Dispatch from the frontlines…

Below are the words of a veteran working on the frontlines of the battle for what Christians call the “Pax Christi” (peace of Christ) as opposed to the “Pax Romana” (peace of Rome, now a broad stand-in term for peace enforced with the blade of a sword or barrel of a gun).  Christians care less about short-term peace enforced by intimidation and violence, and care much more about long-term peace marked by self-giving love, humility, and deep listening to our enemies.

I celebrate the life of veteran Peggy Gish on this day alongside classic Christian hero St. Martin of Tours. The excerpt below is from Peggy’s incredible book Walking Through Fire: Iraqis’ Struggle for Justice and Reconciliation.

“Before working in Iraq I had talked about, and thought I really knew, what trusting God meant.  But facing the very real possibility of death or torture myself stripped away simplistic beliefs.  I had to rediscover what gives me hope and strength in life and death situations. In the midst of dangerous situations I felt my weakness and lack of control, and didn’t know what else to do but cry out for help. Somehow I’ve been given strength beyond my own and the ability to walk forward in spite of my fear.”
Security was an issue that wove through our thoughts and decisions, but we knew that problems of security were even greater for Iraqis.  We had the choice to leave and get respite from it in more stable places.  There were guns everywhere, and usually high-powered, automatic ones.  At the door of any office or business, there was usually an armed guard.  Our neighbor offered us the use of his Kalashnikov.  We refused it and explained that we would not use violence to protect ourselves.  “I hate this gun,” he said. “But how else can I protect my family?”  Guns had become a normal part of life here, but they didn’t seem to make people safer.

When we met American soldiers at their bases or while walking around the city, we often stopped and talked.  “What are you doing here, walking around the streets of Baghdad?” many asked, amazed.  “You don’t have a gun, or armed guards!  Don’t you know how dangerous it is?  “We’re safer than you are, carrying your guns,” I answered. “And without weapons, we can go places you can’t go, and meet people you can’t, because we’re not seen as threatening to them.”

To others concerned about our safety, I said more. “If we carry guns out of suspicion that someone might hurt us, we instead become more suspicious to them and are more likely to be a target of violence.”  We knew that without guns we would be forced to use other strengths we have, such as our creative thinking, our ability to talk to someone threatening us, transform a tense confrontation, or prevent others or ourselves from being hurt or killed.  And in most threatening situations, having weapons would not make us less vulnerable.

Most internationals living in Iraq surrounded themselves with blast walls, checkpoints, and razor wire.  By doing this, however, they put themselves in a kind of prison and cut themselves off from ordinary Iraqis. “How can you live in the Red Zone?” some asked members of our team with a sense of dread. We, however, felt it was a gift to live among and get to know the Iraqi people more personally and understand what they were thinking.

There was never any question that it was dangerous, but CPT differed from other organizations concerning the amount of risk we were willing to accept to do our work.  We joined the team, willing to take the same risks as soldiers, to work for peace.  We knew it was possible for any of us to be a victim of violence, but, for us, the importance of working alongside Iraqis for justice and peace outweighed the dangers…

We wanted to act out of a “non-mushy” love that compelled us to work in situations where people were under threat.  Most people wouldn’t think twice about giving their lives for a family member or risking their lives to pull a child out of a burning house or a river.  Could we see all persons as part of our family and their lives as equally precious?  Our organization has used the slogan “getting in the way” to refer to Jesus’s way of nonviolent suffering love, as well as standing in the way of those who would cause harm.  When we were willing to put our lives on the line to witness for truth, justice, and peace, God could empower us, work through us, and transform threatening situations.

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Cats, children, boundaries, and the life within

“Indy!  No!”

I utter this phrase multiple times a day.  Indy is our cat.  Indy does not like boundaries.  Indy needs boundaries (and continual reinforcement of them), so he can interact with our environment in healthy ways.

I have seen households where cats are not given strong, reinforced boundaries, and I’ve seen households where cats who previously had boundaries had those boundaries relaxed, and I’ve seen cats in the latter regress in behavior back to a selfish baseline that existed pre-discipline.  A chair in our living room bears battle scars from the training process for our Indy.

“Indy!  No!”

I reinforced Indy’s boundaries this morning as he tried to drink the water I had just given to our basil plant.  Today, I did not feel the need to give a more strong quick reminder through a bump on his nose or a stinging of his backside.  He got the message right away today, and his look of guilt showed me he knew what he was doing.  Other days, after a verbal rebuke, he gets an insolent “I’m going to do whatever I want right now look” and proceeds to not care what we say.  He cares pretty quickly when the left hand of justice reaches for the spray bottle of water or reaches out to spank.

