tremendous pressures in a small area. For about 4 years Herb and his General Electric research colleagues had been trying to make industrial diamonds. “We failed many times”, he told me. “Something was missing,” he continued. But then on February 15, 1955 at the Schenectady Laboratories of GE, the press, a donut-size chamber was surrounded by pointed pistons that produced pressures of 1.5 million pounds per square inch and temperatures of 2,760°Celsius.
The team placed metal and carbon and the one ingredient that had been missing for about 4 years inside the donut chamber, applied an electrical jolt that melted the metal-carbon mixture and initiated diamond crystallization. Extremely high pressures and temperatures within the chamber replicated the centuries-long geological process that creates diamonds in nature. After 10 to 20 minutes of operation, they shut down the Diamond Press and peered inside the chamber. And there it was – the first man-made diamond ever made.
Herbs wrinkled face turned out a big smile. “In the end the solution was very simple. It was obvious, cheap and readily available. And for years we had looked for the solution in the wrong places.”
“What was it?”, I asked. “Sodium chloride – yes simple table salt! We needed to add table salt to the mix,” he answered. What was needed to make man-made diamonds was simple, readily available, obvious -and it worked!
It is interesting that we often think that there is no solution to a problem or we look at complicated solutions when the answer is rather simple and obvious. Steven Levitt, from Freakonomics fame wrote: “When the solution to a given problem doesn’t lay right before our eyes, it is easy to assume that no solution exists. But history has shown again and again that such assumptions are wrong. Technological fixes are often far simpler, and therefore cheaper.”
We all have been deeply disturbed by what has been happening in our country recently: Bombs sent to prominent politicians and business leaders, senseless and violent killings of African-Americans and Jewish-Americans, and an increase in hate crimes. In addition, some observers point out that there has been a general decline in civility. Barbara Basler analyzes the decline in civility and concluded that baby boomers were the first generation to be fed oversize portions of self-esteem and self-entitlement. She points out that in their teens, boomers still had enough training from their parents to care what neighbors or their community thought of them. However as they aged that started to change. More and more baby boomers became obsessed with “I,” with “me.” Today, she continues, we instill plenty of self-esteem in our children—but not self-restraint. People today are so self-absorbed they don’t know the value of restraint, and yet you cannot have a healthy society without it. To survive, a society needs an amount of goodwill—people willing to treat others with respect and to give of themselves to the community. Civility is the lifeblood of a society.”
Her analyzes makes sense to me and it certainly is a plausible explanation for the decline in civility. Her analysis explains but does not provide a solution.
As a theologian I believe there is a solution for the violence, hatred, racism and general uncivility that have become prevalent in our society today. And it is a rather simple one.
I think for us as people of faith who read the Bible, who come to church, and pay attention to what our Lord Jesus says, the answer is right before our eyes, obvious and readily available. If people would heed to Jesus’s advice, it will turn a violent, hateful, racist, divided and uncivilized society into proverbial diamonds.
A dispute was going on, people were arguing. A biblical scholar asked Jesus: “Which commandment is the first, that is the most important one?” Jesus answers him, as was the custom back then, with a citation form the Torah, Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
For Israel this was a non-negotiable demand. God claims the whole of a person’s mental, physical and spiritual powers. This reminded me of Acts 17: “In him we live and move and have our being.” Ancient Israel had to commit and devote herself to God without reservation. Unlimited and complete love of God was called for! God chose Abraham, made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, rescued them from Egypt, and provided them with food and water and a land of their own. How could they not love God with all they have?
The OT informs us that Israel did not always place God above all, they did not always love God with all they had. They were constantly tempted to follow and worship other so-called deities. Why? Because these deities did not require total commitment. Israel could serve these deities on Israel’s terms! But the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob required total commitment, total love!
Ancient Israel’s temptations are often our temptations as well. There are other so-called deities that are easier to serve than God because we can serve them on our terms. The history of humankind has shown us that people and nations have succumbed to the temptation to replace the creator God with deities that we ourselves create: blood, soil, race, nation, flag, sport, money, and yes even youth and health have been known to replace God. It is a known fact that people have shown total alliance to ideologies rather than loving God with heart, soul, strength and mind! I suspect that this is perhaps the reason why some people who consider themselves religious have been guilty of committing atrocities. When our alliance is greater towards the deities we create, then we will love and serve them blindly!
Jesus’ answer that the first commandment is to love God with heart, soul, strength and mind suggests that there is only One Being, one God that can require of us total commitment.
Very early on another temptation raised its subtle head. Yes, you can confess your total love of God, your complete commitment to God as a spiritual sacrifice. You can confess that you love God with heart, soul, strength and mind as a spiritual and personal exercise.
But then when it concerns other people, one may still choose to live a live that is egocentric, uncivil and heartless. From very early on in Israel’s history, Moses and the prophets had to point out: If you confess love of God, you need to show it in your life in general but more specifically you need to show it in how you deal with your neighbor.
Jesus picks up this line of the tradition when he says: “The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these.” In Matthew’s version Jesus calls the commandment to love your neighbor like the one, literally equal, to the one that commands to love God!
This second but equally important commandment to love your neighbor as yourself also comes from the Torah, this time from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
It is telling that this Chapter of Leviticus, that is called the Holiness Code, includes verses like these: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard” Why not? you may ask. The answer is in the last part of the same verse: “you shall leave them for the poor and the alien; I am the Lord your God.”
Verse 11: “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely and you shall not lie to one another” verse 14: “You shall not defraud your neighbor, you shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear the Lord; I am the Lord.”
You see, what the holiness code is demanding, in other words what holy people do, is that one’s love of God should include love of neighbor! It is not possible within the Biblical tradition to limit your love of God to the spiritual realm.
Love of God spills over to how you treat others. As a matter of fact, your love of God becomes evident in the way you love your neighbor.
This is how John understands it as well in 1 John 4:20-21: “Those who say, “I love of God” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” The same John says in 1 John 3:17: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s good and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”
So, when we consider our world today, a world where most would agree that we have become less civilized, less respectful in our interaction with people whom we disagree with. A world where some of the most destructive forces of the past, like racism, antisemitism, intolerance of political opponents and nativism are raising their ugly heads again. In a world where violence is seen as a viable option by a growing number of people, the question is: What can I do about it? What is the solution?
Sociologists, political scientists, economists and historians are trying to find solutions. And their efforts should be applauded and encouraged. But I, as a theologian, who had to preach from these readings today, suggest that the answer is, in a way like the answer of Herb Strong and his colleagues to their problem of manufacturing industrial diamonds, the answer is pretty obvious, simple, and readily available: Love of God and love of neighbor! Love God, worship God serve God. If you want to show that you love God, love your neighbor. If you don’t love God, love your neighbor anyway!
I say the solution is readily available because our neighbor is almost always present, wherever we go, there is a neighbor. The parable of The Good Samaritan makes it clear that the question is not who is my neighbor but to whom can I be a neighbor? The answer then is once again very simple: My neighbor is anyone and every human being I encounter everywhere! And if I want to show that I love God I simply have to love him or her as myself. Period- simple- no political or ethical or economic ifs and but! Love God, love neighbor – as simple as that! Amen.