I was of the original mind that I would read a sermon of King’s, in honor of his birthday. I have decided against that for two reasons – first, his sermons are long – they’re great, and I don’t think you would be bored, except that it’s hard enough to preach someone else’s sermon – let alone a long one.
The second reason is that last weekend’s shooting in Arizona cries out for some attention.
So, I’m going to borrow heavily from King. I think I do this borrowing well in the spirit of King’s conviction of nonviolence. In one of his most famous sermons, after which today’s is shaped, “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” King did this very thing, drawing heavily on a sermon by Gerald Hamilton Kennedy titled “The Mind and the Heart.”
The mass shooting last weekend would surely have raised the preaching bells for King whose deepest concern was the cultivation of nonviolence, and which he often expressed pastorally by quoting a Frenchman who said that we are strong not when we exert power with guns or ideas, but when strong impulses to power are balanced with equally strong impulses to humility and peace. He called this having within oneself “antitheses strongly marked.”
Balanced individuals form the foundation of a nonviolent ethic. The concerns that are swirling around last weekend’s shooting – highly charged, ideologically driven language, hate-filled or violent metaphors, are met in King’s insistence that nonviolence is not simply a turn-the-other cheek ethic of meekness, but a intelligent balancing of opposites in our private and public lives.
Jesus recognized the need for blending opposites. He knew that his disciples would face a difficult and hostile world; they would confront the recalcitrant powers that be, and the grand protectors of the old order. He knew that they would meet cold and arrogant men whose hearts had been hardened by the long winter of traditionalism. So he said to them, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves;” And he gave them a formula for action,”be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having, simultaneously, the characteristics of the serpent and the dove, but this is what Jesus expects. We must combine the tough mind of the serpent and the soft heart of the dove.
First, then, to be wise as serpents. It cannot be that we are to be serpentine in the mythical sense of having destructive aims, but instead to be of a tough mind – to think well and offer a realistic appraisal and a decisive judgment. The tough mind is able to sift the true from the false even through the tough crusts of tradition and myth that forms the identity of a culture.
The American culture is right now divided. A tough mind is required. And yet, we see, in the incessant ranting, from one side to the other, about who is to blame, that this is not easy. Rarely do we find people who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Dr. King puts it bluntly — “Nothing pains some people more than having to think.” To determine fact from fiction is harder and harder and the ability to do so has eroded as trusted sources of authority, and I here include the pulpit, have shied from speaking hard thought truth and from inviting critical thinking. These outlets have learned that most people are soft-minded, and they capitalize upon this with skillful zeal.
Soft-mindedness invades religion, as I just suggested.. This is why religion has sometimes rejected new truth with a dogmatic passion. Through edicts and bulls, inquisitions and excommunications, the church has attempted to dam the living waters of truth and build a stone wall in the path of the truth seeker. Historical criticism of the Bible is considered blasphemous, and reason is often looked upon as the exercise of a corruption or futility or both.
We do not need to look far to detect the dangers of soft mindedness in religion When the precepts of religion are open only to special pleading and the pure light of reasoned conversation is extinguished, the leaders who control the language control the people. Adolf Hitler realizing that soft-mindedness was widespread, used language to lead a country into barbarity. In a famous passage in his Mein Kampf, he asserted:
By means of shrewed 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.
Soft mindedness is one of the basic causes of violence. The tough-minded person always examines the facts before he reaches conclusions; in short, he postjudges. The tender-minded person reaches a conclusion before she has examined the first fact; in short she prejudges and is prejudiced. Violence is based on the groundless fears engendered by soft mindedness and prejudgment.
Too many with a public voice recognize this disease of soft mindedness that engulfs our culture. With insidious zeal, they make inflammatory statements and spread distortions and half-truths that arouse abnormal fears and morbid dislike of anyone with whom they disagree, leaving them so confused that they are led to acts of meanness and violence that no normal person commits.
There is little hope for us until we become tough minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft mindedness.
But we must not stop with the cultivation of a tough mind. The gospel demands a tender heart too. Tough mindedness without tenderheartedness is cold and detached, leaving us in a perpetual winter devoid of the warmth of spring and the heat of the sun.
Our culture has convinced us that capitalism’s pure utlitarianism is Biblical. In a nutshell, God takes care of those who take care of themselves. Whether Mr. Laughner shot because he was alienated by this culture, angry at it, whether he felt himself an island among a sea of humanity, we do not, and likely will not know. But there is no way that the crass utilitarianism of our culture cannot be implicated in the alienation of individuals from their human family in the midst of such tough heartedness.
Jesus frequently illustrated the characteristics of the hardhearted. The rich fool, to name one example, was condemned not because he was tough minded, but rather 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.
Jesus reminds us that the good life combines the toughness of the serpent and the tenderness of the dove. This is hard to do, and we often fall short of achieving balance, falling back, instead on simple mindedness and tough heartedness.
But balanced, these two ways, the way of critical thinking and the way of graceful living, opens for us the vista of King’s beloved community and makes the hope for peace and justice worth acting upon.
But what about the fact that the Arizona massacre was committed by a mentally ill person?
It is true that we talk very little in our culture about mental illness. It is the hidden disease and it carries a shameful label. Rather than deal with the fact of mental illness, we prefer to pretend it does not exist, we use slurs to speak about the people burdened with it and prefer to keep those with mental illness from our public eye. These are all characteristics of a failure to be tough minded.
It is also true that our failure to be tender hearted creates islands of humanity separated from the rest of humanity. Our culture of hard heartedness builds antipathy toward the other, creates distances between us that only makes mental illness worse, perhaps leading it to erupt into violence.
Let me conclude by briefly applying the meaning of the text to the nature of God.
The greatness of our God lies in the fact that God is both tough minded and tenderhearted.
The Bible, always clear in stressing both attributes of God, expresses God’s tough mindedness in justice and tenderheartedness in pure love. God has two outstretched arms. One is strong enough to surround us with justice, and one is gentle enough to embrace us with grace.
Too often, I am afraid, we have given God the attribute of omnipotence – which is simply a projection of our propensity to fall into hard heartedness and weak mindedness. For a God of all power and might, is not a God able to react to injustice in love.
If God were omnipotent, that is weak minded and hardhearted instead of strong minded and tender hearted, then the events of the last weeks, should be brushed off by the argument, that, well, “boys will be boys.”
Instead God, in bearing these attributes, both transcends the world and is related to it. God sets us free in God’s transcendent need for freedom and weeps with us in sharing our agonies and struggles.
The national prayer today is for a kinder gentler tone, for greater civility. King’s vision for civility, that is a public balance of tough mindedness and tenderheartedness, reminds me of John F. Kennedy’s hope for progress in the midst of the civil rights movement and unrest. At his inaguarl address, he did not simply remind the country that civility is not a sign of weakness, but he combined the need for civility, for tenderheartedness with the need for reasoned conversation, for tough mindedness.
“Let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.”
We will succeed in our best hopes as we are tender-hearted and tough minded.