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Pounding plowshares into swords

By on Nov 22, 2017 in The World Together | 0 comments

Imagine with me — it’s a beautiful Thursday afternoon. The leaves are fallen; the air is cool and crisp. Families everywhere have gathered together for their annual Thanksgiving celebrations.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, fighter jets come screaming across the horizon. Right as we look up and realize what they are, they begin dropping atomic bombs, completely obliterating towns and cities across our great land.

Why this happening? What is going on?

Iraq is striking back.

They are pre-emptively striking a nation known for slaughtering thousands of innocent women and children in their so-called attempts at creating peace in other nations. Before this nation strikes again, Iraq is stepping in to ward off the notorious military bulldog.

Crazy, right?

Absolutely absurd! How horrifically awful it would be for a country to bomb our cities on one of our nation’s most hallowed holidays.

And for seemingly no good reason — completely mistaken, indeed! America has helped these other countries, giving them a chance at democracy. God forbid such evil would run rampant throughout the world!

We are always the good guys. They are always the bad. And as theologian Wayne Grudem said, “the sword in the hand of good government is God’s designated weapon to defeat evildoers” (Politics—According to the Bible, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 2010, p. 403). We consider America’s pre-emptive strikes on other nations well justified, an act of obedience to God. But another striking us — well, that would be an attack from the devil, right?

Churches secured by the sword

A couple weeks ago, Texas experienced one of the worst massacres in American history: A gunman opened fire on a congregation in the middle of their church service. Twenty-six people died. An absolute nightmare!

While many in Texas continue grieving the tragedy, surprisingly, the rest of the world has seemed to move on. In fact, within days of the event I saw headlines pushing each political agenda. Essentially, they all said either “See, guns need to be outlawed!” or “Thank God the neighbor had a gun!”

What breaks my heart is seeing who is promoting guns (and who is promoting nonviolence).

Christians, Christ-followers, people who claim Jesus as their Prince of peace — they are calling for all church security guards to now carry weapons. They are first concerned about the safety of their parishioners with little to no consideration for our Lord’s call to lay down arms.

“Those who live by the sword die by the sword” apparently lands on deaf ears.

In fact, the man who scared the Texas shooter, chasing him down until he finally killed himself, cited his “God and Lord” as the one who gave him the skills to do what needed to be done. He only wishes he could have gotten there faster.

I grieve deeply with those who lost loved ones. I know the pain of having lost a family member. I cannot imagine the grief Pastor Frank Pomeroy experiences having lost his daughter in the rampage, and I am so glad it stopped and didn’t take out everyone!

But this call for arms, this acclaiming God as the one who empowers us to kill others, to resist evil with violence, directly contradicts the way of Christ.

A kingdom not of this world

Jesus told Pilate, when asked if he was king of the Jews, that his kingdom is not of this world. If it were, his people would fight (John 18:36). But it’s not. So, he modeled for us a way of suffering, of laying down our lives so others can live.

Yet, here we are in America, and the church, who claims to follow Christ, is one of the strongest groups of people promoting violent resistance.

What grieves me even more is that those promoting nonviolence, as if they care about people’s lives, have just as selfish political motives as those arguing for guns.

President Barack Obama, as passionate as he was in trying to stop gun violence in schools throughout America, is said to have orchestrated between 282 and 535 civilian deaths in the Middle East through drone strikes. During all the drone strikes that took place while Obama was in office, 168 children died. As long as it’s on American soil, the political left wants to protect children from gun violence. It doesn’t matter what happens overseas.

In America, guns or no guns really isn’t about following Christ or protecting people; it’s about getting our way. And we, as Christians, have been duped into thinking we deserve our way. We’re a free nation set apart for religious freedom.

And that’s good, right?

But nowhere in Scripture does God promise we have heaven on earth in an entirely physical sense, much less political.

God’s kingdom is not advanced through politics and violence. As Preston Sprinkle observes in his book, Fight — A Christian Case for Nonviolence,

Paul says that the true battle is not against Iran, North Korea, or al-Qaeda, but against the satanic forces working behind the scenes. We are not to war against human enemies, only spiritual ones. In fact, we are to love our human enemies. … America could nuke the entire Middle East and Satan would walk away untouched. China or Iran could conquer America, and God’s kingdom wouldn’t feel a thing.

