Being Fully Human, Children, mothers day, peace, terrorism, war

Mother’s Day – Fail

Mother's Day Figure

Every year we set aside one day to celebrate our mothers or miss our mothers or lament that we didn’t have more loving mothers. Some of us celebrate that we are mothers, grieve the loss of children or the inability to have ever given birth.

But Mother’s Day has not always been a sentimental Hallmark holiday. The very first Mother’s Days were attempts to organize mother’s for political reasons and social causes.

One of the first organized Mother’s Days was led by Julia Ward Howe. It was 1870 when Julia appealed to mothers to rally for peace.

This was her proclamation:

Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Blood does not wipe out dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
at the summons of war,
let women now leave all that may be left of home
for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
whereby the great human family can live in peace…
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God –
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

Julia’s words should hang heavy on us in this day when we continue to be steeped in violence, discrimination and war. Isn’t it time we hear her cry to protect children wherever they might live?

Mother’s Day wasn’t started as a way to celebrate moms. It was started as an attempt to rally mothers together for a cause greater than themselves – the cause of peace.

It doesn’t seem to have done the job.

Namaste.

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Being Fully Human, Compassion, nonviolence, terrorism

Nobody Likes a Terrorist

Nobody Likes a TerroristThe website Listserv.com has a compilation of terrorist fails put together by Morris M. This is one of my favorites. This is about the Colombian group FARC, a group that has nothing to do with religion. The FARC are a self-described army of peasant Marxist–Leninists with a political platform of agrarianism and anti-imperialism. They fund their operations by kidnapping and demanding ransoms, illegal mining, extortion and the production of cocaine. They’ve killed thousands during their 50-year battle with Colombia’s government. Their operatives are ruthless, brutal—and, just occasionally, hilariously incompetent.

In 2008, FARC leaders struck a deal with the Colombian government in which they were to turn over three hostages including former vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas and her son. The child was born while Rojas was a hostage and was now 3 years old and the government’s chief concern. The whole exchange was choreographed by the FARC leadership to be a PR triumph for the terrorists—and it probably would have been, had they not accidentally freed their key hostage two years earlier.

As zero-hour approached, it became humiliatingly clear that FARC no longer held Rojas’s son captive. One of the fighters had given the child up for adoption shortly after it had been born and somehow the leadership had failed to notice the total lack of screaming baby in their camp. Suddenly, the massive PR coup was nothing of the sort, as FARC were forced to release their other two hostages to mocking laughter instead of cheers of solidarity.

Think terrorist cells are run by a network of criminal masterminds? Think again.

Who Is the Terrorist?

Ever since September 11, 2001, we Americans have become a nation increasingly obsessed with terrorism. We wonder why we were attacked and what we can do to prevent being attacked again. We explore the causes of terrorism and debate how should respond to the next threat.

We also tend to have taken a pretty singular stance as we do so. We are the victims of terror. We are the potential casualties. And they – that group – those people – they are the threat. How shall we protect ourselves from them? That’s a convenient stance to be sure because it nicely isolates us from the problem – the role we play in this tangled web of power and corruption and desperation.

So if we are to take a more integral view of this whole messy business, perhaps we should start by asking the more fundamental question. Beyond the rhetoric and the scare tactics, just what is terrorism?

Caleb Carr, in his book “The Lessons of Terror” defines terrorism as “any form of warfare that deliberately targets a civilian population.” Terrorism is “any form of warfare that deliberately targets a civilian population.”

It’s not a particularly comfortable definition to some ears because it implies that terrorism is not only a means of individual extremists, but also something the regular military might use. And so it has. Think of Nazi Germany. Think of Cambodia. Think of Rwanda. Think of Hiroshima. Think of Iraq. Think of drone missile strikes.

Drone missile strikes from the United States to be exact. The human rights group Reprieve analyzed the available public data concerning US drone strikes. Targeted strikes aimed at 41 men have resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people, as of November 24. The Council on Foreign Relations also reports that 500 signature strikes outside the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in a conservative estimate of 3674 civilians killed in these terrorist attacks. Oh sorry, I think the correct term is “collateral damage” when we’re inflicting it on others.

