Archive for the 'violence' Category

The Donkey-Rider’s Very Different Way

thetriumphalentryLast Sunday Christians celebrated King Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem. We remembered how he came “triumphant and victorious…humble and riding on a donkey…” (Zechariah 9:9 NRSV) We waved palm branches, the way those first-century folks generally welcomed a conquering hero. With that ancient crowd we shouted and sang “Hosanna!”, “Save us!” Jesus’ choice of transportation was a message that Jewish crowd couldn’t have missed. Conquering heroes didn’t ride dumpy little donkeys. They rode magnificent white stallions. Jesus’ alternative transportation recalled Zechariah’s prophecy. Speaking through the prophet, God  continues (this part we rarely hear):

” I’ve had it with war—no more chariots in Ephraim,

no more war horses in Jerusalem,

no more swords and spears, bows and arrows.

He [the donkey-riding king] will offer peace to the nations,

a peaceful rule worldwide,

from the four winds to the seven seas.” (Zechariah 9:10 MSG)

Hopefully last Sunday our pastors taught us the radically different nature of this king and Kingdom. Perhaps he/she chose another direction. Perhaps it was one of those services where other concerns intruded and the message got lost in the shuffle. Some of us may have gone home wondering why Jesus’ friends didn’t insist on getting him a more impressive ride for his grand entry. Some of us wondered (with desperate hope) how that donkey-riding king could make a transforming, life-and-death difference in our angry, violent world.

Monday morning the bombs exploded in Brussels. Monday morning we cried “Save us!” to our guns, our armies, our security and surveillance systems, our present and would-be future leaders—and yes, to the God whose offer of “peace to the nations” still falls on deaf ears and hardened hearts. Monday morning we were brutally reminded–again–of the climate of inescapable anger and violence in which we live. We felt the devastating grief of the victims and all who were connected to them—which is all of us. We felt the fear that mistrusts all that is unknown and unfamiliar. This fear builds walls of exclusion and prejudice against all who are “different”, especially those who bear any resemblance to the “enemy”. Those walls go up instantly. But when we realize we’ve overbuilt, or that we’ve walled out the wrong people, those walls come down only with the greatest difficulty–or not at all. Monday morning politicians and others began proposing various ways to strengthen our security. Some offer reasonable and effective steps. Others offer fear-based proposals that will intensify the hate and fear rather than leading toward healing.

When I watch the coverage from Brussels and the response around the world, I sometimes see a lonely figure moving across the screen. The man on the donkey rides past the wreckage, the hospital scenes, families coping with tragedy or celebrating reunion, stunned men and women trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, politicians and others seeking a way to use this disaster to enhance their standing. The donkey-riding king moves silently through our world. His very presence judges our fear-full and faith-full responses. His presence proclaims anew the impossible promise of “peace to the nations…from the four winds to the seven seas”. He is in our midst as we work through our shock, our fear, our outrage, our grief. He is alongside us and all his followers as we live out his way of strong gentle humility and unconditional love.

Some of our United Methodist leaders remind us what following Jesus looks like in a time like this:

  • “We are praying for all who lost loved ones and for those who are wounded. And we pray and work that we overcome fear and do not answer evil with evil…”—Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, Germany
  • “As those who follow Jesus, the crucified and resurrected One, we need to continue in doing good as much as we can, in building respectful community, in working for peace and justice, in being agents of reconciliation and never give up despite blind violence, hatred or paralyzing fear, wherever we live,”—Bishop Patrick Streiff, Central and Southern Europe
  • “[news of this attack] comes on the heels of violence in other parts of the world, including Cote d’Ivoire earlier this month and more than a hundred incidents in various parts of the world just this year…I am touched by this pain to the fabric of humanity. It’s a pain we must face and seek to heal with love and justice, but we recognize that controlling or preventing these kinds of tragedies is beyond our power alone. We turn to our God who creates justice and loves and embraces us all.”—Bishop Warner Brown, San Francisco, President of the Council of Bishops.

Our donkey-riding King invites us to share his journey as he moves through our world. He brings peace, love, healing, a sense of community that unites those who never thought it possible. He leads us into a way of self-emptying love that is incredibly fulfilling. His very different way gently and powerfully refuses to give in to anger, fear, and violence. Our crucified and risen Lord leads us toward the kind of world I want to live in; the kind of world I want my children and grandchildren, and all the children of the world, to live in. Will you help build that new world? The world where “We overcome fear and do not answer evil for evil;” where we “Continue in doing good as much as we can…; where we “…never give up despite blind violence, hatred, or paralyzing fear;” where “We turn to our God who creates justice and loves and embraces us all.”