You cannot win people to the Lord by pounding your plowshares into swords. It has never been God’s design for his people to violently ward off the enemy.

Yes, in the Old Testament, God directed the children of Israel to drive out the Canaanites, those who hated God and His design. But if you study the history of surrounding nations, you realize God required Israel to fight in a ridiculously gentle way.

Compared to the rest of the nations, Israel looked like cowards. Wet dolls.

Furthermore, they were not to store up for themselves chariots and horsemen. Rather, they were trust God to protect them. Any fighting they would do would be done by God (Duet. 17:14-20; 1 Sam. 12:12-25).

He is the avenger; not man (Duet. 32:35; Ro. 12:19; Heb. 10:30).

We’re becoming just like them

Samuel warned the people that if they crowned a king, he would eventually build up an army — they would eventually walk away from God, no longer depending on him (1 Sam. 8:10-18).

But the people wanted to be like other nations. They wanted control, to know they were safe and secure. I suppose, as it’s been since the fall, the Israelites did not believe God really had their best in mind.

In the same way, it seems we in America have forgotten God. We, too, don’t believe he’ll actually come through for us. That if we die in from a North Korean strike, or a Sunday morning slaughter, our lives are forever finished. So, we must protect ourselves.

This ideology runs rampant through Christianity, today. So much so, that some will read this convinced I have bought into the “liberal agenda.”

But I’m simply telling the story of Christ.

His way, the way not of this world, is to shed his blood so those who don’t know God can be reconciled to him. Therefore, Paul, Peter and John call us as his followers to rejoice when our blood is shed knowing that it silences the kingdom of darkness. Christ and his church conquer by being conquered.

What’s most devastating about Israel’s desire for a king, about their stockpiling weapons and building military strength, is that they ended up becoming just like the Canaanites — the very ones they were supposed to drive out.

In the same way, as Christians in America call for armed security guards at churches, as we support and claim providential guidance over President’s taking preemptive strikes on other nations, we have become like the nations of Iraq and North Korea. We live life according to the world’s ways of doing life.

We have put our faith in man; not God.

No matter how hard we try denying it, if Pilate and Jesus were standing here today having the same conversation, Pilate would not recognize the American church as being people connected with Christ.

Asher Witmer is a husband, father and writer living with his family in Los Angeles and pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies at Eternity Bible College in Simi, Calif. He blogs at asherwitmer.com, where this post first appeared.

We’re outraged because we want to be worshiped

By on Nov 20, 2017 in The World Together | 0 comments

A morning tour through news headlines, social media, and personal correspondence has unsurprisingly delivered a steady stream of commentary on the pitiful parade of powerful men behaving badly. Politicians, Hollywood executives, actors, comedians. Everybody greedily grabbing and groping and exploiting and exposing themselves. The list is long and will undoubtedly get longer. And it falls to the rest of us to howl and moan in outrage and keep the internet busy for a few days.

But throughout my morning tour, I couldn’t help but wonder what, exactly, it is about these stories that is fueling our outrage? What’s new about all of this?

Is it that powerful men use their positions to get what they want from women? Well, that’s been going for as long as… well, forever. There have always been king Davids casting hungry glances over at their generals’ wives. And everywhere else, for that matter.

Is it that sex is deeply connected with the use and abuse and maintenance of power? Um, no. That, too, is about as old as stories go.

Do we expect better from supposed bastions of liberalism like Hollywood? Perhaps we do, although God knows why we would. You could hardly hope to find a more debauched and oversexed environment on the planet. We demand stories of sex and violence and power from our entertainment so it should hardly surprise us when we see it in our entertainers (and of course, there’s very little difference between politics and entertainment these days).

Do we imagine that we’ve taken some kind of quantum moral leap forward as a species that would render these kinds of sordid spectacles a thing of the past? Probably not. We are, and remain, stubbornly human.

So, if there’s nothing really new about any of this, what might account for the fervency and moral stridency of the howls of outrage? Well, on one level it’s entirely appropriate. We should be outraged by the exploits of these men because their behavior is vile. Real women have been and continue to be victimized by men who see them as little more than playthings. This is wicked, and we should not hesitate to say so.

