Thursday, August 1, 2013

Imagining the Beautiful: It takes a community to be a pacifist...or at least it should.

"Blessed are the Peacemakers"-A Bumper Sticker...erg I mean Jesus.

"Nuke 'em till they glow"-A Bumper Sticker...definitely not Jesus. 

"God's own love for us is shown in his victorious deed of invasion in which he liberates us and calls into community." J. Louis Martyn 

So if you didn't know I am a pacifist. 


I also enjoy community and the church.


The problem is...I live in a part of the world where that is difficult. 

(Not just an American Problem, but it is an American Problem) 

However, I am beginning to see that those two combinations are in fact rare. For various reasons that I am about to name. 

1.) We would be insensitive to people who attend our church. 
  • The sheer size of our Armed Forces means that we will have someone in our community or someone related to or who is friends with a member of the Armed forces. They are in our Churches and we should not kick them out. (I do mean that) And that being the case saying things from the pulpit like "We think Killing People is Wrong" would be insensitive and push them away. 

2.) Too Radical and Not Pragmatic.
  • Christians are pro-people. A group of people who protects people, not bad right? I mean if you knew something about a group of people or person who was willing to kill millions and you stopped them would you? Wouldn't that be ok? 
  • Would you stop someone from assaulting a loved one? Would you think less of someone who sat by and watched? 

3.) *sung* LAST BUT NOT LEAST: Is the Bible really clear about non-violence? 
  • OT: Holy War, Genocide, (In fact the entire Deuternomistic History) David and Goliath, David in general, Israel in general, Psalm 137:9, etc.
  • NT: Jesus says buy swords, Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is for those who take it by force, Romans 13, Revelation 19, etc. 
  • BOOM!
Into this nexus we expect, somehow, our communities to be pacifist? 


Oh Wait, never mind. I do. 

However,  Pacifists have functioned best as radical fringe people. People who were rolled over by the wheels of history, who allowed history to roll over them and somehow enacted the most change. Not all Pacifists, but a lot of them. 

Furthermore, communities can be a problem. We can think of the Household Codes in the NT from Paul. These are about communities. They subject people to the upward trajectory of their rule. For example, communities often oversimplify and poorly exegete texts like the Household Codes. But still, what about communities?

I want to tentatively go out on a limb and say that we still need to talk about communities, and that the abuse inflicted by communities does not prevent what Paul and Jesus liked and wanted. And since communities called Churches find themselves dealing with the Bible, lets talk about the Bible.

Here's two quotes to consider:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
"The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians." (This in addition to everything else he says in chapter 1 of Life Together...or just read all of it) 

Richard Hays (Talking about Paul),
"The constant factor is that he (Paul) imagines God's eschatological salvation in corporate terms: God transforms and saves a people, not atomized individuals. Consequently, the faithful find their identity and vocation in the world as the body of Christ."

I choose these quotes because they help us put in perspective the Biblical passages that we so often misquote, misunderstand, and just plain miss. And these quotes help locate this often quoted and rarely understood passage in its proper perspective.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:12-13) 

Its hard to grasp the gravity of this passage without acknowledging the world shattering statement that it is making. I cannot go into the complexities, but it is worth saying that the the relationship between Jews/Gentiles and Slaves/Free (though it would have been better if he said Masters, but hey) was tumultuous. The community created by Jesus (or should I say made possible by Jesus) is counter cultural and counter intuitive from the culture it finds itself in. (Read Bonhoeffer's Discipleship and Life Together for a complete picture on this) This is obvious of the Biblical world and no reason to thinks it changed. But why do we still struggle with that. It is clear that we trapped in habits and practices of sin that influence our readings of the Bible. (This is Hauerwas speaking)

Furthermore, the Bible has lost its counter-cultural message because we have ceased to read it that way. And Rather use it as a weapon to affirm our own subjectivities. As Stanley "the manly" Hauerwas says,

"[Some] read the Bible not as Christians, not as people set apart, but as democratic citizens who think their 'common sense' is sufficient for 'understanding' Scripture."

So maybe its not an issue of right principles or pragmatics, but of imagination. Anytime the Bible or the Church locates itself along side systems of violence (i.e. slavery, Jew/Gentile violence, etc) then we are not reading the Bible with enough imagination or in the way it was intended. The Community that Jesus opens up, and to which the NT witnesses to, is a community opened up in light of systems of violence. It's not easy and as Bonhoeffer said should not be taken for granted, but it is a reality made possible by Christ.