Real Live Hope

In early October I wrote a “Response to Roseburg” shortly after the shootings at Umpqua Community College. Politicians of “all sorts and conditions” sent “thoughts and prayers” to those touched by that horrific act—but did nothing new to change things. Both religious and non-religious folks proclaimed the hypocrisy of “thoughts and prayers” that didn’t lead to transformative action. I shared a colleague’s prayer: “Help us listen to your voice in addressing the violence which permeates our culture, and give us the strength and will to do what you ask of us, to bring hope and healing.” I also called for us who follow Jesus torediscover the peacemaking tradition in Christianity….” 

Two months later San Bernardino happened. My frustrated, grieving, angry response was “How Long, O Lord? An Advent Lament.”  I asked brothers and sisters in Christ, How long will we who follow Jesus mirror our society’s attitudes regarding war, violence, and the use of force rather than embodying a countercultural alternative of strong, assertive, nonviolent love in the spirit of Jesus?… how long will Christians living in the USA choose to be Americans first and Christians second?” Popular religion works hard to erase that boundary. I believe authentic faith in Christ sharpens it instead of erasing it.

I’m hardly the only one thinking about how people of faith respond to gun violence.  One such group recently talked, prayed, and struggled their way to an “Advent Declaration on Gun Violence”. Its Preamble says in part, “A spirit of fear, enmity, racial prejudice, distrust, and violence is tragically normal in our [American] way of life. We believe this is contrary to the gospel, and so we say ‘Enough of this. No more.’…There is an urgent need for followers of the Prince of Peace to challenge the easy use of guns in our society.”  

This declaration sets the bar pretty high—but no higher than it’s always been for us who follow Jesus. Signers of  “An Advent Declaration” affirm that:

  • “We advocate for greater restraint and stricter controls on the private use of guns.”
  • “We accept the way of the cross.”
  • “We take up the armor of the Spirit.”
  • “We seek the justice that makes for peace.”
  • “We pursue love for enemies.”
  • “We are confident that the goodness of God defeats evil and injustice.”

The closing paragraph states: “Relying on God’s grace, we commit to lead our faith communities in acts that do good toward enemies, for this is the strongest witness to God’s love and defeat of evil, the most compelling contributor to the transformation of our enemies, the best way to de-escalate violence, and the path to build communities of peace where all can flourish as beloved children of God.

I’ve signed this Declaration. I urge you to read it, ponder it, pray about it, discuss it with others. Don’t sign it unless you intend to act on it! Sign it if your journey with Christ leads you in this direction. It’s not a litmus test for “real Christians”. I don’t pretend that electronically signing a document will change the world. Nor do I imagine that the current 157 signers are enough to accomplish that change—though Jesus started with just Twelve! Let this Declaration refocus your discipleship. Let it lead you into asking new questions, into asking old questions in a new way, and into entertaining new answers to old questions. Let it lead you into conversation with folks with whom you disagree strongly (judging by the intensity and volume of previous engagements!) Let this document lead you to listen deeply and prayerfully to your neighbor, even if he/she doesn’t immediately respond in kind. Eventually that will happen. Let this declaration lead you to serve others inside and outside the church. Let it lead us where we never imagined we might go to do what we never imagined God could do through us. Let the community that forms around this Declaration become a sign of Hope for all who still cry out, “In God’s Name–How Long?”

christmas change

HOPE is the itch I’m trying to scratch. During this Advent season I haven’t heard clearly the outrageous impossible Hope that comes to us in Christ. I haven’t heard how Advent not only looks backward to Jesus’ birth but also forward to Christ’s coming at the end of history to heal the world’s brokenness. I haven’t heard how this Child will turn our upside-down world right-side-up. I haven’t heard how God invites, empowers, and expects every follower of Jesus to help build this New Creation.

I haven’t heard God’s wild, wonderful promises through the prophets: “… swords into iron plows… spears into pruning tools…they will no longer learn how to make war. (Isaiah 2:4 CEB ). “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isa. 11:6 NRSV). I haven’t heard that majestic litany of Jesus’ other names: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6 NRSV)  I haven’t heard the en-couraging news that “God is here, right here, on his way to put things right and redress all wrongs.” (Isaiah 35:4 MSG). Nor have I heard the astounding eschatological promise that “Blind eyes will be opened, deaf ears unstopped; lame men and women will leap like deer, the voiceless break into song.” (Isaiah 35:5-6 MSG)

If I’m feeling a hope deficit, what about neighbors going through struggles we can scarcely imagine or comprehend–fire, flood, disease, environmental or economic disasters; refugees who can never go home again; the friends and loved ones of the 12,000+ people who have died in gun incidents in this country in 2015; so many more. How long, Lord?

