A Post-Election Reflection

cross-and-tee-shirts

The shadow of the cross on top of our church is in the foreground of the Memorial to the Lost on our church lawn remembering the 202 lives lost to gun violence in the greater Washington DC region in 2015.

This is an anxious time in our country following the ugliest presidential election in memory. I worry about how our nation will come together and begin the healing process now that it’s over. This election has exposed significant tears in our social fabric. The hateful and demeaning rhetoric and behavior we have seen is especially frightening.

These things matter deeply and our anxiety is understandable. That’s why we need something beyond our present American politics to help ground us. Steps toward such groundedness include focusing on the many other aspects of my life including my family, my friends, my work, my local community, and my church.

This involves a God oriented perspective. The word “God” denotes the ultimate which relativizes all other powers in our world. For example, the Apostle Paul prays for the people in the church of Ephesus who he describes as a community of saints. He prays that they will have a broader vision and hope—the evocative phrase used is that “the eyes of your heart might be enlightened.”

This involves three things expressed by suggestive Greek words. The first is the word gnosis (knowledge); the second is Sophia (wisdom), and the third is apocalypses (revelation). He takes it even further by claiming that Jesus, the Christ has been raised and is seated at the right-hand of God. Jesus is therefore far above all other authority, power, and dominion (Ephesians 1: 15:23).

African American religious scholar Cornel West speaks so powerfully to times like these, “I speak as a Christian—one whose commitment to democracy is very deep but whose Christian convictions are even deeper. Democracy is not my faith. And American democracy is not my idol . . . To be a Christian—a follower of Jesus Christ—is to love wisdom, love justice, and love freedom” (Democracy Matters, 171-72).

When I get especially anxious, I remember that our American political system is a power that is brought down to size by God’s purposes and what God is doing in and through Jesus in our midst. Furthermore, the church is Jesus’ arms and feet in our world. Paul calls us the body of Christ.

Remembering Lives Lost to Gun Violence

memorial-to-the-lost-2016On Sunday morning our congregation again erected a Memorial to the Lost on our church lawn reminding us to stop, remember, pray, educate, organize, and advocate on behalf of the 202 people killed by gun violence in greater Washington DC in 2015. This is the third year we have erected the Memorial created by Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence and rotated to the lawns of different churches and faith communities in the DC area.

The Memorial includes 202 tee-shirts with each victim’s name, age, and date of death. It becomes a holy labor of love as we work together to pound in stakes, erect frames, and place the tee-shirts on them. When our work is completed we dedicate the memorial with this scripture taken from the book of Habakkuk 1: 2-4a:

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.

Then we read this litany of commitment for the Memorial before processing silently into our church to begin our worship service:

Faced with gun violence,
We grieve for those who have been killed
and those whose lives are forever changed;
We seek comfort for those who have lost loved ones;
We pray for healing in the hearts
of those who have been left to mourn.
Faced with gun violence,
We seek healing for the perpetrators,
so they no longer inflict pain upon others.
We pray for healing of the violence in our culture.
Faced with gun violence,
We pray for those in positions of power
that they may use their power for peace.
Faced with gun violence, may we
Educate; Organize; Advocate;
and in all the ways we can, work for the day when
guns and weapons of destruction
are transformed into instruments of healing.
May it be so. May we do so.

Being Liberated from Stuff (part 2)

Jesus told that story of the rich man and Lazarus in response to the ridicule he was receiving from some prominent religious leaders who were, according to Luke’s Gospel, “Lovers of money” (Luke 16: 14). This brings out another aspect of the problem. Flaunting our wealth is a way to tell ourselves and our neighbors that we have arrived and are important.

Religious people tell themselves that their wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. Such prosperity teaching is as old as history but Jesus isn’t having any of it. Instead, “being liberated from stuff” is the sermon he keeps coming back to again and again. The Apostle Paul picks up where Jesus lets off when he rebukes those who “imagine that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6: 6-12).

