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sakina breaks a toy gun

Burying Guns; Planting Peace In Afghanistan

Editor’s Note: This article, written by Dr. Hakim, was submitted by contributing author Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

10 year old Sakina, an Afghan street kid, had this to say, “I don’t like to be in a world of war. I like to be in a world of peace.”

On 27th August 2015, Sakina and Inam, with fellow Afghan street kids and the Afghan Peace Volunteers, held a mock funeral for weapons and celebrated the establishment of a green space in Kabul.

Dressed in long black coats, they broke and buried toy guns in a small spot where, over the past two years, they have been planting trees.

Inam, a bright-eyed ten year old, caught the group’s energetic desire to build a world without war. “I kept toy guns till about three years ago,” he acknowledged with a smile.

On the same day, Nobel Laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez, ex-President of Costa Rica, was in Mexico for the Arms Trade Treaty’s First Conference of States Parties.

In his statement at the Conference, he told the story of an indigenous Guatemalan woman who thanked him for negotiating a peace accord 28 years ago. The mother had said, “Thank you, Mr. President, for my child who is in the mountains fighting, and for the child I carry in my womb.”

No mother, Guatemalan or Afghan, wants her children to be killed in war.

Oscar Arias Sanchez wrote: “I never met them, but those children of conflict are never far from my thoughts. They were its (the peace treaty’s) true authors, its reason for being.”

I’m confident that the children of Afghanistan were also in his thoughts, especially since he had a brief personal connection with the Afghan Peace Volunteers in 2014, having been part of a Peace Jam video message of solidarity to the Volunteers, wearing their Borderfree Blue Scarves which symbolize that ‘all human beings live under the same blue sky’.

I thank Mr Oscar Arias Sanchez for his important work on the Arms Trade Treaty, though I sense that an arms trade treaty isn’t going to be enough.

Afghan children are dying from the use of weapons.

To survive, they need a ban against weapons. Regulations about buying and selling weapons perpetuate a trade that is killing them.

I saw Inam and other child laborers who work in Kabul’s streets decisively swing hammers down on the plastic toy guns, breaking off triggers, scattering nozzles into useless pieces and symbolically breaking our adult addiction to weapons.

Children shouldn’t have to pay the price for our usual business, especially business from the U.S., the largest arms seller in the world. U.S. children suffer too, with more U.S. people having died as a result of gun violence since 1968 than have died in all U.S. wars combined. U.S. weapon sellers are killing their own people; by exporting their state-of-the-art weapons, they facilitate the killing of many others around the world.

After burying the toy guns, surrounded by the evergreen and poplar trees which they had planted, the youth shed their black coats and donned sky-blue scarves.

Another world was appearing as Sakina and Inam watched young friends plant one more evergreen sapling.

Inam watches an evergreen tree being planted.

Inam watches an evergreen tree being planted.

Inam knew that it hasn’t been easy to create this green space in heavily fortified Kabul.

The City Municipality said they couldn’t water the trees (though it is just 200 metres away from their office). The Greenery Department weren’t helpful. Finally, the security guards of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission just across from the garden, offered to help, after the Volunteers had provided them with a 100-metre water hose.

Rohullah, who coordinates the environment team at the Borderfree Nonviolence Community Centre, expressed his frustration. “Once, we had to hire a private water delivery service to water the tree saplings so they wouldn’t shrivel up. None of the government departments could assist.”

Sighing, he added ironically, “We can’t use the Kabul River tributary running just next to the Garden, as the trash-laden trickle of black, bracken water is smelly and filthy.”

Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, according to figures from the National Priorities Project, a non-profit, non-partisan U.S. federal budget research group, the ongoing Afghan War is costing American taxpayers US $4 million an hour.

It is the youth and children who are making sense today, like when Nobel Laureate Malalai Yousafzai said recently that if the whole world stopped spending money on the military for just 8 days, we could provide 12 years of free, quality education for every child on the planet.

“I don’t like to work in the streets, but my family needs bread. Usually, I feel sad,” Inam said, looking away, “because I feel a sort of helplessness.”

Oscar Arias Sanchez said at the Arms Trade Treaty’s First Conference, “And we must speak, today – in favour of this crucial treaty, and its swift and effective implementation. If we do, then when today’s children of conflict look to us for guidance and leadership, we will no longer look away in shame. We will be able to tell them, at long last, that we are standing watch for them. We are on guard. Someone is finally ready to take action.”

Sakina tells the world

Sakina tells the world.

That morning, I heard the voices of Sakina, Inam and the Afghan youth ring through the street, “#Enough of war!”

It wasn’t a protest. It was the hands-on building of a green spot without weapons, and an encouraging call for others to do so everywhere.

Through their dramatic colours and clear action, they were inviting all of us, “Bury your weapons. Build your gardens.”

“We will stand watch for you!”

 

Hakim, ( Dr. Teck Young, Wee ) is a medical doctor from Singapore who has done humanitarian and social enterprise work in Afghanistan for the past 10 years, including being a mentor to the Afghan Peace Volunteers, an inter-ethnic group of young Afghans dedicated to building non-violent alternatives to war. He is the 2012 recipient of the International Pfeffer Peace Prize.

Top Image:  “Sakina breaks a toy gun.” All images submitted with original article.

Venrun

Unbridled Mercy

My heart breaks for a world scourged by violence.

Duped and deceived by the satan inside us.[1]

Accuse![2] Convict! Point fingers at “them.”

It’s us who are just! and they are condemned.

 

Our violence is good—it’s righteous and true.

God’s on our side and “they’ll” know that soon too.[3]

With power and might we lord over others,[4]

Accusing the prophets of being false brothers.[5]

 

Woe to those who confuse Christ for religion,

Who speak devilish things about those already forgiven.

Woe to those who demand blood in Christ’s name,

Who spit venom and poison[6], curse others, and blame.

 

The grace you demand is abundant and infinite

Yet the grace you give seems rather impotent.[7]

The grace of God is unfathomable[8] and yet,

You contend Love offers an eternal threat.[9]

 

A gospel with violence is unfounded and false.

It’s the opposite of Christ—a religious farce.

The way of the Christ is the way of the cross,

But in knowing the Christ, all else is loss.[10]

 

The way of Christ is preemptive grace.

Grace in the midst of a spit to the face.[11]

This model of forgiveness is what sets us free,

Free to love all with unbridled mercy.

 

[1] For a detailed expose on what/who is “the satan,” see Michael Hardin’s eBook aptly entitled, “The Satan.” It can be found at http://www.preachingpeace.org/images/FB-Posts-on-The-Satan-e-Book1.pdf
[2] The satan, or “ha satan” in Hebrew, translates to “the accuser.”
[3] I am referring to the three major Abrahamic religions, which have many within the respective faiths who claim they are the chosen people and thus, that they have God on their side.
[4] See Matthew 20:25 – 27, where Jesus tells his followers they are not to lord over others, as the Gentiles do, but they are to become great by becoming as a servant.
[5] See Luke 11:50 – 51.
[6] See Matthew 23.
[7] Matthew 7:1 – 2.
[8] See Romans 11:32 – 33.
[9] I contend that since God is love (1 John 4:8), eternal conscious torment as a final fate for some humans is incompatible.
[10] See Philippians 3:8.
[11] See Matthew 26:67

Image: Created by Venrun. Available via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

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Hold On Until Love Wins

I was working on another article, but I can’t concentrate on it now. It’s hard to concentrate in a world with so much hatred, so much distrust, so much fear, and so much senseless murder.