How do we know “God is here, right here, on his way to put things right…”“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14 MSG) Love wrapped in flesh like ours embodies Hope in the midst of despair and brokenness. “…followers of the Prince of Peace…challenge the easy use of guns in our society…We obey Jesus’ simple strategies of love: refusing to hate in return, unilaterally forgiving those who harm us, doing good to people who oppose us, and continually praying for God to bless all people, even those who treat us as enemies.” A community of people exhibiting such strange and wonderful behavior transforms outrageous impossibility into God’s truth happening through God’s people—you and me!– here and now! :“… swords into iron plows… spears into pruning tools…; they will no longer learn how to make war.”  “God is here… to put things right and redress all wrongs.”

Help us listen to your voice in addressing the violence which permeates our culture, and give us the strength and will to do what you ask of us, to bring hope and healing. In Jesus’ name. Amen”

“How Long, O Lord??” An Advent Lament

US gun crime in 2015 (Figures up to 3 December)

353 Mass shootings        62shootings at schools

12,223people killed in gun incidents       24,722people injured in gun incidents

Source: Shooting tracker, Gun Violence Archive

  • How long will we tolerate nearly-daily mass shootings in our nation and fail to take meaningful action to stop them?
  • How long will we watch processions of victims being transported to the hospital or the morgue—and accept such tragic scenes as the “new normal”?
  • How long will we watch grieving families weep and mourn their loved ones—while praying that our community isn’t next—but do little or nothing to make a difference?

“ If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!”  Isaiah 64:1 CEB

  • How long will politicians let their fear of the NRA keep them from enacting sensible regulations regarding gun ownership?
  • How long will we fail to require licensing and insurance for gun ownership and users similar to that required for other lethal equipment such as motor vehicles?
  • How long will we entertain the ridiculous claim that assault rifles and similar weapons of war are normal household appliances, toys, or sporting equipment?
  • How long will we believe the lethal fiction that we’re safer with more guns in more people’s hands in more crowded public places?

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  • How long will we allow the condemnation of all Muslims for the actions of a few hyper-extremists?
  • How long will we allow misguided policies and divisive rhetoric to become recruiting tools for future terrorists?
  • How long will we tolerate the cycle of mass shootings followed by universal hand-ringing followed by failure to take meaningful action?
  • How long will we talk past one another instead of with one  another and demonize those with whom we disagree?
  • How long will the words of Scripture proclaim our continuing collective insanity (doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results): “Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly.”? Proverbs 26:11 NRSV
  • How long will we continue to slash mental-health funding that can provide life-changing treatment for disturbed people who might otherwise become “active shooters”?
  • How long will people of faith trust everything and everyone that promises safety and security more than we trust the One who is “…Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”? (Isaiah 9:6 NRSV)
  • How long will our spiritual leaders remain fearfully silent or at best timidly indifferent regarding guns and the glorification of violence in our culture? (HINT—Christmas Day is too long!
  • How long will we offer “thoughts and prayers” for victims of violence divorced from any commitment to transformative action toward preventing future tragedies?
  • How long will we whine that “God Isn’t Fixing This” when the real issue is our choice (passive or active) not to collaborate with God in healing brokenness and building a new world?

God Isn't Fixing This

  • How long will we who follow Jesus mirror our society’s attitudes regarding war, violence, and the use of force rather than embodying a countercultural alternative of strong, assertive, nonviolent love in the spirit of Jesus? In other words, how long will Christians living in the USA choose to be Americans first and Christians second? Fuller Theological Seminary professor Kutter Callaway writes about renouncing his Second Amendment rights. I hereby renounce mine. It’s time for followers of Jesus to rediscover  and reclaim our peace-making tradition found in the early church, the Mennonites, Quakers, and Church of the Brethren,and more recently Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, the Sojourners movement, and others. More along this line soon.
  • How long will we talk and sing about Incarnation (God’s love embodied in Jesus) while failing to become God’s instruments through whom Redeeming Love becomes physically present to all neighbors within our reach?

