It’s been a tough week for me personally, and for humanity, it’s been a pretty tough summer in general. There’s been Russia invading Ukraine to “liberate” ethnic Russians, Islamist forces who’ve perverted their own religion beyond recognition doing battle against governments that are corrupt and ruthless in Syria, Iraq and Nigeria. And just last week, we’ve had yet another policeman’s cold blooded shooting of an unarmed African American teenager. What can I say, but “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy”.
I could talk about the depressing, unchanging situation between Israel and Palestine, but I did that 6 years ago, and Kevin Carson did an incredible job talking about that two Sundays ago. Or I could go “light”. Summer movies! The Red Sox! Beer! but I’m not certain that those are particularly enlightening subjects for a once-in-a-year homily.
Or maybe I go “meta”. Spend a few minutes talking about how darn hard it it to write a sermon.
No. Rather than talking about indecisiveness, let me go down the road of some medieval history. After all, I spent a good chunk of my summer in England and Scotland, wandering around some 1000 year old institutions. And I have Scottish heritage, so I must have some good Scottish tale full of grizzly details.A reminder, if you will, that things may have been even worse back then.
How many of you have heard of the expression “cutting off the nose to spite the face”? How many know what it means? How many know where it came from?
Legend has it that it started in Scotland, sometime around the year 870. An age where warring tribes took large sections of land and held them through brutal medieval force. Often the targets of these attacks were nunneries, where in addition to pillage and burn, the attackers could also rape. And to a nun at that time, being raped meant that she could not ascend to Heaven, as her chastity would be violated. A serious problem. What to do when you see the swarming hordes of heathen coming forth.
Here was the plan of St. Æbbe, the head nun. The night before the castle would be invaded, she went in front of everyone, took a knife and cut off her upper lip her nose, and stood there to bleed. She encouraged all of the nuns present to do the same. Some did. The pagan invaders entered the the next morning, saw this and were so disgusted by the site that they chose to kill all of the nuns and burn the castle rather than rape them. The belief is that by cutting their noses off to spite their faces, they could preserve their entry into Heaven.
History is filled examples of this behavior, where the self-inflicted pain serves no purpose than to embarrass someone else. In the early 1800s, the United States, unhappy with British and French interference, imposed stiff tariffs. This action did little to the Brits and French, but it did cause a severe recession in the nascent American economy. Today, we have Republican governors so ideologically opposed to Obamacare that they will refuse a medicaid expansion that might give their citizens access to essential health care services for free.
There’s a word to describe these political actions. “Spite”. It’s not rational, made by weighing costs and benefits. The costs that are paid mean little. The actor only cares about inflicting pain and suffering to someone else without caring for one’s own well being. It is made with malice, and it involves sacrifice. And it’s only goal is to inflict as much suffering on the “other” as possible. It often feels good to spite, but it rarely does good.
Yes, I have a personal story that’s arisen this summer. My sister and her husband are going through a difficult point in their marriage. The will probably split up. And they SHOULD split up. Their partnership isn’t working, and their staying together is not helping either of them. It’s likely that both of them will be better off on their own. Certainly my sister’s life will improve significantly once her husband is out of the picture. And they’re not stupid. So what keeps them together?
Fear? Maybe. My money is on spite. It would not surprise me if one of them worries that the other will have a better life after separating. After all, if you ex-spouse’s life suddenly improves after leaving you,, what does that say about you? And when you have two people thinking that way, well, you have a relationship where people prefer misery, so long as their partner’s also miserable. We see this in people. We see this in politics. We see this in war.
And what is the polar opposite of spite? Perhaps generosity. Or altruism. Random acts of kindness. Interestingly though, from an action perspective, altruism and spite share one thing, and that is self sacrifice. I would define altruism as increasing the overall good in the world through sacrifice, and spite as increasing the overall bad. Both are, at their core sacrificial, but both also change the way we feel about ourselves, and they also result in changing our view of the world. It is our actions of either spite or altruism that we make the biggest impact on the world around us.
So I will give you a third story, one that I’ve thought of often during this summer, as MaryAlice’s bicycle was stolen in July outside of Fenway Park. The story is not of that bicycle theft, but of the bicycle stolen from our garage here in Dedham several years ago. I was at home one afternoon, when I noticed that the 2 bicycles in our garage were suddenly missing. I grumbled, and went to the police station to file a report, then went home and checked Craigs List, only to see one of my bikes for sale. I contacted the Dedham police, who sprang into action. They assigned 2 detectives to the case, and the three of us arranged to see and “purchase” the bike. I identified it, and they charged the man selling it and returned that bicycle to me. The man appeared in court a few weeks later, pleaded no contest, and was ordered to pay $200, a fee that, from looking at where he was living, he probably didn’t have.
The next day, I went in to the courthouse and paid his fee. The people behind the desk asked of my relationship to the perpetrator, and I simply said that I was the victim, and did not know him at all. They asked why I would pay his fee. I simply said that I had seen where this man lived, and that I could afford this more than he could. They were dumbfounded that a “victim” would pay the judgment of a “perpetrator”. They asked if I thought he had “learned his lesson”. I said “probably not, but that action isn’t about him. It’s about me”. I was learning a lesson.
What was the lesson I learned that day? That random acts of kindness provide more joy to the giver than to the receiver. That, like spite, altruism has rewards well beyond the rational, and that we as humans need to acknowledge that we do not always behave or believe rationally, and that this is an essential part of our humanity and of our faith in a loving God.
For our closing hymn, let’s sing # 205, Amazing Grace.