Thinking that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing makes it all too easy to ignore the seamier aspects of acquiring great wealth. Different professions reward people much more than others not because they contribute more to society but because they have more political and economic clout. And most of us who are wealthy received out wealth by being born into wealthy families. It’s worse when our wealth is connected to organized crime or the destruction of whole communities in other parts of the world. Such recognition makes us humble about all the stuff we’re accumulating.

Paul flips such prosperity teaching on its head as he takes on those who “imagine that godliness is a means of great gain.” Sure,” Paul says, “there is great gain in godliness when it’s combined with contentment.” We brought nothing into this world and we’ll take nothing with us when we die. Contentment, therefore, is being satisfied when we have food, clothing, and shelter. Such contentment is the first step to being set free from the tyranny of stuff.

It doesn’t necessarily mean giving everything away but let’s do it if that’s what it takes to be free. Mother Theresa is an example. She lived in a small single room in the Sisters of Charity house in Kolkata, India. The furnishings of the room were a small desk, a chair, and a single bed to sleep in. She wore the simple white dress with a blue border of the Sisters of Charity and she picked out her shoes from the donated shoes that her order gave to poor people.

The problem isn’t money itself. It’s our love of money. Money is a great resource that makes so many good things possible. But it’s very alluring, tempting us to want more and more of it. That’s why Paul says that seeking to become rich is a snare. We get caught up in our desires and lose our faith in God. We also lose our humanity.

Jesus, makes it stark, “You can’t serve both God and money.” So how shall those of us who are rich thread that eye of a needle so that we can be part of God’s exciting new world coming? Listen to Paul’s advice in I Timothy 6: 17-19 in Eugene Peterson’s translation:

Tell those rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last forever, gaining life that is truly life.

I recently saw this relationship with wealth in action when I had the privilege to be part of an informal advisory group for Ray Martin. The problem of climate change has become Ray’s passion and one way he has responded is by donating $ 1 million to begin a Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions at Eastern Mennonite University. Driving with Ray and others to participate in the launch of the Center was richly rewarding. He told me that he felt very privileged with the amount of wealth he had accumulated but he didn’t want to die as a rich man. Ray’s extravagant generosity was focused on making our world a better place. In return, he received so much joy and satisfaction,”gaining life that is truly life.”

Being Liberated from “Stuff”

What is it about “stuff” that gives it such a grip on our lives? And how do we find liberation from it? These are tough questions with no easy answers. Well, perhaps no easy answers that most of us are willing to consider. I think of Jesus’ response to the rich young ruler when he told him to give away everything he had and come follow him.  That’s not easy but it’s straight-forward. Giving it all away could have liberated him from the thing that had the biggest control over his life.

I live in Fairfax County, one of the richest areas of the most powerful and wealthy county in our world. That makes me feel poor. Many of my neighbors have so much more stuff than we do. They drive fancier cars, live in bigger houses, wear better clothes, eat at more upscale restaurants, and send their kids to more elite schools. And stuff costs so much here. On and on it goes and I begin to feel jealous and resentful.

My wife Ruth and I have worked for churches and faith organizations all our lives. Neither of us ever drew six figure salaries. Even so, we have been comfortable and have never been in need. So why do we feel poor and worry about our retirement? Probably, because we compare ourselves with people who have more stuff than we do. And we live in a financial system where we need to stack up money to support ourselves after we retire.

We need to get a grip and one place to start is by going to www.globalrichlist.com developed by Care International. When I punched in our income and net worth I discovered that we are among the richest 1% of people in our world. Come on! That can’t be us. I don’t think of myself as being so incredibly rich. No! It appears that I am one of those rich guys who Jesus said is like a camel who has to thread the eye of a needle to get into the kingdom of God.