Today, like other days recently, my thoughts shifted to reflecting parenting afterwards (a wife 14 weeks pregnant with an already proportional little human being inside will do that to you).  I quickly recalled my knowledge of children, which is fairly extensive, and a reminder that you don’t have to be a parent to have a deep enough experience with children to have something to say about their capacity to know and understand right and wrong, self-giving and selfishness.

You see, children (and adults too) are more like our dear little Indy than we would like to confess.  We like to think human beings are a higher order being than other animals, that we have a greater natural capacity to know what is good and to choose it.  For a well-trained child or adult, this is certainly true, being made in the image of God and all.  But a child who has not received rigorous, intentional, loving discipline is nearly exactly like our cat. They don’t know what is healthy or unhealthy, they need to be reminded that “Dirt water is not sanitary, and the water is intended for the basil and not for you, thankyouverymuch.”

Children without boundaries strongly reinforced look like the vast majority of people in our culture; drifting aimlessly through life, driven primarily by their own desires and curiosity; which upon very basic reflection are driven in large part by selfishness.

I’d like to spend a little time below showing how my perspective is shaped by my Christian commitment because I think it is of vital, central importance to understanding human beings and specifically children.

Scripturally, we are told that humans are created by God, in God’s image, and therefore because our Creator is so innovative and compassionate and intentional, we have a built-in capacity to know what is good and eventually to run towards it.  This is our created identity, which we should identify as an identity built into humanity a long, long time ago.

Humanity since our creation has displayed, however, a history of desire, of innovation, of creative capacity gone amuck.  We have taken the powerful created identity given to us and twisted it to serve our purposes, which are bent toward selfishness.  As a result, generation after generation after generation for millenia have built human societies, religions, and perspectives of the world that have enshrined greed, selfishness, and self-determination as virtues to be pursued, not vices to be avoided.  Geneticists tell us that our genetic heritage as people is, yes, relatively stable, but also yes, deeply impacted by environmental conditions and social pressures.  The most cutting edge geneticists today suggest that the impact of the surrounding environment on the human organism are deep enough that they penetrate even into the building blocks of our genetic code.  To reinforce, our environment doesn’t just affect how different parts of our genetic code express themselves, our environment changes our genetic code.  This happens normally over multiple generations, yes, but this does not make this reality any less real or meaningful.  This research is interesting because it reveals a significant parallel between genetics and Scriptural teaching.  Practically, the upshot is the following.  The Scriptures teach of a great rebellion of humanity against our Creator.  This great rebellion has been so deeply embodied and pursued that the “natural” state of humanity is now rebellious, dark, and selfish.  The Apostle Paul put it like this in the letter to the Romans,

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened… Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

– Romans 1:21, 28-32

Do you follow the contours of Paul’s thought?  We knew God, but we forsook God’s wisdom and knowledge about us, so our thinking became futile and our foolish hearts were darkened.  We have become filled with every kind of wickedness.  We are full of envy.  Although we may have some awareness that we’re functioning in unhealthy ways, we not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.  What is implied in every stage of Paul’s thought here is a process.

A number of theologians have paired this Romans passage with the beginning of Genesis to describe what they see as a “fall,” to show the story of Adam and Eve as some irreparable break that made humans immediately disgusting in the eyes of God.  Beyond the fact that this interpretation denies that the creation story is a poem (not rigorous human history about an actual event) it also is a refusal to let the story speak for itself.  Theologians, because of the beliefs they bring to the story, twist the meaning of the story to fit their understanding rather than letting it speak to them on its own.  The story is one of rebellion, yes, but it is also one revealing God’s compassion, and humanity’s ability to choose the pathways of God again (and again, and again, and again) over our own ideas and pathways.

When one accepts the above interpretation of the story of creation, the Scriptures explode with life in ways we had not had eyes to see before. We find horrific and beautiful repetition on these themes of rebellion, God’s compassion and discipline, and choosing the pathways of God again (and again, and again, and again).  The Scriptures are not about the futility of human beings and our inability to be holy, primarily; but instead are about the rebellion of human beings and the lack of desire to be holy.  This lack of desire is heavily affected by generational rebellion, by a long line of ancestors who valued their way more than their Creator.  This is why God reminded the Israelites in Deuteronomy

“Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children…Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other. Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the LORD your God gives you for all time.”

