I Hope Steven Pinker Is Right

December 1, 2019


The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“I Hope Steven Pinker is Right”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 2.16-18

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.”

From time to time I am given an old sermon. Someone is moving and emptying out files and they stumble upon a copy of a sermon written in 1961 and they feel compelled to give it to me. I am happy about this as the sermons almost never disappoint.
On more than one occasion the kept sermon is a diatribe, a barn burner of condemnation. And the topic of the diatribe sermon kept so many years is consistently young people. “Young people are the future,” the pastor will declare, ”and the future looks bleak.” These sermons were written before everyone was a superstar and children were told they could be anything they wanted to be.
In one sermon, written in 1961, the youth of the day were wanton, lazy, without a moral compass, frivolous, and on and on and on. The young people of 1961 were heading for ruin and destruction and there was a great example, a clear place where we could see this looming tsunami of moral ruin. What was ruining teenagers in 1961, their greatest risk and threat, was all too clear. The greatest threat to teens in 1961 according to the pastor was: drive-in movie theaters.
These dens of iniquity were corrupting our youth and jeopardizing their future. He went on to list all the evils and wiles of the drive-in movie theater, but all I could do is wonder: What would the pastor make of Woodstock just eight years later? Certainly, drive-in movie theaters were places of poor moral choices, but how the world would change in just a few years.
Another sermon was given to me This one was from the late teens, a hundred years ago. This was another Presbyterian pastor. This sermon was offered to a church in Montana. As this was the setting of Norman Maclean’s book, A River Runs Through It, I was intrigued to see what a sermon looked like in the West just after the great war. Would it sound like the book?
I sounded a lot like the drive-in movie theater sermon. This pastor had a bone to pick, an ax to grind with the young people. They were terrible, lazy, had no moral compass, were unable to ensure a bright future because they were so lost. His sermon made it very clear that the youth were our future and our future was quite grim. And then, he got down to it, the source and clear example of their moral corruption.
The youth of the day were obviously headed to ruin because all they wanted to do was stand together, they wanted nothing else than to stand around a piano and sing. Can you imagine the moral corruption, the laziness that young people would just stand around a piano and sing? O come quickly Jesus and save us from this moral peril!
I believe it is the obligation of every parent and their generation to worry about their kids. It is part of the job. We are supposed to castigate them, consider their future in peril because of their lack of work ethic or poor choices. Although we are not worried about drive-in movie theaters or piano sing-a-longs, we have our list of dangers. If I asked you to write down the moral dangers of today, you could come up with a few.
One of my greatest joys today is to be a grandparent. Part of the joy is that I no longer feel the need to warn, to deride. In fact it is just the opposite. With grandchildren I am filled with hope.
As a parent I did my part to worry and warn—part of the job. Now I have a different job. Now my job is to love with abandon. Mind you, I am still critical and quite ornery, but it is different. Strangely I wonder if my children are more worried about me now as being a corrupting influence. No matter.
Be it the drive-in movie or the piano or the wiles of social media today, there are always perils, always danger. And we must be mindful of what is likely to cause harm. Every generation faces a new set of temptations, moral dilemmas. It is a parent’s prerogative, part of the gig, to warn their children.
Our reading today is a warning. This terrible story is a warning to the church. At first glance this story is about the violence and power of Rome, the terror of kings without bridle or check. Herod calls for the deaths of male children in Bethlehem so to ensure that no one can claim a new king has been born. Herod is the king; he was not looking for any help, let alone a successor.
Some scholars believe Matthew told this story to echo the birth of Moses. When Moses was born the Hebrew male children of Egypt were to be put to death. Moses was hid, left to die in the Nile, only to be found and saved. Some believe Matthew is painting a picture of Moses: Egypt, flight, death of innocents, a child born to lead the people of Israel to freedom. The fair warning: this is the new Moses.
Some scholars believe this is a political statement, a fair warning about Rome to would-be converts to Christianity. The Gospel of Matthew was written during or just after a time of great persecution. The Emperors Nero and Domitian both declared open season on Christians in the ‘60s and ‘80s. This was the time of Christians in the lion’s den, the age of the martyrs. Our story, the death of the innocents, can be read as a warning to those who would follow Jesus: You too may be an innocent put to death.
Both of these readings have merit. There are many parallels between Jesus and Moses. And while people living in the time when Matthew was written needed little warning about Rome, there is something to be said about a fair warning. Jesus gave fair warnings to followers. He told the crowd: you will be blessed in persecution. Fair warning.
Yet, this really doesn’t approximate the power of the story. This is perhaps one of the hardest pieces of the gospels. You don’t have to tell this story to warn people. Even though scholars approximate the death toll to be twelve, twelve toddlers were put to death, it is awful. It is more than tragic, more than a persecution, it is the depth of evil.
