My Journey to Peace Action

PlowsharesI came of age during the Vietnam War and, like many in my generation, it has profoundly affected who I have become. When I visit the Vietnam Memorial here in Washington DC, it brings back floods of memories. Several of my school classmates served and died there. I remember the grim daily tally of those killed in the war—many more Vietnamese than Americans. I remember all the war protests. Protest songs like Blowin in the Wind bring it all back as though it happened yesterday.

I hated that war but was so unprepared to grapple with the choices I had to make when I was drafted. As someone who had grown up in an historic Peace Church with pacifist roots going back to the 16th century, my family assumed that I would be a conscientious objector. Still, I was filled with doubts and questions. Like many of my peers, I hated that brutal war. Yet, I was not sure I was religiously opposed to all wars and that was the claim I had to make to be given conscientious objector status. Teenagers are so ill prepared to make such choices.

I, nevertheless, registered as a conscientious objector and served two years as an orderly in a hospital psychiatric ward. That began my search for answers and my personal journey to peace action. As a follower of Jesus, I began my quest by reading the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ words in the beatitudes became my guiding light, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” I heard those words as a personal call that would define my life.

I gradually realized that I was pacifist, opposed to all participation in war, even as I became convinced this in itself is not an adequate response to violence. Peace activists should be willing to take risks and serve with the same kind of dedication as military personnel do. I’m not a brave man but such convictions have led me to years of service in the Philippines, India, and Nepal where I have seen so much violence and human suffering.

Jesus is calling us to take transformative initiatives and become peacemakers. I’m especially indebted to Glenn Stassen, the recently deceased Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary who devoted his life to just peacemaking.  Glenn identified a triad structure in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, which opened my understanding of Jesus’ call to take transformative initiatives.

The first part of the triad is traditional piety (e.g. you shall not kill), the second identifies the mechanisms of bondage (e. g. hate and nursing anger), and the third is a transformative initiative (e. g. be reconciled, love your enemy). Glenn had his call to action and, in collaboration with others, identified and developed various peacemaking initiatives in many different disciplines and arenas of life.

In my next post I will further develop this approach to peace action.

Living Love, Growing Justice, Welcoming Everyone

Our congregation has recently been working together to come up with a motto that expresses the song of our hearts that we’ll include with our new name “Daniels Run Peace Church.” Several things became apparent.  We want to be a welcoming fellowship epitomized by our love; we seek to be a diverse church that’s growing in equality and justice.  And all of this begins in the shared life of our fellowship as followers of Jesus but we seek to extend such winsome love and justice to our neighbors and our world in ways that are healing and empowering.

Love and justice walk hand in hand. Together, they’re what peace looks like. The prophet Isaiah envisioned Israel (God’s people) as a choice vineyard lovingly nurtured by our Creator. God had expected Israel to be a loving community where justice prevailed but instead saw bloodshed and heard a cry (Isaiah 5: 1-7). We imagine violent, cutthroat elites oppressing poor people and fighting among themselves to gain power. I’ve been around the block enough times, however, to realize that these were most likely pious people who had convinced themselves they were doing the right thing.

We’re all involved in social structures that oppress and ignore the neediest. Sure, poor people often contribute to their own problems but when we learn to know them we discover that there’s always a backstory.  Poor kids get caught in violent neighborhoods, racial prejudice, an abusive foster-care system, poor schools, and a skewed criminal justice system. I imagine God looking at our country and saying, “I expected justice but saw bloodshed and heard a cry.”

Jesus chided his listeners and called them hypocrites because they were blind to such things. He told them that they were good at interpreting signs for the weather but incapable of reading the signs of the times (Luke 12: 54-56). How do we interpret the signs of the times in our world? They are those places overcome by spiritual brokenness and social injustice. We will also want to discern where and how the reign of God is penetrating our world, bringing healing, and social and spiritual transformation.

What does that look like? I was recently talking with a friend who is the pastor of another emerging church here in Fairfax. We share the goal of forming diverse, multi-cultural congregations. We also share the free-church conviction that dynamic expressions of God’s kingdom always emerge on the margins. Giving up our compulsion to be in charge is very liberating. It gives us the freedom to be different in ways that matter.

That’s what makes experimenting with different mottos for our church so much fun. I especially like the sentence one of our church members came up with, “A loving, multicultural congregation with a passion for peace and justice, following the path of Jesus Christ.” We eventually agreed on a shortened version that we will put on church sign by the road. Under our new name “Daniels Run Peace Church” will be the motto “Living Love, Growing Justice, Welcoming Everyone.”

