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  • Writer's pictureNorthminster Church

"Understand, then Love," by Zachary Helton

Romans 12:9-21

Your love must be sincere.

Hate what is evil, and cling to what is good.

Love one another with the affection of sisters and brothers.

Try to outdo one another in showing respect.

Don’t grow slack, but be fervent in spirit: the One you serve is Christ.

Rejoice in hope; be patient under trial; persevere in prayer.

Look on the needs of God’s holy people as your own; be generous in offering hospitality.

Bless your persecutors—bless and don’t curse them.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Have the same attitude toward everyone. Don’t be condescending to those who aren’t as well off as you; don’t be conceited.

Don’t repay evil with evil.

Be concerned with the highest ideal in the eyes of all people.

Do all you can to be at peace with everyone.

Don’t take revenge; leave room, my friends, for God’s wrath.

To quote scripture,

“‘Vengeance is mine, I will pay them back,’ says our God.”

But there is more. As the proverb says:

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them;

if they are thirsty, give them drink.

For in doing so, you will heap burning coals

upon their heads.”

Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil by doing good.


I was driving home from a hardware store along I-10 when I first heard the story of Megan Phelps-Roper. It had been a week of stark political divisions, nothing new, not unlike most weeks in recent history, and I was listening to a new podcast called The Confessional, by Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. I listened in as Bolz-Weber explained that she was inviting guests to recount stories of themselves at their worst, and asking them to look upon them with redemptive eyes. Trying to ignite the “Pro God Pro Gun” bumper sticker in front of me, I heard her introduce her first guest, Megan Phelps-Roper. The name rung a vague bell in the back of my mind. As she told her story, it became apparent why. Phelps-Roper was born into a close-knit family in Topeka Kansas in the mid-80’s, and from the moment of her birth, she was, as many of us are, swept up into the religious stories and anxieties of her parents and grandparents. The difference, however, between her experience and ours, was that her grandfather was the Rev. Fred Phelps, the founding pastor of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. We all know Westboro, so I won’t belabor the point. They’re a caricature of the biases and hateful rhetoric of American culture wars, their politics and theology so extreme that even far right politicians squirm when they show up on the news cycle. For a podcast about people at their worst, I thought, I don’t think Bolz-Weber could have chosen anyone more perfect to start. I listened as Megan Phelps-Roper recounted what it was like for her being born into a family that routinely protested funerals and churches, singing and holding signage claiming that the deserved the tragedy that had befallen them. She recounted the fervent experiences of laughing and dancing around counter-protesters to be sure they were seen by mourning families – parents and children, certain all the while that the All-Powerful and Angry God of Righteousness was on their side. But here’s something about her you might not know: In 2012, Megan Phelps-Roper, ultra-conservative and religious fundamentalist, changed her mind. At great personal cost, in November of that year, she made the choice to walk away from everything. Now, if you’re anything like me, there is one question burning in your mind: How? In a world that seems more interested in digging in its heels than learning they may be wrong, more interested in attacking the other team than examining themselves, what happened to this woman that was actually effective in leading her to change her mind? What is it that actually worked? Rather than tell her story myself, one of the benefits of this platform is that I can let her tell you herself: Bolz-Weber, Nadia, “101 – Megan Phelps-Roper.” The Confessional, Megan Phelps-Roper did not change her mind because enough people yelled at her. She did not change her mind because she was shamed into doing so. She didn’t change her mind because of well-reasoned and logical arguments. She changed because someone had the courage to show curiosity and compassion. She changed because, for just a moment, someone was able to set aside their judgment of the role she was playing and say to her, “Everyone is yelling at you, that’s got to be so hard. Are you okay?” And that changed everything. When I heard this story, I was struck with a familiar pang. Though far less extreme, I thought of my own journey and how I, too, had changed my mind only because of the curiosity and compassion of those around me. I had let go of my narrow minded and fear based assumptions largely because of those willing to ask how I was feeling and talk about theology or politics without making me feel like I should be ashamed. Driving along I-10, I felt a sense of clarity and radiant hope. I wondered: If there is a hope for the transformation of this world, isn’t this it? “Bless your enemies,” Paul writes to the church of Rome, which is split into two opposing parties that seemed to hate one another. “I know you want to curse them, but if you want anything to change, you must bless them. I know you want to repay their evil with evil, but that will only push you deeper into your resentments – no one’s mind will change. Instead, meet evil with good. If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them drink. When you do this, they might remember your humanity, feel the burn of guilt at how they’ve behaved, and be transformed by love. Do not fight hate with hate. Overcome hate with good.” The perennial wisdom of these words leaves me in awe. Over two thousand years, it was as though they were written about Megan Phelps-Roper’ story, about my own story. It is a truth hidden since the beginning of time that it is kindness, not judgment, that disarms us and opens up the pathway for our transformation. So then, what is it in us that, time and again, convinces us this isn’t true? What is this lie that calls for judgement and dominance, and how might we shine the light of truth on it? How can we become the kind of people for whom this disarming kindness is possible? Natural, even? This is a question that asks us to turn our attention from Topeka, Kansas to the streets of Detroit Michigan. Marshall Rosenberg was born in the mid-30’s to Jewish parents, into an impoverished and unstable home. In June of 1943, when he was nine years old, his family moved to Detroit, and one week later, the city erupted in chaos. The Detroit race riots, the combustion of a powder keg of