-Deuteronomy 4:9-10, 39-40

Do you hear the words I bolded above?  Be careful, do not forget, teach, remember, learn to revere, teach, acknowledge, take to heart, keep.  Why?  So that it may go well with you and your children.  The exhortation here in Deuteronomy is an acknowledgment of the darkness, the rebellion, inherited confusion of the people.  But the exhortation does not, does not say “You are unable to change, and must only cry out for forgiveness and God will forgive.”  The writer of Deuteronomy does not settle for that lesser, sad perspective that Martin Luther proclaimed as gospel.  No, the writer(s) choose to call the people out of their inherited habits into a new way of inherited habits that are intended, generation by generation, to bear witness in thought, word, and deed to a different way of being in the world.  The  Israelites are to live this way “so that it may go well with you and your children” in way that calls all who observe back to what they were created for.

So, the Scriptures talk about created identity (1).  The Scriptures talk about choices to deny and twist that identity (2).  The Scriptures show the generational quality of those choices (2a), where people become darker, become filled with wickedness, become envious.  And the Scriptures show a God who continually calls people out of that darkness(3), to embody practices and habits that lead them back into the light (3a), to become filled with goodness, to become self-giving, to choose to kneel before God to listen and obey.

So, geneticists and the Scriptural community agree; we are who we are most significantly because of a pattern of living that we have inherited from our ancestors from our present parents all the way back into primordial history.  What we desire is “borrowed” from those who shape us.  In other words, there isn’t a single thing we desire on our own.  What is most natural to me is that way because of the culture surrounding me.  And if I discover that what has seemed to be natural (violence and sexuality are two central things that come to mind) is in fact unnatural, I must commit myself and my children (and if my children follow, their children and children’s children) to the pursuit of what is natural.  Along the way, we affirm that some of those desires will not feel natural until multiple generations have pursued the life given by the authority of God.

All of the extended thoughts above have been a prolonged riff in support of the same theme I stated above:  our children (and our cats) don’t know what is good and right to do and be by themselves.  Our children need boundaries, they need the strong word of their mentors and parents, and they need further reminders beyond words from time to time that shock them out of their complacency and worldview to consider another (i.e. spanking, and other essential tools).  The more I think on this subject as we steadily march toward parenthood, the more the need to have a solid commitment to all of what I have said above is revealed.  However the intricacies of parenting work out (because every child is, in important ways, unique), I must remember, I must remember, I must remember to “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other. Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the LORD your God gives you for all time.”

Teacher, author, and theologian Stanley Hauerwas understands the importance of tradition, habit, and strong communal remembering in a powerful way.  It shows up over and over again in his thoughts.  A story of Stan’s interactions with a couple seems most fitting to conclude,

Stan was walking across the Quad at Notre Dame one morning when he spotted some friends, a married couple, both Jewish, walking nearby and joined them. Knowing that they had a son about to be of age he asked, “When is the Bar Mitzvah?” The couple replied, “Well, we are not sure. We want Jacob to decide for himself that he wants to be Bar Mitzvah’d. He hasn’t decided yet.” Stan retorted,“So, there have been 5750 years of Jewish history, Jewish suffering, so that this twelve year-old can make up his mind? Could he have a mind worth making up if he does not know his parents stand for something?”

Amen brother.  May we stand for something, and shape the desire of our children toward their Creator.  Along the way, may our children shape our desire toward our Creator.  When we practice this shaping together, we bear witness of a way of life worth living, a life patterned toward our ultimate joy and fulfillment.  May it be so.

Kingdoms in conflict

Terra Nova Matthew 1

This is installment two in posts serving as a living history for our house church as we live life together.  My reflections are based on our Scriptural focus for the week, since the Scriptures are the primary authority for our understanding of the kind of God-centered life that shows what is meaningful, true, and worth devoting our lives to.  As another aside before I get started here, my thoughts in this post are very similar to previous thoughts on Jesus and Kingship, if you’d like to take a look there as well.

Sunday, January 23rd, our house church spent some time in Matthew 2.  This chapter of the gospel, maybe more than any other section of the gospel, could seem like “old hat” to those familiar with the Scriptures.  This section follows the birth of Jesus, the arrival of Magi from far-off lands, some king’s courtroom intrigue, a major family move to Egypt, some regional genocide, and then a family move back into Palestine.  With all of those factors considered, the story doesn’t seem so “old hat,” but I would suggest most people read and/or value this section for two reasons:

1) The birth of Jesus, and
2) the focus of the author on the fulfillment of prophecy

When we focus the meaning of the passage on those two things, other facets of the story tend to fade to the background where we either outright ignore them or we see them as deeply secondary to the prime (important) thrust of the passage.