 

Building an Inclusive Church

The raw fear can be overwhelming. Last week we saw images of a big truck ramming through the crowds in Nice as people ran for their lives. There have been so many mass shootings in our own country creating a fear of others. Then there are all those video clips of black men being killed by policemen and now of police being targeted by lone shooters.

Matthew Boulton, the president of Christian Theological Seminary, expresses our angst, “As the sound of gunfire continues to echo in our neighborhoods — from Baton Rouge to St. Paul, Dallas to Charleston, Newtown to Orlando — so many of us are angry, exhausted, heartbroken, devastated, lost. Violence like this strikes at the heart of who we are, and threatens again and again to divide us, segregate us, polarize us, turn us against our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors, ourselves.”

We need to confess that our country was born in violence as we destroyed native American populations, enslaved Africans to work our fields, and fought a revolutionary war against Great Britain. Later there was racial and religious violence against Jews, Catholics, and Asian immigrants. Still, we have been inspired and energized by greater ideals that are enshrined in our constitution: equality under the law, justice for all, religious freedom, a free press, and the right of assembly.

We have always lived with the tension between these two realities. Racism and the oppression of minorities are the original sins of our country. At the same time, many of our ancestors migrated here because they were fleeing persecution and poverty in the lands they came from. They brought with them the hope of religious freedom, justice, and equal opportunity for all.

Recent events have brought our racial and economic divides to the surface. They emerged at a recent Fairfax County Board of Supervisors meeting as they deliberated about creating an outside civilian review panel for police abuse investigations. Some activists attended to meeting to bring attention to the recent report showing that more than 40 percent of use-of-force cases in Fairfax County last year involved African Americans, who account for about 8 percent of Fairfax’s population.

A related incident people have been protesting is the death of Natasha, a mentally ill black woman who died in detention. She was in shackles and handcuffs and was still Tasered four times with a stun gun while surrounded by six deputies. An internal investigation concluded that they had followed protocol and no charges were filed.

We dare not focus our blame exclusively on the police. Many serve with integrity and devote their lives to keeping our community safe. I commend progressive policing initiatives here in Fairfax such as instituting restorative justice processes and a Diversion First program where mentally ill people who create a disturbance are taken to a medical facility rather than to the county jail. Prejudice permeates our society and none are immune. Too often our churches participate in this racism. It has often been noted that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America.

That’s why I’m so thankful for the diversity we have in our small church. We’re learning how to worship and serve together across our differences including ethnic and racial divides. My dream is that we will slowly, laboriously keep building an inclusive church one brick at a time here in the City of Fairfax. It can be hard work. It’s much easier to tear down than to build up. But we have a good start and my prayer is that by God’s grace we will grow more and more into the kind of faith fellowship that crosses the divides in our community.

Love Your Enemies

These are anxious times. There are many legitimate reasons to be concerned about the future of our families and our communities yet these concerns hardly warrant the degree of anxiety we feel. Something else is going on. One aspect of our anxiety is that we Americans are so politically and religiously divided. Polls show that many of us think we’re headed in the wrong direction and long for political change.

Our anxieties are constantly fed by the media. Major TV networks play on our emotions and this gets us hooked into watching their programs. News people pour on the drama as they report the latest election results, some outrageous, attention grabbing thing a politician said, or a horrible event like the recent mass shooting in Orlando. As they’re talking the split TV screen recycles the disturbing images over and over again.

Talk radio spews so much shock, lies, and hate. People on both sides of the political and religious divide post things on social media that are blatantly partisan and just plain ugly. It’s as though we live in silos of like-minded people beset by all those supposed enemies out there. I’ve been resisting getting a Twitter account because it ratchets up the intensity with a constant feed of belligerent and demeaning hashtags.

This puts a whole new twist on Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Jesus begins by instructing us to never retaliate in kind. That’s radically counter-cultural because retaliation and a thirst for revenge are hardwired into our national culture. We need enemies. On a personal level, if you’re mean to me, I’ll be mean to you. As the familiar saying goes, “I don’t get angry, I get even!”

It’s not only about getting even. Instead, the threat is that I can do much worse to you. The Law of Moses sought to set strict limits on such retaliation by proscribing an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  Payback cannot be greater than the harm that was done to you. Even so, it eventually leaves us all blind and toothless. We need a more deep-seated response that goes beyond tit-for-tat and gets to the root of the problem.