But like everything else these days, our outrage is rather unoriginally and rapidly politicized. We pour scorn and derision upon the sexual predations of the bad guys on the other political or ideological team and conveniently ignore or explain away those on our side. The spectacle of U.S. President Donald Trump taking to Twitter to mock Senator Al Franken (who is — surprise! — a Democrat) while ignoring the behavior of Roy Moore (who is — surprise! — a Republican) was a bit rich, even if it was entirely predictable. We would quite literally expect nothing else from the man. But the same thing happens on the other side. It’s not hard to find liberal commentators making much of the misdeeds of conservatives while having little to say about the darlings of Hollywood or Democrats. It’s remarkable how consistently the bad guys are badder when they happen to play on the team that isn’t ours.

Russell Moore — a man I’m not always inclined to agree with — puts this well in a recent piece on these matters in The Washington Post:

The character issue doesn’t need to be worked through at all, if one already knows that those who are part of my tribe are saints and those who are part of the other are demons. That’s settled. The issues then are just used insofar as they are useful as footnotes to those already existing pledges of allegiance.

That last sentence sums it up well, I think. The fuel for our outrage turns out to not be particularly surprising or inspiring. It is our own righteousness and the desire for it to be acknowledged. Powerful men behaving badly quite easily degenerates into yet another opportunity for us to flex our tribalistic muscles, to rehearse our moralities online before the adoring gaze of our cheerleading friends and the equally self-righteous scorn of our enemies.

We tell ourselves that it’s all about the abuse of sex and power, but that’s not really true. That might be part of what it’s about. But like everything else in a world where the only consistent objects of worship are ourselves, it’s at least as much about us.

Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church in Lethbridge, Alta., Canada. He writes at Rumblings, where this post first appeared.

Book review: ‘Two Weeks Every Summer’

By on Nov 20, 2017 in Book Review, Columns, Latest Issue | 0 comments

Now and then a person comes upon a book that is hard to read precisely because it disturbs the comfort zones of his or her thinking. And yet while entering into the first few pages, a small voice says: You need to keep reading this; you need to let some of your assumptions be challenged. So it is with Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America.

"Two Weeks Every Summer"

“Two Weeks Every Summer”

Tobin Miller Shearer writes about Fresh Air, the program that since 1877 has brought low-income children out of the city and into the country for two weeks of vacation every year. These pre-adolescent children stay with host families who provide food, lodging and an array of summertime experiences.

What could be better than bringing needy children into healthier environments? When the program began, many of these children lived in crowded New York tenements, where tuberculosis spread at epidemic levels, it was no small thing to let urban youth literally breathe fresh air. Over the past 140 years, 1.8 million children have benefited from opportunities to live with host families in rural settings.

Shearer, who directed Mennonite Central Committee’s Racism Awareness Program in the 1990s, takes issue with the assumption that all those children benefited from this charitable arrangement. At center stage is the issue of race. Is it possible that well-meaning and mostly progressive-minded adults who thought they were advancing the cause of race relations were actually perpetrating inequality?

What makes this book hard to read for many people of privilege, especially in today’s context, is the unveiling of implicit bias among people who assume they are part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Though the program initially did not directly cater to black youth, it increasingly evolved into a framework to bring black urban youth into white rural homes. Through extensive interviews with guests and hosts, Shearer presents the hidden sides of helping low-income youth in settings detached from their own communities.

Most of the Fresh Air Fund activity took place in the northeast United States. Mennonites were among the steady base of host families. Those in Pennsylvania held a reputation of having the highest revisitation rates. A 1950s photo shows a single young black girl sitting in a train station, surrounded by Mennonites from the Lancaster, Pa., region. Shearer considers what this picture may be conveying under the surface, suggesting an unsettling quality that mirrors his overall perspective on the Fresh Air program.

Shearer’s critique centers on the contrast between engaging racism through one-on-one acts of charity versus trying to dismantle racism through effective social change. Focusing mostly on the mid-20th century, Shearer says white neoliberalism of this period often “focused on privatization, minimal government and reduced appropriations for social services.” In other words, folks wanted to do good without changing their lives.

It is revealing to learn about how the Fresh Air story has been told. Images of bare feet on grass, swimming in ponds and drinking fresh milk connected childhood’s purity with nature’s purity. Innocence was imputed to the guests. Abundant food on tables heightened the benefits of leaving the inner city, where food was either scarce or unwholesome. But since grass and pond and milk lasted for only a fortnight, these redemptive agents could never fully save.