Guerilla Warfare and Terrorism

That’s the regular military. What about those bands of extremists? Here it is helpful to distinguish guerilla warfare from terrorism. Both guerrillas and terrorists consisted of small bands that would rise up against a more powerful enemy with quick action and fast retreat so that they could soon strike again. Both tend to work by hiding among civilians and recruiting their support. Both groups consist of the disenfranchised. Both attempt to use violence to change the status quo. But the target of their violence is very different.

While terrorists attack civilians, guerillas know the importance of strictly avoiding (or at least appearing to avoid) any such attack. By following this mandate guerrillas are able to maintain the support of their fellow citizens – even their admiration for the brave work they do. As a result there are many examples of successful guerrilla campaigns.

Terrorists, on the other hand, use civilians intentionally as targets. The goal is to instill fear. Because they fail to show concern for the people, the citizens blame the terrorists both for their actions and for the retaliation that often comes at their expense. This is why eventually, Carr maintains, terrorism always fails.

Nobody likes a terrorist.

Here’s an example: US citizens are killed when planes become terrorist missiles that slam into the World Trade Towers – the world immediately responds with prayers, support and sympathy – but then the US attacks Iraqi citizens and support for the USA plummets globally while fear of the US increases.

Killing civilians is not a good long term strategy. It always makes it more difficult for those who use it to achieve their ends. Here’s another example: The Palestinians and Israel. Whenever one acts against civilians, sympathy shifts to those who are being attacked or harassed. Terrorism is ultimately a self-defeating tactic.

Nevertheless, it remains a tactic used by a whole host of people all around this world. Why?

No Other Option

Because they see no other option. In his book The Many Faces of Terrorism, Ken Wilber looked at 50 major terrorist acts around the world from Protestant bombings of abortion clinics in the South to Buddhist subway attacks in Tokyo to Sikh separatists in India to Muslim terrorist acts including 911. He discovered that all have the same profile. They were groups of people who did not believe there was a place for their most firmly held beliefs within the modern world – and because the world would not make room for their beliefs, they were ready to blow up the world.

Wilber contends that 70% of the world is operating at no higher than an ethnocentric world view. Preserve and protect me, my family, my kin, my lineage, and those like me. Me, my family and those like me are united by our belief structure and a rigid code of right and wrong. We are united by obedience to our God or another moral order that glues together our particular ethnic group. We know what our God values and what our God wants.

But this nation or this world does not recognize those values and those wants. The world is a threat, a jungle full of predators. A place in which heroism is necessary and power belongs to the conquerors. Such is the seed of a holy war.

Terrorists are Soldiers

We all can fall pray to this mentality. All of us have within us the seeds of this kind of extremism. We all have tightly held beliefs and values and when they are threatened, we have the capacity to act to protect ourselves, our families, our Gods – whatever they might be.

Understanding the human capacity for both good and evil is critical if we are to have any impact on terrorism at all. For the first mistake we make is to justify the killing of civilians on our side and to dehumanize and call terrorists those who kill civilians for some other cause. In reality terrorists are soldiers and activists. Our failure to deal with terrorism adequately over the past few decades rests in the fact that we have refused to acknowledge that in their own minds they are not criminals, but soldiers engaging in acts of warfare.

Terrorism will continue to haunt us all as long as there is hunger and poverty, corrupt and brutal political systems, harsh discrimination and social inequalities, civil wars, environmental degradation and epidemic disease. All of these problems are sources of insecurity and hopelessness for millions. To be indifferent to these realities is to ignore the role we play in the perpetuation of terrorism.

In Buddhism there is a state of consciousness called compassionate detachment – the ability to step outside of one’s own self, above the human level, to see the wider view of humanity. From this elevated view, we see that there is suffering on all sides that has led people to act out in ways that hurt others and themselves. From this vantage point, there are no sides to pick, there is just the tragedy of human victims trying to make their way in a difficult world while carrying their own wounds and scars. From this perspective we understand the need for compassionate action.