Jesus’ radical response is wrapped up in his command, “Do not resist an evildoer.” The Greek verb translated as “resist” is used most often in a military context where it refers to “armed resistance.” Jesus goes beyond that by telling us to never pay back in kind—not even a person with evil intentions who has treated me very badly. Just because you did it first, doesn’t make it right for me. Isn’t that what we tell our children when they get into fights? If I respond in kind, I’ll become just as bad because such stuff is contagious.

Loving enemies is the very nature of God who treats all people impartially no matter how good or evil they may be. The sun shines and the rain falls on all of us. Our God is love! If we, in turn, play favorites by being especially generous and loving to those who support us and nasty and vengeful to those who are against us, we’re no different from those we despise and consider to be our enemies.

Being a Peace Church

We’re in the process of changing the name of our church from “Northern Virginia Mennonite Church” to “Daniels Run Peace Church.” What does being a peace church look like? Our Mennonite tradition has a long heritage of saying no to war because we can’t reconcile Jesus’ command to love our enemies with killing them. Along with the Quakers, the Church of the Brethren, and many other conscientious objectors we insist that war is never the answer. A personal example is that I registered as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and served our country as an orderly in a mental hospital.

Refusing to go to war is a powerful witness to God’s love but it’s not enough. We need to also actively promote peace in our community. One way in which our church does that is through supporting the Fairfax County Student Peace Awards program, which awards high school seniors selected by their school for their peace and justice initiatives. We also support the organization Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence. Each year we place a “Memorial to the Lost” on our church lawn remembering all those killed by gun violence in the metro DC area.

There are many ways to be a peace church. For instance, our church garden, caring for Daniels Run, and restoring our woods are all kinds of peace efforts. One of the biggest challenges to being a people of peace is to know how to respond when we have personally been harmed. Being in that gay nightclub in Orlando or loving one of those who was killed would mean having to live with a nightmare for the rest of your life.

This mass shooting happened almost one year after Dylan Roof, a troubled young man filled with white supremacist ideology, killed nine people during a Bible study at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Among those killed was their beloved pastor Clementa Pinckney. Shortly after this horrific tragedy some church members and relatives of those murdered surprised lots of people when they said that it was their Christian duty to forgive Dylan.

Jeffery Brown from PBS recently interviewed pastor Betty Deas, the new pastor of Mother Emanuel. Betty is such a warm person with a wonderful smile. Jeffery asked her how the congregation was doing and she responded that they are slowly progressing but still grieving. She said it’s so good when people can start laughing again.

Jeffery then asked her about those expressions of forgiveness. Her response is a wonderful example of the gospel in action. She told Jeffery that forgiveness is more than an emotion, it’s a choice. We choose to not respond in kind or to try to get even. Sure, our emotions are still raw and it’s okay to be angry and to want to withdraw for a while. If she ever has the opportunity to meet Dylan Roof she will tell him that Jesus loves him and that there is forgiveness and life beyond the horrible thing he did.

A woman recently came to talk with her about what happened. The woman seemed withdrawn and Betty reached out to hug her. The woman responded, “Before you hug me, I need to tell you that I’m Dylan Roof’s aunt.” Betty, responded, “You still need a hug don’t you?” They hugged and then they talked.

Betty said that Charleston still has a long way to go in race relations but they have already come so far. She talked about the wonderful way in which all kinds of people responded to the shooting with an outpouring of sympathy and love. It brought the whole community together across racial divides.

That’s the power of love and forgiveness—a power much stronger than fear and hate. This is our identity. It’s who we are as followers of Jesus who obey his command to love our enemies. And that’s what a peace church looks like.

The Human Connection (part 2)

Finding the human connection was so important for Bryan Stevenson as a first year law student. I wrote about this is my previous blog post and said that I have the same struggle with theological language that can feel just as esoteric and detached from the lives of people I serve in our church and our community.

What does it mean to say that Jesus in both fully human and fully divine? How do we understand abstract Trinitarian language about the relationship with God the Father, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit? Our common theological takeaway is a doctrine of redemption where our salvation is made possible by the incarnation, the sinless life, and the atoning death of Jesus. It’s a transaction that takes place in the spiritual realm and assures us that we will go to heaven when we die.

In theological language it’s called the doctrine of plenary atonement. It’s awfully thin soup, rather detached from the everyday lives of ordinary people. John’s Gospel can help us. It doesn’t have a nativity story, and begins instead by soaring into the farthest reaches of deity. Thinking, however, that it’s about life in the heavens would be a bad mistake.