Testimonials from participating youth and adults indicate older children often were marked as sassy or unruly. Shearer, however, detects an element of resistance among youth who navigated their way through complex social environments which, by all appearance, advocated for racial integration. He concludes that much of what passed for disrespectful behavior was in fact an expression of nascent activism.

Is this all a matter of the past? In 2013, a New York Times feature on the Fresh Air Fund “extolled the pleasure of running in the grass.” In 2014, the fund reported net assets of more than $138 million. To this day, Shearer contends, the program “remains a powerful indicator of racism’s persistence and an enduring symbol of the prevalence of neo­liberal approaches to social inequity.”

In Shearer’s well-documented book we learn anecdotally what youth experienced when they were bused from Mississippi to Newton, Kan. Again, the discomfort that may come from reading a book like this is not so much due to the actual case studies identified by specific times and places. It comes, rather, from the subtler identification between Fresh Air and those current programs to which we are committed, which may similarly defy a full and honest moral audit.

Ted Lewis works as a restorative justice trainer and consultant and runs the Agapé Peace Center in Duluth, Minn.

Bible: Eyes open to wonders

By on Nov 20, 2017 in Bible, Columns, Latest Issue | 0 comments

Acts 3:11-21 picks up after a miraculous occurrence: Peter and John pass a beggar, lame from birth, as they go to the temple to pray. He asks them for money, and “Peter looked intently at him, as did John” (3:4). Then Peter tells him, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, to get up, and walk. Not only does he walk, he leaps, praising God that he has been healed. It’s a joyous scene.

Meghan Florian

Florian

In verse 11, he clings to Peter and John as a shocked crowd gathers. Peter addresses them: Why do you wonder, why do you stare? This man has been healed in the name of Jesus, the “Holy and Righteous One” (3:14), the “Author of Life” (3:15), whom God raised from the dead after the people sentenced him to death.

God fulfilled God’s promises despite the ignorance of citizens and rulers alike.

In their actions and words the apostles mimic Jesus’ work, thus witnessing to the truths they proclaim about him, calling the people to repent and turn to God. Jesus has ascended to heaven, but he will return, and Peter invites the people to be ready this time.

Where has our ignorance caused us to miss God’s presence? How often do we look in shocked awe at miracles we had previously failed to see?

Peter’s words continue to resonate as a call to look intently at God’s people, to believe that God, in Jesus, invites us to build a better world, to participate in God’s healing work, testifying to the resurrection, the “universal restoration” (3:21) God promises.

Throughout Acts, the work of the early church continues to unfold. In 13:1-12, prophets and teachers gather — Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen and Saul, who we’ll come to know better as Paul. Saul/Paul’s identity is shifting. His new beliefs lead to new work, in new places, even a new name.

As they gather to worship and fast, the Holy Spirit speaks to them, naming Saul and Barnabas, setting them apart for specific tasks. God has different plans for them. And so, after continuing their fasting together, the group prays and lays hands on Saul and Barnabas, sending them on God’s behalf.

We practice something like this in my own church. When people move on to another place, to other work, we say their going is our sending, that they carry us with them. They carry the fragile love and peace of Christ we’ve sought to embody.

Saul and Barnabas respond to God’s call. They begin teaching in synagogues, going from place to place by land and by sea. A man called Sergius Paulus, a proconsul, asks to hear the word of God. But he is accompanied by a false prophet, Elymas, who attempts to thwart Saul and Barnabas. Saul asks Elymas, “Will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?” (13:10).

What unfolds is fantastical, God shrouding Elymas in mist and darkness. Whether read metaphorically, literarily or otherwise, the image isn’t subtle. Elymas is groping about in the darkness, in need of someone to lead him. God’s sign here, through Saul and Barnabas, is not for the sake of believers but for unbelievers. The proconsul sees what has happened and believes.

The text invites us to ask how our own actions can illuminate God’s truth, inviting people into the community of faith. Like Saul, Barnabas and the rest, we are called in different ways, in different places, to shine light through darkness, to show others the way, along paths both crooked and straight.

Meghan Florian, of Durham, N.C., teaches writing at William Peace University. She is a member of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.

Freedom to resist

By on Nov 20, 2017 in Editorial, Latest Issue | 2 comments

Some Mennonite colleges play the national anthem before sporting events. Some don’t. Some say it’s a chance to reflect on liberty. Some say it’s a chance to honor those in the military who fight for that liberty. Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., says it is more than a chance. For the roughly 80 percent of students who are athletes, it is a requirement. A policy enacted in early October says if you don’t stand, you don’t play.

