Dear Friends,

Happy New Year! May it be infinitely better than 2020.

Even though it's just an arbitrary date on the calendar, the beginning of each new year brings a sense of possibility. Maybe this year we will finally…. (fill in the blank). Perhaps we as a society will find the wisdom and courage operate with compassion.

I've been reading a book by Rutger Bregman titled Humankind: A Hopeful History (2019). I highly recommend it, especially if you enjoy sweeping re-thinks of persistent assumptions. The question Bregman addresses goes back to Rousseau and Hobbs. Actually, it goes back at least to Genesis. Are human beings fundamentally good, or fundamentally evil. The writing is good. It keeps you on a see saw. First he gives you wonderful evidence for our goodness. But before you get too excited, the next chapter begins with “But,” and contains depressing evidence of our depravity. Judging by the title, I assume Bregman thinks in the end we are more good than bad. I haven't read that far yet.

In one of the good news sections Bregman tells a story about Julio Diaz who was held up by teenager with a knife on his way to the diner one evening. As the kid started to run off, Diaz called after him, “Hey, wait a minute. If you're going to be robbing people all night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”

The boy turned back in disbelief. “Why are you doing this?”

Diaz then said, “I was just going to get some dinner. If you want to join me, you're more than welcome.”

The mugger did! When the check arrived, Diaz said, “I guess you're going to have to pay for this bill because you have my money and I can't pay for this. If you give me my wallet back, I'll gladly treat you to dinner.” And he did.

The story reminded Bregman of Jesus' teaching: “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” He had always thought the teaching either naive or impossible. But in researching his book, he learned that “Jesus was advocating a quite rational principle. Psychologists call it non-complementary behavior.” It's one of the best ways to deescalate tense situations and shift relationships. If someone makes a snide remark, we want to make a snide comeback. But if we come back with a compliment or kind word, it may completely re-frame the relationship. Turns out, Jesus knew what he was talking about. :-)

God be with you,

The Rev. Dr. Thomas D. Harries