The first three words “In the beginning” parallel the first three words in the book of Genesis. It’s about the origins of our world, including the human race. The Gospel story, as John tells it, is about a fresh beginning and a new human race. John’s Word or Light from heaven becomes flesh and is the life of humanity. Another way I’ve heard this said is that “God becomes everything we are—to make us everything God is.”

John is writing to a Gentile Christian community outside Palestine. They live in a different culture from the one in which Jesus was born. John is explaining to them that the life and teaching of Jesus comes from God and, at the same time, relates to their ordinary lives. He is placing Jesus both above and within their cultural world. John’s community believes that the spiritual world is good and the material world is evil. He counters this by saying that the eternal Word became human in the life of Jesus. It’s an affirmation that the earth and our physical lives are part of God’s good creation.

We have worth because we’re valued by God who entered our world in the human life of Jesus. In Jesus God shared our experiences including our love, joy and intimate companionship as well as our anger, our tears, and our suffering. God is not a detached deity in a world far away. Our God is an intimate, suffering God who shares both our joys and our wounds.

Jesus turns our world upside-down. In a world where social status is everything, he associates with common people and outcasts. In an anxious and fearful world, he reminds us that God cares even for the sparrows. In a world addicted to the power of violence, he demonstrates that nonviolent, suffering love is a force more powerful. This connects powerfully to the kind of world Bryan Stevenson relates to in his legal practice representing poor people and those trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system.

 

The Human Connection

My daughter gave me the book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson for Christmas. It’s his personal story of working as a defender for poor people trapped in our criminal justice system, especially those on death row. In the introduction he tells how he became a lawyer doing this kind of work.

Near the end of his first year of studies at Harvard Law School, Bryan was disillusioned because the courses seemed esoteric and far removed from the race and poverty issues that had motivated him to study law in the first place. The next fall he took a course on race and poverty that included an internship with a nonprofit law group in Atlanta handling the appeals process for prisoners on death row.

Bryan was scared and insecure during his first visit to a death row inmate in a maximum security prison.  His task was to tell the prisoner that they still didn’t have a lawyer assigned to his case but, never-the-less, to assure him that he wouldn’t be executed in the next year. Bryan was astonished when the prisoner, whose name was Henry, was relieved to hear this news.

They immediately connected, started talking about everything including their families, and went way beyond the allotted one-hour time limit for the visit. When the guard came back he was very upset, roughly shackled Henry, and started pushing him out the door. Both the guard and Bryan were startled when Henry shut his eyes, tilted his head back and began to sing the old spiritual, Lord Plant My Feet on Higher Ground. 

That was the human contact and inspiration Bryan needed. He returned to law school with an intense desire to learn everything he could about the laws that sanctioned the death penalty and extreme punishments including constitutional law, litigation, and appellate procedure.

I can identify with Bryan in the sense that I’ve wrestled for a long time with theological language about Jesus, which can feel just as abstract and esoteric as those law school courses he was taking. Where do we as theologians find the human contact that Bryan found during his visit with Henry in that maximum security prison? I’ll write more about this on my next post.

God’s Peace Stands Guard

A group of us recently went to hear a Celtic Christmas concert at George Mason University. I love the rhythm and sound of Celtic music. It has its own kind of spirituality rooted in the soil and history of Ireland. Later that evening we listened to President Obama’s address to our nation about the threat of violent acts of terrorism from Islamic jihadists. It was like being transported from one world into another.

What Obama had to say was sobering. I recognize his responsibility as president to keep American citizens safe. Yet I’m concerned that actions such as aerial bombings and drone strikes in foreign countries further escalate the cycle of violence, kill innocent civilians, and increase the flow of refugees. Equally concerning were the critical responses of CNN commentators following the president’s address. One was especially alarmist and clearly desired stronger rhetoric.

Such rhetoric arrived the next day when a major presidential candidate advocated barring all Muslims from entering our country. Then the president of an evangelical Christian university told the university community that he was carrying a concealed weapon and urged them to do the same in order to stop any potential Muslim threat. Whatever else we might say about that, it’s certainly not the gospel.

