Tuesday, August 30, 2011

So John Howard Yoder, Gene Sharp, and Bashar al-Assad walk into a bar...

From Harrisonburg, VA
...and they all order "Peace."
(Or the boring title: "Christological-theopolitical pacifism and strategic nonviolence in conversation.")
Syrian protests in Washington D.C.
(Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr)
On the heels of my intellectual-existential catharsis last week about theology and peacebuilding, I had a conversation with one of my fellow graduate students at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, Mohammed, who is Syrian. He's been here in the States since last year and has watched with horror and heartbreak over these recent weeks at the events unfolding in his home country, as Bashar al-Assad's regime violently cracks down on protesters. Mohammed referred to this crack-down as "the mowing machine," a grimly apropos metaphor for the ruthless and bloody attacks on protesters which have left a trail of dead. (To which the protesters have not responded with organized violence, unlike rebels in Libya.)

When Mohammed and I spoke, I was in the midst of reading this article: The Syrian revolution as Gene Sharp sees it (GlobalPost), to which I promptly sent him a link, especially after he spoke so glowingly of the scholar and advocate of nonviolent resistance. Sharp's name also came up earlier this year when our peacebuilding program was discussing the revolution in Egypt, which one of our alumni saw up close and personal. As I read through Sharp's reflections on the situation in Syria, it got me thinking about the connections and departures between strategic nonviolence and Christian pacifism.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Riffing on David Brooks: Sociality, virtue, and vocation

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
David Brooks;
Photo: Josh Haner/The New York Times
David Brooks intrigues me. He is considered a social and political conservative but he speaks in such a way as to set himself apart from most commentators of that ilk. He published a book this year - The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (also see his TED talk) - that uses contemporary neuroscience to make the case that humans are not primarily rational beings. We are thinking, feeling, yearning, and always-already social creatures. Promoting such a perspective puts him at odds with pretty much the entire post-Enlightenment Western world in its social-political manifestations, which all assume a very individualistic and overly rational view on human nature. (Encapsulated in Descarte's dictum, "I think, therefore I am.")

One of my favorite Christian thinkers - philosopher, James K.A. Smith - has taken note of Brooks' recent work, going so far as to defend Brooks from those who seem to be missing his point. Plus, Brooks' work comports well with Smith's own, especially his book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. One of Smith's biggest beefs with American evangelicals is that they've been duped into the individualist-rationalist view of human nature and so only seem to explicitly care about Christians' beliefs. To counter this Smith dusts off pre-modern, classical views of human nature and virtue that account for the whole being and restore a sense of work or vocation to the Christian life.

For Christian formation to do its work, it needs to operate on our (the Church's) entire personal and collective body as well as our desires...as in desiring the kingdom of God. Smith argues that we are shaped and pointed toward certain ends (such as the fulfillment of the kingdom) by liturgies - worship, work, or just simply practices. Smith contrasts sacred liturgies (Christian worship) and secular liturgies (eg. going to the mall). To not allow the former to operate in a holistic sense allows the latter to swoop in to fill in the gap, and eventually take over as the primary formational liturgy. So well-meaning evangelicals can (and do) become functional consumerist atheists with their bodies while purporting to be Christian in terms of their beliefs. Such split-being as we've inherited from the Enlightenment is ridiculous because, after all, the mind is part of the body and knowledge also exists outside the brain, even outside our corporeal bodies (eg. social consciousness).

[This post was subsequently picked up by the Mennonite Weekly Review blog: David Brooks, John Howard Yoder, and the sociality of virtue. Thanks again to Sheldon C. Good for his editorial work!]

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cuts like a knife

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
I don't read fiction enough, and it's books like these that remind me of that. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is a novel takes place - for the most part - in Ethiopia, specifically the capital city of Addis Ababa. That's the reason the book was handed to us by a friend at church before we left for that country last month. "Oh, you have to read this!" My wife read it while we were in the country, and I began reading as our plane lifted off the ground in Addis Ababa, returning us home to the US. It's a long novel and it competed with a few other books I was reading, so it took me these past three weeks to finish, which I did last night in a looong sitting.

Part of what thrilled me about this book is the attention to detail that Verghese gives on life in the city of Addis. The fictional narrative is woven in with quasi-historical developments spanning the mid- to late-twentieth century, namely the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie through the revolutionary movements of the '70s, with the Derg eventually taking power until the early '90s. Despite our being in Addis much later, Verghese's account still felt like the city in which we'd spent a week. A number of the locales across the city mentioned in the book were ones we'd at least driven through during our brief stay. The animals everywhere - goats and donkeys. The huge traffic circles with monuments in the center. The sprawling Mercato and the Piazza, the latter a district built by the occupying Italians in the '30s and '40s. And Verghese would know these places well, as he spent most of his childhood in Addis, born to parents from India teaching in Ethiopia. This aspect of the author's own life shadows part of the storyline in the book (or rather the other way around).
At the edge of the Mercato, w/ the ubiquitous blue+white taxi

Monday, August 22, 2011

Peacebuilding in Ethiopia, a story and a request

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Sitting with Mekonnen in my class
In the early months of practicum planning for teaching in Ethiopia, one of my tasks involved finding a supervisor for my work. One name was consistently suggested by my mentors: Mekonnen Desalegn. Mekonnen has been working for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Ethiopia for nearly 33 years. He's also been heavily involved in church life and leadership within the Meserete Kristos Church (MKC) since the age of 18.

