Friday, August 30, 2013

#MennoNerdsOnSyria: A personal connection

Mohammed & I; April 2012
See other MennoNerd reflections on the escalating situation in Syria.

In the spring of last year I sat on the lawn of Eastern Mennonite University and participated in the university graduation ceremony. Clustered by program and by the order of our last names, I was happily seated next to a friend from my days at EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, Mohammed.

Mohammed is from Syria, and shortly after he began his graduate work at the CJP, the civil war in his home country broke out. I remember seeing him in those early days of the conflict deeply troubled, and mentioning in class his distressing phone conversations with family back home. (I blogged about this two years ago.) The conflict became the intense focus of his peacebuilding education (of course it likely was even  before the conflict). After graduation, Mohammed began working in DC, advocating foreign policy with regard to Syria to US lawmakers.

I offered him my prayers then, just as I continue to offer prayers for Mohammed and his country now, in these dark days of a tragedy of vast humanitarian and environmental proportions. And with his permission, I'd like to offer a few remarks on where I sit with respect to the conflict...

First off, Mohammed is not a pacifist. It might come as a surprise to some that not all who go through EMU's graduate program in peacebuilding are committed pacifists, but it's true. Indeed, even some of the faculty are peacebuilders who hold to the just war tradition.

Mohammed has been very active on Facebook in recent months, posting a stream of updates on his work and the situation in Syria. In the past week, in the wake of the chemical attacks that Assad seems to have carried out on his own people, and as the US has begun signaling that it will indeed militarily intervene in the conflict, Mohammed has become joyous, even exuberant, at the news of this military intervention.

So on the one hand, I have Christian friends both pacifist and otherwise saying, basically, "This is not a good idea." On the other I have my friend, Mohammed, whose first-hand witnessing to the conditions on the ground in Syria, his home country that he loves, saying this military intervention will be a good thing and it won't be like US interventions in recent years: Limited in scope, targets already communicated, no "shock and awe," etc.

I hold to my Christian pacifist convictions in this or any other situation, yet my empathy for and friendship with Mohammed and his longing for justice in his ravaged country I also hold in my heart and mind.

My only meaningful response is this: Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy. Grant grace and peace to those who suffer in Syria; and patience, humility, and wisdom for those with their hands on the levers of world power. Kyrie eleison.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Inside, behind, and beyond King's "Dream"

From Toledo, IA
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; August 28, 1963 (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post concludes our reflections on chapter 3.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This massive rally is often remembered primarily for the final speech of the day, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. But the organizers and other speakers had been striving and longing for this day for at least twenty years. A recent segment on Democracy Now! and an article in Dissent Magazine have helped me see more fully the radical roots of this march, which made possible King's speech. But it's been a long road for me to appreciate any of this...

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Life happens, we deal with it

From Toledo, IA
The right place to talk; notice who got the big-boy glass
(the little guy/me)
This is a meta-post in our ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm.

The Coles-Hauerwas book blogging project has slowed down a bit in recent weeks for a number of reasons. It all started when I spent a week in Virginia for work, which among other things (like a mild existential crisis) granted me a bit of time to hang out with these two yayhoos on the right, the Brothers Jonathan. We had a great chat, and at the time we were wading into chapter 3, which John had just posted on.

But I've been holding the ball for a few weeks now, still in ch. 3 with no post up, so I got some 'splainin' to do. Long story short: life circumstances for Jon and I are changing. Just this week (this morning, in fact), Jon is starting another semester at EMU as a dual-degree student as well as taking on some new work responsibilities. Balancing all that with his family life is tricky business, and having done that myself (though with not as many children!) I can sympathize completely.

For my part, I'm ramping up for a writing project, some curriculum planning for a course I'm teaching next spring, and some new church ministry responsibilities starting this fall. Add to that my day job and family life, and my plate is looking rather full. So in light of that, we're making a mid-course correction in this here project...

