Remembering a Committed Peacemaker

I was dismayed when I read a New York Times news report last week that the bodies of two UN researchers were found in a shallow grave in the eastern Congo. I remember one of them, Michael Sharp, as a passionate, fun-loving, and gifted student in a class on Global Peace and Justice that I had taught at Eastern Mennonite University. He loved studying and debating various peace and justice topics.

Michael first worked in eastern Congo with Mennonite Central Committee and then began to serve with the UN peacekeeping mission there. Those who worked with him said that “he was a very hard-nosed truth seeker and would go the extra mile to nail down the evidence.” They also said that “he had tremendous empathy, even for some of the nastiest people he worked with.”

Colleagues described Michael as a professional with extensive experience in tough places. He had worked in the Congo for five years and had developed an extensive relational network with rebel commanders and local leaders, most of whom he had met in church. One colleague said that he had told her: “Rebels go to church. You build a relationship with them there.”

His father John says that Michael’s work had been rooted in his faith. “From early on he caught a passion for peacemaking and peace-building in the world.” He believed that peacebuilders should be willing to take the same risks as military people take.  Now we mourn the deaths of Michael, his UN colleague, and their translator, three gifted peacemakers. Three other Congolese nationals who were traveling with them are still missing. We remember and pray for the friends and family of all these people.

This is incredibly sad. The lives of two young peacebuilders were cruelly snuffed out. Even sadder is the sheer magnitude of the pain and suffering in eastern Congo. The UN estimates that currently there are at least 2.7 million internally displaced people in the Congo and approximately 450,000 refugees in other nations. Estimates vary widely but the death toll may have reached more than four million people since the conflict began following the genocide in neighboring Rwanda in 1994.

The hopeful part is remembering Michael Sharp, such a remarkable young man with a passion for creating a more peaceful world in a region that has known so much death and suffering. He knew the risks he was taking and recently told his mother that he wasn’t afraid to die. His life was so full of purpose, joy, and compassion. He lived more in his thirty-four years than most of us do in a much longer lifetime. That’s why I placed the picture of him having fun with children in the Congo on our communion table last Sunday.

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Being a Hospitable Tribe

No matter where we live, one of the challenges for us as followers of Jesus, is to liberate ourselves from the prejudice in our society and even in ourselves. It’s never easy. We often think of it as racism but according to theologian and activist Drew Hart:

The language of race obscures rather than clarifies human similarity and difference. It is smoke and mirrors. Instead of being a biological fact, race is a social construct. . . We should never separate race from its ideological and political work. The global practices of European domination, colonization, and conquest in the Americas and Africa in the sixteenth century required ideological justification.[1]

The social construct of race served as that justification. Deconstructing race is therefore hard, important work. Thinking we’re colorblind or pretending that racism doesn’t exist is actually harmful. Religion scholar and writer Diana Butler Bass has instructive insights on human difference that can help us. She writes:

Unless one is a hermit, most of us naturally sort into groups of likeness. We hang out with those we like around shared concerns and similar tastes. That is the basis of friendship, the secret ingredient of neighborliness and community. That’s the rub: human beings are tribal people. We always have been and always will be.[2]

And that’s a good thing. We all feel more comfortable around people who are like us. Still such tribes can become restrictive and we then begin to long for the freedom to live fuller, more meaningful lives. To be honest, the tight, restrictive community I grew up in sometimes made me feel like I was suffocating. It’s why I loved living in Asia for many years and it’s why I treasure the rich diversity of Northern Virginia.

Diana Butler Bass says that “a fine line is crossed . . . when tribes become clans and neighborhoods become enclaves. Clans almost always have the compulsion to fight other clans; enclaves typically feed on paranoia about the outside world.”[3] Her answer to this dilemma is the spiritual practice of hospitality and what she calls “hospitable tribes.” I like to think of our church as a hospitable tribe that welcomes and celebrates the rich diversity in our midst and is not afraid to grapple with prejudice in our midst, whatever form it may take.

[1] Drew Hart, Trouble I’ve Seen (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2016), 48-49.

[2] Diana Butler Bass, Grounded (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 213.

[3] Ibid., 214.