Especially troubling for folks like me is Jesus’ story of the rich man living the good life and the poor beggar Lazarus sitting at his gate covered with sores and longing for the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table (Luke 16: 19-31). Is it a simple morality tale of a reversal of fortunes where the poor go to heaven and the rich go to hell?  No, but it’s a stark warning that our love of money combined with our unwillingness to see and respond to the plight of others is a sure road to hell both in this life and in eternity.

The first step toward liberation is an honest recognition of how much stuff we actually have. On my next post on this topic I will explore avenues toward further liberation and living in the freedom of having our wealth become a source of joy-filled giving and service.

Faith Values that Guide Our Politics (part 2)

engaging-politics

 

Many of our faith values are in serious tension with or even antithetical to every political system our world has ever known. Even so, we can use them to help us discern which candidate and which political platform is more in line with God’s purposes:

  • We will want to discern which has the most respect for all people, including recent immigrants and racial minorities.
  • All politicians spin the truth but some are more honest than others and more able to admit when they made a mistake. Being able to admit mistakes is an important indication of one’s character.
  • Wealth and power are ingrained in all political systems. Even so we can discern who flaunts it as a way to impress people, who takes advantage of our legal system for unjust personal gain, who is more generous, and who seeks to live a simpler life.
  • Religious freedom and freedom of conscience go together. Does the candidate respect the rights and consciences of all people on deeply dividing issues such as abortion and sexuality? Does the candidate respect or demean people from other faith traditions?
  • All politicians claim to support common people and all are beholden to the rich and powerful people who help put them into office. Even so we can discern which will do more for common people, poor communities, and small businesses, and which has policies that benefit the rich and powerful.
  • Caring for the earth and all creation has become one of the most important social problems of our generation because of rapidly decreasing natural resources and the problem of climate change. We will want to discern which candidate and political party takes these matters seriously.
  • We will want to discern which candidate and political party is more apt to rely on military solutions to international conflicts and which will be more ready to use diplomacy and other means.

Let’s vote our values as best we can in the upcoming election but let’s also resist getting sucked into the agenda of either political party. Political parties recruit churches and religious leaders as errand boys and girls to help deliver the vote but give little in return. Let’s be wise!

Evangelical writer David Swartz encourages Evangelicals to learn from the Anabaptists who found themselves the target of every civic authority in the sixteenth century. Furthermore, our Anabaptist peace position has always kept us from completely fitting into our American political system. We’ve learned how to live with that tension.

David Swartz says that “the vocabulary of nationalism we hear in the Republican and Democratic parties—and then echoed in Christian groups—typically shades toward idolatry. . . Both sides practice realpolitik to accomplish their goals. Anything goes in the attempt to win. Parties enforce platforms, leaving little room for dissent, and they coerce adherents into following culture war scripts. They encourage the demonization of the enemy.”[1]

This political system is at the root of the partisan gridlock in our country. The challenge for us as followers of Jesus is to find ways to rise above, go around, resist, and engage this system. We don’t expect it to bring in the reign of God and we will not become its errand boys and girls.

Even with this critique, I’m grateful for many aspects of our political system and our American culture and seek to work within it to, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “seek the welfare of our city.” Our democratic system of government is a huge improvement over the domination and violence in in past centuries and in other parts of the world today. There’s much to be thankful for.

We respect and pray for our political leaders but we will not give them our religious blessing. Our loyalty belongs to God and to God’s reign. We bless and seek to be a blessing to all people. We trust that our church is a sign of that new world bubbling up in our midst. This is where we place our hope.

Jesus repudiated the very premises of systems of domination and called disciples to come follow him. He rejected the right of some to dominate others by means of power, wealth, or titles of prestige. Through his beatitudes, his healings, and by eating with outcasts and sinners, he declared God’s special concern for the oppressed.

As his disciples, Jesus calls us to create a community of equals that includes women. He asks us to do away with the hierarchical relationship of master and slave, teacher and student. So welcome to this new world coming! It’s a good time to be Anabaptist. Vote your faith values and encourage others to do the same, then place your trust in God and the power of God’s Spirit creating a new world in our midst.