For some athletes in the U.S., kneeling rather than standing is a statement of protest against racial injustice in America. Tabor athletes, many of whom are not white, should have the freedom to do this. If anything, forced “respect” cheapens what the flag symbolizes.

“Our coaches and myself feel that’s not the time for protest, right when a game will start when we want to have a unified focus on the game,” said athletic director Rusty Allen. “We just felt like it can be misinterpreted so easily.”

The U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches’ Confession of Faith does not address the national anthem, but Article 12 says “Christians are called to resist the idolatrous temptation to give to the state the devotion that is owed to God.”

Tabor and the Mennonite Brethren are part of an Anabaptist tradition wary of nationalism and militarism. While it is up for debate whether standing for the anthem is an act of excessive allegiance to the state, that decision should be an individual’s, not an administrator’s.

Anabaptist institutions should be particularly sensitive to the rights of conscience. It is especially ironic that Tabor would require its student athletes, the vast majority of whom are not Mennonite, to participate in any act that could be construed as forced loyalty to a banner other than God’s. The MB Confession applies here: The playing of the anthem is a powerful symbolic moment when a Christian might feel called to resist idolatrous devotion, or to protest racial injustice, by kneeling respectfully.

In the past, Tabor has defended countercultural actions based on conscience. In a Dec. 3, 2014, request for an exemption to a federal ban on certain kinds of discrimination, President Jules Glanzer wrote that Tabor cannot in good conscience “support or encourage an individual to live in conflict with biblical principles in any area.”

The mission of Tabor isn’t to fall in line with society but to prepare “people for a life of learning, work and service for Christ and His kingdom.” That kingdom should never be confused with any one country.

Athletic director Rusty Allen says no student is being asked to give allegiance to the nation or flag. He is entitled to his belief about how to define allegiance. It’s unfortunate that when the anthem plays, student athletes lose the freedom to act on their definitions and beliefs.

Civil religion

By on Nov 20, 2017 in Latest Issue, Letters | 0 comments

I cannot judge who is Christian and who is not, but when I read “Evangelicals and Trump: From Skepticism to Embrace” (World & Faith, Oct. 23), the question begged to be asked: Are evangelicals still Christian?

Evangelicals have become the face of Christianity in America, even calling themselves “values voters,” as if they are the only voters with values. They conflate the gospel of Jesus Christ with American Civil Religion, a body of beliefs that lurks under the surface of our political discourse. ACR is replete with theological assumptions that seem to have inspired Trump’s speech at the Values Voter Summit. Unlike the God embodied in Jesus Christ — who calls his followers to act justly and mercifully, especially in relationship to the poor — Trump’s speech depicted a deity who affirms the American creed that God helps those who help themselves and supports cutting taxes for the wealthy.

While the deity of ACR is limited to a particular territory, the God of heaven is the Creator of all, including those who have not fared well in the Trump administration — Mexicans and Muslims who attempt to enter the U.S., people who are not heterosexual, North Koreans and others Trump is anxious to bomb.

God does not only help those who help themselves but “raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap” (1 Sam. 2:8). The deity of ACR, in whose name Trump speaks, seems to help those whose incomes are high enough to use their tax cuts to pay health insurance premiums.

Evangelicals have compared Trump to King Cyrus, whose right hand God would “take hold of to subdue nations” (Isaiah 45:1), presumably this time to make America great again. They might consider whether Trump is more comparable to Thomas Jefferson’s fire bell, which awakened him and filled him with terror, as he feared it was the death knell of the Union [due to the 1820 Missouri Compromise]. Similarly, evangelicals might consider whether their allegiance to Trump is a hazard to, if not the death knell of, their theological integrity.

Bruce Bradshaw
Nashua, N.H.

Peaceful warrior

By on Nov 20, 2017 in Latest Issue, Letters | 4 comments

In Yahweh Is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in Ancient Israel (Herald Press, 1980), Millard C. Lind refutes Charlie Kraybill (“Yahweh Has Always Been a Peacenik,” Oct. 23). “Yahweh is a warrior” (Ex. 15:3) is among the earliest writings in the Bible, not “a literary character created by the scribes.” Yahweh greatly preceded them.