A Compassion Response

But what about here on the ground? But what about ISIS? What about Boko Haram? What about Al-Shabaab? We almost can’t stomach the slaughter of college students in Kenya, the execution of Egyptian Coptic Christians and the beheading of journalists. As we recall those images, you can feel the energy in the room shift. We are filled with revulsion, outrage, and frustration. What does the value of compassionate action call us to when such evil is assaulting our world?

If you’re like me, the idea of practicing compassion in light of such horrific behavior stops us short. It’s hard enough for me to feel compassion toward the guy who cut me off in traffic last week or and my old high school classmate who posted their conservative rant on Facebook last night. It takes tremendous courage to practice compassion toward people who we love and who have caused hurt. Isn’t this taking things to an unrealistic extreme? And why would we do it? Why would we even bother cultivating compassion for men who barbarically mass execute civilians?

We bother because we genuinely want to be more fully human and that means we understand that violence only begets violence; that there is never an excuse for one human being to commit violence against another human being. And here’s the kicker – not only is nonviolence a more fully human response, it actually works!

The Buddhists and other spiritual teachers tell us that deep down inside those we call terrorists are just the same as us. They want to be happy and free of suffering, and so do we. If we had been born to their parents, in their country, and brought up in their environment, who’s to say we wouldn’t behave in exactly the same way.

The Making of a Terrorist

But let’s bring it closer to home. What about people born here in the United States becoming terrorists? Pete Simi is an investigator for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism. He has found that there is a lot of diversity among those who join extremist groups, including the fact that they come from a wide cross section of socioeconomic situations. While it is not always the case, the most common background characteristic is some kind of family disruption, either divorce, parental abandonment, a parent becoming incarcerated, or substance abuse by one or both of the parents.

In terms of personality, there does seem to be certain characteristics of thinking that make a person more prone or susceptible to recruitment. One is a low tolerance for ambiguity and a strong need to categorize things as “black and white” rather than deal with so-called “gray areas.” In fact, at the most fundamental level that’s what most of these movements are really all about — the oversimplification of a highly complicated world. Simi concludes black and white simplicity is a powerful incentive to offer people, especially those who feel lost and looking for easy answers.

Compassionate action allows us to see others as brothers and sisters. It witnesses to the fact that love extends to all. And it invites us to pay attention to the interests and welfare of those we might consider to be enemies. It recognizes that we all play a role in creating extremism, so we all need to find ways of diminishing extremism.

After Hate

Simi points out that “a common misconception is the idea that “once a hater always a hater,” once a terrorist always a terrorist, once a deviant always beyond redemption. This,” says Simi, “is folklore; it’s simply not true.”

People do leave extremist groups. Some leave as they become more familiar with the ideas and realize it really is a pretty warped world view. Moral uneasiness can emerge that creates distance between them and the group. Others realize that their future is likely prison or the grave and decide this isn’t the life they want for themselves or their family.

But Simi believes the most common factor for those who want to leave extremist groups is the growing realization that, “as much as the movement professes loyalty and kinship and all of these affirmative qualities, there’s really a tremendous amount of backstabbing and infighting that occurs. As people experience and observe this, they become disillusioned and begin to see the movement for what it is.

But leaving can be very difficult.  The organization LAH Life After Hate was started by former hate group members. The focus of their message is the importance of using compassion to inform prevention and intervention efforts and aftercare for individuals who want to change their lives but may need various types of support.

Compassion may indeed be the most powerful tool of all. Compassion does not mean condoning reprehensible behavior. So what does compassion look like in this situation? CompassionIt is a nonprofit and global social movement. They suggest that in this very moment, we can send terrorists (both home and abroad) a wish for peace by saying or thinking, “May you find peace. May you be free from suffering.” It’s pretty simple, really.

People at Peace Do Not Harm

People who are at peace with themselves and with others do not harm others. By wishing that others find peace, we open our own heart and cultivate peace within ourselves. When I am at peace, it changes my own world view and my interactions with everyone else. It is a truly a transformative and subversive action.

It might sound naïve, but we should never underestimate the power of non-violence. Preston Sprinkle points out that, “History doesn’t like to glorify non-violence; our nation and identity were born out of bombs bursting in the sky. But wipe away our militaristic lenses through which we view the past, and you’ll see that many seemingly invincible powers were resisted and overcome through non-violence.”