“The Word became flesh and blood, “and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes,
    the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.” John 1:14 MSG

RESPONSE TO ROSEBURG–PEACE-FULL ACTION

Last Thursday shock and horror at 2015’s forty-fifth school shooting shook our nation. That’s a horrific pace of more than one a week. “Prayers for Oregon” memes flooded Facebook. A visibly shaken and angry President Obama spoke to the press and the nation about our collective failure to take meaningful action to stop this deadly trend. Self-interested parties on all sides immediately restated their long-held polarized positions. Mr. Obama’s sentiments echoed the many spiritual leaders who called challenged us to move beyond prayer to action. Sixteen years after Columbine, ten years after Red Lake, eight years after Virginia Tech, the millions of words we’ve thrown at the issue as we’ve talked around and past each other have failed to prevent 142 school shootings since Sandy Hook.          blessed-are-the-peacemakers_t_nv

Yes, for God’s sake and the sake of potential future shooting victims, let’s move beyond prayer to action. “Beyond prayer” doesn’t mean not praying. For me it means maximizing the synergy of active prayer and prayerful action. Prayer informs, shapes, and fuels our action. Action drives us deeper into prayer as we seek God’s will while we are active in many different ways and settings. A colleague of mine shared this prayer on her Facebook page: God of love, you give us minds to think, hearts to love, and a soul which longs to know you. Help us listen to your voice in addressing the violence which permeates our culture, and give us the strength and will to do what you ask of us, to bring hope and healing. In Jesus’ name. Amen. (Rev. Sharon Ragland, 10/3/15) 

Beyond prayer to action—what action? Let us who claim to follow the Prince of Peace covenant together to return to our roots as a peace-full people. Let us take seriously Jesus’ call to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), to love our enemies, (Matthew 5:44-45), to choose reconciliation and restoration over retribution (Matthew 5:17-48). Let us grow together into a peace-full people marked by peace-full words, deeds, thoughts, and prayer. We talk constantly about personal “peace with God” and “peace of mind”. But we haven’t learned (been willing to learn? been taught?) a robust biblical understanding of Shalom that embraces all human activity and indeed the whole creation. Peace-full people refuse to isolate personal “peace with God” from God’s continuing mission to bring peace and wholeness to all Creation. As long as any of God’s precious children are caught up in chaos and violence, my personal peace as a follower of Jesus, a peace-maker, is disturbed.

The Hebrew word “Shalom” is frequently translated as “peace”. But the word’s complex meanings include “peace”, “soundness”, prosperity”, “wholeness”, and more. Eirene” is the predominant Greek word for “peace” in the New Testament. It carries Shalom’s richness and enriches it further with insights like this: “Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.” (Ephesians 2:14-16 CEB) Yes, the passage speaks about the Christian community. But that process of reconciling a broken human family is God’s mission for the Church and God’s dream for all humankind (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).

Peace-full action by a peace-full people involves (re)discovering and (re)committing to peacemaking and “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). What a stark (and welcome) contrast to “…the violence which permeates our culture…”! United Methodist Bishop Robert Hoshibata wrote to members of our Desert Southwest Annual Conference shortly after the Roseburg shooting. One of his suggested steps “beyond prayer” was Bible Study. He lifted up a three-session study, “Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities”. Of course three sessions are just enough to start the conversation. But no journey begins without that first step. Let us also rediscover the peacemaking tradition in Christianity. It includes early Christians who found service in the Roman army incompatible with their faith; historic peace churches like the Mennonites and Quakers, and more contemporary advocates of nonviolence including Thomas Merton. Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., William Sloane Coffin, and many more. Let us reclaim our fundamental identity as peacemakers and reconcilers in the Spirit of Jesus. We will experience invaluable “on-the-job training” as we share deeply-held convictions, seek common ground and shared truth, and struggle to understand and love brothers and sisters with whom we disagree passionately.

Our beginning conversations about how we follow Jesus as peacemakers in this society will lead us into deeper dialog regarding our attitudes toward war and the military; the depiction of guns and violence in contemporary culture; about whether allowing our children playing video games (or watching us play) where the object is to kill a human being (even a cartoon) is compatible with becoming peace-full people; about capital punishment and prison reform; about how we live peacefully in our congregations with diverse and sometimes polarized opinions; and much more.

Bishop Hoshibata’s letter quoted the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory:

“Cure thy children’s warring madness, bend our pride to thy control;

Shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things and poor in soul…”

Bishop Bob (as he invites us to call him) stopped there, but I’m sure he’d support adding the final verse:

“Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.

Let the search for thy salvation be our glory evermore.

 Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving thee whom we adore,

Serving thee whom we adore.”

May Harry Emerson Fosdick’s words open us to “…listen to your voice in addressing the violence which permeates our culture, and give us the strength and will to do what you ask of us, to bring hope and healing. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

 

 

“Our Hearts Are Broken”–Enough to Take “Meaningful Action”?