Sunday, August 18, 2013

When home is not yet home

From Toledo, IA
Morning devotions; Aug. 16, 7:30 a.m.; Harrisonburg, Virginia
The authors says:
So then let's also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses [martyrs] surrounding us. Let's throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith's pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God's throne.
(Hebrews 12:1-2; CEB; Revised Common Lectionary reading: Year C, Proper 15 (20))
It was an interesting time in Harrisonburg last week. I was back for my second return trip for my ongoing work with EMU, and this time my wife and daughter accompanied me, their first trip back since moving back to Iowa last summer. And...all three of us wept at various times.

My tears came on suddenly during corporate prayer last Sunday as we worshiped at Park View Mennonite Church, our last church home in Harrisonburg. "And for those who are grieving, Lord...," the leader intoned. - Boom. Quivering lips, the whole nine yards. My daughter patted and rubbed my back. It had been a while since she'd seen her old man cry.

Grief. I'm still in it.

We're home in Toledo and our sense of God's calling us to move here remains unshaken. But it's also the case that I miss university life and the dynamic community of Harrisonburg. Plus struggling rural Midwestern towns are not easy places to live for people with visions of radical ecclesia and community peacebuilding/development. The fruits of the Spirit - especially patience - are rarely manifest in my daily being in our still-new nearby. My cup of compassion runs low and it impacts my ability to faithfully love my family, neighbor, and enemy.

The text above from the lectionary is water for my dry soul. The race metaphor is familiar, but the cloud of witnesses strikes me afresh when I was doing devotions the other morning (from which this post is derived - the filling out of the blank page pictured above). This cloud of witnesses, it's as if they are watching the race we run, cheering on the runners who yet toil on this earth; not in vain (we pray), but for the joy of life abundant in Jesus Christ.

It's important to notice in the previous chapter that this cloud of witnesses is comprised of those prior champions of the faith who...
...were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.  Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect. (Heb. 11:36-40)
Not without "us" are we made perfect. Suffering, resurrection, and the body of Christ - all inextricably linked. Taken with the other New Testament texts like Romans 5:3-5 which reflect on the fruits of suffering in the Christian faith, this is an encouraging text. It helps put my "suffering" (a strong word for what I'm experiencing, yes) in perspective.

As we continue to discern what faithful and radical discipleship looks like here - seeking the peace of the farm town - I'll continue to seek spiritual nourishment where I can (trips back to Harrisonburg; my dear friend Travis here in town) and try to run the race that's laid out before us here in Toledo...

Monday, August 12, 2013

Baptized at the Folk School: Christianity and Radical Democracy

From Keezletown, VA
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post begins our reflections on chapter 3.

How might we move west of Cornel West? How do we follow him down the trail he’s blazed with the intention to bushwhack beyond his surveying? Rom Coles reviews West’s Democracy Matters for the American Academy of Religion, admiring his rhetorical skills and critical mind, but he thinks West favors prophetic voicing at the expense of prophetic listening. He worries that West underemphasizes the long and slow building of receptive relationships within social movements (50-51). I also hope that Cornel West continues to listen to the “movements in the streets, on front porches, at kitchen tables” (48), as Ella Baker and the early Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) did. But I also hope he doesn’t stop speaking because I need to keep listening to the scarfed philosopher who inflects to the cadence of the beatbox in his head. 

I read Democracy Matters last fall and was impressed with its scope and style. West insists that we must resist the three great threats to democracy: free-market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism. West knows these threats aren’t new to America, a nation born with a schizophrenic vision because the “contingent origins of American democracy and the ignoble beginnings of imperial America go hand in hand . . . The fight for democracy has ever been one against the oppressive and racist corruptions of empire.” According to West, this fight will need three traditions for energy and inspiration. The first is a Socratic commitment to questioning ourselves, authorities, and dogmas of the day. The second is a Jewish prophetic commitment to justice for all people that condemns the golden calf of wealth and the blood-soaked flag. And the third tradition is the tragicomic commitment to hope, expressed by the “painful eloquence of the blues” and the “improvisational virtuosity of jazz,” both staring “painful truths in the face” and persevering “without cynicism or pessimism.” West’s account of democracy challenges and strengthens my anarchistic tendencies.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Tracking (nearly) vanished footprints: Christianity and radical democracy