systemic racism, xenophobic social tension, and limited war-time resources, left 433 wounded and 34 dead, and from his living room window, locked inside of his home for three days, nine-year-old Rosenberg had a front row seat. During those formative three days, the seed of a question was planted in Rosenburg’s mind. It was a seed that grew and sprouted as he experienced the harsh anti-Semitism that waited for him at school each day. It was the seed of a question that would shape the trajectory of his life: Why do we do this to each other? What is it, in us, that leads us to disconnect from our compassionate nature, and leads us to believe instead that we must behave violently and exploitatively? Driven by these questions, Rosenburg went into the field of psychotherapy and completed a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. After some time he would come to pioneer a field of study he could call “Nonviolent Communication,” and it is there that we can find a key to our question. Dr. Rosenberg’s premise is surprisingly simple. We’ve evolved to communicate through a language of judgment. We communicate with a logic that I am right, you are wrong, and I must win so that I can be in charge. We defend ourselves, reacting with the impulse to withdraw or attack. Does this not sound familiar? But what would happen, Rosenberg studied, if we could learn a new language? What would happen if we could train ourselves to recognize when we’re stepping into that pattern, and instead focused our attention on curiosity? Specifically, what if we focused our attention on two, particular questions: How are we feeling? And what need is not being met to give rise to that feeling? Likewise, What are they feeling? What need is not being met in them that gives rise to that feeling? From there, we would be able to communicate in a new way. Rather than jumping to being defensive or telling the other person why they’re wrong, we’d try to understand. We say something like: “It sounds like when this happens, you are feeling angry, because your need for safety is not being met. Is that right?” Rosenberg found that the simple experience of hearing their feelings and needs reflected back to them disarmed the ego, and would help them hear whatever we needed to say next. “Well, when I see this, I feel this way, because this need of mine is not being met.” In his book, Dr. Rosenberg shares this story: A student of Nonviolent Communication volunteering a at a food bank was shocked when an elderly co-worker burst out from behind a newspaper and said, “What we need to do in this country is bring back the stigma of illegitimacy!” Now, you’re probably having a reaction right now – judging this woman’s outburst as wrong and dangerous. There are probably things you want to say about shame and harm, especially if she’d expressed this in the form of a Facebook post. Or perhaps you’d silently judge this woman as ignorant, and withdraw until later when you could process your feelings in private. The student, however, chose to get curious about this woman’s feelings and needs. “Are you reading something about teenage pregnancies in the paper?” she asked. “Yes!” her coworker responded. “It’s unbelievable how many of them are doing it!” The student tried to listen for the woman’s feelings and the unmet needs or values giving rise to it. “I want to understand better,” the student said. “Are you feeling alarmed because you’d like kids to have stable families?” “Of course!” the woman replied. “My father would’ve killed me if I’d done anything like that.” The student said, “So it sounds like you’re annoyed that there is no fear of punishment for the girls who get pregnant these days?” “Well,” the coworker said, “at least fear and punishment worked! It says here that girls are having babies just so taxpayers like me can take care of them!” The temptation to evaluate and respond was strong, but the student kept on. She recognized the woman was feeling annoyed because she valued responsible use of her tax money, and she didn’t feel she was getting it. “So,” she tried, “you’re exasperated because you’d like your tax money to be used for other purposes. is that right?” “Certainly is!” her coworker said. “Do you know that my son and his wife want a second child, and they can’t have one because it costs so much?” “Sounds like you’re sad about that,” the student offered. “You’d like to have a second grandchild.” At this point, the student sensed a release in her co-worker. “Yes, I would,” she said, as a moment of silence elapsed. The student felt surprised to discover that, while she still wanted to express her own views, the tension had dissipated. She felt empathetic, not adversarial. It was then time to get curious about herself, what she was feeling and needing. “You know,” the student said at last, “when you first said that we should bring back the stigma of illegitimacy, I felt really scared, because it matters to me that all of us here care deeply for people who need help. Some people who come here for food are teenage parents, and I want to be sure they feel welcomed and cared for. Would you mind telling me how you feel when you see our unmarried teen clients come in? Like Amy or Dashal?” Rosenberg then writes that the conversation continued with several more exchanges until the student felt reassurance that her coworker did indeed offer caring and respectful help to their unmarried clients, and learned over the course of the encounter that she could, in fact, disagree with someone in a way that met her need for honesty and mutual respect. Both of them felt heard. Both of them felt understood. Both of them felt loved, and it opened a pathway for growth. “Love one another with the sincere love of brothers and sisters,” Paul writes. “Outdo one another, not in shows of power, but in shows of respect. Look on the needs of others as though they were your own, and be generous in offering hospitality.” Megan Phelps-Roper, Marshall Rosenberg, the Apostle Paul, they all invite us to ask the same question. What if we were to look at our opponents, at the Republicans or Democrats, at anti-mask advocates or advocates for family separation, at our mother or our father… what if we were to look at ourselves, not as right or wrong to be judged, but as growing children reacting to unmet needs and unheard feelings? Who would we be? Rather than judgment, what if we looked at that which we don’t like with curiosity which gives birth to understanding, and understanding which gives birth to empathy, and empathy which gives birth to love, and love which clears the path to transformation? Is this not, after all, how God looks at you? In the light of these questions, may the darkness of judgment give way, and may we love a new world into being. Amen.

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