I wonder how many people worldwide are shocked out of their daily routine by a tragedy. I wonder how many people must plow through their daily routines that tragedy is a part of.

The news is still coming in about a shooting in my home state of Virginia. A reporter and cameraman were shot on air not far from where I went to college. The families of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward are in mourning. And now perhaps the family of Vester Flanagan, the shooter who shot himself as police caught up to him and died after being taken to the hospital, is in mourning as well. My anxieties about a shooter loose in my home state have been quelled, but the overwhelming sorrow is just beginning to overflow.

I am in mourning for our broken world, ready to despair of hope that it can be repaired. And I recognize that even that despair, and the temporary paralysis that comes with it, is a luxury, because all over the world there are those who live in constant states of degradation, oppression and terror, who must somehow go about their lives anyway. Those living in the midst of war must somehow try to make a living despite the destruction and loss that has become a normal part of life, whatever the hell normal might mean. Babies and grandparents are struck with drones. Limbs are blown apart. People are slowly rotting away from malnutrition or dying from exposure because we can’t find the money to feed them or repair their destroyed homes, even as we spend more money to kill them. Throughout the world, weapons made right here are killing people on all sides of all conflicts, and in some parts of the world we are taking a more direct role in the destruction. The Global War on Terror rages on. And all over the world, the pain and horror and grief that has struck my heart so deeply today strikes so many hearts that must beat on in the midst of this churning machine of violence that we have turned the world into.

We do all of this in the name of national security, of course.

But we are a frightened, insecure nation.

We have nurtured an enemy mentality that pits us against the world (even as we justify our violence by claiming to be a force for protection in the world.) And the violence we export abroad is taking its toll on us. It’s been taking its toll on us for a long, long time, eroding our souls with every weapon made, let alone used, to destroy another child of God, either half a world away or right next door. How could a nation that spends more money than any other in the world, more than most of the world combined, on the military, not be infected by a culture of violence? How can we spend billions on bombs and guns and drones and missiles while neglecting the necessary funds for education and housing and healthcare, and claim to respect life? How can our leaders instruct us to kill abroad and be surprised when we find no other way to handle our problems here at home? How can we demand respect for human dignity while we continually glorify violence that tears human beings apart? How can we respect life while waging death?

As long as we live in fear and glorify violence, we can’t be surprised that efforts for gun control go nowhere. Of course we need gun control, but we also need to control our addiction to the myth that peace can be waged through violence. I can’t think of any myth that has so thoroughly duped humanity as the satanic lie that peace can be bought from sacrifice – from murder and war. The notion of a war to end all wars, a permanent peace arising from the rubble of destruction and death, is so demonstrably false. The house divided against itself is our own world, and we cannot stand like this. Will we keep hurtling ourselves headfirst toward our own destruction, putting our faith in instruments of death?

We live in a deadly world and we keep making it deadlier. So we are afraid, and we cling to our guns, and when someone poisoned by the idolatry of violence fires one of those guns, fearful people cling ever more tightly to their guns. When our own government clings to its nuclear arsenal in the name of “deterrence,” how can we expect anything less of citizens?

So I am weighed down by sorrow as today’s shooting mercilessly steals lives and accelerates the whirlwind forces of this cycle of violence spinning out of control. But I can’t wallow. Because my toddler is awake, and I have picked up my first-grader from school. How truly, truly blessed I am to be able to hold my children close, to know my husband will be returning from work, to still have the peace of mind to be reasonably sure that my loved ones will make it through another day safe and sound.

Too many people around the world live without the luxury of knowing their loved ones will return safely to them at the end of the day. Too many people in our own nation live without that luxury, as African Americans find it necessary to complete the sentence “If I die in police custody…” And increasingly, we are living in a nation where all of our security is disintegrating into a hollow illusion. We cannot be secure when we put our trust in violence.

But if today you have the blessed opportunity to hold your loved ones in your arms, do not let them go. In a hopeless world, find hope in the faces of those who love you, and radiate it back to them. The only way we are going to bring peace to this battered, shattered world is to make those human connections, and nurture the ones that we already have. If you believe in God, that’s where you find God, and if you don’t, well, that’s OK, as long as you believe in Love, because it’s the same thing. Hold on to your loved ones, dear friends. Hold them and see in their eyes the joy of a future filled with the love they bring to the world. Hold them until you can’t imagine a world in which anyone has to go without holding their own loved ones. Then go out and shout, strive, struggle to create that world, and when despair inevitably rears its ugly head, go back to their arms to revive your hope. Be those arms for someone who has lost a loved one to violence. Be love, and hold on in love to those who need love. Hold on until love wins.

Featured Image: Screenshot of “Reporter and Cameraman Gunned Down During Live TV In Virginia Shooting” AJ+ via Youtube.

Screenshot from Youtube

Dr. Seuss and the Gospel Part 5: Yertle the Turtle and the “Wrath of God”

Dr. Seuss’ book Yertle the Turtle is about a King who rules through violence, oppression, and scapegoating. But the more he builds his kingdom on the backs of his subjects, the more likely his kingdom will come tumbling down into the mud. [Video Below]

What does Yertle the Turtle have to do with the Gospel? In his book, Must There Be Scapegoats, Raymund Schwager discusses St. Paul’s statement about that the “Wrath of God” in Romans 1. The “Wrath of God” isn’t something inherent to God. In fact, wrath is a purely human phenomenon. But God’s “wrath” for Paul has nothing to do with violence. Rather,

According to Paul, God’s anger consists only in the deliverance of humankind to themselves, their desires, passions, and perverse thinking. No external violence plays any further role. God’s wrath is identical with the granting of full respect for the human action that turns against God and leads to complete perversion of personal relationships.

We see the “complete perversion of personal relationships” as Yertle builds him empire on oppression, but his kingdom soon falls. The biblical prophets gave the same message to the ancient kings – if continue to scapegoat the poor, weak, and marginalized, your kingdom will fall. The alternative is to care for those who are marginalized.

Jesus picked up that strand within the prophets and showed that the kingdom of God was based not on oppression and scapegoating, but on caring for the marginalized. Schwager states that this is the new order of human relationships. “Whereas the old social order was founded on the scapegoat mechanism, the new people distinguished themselves by the fact that they no longer needed to compete with one another for supremacy.” This new way of life frees us to live into God’s realm of love and compassion for all people, including our scapegoats.

“The uncovering of the underlying process of violence through the message of boundless love must lead inevitably to a fundamental change in power structures,” writes Schwager. Those in power may experience that change in power structure as the “Wrath of God.” But it isn’t wrath. Rather, it’s God’s loving justice that seeks to heal our relationships with “boundless love.”


