Thursday, June 16, 2011

The spiritual disciplines of being troubled and peaceable

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA
It’s been a troubling year. The Arab Spring protest movements that went (relatively) nonviolently in Egypt have devolved into bloody and protracted conflicts in numerous other countries across the Middle East. Then in early May, the world’s most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, was killed by the US military and buried at sea, only to return as a 500 foot monster wreaking havoc on the United States. (Okay so that last bit is obviously not true, but the Onion article offers golden social commentary.) As I watched fellow Americans dancing in the streets in early May, I became troubled and began offering theopolitical and pacifist Christian commentary. This commentary was lost on many of my non-Anabaptist friends, both Christian and non. One piece of criticism that I welcomed was that my arguments didn’t allude to or reference Scripture, so I promised my friends to follow up my pacifist grumblings with biblical-theological reflections to help non-Anabaptist, non-pacifist Christians see the world in ways which trouble us as we should be troubled.

Last week I wrapped up a class at Eastern Mennonite Seminary called “Biblical Foundations for Justice and Peace,” taught by Mark Thiessen Nation, one of the leading scholars of influential late 20th century theologian, John Howard Yoder. Mark began the class with something surprising: He showed us a music video by Tom Jones (yes, of “What’s New Pussycat?” fame). As he introduced this video, my Gen-X sensibilities were offended (Tom Jones?!), but I must now say this song is profound...

This song speaks to the ways in which the Lord troubles us and the ways in which humans often resist that movement of God’s Spirit. The church has certainly closed its eyes, “slept too long and...too deep” and not allowed “the tears of (our) brother” to move our hearts. We “let things stand that should not be.” Into this sin-induced coma, God sends dreams, visions, and inspires songs which are “ringing (like) a bell in the back of our mind(s).” Our souls are stirred, we are troubled. And the purpose for this divine disturbance from our slumber? “To make (us) human, to make (us) whole.” In Christian biblical anthropology, Jesus is the true, whole human. Jesus is our vision for fullness of life to which his disciples gravitate toward and invite others into Christ’s “gravitational pull” toward fullness, shalom, life abundant. Which brings us to biblical-theological pacifism...

An evangelical, missional witness to peace and justice
A holistic witness to Jesus keeps many key aspects of the Christian faith alive in thought and practice — in ways that are often treated as separate. For instance, “peace and justice” are often treated as somehow secondary to the gospel that Jesus proclaimed and embodied, yet they are visible components of Jesus’ earthly work and teaching, as well as in the life of the early church. So, peace and justice should be embodied by Jesus’ disciples today.

Likewise, evangelism and peace/justice should not be treated as somehow separate. An embodied Christian peace witness is evangelical, just as the gospel is peaceful and just. One cannot be narrated, much less understood and practiced, without the other. They are parts of a whole, the robust vision of God’s inbreaking kingdom, the reconciling of all things unto God. Plus, peace and justice in the gospel are missional — with feet to walk out into the world and hands to work at humble service and witness.

A holistic witness knows how to not only read its own Scripture and tradition well, but also knows how to read wisely the signs of the times in the world. To fail to read the world well, seeing it for what it is, is to remain blind to the cultural/societal logs in our eyes as we go about living the Christian faith, potentially (and often) subverting the integrity of our witness. A holistic witness sees as clearly and humbly as it can.

As it relates to violence, I am — to use “seminary words” — a christological pacifist. This means that I am pacifist and nonviolent not by my own nature (which is rebellious and sinful), but primarily because of who I understand and experience Jesus to be, the Son of God and Messiah, who exhibited the fullness of God’s love in his crucifixion and resurrection. This particular love we know in Christ was then, and is now, foolish weakness by all earthly standards. All Christians are called to love the Lord their God, with every fiber of their being, and then witness to that self-giving love in their relationships with family, neighbors and even enemies.

On a socio-political scale, the church is the primary body to which Christians belong and therefore governs all other associations and allegiances. Allegiance to a nation-state, which (sometimes) requires taking up arms, violates the standard to which Christ calls us to faithful being in the world.

But even activities other than participation in the national military should be seriously examined, for there are many other ways in which American Christians are complicit in the violent coercion of other peoples, Christian or otherwise. In our age of global hyper-capitalism, it is often an economic imperialism that has supplemented, even extended, the more obviously violent nation-state. Both are subject to theological critique, and Christians need to be aware of these insidious challenges to faithful allegiance to God in the body of Christ, and be equipped to challenge them back in faith.

[Note: This section appears on the Mennonite Weekly Review blog, under the same title, and has received the editorial care of Sheldon C. Good. Thx, Sheldon!]

The spiritual discipline of being troubled is often a prerequisite for being able to see the world for what it is. It is a conviction and a call to repentance, a turning away from our being patterned by the world. This discipline puts across our vision the lens of a Lord of all creation who was willingly crucified to exhibit the full power of God for those who believe, follow, and obey. Self-emptying love of God, neighbor, and enemy. We are invited to participate in such startling foolishness, because God’s foolishness is wiser than the world’s best wisdom.

We’re also reminded that peace is not simply an appendage to the gospel, but remains close to the heart of the good news that Christ brought and continues to bring by his Spirit. May our vision be cleared in order to proceed more faithfully into our embodiment of what it means to be Christian in this world.

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