Compassion takes courage and practice. We won’t leave today and suddenly feel compassionate toward everyone just because we want to. It just doesn’t work that way. But we can set an intention to look at the world through the lens of compassion. If we do that, we can achieve peace…within ourselves.

So are you ready to exercise profound courage and subversion? Then close your eyes and begin by settling your mind with a few moments of breathing…

Now visualize a terrorist or a person who represents terrorist to you.

Send out these thoughts, “May you find peace. May you be free of suffering.”

As you open your eyes, may you find peace. May you be free of suffering.

Namaste

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Being Fully Human, common humanity, equality, power, racism

Race, Power and Privilege

Martin Luther King JrIn 1946, some 66 years ago, Rogers and Hammerstein wrote a song, “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made and people whose skin is a different shade. You’ve got to be carefully taught.” And they are so right. There is nothing natural or innate about racism and bigotry. There is nothing in the eyes of a baby that judges you by the way you look or act or believe. These are learned behaviors and our first and most influential classroom is the home. What in the world are we teaching our kids?

At the first and only Martz family reunion – at least that I was invited to, everyone was there. Including family members I had never met before. There was the usual assortment of folks that I think you must have even at your own reunions. There’s the 38-year-old cousin sipping a beer who doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. The aunt whose best known for her T-shirt with the picture of two pigs and the caption “Makin’ Bacon” There’s that one person – uncle, brother, husband who can’t stop telling jokes. And there’s the success in business that can’t stop talking about them self. There’s even the strange psychic presence of the family member in jail that nobody talks about.

And then there was my cousin Rob. Just a year younger than me. I had last seen him 7 years before when his wife had made cakes for a family wedding reception. I hung out with Rob a little back in high school. I went to Fruitport and he went to Muskegon High School. So we’re standing in Aunt Mary’s garage along with my sister talking about work – an ever-popular family reunion discussion. And my sister talks about working at Muskegon Public Schools. And Rob says he went to those schools and he’d never send his kids there. My sister rises to the challenge to explain how good the teachers are now and Rob interrupts her with perfect seriousness to say – I would never send my kids there – not until they desegregate.

And suddenly I had no idea who I was standing next to. And I had no idea how to respond. I was shocked that anyone would say something so offensive in this day and age. And I felt personally assaulted that someone would say something like that in front of me. A family member no less…

I know you’ve had similar experiences if you also celebrate our common humanity. Because that sets us apart from a lot of people. When we choose to respect the dignity and worth of every individual, we challenge the status quo with all of its existing power structures.

So What is Power?

Power is the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events. It is the ability to make things happen. Institutional power is the ability or official authority to decide what is best for others. The ability to decide who will have access to resources. The capacity to exercise control over others.

Power implies that there are people who make the decisions and people who are affected by those decisions. Most often the people with the power are the people in society who enjoy certain privileges. In the United States, privilege is granted to people who have membership in one or more of these social identity groups:

  • White people;
  • Able-bodied people;
  • Heterosexuals;
  • Males;
  • Christians;
  • Middle class people;
  • Middle-aged people;
  • English-speaking people

Privilege is usually invisible to the people who have it. People in dominant groups often believe that they have earned the privileges that they enjoy or that everyone could have access to these privileges if only they worked to earn them. In fact, privileges are unearned and they are granted to people in the dominant groups whether they want those privileges or not. The lesson here is that we need to be aware of our privilege and then use it to do our best while also advocating for those behind us.

What Does Privilege Have to Do with Power?

In some respects we cannot deny that as Americans we are the powerful. Most of us know wealth and opportunity the rest of the world can barely imagine. But in some respects we are also the powerless – the poor, the abused, the sick, the unemployed, those excluded because of race or sexuality or religious belief. Sometimes we are at the mercy of other people and sometimes our own actions and words serve to save or to condemn.

So here’s the deal. If we want to live the good life, then the position we hold demands different things of us. Growth for the powerful comes in deciding to give up power and lay down privilege. But the powerless grow by claiming power and living new truth. And when both of these happen, the world changes. Nelson Mandela took up power. President de Klerk laid his power down. Together they brought about the end of apartheid. 