For more in the Dr. Seuss and the Gospel Series, see:

Part 1: On Beyond Zebra and the Restoration of all Things

Part 2: The Lorax, the Prophets, and the iPad

Part 3: The Cat in the Hat, Jesus, and Chaos

Part 4: How the Grinch Stole Christmas

 

 

Frozen

Love Will Thaw A Frozen Heart

Disney’s Frozen is unlike other “princess” movie in that it is not as much a tale about courtship, but of sisterly love. Sure, intertwined within the main plot is a somewhat predictable triangle of romance, but the primary theme is not like most enchanted fairy tales. There is much more going on here.

The story begins by introducing two young sisters. Elsa, the eldest, possesses the power to create magical ice. This magic has the potential to create many beautiful shared memories with her younger sister, Anna. However, it also has the potential to do great harm. The girls discover this one fateful evening.

After Anna is struck in the head by Elsa’s ice, the royal parents rush the girls off to a magical troll—a shaman of sorts. The elder gives the family the advice that Elsa must A) Control her powers as they will certainly grow and B) Fear will be her biggest enemy. So what do Elsa’s parents do? They instill paralyzing fear in her, hiding her from everything she once loved, including Anna. Talk about an adventure in missing the point.

Tragedy strikes the girls when their parents are lost at sea. The two sisters are left with only each other, which is a relationship that has become merely a shell of its former self. Elsa’s powers have indeed grown, but fear, loss, and heartache are the driving force. Inevitably, everything will come to a head during Elsa’s coronation.

As the masses gather for the coronation of the new queen, we are introduced to an underlying theme that will remain throughout the film. Arendelle, the locale where the story takes place, is a quaint and bustling town. There seems to be no blight, no poverty (a la Aladdin’s Agrabah), and no crime. Because of this however, there seems to be a growing interest from the Duke of Weselton, who appears to be an oligarchist.[1] The stage will soon be set: either Arendelle will continue in her peaceful and prosperous ways or her riches will be exploited by the powerful elite who desire such things. Either Arendelle will resemble the kingdom of God or yet another kingdom of man—New Jerusalem or Babylon.

During this time, Anna, who has been desperate for relationship for years, falls in “love” the moment she meets a handsome and charming prince named Hans. This news becomes too much to bear for Elsa, who, because of her deep-rooted fear, could barely make it through her own coronation. This sets off a chain of events that will forever change the sisters and the kingdom. Years of pain, suffering, and torment explode from Elsa the minute Anna demands an explanation as to why she and Hans cannot marry. A fury of ice covers the great dance hall and in an instant, Elsa is seen not as a beautiful queen, but as a monster—a sorceress. In a very real way, she resembles the many scapegoats throughout history—those whom society fears, but knows not quite why. Surely, she must flee for her life. (Luke 4:30)

Nearly every American parent knows what happens when Queen Elsa ascends to the top of the North Mountain. (I don’t need to point to how many plays “Let it Go” has on YouTube.) There are two themes this epically famous song has. First, Elsa recognizes that she is being scapegoated by the community when she sings the lyric, “A kingdom of isolation and it looks like I’m the queen.” Yes, she is the queen of Arendelle. But this is a play on words—she is the queen of a kingdom of isolation—a kingdom of one. She is the one the “all” are against. Second, when she sings the lyric, “be the good girl you always have to be”, she is displaying the impossibility of living under the system she was placed, which was a rigid system of rules and regulations forced upon her by her parents. She was forced to withdraw from all loving relationships, and it drove her to the most extreme fringes of society. The end-game of this unfortunate lifestyle was her lonely climb up the mountain.

When Anna goes after her sister Elsa, she puts her own life on the line. That is what true love does; or as Olaf, a magical snowman from Elsa and Anna’s youth, will later say: “love is putting the needs of others before yourself.” Anna models just what one will go through to find that which was once lost.[2] Neither wolves nor near hypothermia was going to stop her from finding Elsa. When she and new friends, Kristoff and Olaf, reach Elsa’s new ice castle, they are not met with the kindness Anna had hoped. Elsa’s magic—manifested again as fear—strikes Anna’s heart and again, any relationship with Elsa seems hopeless. The three friends are evicted from the “kingdom of isolation” by an enchanted snow monster and forced back down the mountain. Because of Anna’s icy injury, Kristoff rushes her to his “family,” which happens to be the very same troll from Anna’s youth.

The wise old troll who once cured Anna teaches that because fear, Elsa’s great enemy, was what caused Elsa to strike Anna, only love then can reverse the effects to Anna’s heart. Anna knows what she must do: find Hans for a “true love’s kiss.” The friends rush back to Arendelle and Anna finds herself in the arms of Hans just in time. However, Hans had other plans all along. Like many before him, he had been seduced by power. His goal was to lord over the wealthy kingdom of Arendelle and saw Anna as his way to the crown. He betrays Anna and leaves her to freeze to death, charging her sister Elsa—who had been captured while Anna was with the trolls—with her murder in the process.

In the final dramatic scene of the movie, all major characters are present. While Kristoff rushes back to Arendelle after realizing how much he loves Anna, both Elsa and Anna escape their respective captivity. Hans, however, is there to meet Elsa to in hopes that he can deliver a fatal blow. In the midst of the ever-growing blizzard, Anna, who is nearly dead at this point, has one final choice to make. Kristoff, her true love, is within her grasp, but so too is Hans and his deadly blade. Anna, in an act of self-sacrificial love, offers her life for Elsa’s and jumps in front of Hans. In doing so, she finally freezes solid, deflecting Hans’ sword. When Anna does this, time seems to nearly stand still as she takes what appears to be her final breath.

Just when Anna seems lost, she begins to thaw and life begins flowing through her again. In her act of true love, all fear is cast out. (1 John 4:18) For years, Elsa lived in perpetual fear, but in one act of righteousness (Romans 5:18), all fear dissolves. Or, as Olaf would put it: “true love will thaw a frozen heart.” When Elsa’s revelation takes hold; the blizzard that engulfed the kingdom lifts and life returns. The two great evils, Hans and the Duke of Weselton, are banished from the city. Instead of falling into the hands of those who would see her resemble Babylon, Arendelle falls back into the care of the two sisters who would have her resemble New Jerusalem. The love Anna showed her sister Elsa was the greatest gift one could possibly give; or, as Jesus would say: “Greater love hath no woman than this, that a woman lay down her life for her friends.” Amen to that.

[1] Oligarchy: a small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution.

[2] The Greek verb apollumi translates to “to destroy or perish” and is the verb used to describe the prodigal son who perished but was found (Luke 15:11–32) and the lost sheep who perished but then was found (15:1–7).

Image Credit: Available through Jorge Figueroa on Flickr via Creative Commons License.

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Eid: A Promise Of Hope And A Celebration Of Empathy

Editor’s Note: This article is a modified and updated version of last year’s Eid al-Fitr message.