[1] David Swartz, “Hey White Evangelicals, Welcome to Anabaptism (September 28, 2016)

Faith Values that Guide Our Politics

engaging-politics

This is the strangest and most worrisome presidential election I can remember because of the temperament of the GOP candidate Donald Trump. Personalities matter but American elections go beyond the individual candidates. We have become so politically polarized that people support their party no matter what and live in echo chambers where they only listen to people who reinforce their beliefs. This is especially true when our sole sources of information are the internet, talk radio, and certain TV channels.

Presidential elections become horse races. The media loves the excitement. The more they hype it the more viewers and advertising dollars they get. Partisan commentators from both sides spin all the bad stuff they can dig up on the other candidate while praising the accomplishments of their candidate. Half-truths or outright lies are exaggerated and repeated over and over again until many accept them as true.

The rhetoric becomes so shrill. We’re told that this election is a crucial turning point or even the last chance to save our country. We should always question such claims. Fortunately, cooler heads generally prevail. Nevertheless, we need to take a step back—breathe in and breathe out—and seriously consider how our faith values guide our politics.

We need to remember what a presidential election is. We’re choosing the commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military and the leader of the dominant economic system in our world. Who that person is and how she or he assumes that leadership can make a big difference. Nevertheless, that person will always be beholden to those systems of domination. That goes with the job.

This needs to temper our hope that a new president will somehow usher in a radically more just, secure, and prosperous world. Even though a president can make big differences, more radical and lasting change will necessarily come from elsewhere. For followers of Jesus, change and new life begins with the good news that Jesus lived and proclaimed. This politics of Jesus shapes our political engagement. Core gospel values include:

  • Respecting the basic dignity and worth of all people
  • Honesty and truth-telling
  • Generosity and simple living
  • Religious freedom and respect for people of all faiths
  • A special concern for the poor and most vulnerable among us
  • Caring for the earth and all creation
  • Peace, justice, and reconciliation.

In my next blog post I will discuss how these values inform our political engagement, including how we vote.

 

 

My Personal Journey to Peace Action (part 3)

PlowsharesGlen Stassen and John Howard Yoder taught me that peacemaking is both a faith commitment and a social science. Near the end of his life, Yoder wrote:

If children grow to fruitful adulthood, if fields are cultivated in such a way as not to lose fertility, if carefully coordinated labor achieves large goals, it will be because ways have been found to hold violence to a minimum. . . There are better and worse ways to handle conflict. The differences can be studied. We can generalize from them and extrapolate from them. This is a descriptive science, challenging the best intelligences to observe and analyze.

This is the task that Glen Stassen and his colleagues took on as they applied Jesus’ transforming initiatives to various contemporary peacemaking efforts. It includes things such as supporting nonviolent action, advancing democracy and human rights, sustainable economic development, climate change solutions, women’s education, and reducing the proliferation of weapons of war. This partial list of transformative initiatives can inspire us to take it in still other directions.

The challenge for all of us is to put such faith into action. It begins with making peace with God, myself, and my neighbor. As Mother Theresa has said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” For me, this is a call to love all people, including my enemies, and to join hands with others in collaborative peacebuilding initiatives.

My Journey to Peace Action (part 2)

PlowsharesMy personal peace action hasn’t been easy but nothing of consequence ever is. I’m grateful for the many peacemaking mentors I’ve met along the way who taught me so much. John Howard Yoder taught me the fallacy of the common perception that pacifism and just war are opposed systems of belief.

Instead, both share the conviction that war is never good. The major difference between them is that just war theorists consider war to sometimes be the lesser of two evils while pacifists are not willing to concede that.

Unfortunately, what generally passes for just war is actually some form of the “good guys taking out the bad guys.” And the “good guys” are always our kind of people. Authentic just war theory and pacifism both recognize that violence takes different forms and that lasting peace is built from the ground up through many initiatives designed to create the common good. Let’s consider ways we can do that collaboratively.