We watched the developing story, refusing to believe and unable to turn away. A gunman had invaded a Connecticut  elementary school and killed twenty six-and-seven-year-old first-graders and six adults. Earlier that morning the alleged shooter, twenty-year-old Adam Lanza, had killed his mother, with whom he had lived. Finally he shot himself.We saw the President speak, wiping away tears, struggling to remain composed. “Our hearts are broken,” he said. We saw interviews with experts, first responders, clergy, teachers, assorted officials–and parents. Those parents resolved to hug their children a little tighter when they tucked them in bed–even the big ones who tuck themselves in.

Our hearts are broken at the thought of 28 people dying senselessly. Our hearts are broken for those families in their overwhelming grief. Our hearts are broken for that school that lost 5% of its student body in mere minutes. Our hearts are broken for parents everywhere who will not feel completely safe sending their children off to schoool on Monday (or ever?), and for children who now have one less “safe place” to go.

Our hearts are broken. So is the heart of God. What do you say to those families who had lost someone at Sandy Hook Elementary? “There are no words,” most television coverage concluded. Our simple presence speaks volumes. Quietly sitting with someone, helping out in simple ways, listening when someone wants to talk–or cry. If I were in that situation, I’d want them to know–with presence first, with words when the time was right–that God shares their hurt more deeply than they know. God shares the hurt of each of us and all of us who grieve this tragedy. If Christmas means anything, it means that in Christ God has entered our life more fully than we can comprehend in order to share the fullness of human life.

President Obama didn’t stop at “Our hearts are broken”. He said the time has come for “meaningful action” to stop this cycle of violence.  Our first “meaningful action”, of course, is to comfort those who grieve. The Newtown community needs time and space for memorial services and other ways to grieve its loss. We don’t need a lot of political jousting while that happens.

Another meaningful action I urge you to take is to counter a hurtful message being spread by some alleged Christians. Conservative broadcaster Bryan Fischer and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee have both linked the shooting to the removal of prayer from public schools.  Fischer says, “We’ve kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentlemen [sic].” Huckabee claims that we have “systematically removed God” from public schools and shouldn’t be surprised at the results.

THEY’RE SO WRONG I’M ABOUT TO RANT AGAIN! The God we know in Jesus isn’t sitting on the sidelines pouting because Fischer’s hyper-narrow view isn’t the only game in town. The God we know in Jesus didn’t orchestrate this and other mass killings as a wakeup call for a nation that’s moved beyond Governor Huckabee’s “good old days”. Huckabee’s God is as unspeakably cruel as the mass shooters. Fischer’s God is a big passive-agressive baby. Neither reflect the God we know in Jesus. Please use every opportunity to offer a different perspective if this comes up in a conversation you’re part of. Butt in if the conversation’s going on and you’re not part of it. This poison cannot go unchallenged. I’m positive God’s heart breaks when those who claim to know and love him take his name in vain this way and distort his purposes so blatantly.

I believe the climate of violence in our culture breaks God’s heart over and over. Gun regulation is one piece of the puzzle. Can we now finally have an honest, civil, beyond-politics conversation? Can we admit that the Second Amendment’s vision of keeping muskets in citizens’ hands in order to provide for “a well-regulated militia” no longer applies–and move on? Can we involve some gun-owning and non-gun-owning parents and grandparents of first-graders? How about some NRA members in that category?

The climate of violence in our culture goes far beyond the gun store, of course. It includes video games, movies and television, boxing and its wrestling/martial-arts hybrid cousins, and the toys we buy our children for Christmas. It includes every situation in which force is the preferred method of problem-solving, from families to foreign policy. Legislation has limited effectiveness here. Schools, religious groups, and every organization that works with families can be extremely effective if they have the will, the courage, and the love to address this complex issue.

Let us also address mental health issues. Adam Lanza apparently had mental health issues, as have many other mass shooters. Is it possible to be mentally healthy and do such a thing?? Progress will require creative public-private partnerships. How about starting by giving mental health services and research enough money to do something meaningful? The field’s been cut repeatedly in most jurisdictions. If we can send people to the moon, we can surely figure out ways to prevent mass shootings by identifying and preventively treating those who show warning signs of this behavior.

Our hearts are broken by the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. So is the heart of God. It’s enough for now to comfort one another and to prepare our hearts to welcome “Emmanuel”–God-with-us who comes to us even where we think we’re beyond God’s reach. Let us invite God’s powerful Spirit to empower us for action to heal the brokenness in Sandy Hook and in our nation. Let that powerful Spirit inspire and empower “meaningful action” in our families, our communities, our churches, our schools, and in government.

Are our hearts broken enough to take meaningful action? Time will tell.


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