Now this is important. Sometimes we feel powerful and in control. Other times we feel helpless and afraid. But if we are PERCEIVED as being powerful – we are powerful. And we are challenged to give up our power. Likewise, when we find ourselves perceived as powerless – we are powerless – and it is then that we must stand tall and move toward becoming powerful.

This is totally counter intuitive. And yet that is the very challenge I want to lay out for us today. It is the challenge of committing our lives to higher principles and values than we are genetically disposed to.

The Cycle of Power 

When we take up the burden of serving others, we put ourselves in a position of giving away our power and our possessions. And that can be a very scary thing to do. We worry about chaos. We worry about being out of control. We begin to believe that if we give away our power we will remain powerless forever. So in our fear we become selfish and greedily cling to whatever power and material goods we have. As long as we give in to this fear, we are supporting a world in which there is no justice, no equality, no even distribution of power.

But giving away our power is only part of the story, for we are also called to take up power. To take up what is rightfully ours to claim. We are not called to be victims or to accept things the way we are because it’s out of our hands. We are called to move from apathy to action. From enduring to living fully.

And this also is frightening. To really take hold of the power that is ours: The reality that we have been given the power and the task of changing this world. When all is said and done, we often don’t really want such power. It is easier to blame others for the state of things and to sulk. Frankly, power brings with it awesome and terrible responsibilities that we might rather do without.

There are times we take up power and at times we lay it down. Neither come naturally. So we are invited to practice, in our community, in our work, in our home, in our everyday relationships with others. When we invite others to the table and then allow them to take the lead, we give away power. When we accept the invitation of others to lead, we claim power.

Allowing Ourselves to be Led 

Let me give you an example. When I worked as an Assistant to the Bishop, there was a desire to start a Hispanic ministry in Muskegon. Lots of good Lutherans had lots of good ideas about improving the lives of disenfranchised people. But our job wasn’t to come in as heroes and save the people by giving them what we thought the needed. The biggest challenge for the group was embracing the humility to admit that we didn’t know the first thing about the Hispanic experience. Our job was to invite the community to the table and then to empower them to lead. How often our position of power and privilege deceives us into thinking we have the answers. How difficult to bring those without power to the table and then empower them to take on leadership roles in deciding what it is we should do.

Of course, disrupting the existing power structures also comes at a cost. Upsetting the existing power structures creates conflict in our relationships – including in our own families. Living out our values, supporting programs and initiatives that create diverse, integrated communities comes at a cost. Sometimes being different becomes too costly and too troublesome, and we turn away to re-embrace the values our culture lauds. Giving up our oddity can be a small price to pay in exchange for the well-being and power offered by the empire.

When we choose to believe in a different reality, one that believes in love and inclusiveness, one that recognizes our common humanity and the need to embrace and care for our neighbors, we risk our wealth, our reputation and our relationships – even those of our immediate family.

We give, we receive, we accept, we lay down. Like the two parts of every breath we take, there is a cycle that we must move through. We simply can’t spend all of our efforts on either breathing in or breathing out. And so we fall into the rhythm of taking in power and of letting it go we realize that power and powerlessness are both contained within us.

King and Obama

Tomorrow we celebrate one of the greatest examples of someone who refused to accept powerlessness. Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in the harsh reality of racial oppression and dared to demand better. He stood up to the powers of white society that were personally and systematically subjugating his people. Knowing that nothing ever happens by keeping silent, he risked and ultimately lost his life in order to raise his voice and claim his power to change reality.  A reality that included not just racism, but also war and socioeconomic disparity. King lamented the American trifecta: racism, materialism and militarism.

On April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated, King delivered his final speech. He was talking about injustice felt by city sanitation workers who were striking to protest their low wages and poor working conditions. He told his audience that the question to ask was not, “What will happen to me if I help them?” but “What will happen to them if I don’t?”  Not, “What will happen to me if I help them?” but “What will happen to them if I don’t?”

