Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Why We Must Be Peacemakers

The heart of Jesus’ message is the desire for peace. At one level, Jesus called people to follow him as a path to finding peace with God. Yet, at a more pragmatic level, Jesus called people to be at peace with one another. Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount we find one of Jesus’ most forthright statements on the subject, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” 
Given the fact that this statement appears in the list of what has been named the Beatitudes, those pithy sayings that stand as the most important ethical values Jesus lays out, peacemaking must assuredly be a core value and action for Jesus’ followers. Peacemaking not only reflects Jesus’ teachings, it also mirrors the life of Jesus who came as the Prince of Peace. But what is required to be peacemakers and why must we be peacemakers?
Simply put, and without qualification, the kind of peacemaking Jesus commands requires non-violent responses to evil. One of Jesus’ most controversial statements also comes to us through Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus states, “When someone strikes you on one cheek, turn and offer to him the other one.”
While many have tried to live true to this instruction of Jesus, more often than not Christians have found his command to turn from violence unsettling, and perhaps even ridiculous. But we cannot negotiate with Jesus at this point, for his statement is forthright. If this is true, then why do we tend to avoid Jesus’ clear command to “turn the other cheek” as an essential part of being non-violent peacemakers?
The answer to that question lies in our failure to see that Jesus’ definition of peacemaking also requires forgiveness, not retaliation. The central message of scripture is that God so loved the world that God has forgiven the world. But God’s forgiveness is not based on our paying restitution or in our suffering a penalty. God’s forgiveness flows from God’s unconditional love for humanity and a desire to make peace with us.
Our biggest problem in practicing this kind of forgiveness, and therefore our greatest hindrance to making peace, is that we are vengeful, both as individuals and as nations. We believe that revenge is a necessary part of justice, and when we as individuals, or as a nation, are wronged, it is only right, even expected, that we seek revenge against the wrongdoers, even to the extent that we make wrongdoers pay for their sins against us in ways that cannot be justified. But is this the message of Jesus? 
Gandhi, an example of one who sought to live Jesus’ teachings, said it best when he reflected on Jesus’ command not to seek revenge; he declared, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” While the message of the world is that vengeance is right, and making people pay for the harm they cause us is good, the message of Jesus, and Gandhi, calls us to something greater that reflects God’s own character and action—forgiveness. Forgiveness is the necessary action that lays the groundwork for making peace.
We should not assume, however, that offering forgiveness to others means that those who commit wrongs should not be brought to justice. We cannot simply overlook the wrongs committed by others, and we must name evil as evil. But the passion for seeking justice cannot be fueled by the need for vengeance; it must be empowered by the desire to forgive, to bring reconciliation, and to make peace.
While Jesus’ teachings on peacemaking apply to those of us who seek to reconcile with those who have hurt us personally, peacemaking also extends to conflicts among groups of people, whether local conflicts or wars on the global front. The waging of any war brings destruction to the lives of ordinary people, and wars will never establish lasting peace. The Christian community should condemn such hostilities, because Jesus did not call his followers to take up the weapons of warfare and kill their enemies. He has called us to take up the cross of self-sacrifice through which we can find love for our enemies. 
Two statements by Dr. Martin Luther King seem relevant to this topic. Dr. King stated, “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” Jesus also understood that war could never assure the world of peace; only peacemaking brings lasting peace. Dr. King also said, “Peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of justice.” Peacemaking and peace building require us to work for justice.
As we continue to witness the violence and wars across our world, may we pray earnestly for peace. And may these prayers lead us to action to find practical ways to make peace wherever we are.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Jesus sans Borders

Borders are interesting concepts that have been around since the dawn of creation. Borders are those barriers that we construct to keep those we want out, out. Nations have borders, and in our current political climate, there is much discussion about keeping our borders more secure, making sure that not just anyone comes through them.
But nations are not the only entities that create borders. We as individuals create property borders that mark what is ours and what is not. Particularly in societies, like our own that value personal property, we often build fences around those borders to ensure our privacy and to let those around us know that what is inside the wall belongs to us and not to them.

But societies often create borders within their social structures. We create borders and barriers to prevent us from community with others who are not like us. Race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, class and economics are all borders we have created that keep others at a distance from us.
Yet, perhaps the most entrenched borders that we find in human existence are the borders established by religions. These have a long history dating back to the ancient world when the sacred spaces of a temple represented the barrier between the profane and the sacred. 

