Mighty Mites



Lucifer vs. Tit for Tat

During the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s, social scientists were working on how to respond to the nuclear threat in ways that would stop either side from blowing up the world. If you remember those days, it looked like this: both sides had enough weapons to completely destroy the other side. If one side fired their weapons, then the other side would retaliate, and fire their weapons, and if that happened you could kiss the planet goodbye. The name for that was Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, appropriately named.

We would build bombs, and the Soviets would build bombs. We build more bombs the Soviets build more bombs. So we build more, and the soviets build more…and so on and so on. The problem is, the bombs that are out there, the greater the possibility they would be used one day. As long as the two nations cooperated, in other words, did not use their weapons, their would be peace. But if a nation defected from the status quo, and attacked, the peace was broken.

When the soviets put missiles into Cuba, that threaten the uneasy peace. During that time, a mathematician and early computer geek, Robert Axelrod devised a computer experiment learn about a simple strategy to navigate the waters of cooperation and betrayal, that might help political leaders navigate the tricky waters of the nuclear dilemma. Axelrod put out a call for other computer geeks to write programs that would compete against each other. The programs that did the best to keep the peace would be declared the winner.

There were three basic types of programs. The first, he called Jesus. Jesus did not attack and did not retaliate.  The second he called Lucifer. Lucifer would attack and keep attacking for the duration of the game. The third was called Tit for Tat. It did not attack, but if attacked, it would retaliate for only one move. He ran these programs against each other 120,000 times. The results were mostly predictable. When Jesus ran into Lucifer, Lucifer no one would win. When Jesus went up against Tit for Tat, it was a drawn, with no battles. But when Tit for Tat went up against Lucifer, Tit for Tat always won–if there were enough Tit for Tat players in the game.

In other words, in Axelrod’s computer simulation, if enough players in the game were peaceful and only retaliated to the extent that the other programs retaliated, they would win. Axelrod wrote several scholarly articles about this that appeared in academic journals of the time, but he wondered if these results were valid in the real world. So he did some historical research.


Then Axelrod took it to a second level. Programs that did well were able to reproduce.




The program was simple. It was a computer tournament, where computer programmers wrote programs that competed against the other programs. Each program competed with the other programs 200 times. There were three basic types of programs. The first was, the program would cooperate with other programs, until  attacked, and if that program was attacked it would retaliate and continue to retaliate for the duration of the game. The second type was one that attacked first, but then, when it was attacked by other programs, would chill out, and not retalition.


He wrote a program where the characters had one of three basic orientations. The first was attack, and retaliate with everything you got. He called this the Lucifer character. The second was do not attack, but if attacked retaliate with equal force. The third was, do not attack and do not retaliate if attacked. He filled a simulated world with these three characters, and run the program to see what would happen over time. The characters in the program had a limited life span, but they could produce other characters within the program, that shared their characteristics.

He ran several different versions of the same programs, with differing numbers of each of the three characters. When they were all Lucifers, they all died off really quickly. If they were all


World War I

In World War I soldiers were hunkered down in trenches that were 50 to 250 yards from each other. There was a constant barrage of artillery and gun fire that was unending. If one side was firing, the other side was firing back, and since one or the sides was always firing, the gunfire never stopped. But there were times of relative quiet. It started at night, when the british troops started taking breaks for meals. They would the trenches get some food, and come back. Here is the interesting thing. The Germans could have just lobbed bombs over the trenches, and onto the food trucks, killing a much greater number of soldiers. But they didn’t. Instead, they started taking breaks for meals. Again, the British could have lobbed their bombs over the trenches and onto the eating soldiers, but they didn’t. One soldier noted that either side could have aimed their shells at the meal caravans on the other, and in so doing would inflict incredible damage, but they realized if they did, the other side would retaliate in kind, and no one could have a meal in peace.

A similar thing happened with snipers. The success of a sniper is the number of men he can kill. German snipers started firing, not at the soldiers, but at trees beside the soldiers. And they would fire repeatedly into the tree at the same, exact spot, proving they could have hit the men standing there, but they chose not to. British snipers picked started also firing at trees, not at people.

There were times when one side or the other would raise a white flag, and the other side would simply stop firing, until the side that raised the flag started firing again.

This all came to a head in the Christmas truces of 1915. As the story goes, it was Christmas Eve night and the British stopped firing. The Germans followed, and each side was allowed to celebrate Christmas in peace. In one area the British started singing Silent Night, and the Germans retaliated by singing Stille Nacht, Silent Night in German. The next day there was no gun fire. Along the lines soldiers started  popping their heads up above the trenches, and were not shot at. Instead the other side would pop their heads above the trenches. In some areas soldiers got out of their trenches, and met the enemy in the middle of no mans’ land. They exchanged pictures of their families, food, and even Christmas presents. Instead of the hellhole it had formerly been, in many areas No Man’s Land became a place of peace on earth, good will to men. This Christmas truce lasted up to two weeks in some places, and soldiers would compete playing soccer, not killing one another.