However, committed Biblical respect should lead us to think about the practical implications of ALL elements of the story, especially focusing more on how people and creation were affected and focusing less on metaphysical thoughts on the supposed meaning of the story.  This is also a helpful practice because the average non-Christian, in reading this story, would be immediately, appallingly aware of the genocide and Herod’s uneasiness as King or at least much more so than random quotations about Jesus fulfilling prophecy.

Our brother Steve led off the discussion by highlighting Jewish perspectives on their Scriptures and how they quoted them for their purposes.  It’s significant that their understanding differs from the average evangelical approach to the Scriptures today. In reading the statements of belief on church websites today, you can almost hear the panting as they clamor to state their belief that the Bible is “inerrant in its original documents,” which is a surprising move on their parts to state because nowhere in the Scriptures is that claim made.  It’s a classic case of taking modern approaches for granted and giving them Scriptural, God-commanded status.  This may sound like an innocuous practice, but it’s precisely the sharpest critique Jesus directed at the Pharisees in his ministry, accusing them of settling for a folk religion of their own comfort rather than the command of God.

Steve suggested the Jewish approach to the Scriptures was instead to value all of the gathered writings as important, even the parts that seemed to matter less over time or seemed to be contradicted by other passages.  The approach of the community was to affirm the importance of all the passages as a testimony of God’s interaction with them over time; and worthy of returning to time and time again.  Just for repetition’s sake, this practice does not place all Scriptures on the same level of “truth” or “relevance.”  This is not a textbook (or flat) approach of reading the Bible, but instead a narrative, thoughtful, respectful-to-ancestors way of reading the Scriptures.  In other word, they were less obsessive-compulsive about their handling of Scripture, and used them to help give meaning and substance to life, even if a supposed prophecy seems like a stretch today.

We couldn’t help but focus on the King Herod’s dis-ease and eventual genocide as well. Our brother Robert highlighted the difference he observed between King Herod’s approach to challenge and (King) Jesus’ eventual approach to challenge.  We reflected on for a bit on what that has to say about our humanity, given that Jesus’ actions weren’t just to prove he was the Messiah, but primarily to be a direct example of what we all were created for.  In seeing Jesus, we are to follow him as the example of a human being who “got it,” and in that “getting it,” was a witness to another way of living in the world.

So we confessed together that Jesus’ message was deeply political, meaning that it was intended to bring substantive, radical change to all levels of human society.  The more we enter the social and political context of Jesus and read of his ministry and teaching in that context, the more his life pulses with meaning and substance.  The idea I inherited from my evangelical upbringing that Christ was usually (or exclusively) concerned with personal relationships at the exclusion of other areas of life becomes more and more hollow, lifeless, and meaningless by the day.  It’s just not comprehensive enough.

So Matthew 2 is about contrasting ways of approaching power, about approaching the “other” who may challenge or frighten us, about trusting God’s voice to clarify amidst confusion, about God’s attention to very normal, non-descript people.  This section of the story of Jesus highlights what the gospels highlight again and again and again; the dignity and worth of everyone, and how to appreciate and honor that worth in how we view them.

The Civil War and the Kingdom of God

The Civil War, in all of its ridiculous idiocy, is a powerful example of the meaning of an individual being caught up in something bigger, more important, than individual survival or comfort or pleasure.  

The kingdom of God, and the non-violence which is essential in its expansion, does not take a central place until we as individuals commit to being caught up in something larger, more important, than individual survival or comfort or pleasure.  

Confession:  I still feel a sense of admiration for the courage and valor of Generals Stonewall Jackson and Lee and their men, and on the other side, the 20th Maine Regiment shown on Little Round Top at Gettysburg.  I am convinced my sense of admiration is my depraved, rebellious self still to be redeemed by God.

Just some reflections I had while watching Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary in History Class today.

Please, please…

Please, please, on days like Veteran’s Day, quote Eisenhower, or Churchill, or Patton, or JFK, or whoever.

But please don’t quote Jesus’ teaching, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”  The second half of that thought is, “And you are my friends if you do what I command.”  And Jesus commanded his disciples to love their enemies and give their lives for them.

I respect the willingness of veterans to give their lives for a cause they believe in, but don’t quote the one who gave his life for his enemies to support destroying enemies.  It sickened me to hear Jesus quoted in the context of Veteran’s Day today on the radio.