Accounting for the hope that is in you

A sermon

by Ken Sehested

Texts: Isaiah 5:7-8; Luke 24:44-53; 1 Peter 3:13-22
Circle of Mercy Congregation, Sunday, 5 May 2002

        Before I begin, permit me one brief aside. It was on this day—5 May 1773—that Baptists in Boston agreed to refuse payment of taxes due to support the state-sponsored pilgrim-puritan church of the region. Such historical memories help us remember who we are and thus more able to account for the hope that is within us.

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        As you know, I’ve recently returned from a trip to the Occupied Territories of the West Bank of Israel. The opportunity to go on this trip came up very quickly—barely a week before I actually left, which is why you probably didn’t know I was going until I actually was gone. The invitation to which I responded was from an organization called Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) whose goal is to organize and mobilize a nonviolent army, one that is as well-trained and disciplined and willing to go into harm’s way as any conventional army—the crucial difference being that this militant force goes unarmed, save for the power of the Gospel to disarm hearts as well as nations.

        “Getting in the way” is CPT’s motto: getting in the way of the powers of domination and oppression, in a self-risking way that does not require the injury or the death or even the humiliation of the enemy. This way of fighting, of combat, of waging peace, is the way heralded by people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi and a host of others, some whose names we know, most we do not. A poster on the wall of CPT’s office in Hebron, south of Jerusalem, speaks these familiar words of Dr. King:

        “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.”

        As e.e. cummings wrote, “Hatred bounces.” And every war, every act of violence and humiliation sows the seeds of the next antagonism, forming a perpetual motion machine of hatred and death, a downward spiral driven by its own internal logic of revenge. No one remembers who struck first; but only this: every provocation becomes justification for retaliation. And so it is in the modern land of Israel, between Jews and Palestinians, in the seemingly endless cycle where perceived security needs justify the violence of domination, which prompts revolutionary violence in response, which in turn provokes repressive violence. Both peoples have legitimate claims to the land and both of can muster historic collective memories of abuse to justify getting even against the other.

        Where does it end? Who can stop the bouncing, the ricocheting cycle of bloodletting? Does the human capacity to inflict death signify the final authority in creation? Or, as Chairman Mao once asserted (and US foreign policy confirms): Lasting power flows through the barrel of a gun?

        More than a decade ago, during the Persian Gulf War, a letter to the editor in the New York Times told this remarkable story by one living in a Middle Eastern city:

        “I watched as a man who was riding slowly through the crowd on a bicycle with a basket of oranges precariously balanced on the handlebars was bumped by a porter so bent by a heavy burden that he had not seen him. The burden was dropped, the oranges scattered and a bitter altercation broke out between the two men.

        “After an angry exchange of shouted insults, as the bicyclist moved toward the porter with a clenched fist, a tattered little man slipped from the crowd, took the raised fist in his hands and kissed it. A murmur of approval ran through the watchers, the antagonists relaxed, then the people began picking up the oranges and the little man drifted away.

        “Now that our American bicycle has been bumped and oil supplies are spilled, and angry, unseemly insults and threats have been exchanged, and war has broken out with the possibility of the loss of myriad lives while millions stand by in horror, when and where can we turn for someone to kiss the American fist?”

        Or, in our present focus, who will kiss the Palestinian fist, the Israeli fist? It requires more than being nice, more than counsel to patience (or even sermons denouncing violence). Sometimes it involves getting in the way, of stepping from the crowd and risking taking a fist to the face, or arrest and imprisonment, or even a bullet to the body. Or maybe a straightforward word of opposition to the bully in your office or your neighborhood or your family, or an unpopular and uncomfortable stand of dissent in your school or circle of friends.

        Our vocation as believers involves on occasion a certain militancy, even aggressiveness, in confronting evil, a willingness to get in the way of those whose blind security needs give birth to personal or public policies of domination and hoarding, of what the prophet Isaiah called “adding house to house, field to field.”

        The ministry of reconciliation, of seeking peace and pursuing justice, is not just about being nice. Sometimes it has a martial quality. Which reminds me of my favorite poem by my good friend, Walker Knight:

        Peace plans its strategy and encircles the enemy.
        Peace marshals its forces and storms the gates.
        Peace gathers its weapons and pierces the defense.
        Peace, like war, is waged.
        But Christ has turned it all around:
        the weapons of peace are love, joy, goodness, longsuffering;
        the arms of peace are justice, truth, patience, prayer;
        the strategy of peace brings safety, welfare, happiness;
        the forces of peace are the sons and daughters of God.

      These are the kinds of peace we waged while in the West Bank: we were among those who attempted to get food and medicines to those trapped in the besieged Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem; we accompanied Palestinian children to and from school in Hebron, to protect them from harassment from soldiers and stone-throwing Jewish settler children; we provided a human shield for a welding crew in Dura, sent to repair the water pipe leading into the city which had been damaged by Israeli bulldozers building a road block; we helped Palestinian farmers in Yatta harvest a barley crop, providing a protective presence against random shooting by soldiers and Jewish settlers; and we surveyed the damage in several cities caused not only by the fighting but also by deliberate acts of vandalism by Israeli soldiers, providing a vitally important listening ear and documenting presence to the groans and complaints of violated people who experience this loss of safety as an abandonment by God.

        If I could script the baptismal or confirmation policies of Christian communities, it would require every new believer to participate in such militancy as a prerequisite to their membership—simply as a matter of encouraging each to count the cost, to know what she or he is signing on to.

        Several years ago I spent a week lecturing at the Oriental Theological Seminary in northeast India, ancestral home to the Naga people who have been in a war of independence with the Indian government ever since the British left in 1947. Never in my life have I experienced such intense, intelligent and vital dialogue with theological students. I think it’s because, in that conflicted region, what you believe about the Bible can get you killed.