Love Your Enemies (part 3)

Plowshares

Evangelical pastor Brian Zahnd had once been a big supporter of American militarism. He enthusiastically cheered during the first Gulf War and delivered a patriotic, anti-Islamic sermon after 9/11. Then he was converted and wrote the book, A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace. (As we know, Mars is the Roman god of war). Brian writes:

[Americans] have embraced a privatized . . . gospel that stresses Jesus dying for our sins but at the same time ignores his [politics]. This leaves us free to run the world the way it has always been run: by the power of the sword. Under pressure from the ideology of empire, concepts like freedom and truth gain radically different meanings than those intended by Christ.

Freedom becomes a euphemism for vanquishing (instead of loving) enemies; truth finds its ultimate form in the will to power (expressed in the willingness to kill). This is a long way from the ideas of peace, love, and forgiveness set forth by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.[i]

There are huge differences between political parties in our world. Some are more militaristic, tied to economic elites, and prone to exploit our fears and prejudices. (Different parties exploit different kinds of fears and prejudices.) Yet, there’s no major political party in our country that doesn’t subscribe to an ideology of empire. All think that loving our enemies would be a kind of suicide.

I consider such things as I decide on my support for a given party or political candidate. At the same time, I refuse to identify myself with any political party without qualification. I’m a follower of Jesus and for me, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Within the reign of God, the power of love is understood to be more powerful than violence and hating our enemies.

Jesus is telling us, “Be like God who loves and blesses everyone.” If we instead love those who love us and hate those who hate us, we’re just like everyone else. Instead, like God, we’re called to be complete in our love. We may be severely tested on this in our present political climate.

[i] Brian Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2014), 34.

Love Your Enemies (part 2)

Plowshares

Our notion of American exceptionalism and of fighting our enemies to protect our freedom, democracy, and capitalism is a modern version of the myth of redemptive violence. It’s as old as history but its keeps continually evolving into different forms. In Jesus’ day, it took the form of Pax Romana (the peace of Rome)—a peace brutally enforced by Roman legions.

In the fourth century, when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, it became Christendom fighting against all kinds internal enemies, including Jews and those considered to be heretics, and external enemies such as Islam. This was followed by independent European nations dividing the world between themselves and fighting each other for their colonial empires. That struggle was at the root of the two world wars in the twentieth century. This was followed by the Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.

A key part of the myth of redemptive violence is dividing the world between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” This is Star Wars stuff. Pastor Greg Boyd writes, “To be willing to kill, soldiers must believe they are the good guys who are righteously fighting the bad guys—to defend God, country, truth, justice, equality, freedom, or whatever.”[i]

National and military leaders go to great lengths to perpetuate this myth because they simply can’t sustain an effective war unless soldiers and ordinary citizens remain confident that our cause is just. We need to believe that something more than chance has decided which side we’re on. Many in my generation lost our confidence in that myth during the Vietnam War; we no longer believed what we were being told about that war, why we were fighting there, or the justice of our cause.

Let’s return to the issue that Khrushchev raised about following Jesus’ example of loving our enemies. Christians followed Jesus’ example of loving their enemies (sometimes as great cost) for the first three hundred years. That changed when the Roman general Constantine came to power after winning a decisive battle in a civil war in which he had symbols of the cross placed on his weapons of war. (The incongruence is stunning!).

The wheels had been set in motion for Christianity to become the state religion of the Roman Empire and the enemies of Rome were now assumed to be the enemies of God. Popular American Christianity is another version of this. I’ll expand on this in my next blog post.

[i] Gregory Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 93.

Practice Reconciliation (part 2)

We all have a proclivity for breaking ourselves into teams of us against them. Part of the genius of faith in Jesus is that it breaks down such distinctions and walls of separation. It never comes easily but we know that this is what the kin-dom of God looks like. Christena Cleveland writes, “This is a tall order that requires a real and fierce conversation on the elephant in the church: privilege and power differentials. For some reason, high-status people (in my experience, particularly white men) have a hard time seeing and admitting that they are in fact high-status people who enjoy privileges that aren’t afforded to low-status people” (Disunity in Christ, 166).

This is the situation that Paul tackled head-on in the church in Corinth. People were dividing themselves into groups loyal to either Paul our Apollos. He had planted the church and then Apollos became a prominent leader after Paul left. We don’t know what the division was about but we can assume that both were high-status men. It’s easy to see how such a situation could develop. Many loved Paul and resisted any changes Apollos may have initiated. We can assume that Apollos was a little insecure and perhaps a bit sensitive about his status and role. He was naturally charismatic and others were drawn to him.

