Binary thinking and a prayer for peace

1 Timothy 2:1-8

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. 7 And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.

8 Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.

I enjoy doing electrical work. One of the advantages of attending a large, public university as an undergraduate is the opportunity to take electives that are actually fun and useful. The most fun and useful class that I took at The Ohio State University was on planning and wiring both residential and commercial buildings. People are usually surprised to learn that I wired parts of my own home – and that it still has not burned to the ground.

One of the most basic pieces in any electrical system is the single throw/single pole switch, your typical light switch. You would be hard pressed to find a home or business that has electric but does not have at least one light switch.

The single throw/single pole switch has two positions: on and off. I know that there are things called dimmer switches and three-way switches, but I’m talking about the regular old switch that is on or off with nothing in between.

There is a word that helps us describe things like a light switch. That word is binary. There are only two options, on or off. The weather lately could be considered binary as things are either hot or cold, but I guess that is better than being luke-warm. Other binaries are things like good and evil, top and bottom, in or out, black or white, Republican or Democrat. Binary things are either one or the other.

I want to suggest today that even though most of us feel comfortable with binaries, most of our world, and the kingdom of God for that matter, are not binary. Instead, this world is made up of continuums, a spectrum of possibilities from one extreme to the other. And this has been the case for some time.

People in Jesus’ day were a lot like people of our day: they were always walking around with their noses pressed up to their smart phones, checking their Facebook news feed. No, I mean that they too were very comfortable with their binaries.

We would be wrong if we thought of the Jewish faith as completely united. Like Christianity today, 1st century Judaism consisted of a number of sects or groups. And they exhibited the same binary way of thinking and interacting with others, asking, “Is this person one of us or one of them?”

One of these groups that is very familiar to us because they come up a number of times in the New Testament is the Pharisees. The Pharisees tend to have a pretty bad rap, and much of that is deserved. But these men were genuinely attempting to live out their faith as best as they could and to call others into a more faithful way of living.

However, these Pharisees were very binary in their thinking. They were very clear on what the Law said and they were very clear about how the Law should be lived out. So in their binary way of thinking, they were constantly trying to figure out who was “in” and who was “out.”

The in crowd is pretty obvious in the New Testament: the scribes, the teachers of the Law, the High Priest, and the Levites were all “in.” These were the keepers of their particular form of the Law. The out crowd was also pretty evident: the tax collectors, the sinners, and the prostitutes and the gentiles. Us versus them, in verses out. For the Pharisees it was very important to know where someone stood and with whom they stood so that they would know how to treat them, how to interact with them, and how to talk about them behind their backs.

So along comes this teacher and he has a pretty big following. He preaches to groups that number in the thousands. There is word that he is doing miracles, healing the sick and the lame, even bringing people back from the dead. Some people are even saying that this man is the Messiah, the one who will set God’s people free. Of course the Pharisees and all of the other binary thinkers want to know who this guy is. Is he one of us or one of them? Is he in or is he out?

So people come to Jesus and they ask him questions about the Law. “Is it right for a man to heal on the Sabbath?” Others come and demand that Jesus make judgments in family disputes. “Teacher,” they say. “Tell my brother to give me my share of the inheritance.” Still others seek to trap him by asking Jesus questions that don’t have clear answers. “Tell me, who is my neighbor,” and “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?”

This is one reason why I love Jesus so much. He does not play by the rules. When Jesus is asked to make a binary decision, to tell others what is right and wrong, he almost always answers in the same way. Jesus says, “Let me tell you a story.”

This isn’t because Jesus doesn’t believe in right and wrong or truth and falsehood. The reason that Jesus rejects the binary options of the Pharisees and the others is because binaries keep us from appreciating the complexities of and given situation. Binaries divide. Binaries silence the “other.”

The reason that I wanted to address the issue of binaries today is because we are looking at a very binary topic in our churches today and I want to look at some of the binary teachings to see that in fact peacemaking is a beautifully complex topic.

Today is International Prayer for Peace Sunday. Today people around the world will be gathering together, holding or folding hands, bowing their heads, and asking God to bring peace to this world. And who doesn’t want world peace? I don’t watch beauty pageants, but what is the standard answer to the question, “If you could have one thing, what would it be?” World peace.

Today’s passage from 1 Timothy gives us clear instructions that we are to pray for the leaders and those in positions of authority, not only of our country, but all countries, so that we can live in peace.

When Paul writes these words to Timothy, he isn’t suggesting that we pray for a chance to live in peace like I pray every night with my children, “Please, God, just help them sleep so I can get some peace and quiet!” Remember that Paul was a Jewish man living in 1st century, Hellenized Palestine under Roman occupation. So he thought as an Israelite and wrote in Greek. When Paul wrote that followers of Jesus should be praying for their leaders so that they could live in peace, Paul was most likely thinking of the Hebrew concept of shalom.

Shalom is not just the absence of war or violence, it is an overall sense of wellbeing. For all to be well does indeed mean the absence of war, but more so it means “it’s all good.”

We are not just to pray for all warfare to cease, but for there to be no need for warfare. This means no hunger, no death by treatable diseases, no homeless, no fear. Seems like a pretty big prayer to me. And there are perhaps few prayers more important than this one.

We pray weekly in our church for God to cure cancer, which seems like a good thing to pray for. So if we pray for God to change someone’s body, can’t we also pray for God to change someone’s heart, even our own?

