Memorial Day

Yesterday my pastor spoke from Psalm 77, specifically focusing on verse 11 where the writer declares, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord.” Today is Memorial Day. More often than not I think of this as the first day of summer, not as a day to remember. It may have something to do with my Mennonite upbringing. As a pacifist I have struggled with the “war” holidays while admiring anyone who is willing to sacrifice their life for something greater than themselves. So, regardless of my personal beliefs these acts of courage and sacrifice need to be remembered.

As my pastor reminded the congregation heroic acts are not limited to times of war. There are civil rights heroes; just last week we lost Dr. Vincent Harding, probably best known for drafting Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. I am also reminded that we have ordinary heroes who don’t always make the headlines, but do make a difference. Something is lost when we forget to remember those who help us to live in a better and more just world. In my work life I am surrounded by these every day heroes. It seems appropriate to remember and recognize them on this day.

Staff 2013 Chicago Cropped medium size file

It has become increasing clear to me that I benefit from the past and current (and future) cloud of witnesses that has cleared the road before me and continues to walk beside me. This group of women and men has helped me to experience a Christian faith that is much more than male, white, conservative, and privileged. It is has been their constant nudging, pushing, and prophetic vision that has pushed the ministry I lead beyond “Anglo.”

Today, in 2014, our staff and boards are made up of young and old; men and women; Anglos and persons of color; single and married; straight and gay; Americans and immigrants; the theologically conservative and liberal. Without this cloud of witnesses, transformation could not have happened.

It was Dr. Cornel West who said, “If your success is defined as being well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference, then we don’t want successful leaders. We want great leaders – who love the people enough and respect the people enough to be unbought, unbound, unafraid and unintimidated to tell the truth.”

It has been the gentle and not-so-gentle questions, proddings, and pleas that have prevented DOOR, the organization I lead, from entering into a well-adjusted indifference. Prophetic presence comes with a high personal cost and sacrifice, which I have not always acknowledged. To my board and staff I apologize for the times DOOR has failed to live up to its calling as the Beloved Community.

Please accept my sincere thanks and gratitude for the work you continue to do to help me live in a world where inclusion, justice and equality are in simple terms “normal.”

 

Fear, Violence and Death

This past Monday I was in Los Angeles when I received a text from my wife, “there was a fatal shooting at 29th and Franklin, it happened just as the High School was letting out.”  I live a 31st and Franklin.  The 18 year old victim died.  My son turns 18 later this year so when I hear of an 18 year old being shot to death in my neighborhood, it becomes personal very quickly.  According to my neighbors this was a gang related shooting. The news this week has also been dominated by a shooting in Florida.  An unarmed 17 year old was shot to death justifiably, according Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law.”  In what world is shooting an unarmed teen justifiable?  Can we really claim to be a Christian Nation and have laws that allow us to kill each other?

Philosophically what happened in Denver is as “justifiable” as what happened in Florida.  A gang member was simply standing his ground – protecting his turf.

I can almost understand why people without faith believe that standing your ground is important and correct, but what I cannot understand is how anyone in the faith community could even begin to endorse a law like this.

Stand your ground laws help to legitimize prejudices, assumptions, and stereotypes.  It is not surprising that both of the dead teens happen to be black.  It is this is population that has been victimized most by society’s irrational fears.

We are not going to get past things like racism, prejudice, and fear by creating space for justifiable murder.  If anything, allowing civilians to arm themselves makes these issues more contencious.

Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, and Jesus had it right all along.  Swords and guns must be transformed into instruments of peace.  When we arm each other it becomes too easy to let fear dictate our actions and fear too often leads to unwarranted violence.

Becoming what we hate

An often used sermon illustration tells a story of famed interviewer Mike Wallace, one of the original correspondents for 60 Minutes.   Wallace was asked to interview Yehiel Dinur, a principal witness at the Nuremberg war crime trials.  Upon entering the courtroom and facing Adolph Eichmann, Dinur began to tremble, wept uncontrollably, and collapsed. When Mike Wallace asked Dinur why he had collapsed, was it reliving the memories, the nightmares, and the grief?   The man answered:  "No I collapsed because I was afraid about myself.  I saw that I am exactly like him, capable of this."

It is said that after pausing for a while Wallace turned to the camera and said, "That poses a question.  Was Eichmann a monster, a mad man, or something even more terrifying?  Was he normal?”

One of the ironies of life is the ability to become the very thing we oppose.   As a society we want to stop murder so we execute murders and become murders ourselves.  I remember a time when I became so frustrated when by boys beat on each other that I hit them and told them to stop.

“The ultimate weakness of violence,” observed Martin Luther King, Jr., “is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.”

Why do we so easily fall into the trap of thinking that the cure for violence is more violence?  In his book Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink states: “We want desperately to believe that our forcible retaliation to evil is like a projectile fired from a gun that will drop evil in its tracks.  In fact, it is more like a ball thrown by a pitcher that will, as likely as not, come back at us, or over the fence.”

As a country we have been engaged in the War on Terror for more than a decade now.  It is difficult to argue that confronting violence with violence has been successful.  I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if instead of declaring a war on terror, we had pursued a path towards reconciliation and understanding of our enemy.  Would it have been easy?  Probably not.  Would it have meant fewer casualties on both sides?  Probably.