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, Eid Mubarak from the Raven Foundation to all of our dear Muslim sisters and brothers! The holy month has drawn to a close, and all around the world, the ummah, or Islamic community, is celebrating the culmination of 30 days of fasting. Long daylight hours, at least in the northern hemisphere, have made this Ramadan among the most challenging in decades, with faithful Muslims refraining from food, drink and sexual intercourse while the sun is up – about 17 hours a day here in Chicago and similarly long hours around the world!

The hunger in the belly, the dryness of throat during the heat of the day, the restraint against urges of desire, are all meant to invite the soul into deeper relationship with God and neighbor and train the heart in the ways of compassion and civility toward friends and adversaries. In recent years, the sacred intentions of Ramadan have been further challenged by the heartbreaking violence raging throughout the world and devastating Muslim communities in particular. This violence is ravaging places like Afghanistan, where our 14-year-old war has all but been forgotten by media, Iraq, where ISIS is hypocritically and violently undermining the spirit of Islam in the name of Islam, Libya and Syria, where ISIS also has strong footholds, and Gaza, where the rubble from Israel’s latest bombing campaign one year ago, which killed over 2000 people, still has yet to be cleared, and none of the 17,000 homes destroyed have been rebuilt. These are just a few examples of the violence and aftermath of violence devastating predominantly Muslim countries around the world. For many, this day of celebration must instead be a day of mourning. So in the midst of this devastation and chaos, it is important to remember the promise of hope that is Eid al-Fitr (literally, “the lesser holiday,” the holiday after the fast).

Let us first ponder the meaning of Ramadan, the 30-day fast meant to tune the heart, mind, and soul toward God and break down walls and build bridges of compassion and solidarity between the wealthy and the poor. Muslims believe that it was during the month of Ramadan that the Qur’an was first revealed from God through the angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an describes itself as a mercy and a guidance, and just like our world today and all times and places throughout history, mercy and guidance were desperately needed! My friend Adam Ericksen explains the world of pre-Islamic Arabia, the Jahiliyya, or Age of Ignorance, as a time when “fate” was thought to determine the rich from the poor, the winners from the losers, leaving little incentive for compassion or generosity. It was a world in which tribal gods were invoked in violent raids of conquest, and the wealth of a few created a world of desperation and misery for the poor, particularly the widow and the orphan. Sadly, this sounds very much like our world today. But it was in the midst of this violent and bleak hopelessness that Muhammad, tuning his heart and his mind to the needs of the poor and vulnerable, was able to hear the message of God: a message of ultimate peace, which is the meaning of Islam.

So it is appropriate that the month in which the Qur’an was revealed is a month of fasting, a time when the faithful enter into solidarity with the poor and hungry. As stomachs growl, those who are normally well-fed get a taste of the hunger 1 in 8 people worldwide experience (according to the 2013 statistics of the World Hunger Education Service). This voluntary material poverty is reminiscent of the world of Jahiliyyah into which the Qur’an was revealed, as faithful Muslims share the experience of the poor and suffering. Nothing dispels ignorance more than the active empathy that Ramadan requires.

This year, beyond connecting with the hungry, another profound way that active empathy was displayed was through a tremendous gesture undertaken by a coalition of Muslim networks working together to raise money for at least 8 African American churches that burned in the wake of the Charleston massacre. At a time when worship is brought into even sharper focus for Muslims, when spiritual connection and brother and sisterly solidarity is even more greatly pronounced, Muslims felt a desire to reach across faith boundaries. The burning of African American churches is an attack on the last, most sacrosanct refuge of the black Christian community, but Muslims reached out with an empathy deeply rooted in their faith experience and augmented by the holy month of Ramadan and raised over $30,000. In an interview for Al Jazeera America, spokesperson Linda Sarsour elaborated on the solidarity between Muslims and African Americans. This solidarity exists not only because the Muslim community includes African Americans, but also because Muslim Americans of all races are subjected to distrust and profiling on account of religion and the state of permanent US warfare in the Middle East. As Sarsour says,

We’re working on a lot of solidarity issues, including working against police violence, surveillance of political movements, building solidarity across the country. There’s so much more we can do together, and we’ve been able to do that in the past few years and it’s been remarkable.

The building of interfaith solidarity in the midst of the holy month is a powerful living example of Islam’s profound respect for the Abrahamic traditions and its tradition of peaceful interfaith relations. While the violence in Muslim countries gets a disproportionate amount of media attention, positive interfaith relations especially among the Abrahamic traditions are integral to Islam. This year, Ramadan has been a connection to those in times of struggle and turmoil, a time to build people up and provide a refuge of compassion and love – not just for fellow Muslims, but across religious lines.

Furthermore, in this month of spiritual renewal, desires are reoriented from human concerns to divine will. As Muslims find themselves sustained throughout the day not by food but by the loving God and supportive community, they liberate themselves from things that society tells us we need. Negative mimetic desires for material possessions, which can lead to envy and conflict, are tuned out as Muslims become models for one-another of positive mimesis. Turning away from selfish desire to following the desire of God, whose will is for all to love one-another, Muslims during Ramadan find mutual support as they strive through the day to renounce wants masquerading as needs, instead focusing their hearts, minds, time, and resources on those most in need. As food intake decreases, prayer, charity and compassion increase, and the empathy born from this experience extends past the imposed 30 days. The hope is that after the fast comes to an end, Muslims will continue to choose to spend fewer resources on themselves and more in the way of charity toward the poor and vulnerable, relying always on God’s abundant providence.

Eid is a festival of this abundance. It is a holiday that symbolizes that the mercy of God’s message, lived out among the faithful, dispels ignorance. It is a reminder that the same God who sustains us through hunger and poverty generously provides us with a rich and beautiful world to enjoy and share.  Eid is the promise of light after darkness, fulfillment after hunger, celebration after tribulation.

So many people worldwide, not only Muslims but people of all faiths and people who have lost all faith, are still in the midst of this tribulation and losing hope. Some have no food for a feast; some have no home to gather inside; some must bury their family instead of celebrate with them. May they be on the hearts and minds of all of those who can enjoy the feast today, and indeed all of us regardless of religion. As Muslims around the world come together today to celebrate the triumph of God’s mercy, abundance, and love, I pray that all of us may learn the lessons of Ramadan – empathy for the victims of violence and greed – so that we may all work toward a future Eid in which we invite all to the table – rich and poor, friend and foe, Palestinian and Israeli – to share the rich feast of God’s boundless love.

Image Credit: This image was generously created by ihsaniye and labeled for reuse.

 

donald

Donald Trump, Immigration, And The Politics Of Satan

Donald Trump created a stir recently with his comments about immigration.

“When Mexico sends its people, they aren’t sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people.”

We could easily dismiss Trump and his comments by claiming that he’s our nation’s crazy uncle. But our crazy uncle is gaining in the GOP polls. After announcing his candidacy and making his comment about immigrants, he surged to second place among Republican voters.

It’s early, of course. I don’t expect Trump to maintain his surge. But I do think his comments reveal something important about politics.

Immigration and the Politics of Satan

In the biblical book of Job, Satan is the Accuser. Satan roams throughout the world as a prosecutor looking to make accusations against people. But Satan doesn’t care if people are good or bad. As we see with Job, all Satan cares about is making accusations.