The International Day of Peace is annually observed around the world on September, 21.  The United Nations has devoted this day to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples. The theme this year is: “Sustainable Development Goals: Building Blocks for Peace.”

One of the huge remaining development challenges is refugees who are forced to flee their homes because of conflict and violence. There are 65.3 million forcibly displaced people in our world today. That number is the largest it has been since World War II. Perpetual war between and within nations is a major obstacle to achieving sustainable development goals in our world.

We have long known that violence begets violence and can quickly become a vicious cycle. Recently people within the public health arena have begun to treat violence like other communicable diseases.  “Mental trauma from exposure to violence has been scientifically shown to increase a person’s risk of adopting violent behavior themselves, meaning that violent behavior transmits and spreads based on exposure – just like an epidemic disease.”[1]

We see this in places like Syria, Afghanistan, and the streets of Chicago. I saw it up close in the trauma unit of the MedStar Washington Hospital Center where I recently took a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. We were continually caring for victims of gun violence and their families. A small response that our church has taken to help break the cycle of violence is to erect a Memorial to the Lost on our church lawn each year remembering those killed by gun violence in the DC area.

[1] http://cureviolence.org/understand-violence/violence-as-a-health-issue/

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.

The Caveat to Welcoming Everyone

We recently had our church discernment process to choose a motto to put beneath our new name “Daniels Run Peace Church.” It came down to choosing between “Living Love, Growing Justice, Welcoming Everyone” or just “Living Love, Growing Justice.” Some of us thought that our new name implies that we’re welcoming and we didn’t need to explicitly say it in the motto. Others thought it’s important to say it anyway.

I was initially on the side of not needing to explicitly say it but noticed that many of the newer people in our church voted for “welcoming everyone.” You were telling us something and I changed my mind. We should never take our ability to welcome everyone for granted. So, what does welcoming everyone look like?

We can learn a few things from Jesus’ unsolicited advice on humility and hospitality when he was a guest at the house of a prominent religious leader (Luke 14: 1-14). People who wanted to be important were honored to be invited and jumped at the opportunity to smooze, to see and be seen. Jesus pushes their buttons with his remarks about the social dynamics of this dinner party.

Such dinner parties happen all the time here in the DC area, especially during elections. People paid $50,000 a plate to attend a recent political fundraising dinner. I wonder who made the seating arrangements and how they decided on where people sat? How much jockeying was there to be recognized or to get a strategic seat beside the more important people. William Lamar IV says that Jesus’ alternative of humility cuts against the grain of our culture:

This is a profoundly un-American impulse. This nation is not humble. Americans assume that American political, economic, and foreign policy prescriptions will fix a world much older and often much wiser. Many American churches—which often seem more American than Christian—lack humility as well. Chauvinism animated their theological forebears to take the faith of the wrongfully convicted Executed One and use it as a tool for plunder. A similar chauvinism is evident in their own dog-whistling around Muslims, immigrants, sexual minorities, and black and brown people, God knows America and many of her churches need Jesus’s unsolicited advice (The Christian Century, Aug., 17, 2016: 20).

Accordingly, there’s a caveat in the fine-print to our welcome motto, “You are invited to join us in following Jesus.” It takes lots of grace and humility but we’re determined to help each other grow in things like loving the least, living in peace with all people, caring for creation, spiritual practices like prayer and meditation, studying the Scriptures, and caring for our bodies. We’re not an anonymous crowd with little regard for each other.  Instead, we’re a body that lives.

We give more than lip service to being Christian and don’t assume that the words American and Christian fit together seamlessly. So, if you resist confronting those places in your life that are more American than Christian, you probably won’t feel included in our church. And that’s okay. Still, my prayer is that you can see this more as an invitation than as an exclusion. It’s an invitation to join us in a faith journey. It’s a journey that invites and walks in solidarity with the poor and disabled. Together we look forward to being part of that great dinner party in God’s new world coming.