Phillipians 1: 3-11 I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
One of my friends posted a video on Facebook the other day that I found just fascinating. It was a woman petting a porcupine. A real live porcupine, the prickly kind that we usually see as road kill in the spring and that if we do happen to meet up with them on a hike, we will back away from slowly and carefully. The kind of animal that if your dog ever met, you would end up taking a trip to the vet to get a muzzle full of quills removed from your poor pooch.
I thought about porcupines being all prickly, and how they are a good animal to reflect on for Peace Sunday. Truth be told, I bet on any one given day, people will meet up with someone who will make them feel like they’ve been hit with a facefull of quills. A neighbor, a friend, a co-worker, who throws out barbed comments, or takes a swack at you emotionally, or takes the simplest comment and see it as an attack. They are prickly. And we wish we could avoid them or de-barb them or do something, anything, to keep them from hurting us.
Such is the stuff of warfare. Whenever we take another human being and assume that we know they are less than us, less friendly, less righteous, less blameless or pure than us, whenever we label them as a porcupine or a terrorist or a, well, you fill in the blank, somehow that dehumanizes them enough that it is okay to discriminate against them. “He’s a bully, she’s a communist, that’s a porcupine” and we use the label to determine how we will treat them. Take the Syrians in France and Lebanon and Greece and Turkey. Are they refugees or are they terrorists? The political pundits are busy trying to convince us to label human beings that will help determine our policies, our politics and our personal reactions to the newcomers who will be coming to Athabasca.
I know what it’s like to be labelled. In 1981, I went to the University of Alberta to learn how to become an engineer. While I was there, people would react in several different ways to my course of study. Sometimes they would assume that I was a butch tomboy, someone that Robin Williams in “Good Morning Vietnam” referred to as ‘women in comfortable shoes’. Sometimes they would assume that I was just looking for my ‘MRS’ degree, only there to catch a husband. But generally when people found out that I was in that faculty, they talked to me like I actually had intelligence, and really saw me for a human being and not just a cute young female. Although people scoff that I had experienced such labelling, it was only eight years later that a man walked into a Canadian school for engineers, separated the men from the women, and executed 14 women for their audacity. The label he applied to all the women he found was ‘feminist’, and he used that label to scapegoat and kill them.
The latest shooting in the states is only one of many. According to one newspaper, there have been over 12 thousand deaths in 2015 in the US to date due to gun violence, 309 were from mass shootings like the one this week. 2 ½%. In 2012, the most recent report on gun violence, Stats Can reported that our rate of gun murders was 7 times lower than that of Americans and had been steadily dropping over all since 1972.
When we label others, it gives us permission to think that they are less than human. Oh, those violent Americans who can’t control their guns. Oh those terrorists or those mentally ill people or whatever label we use. Those who we don’t like, those bullies, those immigrants, those other people that look or sound or smell different than us. Oh those porcupines
This is not the way to peace. Labels and blaming don’t work. Martin Luther King, Jr., a champion for Christian non-violence, wrote,
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Paul met the Philippians with love. He remembered them with love. He encouraged them with love, and he hoped they would do the same with the people they met. They were different than him, but that didn’t stop him sharing the good news that there is an alternative to the cycle of violence. “It is right for me to think of you in this way, because you reflect back the love to me.” If you get a chance to see the video of someone petting the porcupine, you will see that they do it with love. Protection, so they won’t get the point the hard way, but love. Even porcupines can respond to love. The reality is that we all have moments when we are anything but pure and blameless, without offence. We are all porcupines.
I’ll never forget the day that a young man said to me, “did you know that once a month, we have a fight and it coincides with your hormonal cycle?” I instantly transformed into a vicious porcupine, spewing angry denials. It takes a lot of patience and honesty to learn to function without spewing blame as fast as porcupines spread quills when feeling scared or angry. And interestingly, the word Paul uses for ‘blameless’ can be translated as ‘without bumps’. Without quills, perhaps. And what if we rethought blameless to not be the picture of innocence and perfection but instead thought of it as someone who chooses not to blame others. How do you pet a porcupine? By treating them with love, by being trustworthy and patient, and by being well-protected with thick leather clothing just in case. When we do that, porcupines tend to react to being petted like this:
Don’t take their barbs personally, remember that some porcupines need professional handling, and be honest with yourself when you are feeling prickly to remember that none of us will be perfect, at least not until the Day of Christ comes and will make all blameless. Thanks be to God that the Day of Christ will be a day of great love, and that Christ will love us regardless of how much like a porcupine we might be. Then we too will dance like a happy, petted and loved porcupine!