From Harrisonburg, VA
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas and Romand Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, and Brian Gumm. This post continues our reflections on ch. 2, a letter to Hauerwas from Coles. 
This wound is in me, as complex and deep in my flesh as blood and nerves. I have borne it all my life, with varying degrees of consciousness, but always carefully, always with the most delicate consideration for the pain I would feel if I were somehow forced to acknowledge it.
Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound, (4)
In Romand Coles' "Letter of July 17, 2006" (Chapter 2) he suggests that "we care for the world as we care for the dead" (32) and that this gets straight to the heart of a radical-democratic relation to time. This responsibility to ancestors means that our focus of responsibility shifts from only being about saving the present-moving-to-the-future. We've got to do the slow work of sifting through the past, getting to know those who have walked before us, tracking those footprints that are still (but just barely) visible on the soil of this earth we all inhabit. We must do this because, as Coles suggests, "The disaster has already occurred" (33, emphasis in original).

That the disaster has already occurred suggests that this tracking of nearly vanished footprints will be work of the dirtiest, messiest and most lamentable sort. If the disaster has already occurred, then at least some of our tracking will put us on the trail of that disaster - and being on the trail might mean that we are actually led to the disaster. Tracking takes time, patience and an incredible attention to detail, all the more so when the sands that hold the footprints are shifting and the wind is howling and the rain is making it hard to see. I know I shouldn't have to write it but the fact that the work of uncovering these footprints is called "tracking" should help us to recognize that we most likely aren't going to find nearly vanished footprints in standard textbooks and public histories.

I opened this post with the quote from Wendell Berry because I think he suggests what might be involved in uncovering the wound of slavery and racism in America. In so far as I was born in this spot of land now referred to at the United States of America and was raised in it the quote could be mine, were I as eloquent as Berry. Yes, the wound is in me. It is not something external to me that I can merely look at from time to time and admire how well (or poorly) it is healing. And much like my children enjoy keeping their band-aids on as long as possible so as to avoid the pain of tearing it off so I, like Berry, am often hesitant to open the wound to the fresh air. But the fresh air is what the wound needs, it cannot be hidden forever to fester and become infected. Thankfully Berry continues thus:
But now I am increasingly aware of the opposite compulsion. I want to know, as fully and exactly as I can, what the wound is and how much I am suffering from it. And I want to be cured; I want to be free of the wound myself, and I do not want to pass it on to my children. Perhaps this is only wishful thinking; perhaps such a thing is not to be done by one man, or in one generation. Surely a man would have to be almost dangerously proud to think himself capable of it. And so maybe I am really saying only that I feel an obligation to make the attempt, and that I know if I fail to make at least the attempt I forfeit any right to hope that the world will become better than it is now.
Berry, The Hidden Wound, (4)
There is a vulnerability here that I think has resonance with the kind of radical-democratic practice that Coles is suggesting. It is the vulnerability of diagnosing disasters of the past (actually, maybe its letting others diagnose the disasters of the past), and the recognition of complicity in those very disasters. Its the vulnerability of refusing to cover over the past with immediate return to the present-moving-to-the-future. I suppose its the vulnerability of risking death, or at least the death of the story I used to tell about the past. I think it requires something akin to Rizpah's commitment to sit with the dead, for a whole blazing hot summer, (2 Samuel 21:1-14) in order to keep bodies safe from scavenging animals. But the kind of sitting still that Rizpah embodies I find to be extremely difficult if not impossible.

Preventing Re-Murder: Christianity and Radical Democracy

From Keezletown, VA
This is post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post continues our reflections on ch. 2, a letter to Hauerwas from Coles.

Soon after I graduated from college, several friends and I started a reading group called The 451, in honor of Ray Bradbury’s novel. We each nominated several books to a shortlist and decided together which ones to read. Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, in many ways a poetic anti-theodicy, was one of the finalists. As Brian pointed out in the previous post, Coles references the unbearable theme of suffering throughout Dillard’s book that reminds us of our responsibility to the dead. “Under emperor’s orders,” says Dillard, “living workers crushed their fellows’ dead bones and stuck them into the Great Wall as fill.” Coles wonders out loud how we might live haunted by these disasters that have already happened, because responsibility to the dead can’t mean preventing physical violence because the “disaster has already occurred” (33).