So whats the deal? How does all this fit together?

Here's the summary to this point:

1. I am a pacifist and believer in Christian community.

2. There are several roadblocks in the contemporary Church that prevent people from holding these positions practically and exegetically.

3. Maybe there is some ambiguity with these texts and the ambiguity arises from our cultural position?

So what do I think is at stake?

Listen to this sermon.   

Saying Stop

These are individuals, but there is a sense that whole communities need to be in the practice of saying stop. Somehow in the logics of what we understand as peace needs to be played out. The logics of what Jesus does in saying stop.


***Now there is a very specific crucial point I want to clarify. There is a sense in which this equation of saying stop can be reversed on its head. The sense in which, arrogantly, the Church sees its daily life as peaceful and read that back on Christ. Now it may look similar and that might sound right, but that is a very dangerous step. One can make a lot of assumptions.

Its the wrong direction. It allows for the coercive interpretation of community that can justify anything in its communal life as a reflection of the life of God. This is especially troubling when we observe Church history and times when the Church has made assumptions about itself (culturally or otherwise) and linked it closely with salvation. (i.e. Crusades, colonialism, and aspects of WWI&II) You can see how these cultural epochs take the person and body of Jesus and transmute it to make claims about the world that carry the weight of salvation. In short, we must be clear: community does not produce character. Jesus produces character and therefore also community.

Rather, the direction is opposite. Jesus radically interrupts our reality. (see quote above from Martyn) As Bonhoeffer is famous for, the gospel is a gospel of costly grace. It is a call to come and die.

***Side note: the call to come and die is usually coded under some American masculine sense of being eager and willing to die. Its less in the sense of discipleship and used to justify things like war. (AGAIN IMAGINATION)***

Thus the call to discipleship is difficult, its not comfortable.***


When the community commits to "saying stop" it will look surprising.

Consider This===>Amish Grace
(WARNING: This video is a bit cheesy)

Consider this story again as narrated by David Steinmetz.
October 13, 2006
DURHAM--I thought I had lost the capacity to be shocked. After all, the slaughter of the innocents is nothing new. My wife and I have a dark memento of gratuitous cruelty to children, a poster from the Holocaust Museum that shows a group of Jewish children, already separated from their parents and waiting quietly for the freight trains that will take them to Auschwitz or Buchenwald, where -- if they are lucky -- they will suffer a swift death.
But the recent murder of young Amish girls in a one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa., slipped past the defenses I thought I had safely in place. The act seemed so unexpected, so random, so senselessly cruel, so out of place with the tranquil setting of the school or the peaceful ideals of the Amish themselves, that it was difficult to take in, much less to understand.
The shooter, Charles Carl Roberts, knew the Amish girls would not resist, though he brought restraints with him, just to be safe, especially since (as it appears) he intended to abuse them sexually before he murdered them. But the Amish school teacher, alarmed by his behavior, slipped out the back door, ran to a neighbor's house and did what must have seemed to Roberts the un-Amish act of calling the police. Their unanticipated arrival upset his timetableand saved the girls from rape, if not from his angry gunfire.
Nonviolence is a way of life among he Amish, who, like the Mennonites, are descendants of a 16th century radical Christian group called Anabaptists. Anabaptists were particularly impressed by the teaching of Jesus on the subject of nonviolence. They read the commandments of Jesus to turn the other cheek, to renounce the sword, to return good for evil and to forgive one's enemies, as rules binding on all Christians and not just on some subgroup of the especially pious.
In their view Christians could not be soldiers, because soldiers are required to take human life in time of war, or magistrates, because magistrates are duty bound to order violence done in the name of justice. The command to use no violence against another human being and to forgive unjust wrongs was absolute and admitted of no exceptions. As the Lord's Prayer made perfectly clear to the Anabaptists (and to their Amish descendants), forgiveness is not extended to the unforgiving. Forgive us as we forgive is the intractable rule.
And so the Amish forgave Roberts for imprisoning their children, for maiming and murdering them, and even for intending to molest them while they were helplessly in his power. They forgave him, not because he had been driven by private demons or because his act was anything but heinous. They forgave him because they thought Jesus had told them to and they were not clever enough to think he didn't mean it.
Forgiveness is tough work, and forgiving the unforgivable unimaginably hard. Most of us, whatever our faith commitments or lack of them, would have to whisper a prayer -- at least to "the close and holy darkness" for the grace of a bad memory, before struggling to forgive much smaller wrongs.
After a while, news of fresh acts of violence against children loses its power to shock, even when it still dismays.
But the Amish matched their words with deeds. They invited Roberts' widow to the funerals of their children, insisted that some of the money raised to help them be used to help her, andeven attended the graveside service of the man who had so cruelly wrested their children from them.
By doing so, the unworldly but morally substantial Amish gave their worldly but morally less substantial fellow citizens a brief glimpse of a peaceable kingdom, where the lion lies down with the lamb, where swords will be beaten into plowshares, where violence ceases and a gentle magnanimity reigns.
You can't say it is impossible or hopelessly utopian, because you have just seen it done. 
(David C. Steinmetz is the Amos Ragan Kearns professor of the History of Christianity at the Divinity School of Duke University. He is a former resident of Lancaster County, Pa.) 