For example, the Jewish Temple is known for the walls that separated various courts. The court of the Gentiles, the outer most court, was designed for the Gentiles to worship Israel’s God, but they could go no further. The court of the women created places where the women could enter, but they could go no further into the temple. And those with infirmities and diseases were forbidden from any part of the temple due to their impurity.
We also know from reading the stories about Jesus’ encounter with those determined to be unclean, that he was often chastised by the religious leaders of Israel for his association with them. Whether he was in the company of a leper, a person under demonic possession, or a woman of perceived disrepute, Jesus was condemned by the religious leaders for crossing the religious and social borders that separated what they established as pure and impure.

Indeed, Jesus was confronted with a borders and barriers mentality wherever he went. A society structured on strict class systems, especially those based on religion, is so ingrained in keeping those barriers and restrictions that it finds troubling and threatening a person like Jesus who crosses those barriers to make contact with those on the outside.
Or to put it another way, Jesus faced a religious society in which there were insiders and outsiders, and it was those on the inside who determined not only who was inside the borders, but perhaps most tragically, who must remain outside the borders.

Mark picks up on this insider-outsider mentality that humans have toward others, especially when it comes to religion, and makes it an underlying theme in his Gospel. Mark takes this theme, however, and turns it on its head. In other words, Mark communicates through his narrative that those who think they are insiders are actually outsiders, and those who think they are only outsiders become insiders.

Of particular importance for this theme is the way the disciples are often portrayed as outsiders. These twelve men, who seem to be insiders who are privy to some private moments and private teachings of Jesus, appear, at times, not to understand Jesus fully. Though they believe they are insiders, they sometimes act more like outsiders, and at points they express attitudes or superiority and exclusion.
This attitude among the disciples is expressed by John in Mark 9, when he comes to Jesus enthusiastically telling Jesus that he has stopped a rogue exorcist from casting out demons in Jesus’ name. He tells Jesus that he stopped this person because, “He was not following us.”

However, if we read John’s statement carefully, we may determine that John’s concern seems to be whether one can be a legitimate follower of Christ without being part of the group of twelve- the insiders.  In other words, John wants a Jesus that has borders; a Jesus whose name and authority is only allowed to be used by those approved by the insiders. John wants a Jesus who prevents just anyone from serving in his name. 

In our own Christian pilgrimages, we have all run across this kind of attitude, and perhaps we have occasionally played the role of John in our own relationships with others. It is very easy for us to take positions of theological certitude, construct our religious fences, and designate those on the outside as outsiders in order to make sure they remain outside the borders.

The fact is, however, if we continually draw the borders in such a way as to exclude others because they are not joined to our way of thinking and believing, then we have not truly sought to follow Jesus.  Rather, we are seeking to be followed. When we exclude others because they are not following us, we fail just like John. Claiming to be insiders in the Jesus movement, we truly expose ourselves as outsiders.

John sought to place limits on Jesus in an effort to say who could follow him. By doing so, he drew borders around the community of faith as a way of stating who is inside and who remains outside. But Jesus, by being true to his example of welcoming the young child in this same context, and by declaring that the rule of God is a movement of welcome and embrace, was breaking down the walls and borders of separation that prevented those called outsiders from a life with God.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Transformative Power of Forgiveness

Each Sunday Christians across the world recite in communal worship the words of the Lord’s Prayer.  Yet, like many of the recitations we memorize and repeat, especially those that proclaim what we believe, reciting the Lord’s Prayer can become a somewhat inattentive practice.  This does not mean that we should end this important part of worship.  Rather, it means that we must become more conscious of what we are praying when we pray the prayer Jesus gave his followers to pray.
But being conscious of what we are praying when we recite the model prayer means that we realize we are not simply casting a wish list before God as if something magical will happen.  Instead, praying the Lord’s Prayer is an act through which we are confessing what we believe about the gospel and how we are committing ourselves to living that gospel.
There are several lines within the prayer that deserve our attention, but perhaps the one that is most troubling for many of us is the portion in which we not only ask God to forgive us, but more seriously, we commit ourselves to forgiving others.  It is comforting to believe that God forgives us, and many of us would have wanted Jesus to leave it at that.  But to confess that we must also forgive others is uncomfortable, especially when we think about what that really means.