King called on the nation to be something better than it was. Barack Obama in his 2008 speech on Race and Politics gave voice to the pent up frustration, anger and despair of blacks and whites alike as they continue to live in a society of all too often unspoken racial tension. By making public the private lament uttered around kitchen tables all around this country, Obama challenged every one of us not to get stuck in either our power or our powerlessness. Not to determine that we are the victim or the oppressor, but to recognize that we are all suffering and we all need to experience reconciliation.

Of course, his speech made a lot of white people uncomfortable and defensive. You still hear that defensiveness whenever the question of race is raised in our country – and it gets raised a lot. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. When questions of race are raised, many white people express feeling personally attacked. They don’t understand or don’t want to understand the effects of institutionalized racism and the long shadow it casts over any individual prejudice. They are often quick to point out the significant strides we have made since the Civil Rights movement.

And in that they are right. Laws that codified racial discrimination have been struck down. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Lyndon B Johnson giving evidence of our government’s willingness to lay down its power and to take serious steps toward justice and equality. But in 2013 the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 939 hate groups actively operating in the United States and the FBI reported 6933 hate crimes. Of course, each and every one of us in this room condemns such acts of violent hatred. And many of us, despite the best of intentions, also harbor sentiments of racism and prejudice even as we oppose those sentiments.

I am a Racist – and I’m So Much More

Let me tell you about my grandfather. Grandpa passed away almost 15 years ago. He was the sweetest, most God fearing man you could ever hope to meet. But he wasn’t above the occasional racial slur. And when you challenged him on it, he would tell you the stories his father told him – the ones that taught him to feel the way he does. My mother is the sweetest, most God fearing person you could ever hope to meet. But if you dig deep enough you will find an underlying distrust of people of color she doesn’t know – she’s heard her father’s stories.

And me? I am a loving women, one who used to deny – rather self-righteously – any feelings of racism or bigotry myself. But now I know I am wrong. I know because I have begun to realize all of the advantages that are mine simply because I am a white person. I know because I have begun to see and understand the lies and distortions I grew up with. And it is in that knowledge that I can readily admit that I am a racist, but that I am also so much more. Because I have claimed a new identity and that is one of an anti-racist.

My father overheard cousin Rob’s comment and watched as I walked away. About an hour later he approached me and said, “Your grandfather had a brother in the war that came back talking about how many black deserters there were. He never had anything good to say about blacks. I guess he passed it on to your Uncle Mike and he passed it on to Rob.”

Racism is Not Just a Bad Attitude 

Racism is not just a bad attitude. Racism for lack of a better word is a sin that robs and dehumanizes people of every shade and hue. It is a darkly powerful force that does much more than oppress certain groups of people. It is an evil that creates an identity for me and for you. It tells me that I am a white person with rights and privileges that I never asked for.

And in that identity, it seeks to separate me from my place in the family of common humanity. A family where when any one is excluded, the entire family suffers for it.  Claiming our place in that family is no sentimental journey. This is a path of difficulty and rejection. And it is one we must not just talk about.

We have to acknowledge our privilege. We have to stand up to institutional barriers. We have to monitor our own thoughts, words and actions. We have to invite people from the back of the room and from the front of the room to sit down together at the table. We have to live a different reality. We have to. Our children are watching us.

“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are 6 or 7 or 8 to hate all the people your relatives hate. You’ve got to be carefully taught. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

Namaste

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Being Fully Human, Compassion, Interfaith, Spiritual

We Dream of a World at Peace

An Haggadah of Liberation 

We dream of a world not threatened by destruction.
We dream of a world in which all people are free to be themselves.
We dream of a world at peace.
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Clearly we live in violent times – and we search for reasons as to how this could have happened. Too often we look for an easy way out. But there are no easy answers. Instead we need to look at the dark places in our society, in the dark secrets of our culture, in the dark places of our own souls. 

In the movie Bowling for Columbine Roger Moore sets out to discover the root causes of violence in America. He points at all the usual suspects as causes for this violence – poverty and unemployment, easy access to guns, the violent history of our nation, and our children’s exposure to violent videogames, music and movies. But in the end, the movie seems to stumble upon a darker ethos in the collective mindset of America – one of fear. 