In other words, truth doesn’t matter. All that matters is making an accusation that sticks.

Donald Trump made an accusation against Mexican immigrants that has struck a chord with many Republican voters. And that’s the point behind the satanic principle of accusation. As René Girard claims in his book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, “Satan seeks to have others imitate him.” Our imitation of Satan primarily comes in the form of accusations against our fellow human beings. That accusation is usually based on fear, a contagious emotion that is easily manipulated by the satanic principle of accusation.

But the fear is baseless because it isn’t grounded in truth. That’s especially true in the case of immigration. Study after study shows that immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are less likely to be involved in violent crimes than the rest of the population.

In her study, Bianca Bersani, professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, states, “Foreign born individuals exhibit remarkably low levels of involvement in crime across their life course.”

Jorg Spenkuch of Northwestern University finds that, “There is essentially no correlation between immigrants and violence crime.”

The Public Policy Institute of California reveals that, “Immigrants are underrepresented in California prisons compared to their representation in the overall population. In fact, U.S.-born adult men are incarcerated at a rate over two-and-a-half times greater than that of foreign-born men.”

Donald Trump’s accusations against Mexican immigrants is a clear example of the politics of Satan. Satanic politics orders the world through accusation, exclusion, andscapegoating. While native born Americans actually have a higher rate of violent criminal activity, that fact doesn’t matter to the politics of Satan. What matters is making an accusation that sticks.

Immigration and the Politics of God

Fortunately, we do have an alternative to the politics of Satan. We don’t have to order our lives around the principle of accusation and exclusion.

The way God wants us to order our lives, including our politics, isn’t based on accusation and exclusion, but love and acceptance. For example, take Exodus 22:21, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:34 continues the theme, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

The politics of God makes no distinction between “illegal” and “legal” immigrants. Rather, all immigrants are human beings worthy of being included and treated with love. The Bible calls us to empathize with all immigrants, “for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” While in Egypt, the Israelites were marginalized and treated as less than human. In modern America, we’d call them “illegal immigrants.”

But the Bible calls us to something higher. The Bible calls us away from the divisive politics of Satan and toward God’s politics of love.

Instead of making accusations against immigrants, the Bible calls us to love them. Instead of excluding immigrants, the Bible calls us to include them.

The differences between the politics of Satan and the politics of God couldn’t be clearer. It’s the difference between exclusion and embrace. This election cycle, let’s follow God who calls us to “love the alien as yourself.”

 

Photo Credit: Flickr, Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons License

"See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." Image from pixabay.com

“Piss Christ” And Drawing Muhammad: On Not Being Offended

I recoiled a little just typing the title to this article.

The title of the infamous photograph by Andres Serrano, “Piss Christ,” makes me bristle as much as the content of a crucifix submerged in blood and urine. I can’t get used to the language on a gut level, even as I have come to appreciate it on an intellectual and even spiritual level. My visceral repulsion to this juxtaposition of the filthy and the sacred is probably similar to the feeling Muslims get when they see the beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) degraded in crass and crude caricatures. It can feel like a blow to the stomach, with anger and disgust rising up in response, to see or hear that which we hold most sacred defiled.

Muslim Americans have had to deal with an exceptional amount of bigotry lately, even for an oft-misunderstood minority in a post-9/11 nation. In the past month, two large-scale events have been organized specifically to demean and provoke them. First came the “Draw Muhammad” contest hosted in early May by Pamela Gellar in Garland, TX. When this event ended in the shooting death by police of two vengeance-seeking gunmen, it prompted Marine veteran Jon Ritzheimer to organize a similar rally held on the last Friday in May in Phoenix, AZ. The rally began with another “Draw Muhammad” contest at a nearby Denny’s before protestors (mainly described as “armed bikers”) gathered outside a mosque at the time of the Friday prayer. While both rallies were promoted by their organizers as defense of the freedom of speech, they also deliberately vilified Islam, relishing in their defiance of the prohibition against depicting the Prophet and seeking to portray Muslims as violent, backward savages. The irony of such events, aggressively wielding hatred in order to provoke violence so as to call the dreaded “other” violent, cannot be lost on students of mimetic theory.

Imagine arriving at your place of worship, preparing to surrender your troubles to the all-compassionate, all-merciful God, only to be surrounded by a jeering, gun-brandishing mob claiming that you are violent. It is not only insulting, it is threatening. And while it is true that the Christian faith has also been ridiculed, the Christian community has not been targeted and labeled an enemy by popular culture, nor treated as such by authorities, in the same way Muslims have been in this nation that prides itself on diversity and “freedom of speech.”

Thus even the depiction of Jesus on the cross submerged in urine does not evoke the same range of negative emotions in believers as do the vulgar drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, for while the former can certainly offend, the latter not only offend, but also intimidate. They tell an already persecuted minority that they are unwelcome in a way that “Piss Christ” cannot, because “Piss Christ” does not reflect a larger animus against Christianity pervasive throughout our culture the way the cartoons do of Islam.

Nevertheless, I have seen the comparison made between “Piss Christ” and the drawings of the Prophet made several times recently, and they are worth comparing for more reasons than first meet the eye. In both cases, subversive works of art provoke anger and disgust. Yet believers have an opportunity in both cases to transcend their disgust and anger and explore and reveal the truth of their faiths – the God who needs no defense and responds to provocation with mercy, compassion, and love.

In an interview for the Huffington Post, artist Andres Serrano revealed that his infamous photograph was designed to evoke feelings of disgust, but not out of hostility to the Christian faith. Serrano says:

The crucifix is a symbol that has lost its true meaning; the horror of what occurred. It represents the crucifixion of a man who was tortured, humiliated and left to die on a cross for several hours. In that time, Christ not only bled to dead, he probably saw all his bodily functions and fluids come out of him. So if “Piss Christ” upsets people, maybe this is so because it is bringing the symbol closer to its original meaning.

A Christian himself, Serrano reminds us that though it has been sanitized and neutralized, disgust and horror are appropriate responses to the cross. They are appropriate responses to the condemnation Jesus received from those who thought they were doing the will of God. They are appropriate responses the human violence that continues to crucify Christ when wielded against anyone else.

Abilene Christian University psychology professor Richard Beck extends the imagery from the crucifixion to the incarnation in a powerful advent meditation. First exploring the psychology behind disgust, Beck explains the attribution of negativity dominance – the understanding that the filthy contaminates the pure. He then meditates on “Piss Christ” as a metaphor for the Incarnation, the descent of God into the shame and wretchedness of our own lives.

[I]n the contact between urine and Jesus in Piss Christ we instinctively judge the negative to be stronger than the positive. Thus the shock. Thus the blasphemy.

But the real blasphemy just might be this: That we think urine is stronger than Christ. That we instinctively–and blasphemously–believe that the defilement of our lives is the strongest force in the universe. Stronger even than God.

It never occurs to us that Christ is stronger than the “piss” of our lives.

… This is the scandal of the Incarnation. This is the scandal of Christmas. That God descended into the piss, shit and darkness of your life. And the piss, shit and darkness did not overcome it.