Lind sees God’s victory over Egypt’s army as the founding event of Israel’s existence. There was no human action or battle. God would fight for them; they only needed to be still (Ex. 14:14). In entering the land, God had promised Abraham that God’s angel would go ahead of them and wipe out the tribes (Ex. 23:23). They only needed to trust and obey God. Had they done that, there would have been no need of judges. God was king.

Summarizing warfare in the patriarchal period, Lind writes, “It should be no surprise that a few traditions of violence are found.” And “most of these traditions are pacifistic.”

Walter Smeltzer
West Peoria, Ill.

Mennonites in Argentina celebrate centennial, witness

By and on Nov 20, 2017 in Latest Issue, News | 1 comment

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Performing before hundreds of Mennonites and passersby at a downtown park Sept. 16, a drama troupe from the Mennonite church in Villa Adelina mimed challenges and struggles facing youth: violence, drugs, promiscuity, greed and death itself.

Representing Argentinian youth, actor Laura Burgos sometimes seemed mesmerized as actors impersonated threats, but she also sought to escape their grasp. A Christ figure in white, played by Diego Gonzalez, rescued her from malice, and came alongside to teach elegant dance steps.

The drama was part of a festive three-hour centennial celebration at Puerto Madero, where the first North American Mennonite missionaries arrived in 1917. The gathering featured large-screen videos, children’s programming, special music, poetry, preaching and greetings from other denominations.

Mario Snyder speaks to several hundred Mennonites from across Argentina at festivities marking the 100th anniversary of Mennonite witness in the country. The celebration was at Puerto Madero, where the first missionaries landed in 1917. — J. Nelson Kraybill/MWC

Mario Snyder speaks to several hundred Mennonites from across Argentina at festivities marking the 100th anniversary of Mennonite witness in the country. The celebration was at Puerto Madero, where the first missionaries landed in 1917. — J. Nelson Kraybill/MWC

Mennonites of Argentina were celebrating the centennial of the arrival of J.W. and Erma Shank and T.K. and Mae Hershey from Mennonite Board of Missions in the United States.

John Lapp and Linda Shelly of Mennonite Mission Network and Nelson Kraybill of Mennonite World Conference brought greetings from their organizations.

Argentinian church leaders underscored repeatedly three distinctives of Anabaptist witness: Christ is the center of our faith, community is the center of our lives, and reconciliation is the center of our work.

Also evident were the twin themes of empowerment by the Holy Spirit and commitment to mission. A charismatic movement that swept through Argentina in the 1970s and ’80s still energizes Mennonites of all ages.

Mennonites of Argentina honor the early missionaries who sacrificed much to come to their country.

But the focus of today’s church is on current and future mission. Mennonites have divided the country into four regions, with mission strategies and church planting for each area, and the church is growing.

As the weekend of centennial festivities came to an end, several hundred church members from across the country sang in anticipation of the future God has for them: “Muévase potente, la iglesia de Dios . . .” (Move with strength, O church of God).

Watson: False god of guns

By on Nov 20, 2017 in Columns, Latest Issue, Watson: Gathering the Stones | 1 comment

I always worried about the day a mass shooting happened in a church. As a seminary student, immersed full-time in applying Jesus’ teachings to the modern world, I knew the church could not escape it for very much longer. Perversely, I wondered if our increased security in schools has driven shooters to find new targets. I knew the church’s designation as sacred space would not last in the mind of the shooter, and I knew I would have to face it as a pastor.

Hillary Watson

Watson

What would I tell my congregation, I wondered, when this public health crisis finally arrived in churches?

We were lucky — white Christians were lucky — that the first time it happened, in 2015, it was a clear hate crime, a white supremacist targeting a black church. Now we can no longer avoid it: The church is not a sacred space in the landscape of American violence anymore.

As I consider how to comfort my congregation — not in the face of tragedy, but in the face of a present fear about security in the place where I meet them — a few things come to mind. Some of these ideas are abstract, but I hope they are enough to push away the sense of helplessness.

Advocate for policy. The obvious solution is to encourage pacifists to be more vocal on gun policy issues — according to a Pew Research study last month, pro-gun advocates are almost twice as likely as gun opponents to contact their elected officials. Mennonites ought to take a more active role advocating for gun restrictions.

