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When things get ugly

Heart and cross

The Rev. Dr. Glenn Wagner describes how “ugly” happens between persons, parties, and nations. God’s response to ugliness is Jesus.


In my lifetime, I have witnessed events that define ugly.  I am not a fan of ugly.

It was ugly nearly 40 years ago when a competitor from out of state purchased a profitable local firm with over 100 years of business. That local company employed several 100 people and was a leader in support of worthy charities that labored to improve the local quality of life. The new ownership proceeded to loot the assets so that the company failed. The new, non-resident owner lined his own pockets with the liquid assets, used the intentional failure for the purpose of a tax write-off, and to eliminate his competition. The grandchildren of the original owner left town with their proceeds from the sale, hundreds of faithful employees were suddenly unemployed, and the town that had given the company tax breaks as an incentive to stay was left with serious depression in their local economy. Ugly.

It was ugly nearly 30 years ago when a community in the midst of racial change suffered from a race riot that was ignited by a self-serving lie. A teenage girl, home late from school, was confronted by her abusive and inebriated father. “WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN!” She knew her father to be a racist who hated the members of the town’s growing minority population and sought to save herself from her father’s drunken wrath with a fable that blamed a minority neighbor with a fabricated charge of sexual molestation. Her dad returned to his favorite bar to recruit his friends who liquored their rage and then proceeded to attack an innocent man. The National Guard had to be called to quell the ensuing riot. Ugly.

It continues to be ugly in the Middle East where there are over 5 million displaced Palestinians whose families lost their homes during the conflicts that followed the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. Over 1.5 million of these persons are still living in 58 recognized refugee camps scattered throughout the Middle East. It is ugly in Syria where the United Nations has determined that 13.5 million people have required assistance and 11 million Syrians have become refugees as a result of the continuing civil war there.

It was ugly in the Southern United States during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. A pastoral colleague responded to a call from God after miraculously surviving a near-fatal wound on a European Battlefield serving our nation during World War II. He left his full-time work and found a way with a wife and four children to put himself through college and seminary. In his first pastoral appointment, he was asked by his congregation what he would do if a black person showed up in church. My friend responded without hesitation, “I will do what Jesus would do. I will welcome that person with open arms and offer them a seat next to me.”  My friend’s courageous answer sparked an ugly response from his racist parishioners, and the Bishop was forced to reappoint my friend to serve a different parish.
Racism is an ugliness that is present globally.  I will never forget the wisdom shared by a Jewish rabbi who was the only member of his family to survive the Nazi holocaust. “Any time, any place, and in any way that racism rears its ugly head, I will stand on a table in the middle of the room, and without hesitation, I will shout as loudly as I am able, “THIS IS EVIL!”

I have witnessed ugliness in families fractured by things like alcoholism, infidelity, divorce, and a massive failure to communicate. I have seen ugliness in corporations when greed is allowed to be the primary driver of corporate decision making with total disregard for employees, safety, the environment, or the wider community. I have seen ugliness in countries where absolute power wielded by self-serving dictators has brutally suppressed any opposition.

In recent weeks ugliness has been on full display in Washington D.C. and in the nightly news during an extremely partisan fight over a Supreme Court nomination with far-reaching consequence. At stake in this bitter fight is the balance of power to decide what happens in the continuing personal and national debate on abortion. Our next Supreme Court Justice will be the swing vote on a divided court. Will, we continue to defend every woman’s right to choose what happens with her own body or will the court defend the rights of the unborn and further restrict abortion? For your information, between 1970 and 2014 according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, there have been 44.5 million legal abortions performed in the United States. I recommend the recently produced Netflix documentary, “Reversing Roe,” that gives a balanced historical view of this passionate debate that has been a source of conflict in this country for more than 40 years.

Whatever happens in the United States Senate and Supreme Court, many persons will remember the process and the outcome as ugly. Whatever the Supreme Court ultimately decides on the issue of abortion will not change the fact that many women will continue to have unwanted pregnancies. We need to do a better job with sex education and working pro-actively to prevent unwanted pregnancies from happening.

I still don’t like ugly.

The Bible has a name for human ugliness. Sin. God has a response to our ugliness. Jesus.

The prophet Isaiah remembers God’s sacrificial action on our behalf (Read Isaiah 53).
“He had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
    a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds, we are healed.”

The apostle Paul in his letter from prison while awaiting execution wrote to the Philippians about the hope he found for the future in Jesus,
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.”

The scripture helps me to deal with toxic ugliness. There is an eternal beauty in the lives of faithful people who make grace and love their aim in thankfulness to God. The transcendent beauty of faith helps me to face ugly with honesty and to keep on living with hope.

Last Updated on October 16, 2018

The Michigan Conference