Burning olive groves at Ni'lin to clear a path for the wall.
Photo by Jonathan McRay
During my time in Palestine I occasionally worked in a small village called Ni’lin. Three Israeli settlements on hilltops surround Ni’lin. In 2008, Israel began constructing the Separation Wall through the outskirts of the village. Like many Palestinian villages, Ni’lin depends on its olive and citrus groves and livestock. But the wall annexed or destroyed 6,000 trees, many of which were the oldest and most productive. The wall also impeded Ni’lin’s access to neighboring towns and cities, schools, and healthcare facilities. In response to construction, Ni’lin residents launched a grassroots nonviolent campaign to resist the seizure of land. I was in the village the day the bulldozer came to begin construction and when the nonviolent protests started.

In 2009, Ni’lin residents organized a tribute to Holocaust victims through a village memorial exhibition held at their municipality. Most of the villagers had read about the genocide but this event was the first time many of them had seen pictures. The exhibit tried to remember and lament this disaster, to express that Palestinians had nothing to do with the Holocaust, and to acknowledge that fate has now put these people together on the same land. These villagers give one response to Coles’ question. We need more responses like this. We need litanies for those who died and survived like Against Forgetting, an anthology of poetry from the 20th century’s wars and conflicts.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Upon these innumerable bones: Historical harms and ethics

From Toledo, IA
A mass grave in post-genocide Rwanda
(Photo copyright AP)
This is post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post kicks off our reflections on ch. 2.

This chapter takes the form of a letter which Coles wrote to Hauerwas in July, 2006, from his mother-in-law's house in northern California. After telling Stanley a bit about the surroundings, Coles leads off his response to the essay found in the previous chapter with a rather striking image:
Have you ever read Annie Dillard's For the Time Being? She writes there in a way that repeatedly evokes the unfathomable numbers of dead humans and nonhumans in the earth underneath our feet... I'm frequently overtaken by this sensibility. By a sense of the dead everywhere around me... by a sense that responsibility travels backwards, first toward the dead - their works, their unfulfilled dreams, their memories. (31, emphasis added)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

RAGBRAI 2013: A coffee snoot's dilemma, Pt. 2

Photo by Richard Masoner/Flickr
This is the second and final post on my thought experiment/journaling last week while riding my bike across the state of Iowa on RAGBRAI. See part one.

RAGBRAI Day 2: Mon. July 22; Perry, IA

I'm writing from the house of an extraordinarily hospitable Presbyterian minister, a colleague-of-a-collueague-of-a-pastor/friend...the kind of connections you make when trying to secure your own overnight stays for RAGBRAI. We didn't know this lady one little bit before tonight but she's treating us like royalty, even with her difficulty getting around due to health issues and simultaneously babysitting her adorable grandson. So grateful.

No entry for yesterday due to passing out from exhaustion, and I'm getting there tonight. Adventures in coffee snobbery continue: Yesterday on the route, just outside Council Bluffs, there was a Fair Trade and Organic coffee hut. All the magic words to which coffee snoots swoon! The place was called "Fair Shot" (cute). But I passed it by; the guilt of Day 0 was still too close at hand. Later, my sister-in-law expressed her being impressed by my self-control. I didn't tell her it was based in shame.

This morning, though, I had a hankerin' for Good Coffee. We left Elk Horn... (We stayed there instead of the official overnight town of Harlan because we have family there. We ended up riding 10 extra miles the first day and 10 fewer miles the next. So we kinda cheated.) - Anyway, we left Elk Horn just before 6am this morning and got to our mid-point of Guthrie Center around 9am. Due to said cheating we were very early, and there were very few cyclists in the vendor village set up in the city park at the edge of town. I only found one vendor selling coffee, and I hovered there, consulting with Erin - who was at that point supportive of my quest for Good Coffee.

A few teenaged boys working the stand, watching me hover, asked me if I wanted anything. "Um...aaah...what kind of coffee do you have?"