Address the root causes. It puzzles me when the media search for a motive in a mass shooting. The motive is clear, when we realize that the U.S. outpaces gun deaths in every other developed country and that nearly all mass shooters are men. It is the unique combination of culture, masculinity, loneliness, media frenzy, access and helplessness. It is the air of America. Pacifists must, as a matter of conscience, support mental health access; turn off the TV when the media vultures circle the story; reach out to those around you and pull them out of isolation.

Rebuild positive masculinities. It is clear to me that gun violence is related to the dismantling of patriarchy and the way that leaves individual men stranded without a clear sense of what it means to be a man. Anabaptists need to be active in rebuilding healthy masculinity and giving men new ways to assert themselves with what psychologists call pro-social behaviors.

Rebuild a sense of the sacred. The best way to protect our churches — all of our churches — is to ensure they are sacred spaces. To ensure that the church mediates experiences of the sacred for all people. To act in a way that is above reproach, that is compassionate, patient and public.

Be prepared to die for what you believe. I want to build up parishioners who are willing to die for their beliefs. I want to nurture souls who are strong enough to resist the false god of guns. I read an article that defined pacifists as having “an obligation to be a victim.” Perhaps, in that we choose to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators of violence. But that does not make us victims; the victims are the ones who give in to the devil and the world’s call for violence. If, God forbid, I die in a mass shooting, I hope that my congregation will not call me a victim. I hope they will call me a witness to God’s mercy and love. I hope that, God forbid any of our churches feel this destructive violence, we will yet be faithful witnesses to the God of peace and justice.

Hillary Watson pastors at Lombard Mennonite Church in suburban Chicago. She blogs at gatheringthestones.com.

Washington Witness: Hope disrupting hostility

By on Nov 20, 2017 in Columns, Latest Issue, Various authors: Washington Witness | 0 comments

For years, a wall of isolation between the United States and North Korea has been steadily building. The Korean War never officially ended, and it has been followed by decades of economic sanctions and frozen diplomatic channels.

Charissa Zehr

Zehr

An executive order issued by President Trump in August outlined travel restrictions that limit U.S. citizens from visiting North Korea — one more layer of bricks in the symbolic wall between our two countries.

But despite the escalation of tensions between leaders, it is important to highlight some cracks in this wall — places where isolation has been interrupted by relationships.

Humanitarian engagement that facilitates face-to-face exchanges between people living in the U.S. and North Korea is one of the most important signs of hope in these troubled times. Mennonite Central Committee has worked in North Korea for more than 20 years, interrupting the narrative that our country has no interest in relationships with North Koreans. Through disaster response, assistance to orphanages, care centers for the elderly and people living with tuberculosis and hepatitis, MCC demonstrates concern for the most vulnerable in North Korea.

Getting to know North Koreans disrupts stereotypes and has paved the way for deeper relationships and understanding between MCC and North Korean counterparts. This is a missing link that could move diplomacy forward.

Despite raising these ideas with U.S. officials, there seems to be little appetite for pursuing genuine engagement. While the Secretary of State recently divulged that the U.S. does have a few limited channels for talking to North Koreans, this glimmer of progress was swiftly undermined by rash statements from the president. The Trump administration should be looking for every possible avenue for communication with North Korea to reduce tensions and find issues of common interest, allowing us to take even small steps toward renewed engagement.

Educational exchanges between U.S. citizens and North Koreans could be a place to start. MCC has facilitated numerous exchanges between people in the U.S., Canada and North Korea but is unable to do so presently in the U.S.

Another possibility is to resume operations to retrieve the remains of soldiers missing from the Korean War, a vital issue for families still waiting for closure. Operations could be restarted if the U.S. designates the recovery of remains as a humanitarian issue.

MCC has learned that constructive engagement in North Korea requires hours of conversation and a genuine interest to reach across ideological divides and connect with people. It isn’t rocket science, but this long, slow work of trust-building must precede diplomacy — and any talk of stopping rocket launches, for that matter.

With tensions between the U.S. and North Korean leadership threatening to destabilize the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, voices pushing for diplomacy and engagement must be taken seriously. There are real lives at stake, inside and outside of North Korea.

For people of faith, engaging North Korea may not follow the logic of political realities, but it does follow the kingdom logic of a “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:16-21), a hope that can interrupt fear and hostility.

Charissa Zehr is a legislative associate for international affairs at the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office.