Not until the British started taking breakfast breaks. Unilaterally, they stopped firing during breakfast, so the men could eat. It did not take long for the


the Mighty Mites

What does this have to do with the Widow’s mite, as we heard in this morning’s Gospel lesson? Simply this–these kinds of reciprocal Tit for Tat arrangements, whether in computer games or in war, only work when there are a enough people on one side to start the ball rolling. One person could not affect a Christmas truce, but a battalion could. If one person stopped shooting, they would probably get shot. But when a hundred men stop shooting, the shooting tends to cease. It’s not magic. It does not always work out this way. But it tends to, and the fact is, only by having one side change the rules of engagement can the rules of engagement every change.

The widow put in one mite, one small penny, one tiny coin into the offering plate. One mite cannot change anything. But a hundred mites can. A thousand mites can. The one small mite can be meaningless but the many mites can become mighty mites.

Let’s go back and look at the story. There is a line of people putting money into the temple treasury. Many of them are rich people, and they put a hefty amount of money. But then, along comes this widow. She does not have much. She is poor. She places two small coins into the pot, valued at about a penny. But this is who Jesus praises. She did not have much, but what she had, she gave. The temple is not going to get rich on her mite. But she gave what she had. In raw numbers it was a pittance, but in percentages it was a treasure house of good.

That is all that is required of us–to give what we have. I know this is stewardship season, and this all could be taken to mean that you have to give more money. So be it. But it is bigger than that. It is not just our money that makes a difference. It is our lives.

When the woman gave her mite, I wonder if there were other people, who had much more, who also gave of what they had? I wonder if other widows say they could give to. Jesus set up a situation that allowed and encouraged people to give what they had. He still does that. The woman answered the call to give by giving sacrificially. And Jesus responded, not by belittling her gift (“You call that a donation?”) but by praising her.

The way we respond to people, including aggressive people, is crucial. The rule of thumb is, people will respond with what we give them. When we are in an argument, if we can be the reasonable ones, if we can keep our heads when others are losing theirs, if we can give from the well of love that lies within us, we then can change the situation. If we see a wrong that needs to be righted, if we give what little we have, if we respond by an outpouring of love and not of recrimination, if we respond with offers of peace in the face of turmoil, we can change our worlds.



There is a postscript to the World War I stories, a tragic one. The generals on both side were concerned about these random acts of peace. They were there to win a war, and you don’t win wars by celebrating Christmas with your opponents. If you have seen pictures of your enemy’s children, you are much less likely to want to shoot and kill him. The generals understood what was going on better than the men in the trenches. They understood that how their men reacted determined to a large degree how the enemy would react. They understood that if the enemy stops shooting at you, you are highly likely to stop shooting at him.

So one night, after New Years, British soldiers played a German patriotic song. The Germans stood up on the edge of the trenches to hear. And at the last note of the song, the British troops were ordered to fire at the unarmed German soldiers, killing most of them. As you can imagine, the Germans responded with fire of their own, and the brief outbreak of peace among the enlisted men was quickly shattered, and the men got back to the things as usual–killing as many of the other side as they could. There were no more informal truces, meal trucks were not longer safe, and it was not long before poison gas was floating over the trenches.

Because of the horrific nature of that war, it was called the war to end all wars. We know that was just optimistic thinking. The men who saw to the end of WWI kept retaliating, even after the war’s end, with the Treaty of Versailles, which basically destroyed the German economy. That in turn led to many of the conditions that started World War II. Fortunately we learned a lesson from the ending of the First War, and instead of a punitive treaty, like Versailles, we instituted the Marshall Plan, and rebuilt Europe and Asia, including Germany and Japan.

Our mite, what we have to offer, is to respond as Jesus would in world where others are bent on doing any but that. In our relationships with each other here, in our relationships with others outside of these walls, in our relationships with our enemies, we are called to respond as Jesus would respond. One person doing that would be run over by the effects of the world. Two people are an example. Three people stand a fighting chance. A church full of people grabs attention, and a world of Christians who act as Jesus would act can change the world.

When each gives their own mite.


About tmrichmond3

I am the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon. I believe that faith should be able to sustain us, not oppress us.
This entry was posted in Church, Church Growth, Community, Compassion, Courage, forgiveness, Jesus, ministry, Mission, Pastoral Ministry, Preaching, Sermons, Social Justice, Social Ministry, spirituality, Theology, Wealth and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s