Only Matthew tells this story. Luke has lovely stories of shepherds, Jesus being named and left in Jerusalem as a young boy. Mark and John have no infant stories. It is only Matthew who tells this story. So we must ask, why tell it? No one else felt the need to convey this story. Why begin your gospel with a terrible image of the depth of evil?
Recently a Princeton University professor came under a bit of fire for claiming we are becoming less evil. Steven Pinker wrote a book called Better Angels of Our Nature. It is quite a long book with extensive research all showing that statistically we are becoming less and less violent. Despite the images and perceptions we have about the world as a terribly violent place, we are becoming less and less violent toward each other. Wars are less, democracies are gaining, violent crime per capita is plummeting.
Pinker attributes most of this to our growing wealth, health, and education. The more we have the more we have to lose and thus the less likely we are to engage in violence that risks what we have. His book is quite long, but if you want to get the gist of his argument, he did a TED talk which captures the heart of his message: we are becoming less violent, we are becoming our better angels.
I encountered something to make his point in a men’s breakfast a few years ago. The topic we took up was violence. We tried to discuss the right to bear arms and that went sideways fast. So we chose to discuss violence instead. In short order we realized that only two people in the group of twenty had personally engaged or been in violence. I did when I worked in a grocery store and another person served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.
To Steven Pinker’s point only ten percent of the group had actually been witness to violence, to guns and bloodshed. 10% is not our perception; the perception is that violence is lurking everywhere. If someone were to say, “we live in violent world,” no one would protest besides Steven Pinker.
And this brings us back to Matthew and the death of the innocents. The Roman Empire was a violent place; our faith embodies the extreme of this violence, death by crucifixion. Yet, the golden age of the Roman Empire, of which the Gospel of Matthew was a part, this time was known as Pax Romana, “Roman Peace;” peace, not violence.
If this was indeed a time of peace, if the violence was not the definition of the age, why would Matthew offer this story? It seems so unnecessary. Why start your gospel with a warning about violence?
In a strange way I want to say Matthew is doing what the pastors did with the drive-in movie sermon and the piano sing-along sermon. He is trying to evoke our potential for ruin. Steven Pinker’s numbers are correct, we are less violent outwardly. True. Yet, I do not believe we are any less violent inwardly. The potential for self-destruction in all its forms is just as real before and after education and wealth and health. We need only look to our heroin epidemic today to see this truth. There is plenty of darkness within. And this may be Matthew’s true fair warning.
As you read this gospel you will encounter the darkness within us. We can see this darkness quite clearly in the brutal violence, the depth of evil, in the death of the innocents. Yet, if you continue reading this gospel you will also most certainly come to see it within yourself. There is darkness in us, a depth of evil; the Gospel of Matthew will make this clear.
Yet, it is not just darkness he will make clear. This Gospel will also make clear the light. We find this in the Gospel of John. John does not begin his gospel with this story, but he does say in the opening lines something quite close. He says, “the light shone in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
I hated the idea of preaching on this story in Advent. This is not a cheery story. Alone there is no comfort. Yet when we combine it with John’s interpretation, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it, then we can see the comfort.
If we simply to take a hard look at our failures and faults, it would not be hard to make a long list of our darkness. We are violent creatures, within and without. There is darkness in us. This is clear in the story of the innocents. And yet, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.
We light a candle today to begin Advent; we bring light to the darkness of our story. This light grows; there will be more and more light. As make our way through Matthew’s Gospel we will encounter our darkness. He is warning us of this. At the same time, though, we will also encounter the light, the eternal light, the light of the first day, the light of faith, hope, and love. We must have both, see both to follow Jesus.
As a parent you need to keep your kids from harm, to keep them from the darkness. You need to warn the off the dangers of drive-in movie theaters and certainly you need to keep them from pianos— definitely no guitars or drums lest they fall to the wiles of rock-n-roll. There are real dangers in social media; that is not a sarcastic comment; there are real dangers in the power of influence when your peer group is a thousand voices instead of ten. Each generation must navigate the dangers that befall them.
I believe Steven Pinker is right; we are becoming less violent. But I also believe there persists great darkness within. This is Matthew’s fair warning. We can abide this verdict because in this darkness shines the light, the light of truth, goodness, beauty.
We must keep our kids safe. That’s the job. We live out this responsibility in freedom when we are truthful about the darkness and the light. It is not enough to know of the darkness.
We must also look to the light: the light the darkness does not overcome. Let us offer to each other what is true and good and beautiful; let us become this Advent light. Amen.

Bible References

  • Jeremiah 31:10 - 14
  • Matthew 2:16 - 18