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Silent night

An Advent poem

by Ken Sehested

To move into a seemingly bleak and
ominous future requires laying hold
of stories from our past:

Stories to remind us that buoyancy
        emerges from unseen places,
        at unknowing moments,
        in unpredictable ways,
        beyond all calculation
        and prognostication.

People of faith instinctively know that
the future will not be bridled by apparent
history and its imperial champions.
As Mary Hood wrote,
        “There’s no difference between
        a bare tree and a dead tree in winter.”

Advent is the invitation to attentiveness
even when the sap isn’t running,
in the face of howling cold winds
and frightful dark nights.

For earth’s quarry, the night’s silence
bespeaks neither calm nor bright nor
restful sleep: fiends of the sunless
forest  threaten with impunity from
shadow to shire with bloody breath.

Regardless of the season’s shivering news,
        the frost’s falling weight,
        the bare naked limbs,
        or the predator’s stalk,
lean in to this night’s forlorn silence,
and train your ears for the portent
of angel-winged rustle.

Just as Creation began on a lightless
stage—and was sustained by the
Presence of shadowing wing—so,
too, the work of Recreation. A fecund
future awaits every steadfast pilgrim.

                                     #  #  #
©ken sehested@prayerandpolitiks.org
photo by Matthias Hauser

We’ve a Story To Tell, a Song To Sing

A spiritual journey from individualistic faith to concern for world peace

by Ken Sehested

Presented at the “Evangelism and the Peace Witness of the Church,” sponsored  by the Baptist World Alliance & the Mennonite World Conference, January 10-12, 2002, Eastern College, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

§  §  §

“For the darkness shall turn to dawning, And the dawning to noonday bright,
And Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth, The kingdom of love and light.”
—H. Ernest Nichol

            I’m pretty sure it happened on a Saturday night. I was sitting on the platform in a small Baptist church in Louisiana, when it swept over me. My two colleagues, Willard and Freddy, and I—all of us still in high school—were leading a weekend “youth revival.” We were the snappy-dressed, somewhat flamboyant youth evangelist team up from the southern part of the state. We were known for lighting the fires of revival under local congregations, with special attention to the young people. If fact, one of my roles was to teach a course of personal soul-winning; and each evening following the service we took the church youth out to practice what they had learned, visiting the local Dairy Queens and Burger Kings, asking other young people if they knew Jesus.

            I also played the role of counselor, the one who greets those who came forward during the hymn of invitation to give their hearts to Jesus or rededicate their lives or commit themselves to “full-time Christian service.” My persona as a star athlete helped sweeten the appeal, especially for the young women in the crowd.

            In my religious subculture—revivalist, Baptist, Southern, Christian—it was not unheard of for adolescent young men to begin their preaching career. I had several peers who undertook the same journey.

            The truth of the matter is that, as I now know, I experienced at age 14 a truly spiritual experience, with all the classic characteristics of such intensely personal encounters with God: a kind of dissolving of the ego; a sense of merging into God; a palpable sensation that I was nothing, and everything, at the same time; an inexplicable, joyful, but utterly serene experience of compassion.

            Years later, the experience prepared me to receive the more expansive and expressive testimony of Thomas Merton when he described the extraordinary experience he had in Louisville, after which he wrote “at the corner or Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. . . .” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)

            Unfortunately, my religious tradition has no categories for interpreting such experiences. When I reported the experience to my pastor, I was simply informed that I’d been call to preach. And since the work of traveling evangelists seemed more exciting than being a local pastor, that’s how I imagined my future. I was going to become the successor to Billy Graham.

            But three years later came an equally unexpected experience, facing rows of mostly-filled pews in the New Light Baptist Church sanctuary, tucked in among the cotton fields south of Monroe, Louisiana. Only this time, instead of joy and serenity, I experienced a profound dissonance, confusion, near-disillusionment. I felt as if I was in a charade, mouthing words that were suddenly limp and vacuous, struggling to manufacture appropriate emotions. “What in the world am I DOING here?!” was the question that came to mind. I was secretly relieved that no one came forward that evening during the hymn of invitation.

            I thought I was going crazy. Actually, if truth be known, I thought I was going to hell. Thankfully, not long after that unnerving episode, I went away to college, effectively ending my youth evangelism career. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that briefly-paralyzing experience was the early-warning tremor of what would, in subsequent years, become a full-blown theological earthquake. After two years at a Baptist university I ran away to the sensuous and secular environs of New York City, determined to free myself of religious propaganda. As with my spiritual mentor of the time, Job, I had complaints to air with God and was determined to speak them vigorously.

