Fear Not!

The nonviolent war cry of the People of God

Ken Sehested

{This material was presented at the 11-13 December 2014 Christian Peace Circle retreat for leaders from various peace organizations in the US, held at Stony Point Center, Stony Point, N.Y.}

         The overall theme for this retreat is “Fear Not! The nonviolent war cry of the people of God.” The admonition to “fear not”—don’t be afraid, be still, take courage, be of good cheer—is a constant one throughout Scripture. It is always spoken in the context of danger and dread, typically against overwhelming odds, when things look like they couldn’t get any worse.

         The very first mention of God’s name in Scripture is uttered in the story in Exodus where the Hebrew people cry out because of the misery of their oppression. In the story of the calling of Moses, the text says “Then the Lord said, 'I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings. . . .' {Exodus 3:7} Shortly after that, Moses incredulously asks: “OK, so I’m supposed to go to Pharaoh and say “let my people go”? And just who exactly should I say is demanding this? Then the One whose name can never be spoken and never be tamed replies, “I am who I am,” or it can be translated “I will be who I will be.” [3:14. Karen Armstrong suggests it could also be rendered “Never mind who I am!”]

         A pattern is set with this narrative: The earth’s cries of distress mobilize the attention of Heaven. (If you miss this interpretive move, everything that follows will be off course.)

         When the escaping Hebrews were caught between the Red Sea ahead and Pharaoh’s army behind, Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. {Exodus 20:20}

         In one of the great comfort texts in the Psalms is from chapter 46:  “though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. . . . [Though] the nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; God’s voice is heard and the nations melt. . . . [For God] makes wars cease to the end of the earth; God breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; God burns the shields with fire.  "Be still, and know that I am God!”

         In repeated occasions in the Gospels, Jesus told his disciples, “Fear not.” One line from John puts it this way: “In the world you face persecution. But take courage [be of good cheer]; I have conquered the world!” {16:33}

         In John the Revelator’s fantastic, frightening vision he saw the Promised One, who said “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades." {Revelation 1:17-18}

         Later in Revelation is one of the most visually riveting stories in all the Bible, about a dragon pursuing a woman about to give birth. “Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus. {12:1-17} And the war goes on.

         The exhortation to fear not is anything but a recommendation to passivity or acquiescence in the presence of oppression. Many of you know Walter Wink’s pioneering exegetical work on Jesus’ teachings about turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and offering both your coat and your shirt. They are not recommendations to indifference or stoicism. They do not imply submission to injustice. Rather, they are forms of creative resistance to violation and abuse by means that do not further deepen the spiral of violence. In other words, the work of active, sometimes militant, nonviolent resistance. These, along with the rigorous and proactive work of building a culture of peace, rooted in justice and mediated in mercy, are the prerequisites for our participation in the promised Reign of God, in our quest for the Beloved Community. A new heaven; a new earth.

         Rabbi Yochanan said: The Holy One, blessed-be-He, declared: “I will not enter the heavenly Jerusalem until I enter the earthly Jerusalem." {Talmud, Taanit 5a}.

         I have three goals in mind for these days together.

         First, that when we leave we will each have a deeper understanding of the way spiritual formation and prophetic action are connected. Not connected with duck tape or super glue, not a cut-and-paste overlay on our political analyses, but actually grow one from the other as a singular dynamic process. Prayer and care. for shorthand: “Prayer” being all the ways we seek to enter into the mystery of God’s purposes, the assurance of Christ’s presence, and the prompting of the Holy Spirit’s agitation and animation. Prayer, in the largest sense of the word, is how we stay in touch with what Yoder calls “the grain of the universe.”

         “Care,” in the largest sense of the word and in a myriad of fashions and functions, involves our persistent and attentive presence in the world’s broken places. Prayer is what we do to be reminded of who we are, to Whom we belong and to Whose purposes we have been called. Any praying worth the name comes with its own built-in generator. The deeper we move into God, the more sensitive our antennae to the cries of the world will become. But moving into compassionate proximity to the world’s pain will knock you off your feet. (“Tribulation” is the biblical word.) To recover, you will need to deepen your prayer life, which will then steel you for further engagement and more tribulation . . . and on and on the cycle grows, to the point where the process is as integrated as breathing in and breathing out. Prayer and care.

         The second goal I have in mind is that we will leave having learned from each others' experiences. What are the concrete ways we can be the midwives to constituencies and congregations awakening to their true vocation in the ministry of reconciliation? How can we become effective pastors? The prophets are already out there; but they often feel isolated, alone and discouraged. Our job is to find them, nurture them, help find relevant resources and link them with others in a larger community of conviction. When that happens, imagination and power are not simply repackaged—they are created. How do we do that? What’s working. What’s not working? What might work?

         The third and final goal I have in mind is that we simply take this opportunity to relish each others' presence. There is a roomful of delight in the circle. Soak it in. Spend time catching up with those you haven’t seen in a while. Spend time getting to know those whose paths you haven’t crossed until now. The Hasidim have a saying: “In paradise we will all be judged according to the permitted pleasures we failed to enjoy.” Accept the luxury of the next 36 hours’ worth of simply enjoying each others' presence.

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         To accomplish these goals, the first thing we need to do is to mentally and emotionally unpack. I suspect every one in this room had to work at least one very long day in order to clear enough space to come here. There is a certain level of weariness that we often carry. No doubt there are things you just had to get done before coming here—but you didn’t make it. So you’ve already shifted those agenda items on to the already crowded to-do list for when you return home.

         There are so many tragedies unfolding in our cities, in our nation, in the larger world and to the earth itself. The recent accounting of US-sponsored torture programs is only the latest of a large and long list. Some of what weighs on us is large and public; but we also have relentless small and personal sorrows and concerns. One of the things we don’t do very well is dealing with our disconsolations—figuring out how to prevent our pain and sorrow and disappointment and anger from driving our work and ruining our rest.

         I’m going to play a recording of Roberta Flack and Donnie Hathaway’s rendition of the old hymn, “Come Ye Disconsolate.” Then the floor will be open. This is where our liturgy begins. You are invited to lay down your sorrow, to acknowledge your failures, to name the disasters, speaking them aloud if you are willing, silently if they are still too tender to mention. We’ll spend the time we have left in holding open space for saying what is tearing at our personal and communal seams. This will prepare us for our evening vespers to come; and we will be able to start afresh in the morning.

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©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org