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  • Dr. Bruce Havens

Risky Business, Part 1

A message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens

Arlington Congregational UCC

September 6, 2020

Labor Day Sunday, Holy Communion

Matthew 18:15-20

15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”


Remember the movie, “Risky Business?” Tom Cruise, was a suburban teenager whose parents go away for a weekend and he is left home alone. Before long he is dancing in his shorts, somehow a “working girl” becomes part of the script and the problems just start multiplying. Truly he gets involved in some “risky business!” Someone once said the difference between comedy and tragedy is a in a comedy a man is in trouble and knows he is in trouble. In a tragedy the man is in trouble, but doesn’t realize it. Tom’s character knows he is in trouble; the question is how to solve it without multiplying the problems, but of course, he does choose solutions that multiply the problems!

I would suggest we face the same choices this Labor Day weekend. We are in a difficult time for many. Many workers are out of work, desperate to pay the rent, or buy groceries or anything else. Many business owners are having to make difficult choices about their future. Others are getting by but at even more risk of financial crisis than ever. In the midst of that we have protesting, rioting, unrest over police and racial injustice. To me we are in the midst of some very risky business. How will we respond is the most important question we can ask.

Some want to try to maintain the status quo, or even believe we can somehow go back to the “way things were.” Of course, you only want this if you perceive that it worked for you, or you are so frightened of what could be you cannot imagine a better way than “the way things were.” You probably don’t want this if you are a person of color, a person on the margins or off the cliff of the economy. You probably don’t want this if you want to see a level of commitment to decency, truth, and a government “for the people.” You probably are ready to see things change, really change, even if it means turning from the mistakes we have made in the past.

This morning’s Gospel lesson, if you ask me, is a bit of “risky business.” It seems a bit of a several points mashed together. It begins with a bit of advice on how to deal with a “church member” who sins against you. It is interesting as conflict management advice and perhaps has wisdom in it; but at any rate it can feel risky to confront anyone on something they have done wrong. Accountability does not seem to be much of a thing these days, especially when it comes to those in power.

The passage goes on to suggest that whatever the outcome, we as followers of Jesus have this incredible power to “bind” and “loose” anything in the name of God and it will be done, not only here but in heaven. Now, it isn’t clear whether this was just for those first disciples, or if this power trickles down to us in the twenty-first Century or not. If it does – whoa! That is the definition of “risky business” if you ask me. That is an incredible offer of power. In addition to this power, Jesus then seems to suggest that when we are together he has our back, he is “with” us and so I guess we have his power too. “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am also.” All this worries me to be honest. I see a lot of abuse of power these days.

But what if we imagined a different way to use power? What if we were willing to risk trying things differently than the way we have always tried to do them? Last week I invited us to imagine things differently. I want to extend that this Labor Day weekend Sunday as we look around us and, I hope, realize, we need things to change. The way things are aren’t working for anybody but a very few.

Last week I referenced changing the way we train police forces to make them more effective and to reduce the kind of unnecessary shootings that are causing protests in many cities around the country. Now you can say, “if they would just do what the police say everything would be alright,” but there are many cases where they did do what they were told and were still shot; you can say that what will solve it is more police, but our own Sheriff Williams said you cannot hire enough police to stop the violence here in this city. His predecessor, John Rutherford, now a Congressman, was quoted as saying, “you cannot arrest your way out” of the problems with murder in Jacksonville, while he was Sheriff.

Certainly policing is risky business. Conflict is almost always involved. Is it fair to say that what we are currently doing is not working, that violence and shooting on both sides is on the rise? Why not change our perspective on what constitutes risky business? Why not, as I said last week, have a different vision for how to “serve and protect,” which is the JSO motto and the motto for many police departments, more effectively?

I’ve been reading a book called, The Culture Code, [ Coyle, Daniel. The Culture Code (pp. 189-193). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. ], by Daniel Coyle. It is a study of what makes for successful organizations, and he looks at examples from a very diverse group. His book studies Google, SEAL Team 6, the San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association, a group of international jewel thieves and more. He tells a very interesting story.

“Portugal was about to get wrecked.” It was about to host the once-every-four years European soccer Championships in 2004. This event ranks second only to the World Cup in size and importance. Hundreds of thousands of fans from all over the world would be coming and it was Portugal’s chance to shine. The problem was English soccer hooligans. The Portuguese organizers knew that this had been a problem for decades. The Belgian police force, where the championship was held in 2000, had spent “millions training their force and equipping them with the best antiriot equipment, surveillance cameras, and information systems available. They had worked closely with the British government to identify and bar known troublemakers from entering the country. In short, they had been as ready as it was possible to be. And none of it had helped.

“Thousands of English hooligans, showing the sort of unified resolve their team has historically lacked, roamed wild, smashing shop windows, beating up bystanders, and battling riot police wielding batons, fire hoses, and tear gas. By tournament’s end, more than one thousand English supporters were arrested, tournament organizers considered banishing the English team from the tournament, and pundits were wondering whether international tournaments might be a thing of the past. According to most social scientists, this reality was both logical and historically unavoidable, as English hooligans embodied the working-class aggression known as the English Disease. As the 2004 tournament approached, riots seemed inevitable. As one English writer put it, sunny Portugal was about to become the target of the ‘biggest English invasion since D-Day.’ To prepare, the Portuguese government purchased $21 million of riot-control tools: water cannons, truncheons, pepper spray, and police dogs. It also looked at new approaches, including the work of an obscure Liverpool University social psychologist named Clifford Stott.”