            Little did I know that my running was toward God, not away from God. The “dark night of the soul” is fearfully disorienting. As Providence would have it, I found tutors who did not fret over my theological kicking and screaming, who were patient enough to see through my hubris and self-pity, and who had the wisdom to introduce me, as if for the first time, to my radical Baptist and Anabaptist history, amid a wealth of other stories and narratives from Christian history. Over the course of about a decade I slowly overcame a profound sense of spiritual schizophrenia, of looking back at my photo on those old revival publicity posters and wondering who in the world was that person?

            I’m beginning with this extended introduction in part to indicate how my topic—“A spiritual journey from individualist faith to concern for world peace”—is deeply rooted in my own personal narrative. And also for methodological reasons: Biblical spirituality demands that all theological reflection begin with narrative history. In other words, the real-life experience of the believing community, however faithful or unfaithful in its witness to God’s redemptive intention and movement, and however successful or unsuccessful in its confrontation with the powers of this “world,” is the only proper raw material for theological reflection. We’ve a story to tell to the nations—not a doctrine to be propounded, not an emotion to be mimicked, not a program of scruples to be enforced—that shall turn their hearts to the right. Personal testimony has been—and I hope continued to be—the primary form of theological discourse within the Baptist confessional tradition. A story of truth and mercy, a story of peace and light.

 

Healing and revealing

            That we are having a conversation about the practice of evangelism and the pursuit of peace—and especially the relation between the two—is significant. Many years ago I thought the segregation of these activities was unique to my own Southern-flavored Baptist tradition. I now know that our inability to comprehend the intimate interrelation between these activities represents the major fault line running through, and frequently erupting within, every Christian body, both here in North America and around the world.

            By and large we have failed to articulate the drama of biblical faith—its invitation for our participation to join what Clarence Jordan called “the God Movement”—in ways that coherently communicate the mandate to follow Jesus:

•to be captivated by God’s economy of grace and thereby align ourselves against all economies of repression and in favor of economies of manna (sufficiency);

•to be drawn into the disarming love of God and thereby implicate ourselves in the struggle against escalating armament and in favor of strategies for nonviolent struggle against injustice;

•to be so animated by the experience of God’s forgiveness that we are impelled to practice the politics of forgiveness as a realistic strategy for overcoming the politics of vengeance.

Let me refer you to three touchstone texts embedded in my thinking.

The first is a sentence from Genesis: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (6:11). In Scripture’s vision, the presence of (spiritual) corruption and (physical) violence are mirror images of each. The second is from Jesus’ model prayer: “And forgive us our sins/debts as we forgive those who sin against us/our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). In Aramaic the word for “sin” (a spiritual condition) and the word for “debt” (a physical condition) is the same. The third text is that initial missionary commissioning narrative in Luke (10:1-12). Here Jesus instructs his original corps of 70 evangelists to spread out across the land to gather the children of peace; and then, in a very suggestive line, he says: “heal the sick and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (vs. 9).

The mission of healing and revealing has always been a singular one for the believing community. We have preferred to split ourselves up as “evangelicals” and “liberals,” emphasizing “individualistic faith” or “concern for world peace.” About the best theology available to us seems to be advocating the “balancing” of these practices, consciously or unconsciously alienating “spiritual” matters from “earthly” or “material” ones. My claim is that:

•when such segregation occurs the Bible is effectively rendered innocuous and the community of faith made impotent;

•when “souls” are separated from bodies, from history, the consistent redemptive promise of Scripture—that the creation is to be redeemed, not renounced—is flatly and flagrantly denied by a confused church;

•only when we comprehend that, biblically speaking,“spiritual” realities are not categorically different from “physical” ones—it is much closer to the truth to say that spiritual realities describe certain kinds of physical, material ones.

When scripture is emptied of its inherent materialism, when it becomes domesticated, the result is legislation like that found in the Ecclesiastical Records of the State of New York: “It is hereby enacted that the baptizing of any Negro, Indian or Mulatto slave shall not be any cause or reason for setting them at liberty.”

The doctrine of the Incarnation is the most distinctive confession of our faith, and it is this: that God is more taken with the agony of the earth than with the ecstasy of heaven.

The heart of my argument is that: the very fact that we segregate material and spiritual realms of being is evidence that we are confused about the nature of biblical spirituality. (And this is true even when we talk about “balancing” concern for material and spiritual conditions.) To pursue this assertion I want to examine three premises:

•that while spirituality is always personal, it is never private;

•that the believing community is saved for the world, not from it;

•that in biblical narrative, conversion of the heart is inherently linked to transformed commitments counter to the reigning policies governing socio-economic and military security affairs.

