Several of us recently spent a week at a conference at Luther Seminary learning about Non-violent communication. Developed in the 60s by Marshall Rosenburg, NVC operates with the assumption that all people share the same common needs – which are fundamental qualities that contribute to the flourishing of life. This is where we connect and what we all have in common. Needs are things like air, food, water and rest, and belonging, connection, meaning, contribution, and creativity.
But most of the time, we don’t hear and speak to each other at the level of our needs – the place where we share life in common. Rather, we get stuck at the place of judgment and blame and interpretation, or at the level of strategies, ways we are seeking to meet our various needs, which often compete.
But needs never compete.
And so we seek to hear one another there, and see one another there, and let ourselves be seen and heard there, and when we do, we find our humanity upheld, as well as upholding the humanity of the other person – in fact, we find connection. So Amy, Lisa, Jeanne and I spent the week learning about and practicing communication that seeks to connect at this level, so that all people in the conversation are seen and heard, and their personhood is valued.
And after a week of that, coming back to “normal life” feels kind of like being on a silent retreat and walking out of the shady, birdsong-bathed woods into the neon, traffic packed cacophony of Times Square. All around us, within us and between us, in person, on social media and TV, at family gatherings and neighborhood get-togethers and at work and in the car, it often feels like a minefield of something that is decidedly NOT this kind of communicating and connecting. It has felt grating to notice so clearly the near constant competition, whose ideology, project or opinion is better, and whose is stupid. People talking past each other, about each other, over each other, and frantic attempts to be heard, or to be right, or to be loudest.
We’ve been in Romans for the whole summer so far. Just to recap, Paul hasn’t been to Rome, but really wants to go, and he writes to this mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians, brand new baby Christians and old established Christians, this enormous brick of a letter, sharing with them everything he believes, and trusts, and knows deep in his being, and all that matters most to him. He’s just spent a few chapters describing what life in the way of God – the freedom of Christ- is like in practice, and now he’s getting to some nitty-gritty. Specifically here, he is talking about the disagreement over whether to eat meat, some wanting to follow Jewish dietary laws or other ritual observances, and some seeing their Christianity as setting them free from those laws. )Likewise, in the verses we left out, he references that some think they should celebrate certain festival days and others do not).
And Paul refuses to come down on one side or another, in fact, asking them instead to see and hear one another. Paul is inviting them to look beyond the strategy, and past the judgments and the interpretations to the need, the heart of the matter, and recognize the place where we all connect:
Oh my word! Every one of us here wants to honor God!
In fact, that very desire may be the strongest thing we all have in common!
And we’d like to say, with our 21st century intelligence, that this is not that big a deal, that both choices are ethically fine, nobody is getting hurt, so just don’t judge. To each his own.
But that is not what Paul is saying at all.
Because when we today hear that we “shouldn’t judge”, we take it to mean that all opinions are equally valid, all stances are on the same footing. So don’t judge what people do in their private time, don’t judge who they’re dating, don’t judge what they eat, or wear, or watch, or weigh (even though, inside, we may indeed be judging all of these things). But we say “don’t judge” because, presumably, it’s all fine as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else.
But, it turns out, if that’s what we believe, then, as a matter of absolute principle, we must judge those things that hurt someone, the things that are not equal in opinion, and the people who believe or practice things that are not fine. So we should judge the obviously bad stuff, corrupt leaders and abusers and liars and cheats and hypocrites and bigots and once we get going the list keeps on going.
By this measure, something tricky happens – you may believe you “shouldn’t judge”, but the more principled you are, the more you judge, really. Because the more you know and discover about the pain and inequality and hurt and injustice and evil, the more you need to show that all ways of living and treating others and thinking about life are NOT equal. There is so much that dehumanizes and undermines, and it’s important to take a stand against these things, right?
We judge those with other beliefs, or we judge those who judge those with other beliefs. Because we’ve come to think that if we don’t, we’re approving of their actions or accepting their behavior. These days the world gives us two choices- with or against. And if you’re not one you’re the other. So it’s wrong to judge, yes, unless it’s something important and you don’t approve, then you should definitely judge.omeone demeans people it’s ok to demean them. In our culture, we have made it ok to call some people despicable and despise them. If someone demeans people it’s ok to demean them. And we don’t even bat an eyelash at this any more. We just accept and perpetuate the cacophonous noise of it – even inside the church.
But this way of treating each other is entrenched and rooted in the way of fear, and has very little at all to do with the Way of God. What Paul is talking about is something completely different. Remember, all throughout the Book of Romans he is talking about real life, the Kingdom of God reality, life as God created life to be, and is moving everything towards once and for all.
He is talking about life in freedom – freedom from the rankings, comparisons and verdicts of sin, and the instead life where all are upheld in the belongness of grace, where God gets to be the primary actor and we are the recipients and participants.
He is talking about living no longer in the illusion created by sin that we are apart and against, instead of truly with and for one another.
So when Paul says not to judge, he’s not talking about the, "it’s is fine as long as nobody gets hurt" mentality. He is calling us out.