While Serrano’s art is designed to evoke the horror of the crucifixion, Dr. Beck’s meditation reminds us of the hope of the Incarnation and the resurrection. I want to reflect first on the horror. While there is violence in “Piss Christ,” most people see it as violence by the artist directed toward the faithful. It rarely occurs to believers to use the art to meditate on the actual event of the cross, in which humiliation, brutality and murder are exposed for all to see. We project our disgust outward, onto the artist, rather inward, onto our own violence that “Piss Christ” truly depicts. Our offense at others we whom perceive to be violent or blasphemous blinds us to our own violence. Disgust and horror projected at Serrano perpetuate the judgment that crucified Christ. Disgust and horror at our own violence that actually crucified Christ facilitate repentance.

The protestors in Garland and Phoenix could not recognize their own violence because they could only see the violence of a few extremists who have committed acts of terror in a misguided attempt to defend Islam. The Garland event was (in part) a response to the shootings at Charlie Hebdo. The Phoenix event was partly a response to the attempted attack on the Garland event. Ridicule and dehumanization, reinforced by open-carry weapons at the Phoenix event, were seen by those who carried them out as defensive tactics. Muslims, harassed and dehumanized and increasingly vulnerable to physical violence as events like these further polarize, are seen as the enemy. As Rene Girard has taught, people never see themselves as the cause of violence. Even the most aggressive fail to recognize themselves as the aggressors while looking to the aggression of someone else.

But there is hope! Violence does not have the last word!

Dr. Beck’s reflection on the Incarnation reveals a new dimension to “Piss Christ,” showing how God comes even in the filth and shame of our violence. Our violence cannot overcome the love of God, who absorbs it, forgives it, and redeems us from it.

That same love and redemptive forgiveness was on display in Phoenix. Immersed in the muck of hatred and vitriol, many people either lash out in vengeance or internalize the anger. Violence could have contaminated the peaceful atmosphere of the mosque, spreading the contagion of hate and fear and division.

Instead, compassion prevailed.

Instead of acting on offense, Muslims of the Phoenix mosque followed the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who endured ridicule with patience and gentility. No stranger to being immersed in filth himself, the Prophet Muhammad, according to tradition, once endured the hatred of one particular woman (among many) who would empty her garbage out the window when he passed by. When one day he passed her window unscathed, he knocked on the door to her home to make sure that she was okay! Moved by this same spirit, the Muslim community in Phoenix invited the protestors into the mosque, offering hospitality, space for dialogue, and, for those moved to listen, the opportunity for a healing of the heart.

In particular, the eyes of Jason Leger and his uncle, Paul Griffith, were opened by their experience. Walking into the mosque wearing profanity-laced anti-Islam t-shirts, they left with a newfound empathy for their Muslim brothers and sisters. Though they insist on the right to even offensive free speech, they have made the choice not to express such hatred. Leger says:

When I took a second to actually sit down and listen to them, and actually enter their mosque, and go in and watch some of their prayers, it is a beautiful thing, and they answered some of the questions that I had.

I feel that me and a few people like my uncle Paul, and the Muslim people, taking the time to talk to each other,  feel that we changed the thoughts of some people, and they changed the thoughts of me. Paul specifically said he would not wear that shirt again.

Love can break down the walls of fear and hatred. Love is stronger than anger and fear, stronger than violence and filth. I stand with my Muslim sisters and brothers in this love in spirit, and should the need arise, I hope to stand with them in body as well.

It is natural to be offended when we see that which we hold sacred mocked and abused and violated. But God’s own children – those whom God holds sacred — are abused and violated and humiliated every day in a cycle of violence perpetuated by those who lash out in anger… to defend God! The filth that surrounds “Piss Christ” is that of our own making. The violence that is projected onto Muslims resides in the hearts of those who project it (although some Muslims do lash out in violence, believing themselves to be defending God and morality, and thus the pattern continues). When we choose to be offended, we keep the cycle of violence turning, churning the muck of hatred and fear that keeps blood flowing.

But the negative need not dominate the positive.

We can follow in the footsteps of those nearest to the heart of God. In the Christian tradition, God came in flesh among the filth of our lives and endured rejection, humiliation, and torture to redeem us. In Islam, the Prophet Muhammad endured rejection, humiliation, and expulsion to bring words of compassion and a model of redemption.

Christ need not be protected from the piss. He has been there, and remains there until the least among us are treated with dignity and respect. Muhammad need not be violently defended when caricatures are drawn. Instead, he is honored when such ridicule is met with the same gentle forgiveness he himself modeled, forgiveness that subtly but certainly corrects the offense by modeling respect.

Some things in life are worthy of our offense: brutality, hatred, cruelty. These are the blasphemies that offend God. But harsh judgment, condemnation and violence only perpetuate these offenses. Instead, we are called to respond in the same way that God responds to our offenses, with active mercy and love.

 

 

 

 

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My Baccalaureate Address: A Life Worth Living: On Tragedy, Revenge, and Love

I was invited by Linfield College, my alma mater, to deliver the Baccalaureate Address to the graduating class of 2015. The text was based on Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 5:43-48. This was a great honor for me and I wanted to share the text with you –

My soon to be fellow Linfield graduates, it’s an honor to be with you tonight. It feels great to be back on this beautiful campus. I’m biased, but I deliver lectures on campuses throughout the country and I think this is the most beautiful campus in the US. The buildings, the grass, the trees, the flowers…The ground keepers do an amazing job keeping Linfield beautiful. I want to thank Chaplain David Massey and President Hellie for inviting me to talk with you tonight.

Tomorrow you will be a Linfield College graduate. And I want us to take a deep breath, step back, and acknowledge this accomplishment in your life. Your family, friends, and loved ones have come to help you celebrate. Professors, staff, and administrators who have walked with you through your Linfield experience are here to continue the journey with you.

Here’s an important stat for you – Do you realize that only 7 percent of people in the world have a college degree?

Let that sink in for a moment. 7 percent. Congratulate yourself. And give your neighbor a high five. Say to your neighbor, “You are the 7 percent.”

I recently had a conversation with a Linfield graduate’s father. This man’s daughter didn’t actually want to go to Linfield. She was enticed by some other schools. He said something that rang true with my Linfield experience. He said that when he met with the administration at those other schools, they boasted about how great their school was. They each claimed to be well respected colleges and they bragged about the famous people on their Board of Trustees.

But when he met with the administration at Linfield, they didn’t talk about how great Linfield was. Rather, they talked about how great their students were and how much Linfield cared about them. The Dean of Students gave concrete details about how Linfield cares about its students and wants them to succeed in college and in life. This man was sold by a sense that Linfield genuinely cares about its students and with some persuading, his daughter attended Linfield. And I’m glad she did because during my junior year I asked her if she’d like to go to Taco Bell and then do some shopping at Walmart with me – because that’s how I show people a good time. Surprisingly, she said yes. I knew then that she was the one. Three years later I asked her to marry me. Surprisingly, she said yes again. I’ve been married to my Linfield sweetheart for 13 years. We still love Taco Bell, but now Carrie and I do most of our shopping at Costco.