We don’t know if there was a concrete issue like same-sex marriage (which is tearing churches apart today) that church members in Corinth were fighting about but we always find such an issue to legitimize our prejudices and ambitions . Paul told them that such party loyalties indicate that we’re spiritual babies who cannot even eat solid food. Furthermore, both he and Apollos are mere workers in the church, which he likens to a field. One planted and another watered and each will receive his wages at the end of the day for the work he has done. Neither can take credit for the growth. That belongs to God.

The huge issue that divided people and created huge fights in the early church was the inclusion of Gentiles. Nobody wanted to exclude Gentiles but some wanted to impose conditions that marked them as second-class. This reflected a deep-seated cultural and religious divide or what sociologists call identity politics. The identity politics in our country today includes struggles surrounding racial, cultural, gender, sexual, and religious differences. This drives the fight over immigration.

It was a long struggle in the early church but Gentiles were eventually fully included as equals. Coming to that place included studying Scripture together, discerning how the Spirit was leading in real-life situations, and being committed to staying in communion with each other even when we see things differently.

We dare not forget that we’re Gentiles. Paul reminds us that we have been grafted in. A way was found to include us as equals. This is not our church; it’s Christ’s church! That should make us especially eager to bend over backward to include others, to always make sure we do not relate to others out of a sense of entitlement or privilege, and to drop everything else in order to seek reconciliation.

Practice Reconciliation

As a young man, I participated in a Paul–Timothy Program designed to develop future church leaders. As part of our training, we read about a racially diverse, fast-growing new church in Chicago called Circle Church. Formed the in the late 60s, the church met in a union hall located between black and white neighborhoods in this racially divided city. At the time, Circle Church was a model for racial diversity, but later ran into difficulties and split along racial lines. Long-standing racial segregation and prejudice in Chicago still shaped the way blacks and whites in their church related to each other. Whites were used to taking charge and were largely unaware of what we today call white privilege. Others felt left out and deeply buried racial frustrations became insurmountable.

Such discrimination goes beyond race. Women friends have told me about participating in meetings where their suggestion was ignored but then taken seriously when a male colleague said the same thing.  It can feel like you’re invisible. Women need to be better and brighter to get the same respect. But it’s tricky because a determined woman is labeled “pushy” when a male counterpart with the same characteristics is assumed to be a natural leader.

Social class and economic status easily lead to yet another kind of discrimination. Some of us are born on third base and go through life thinking we hit a triple. This has been a longstanding problem. The writer of the book of James in the New Testament scolds his congregation for giving undue honor to a rich visitor while ignoring and demeaning a poor person. He pointedly asks them, “Isn’t it the rich people who oppress you?” (2:6).

Lynn Hur, an Asian-American high school student gives us yet another twist on discrimination in America. The school she attends is predominantly Asian-American and she says it’s a privilege to grow up in an environment where she isn’t teased because of her small eyes or praised for her good English. But it can easily blind students to the racism they will face in the real world. She wants people to know three things: “Number one: Racism is not just a black-and-white situation. [It] encompasses the entirety of our colorful and complicated world. Number two: No one is completely innocent. Asians have their own assumptions and stereotypes of others, despite our experiences. Number three: I want us to look racism in the eye, name it and undo it” (The Mennonite, Feb. 2017:29).

Ben Goossen talks about white Mennonite privilege. He’s referring to those of us from European stock who can trace our genealogy back to our Anabaptist ancestors. He calls it white privilege with a twist. We’re very aware of our ethnic family names, foods, and the history of our ancestors as a persecuted religious minority. It makes us feel special but it makes others feel like they can never quite fit into our churches or ever measure up. They will always be outsiders. Such blinders keep us from seeing our white privilege. Ben Goossen says that learning about white privilege taught him to see us and our churches in a different light. He writes, “I see that even when we talk about peace and justice and righteousness, we can still be implicated in systems of oppression” (The Mennonite, Feb. 2017: 23).

Yet another divisive and often incredibly painful matter is how we relate to and include people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. A lesbian friend recently told me that some of her family will not even talk with her (a kind of verbal abuse) or allow her to come to their homes.  Jesus warns us that verbally abusing and demeaning another person is equivalent to murder. Such anger, like murder, opens the cauldron of hell. He tells us that if we are about to offer a sacrifice or gift to God and remember that our brother or sister has something against us, we should immediately drop what we’re doing, first go to be reconciled, and then return and offer our gift (Matthew 5: 21-24).

