Proclaiming peace to those far off and those nearby
Sermon given by Henry Krause on Peace Sunday, 9th September 2014.
Canada is at war. We have identified an enemy that is merciless and with seemingly no moral compass. Innocent civilians by the thousands have been murdered and displaced – a just war if ever there was one. We have daily briefings on what our fighter jets have destroyed in their sorties with the forces attacking ISIS – earlier last week 5 dump trucks, a bulldozer and a dam.
And then there is the ongoing violence in Ukraine, on the streets in Israel and Palestine, the incessant kidnappings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Colombia and numerous other countries. And on top of that soldiers have been killed on Canadian soil and we are on heightened alert about potential terrorist threats in our own country.
Tuesday is Remembrance Day and the Prime Minister has cut short his trip to China in order to able to make it back to Ottawa in time for the service at the National War Memorial in order to make a statement about the urgency of the situation, the need for Canadians to come together in support of our troops and the determination to stay the course. We live in challenging times in which we are told that violence is running rampant and we need to unite in order to protect the vulnerable, to stand up to those who oppress them and who want to destroy us. And it challenges us because we understand this reasoning and there is something compelling about it, and yet…
And yet, we are here as ones who identify ourselves as followers of Jesus and of Jesus’ way, ones who hope and long for a different approach. We come together agreeing with the words of our opening prayer this morning which asks hopefully, longingly, skeptically, hesitantly, sometimes resolutely and at other times barely audibly:
Peacemaking God –
When all we can see is the mountain of violence—
Give us new eyes.
When the peace we practice offends
Give us courage and strength.
When fear overwhelms—
Remind us we do not walk alone. (1)
When we come together our intention is to take our cue from the Scriptures that have been handed down to us, in which those who have gone before us have wrestled with these same fears, challenges and states of violence. In the scriptures read today we heard the words of hope and assurance to the oppressed slaves who in Egypt when the God of the burning bush said to Moses:
“I have observed the misery of my people…I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters…I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them…12 God said, “I will be with you…(for) I am the God of your ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…for I AM WHO I AM”, “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”. (Exodus 3)
And we heard the words of the visionary Isaiah, a few hundred years later proclaiming to the prisoners of war, displaced people in a foreign Babylonian land, that,
2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established…(and)…(God) shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2)
We also heard Paul’s words written a few centuries later about the work of Jesus, the Christ who…is our peace; in his flesh he has made…Jews and Gentiles – irreconcilable enemies – into one and has broken down the dividing wall (of hostility between them)…(in order) to create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace…reconciling both groups to God…through the cross…putting to death that hostility… (For) he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near…19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens… (Ephesians 2)
What we hear in these readings is that the state of the world that we live in is not unusual, not beyond what those before us have struggled with and lived through. Therefore I’d suggest we can take some solace in the ways in which they understood God in the midst of conflict and violence. What these writers called the people to was to move their vision from what was directly in front of them and look up and into the future. The promise of God, of there being a day of peace coming, of a rupture in the power of violence and in the breaking in of Justice was what their prophets and teachers encouraged them to pay attention to. Jesus spoke of the coming of the Reign of God that would break into the world. Martin Luther King Jr. echoed this when he proclaimed that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice’.
The prayer of confession and reconciliation we read this morning opened with these words, which sum up the response we are challenged to live into. The Talmud encourages us:
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly, now.
Love mercy, now.
Walk humbly, now.
You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” (2)
So then, what does this look like and how do we get there. Our theological understanding – how we read the Bible and live Christianly – is grounded in an Anabaptist/Mennonite understanding. During the 1500’s in the time of the Reformation our forebears were wrestling with how to live fully into the way of Jesus. The tradition we are in has often been called the ‘third way’ – neither catholic, nor protestant – but rather taking elements from each as well as making some more radical decisions about what following Jesus meant.