But my father-in-law’s statement that Linfield cares about its students was proved true by my experience. I first walked onto Linfield’s campus as a student 18 years ago. If you are like me, the four years I spent at Linfield went by so fast. My freshman year I moved into Campbell Hall – did anyone here live in Campbell? – yeah, give it up for Campbell Hall everyone…My sophomore year I became a Resident Advisor. Any RA’s here? If you were an RA give yourselves a round of applause. Okay, the rest of you can boo. Please know that we RAs hated writing you up. It hurt us much more than it hurt you…

God, Suffering, and Answers that Matter

I began Linfield as a history major. I enjoyed history, but at the end of my sophomore year I experienced a personal tragedy. My mother died after a 10 year battle with cancer. I began to ask questions about God, suffering, and death. If God is good, then why is there so much evil in the world? Does God even care? Why is there cancer? Why do people suffer? And what, if anything, am I supposed to do about it?

Linfield didn’t so much offer me intellectual answers to those questions about my mother’s death. It offered me something so much more important. It offered me care. It offered me love.

I remember telling my friends at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes when she died. There must have been 80 of us in that small living room. People gasped as I reported her death from earlier in the day. Then there were hugs. I needed those hugs.

My junior year I switched my major to religious studies. My professors Bill Apel, Bill Millar, David Massey, and Stephen Snyder were much more than professors. They were caring guides who offered a compassionate presence. They walked with me as I struggled through the emotions of processing my mother’s death. They allowed space for me to ask my questions, but they didn’t force answers on me. They cared. And that was the most important answer that they could have given.

My professors taught me how to care for others during our classes, too. For example, I took World Religions with Bill Apel. We got to the section on Buddhism and Bill said to the class, “Here’s what Buddhism is like.” He then stood up, left our classroom, and shut the door. That, in and of itself is very Buddhist, but after a few seconds, he reentered, looked at us, and said, “Hi. How are you doing today?”

I remember thinking in that moment, “Oh, that’s cool. Buddhism is awesome. I want to become a Buddhist. I think I’ll convert…” But I was too lazy.

My professors were very important to me, and staff members were just as important in being a compassionate presence during this time. Delaine Hein, Dan Fergueson, Dan Preston, Jeff Mackay, and so many others offered caring words and a shoulder to cry on. Even the president at the time, Vivian Bull, spent extra time with me as I grieved.

As I continued struggling through my personal tragedy, a national tragedy struck our nation. At the beginning of my senior year, on 9/11/2001, a group of religious fanatics flew a plane into the World Trade Center. I remember waking up on that horrific morning in our HP apartment and walking to the living room. My three roommates were already there with their eyes glued to the television screen as the tragedy unfolded.

Once again, in the face of tragedy, I witnessed Linfield’s care for students. David Massey performed a memorial service on the Oak Grove. Many students, faculty, and professors came to mourn. During the ceremony, David asked if anyone would like to make any comments. A commuter student from Newberg stepped forward. She was visibly shaken and in tears as she told us about a family member who moved to New York to work in the towers. He was killed as the towers fell. I remember her weeping in front of us. Her pain was so real and there was nothing we could do to take her pain away. And so we tried to care for her the best way we knew how – we listened to her story and tried to offer her a compassionate presence.

A few days later there was an all campus meeting in the basement of Melrose Hall to talk about religion and reconciliation. There were Muslim students there. They expressed deep sorrow that people hijacked their religion and caused such destruction and death. The grief on their faces was palpable. They were in pain. And in the midst of their pain my Muslim classmates didn’t need any condemnation or hostility. They needed care. They needed love. They needed acceptance. They needed a compassionate presence. And that’s what we tried to give them.

Life’s Most Important Lessons

It was at Linfield where I learned my most important lessons in life. It’s where I learned how to care about myself and others. It’s where I learned how to deal with tragedy. And you have learned that, too. You have gone through personal tragedies and tragedies that have struck this community. And in the face of that tragedy, Linfield has taught you one of its most important life lessons: how to care for yourself and others by offering a compassionate presence.

Since graduating from Linfield, I’ve learned that it’s not a matter of *if* tragedy will strike again. It’s a matter of *when.* For example, during the last year, I have worked as a hospital chaplain in Eugene. My first call to our Emergency Department was for a 23 year old patient who had a massive heart attack during a Ducks football game.

Unfortunately, he died. At age 23. My job in that moment, was to put into action what Linfield taught me – my job was not to come up with answers, but to be a compassionate presence and journey with his girlfriend, his family, and his friends as they grieved his death.

Listen, I don’t tell you that story to scare you. I’m telling you that story because life is fragile. Life is a precious gift.

As far as I know, we only have this one precious life. Your mission is to make this one precious life you have a life worth living. This is the wisdom I’ve learned from my elderly patients at the hospital who are nearing death. They don’t fear death. Instead, many of them fear that they haven’t lived a life worth living. By the phrase “life worth living,” none of these elderly patients mean such things as: Did I make enough money? Could I have bought a bigger house? Could I have exerted more political influences? Could I have won more arguments during my life?

No, what they mean by a “life worth living” is did they care enough for people. Did they love others enough? Have they reconciled with family and friends?

Because, you see, a life worth living isn’t based on worldly standards of success. I know many rich people who are consumed with their money. They’re unhappy people. They are isolated and lonely because they have alienated themselves from family and friends. They are bitter and angry because they live in fear of losing their worldly success.

And I know a lot of rich people who aren’t consumed with their money. They are generous people. They don’t live in fear of losing anything. Rather, they give their time, money, and talent to help make their community a better place.

A Life Worth Living

So, please hear this: The world doesn’t need any more bitter, fearful, and angry people in it. The world doesn’t need any more people who define themselves by their money, cars, houses or other material goods. Rather, the world needs more people to live a life worth living by being what Linfield has taught us to be: a compassionate presence as we care for ourselves and others.

Our Hebrew Scripture text this evening puts it like this: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

We tend to rush to the second part of the verse that commands us to love your neighbor as you love yourself. That’s a crucial statement, but notice the first part of the verse – “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge.” That’s so important because seeking revenge and bearing a grudge is what we humans tend to do. It is our natural default position. It’s often hard to be a compassionate presence because we tend to be reactionary when we feel someone has done us wrong. When someone insults us, we want to return the insult. When someone hits us, we want to hit back. Just look at the news. We see this reaction of revenge on a personal, national, and international scale every day.

Now, I don’t know from personal experience, but I’ve heard that even married couples get into bitter cycles of revenge. At least, I’ve seen it on television. One person might say something in the morning that the other person finds insulting. Then for the rest of the day, the person who felt insulted will think of ways to get revenge, usually by bringing up old wounds. She might bring up his ex-girlfriend. Or he might bring up how she got fired from her previous job. This cycle of revenge can consume any relationship, but especially a marriage, with a spirit of bitterness and hostility, as opposed to a spirit of love and compassion.