One of my colleagues in peacebuilding, Krista Johnson, who works for MCC's Peace Office, just posted this interview with Mekonnen: Seeking Justice and Peace in Ethiopia

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Better together: Hauerwas and Taylor on American Secularity

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
The statesman and the raconteur;
Charles Taylor & Stanley Hauerwas
Two pieces that popped up for me in the past day seem to be good companions for each other and stimulated my thinking along the topics of nationalism and secularity. That they come from two men who've dramatically influenced my thinking in the past year was a plus.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Building Peoplehood and Peace

From 4, Debre Zeyit, Ethiopia
Footwashing: Peacebuilding disguised as worship practice;
Photo from the last day of class
Sometimes God can and will work through the seemingly incidental or mundane aspects in the academic endeavors of higher education, such as the sequencing of classes. This was the case for me this summer in the months leading up to our trip to Ethiopia for my teaching practicum. One of my two wonderful summer courses was "Biblical Foundations of Peace and Justice," which I briefly alluded to back in June. The last paper assigned for this class was due on July 11th, my first day of teaching. Thankfully my professor, Mark Thiessen Nation, granted me an extension until the beginning of August, just after the conclusion of my class.

Writing this paper not only provided the occasion for me to reflect theologically on my first teaching experience but it also represents my deepest academic integration of theology and peacebuilding thus far. In it, I take a narrative approach, essentially telling the intellectual story of the class. I wrote most of the paper the weekend before the third and final week of class and finished it up the day after we got back to the States, August 1st. So I was in the thick of things as it was being written.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Lake Hora 360 - Debre Zeit, Ethiopia

Here's an outdoorsy video from our month in Ethiopia. A look at Lake Hora and surrounding valley near the town of Debre Zeit...

Cross-post: Restorative Justice Revisits Punishment

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
One of my CJP professors, Barry Hart (left); Photo by Jon Styer
This past spring I prepared a conference paper on the restorative justice "creation story" and its stark contrast with the criminal justice system, and then did a little storytelling from Anabaptist history. That paper made its way onto this blog in: Yes and No to restorative justice as "a Mennonite Thing".

The editor of Peacebuilder Magazine, the biannual print publication of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP), liked it well enough to run it as the opening article in the Spring-Summer 2011 issue, which - in my professional capacity - I just posted online yesterday. Here's the paper again in edited form...

My thanks go to the editor, Bonnie Price Lofton. The few times I've had my writing edited before release in whatever form, I've always been very grateful for the editor's impact on the piece. This article is no exception! So, thanks, Bonnie!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Cross-post: An Iowa boy teaching (and learning) peacebuilding in Ethiopia

"Intro to Conflict Transformation" class, 2011
MK College, Debre Zeit, Ethiopia
As co-editor of the Peacebuilder Online blog for EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, it's sometimes a little too easy for me to take advantage of being a professional blogger. For instance, after posting here this morning on a really old book, I wrote up a reflection on the experience of teaching for my "work" blog:

An Iowa boy teaching (and learning) peacebuilding in Ethiopia

On ancient ecclesial books, Indiana Jones-style

From Debre Zeyit, Ethiopia
While at Meserete Kristos College this past month in Ethiopia, we stayed in the apartment of a missionary couple from the U.S. who had spent a significant period of time at the college, the husband teaching and the wife taking care of the college library. The husband's office in the apartment then became my office during our three-week stay. Shortly after we arrived, we found something very interesting in the filing cabinet...

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Sort of Homecoming

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Photo by Matthew Kirkland via Flickr
Two days ago my body arrived in Virginia but my body's clock stayed in Ethiopia, 7 hours ahead. We arrived home at 10am on Sunday but I was fast asleep by 2pm and slept until midnight. For the next five hours I finished writing my last paper for a summer class. At 5am I went back to bed for a 2-hour nap, then it was off to the office after a month away. An overflowing inbox was calling and I need to start making money again.

Yesterday and last night, it seems as if my body's clock was somewhere over the Atlantic. We crashed around 9pm last night but just after 4am this morning, my eyes shot open and I was ready for action. Because our month in Ethiopia was such a radical break from routine and class consumed so much energy, my wife and I ended up not exercising at all while we were there. So this morning I took my first jog in over a month in the pre-dawn hours. In the last two weeks, we had all experienced some disruption to our digestive system and never completely shook it off for the remainder of July; I lost weight and hadn't felt 100% for most of that time. So I was a little nervous setting off on a run this morning, but it was just what the doctor ordered. The air was warm and the ground was dry and my body not only held up but rejoiced at the exercise.