One scholar says “The judgment forbidden in Romans 14 and Matthew 7 is the easy, contemptuous dismissal of those who do not believe like us, or vote like us, or live like us. They are fools, we think, and we see no contradiction between our being Christian and our despising of them.” (Mary Hinkle Shore, Working Preacher, 2011)
There is one judge and that is God, and we don’t need to do God’s job for him. Instead, we can live trusting God to be God, which allows us to be human, vulnerable and open to each other - to act as though we have more in common than we do that separates us. This trust prompts us to look to see that there is a person here, a person whose needs are just like our own, and they are doing what they are doing, however tragic or ineffective it may be, from a desire to meet needs. And suddenly we are freed to respond in empathy.
The Journal of Psychology says, “Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase prosocial (helping) behaviors. While American culture might be socializing people into becoming more individualistic rather than empathic, research has uncovered the existence of "mirror neurons," which react to emotions expressed by others and then reproduce them.”
In other words, we are actually wired for this. We are meant to share each other’s place. Our brains are meant to connect to other people’s brains –we all share common humanity. We are designed to live in connection with God and each other, but instead we so often live in bondage to isolation and competition and contemptuous dismissal of our sisters and brothers, even in the Church.
Any time we judge and dismiss each other, write each other off, notice ourselves thinking, Thank God I am not like them!, or there is NO WAY THAT person could be a Christian, or even, I am not THAT KIND of Christian….we are doing what Paul is speaking against. We are taking God’s role as judge instead of leaving that to God, we are dehumanizing and turning into an enemy someone who worships the same God we do, and we are living out of the way of fear instead of the way of God, despising those whom God has loved.
But Paul reminds us that we are free to step out of the battle and into the empathy we were made for. Free to let someone else’s anger or hurtful words or confusing actions move us to compassion and curiosity, instead of disdain and judgment. Free from the demand to be right, but even, Paul suggests, even free to make different choices that support one another.
So, he explains, if it is hard for someone else that you are eating meat, don’t use it as an opportunity to correct and instruct them. Simply don’t eat meat when you are with them. See them at the level of their intentions and not just their strategy, and honor their honoring of God. Choose to see and stand with them, instead of putting yourself over and against them.
Paul is certainly familiar with being a passionate crusader for an important cause. He used to intentionally persecute followers of Jesus, in order to honor God. But everything shifted for him when he encountered Jesus, and discovered that the way God comes to us not in power, and right thinking, and crushing those who oppose, but in solidarity, and weakness, and joining.
When Paul met Jesus everything changed for him. Jesus said to him from a blinding light, Why are you persecuting me? and then sent Paul in helpless weakness to the very people he had been seeking to wipe out, in order that God might heal him through them. Paul was transformed by God, through their prayer, their faithful attentiveness and care for each other and for him, and their open welcoming of this violent outsider formerly bent on destroying them.
Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus and then he met Jesus in Damascus, in the Body of Christ who showed him the upside down, inside out Way of God. God comes into this life in vulnerability, and stands with us in our beauty and our brokenness, inviting us to stand with one another in each other's beauty and brokenness – to welcome each other, in, and in spite of, our weaknesses or places of disagreement, because God welcomes us. Salvation doesn’t come from knowing the right things or even doing the right things, but through the love and grace of God that comes to us in Jesus.
Just like Paul, our very best attempts to please God can become an idol, standing in place of God, when all the stories we tell ourselves about what God wants from us, and all the work we do to try to change ourselves, or those around us, or the world, take the place of the connection God is already extending to us right now. To live in the freedom of the love of God that sets us free for “righteousness-“ which means true connection to God and each other – "peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom. 14:17)
Jesus is Lord, sisters and brothers, even right this moment, and in Christ there are truly no barriers and labels and separations – in Christ we are one, across all our alleged differences and perceived obstacles. In fact, even the most convincing barrier, the one between life and death itself, does not hinder the Lord of all - in life and in death, we belong to God.
God is already about the business of reconciliation and healing, of justice and forgiveness, and we are drawn into that activity by virtue of being drawn into that relationship of trust in God through Christ.
So does this mean just overlooking things we see as hurtful or wrong? No! Remember? It’s not the “all is fine, so don’t judge” mentality that comes from the way of fear. Instead this means beginning with our common humanity, seeking to honor the other person, and, as Paul says, pursuing what makes for peace and mutual edification.
It is treating each other with the gentleness and compassion with which you were made to be treated.
It is trusting that God is at work there –even if you can’t see it – and in your praying for them asking God to also perhaps show you the places God is at work in you that you also are not able to see.
So it means being honest too - being willing to be seen and heard for who you are, seeking not just to understand why they do what they do but inviting the kind of relationship where you too get to share why you do what you do, but not for the purpose of converting or changing them, or, as Paul says, for quarrelling.
You are responsible to God for your own convictions, and they are for theirs.
So any conversation is for the sake of knowing and being known, it is in order to love them better. That is all. It is God who changes hearts.
And it turns out that if people are seeking to live in that place of trust, where we are defined by God's love that claims us all in Jesus, if what guides us is loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and truly love our neighbor as ourselves, there are some consequences of that.
Like, we remember more often that we all belong to each other. That the labels and barriers we use to separate and compare don’t exist in the Kingdom of God; each person is valued and everyone is upheld. And we are empowered to be are honest about the ways connection is broken, and to seek to live in wholeness. We tell the truth about how our own words and actions, and the words and actions of others towards us, sever connection or does not contribute to life.
And we seek to reestablish connection, rather than to be right or better or good.
We are set free to welcome each other in our beauty and brokenness, and find healing and growth when that happens.
And they will know we are Christians by our love.
"May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Rom. 15:5-6)