The key to understanding Matthew’s version of the prayer is found in his use of the term debts. Matthew’s “debts” might be viewed as a stronger term than Luke’s “sins”, although they are essentially making the same basic point.  Yet, in Matthew’s account, the statement expresses the idea that our sins against God are debts that we owe to God; debts that have become so large that we can never repay them.  Thus, with the weight of such debt, we find ourselves hopeless to find any relief, and we have no choice but to turn to God and ask for forgiveness.

Yet, we must be careful when praying this portion of the prayer, for to pray for God’s forgiveness of our debts is inextricably linked to our forgiving others of their debts.  In fact, the wording of Jesus’ prayer may imply that we must first forgive others of the debts they owe to us before, or at least simultaneous to our seeking God’s forgiveness.

The serious question for us, then, is what does it mean to forgive our debtors, those who sin against us?  It means that we must not only forgive those who sin against us in minor ways, but perhaps more importantly, we must also forgive those who commit the most horrendous acts against us.  In forgiving others who sin against us we express the character of God, who extends forgiveness to all. If God’s forgiveness has no limits, then the forgiveness we must offer to others should have no boundaries.

Why does this part of Jesus’ prayer seem so difficult for us?  The simple answer is that when we are wronged it is our human nature to seek punishment and even revenge.  We rightly desire justice, but we wrongly assume that justice is better served through vengeance and punishment.  From our perspectives, we view justice as making someone pay for what they have done.

But such a view misses the transformative power of forgiveness.  By commanding us to forgive, Jesus was calling us to wield the power of forgiveness to transform enemies into friends.  Moreover, Jesus understood that to forgive someone, especially to forgive them of a heinous action, is to free one’s self from the debilitating power of hatred and revenge.

This kind of forgiveness seeks the justice that is centered in the gospel of grace.  It is not justice that seeks to make the other pay for their sins.  Rather, it is justice that forgives them of their sins, thereby offering freedom to both the perpetrator and the victim.  This is not retributive justice. It is restorative justice.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Our Response to the Immigrant Children is Our Response to Jesus

Luke tells us that when Jesus was born Mary laid him in a feeding trough, because there was no room for him in the inn. Matthew narrates a story about a young family having to live a nomadic life because of the threat of governing authorities. Both birth narratives reflect what Jesus knew to be true about his own life, “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Throughout his life, while Jesus gathered a small following, in most cases, he was rejected.

The story of the incarnation, then, is a story about how the God of creation had entered into that creation as a rejected alien and stranger.

Even though most Americans support immigration reform, Congress fails to do its job by working across political party lines and pass any kind of reform. I am ill-equipped to answer questions about immigration from a legal stand point, and I see the strengths and weaknesses of various positions on the issue. But as Christians who follow a Savior who himself lived as an alien rejected by his own, I am troubled that many folks are not concerned about developing a compassionate response to the immigration issue.

Coupled with this lack of action on the part of our nation’s leaders is the growing crisis involving over 50,000 unaccompanied children, mostly from Central America, crossing the border and being taken into custody. A majority of these children are fleeing for their safety, hoping to find it here. While groups protest assistance being given to these children, wanting them to simply be sent back home, fortunately many faith groups are responding to this humanitarian crisis by ministering to the needs of these children, some of whom are very young.

Children suffering should appall every one of us, regardless of how that suffering came about. It is unconscionable to me both as an American, but especially as one who tries to follow Christ, that Americans, some of whom most likely claim to be Christian, are protesting that any aid be given to these children.

How might Scripture inform us as we struggle to formulate common sense and faithful Christian responses to the issue of immigration? First, we need to recall God’s commands to Israel regarding aliens in their midst. The Mosaic Law states that God is one “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” Moses goes on to command Israel to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.

Moreover, Jesus tells us in that famous passage from Matthew 25:31-46 that when the Son of Man comes in his glory, he will separate the faithful and the unfaithful. The only criteria for which we will be judged is how we treated others.

Jesus will not ask, “What did you believe about me?” He will not ask, “How often did you go to church.” He will not ask, “Which political party did you support?” He will simply judge us by how we treated the least of these. Certainly the 50,000 plus children fit Jesus’ definition of the least of these.