But notice this: we don’t just pray for God to heal cancer. We do something about it. I sure do not advocate doing nothing but praying for God to heal our friends and family of their cancer. If someone has cancer, I suggest working with a doctor to seek treatment. When someone gets cancer, we don’t just pray, we undergo chemotherapy and radiation. I believe that God can cure cancer, but I also believe that God works through our actions, and our technology like chemo and radiation.

So to those that say praying for world peace is too big a thing, I would simply encourage us all to do the same thing that we do when we pray for someone with cancer. We not only pray for healing, we act for healing. We not only pray for peace, we act for peace.

This is where the binary thinking comes into play in the Mennonite church. We surely all believe world peace is a good thing and that prayer for peace is the first step toward this goal. But how we act for peace kicks in our binary thinking.

I am an absolute pacifist. I do not believe that violence is ever the way of Jesus. However, I know that not everyone in my congregation thinks that way. So we start to ask one another the difficult questions like, “What would you do if someone broke into your home and tried to kill your family,” or “What about Hitler? Do you think that we should have done nothing to stop Hitler?”

The first binary that I want to debunk is that being a pacifist means doing nothing, that the only two options available to us are to take someone’s life or allow them to take ours.

If we take Jesus as our model, and I think that we should, we know that Jesus’ life was threatened a number of times in the New Testament. Even as an infant in his mother’s arms his life was threatened and he (unknowingly?) did something. When Jesus emerges as an adult and gives his first sermon in his hometown, he is surrounded by the people of the town and they try to throw him off a cliff. Jesus doesn’t just do nothing (double negative intended). But he doesn’t go the extreme other way and say, “I’m going to throw these people off the cliff before they can throw me off! I’m bringing the thunder!”

There are other times when Jesus uses his intellect to stop violence toward others. When a woman is caught in adultery and about to be publically executed, Jesus speaks up and invites the person without sin to cast the first stone.

We need to remember that being a pacifist is not the same thing as being passive. To be passive would be to do nothing. The word pacifist and pacifism have the same root as the word pacifier, like what we use to calm down a cranky baby. A pacifist’s job is to calm down cranky world leaders and cranky neighbors alike.

A couple of weeks ago it seemed as if our country was moving toward a military strike on the country of Syria. They have chemical weapons and we don’t want them to have chemical weapons. They have shown that they cannot have chemical weapons and act like mature adults. So our Secretary of State, John Kerry, and President Obama began pushing for a Congressional action to permit the Air Force to start an assault on Syria.

But it hasn’t happened. And it looks like it might not happen, praise God. And it is all kind of funny how a diplomatic agreement to avoid this military strike came about. Evidently John Kerry was making some off-the-cuff comments and he half-jokingly said something like, “The only way to avoid a military conflict is for Syria to give up their chemical weapons. But we all know that will never happen, right?”

Syria responded, “Yeah, yeah, we will give up our chemical weapons if you promise to not bomb us.”

It would seem that nobody floated that idea before. Instead we were stuck in our traditional, binary thinking. It is either bomb them or let them get away with murder.

The binary thought process says that we either use violence, lethal violence if need be, or do nothing. But if presented with that binary option, Jesus might say, “Let me tell you a story.”

The next binary that I want to address this morning is the “you either agree with me or else you haven’t given it any thought” binary. Both sides of the argument seem to fall into this unhealthy position. One side says, “Those silly peace-loving hippies. They don’t even realize how ignorant they sound. If they would just look at the real world they would agree with us.” The other side says, “Obviously war has not worked to bring peace and reconciliation for the last 4,000 + years, why do we keep thinking things will change? Isn’t that the definition of insanity?”

We tend to oversimplify the position of others. We tend to reduce their beliefs to a few indefensible statements, maybe misquote others a few times, and then show why our position is better. This is what is called a “straw man” argument. We construct someone else’s position in such a way that it is easy to knock over.

One of the best growth experiences for me over the last couple of years has been studying ethics at non-Mennonite institutions. Don’t worry, my convictions have not changed. In fact, my convictions have only grown stronger. But so have my sympathies and my level of understanding.

I’m just as guilty of anyone of making straw-man arguments, particularly when it comes to issues of peace and just war. Then I studied a just war theologian by the name of Reinhold Niebuhr with a teacher who is a Niebuhr scholar (and I would add apologist). Niebuhr was not some war-mongering, hateful, heartless person, but he also wasn’t a pacifist. And when I was forced to read and intellectually engage with Niebuhr I was able to better appreciate the just war perspective. I don’t agree with it, but I sure wouldn’t say that Niebuhr never gave it any thought!

The binary thought process says that people either agree with us or else they haven’t given it any thought. But if presented with that binary option, Jesus might say, “Let me tell you a story.”

The final binary that I want to mention is that we must all be in complete agreement or else we can’t work together for peace, or even worship together. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I know that even if you are not an absolute pacifist, you want peace and you probably see war as a way of arriving at that goal. But I hope that today, on this International Day of Prayer for Peace that we can join together, regardless of what our political, theological, or ideological perspective might be and pray for God’s shalom to come to this world, the very world that God so loved that he sent his one and only son to save.

Binaries separate, they divide, they draw a line in the sand and ask which side you are on. But our world is not simply made up of binaries, but of beautiful, challenging continuums. And as we pray for Jesus to show us the way of peace, I have a feeling that he will answer by saying, “Let me tell you a story.”


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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