        But you don’t have to go to Nagaland, or the Occupied West Bank, to confront the rupture of life by hatred and animosity. We know it in our own neighborhoods, in our communities, even in our families. Violence doesn’t explode only through the barrel of a gun, or from the carriage of an Apache attack helicopter, or from a suicide bomber. It comes in far more ordinary ways, in the temptation to use language designed to pierce and humiliate, in aggressive driving habits, in choices involving career enhancement and making names for ourselves, in a myriad of ways when we choose to remain silent in the face of discrimination, in succumbing to the exaggerated security needs which our culture insists must be met in order to be safe.

        All acts of physical violence—however subtle or overt, whether wielding an assault rifle or merely an assaulting tongue—are the mirror reflection of spiritual corruption. In terms of formal theological categories, such acts are forms of idolatry, meaning: we lack confidence in Yahweh God to secure the future; we must turn to the gods made from our own hands—the gods of superior economic performance, of military strength, our own ingenuity and competence and intelligence. We come to believe in what Walter Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence.” Since the Abba of Jesus cannot be trusted to insure justice and establish peace—whether for our personal lives or the lives of our race or political party or nation—we must take on the task ourselves. And we comfort ourselves with the self-serving, idolatrous pieties of justification: “It’s a nasty business, but somebody’s gotta’ do it,” or “That’s how the real world operates.”

        But, you may be asking yourself, who can do this? Who can live a consistent life of nonviolence? Where does the courage to “get in the way of oppression” come from? Where does one find the capacity to give without promise of return, to share without guarantee of profit, to abandon security without assurance of safety, to fight hatred with suffering love?

        Indeed, upon what certain basis do we actually confess with the substance of our very lives—and not just with our pious words or ritualized creeds—the power of the resurrection? For, indeed, the addiction to violence is the most damning contradiction to our professed belief in the resurrection of Jesus.

        Is the very heart of Jesus’ message, the command to love enemies, an unattainable standard, an unrealistic goal, a hard and even hideously cruel responsibility?

        Thomas Merton poses the question very clearly:

        “The beginning of the fight against hatred, the basic Christian answer to hatred, is not the commandment to love, but what must necessarily come before in order to make the commandment bearable and comprehensible. It is a prior commandment, to believe.  The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved. The faith that one is loved by God although unworthy—or, rather, irrespective of one's worth!”

        It is the experience of grace, not the exertion of heroic willfullness, which unlocks the redemptive power of God’s love in our lives, Our capacity to forgive—to live disarmed lives—grows in proportion to our capacity to be forgiven, in relation to the depth to which we have experienced the disarming love of God.  “The one who is forgiven little loves little,” is the striking way Jesus says it.

        The call to faith is not the demand of heroic willfulness or moral worthiness; rather, the experience of grace is the acknowledgment of gift, which prepares us to be light in the darkness, yeast in the loaf—to be heralds of life in the midst of suffering and death; to engender the capacity to turn the other cheek rather than extend the cycle of vengeance.

        In the story of Jesus’ resurrection appearance to his disciples recorded in Luke 24, Jesus provides a rather surprising instruction. Instead of saying: “O.K., you guys get moving. There’s lots of work to be done. Get out there and get busy,” he cautioned them to wait, to stay in Jerusalem, to idle a bit before putting their mission in gear. “Stay here,” he cautioned, “Until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

        Liturgically, this is where we are: in the transition from Easter to Pentecost. The resurrection moment has occurred; now we wait for the resurrection movement to be founded.

        Before leaving for the Middle East I wrote a note to our board of directors with these thoughts:

        “A good friend recently reminded me of the quote from Shakespeare—"All is lost! To prayers, to prayers. All is lost!"—which sums up the too-commonplace notion of prayer as resignation, as retreat. Maybe it should be revised: "There is hope! To prayer, to prayer! There is hope!" That's why I'm going to Hebron: to pray. That is, to get clear again about the Promise (constantly obscured by violent headlines) by immediate contact with people who keep getting in the way of death's herald. I fully expect to have my comfortable cynicism and leisurely despair overturned yet again. To get saved one more time.

        “Oh, we'll be plenty busy, of course, and may face threats to physical safety. Surely our presence will provide a meager measure of protection to the bloodied and battered. Ah, but what we will be provided in return—the prospect of clarified vision—is surely the greater gift.

        “That is our evangelical calling, is it not? Whether far away or in our own neighborhoods, to see and to say: Look here, dry bones still walk!"

        There is a seamless thread which connects the work of prayer, like what we do here in this Circle of Mercy, and our work of getting in the way of hatred and violence, whether on Patton Avenue or in Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where the Israeli Defense Force continues even now its deadly siege.

        Among the most consistent experiences of my life is this one: It is when I position myself in situations of despair that I discover people who know the most about hope. Such experiences erode my doubts that a different future is possible, sustain my impulse to resist the enveloping darkness, enliven my imagination with creative strategies to heal and to mend—all of this rooted in my most immediate context but also expanding out to far distances when larger relational webs make a way.

        Being able to tell stories about hopeful response to despair, however small or large the context, is one of my greatest joys, a joy which is compounded with every repetition, and with it the planting in listeners of new seeds suffused with fertile soil, creating new and renewed communities of hope.

        The hope that is within us is not self-generated, and we make no proprietary claims. But there is still much work, hard work, disciplined work, to be done: by cooperating with the Spirit in allowing our cluttered, anxious and self-possessed lives to be purged; and in locating ourselves in those places, and with those people—with as much intelligence and attention as we can muster—where hope is likely to break out.

        This is our calling—an often difficult and occasionally dangerous calling, but ultimately a life-giving and joyful one.

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