Greed and Fear

I am writing this blog at the end of what has been one of the most volatile weeks the stock market has experienced in a long time.  I am reasonably sure that my  retirement account has not done well. Last week over a lunch conversation a friend suggested that the primary forces driving the stock market are greed and fear.  Neither of us would claim to be financial experts, but greed and fear do seem to be motivators.  When things are going well it almost seems natural to want more and when things come apart fear influences everything.

Greed and fear influence much more than finances.  Think about our post 9-11 world.  As a nation we have made many fear-based decisions.  We have gone to war, declared entire nations to be our enemies, spied on our own people, and developed a quiet mistrust of people who fit a certain profile or worship differently.

There are those who would argue that all of this is a necessary evil.  To be honest there are times when I agree.  Who in their right mind thinks that terrorism should be normative?

As a Christian, I can’t help but wonder if the “Greed and Fear” pattern is unhealthy.  After all who in their right mind wants to live in a world controlled greed or fear?

There are other models.  In his book No Future without Forgiveness, Desmund Tutu lays out a strong case for a confront-and-forgive approach.  Can you imagine how our world would be different today if the leaders of our country had used this approach after 9-11?  Martin Luther King Jr. often spoke of the Beloved Community.  For King our mutual humanity transcended things like race, tribe, social class and nation.  King’s approach might be described as “speaking the truth yet non-violent.”  Can you imagine a world where this is the primary way to solve our disputes?

Greed and fear may be the primary motivators right now, but as followers of Jesus we are called to be transforming agents.

Seminar

Sometimes I agree to do something before I fully think through all the implications.  Months ago a coworker and I agreed to lead a seminar titled “Crossing the Bridge of Culture and Race” at the upcoming Mennonite Convention in Pittsburg.  Apparently we are going to talk about White Privilege.  This is one of those “elephant in the room” topics.  I want to live in the world of Martin Luther King’s dream - a world where people are only judged content of their character. Talking about white privilege means owning the fact that King’s world has not yet arrived.  It means admitting that I am afforded privileges simply because of my skin color.  This is not easy to talk about. On one hand I enjoy the privileges of being a white male.  I have never been stopped by the police because of my race.  I can travel to Arizona without worrying about having to produce documents proving my legal status and I am not even an American citizen.  On the other hand it is embarrassing to just have this privilege.  I did not do anything to earn it.  I was born White and will die White, this privilege just is – a type of unearned power.

How do I talk about something I didn’t ask for, but certainly benefit from?  One 55 minute seminar will not solve the issue.

Maybe the first step is to own the privilege.

And the second step is to create sacred spaces - to talk about the issue and hear the stories of people who have been negatively impacted by White Privilege.  These spaces are rarely comfortable places for White people to be.  But occupying the space, hearing the stories and owning the privilege creates a possibility for a new world – a world where people are judged by the content of their character.

Leadership

For much of my life I have dreamt about being a leader.  In my mind leadership always had something to do with “showing the way.”  Martin Luther King Jr. did this when he talked about his dream.   President Regan did the same when he asked Mr. Gorbachev to tear down this wall!  Barack Obama motivated a nation with three simple words, “yes we can!”  Jesus did when he preached a sermon on the mount (see Matthew 5-7) Being the kind of leader who can see past the storms of life to what is possible is intoxicating.

Leadership is more than a great speech.

It is true that King gave a great speech that motivated a nation to dream, but before he could stand at the Lincoln Memorial he had to sit in a prison in Birmingham.  Jesus knew how to captivate a crowd, but he also knew how to wash his disciples’ feet.

I am about to complete 17 years as the “top dog” at DOOR.  I have had a few inspirational moments.  The most significant lessons I learned about being a leader have very little to do with “showing the way.”  Sometimes being a leader has meant that I got to clean the bathrooms.  Other times it has required me to step out of the lime light and let others lead.  More often then I care to admit it has required me to apologize and ask for forgiveness.  One of the biggest temptations leaders face is arrogance and arrogance has a way of causing all kinds of hurt and pain.

I am not of the school of thought that says everyone is a leader.  Leadership is a role that should be taken on with plenty of caution, trepidation and prayer.  And know this; a real leader knows that leadership is mostly about being led.

Enemy

This week President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed.  I remember September 11, 2001 like it was yesterday.  It wasn’t a fun day.  I was in a plane, flying from Ft Lauderdale to Chicago, when the first tower was struck.  I still remember being ordered out of our plane and eventually out of O’Hare airport.  I was one of the lucky few who managed to rent a car.  The 18 hour drive from Chicago to Denver was filled with all kinds of emotions.  What if I had been on one of those planes? Before the end of the year I was diagnosed with shingles.  The doctor said it was stress related.

I cannot say that I was ready to throw a party when I heard the news, but I did not shed any tears either.

How should people of faith respond when those who wish to do us harm are harmed?

Martin Luther King Jr. had an important perspective, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate; violence multiplies violence and toughness multiples toughness in a descending spiral of destruction."

I think that there is much wisdom in his words.

The Power of Vision

I have always been inspired by people with prophetic vision; that unique ability to see beyond a current reality into a new and better future. In 1961, President John F Kennedy reshaped the political tone of our country when he stated, “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Martin Luther King had the gift.  His “I have a Dream” speech is as powerful today as is was in 1963. 

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

It seems to me that Jesus wanted believers to be people of vision - to see things not as they are, but as they should be.  The kingdom of God is a place where the hungry have food and the homeless have a place to lay their heads; where the lonely, the alien and the outcast are included as members of the family – God’s family; and where forgiveness, not vengeance, is the mode of operation.

My prayer for this world, not very original, but still visionary:

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.