Steinmetz draws the reader into a world to set the seemingly abnormal (forgiveness and peace) against the backdrop of our notions of normal (revenge and hate) to show the modern Christians the world they should inhabit, not the one they in fact do.

This is why I think communities and pacifism go together. When a community can band together and perform this type of non-violent response it creates a space where this type of living can be seen not as idealist jargon, but as a living practice of faith.

If this story, or these words shock, then part of it is the theological imagination we are preaching.

***I guess it is important to note that it did happen, and it was surprising to us all. It should. Actions like this help interrupt and should be encouraged. Its not that we try and normalize surprising action, but that we don't forget where the horizon actually leads.***

I think of the book Gilead and the John Ames', main character, grandfather who was a country preacher during the time leading up to the Civil War. The grandfather confessed experiencing the revelation of God that the war was of God. But in the end, the confidence of this old country preacher was gone. John Ames reflects,

"...he preached his people into that war..."

As Ames goes one he mentions that his grandfather felt a great deal of grief. He must have. Looking out and seeing all the widows, orphans, and loved ones of the men he had sent to their deaths.

Ames reflects,

"I suspect he knew he couldn't preach life back into a church that had lost so much as his had."

He would hire himself out as a worker to his congregation, to the point of almost abandoning his own family. This was his penance. The guilt was palpable. Its never simple to preach it and we shouldn't say that it is.

***So what's all this mean? Stop Quoting Stuff and Get To the Point!***

Simply put...maybe we are preaching the wrong imagination. Maybe the reason we find it so hard to imagine a world without violence is because we refuse to see, preach, and practice such a world that Christ calls into being and hands to us.

So, boldly and humbly, the problem of soldiers in our midst is that sometimes we preach them into it, or maybe not.

I am open to conversation, not yelling.

Either way, we need to seriously evaluate our Christian imagination and ask weather it resembles a re-fried patriotism. Civil Religion is not the same as the practice of following Jesus. Simply put: To make disciples of all nations is incompatible war.

The fact that so many emotions surround this issue and we cannot have a civil conversation in the Church shows us something too. This is a lot, so here are some key points I want to be clear about. (I also hope this answers our three roadblocks above)

  • I believe community should be something struggled for and not something coercive.
  • Furthermore, communities should be examined in how they treat the marginal. 
  • Communities can be places of extreme affirmation in the Christian journey and places that encourage neighbor love, charity, and hope. FURTHERMORE, if communities can embody the principles of non-violence, like the Amish in Nickel Mines, they can be creative, nurturing spaces for those who want to embody those principles and thus represent the logic of new creation. 
  • I think pacifism is unpopular because we don't preach and practice it. (Be it that we think its unpopular or not.) 
  • We avoid difficult conversations about pacifism because we know the emotions it brings up. 
  • Judgment falls on us all, so there is no need to easily pass it out. 
  • I am not sure what I would do in a situation where innocent people, loved ones, or even myself were in life threatening danger. I don't. However, I do know assenting to violence before hand leads to death almost certainly. Pacifism may fail to protect innocence but war and violence fails as well and more often than not leads to more unnecessary death. That type of assent to future violence is a bad Christian imagination. We must remember, we are not the future...Jesus is the future. 
  • This doesn't mean I want to celebrate the death of soldiers, or that it should mean that soldiers should be kicked out of the Church. (I don't think we should do that with anyone to be honest) 
  • But it doesn't mean that we should equate war with Christian missions, that American Freedom is equal with God's, and that we should celebrate the death of any casualty of war. 
  • The very fact that in our wars Christians kill other Christians in the name of country should tell us something. 
  • The Bible as a whole needs to be read, re-read, and read again in conference with other people and the guidance of the Church, tradition, theology, and other cultures in order to begin to get at answers to these types of questions of community and war. We cannot simply throw some Bible verses at it and make it go away. Life isn't that simple and neither should war...or community. 
  • It also means that we should reconsider the word 'enemy' in light of the great commission. 
  • It also means that forgiveness should be given a fair hearing as a way of practicing Christianity.
  • At the very least we need to question the way that the war on terror is happening, especially the rise of drone killings. 