If we claim to follow Jesus, we need to make sure our views are more informed by the compassion of our faith than the fear our culture feeds us. Our positions on the issues surrounding immigration must not only model the teachings of Jesus on welcoming the strangers and outcasts, especially the children, they should also be views that see the person of Jesus in every human being. If they do not, we may find ourselves asking Jesus, “When did we see you as a stranger?’ only to hear, “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me”.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Church: The Broken Body of Jesus, Not the Powerful People of God

How did a movement that began with a rugged band of first century Jewish peasants eventually become the largest institutional religion in the world? How did the preaching of the gospel move from being a prophetic ministry of calling people to faithful discipleship to being a multibillion dollar business that promises blessing, prosperity, and victory over our enemies? 
How did a once inclusive community that welcomed Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, become an exclusive institution that works at its best to shut people out? How did the broken body of Jesus become the instrument of religious power?
Perhaps the most prominent metaphor to describe the church comes from the Apostle Paul’s description of the church as the body of Christ, particularly his exegesis of the metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12. Paul’s selection of this metaphor was not haphazard, for the image is so closely related to the center of Christian faith that the sign and that which it signifies cannot be easily distinguished. 
Indeed, the image of the church as the body of Christ signifies that the church is indeed the incarnation of Jesus in the world. The church is the mouth, the hands, the feet, and the heart of Jesus to a world in need of prophetic voices, serving hands and feet, and hearts of compassion.  Yet, we have forgotten that Jesus’ body was broken for us, and as such, the body of Christ in the world today should also be broken. 
Henri Nouwen wrote, "It is often difficult to believe that there is much to think, speak or write about other than brokenness". Brokenness, like many other terms that fit within its semantic domain, conjures up images of weakness and failure; images that for some reason we have taken to be far from what it means to be followers of Jesus. 
Yet, for some odd reason, we are particularly guilty of assuming that all things should work out for us Christians because God is on our side. We pray to avoid struggle and pain, and in some sections of the church, we are told that if we have enough faith we can avoid these things and we can even become rich.
But, as followers of Jesus, why should we assume that our lives should be any less tragic than his own? This is certainly not to say that we should be looking for suffering, as I think some often do, but we must be reminded that Jesus, the one we follow, suffered real evil, real pain, and real death. His human existence is not a story of victory, but one of brokenness that has meaning for our own humanity.
Thus, for followers of the Crucified, brokenness means that we become and remain vulnerable in our human existence, both as individual followers of Jesus and as the collective body of Christ. 
Despite the false teachings that Christians are blessed, or as we often like to say in an attempt to separate ourselves from others, “we are forgiven”, Christians have no pride of place in God’s creation, and thus, followers of Jesus must embrace brokenness as a faithful way of existing in the world both as individual followers of Jesus and as the collective body of Christ. 
While Christianity has traditionally believed in a God who is all powerful, when I reflect on the life of Jesus, I am inclined to believe that the traditional view of God does not seriously consider the vulnerability of human existence as represented in Jesus’ life and tragic death. Moreover, by coupling the belief that God is all-powerful with the idea that we, as opposed to others, are the blessed and chosen people of God, we mock the cross of Jesus. At no point in his life did Jesus ever suggest that we will be prosperous and secure if we only have faith in God.
Indeed, the church exists in the world as the suffering body of Christ that engages with the pains and struggles of those seeking hope, healing, redemption, and restoration. Jesus took on human brokenness in order to be intimate with those who struggled and suffered in this life. He did not separate himself from pain and brokenness, but he embraced it as a way of being intimate with those who suffer. His compassion was not a feeling of sympathy for the plight of the hurting, while he remained distant from their hurting. His compassion was the force that led him to be intimately bound to those who hurt. 
If the church is ever to return to Jesus’ vision for his followers, then those who claim to be Christian must choose to take up the cross of Jesus by choosing to be broken. Being a Christian does not remove our connectedness to the rest of humanity. Rather following Jesus leads us to be more intimately connected to humanity, especially to humans who are broken.
The church does not exist separate from the world, but lives in solidarity with the world as the broken body of Christ, incarnate and suffering with the rest of humanity.