To put this plainly, rarely any more do our hymns of invitation prompt the kinds of conversions like that of John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace, who abandoned his career as a slave ship caption in response to being overshadowed by God’s grace. Nor that of Zacchaeus, who framed his confession of faith in Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior in these terms: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone, I will return it fourfold” (Luke 19:1-10). You will recall that Jesus did not lecture his new disciple on the dangers of the “social gospel;” rather, he simply said: “Today salvation has come to this house.”

 

A critique of Christian spirituality

      The word spiritual has come to mean some pretty slippery and awfully greasy things in our time. Expatriate gurus with a taste for expensive cars use the word a lot. Have you ever been in a conversation where someone referred to another as a "very spiritual person" and wondered exactly what was meant? Generally it describes a person who exhibits regular habits of religious piety—folks who pray a lot, pepper their language with religious-sounding words. Evangelical Christians use the word a lot; but so do practitioners of transcendental meditation. TV preachers employ the word frequently, but so do a lot of vegetarians. A few years ago the newspaper carried an ad for BMW cars. The caption read: "For a spiritual uplift on easy monthly terms, consult your local BMW dealer."

      Most notions of modern Christian spiritual reality are a lot like cotton candy: Coming at you, it looks bigger than life, but it's most air. And what substance there is will rot your teeth and turn your stomach. Our conception of spiritual reality is mirrored in the comment of the youngster in a Family Circus cartoon strip that appeared several years ago in a Mother's Day Sunday morning paper. The two children were talking, and the boy says to his sister: "I think I'm going to give Mom a spiritual bouquet and save my money to buy a catcher's mitt instead!" Worse—and more vicious—is the cartoon depicting a Salvation Army-type band playing and singing to a group of homeless men sitting on a river wharf. The band is singing the old gospel song, "Rescue the Perishing," completely oblivious to an unlucky one who has fallen off the wharf and is floating down the river.

      Do you remember the advice Screwtape gave to Wormwood in C.S. Lewis' devotional classic, Screwtape Letters? In discussing the case of one particular human that Wormwood is attempting to subvert, Screwtape—the Satan-like central character of the book—offers this bit of advice to Wormwood, his disciple: "It is, no doubt, impossible to prevent his praying for his mother, but we have means of rendering the prayers innocuous. Make sure that they are always very 'spiritual,' that he is always concerned with the state of her soul and never with her rheumatism."

 

The difference between private and personal spirituality

      The first confusion we face is that between “private” (or “individualistic”) and “personal” spirituality. In biblical terms, spirituality is always personal, but it is never merely private.

            •As if salvation was like a supernatural inoculation, which stings a little but, after that, you’re good for eternity and free market rules apply.

•As if salvation was a commodity of consumption, purchased on some sort of divine lay-away plan (at discount prices in larger chain-store franchises), by acts of narrowly-defined religious piety and personal morality, with full “redemption” in the afterlife (although it pays to shop around for better interest rates).

•As if salvation was little more than a divine bookkeeping transaction, shifting the soul from the “debit” to the “credit” side of the ledger, a kind of “get out of jail free” card to spur us on our way to economic monopoly, an insurance policy to cover the ultimate contingency.

It is not by happenstance that the church’s preaching of privatized salvation is often confused with the consumptive appeals of modern marketing. Once, when my oldest daughter was still a young child, she looked at me in earnest innocence and asked if the man who had just finished speaking on T.V. was a preacher. “No,” I told her with a chuckle, “that man was selling used cars.” Is it a coincidence that ministers who forsake their pastoral careers often end up in sales? We live in a culture that spends $5 billion annually on special diets to offset the effects of gluttonous lives, while 400 million people in the world are so severely malnourished they are almost certain to suffer a combination of physical and mental incapacity, if not die of starvation. At best, most of our churches see the latter as a humanitarian tragedy; at worst, they are oblivious to this reality. In precious few cases do they see this travesty as a matter of spirituality.

The preaching of privatized, individualized faith reminds me of the line from that Greg Brown song sung by Dar Williams: “Lord, I’ve made you a place in my heart, and I hope you will leave it alone.” And you’ve probably seen some of those “alternative” gospel hymn titles, like: “I Surrender Some,” “Oh, How I Like Jesus,” “Take My Life and Let Me Be,” “Blessed Hunch,” and “Spirit of the Living God, Fall Somewhere Near Me.”

