Focus: the New Mute Button
Sociologist Robert Putnam wrote in his classic, Bowling Alone (Simon and Schuster, 2000), that television can account for the lion’s share of the loss of social capital — the value associated with cultural interconnectedness — that took place in the second half of the 20th Century. Sure, people also became more mobile, started working longer hours, and placed less faith in institutions. But television? It did the real damage.
50 years ago, TV accounted for why we didn’t need to look outside our homes for entertainment, such as bowling leagues. Televisions have remote controls, where we can change what we see and hear. After becoming accustomed to controlling all the content that enters our senses, how are we supposed to get through a boring nonprofit board meeting, or church committee that descends into conflict, or any setting where we can’t silence people who annoy us?
Move over, television. We have a new Number One Reason to have a hard time dealing with actual people: meet Zoom, and its mute function. As we prepare to reenter in-person relationships post-Covid-19 isolation, we’re already seeing an uptick in conflict in our communities. We can’t mute ourselves or others. We have to work things out in three dimensions, and the muscles through which we did that have surely atrophied. I pray we reenter gently and turn to Jesus’ ministry for some guidance.
14 Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. 15 But some of them said, “By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” 16 Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven.
17 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall.”
Unsurprisingly, I have made only one in-person friend since the pandemic began. Father Eckley Macklin is a retired Roman Catholic Priest who returned to New Haven, his hometown, after serving congregations in the western US. We struck up a conversation while out walking in the neighborhood, and since then, during the pandemic, we’ve sat outside a couple of times for tea and conversation. We talk about ministry, the poetry he writes, the curriculum I tend, and we laugh a lot.
In a recent visit, our conversation veered toward a charged ethical and political issue. I was about to express an opinion about it, and Father Eckley stopped me with the words, “Please don’t tell me what you think, as I’m afraid what you say might mean we can’t be friends anymore.” If it were anyone else, I probably would have felt silenced, but instead, I was grateful. I want to be friends with Father Eckley.
According to Doctor Google, muteness — the inability to speak — can result from a number of medical causes: prenatal drug use, iodine deprivation in-utero, traumatic brain injury, strokes, and anxiety. According to the Bible, the cause for muteness is demons. In our scripture above, Jesus casts out a demon that’s rendered a person mute. The crowd is amazed, but a few raise questions and concerns.
It’s important to note that exorcisms in Jesus’ day were common. Beelzebul was understood to be a busy guy, causing all kinds of problems that required resolution from exorcists. Many, if not most, spiritual leaders performed exorcisms, but Jesus’ actions in healing the mute man were different from what the crowd expected of a Jewish person. Jewish exorcisms were accompanied by particular prayers invoking YWH. That Jesus cast out a demon, but not in the name of YWH, made some wonder under whose authority he was working — maybe that of Beelzebul himself?
In Jesus’s response to the crowd, he uses words later echoed by Abraham Lincoln, saying that a house divided against itself cannot stand. But Jesus wasn’t talking politics, but rather expressing frustration about the crowd’s inability to focus on that which is most important. Focus gets lost, in crowds and online, and he present it to us as the answer to the question: how are we supposed to stay together?
Sent from God, Jesus was on a mission to teach us how to live and how to love each other. The questions he got from the crowd were the wrong questions. Who cares by whose authority Jesus was casting out demons? God sent Jesus among us because God wants us — is imploring us — to move in a different direction from where we’re headed. Instead of just listening to Jesus and saying, “You’re right — we’ll change,” the crowd splits hairs. “Focus,” says Jesus. Focus.
For the past 16 months, my only group interactions have been over Zoom. At first, I was the one who had to be reminded, “You’re on mute.” Now, I’m a whiz at muting and unmuting, plus a lot of other new skills I never thought I’d need. I have come to appreciate the benefit of being able to mute myself, as my dog likes to participate in conversations, and my daughter sometimes barks just as loudly, asking where I put the [fill in the blank].
What’s been lost in group process on Zoom is free exchange of ideas, for a large group can’t really brainstorm from Hollywood Squares. More worrisome: we’ve lost our capacity to be patient and present. Have you noticed, as I have, how digressions are corrected quickly on Zoom? Have you noticed that fewer and fewer people are on-camera with each passing week, opting instead to put up frozen pictures of themselves, making us wonder if they’re even there?
Jesus, how are we supposed to be together? We get one nugget of advice from his response to the crowd, where some are making the patently ridiculous claim that he’s both a demon and casting demons out (I mean… why?). Jesus encourages the crowd to focus; fast-forward to today: we are the crowd. When tension descends, and we want to flee physically or mentally, take a breath, think about why we’re really here, and set our sights on that.
As dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, I work with students preparing for ministry in locally governed faith communities. My #1 worry about the education we provide is that we don’t know right now what it’s going to take to bring divided houses together. Ministers need to be able to work with those who are different from them, and to gather those who disagree around one table, and one Gospel. That work, which has never been easy, feels like it’s edging on impossible.
But if work is deathly difficult, that means resurrection is possible. What Jesus wanted for the crowds who followed him was perspective; he wanted them to focus on what God wants from us, and for us. When we’re unleashed on one another — in crowds again as if for the first time — choosing not to tackle every tough topic immediately isn’t a sign of cowardice. Rather, in the absence of a mute button, we can make a choice: focus on what’s most important, conserving energy for that which is key, and for all that is good.