In a time like this I’m drawn to our Advent scripture passages from Isaiah and Philippians. The prophet Isaiah is responding to a situation of war and conflict in the Middle East that mirrors what’s happening in our day. The small nations in the region were picking sides and aligning themselves with the bigger powers of Egypt and Assyria, primarily based to which side they thought would win. The prophet talks of the boots of tramping warriors and of garments rolled in blood (9: 5). Armies were sweeping through the region and destroying towns and cities.

Isaiah’s council to people of faith is to not place their hopes for security in such national alliances and to instead trust in God. “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (12: 2). We will want to consider what such trust looks like in our world that’s awash in high-powered guns and weapons of war.

The words of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians are equally instructive (4: 4-7). He counsels Christians to not become consumed by our anxieties or to become victimized by our problems. We are instead to be known for our deep sense of joy and gentleness or forbearance. Two things make this possible. The first is our experience of Christ present in our midst. The other is the assurance that “the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds.”

Paul uses a military metaphor of God’s peace standing guard. Because we have that assurance we don’t need to scan the horizon for new threats. Alert, yes, anxious, no. There is an appropriate level of concern but the kind of anxiety swirling around right now is not fitting for followers of Jesus who have placed their trust in God.

Memorial to Victims of Gun Violence

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Our church is displaying a T-shirt memorial on our church lawn remembering the 155 people killed by gun violence in the greater Washington DC area in 2014. There is a T-shirt with the name of each who died written on it. The memorial feels like cemetery, but unlike a cemetery, it’s displayed beside a public street in front of our church rather than behind a fence and gate.

I make it part of my daily routine to walk between the rows of T-shirts and breathe prayers for the victims and their families. A few are 2 and 3-year-old children. Some are senior citizens and many are young men and teenagers killed in the prime of life. One T-shirt remembers James Brady, former President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, who sustained a gunshot wound in his head in an attempt on the life of the president. Brady later became a public advocate of handgun control. He succumbed to his wounds last year at the age of 73.

Sometime when we advocate for common sense gun laws, we get so wrapped up in the political struggle that we forget its spiritual dimension. A small sign beside our memorial invites us to stop, pray, and remember. People often walk by on the sidewalk when I’m there. Some ask questions and many express appreciation. I can tell that it touches a deep cord inside them. We can do better as a people and a nation.

The Politics of Compassion

I recently had a dinner meeting with a friend who is the mother of Rachel, a severely autistic eleven year-old child. A child with severe mental disabilities can completely drain a family’s energy and resources. Yet there are rewards in loving and caring for Rachel. It can certainly make us more appreciative of the inherent dignity and grace in all people.

My friend told me about the especially difficult time Rachael has had at school last year. As she gets bigger and stronger, it’s harder for teachers and case workers to control her when she acts out. She sometimes hits and even bites. So they put a vest on her with handles on the back that they can use to constrain her. They even began using mitts and shields. This further isolated Rachel and only made her act out more.

Being Rachel’s advocate with the school was really hard. My friend told me about the stigma, shame, and guilt associated with being the parent of a mentally disabled child. People relate to you and your child differently than they relate to people with physical disabilities. Physical disabilities more easily evoke compassion whereas severe mental disabilities evoke revulsion. As the mother of such a child, one often feels blamed, as if you are doing something wrong.

The biblical word translated as “mercy” can also be translated as “compassion.” The word compassion literally means “to suffer together” and it includes going out of our way to help others. Such compassion has its source in the heart of God who reaches out even to those who are evil and hateful. Jesus tells us to therefore be compassionate just as God is compassionate (Luke 6: 35-36). This is the heart of the gospel.

The Hebrew word translated as mercy or compassion is a cognate of the word for womb. Catholic ethicist Milburn Thompson writes, “For Jesus, then, God is like a mother who feels for and loves the children of her womb. . . For Jesus, compassion was neither sentimental nor an individual virtue; rather, compassion was political. When compassion led Jesus to touch a leper, heal a woman with constant menstruation, feed the hungry, forgive sinners, or share a meal with tax collectors and prostitutes, it was moving him to challenge the dominant sociopolitical paradigm of his social world. Thus Jesus was engaged in what might be called the ‘politics of compassion,’ in contrast to the ‘politics of purity’ of his social world” (Justice and Peace, 188).

Much of the Jewish social world during the time of Jesus was structured around avoiding contact with anything that would make them religiously unclean. We may not be far removed from a “politics of purity” ourselves. Consider all the church schisms in our history. They generally involve things that violate our sense of purity. Jesus’ politics of compassion, instead, compels us to reach out to and to be advocates for those less fortunate than ourselves and those on the margins of society.