Our Inner Beasts (Luke 6.27-36)
Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church
November 6, 2016
It’s not an easy time. Our politics are fragmented. There’s a meanness in the air. We’re worn and frazzled by the cycle of news and insults. And we’re not sure when it will end.
A New York Times article on Friday revealed that 8 out of 10 Americans are repulsed by the presidential election. Just days before voting we feel more exhausted than inspired.
Yet there was another article in the New York Times last week, something of use from the Book Review. Lois Lowry reread William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies and reflected on it. She wasn’t referring to our political moment exactly, she was gauging how she heard the story now against how she first heard it 60 years ago, but I heard in her essay a call to a deeper question. After reading it, I switched on the computer and Facebook showed me one of those pictures that is several years old. Seven years ago I was walking with Sara and a very small boy who was dressed as a monster for Halloween. He wore a t-shirt with green scales, puffy spikes sewn onto the back, a stuffed tail sticking out behind him. I looked at the picture and wrote this. A poem about books and children and the season we find ourselves in:
Maybe there is a beast,
in Golding’s book.
What I mean is. . .
maybe it’s only us.
You could have missed
in the tale
of boys’ brutality
and our own.
You could have missed
the author’s conviction
that none of us
than the others.
If there is a beast
it isn’t out there
or in some other
but closer still
beneath the beating
of our hearts
the drawing of our breaths
for the conch shell
on an island overrun.
What I mean is. . .
if we see the beast
maybe we could
walk with it
for a while
and hear its voice
that of the boy
who is himself afraid
who is herself unsure.
I was inspired to return to Lord of the Flies this week. Began reading it aloud with my son after school. It didn’t seem any worse than the newspaper. And I’ll wager that many of you know the book because it was required reading at school for some time. But if you don’t know it, then I can tell you this without spoiling it. The story opens on a deserted island where a group of schoolboys has survived a plane crash. There are no grown-ups, and so they are left to create their own sense of social order. The book begins wonderfully and then slowly descends into darker and more difficult places. Throughout, it asks questions about who we really are. And it is Simon, a rather frail and innocent boy, who suggests, 120 pages into the tale, that perhaps the only beast we really need to fear is us. Perhaps the true danger lies within. He is not heard by the other characters, who laugh him off. But his voice haunts every reader, who can grasp that Golding has written an entire book and hidden its moral right in the center. In the whisper of an innocent boy who suggests that there is no innocence at all.
What a good book to read on the eve of an election. As millions are spent on showing how guilty the other person is, how awful and rotten. And while there are substantive differences between the candidates, and while there has been more hate speech, religious bigotry, racism, and misogyny than any of us can remember, we would be wrong to point at the politicians and make them out to be the beasts. That would be a form of scapegoating. And didn’t Jesus just tell a story about that? Thank God, I am not like him or her or them? The world has enough of that self-righteousness without us adding to it. The finer move might be to look within at our own fears and insecurities. We might examine the subtle biases we each hold and the privileges we have been arbitrarily given. We might ask about our own shadowy motives and impulses. We might whisper Simon’s question to ourselves: What I mean is. . .maybe it’s only us.
We should, of course, whisper this in the voting line. As citizens, we should go to the polls, wait there, and vote conscientiously for every office and on every proposed measure. But we should stop short of seeing it as a battlefield, as a zero sum, all or nothing grab for the conch, as the boys on the island would have it. Because no matter what happens, we’re all going to wake up on November 9th in a scarred and hurting land. And each of us can either add to the lasting damage or take some small step in a different direction.
Jesus was especially good at this. I often read him in a confident voice, poetic and forceful. But this week I heard his teaching in a kind of whisper, as if the boy Simon had said it. It has something to do with the beast inside each of us and resisting its temptation toward aggression and conflict. And it’s arguably the most radical thing Jesus ever said, though too few of his followers can be heard saying it these days. I say unto you, he said, Love your enemies. Do good to them. Bless them. Pray for them. Turn the other cheek. Be generous and merciful and your reward will be great. You’ll be called the children of the most high.
William Golding didn’t write this, but perhaps the old author of Luke was on to his trick: Hide the moral right in the middle. Let the readers hear it and be haunted.
What Jesus was teaching was what researchers call “noncomplementary behavior.” Chris Hopwood at Michigan State University and others use this term to describe surprising and novel behavior that disrupts established patterns. Normally, Hopwood says, we mirror each other. If someone treats us with hostility, we are hostile in return. If someone treats us with warmth, we are warm in return. It’s classic, reciprocal behavior. Yet noncomplementary behavior subverts the system by doing the opposite of what is expected. If someone treats us with hostility in this model, we might be warm in return. This, according to Hopwood, is incredibly hard to do. But the results can be extraordinary. They can break up patterns in a way that nothing else can. You have heard it said an eye for an eye. But I say forgive. You have heard that you should hate your enemies. But I say love. You have heard that this person or that person is an outcast. But I say she is my sister, he is my brother, and it is to all of us that the kingdom belongs.
Perhaps this is just a way of looking more deeply, seeing that others are not enemies or monsters. Perhaps it is a way of hearing our own inner beasts, acknowledging that we would like to lash out sometimes because we are afraid and unsure. Perhaps it is a way of reaching out not to the boys in the book review or the Facebook photograph, but to the boys and girls in each one of us, the ones who really are worried about the election and the days that will follow, no matter who wins. And so long as we see each other as enemies, we’ll only deepen our wounds. So long as we think the beast is in someone else, we’ll fail to break free of the habits and patterns that have brought us here.
I don’t know what will happen on Tuesday. But I know what will happen on Wednesday. We’ll get up, take a deep breath, and go out into the world again. Boys and girls and beasts with a question: How to love our enemies so that we no longer even see them as enemies. How to do good to all no matter how we are treated. How to bless everyone we meet. How to pray for those with whom we disagree. How to see that the real battlefield is in our hearts and minds and imaginations.
Maybe we could go out whispering like Simon. And maybe it would make all the difference.
 Jonathan Martin, Dalia Sussman, and Megan Thee-Brenan, “Voters Express Disgust Over U.S. Politics in New Times/CBS Poll,” The New York Times, November 3, 2016, accessed online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/04/us/politics/hillary-clinton-donald-trump-poll.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news.
 Lois Lowry, “Their Inner Beasts: ‘Lord of the Flies’ Six Decades Later,” The New York Times Book Review, October 27, 2016, accessed online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/30/books/review/their-inner-beasts-lord-of-the-flies-six-decades-later.html?_r=0
 See NPR’s Invisibilia podcast, “Flip the Script,” July 15, 2016, accessed online at