For Jesus, compassion and relationships always trump ritual and religious purity. He was fond of repeating Hosea 6:6: “For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” It’s instructive to consider the many times he went out of his way to build relationships with despised others such as the Samaritan woman. Churches continually face challenges related to the different forms of prejudice and discrimination in our world. We will want prioritize going out of our way to build relationships with despised others and to practice reconciliation.

Our Response to a Political Earthquake

We lived through a political earthquake this week. Few expected Donald Trump to win and become our president elect. Most of us are still in shock. I found myself talking pastorally with several women who are so angry and depressed that a man who bragged about groping women and treating them as sex objects is now our next president. This is especially painful for those who were themselves sexually harassed and abused.

One person came to our house because she was so discouraged and needed to talk. Other pastors report the same thing. Some are telling their congregations that they are available to talk to with those who are struggling with severe feelings of anger and depression. Likewise, school teachers report that many children are afraid about what will happen to them or their friends.

I had a conversation with the pastor of a minority church who is deeply concerned about the underlying racism in the Trump campaign and what this might mean for people of color, ethnic minorities, and recent immigrants. This spiritually perceptive pastor told me that perhaps it will be good for churches to recognize that we don’t completely fit in our dominant American culture. It will push us to be more creative in finding models for living and witnessing from the margins.

And I need to acknowledge that I’m struggling to find the inner spiritual and emotional strength to overcome my own despair. I found the way our president-elect mocked and demeaned others, beginning in the Republican primaries, very offensive. I was so much looking forward to the end of the election when he would no longer dominate the news. Now that’s not going to happen. I fear that he’s temperamentally unfit to be president.

This week I attended our Fairfax County Faith Communities in Action meeting. Rabbi David Kalender, who chaired the meeting, opened it by acknowledging the political earthquake we have been through. He gave us some helpful spiritual advice. During an earthquake, things that we thought were stable begin to shake and move and we need to find and grab onto those anchors of stability in our lives. Such anchors may include our family, our friends, meaningful work, gardening, art, exercise, our community of faith, and our God. Then we reach out and hold each other’s hands.

This blog post is part of the sermon I gave at our church this Sunday. This was followed by a communion service and then a sharing time where people freely talked about their personal struggles related to the election earthquake we all went through. There were lots of tears. I also encouraged our congregation to consider our response to Donald Trump as our next president.

I don’t assume that all of us experienced his election the same way. Many Evangelical Christians voted for him, even though they saw him as a flawed candidate, because his political platform supported their positions on various social issues. We will want to have honest conversations with each other about this, practice agreeing and disagreeing in love, and recognize that we’re part of a worldwide communion that brings us together beyond such differences.

Our daughter, who is a school teacher in Oakland, California told me that school students walked out of their classes in protest. Young people marched in the streets holding signs “Love Trumps Hate” and “He’s not my President.” Many more such actions quickly sprung up across our country. That frustration is real but we will also want to give president-elect Trump the chance to prove our worst fears wrong. We hold him up in our prayers.

I believe in grace and that people can change. He might surprise us. Let’s give him that opportunity. Let’s strive to get beyond our distaste and consider the things we may have in common and how we can support those things. He must overcome lots of division and needs lots of support to be a successful president. I’m not sure he completely understands how much anxiety and distrust he has generated.

We will, however, not give him a free pass on things he said and did or his agenda moving forward. He ran a very destructive and mean-spirited campaign. Other candidates then felt that they had no choice but to respond in kind. Such things have consequences. As a result, our American public square is a more vulgar and ugly place than it was before he began running for president. Part of our task will be to hold him accountable and to help repair that torn social fabric.

We should also be prepared to resist were necessary for the sake of the gospel and all vulnerable people. There will be lots of chaos if Trump follows through on some of the things he said he will do during his campaign. We shouldn’t wait to see if that actually happens. Let’s take this as a call to greater social engagement. We will want to pray, talk with each other, strategize, and organize to take action.

Many Christians in the past have suffered for the sake of the gospel. The same is true for some Christians in other parts of the world today. We should not assume that we are somehow exempt from that cost. This is a good time to again read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. Let’s take this opportunity to let our lights shine as God’s people. It’s about living God’s love and growing God’s justice.