Matthew 3:1-12, 2nd Sunday of Advent
John the Baptist was the whistleblower in an echo chamber. The phrase “echo chamber” has been around for a long time, esp. in the field of acoustics. But it’s only been in the past four or five years that it has become a metaphor, especially with the advent of social media and the resurgence of dictators and tyrants.
If we find ourselves in a situation or environment where the only opinions &and beliefs we encounter and approve of are those which coincide with our own—especially if we happen to be a person of influence in that situation or environment—then we might actually be in an echo chamber. If people around us notice that we listen only to those who hold the same opinions and beliefs we hold, such that any contrary opinion, any opposing belief, any dissent, negative criticism and evaluation, is something we refuse, something that angers us, so we either shoot it down or shout it down, then, we surely are in an echo chamber. Unfortunately, we’re often the last ones to find out we’re in an echo chamber, precisely because the only sound we enjoy in there is the ricochet of our own voices, mimicked by our collaborators. Until a whistleblower shows up and ruins our sound stream.
I used to think echo chambers grew only around big bosses of big structures—like presidents of countries and their cabinets, CEOs and executive managers, etc. I realize now that echo chambers also thrive in smaller systems like universities, associations, and yes, even parishes, seminaries, and sadly, also religious orders. And the most disturbing thing I’ve seen is that people in echo chambers are “united” over whom to regard as friends and whom to be marked as enemies. When whistleblowers break into an echo chamber, they often blow the whistle on two counts. First, they remind the bosses who got them into that position and why, namely: the community put them there precisely because they trusted that the bosses will see to the care, well-being, and progress of all members, all. Not just sharers of their opinions and beliefs, but also their dissenters and critics. The second count, whistleblowers call out the misbehavior of these same bosses. They expose their hypocrisy and double standards. And they protest conduct unbecoming. (By the way, I’ve realized these past few years that nothing cuts at people’s spirits more painfully than a priest who shouts at them.)
Back in the Lord’s time, it was the religious authorities who sheltered themselves in echo chambers. Until John the Baptist blew the whistle on them, crying, “You brood of vipers! Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’” “Do not presume to say to yourselves…to say to yourselves;” sounds like the echo chamber, doesn’t it? For isn’t that the way of powerful men in echo chambers? Like Pharisees and Sadducees, they swoop and claw at ordinary members and their offences, give them scathing reviews, blow other people’s faults out of proportion. But they excuse themselves and each other for the very same behaviors, and for even deeper, darker transgressions. “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’” that’s the appeal to authority, isn’t it? Today, that’ll sound like: “By virtue of us outranking you, our decision is final. Put up or shut up.”
We are all prone to cultivating echo chambers, dear sisters and brothers; more so when we have power and sway. But both lay and religious authorities are equally capable of building echo chambers. That’s why we need whistleblowers like John the Baptist. They do us a big favor, you know. They show us straight to our faces that we’re not always right just because we’re powerful, that we’re not necessarily virtuous just because we pass verdict on other people’s merits and demerits, and that we all bear sins, bigger sins even, than those we condemn and blackball. Like John the Baptist to the Pharisees and Sadducees, our whistleblowers today prove to us that we are many times mistaken, and given to corruption, and commit even greater sins than we care to confess. In other words, the John the Baptist’s really make straight our crooked paths.
The Messiah that John heralded would be free from any echo chamber. Our first reading describes that Messiah well:
“Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide, but he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.”
As we begin the second week of Advent, we ask for the grace of guts to face the ugly truth if indeed we’ve built and fortified echo chambers to perpetuate ourselves. May God protect the whistleblowers in our families, our religious communities, and most of all, in our country. If by chance we get to be the John the Baptist who will blow the whistle on someone’s echo chamber, then may God protect us, too.