Advent debates
Advent debates

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“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Luke 3:4-6

It was supposed to be a lesson on Advent.

It was supposed to be about the sacred act of waiting for God’s presence to come into the world.
It was supposed to be about the wilderness of uncertainty in our lives, preparing for a future we cannot yet envision.

But that’s not what happened.

In trying to express the idea of emotional wilderness, a time of fear, vulnerability, pain and confusion, I mentioned the shootings in San Bernardino and Paris. The Confirmation class veered decidedly off the rails.

Three of my 13-year-olds began spouting a very far right stance; two others resorted to dismissively ridiculing what they perceived as their classmates’ lack of understanding of social justice.

“We should bomb them all. Just bomb them.”
“You’re an absolute idiot.”
“My mother says that not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim.”
“Then your mother is as stupid as you are.”

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. Our children live in the real world and are not oblivious to all that is happening. They witness and learn from adults how we engage one another. My class hurled accusations and platitudes that were as shallow, vitriolic, and insulting as what is exchanged every day in our media.

In the split second in which I struggled to regain control of the class, I knew I had a choice to make. If I were a secular teacher, I would hesitate to impose my personal views on impressionable young people; yet as a confirmation teacher it is my responsibility to present a Christian perspective. But I knew an appropriate balance would be challenging, especially when there is so much disagreement even among Christians. Even among parishioners.

I could have just shut down the discussion and steered us back to the safety of Advent in theory. Instead, I took a deep breath and tried to do what seems impossible in our current climate of politicized discourse – introduce some civility and compassion into the wilderness of the conversation, and make Advent relevant in our confusing and messy lives. I figured I had to try.

In moderating the discussion, I demanded the following.

  • In keeping with the Baptismal covenant promise to “…respect the dignity of every human being,” name-calling would not be allowed. Positions could be stated as far as the policy or course of action that the speaker believed prudent; clarifying questions could be asked; rebuttals could be made. I interjected often to demand that the focus be on policy, not the speaker, nor the politicians themselves.
  • I reminded the class that our Baptismal covenant also calls us to seek and serve Christ in all persons. With those with whom they disagreed, I suggested that they pause, take a deep breath and try to imagine speaking directly with Christ himself. I also reminded them that for us as a class, for us as a nation, and for us as the world to go forward, we all need to compromise. I told them it was the sign of a good negotiation when everyone left feeling a little dissatisfied. That meant everyone gave a little, everyone got a little.
  • I asked the class to recall the story of the rich young man who asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” With a 24 hour news cycle and the ability to connect instantly with anyone around the globe, the idea of seeing everyone as our neighbor is perhaps more challenging than ever. But we are still called to do so. When a few of the participants began to joke about the situation, I gently reminded them that if they were able to laugh and be glib, then most likely they were insulated from the fact that very real suffering exists in the world. The policies we discuss have a very real impact on very real people. Christ calls us to see those people as neighbors, and treat them as we would ourselves, and to do all that we can to mitigate their suffering. Certainly not joke about it..
  • Finally, as difficult as it is to keep in mind, I reminded them, that we all are children of God. No exceptions. God loves each of them. God loves Donald Trump, President Obama, and Vladimir Putin (yes, he was mentioned in the debate too). God loves Syrian refugees and those who would lock them out. God loves ISIS fighters and terrorists who subscribe to an ideology of hate. We may hate their actions. We may hate their ideology. We may hate what they represent. But it is our incredible challenge as Christians to not hate the person, each a beloved child of God.

Once again, we must consider the reading assigned to that day. Luke recalled Isaiah. Both writers heard a voice crying out in the wilderness, every bit as relevant now as it was back then. We are called to walk a difficult path through the wilderness of the world today, hoping that the path will one day be made smooth. And we are reminded that all flesh, all people, shall see the salvation of God in the form of Jesus, the Christ. It’s not an easy conversation to have with young people, or with those whose opinions we abhor, but it’s one we must.

Perhaps it was a lesson for Advent after all.

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