What are we so afraid of?  

How many times do I think that taking some precaution seems like overkill but I do it anyway because the haunting refrain of “What if…” echoes in my mind? No misfortune, it would seem, is out of the realm of possibility. Even as I lock my doors at night (and incidentally I have no reason to lock my doors other than the fact that I am told it is the “responsible” thing to do”) I feel a vague feeling of fear creep into me as I became aware of being a woman alone in the night.   

Now I’m not saying violence isn’t real. Clearly it is. But how do we make sense out of Barry Glassner’s findings in his book “Fear” that as crime rates plunged throughout the 1990s, two-thirds of Americans believed they were soaring? Or that global violence is at its lowest level since the 1950s?  

And what does my faith have to say about it? One of my favorite phrases for meditation is “Be Still and Know that I am God.” I was raised to greet others with “Peace Be With You.” Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” And over and over again the scriptures remind me that if God is with me, whom shall I fear? In fact there is only one time that fear is actually the recommended emotion in the scriptures and that is in the command to “have the fear of God.” There is an important distinction to be made here.  

To be afraid is to be in an apprehensive state, to fear someone or something. This is the fear that leads to terror that moves us to panic. This is also the fear we are told we can lay aside, give up, and be freed from. But to have fear is to have a profound measure of respect and reverence for the divine.  

Too often the Christian community seems to get these mixed up. We give reverence, respect and awe to people and things, to money and sports teams and celebrities and to the good ole’ US of A, and we are afraid of God. 

Too often we preach grace but refuse to give up our own sense of shame and guilt until we are filled with fear that somehow we alone may be beyond God’s saving grace. We fear that the bad things that happen to us are God’s little acts of vengeance for our sins. And I can’t tell you how tired I am of getting emails telling me that we shouldn’t be surprised that God won’t protect us anymore because we don’t pray in schools. God is pissed off and we better start being afraid or things are going to get a whole lot worse!    

And if we have to be afraid, than doggone it, we want everybody else to be afraid, too. So we are sure to tell Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Atheists that if they don’t believe in God the way we do they are in big trouble. Jesus said to go spread the Good News, and throughout the centuries human beings have perverted a message of peace and love and the reality that we need no longer be afraid into “evangelism by terrorism.” Somehow we managed to turn something as wonderful as a gracious and merciful God into a holy scare tactic: Here’s the good news and if you don’t believe it, then you better be afraid because if we don’t getcha, God will. 

  
And if we’re afraid of God how can we possibly live a life free of fear? To be afraid is to live with the kind of anxiety that makes us fearful of talking to a neighbor, offering help to a stranger, listening to the point of view of our enemy. The Greek word for fear is phobos and if you change just one letter you have phonos, which means murder. Incidents of violence stir up anger and fear. Fear festers an attitude of “we’re not going to take it anymore.” Violence breeds fear and fear breeds more violence and the cycle keeps spinning further and further out of control.

How can I possibly come to know the peaceful realm of the kingdom of God if I am living in such suspicion and anxiety? How can I hear the words of any messiah who would seek to set me free of such fear?  

Tony Campollo was quoted in Christian Week magazine as saying, “I find it strange that the last place I can really quote Jesus these days is in American churches. They don’t want to hear ‘overcome evil with good.’ They don’t want to hear ‘if your enemy hurts you, do good, feed, clothe, minister to him.’ They don’t want to hear ‘blessed are the merciful’ and ‘love your enemies.'” 

It’s a hard message to carry – this teaching of Jesus Christ. It involves stepping out of the light of the lamppost, shaking off our fear and embracing with awe and reverence the true light that will lead us into the dark places where true answers lie.

The Holy Spirit is working among us to wrench us from fear and violence, and to transform us into people who can trust God and live in community with one another. More than ever, we need each other. Together we can learn to confront our fears. Together we can find new ways of cultivating peace and nonviolent resistance to the injustices that surround us. Together we can be strengthened and equipped to go out into that world with the least welcomed message of all – the message of peace.

Invitation for Reflection

1)      What war are you fighting in your own head and/or heart?
2)      What is your vision for bringing peace to this internal war?

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