A simple way of think about how we as Mennonites/Anabaptists understand living as followers of Jesus is a three-fold definition of our theology [found here]:
Jesus is the centre of our faith,
Community is the centre of our life and
Reconciliation is the centre of our work.
I think using this threefold approach can help us in thinking through how we live our lives in a time of violence and war.
First, ‘Jesus is the centre of our faith’ is a call to take Jesus’ life and teachings as seriously as his death and resurrection. What Jesus said and how he lived provides us a clue to how we can live in this time. At the centre are the gospel accounts of his life and at the heart is the Sermon on the Mount. What we find is that Jesus consistently invites his followers to love their enemies, to care for the other, to reach out to the poor and the powerless, to offer mercy and hope, to give without expecting anything in return and to actively resist evil with good.
With this understanding then, we are able to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus life and teachings and understand the rest of our New Testament and the Jewish scriptures in this light. Jesus didn’t resort to violence or to forcing himself on others, didn’t use coercion but rather willingly gave himself and called on all those who chose to follow him to do likewise. He spoke about the practical realities of which included walking the second mile, turning the other cheek, giving to those in need without expecting anything in return and trusting that the God of life was in the midst of this way of being. Retaliation, fear, asserting power over the other was not the way Jesus lived or taught his closest followers to live.
The mystery and wonder of Jesus life and teaching seems to end in the cross, in giving himself on behalf of his enemies and then ultimately ends in resurrection – God breaks in, but in a way that is completely unexpected. So, Jesus being the centre of our faith invites us to live as he did.
The second element is that community is the centre of our lives. This is what Paul is speaking to when he confronts the chasm that separates Gentile and Jewish followers of Jesus – there is no longer ‘them and us’, but it is now ‘we’. Or when Paul fleshes out Jesus’ teachings in his letter to the Galatians by saying that there is no longer slave or free, male or female, but that in the new economy of Jesus’ community all are welcome, all are equal, all are beloved of God.
The South African concept of ubuntu – ‘I am because we are’ is another way of thinking about this. In taking Jesus seriously we come to understand that there is no ‘other’ that we can turn away from or demonize but all are part of God’s family. If we take this understanding seriously then we begin to recognize a common bond between us all human beings. Then we begin to recognize that we need each other and that God’s light and grace is there in all of us.
The third concept is that reconciliation is the centre of our work. If it is true that we are all God’s beloved, and Jesus calls us to love all, friend and enemy alike, then we are challenged to take on this task as well. Reconciliation assumes that there is something that needs to be healed, or repaired, or brought back together.
The ‘Confession of Faith’ of our Mennonite denomination says it this way: ‘God created the world in peace, and God’s peace is most fully revealed in Jesus Christ. We follow Christ in the way of peace, doing justice, bringing reconciliation, and practicing non-resistance even in the face of violence and warfare. Reconciliation is dangerous because it puts us in the midst of conflict, but with the intention of offering a new way, a third way through the violence – not force or capitulation but the hope of reconciliation, a better alternative. It is also with the recognition that suffering may be part of this work.
If we take seriously the work of reconciliation and of Jesus call to love friends and enemies alike, then this has the potential to put us at odds with authorities and governments and powers. We can then no longer let others define who our enemies are or should be. We can then no longer support the use of violence to destroy those who are deemed to be ‘the other’. We can then no longer accept or condone the use of force on our behalf. If we take seriously the way of Jesus, we are challenged to rethink what it looks like to respond to enemies, especially in times like these where things seem so cut and dried, so obvious.
The problem with this is, that as soon as we begin to think in this way, that is to act as if violence is not the answer, there is this tension between what is perceived as a naive approach to the world and a ‘realpolitik’ – that is the idea that there are just some things that you need to do in the real world. This is just how it is even if Jesus says something different.