We know from human history that this cycle of revenge easily escalates on a personal, communal, national, and international level until real damage is done resulting in horrific violence and tragedy. But it doesn’t have to escalate. Someone can be courageous enough to stop the cycle of revenge.

And the world needs you to stop the cycle. The world needs you to live out the phrase, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge.” We’ve been seeking revenge and bearing grudges since the beginning of human history. The human reactionary position is to blame someone else for our problems. We scapegoat others thinking that if we get rid of them our problems will be solved. Unfortunately, when we defeat one enemy, another one emerges to take its place.

That’s the nature of revenge and the wisdom behind our scriptural passage. Revenge never solves our problems; it only creates more problems and tragedies in the world. A life of revenge and grudges is not a life worth living.

Which is why the second part of our passage is so important. Instead of seeking revenge and bearing a grudge, the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus even extends this message by saying, “Love your enemies.” I’m convinced that the world would be a much better place if a group of people actually decided that they would stop seeking revenge and instead seek to be a compassionate presence in the world as they love others as they love themselves. Whether your next step in life is a job, graduate school, travel the world, or move back in with your parents, to love your neighbor as you love yourself is your basic life mission.

Now, I’m not trying to tell you to solve the world’s problems. God knows we have some serious and complicated problems. If we try to solve the world’s problems we can begin to feel overwhelmed and hopeless about them.

Don’t begin by trying to solve the world’s problems. A life worth living begins by managing your own problems. You can’t control how others will react to you. The only person you can control is yourself. So, when you find yourself reacting by seeking revenge or bearing a grudge, stop. Don’t project your own problems onto others. Don’t scapegoat. Don’t blame someone else. Instead, remember what Linfield and our scriptural passages have taught you. Put down your verbal bullets and bombs. There are enough bullets and bombs in the world. We don’t need any more.

What we need are people who care. The world needs the 7 percent of people with college degrees to use our brains to find creative ways to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That’s what the world needs from you because the world’s transformation starts with each of us managing our own impulse to revenge and learning how to respond to tragedy and violence with love and care.

So, may you take your Linfield experience with you knowing that you have a mission. May you move forward with your life, refusing to participate in the ugly cycle of revenge and scapegoating. And in the face of tragedy and violence that you will experience, may you live a life worth living as you participate in the spiritual tradition that calls us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Amen

Book Feature Friday: Life-Changing Graduation Gifts

garber1palmerIn addition to being Mother’s Day, last Sunday was also the date of Wheaton College’s 156th “Commencement,” and that has me thinking about vocation.  As the term connotes, graduation is supposed to be forward-looking, a time to think about what lies ahead more than to reminisce about the road already traveled.  Most graduates have a palpable sense of heading into the unknown, and the lifelong questions “What will I do?” and “Why will I do it?” will seem unusually relevant, even urgent.

That is why I love to give graduates a book that will help them think Christianly about vocation.  Let me recommend two that I have often given to students here at Wheaton.  If you are looking for a gift for a friend, neighbor, or family member about to graduate from college, either would make a great gift.  They are short, inexpensive, challenging, accessible, and wise.

The first book is Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, by Steven Garber.  The author heads up the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture in Washington, D. C. He writes from an explicitly Christian foundation, but graciously, winsomely, and non-dogmatically, and I would not hesitate to give this book to anyone wrestling with questions about the purpose and meaning of life.

The book hinges on one simple, haunting question: “what will you do with what you know?”  Knowledge always comes with moral responsibility, Garber insists. This is one of the key truths imbedded in the account of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis chapters 2-3. The questions “What do you know?” and “What will you do with what you know?” can never be divorced, as much as we might like to pretend otherwise.

From this initial premise, Garber observes that the hardest thing we are called to do in life is to know and still love. Knowing and persevering in love is rare. To know those around us truly is to know the brokenness of the world and to share in its pain. To ease our pain, our natural response is to build a wall around our hearts made of stoicism or cynicism. The stoic trains her heart not to care about the world; the cynic convinces himself that all efforts to help are naïve or futile.

Visions of Vocation is filled with stories of men and women who have refused to give in to stoicism or cynicism. Garber describes his teaching philosophy as “come-and-see” pedagogy. “We learn the most important things over the shoulder, through the heart,” he writes, and so he doesn’t waste much time on abstract assertions. Because “words always have to be made flesh if we are going to understand them,” he spends most of his time introducing us to people he has walked with, individuals who have become “hints of hope” to a hurting world by choosing to know and still love.

Two convictions distinguish these men and women, Garber finds. First, they refuse to accept the delusion of individual autonomy that shapes the modern western world. They realize that “none of us are islands. . . . We are we, human beings together. Born into family histories, growing up into social histories, we live our lives among others, locally and globally, neighbors very near and neighbors very far.” Second, in acknowledging this relationship, they have accepted also that they are obligated to others and implicated in their suffering. In sum, in acknowledging relationship they have accepted responsibility, and after accepting responsibility they have chosen to take action.

The second book I like to give away is Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, by Parker J. Palmer.   A couple of years ago I led students in an informal book discussion centered on this book, and for a long while I kept a box of extra copies in my office to give away as opportune moments arose.  It’s a great book on many levels.

The author has long been one of my favorite writers.  Although I have not always agreed with him–and still do not–I find him wonderfully challenging and provocative in the very best way.  Palmer began his adult career on an academic track, earning a Ph.D. in sociology from U.C.-Berkeley.  Although he left the Academy after a few years, he has devoted most of the past four decades to writing and lecturing on the nature of education and the relationship between the intellectual and the spiritual.  I first encountered Palmer in the pages of his 1983 book To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, a work that still informs my approach to teaching and my views on how education shapes the heart.

Let Your Life Speak can sound a little “New Age-y” if you don’t understand where Palmer is coming from.  Like most of the great Christian writers who  addressed the concept of vocation during the Reformation, Palmer believes that our talents and passions are valuable clues to our ideal vocations.  When he counsels the reader to listen to the voice within, he can sound like a humanist (or a script-writer for the Hallmark Channel), but he is absolutely not advising us to look within our own hearts for the ultimate guide to wise living.  Instead, he is urging us to take seriously the truth that God has designed us with specific abilities and desires, and that our life’s vocation should unfold at the intersection of those personal traits and the needs of a hurting world.

We must understand vocation, Palmer writes, “not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received.” He goes on to explain,

Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to be something I am not.  It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.

In sum, “we are here on earth to be the gifts that God created.”

With refreshing candor, Palmer reminds us that, “despite the American myth,” we simply cannot do or be anything we desire.  “There are some roles and relationships in which we thrive and others in which we wither and die.”  One of our goals, then, should be to learn our limits, distinguishing between the limits that are a product of the nature that God has implanted in us, and the limits “that are imposed by people or political forces hell-bent on keeping us ‘in our place.'”

Finally, I would note that Palmer intersperses his observations with intimate reflections on the path that he personally has traveled.  These include hard-earned insights from two extended bouts with depression as an adult.  Refreshing in its honesty and transparency, Let Your Life Speak will be encouraging both to those seeking direction for the future as well as to readers trying to make sense of suffering.  I heartily recommend it.

 Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​ from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at http://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com.