There are a lot of things to consider, but certainly we have to consider these things. It might be radical but through out history Christianity always has been. We might ask ourselves why the present age is different. And why we so violently defend it...

Monday, July 1, 2013

Children, Mr. Rogers, and the Christian Moral Imagination.

I have always heard that Moral Theology and Christian Ethics lies not so much in knowing the right information, but in knowing the right questions to ask. If this is so, then I contend that Mr. Rogers is one of the greatest examples of Christian Moral Theology.

If you, by a terrible twist of fate, do not know who Mr. Rogers is or are just unfamiliar with him, read this article and WATCH ALL THE VIDEOS EMBEDDED!!!!!!!! But seriously you will not regret it.

Take a moment just click on this link =>Mr. Rogers as Moral Agent. 

Now I trust that you watched and read everything.

Anyway, if the moral life is about knowing the right questions to ask, then to be moral includes being intimately involved in the situations within which moral action is being called for.

***Now it seems appropriate to acknowledge that Christianity and the Moral are not good partners. I am unsure how to negotiate the relationship between the two since Ethics and Morality arise directly from the Fall. However, one cannot fail to acknowledge that Christian lives possess ethical implications. And so for that reason I use the word Moral, though it be imperfect.***

Back to Mr. Rogers.

According to Rowan Williams, correct rearing of our children has become a great moral challenge.

He writes of what has become a misunderstanding of childhood,

"Childhood, after all, is a period we've come to think of as 'latency', the time before certain determinations and decisions have to be made." (Williams, 11) 

This latency is seen as something that is to be born, a kind of waiting period or ritual before the child has become a mature moral agent.

In this modern conception, childhood is understood very impatiently.

This view of childhood, of latency, makes the child, in their own way, a subject of economic and moral pressure. Acted on, and expected to mature past childhood in order to become an active participant capitalistic economy of value. Pushed to mature. Everything prior to that maturation, tossed aside as irrelevant. Games to fill time before real meaning can be assigned. Meaning that in some cases the child's play is allowed, but never taken seriously. What is serious is the 'real' world that the parents already live into and the child awaits.

Play is illogical. Adulthood is logical. The real world has no need of it.

Returning to Williams, and one of my favorite quotes, about Alan Garner's book, The Moon of Gomrath. Williams writes, (its long sorry)

"Throughout the book, we're made aware of a tantalizing oddity, a sort of detachment and chill, in the behavior of the 'light-elves'; and, fairly well on in the narrative, an explanation is offered by another of the 'fairy' species. The elves fight with bows and arrows, not hand-to-hand, with swords: they kill at a distance, without seeing the eyes of their victims. 'You will find in the bows of the lios-altar much to explain their nature, which was not always as now.' But human beings use bow and arrows, don't they? And guns? So the child reader might ask. Well indeed: now look at human beings again, a bit more carefully. What might the difference be between knowing you're killing a specific person and indiscriminate slaughter? And does the latter make you another kind of person? We we not always as now?" (19)    

Ironic. We as Moral Theologians, Christian ethicists labor for the right questions, yet here in the child's imagination in play here they are.

Williams continues,

"This kind of moral exploration, by way of the play between the familiar and the often outrageously strange, is properly a function of all imaginative writing; and the fictional space as an opportunity for testing styles and identities - even at the level of the suburban soap - goes on being important for anyone trying actively to relate to the world." (19) 

The abandoning of this type of play and the solidifying of 'real world' moralities keeps the consistent questioning, or rather right questioning, that the Christian life requires aloft.