Parker Palmer, a well known Quaker writer and thinker speaks about this notion as a ‘tragic gap’ that exists between the ‘hard realities around us and what we know is possible’. As we look at the world and reflect on the promises of the Reign of God which we believe in and hold to, we recognize the gap between what is and what we long for. He writes, ‘As you stand in the gap between reality and possibility, the temptation is to jump onto one side or the other. If you jump onto the side of too much hard reality, you can get stuck in corrosive cynicism…If you jump onto the side of too much possibility, you can get caught up in irrelevant idealism. You float around in a dream state saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if…?” These two extremes sound very different, but they have the same impact on us: both take us out of the gap — and the gap is where all the action is.
That’s the gap Martin Luther King Jr. stood in his entire life, the gap Nelson Mandela [stood in]. That’s the gap where Rosa Parks and Dorothy Day stood. I call it “tragic” because it’s a gap that will never close…No one who has stood for high values — love, truth, justice — has died being able to declare victory, once and for all. If we embrace values like those, we need to find ways to stand in the gap for the long haul…’
Palmer then goes on to speak about how we can live in this tension – in this gap. It is not easy but it is something that we can move towards. What is necessary, he writes is faithfulness.
‘That’s what it takes to stand in the tragic gap… And when people are faithful to a task, they often become more effective at it as well. [By faithfulness] I mean being true to my own gifts, true to my perception of the world’s needs, and true to those points where my gifts and those needs intersect.’
It seems to me that this is how we are invited then to navigate what it means to be followers of Jesus, simply being faithful to what we are able to do, to our best understandings of Jesus way and to the needs we see around us. As examples of what this can look like to stand in the ‘tragic gap’ I offer these two examples. In South Korea, military service is mandatory for all young men. There are no legal provisions for conscientious objection. According to the United Nations, of the 723 COs imprisoned worldwide, 669 (92.5 percent), are incarcerated in South Korea. Most of the Korean COs are members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Lee Sang Min, a member of Grace and Peace Mennonite Church in Seoul, is the first South Korean Mennonite to refuse military service because of his commitment to Christ. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison on 30 April 2014. He will have a criminal record upon his release. Being a Christian pacifist in Korea is a very difficult thing. Opposing military service in South Korea is seen as a betrayal of one’s country and as sympathy with North Korea. Conscientious objectors and their families experience ostracism and isolation. Yet Sang Min has made this choice because he believes Christ calls him to take a stand against war. He says, “I want the next generation to live in a better place which respects individual choice and beliefs. I believe this is part of the Kingdom of God.”
In the mid-1990s a long civil war finally ended in Mozambique. One of the people who helped negotiate a peace agreement was Anglican archbishop Dinis Sengulane. After the war’s end, he travelled the country, asking people what might jeopardize this agreement in the feature. One woman told him bluntly, “Guns.” After years of war, the country was awash in guns. According to the woman, it would be only too easy for people to use them again.
After thinking and praying, the archbishop suggested a disarmament project that would help prevent a resurgence of violence. At his encouragement, the Christian Council of Mozambique developed a program called Transforming Arms into Ploughshares. Under this program, people could turn in their weapons in exchange for agricultural implements, sewing machines or other tools that could improve their lives. The weapons, in turn, would be dismantled and made into productive objects or pieces of art. Since its inception in 1995, the project has collected over 800,000 pieces of war equipment. Many of these weapons have been transformed into crosses and are worn by clergy around the world. Others have been fashioned into chairs, tables, and works of art. Two of the most famous pieces of art are the ‘Tree of Life’ and ‘Throne of Weapons’ both on display at the British Museum. (3)
More recently ‘Transforming arms into ploughshares’ has carried out trainings in peace education and conflict transformation, supported by Mennonite Central Committee, as a part of new Water for Weapons project, which provides a clean water source to communities that turn over their weapons. In a still fragile post-conflict situation, it works at disarming people’s hands, hearts and minds.
Standing in the gap, in the tragic gap as Parker Palmer invites us to, is our calling as Jesus followers. Examples like Lee Sang Min and Anglican Archbishop Dinis Sengulane encourage us and give us hope and encouragement. Let us continue to pray for them, for each other and for the peace of God to break into our world.