Stott specialized in crowd violence. He had studied recent rioting and he was developing the “idea that it was possible to stop crowd violence by changing the signals police transmitted to crowds. He suggested “riot gear and armored cars were cues that activated hooligan behavior in fans who might otherwise behave normally. (95% of the people arrested for soccer violence, his research showed, had no prior history of disorderly conduct.) Stott believed that the key to policing riots was to essentially stop policing riots. Stott’s early trials of his model were sufficiently compelling, and the Portuguese authorities were sufficiently desperate, that Stott found himself, to his everlasting surprise, in charge of a high-stakes experiment: Could the most dangerous soccer hooligans in the world be stopped by a handful of social cues?

“First, Stott set about training the Portuguese police. Rule number one was to keep all riot gear out of sight: no formations of helmeted cops, no armored vehicles, or riot shields and batons. Instead, Stott trained a crew of liaison officers who wore light-blue vests instead of the customary yellow. These officers were selected not for their riot control skills but for their social skills: friendliness and ability to banter. Stott encouraged them to study up on the teams and fans and get good at making small talk about the coaches, on-field strategies, and team gossip.” Stott said, ‘We sought out people who had the gift of the gab, who could throw their arm around someone and chat with them about anything.’

“The bigger challenge for Stott was rewiring police instincts. The English hooligans had a habit of kicking soccer balls in public places, booting the ball high into the air and down onto the heads and café tables of bystanders, thus igniting the kind of small-scale confrontations of which riots are born. Conventional police procedure is to immediately and forcibly intervene and confiscate the ball before any open fighting breaks out. But on Stott’s advice, Portuguese officers were instructed to do something more difficult: to wait until the hooligans kicked the ball within reach of the police. Then and only then could the police take the ball and keep it.” Stott’s point was “You have to play by the shared rules. The police can’t just go take the ball, because that’s precisely the kind of disproportionate use of force that creates the problem. If you wait until the ball comes to you and simply hang on to it, the crowd sees it as legitimate.”

“To some Portuguese police, Stott’s ideas sounded illogical if not insane. Several protested, saying that facing gangs of violent hooligans without protective armor was reckless. By the time the tournament arrived, the English press had derisively termed the program ‘Hug-A-Thug.’ Everyone doubted it would work. But it worked. More than one million fans visited the country over the three-week-long tournament, and in areas that used Stott’s approach, only one English fan was arrested. Observers recorded two thousand crowd-police interactions, of which only 0.4 percent qualified as disorderly. The only incidents of violence occurred in an area that was policed according to the old-fashioned helmet-and-shield system. Since then, Stott’s approach has become the model for controlling sport-related violence in Europe and around the globe.”

Coyle, the writer of the book says, “One of the reasons it works is that it creates a high-purpose environment by delivering an unbroken array of consistent little signals. Every time an officer banters with a fan, every time a fan notices the lack of protective armor, a signal is sent: We are here to get along. Every time the police allow fans to keep kicking the ball, they reinforce that signal. By themselves, none of the signals matter. Together they build a new story. For Stott, the most revealing moment in Portugal came halfway through the tournament when a yellow-vested Portuguese policeman had an encounter with an overly exuberant English fan. The policeman tried to calm the fan; the fan resisted, and then the policeman reflexively used force, grabbing the fan roughly. A ripple of energy moved through the crowd; people shouted and pushed. It was exactly the kind of situation Stott feared most: a single overuse of force that could cause a disastrous spiral. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the fans shouted out to one of the blue-vested liaison officers. “The fans called over to the liaison and said, ‘Hey, can you come and sort this policeman out for us?’ ” Stott says. “The roles had reversed, and the fans were policing the police. They had socially bonded with the liaisons. They saw them as their advocate.”

I hear you. That wouldn’t work here. Why not? Isn’t it time to stop trying to kill everybody who doesn’t act the way we think they should act? Which is more “risky business?” Continuing to kill people because we feel threatened, or learning how to interact with another that solves the problem. I suggested that Jesus’ words of advice were words about a different use of power. That’s what this example gives us. I think it is time to start trying alternatives to what HASN’T been working in the past. I think it may sound like “risky business” but maybe if we trust Jesus and HIS power we might find a different result than the ones we are getting now.

Communion is a reminder that we are in this together. We feed one another the bread of life and the cup of salvation. It is time to remember that even if we are gathered “digitally,” or “virtually” Jesus has the power to make us one, to bring life, to bring salvation. And the salvation Jesus talked about was never about just my personal salvation while the rest of humanity and the world goes to hell. That was always a perversion of the Gospel, of the Good News Jesus brought. Jesus’ brought the good news of a new Kingdom, a new reign, a new use of Power – he called it God’s Kingdom, built on the power of love to change everything, and everyone. Most of us don’t believe it, or only believe it partially. It is time to engage in the risky business of being about saving the world, transforming the world from the power of violence, hatred, and division into a world of honor, respect, love, and justice that treats every person and the whole creation with the love of Jesus Christ. That is the “risky business” Jesus calls us to be part of. AMEN.

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