HOWEVER, it is important to know that not all play is equal. What I mean is that some play is relatively, or explicitly violent.

Hey, I grew up on the Power Rangers. So I am guilty. To this day I am still captivated by it. The intro tells you enough.

So what kinds of play? Enter, Fred Rogers.

It was not enough for Mr. Rogers to tell kids what to do, but created an entire world, or neighborhood in which the kids could enter. This was the "Neighborhood of Make Believe."

It was a magical place, oft quirky and cheesy according to today's standards, but it was a place of safety that kids could go. It was a place where dramas were played out in front of their eyes between characters like Tuesday and Friday (to orient them to the mundane). These dramas were dramas that looked fantastic but were familiar to the kids who watched them. As Rowan Williams said above, it allows them to test identities. If you wonder if he was able to know the things that ailed kids, just think about the fact that he wrote a whole song about not getting sucked down the drain.

But still, this fantasy world was a safe place where one could see 'friends' go through the daily struggles kids had to go through. What's the importance you ask? To ask the right questions, and to have the confidence that a friend cared, who understood. And ultimately the words spoken to the child was, "You are special and valuable." Sometimes the moral life arises out of the confidence that we are loved and understood. This also gives us the space to play, and be allowed to test the waters of identity with the patience of friend.

Furthermore, Sometimes the moral life requires the possibility of seeing a world where the right choice is normative. The Neighborhood of Make Believe was such a place. The fantasy world helps the child ask the right questions, test identities, and see the possibility of right living through the questions. Its hard to watch Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood and see that choices of violence, persecution, and anger are possible courses of action. Rather, it forms the child, the human, to be a creature that recognizes that valuableness and sacredness of the other. Namely, to see them as friends in the neighborhood. This new fantasy world assists in the establishing of a new imagination. Don't believe me? Watch this episode.

Be Yourself

Now, Christ is never mentioned by Mr. Rogers. I get that. But, Fred Rogers was an ordained minister. He did his education while filming the show and chose to give his life to the formation of the Child's imagination. You think he would be theological intentionally.

But then I contemplate the person and work of Christ.

You cannot deny the Christ-o-logic of this method. Because isn't it the mission of Christ to give a new imagination to humanity caught in cycles of violence? Does he not give us the imagination, the vision to see to a new world beyond our own? And furthermore, does he not give us the confidence that we are loved? Even unto the end of the age?

Don't think it was intentional? Listen to his speech at his induction into the TV Hall of Fame.

Hall of Fame Speech.

Or re-watch this speech.

Life Time Achievement Speech.

So maybe it wasn't Sunday School exactly, but it provides the imagination to see a magical world where lives can be formed in Christian love. Its the kind of therapeutic Christian imagination that we would need to cure our own violence and possibly the violence of the whole world.

And so I close with this story:

Fred Rogers once received a letter from a young boy who suffered from some type of developmental disorder that would send him into fits of rage. He was an avid watcher of Mr. Roger's neighborhood. He asked Mr. Rogers that if he was ever in his neighborhood, if he would come by. So, Mr. Rogers one day finding himself near this boy and with a few hours to spare rented a car and sought out this boy along with his handler.

(Note: Mr. Rogers had a handler not because he was vain or felt he was in danger, but because he was so present with whoever he was with he would have never gotten anywhere with out them.)

When they got their the boy was in such a state of excitement, but quickly it turned to rage as he was unable to calm himself and act the way he wanted in front of his TV friend. Into this situation, Mr. Rogers now sitting in the living room with this boy said, "Will you pray for me?" For some reason, this calmed the boy. They prayed. Fred Rogers visited a little bit longer and bid the family farewell. As he and his handler got back in the car she asked him, "That was quite a psychological trick, giving him volition in a situation where he had no control in order to calm down." Fred Rogers looked puzzled and then chuckled and said in a tone only he could muster. "Oh heavens no. I figured if a boy of his age could survive such things, he would be the one I would want to pray for me."

Knowing the right question to ask. Would you pray for me? It seems to simple to be true, but for Fred Rogers it was a part of a nexus of imagination that made such responses possible.

Maybe when we are confused about what to do in the violence in our world. What action to take, we might imagine returning to that neighborhood of make believe. To remember a man who spent his life helping kids find the right questions and the confidence that they were special and loved.

And I think its worth closing with a song he wrote, Goodnight God.