To quote Clarence Jordan again: “Faith is not belief in spite of the evidence; that not faith, that’s foolishness. Faith is life lived in scorn of the consequences.” Any revealing of the Word of God that does not entail the healing of creation is, to borrow from William Shakespeare, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Or, more bluntly, from John’s first epistle: You are lying if you say you love God but hate your neighbor (i.e., if you live in oblivious disregard to your neighbor’s needs). (cf. 1 John 4:20)

 

Saved for the world, not from it

      Certainly part of our confusion at this point has to do with the English translation of the Bible.   For instance, we are instructed to "love not the things of this world. If any love the world, love for the Abba is not in them" (1 John 2:15). But, on the other hand, "God so loved the world that he gave his only son" (John 3:16). On the one hand, the world is said to be passing away (1 John 2:17); on the other, "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19).

      Some time ago I was invited to speak to a Baptist conference on peacemaking. In her letter of invitation, the conference organizer asked me to speak on the subject: "Why should we get involved in peace when people just need to be saved?" I laughed out loud when reading it, momentarily wondering if this was her prank. Racing on through the letter, I thought surely she will get serious and list my real topic.

      But that was the real topic. After the initial shock faded, I began to sense the title's appropriateness. Carol, I said to myself, you're a genius!

      It had seemed clear for a long time that a key reason many church folk have difficulty in taking justice and peace issues seriously is because such concerns failed to be addressed as spiritual concerns. They were simply "political" or "social" concerns. And everyone knows the church shouldn't be involved in worldly concerns.

      Douglas John Hall, the Canadian theologian, writes: "For centuries the church has presented its message largely as a variation on the following theme: If you believe in Jesus and do the right things here on earth, then you will be rewarded in eternity. The whole thrust of the thing is in the last clause. What transpires here on earth is at best a prelude to the real thing; more often it's a shabby sort of scene that has to be endured, or a testing-ground full of tricky temptations, or a brief and brutal episode preliminary to peace at the last (if you're good!). The wise will shut their eyes and grit their teeth and rein in their passions and do good…while there is yet time." Douglas John Hall, Christian Mission: The Stewardship of Life in the Kingdom of Death (New York: Friendship Press, 1985, p. 101.)

      Everyone knows "the poor you will have with you always," and there will be "wars and rumors of war until the end of time." Concern for world peace will never be restored until Jesus comes back. To my knowledge, no one has ever thought to say: Well, sin will be with us 'til Jesus comes back, so what's the point in confronting it?

      By and large, both conservative and liberal congregations share this characteristic in common: Both have very limited capacity to bring justice and peace concerns into the purview of biblical faith. Neither is able to imagine that spiritual integrity is at stake in the destruction of creation. When the church postpones fleshly redemption—the work of justice, of liberation—until the Second Coming of the messiah, it flatly ignores both the Old and New Testament descriptions of the messiah's work in history. In Scripture, the end of tyranny is inaugurated with the birth of the Anointed One. {Thomas D. Hanks, God So Loved the Third World, p. 10} To postpone that work to some "spiritualized" future unravels the very fabric of biblical promise and hope.

 

Horses, houses and human hearts

The third confusion which invariably cripples our notion of spiritual formation involves the connection between giving our hearts to Jesus and the way the world is presently ordered. One way to clarify this confusion, let’s look at how Scripture speaks of horses, houses and human hearts.

      The Bible has two different pivotal images or metaphors for material reality—horses and houses.

      For ancient Israel, "horses" represented military might and prowess. One could even say that horses were as strategically important in ancient times as tanks were in World War II. Time after time Israel was seduced away from trust in Yahweh God to a national policy of "peace through strength."

      For example, Isaiah warns: "Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel" (31:1). The Psalmist cautions: "Some boast of chariots, and some of horses; but we boast of the name of the Lord our God" (20:7). Hosea gives this word from the Lord: "But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will deliver them by the Lord their God; I will not deliver them by bow, nor by sword, not by war, not by horses, not by horsemen" (1:7).

      It might be appropriate for us to paraphrase the text using terms more intelligible to modern ears: "I will not deliver them by Trident submarines, nor by Cruise or Pershing missiles, nor by policies of deterrence, massive arms buildups and covert operations, not even by Strategic Defense Initiatives."

      Where "horses" for Israel represented military readiness, "houses" on the other hand was the metaphor for economic strength, for a robust domestic economy and an expanding foreign market, increased productivity and a larger Gross National Product. A few examples:

      •Isaiah pronounces this verdict: ". . . and the Lord looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold a cry! Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room" (5:7-8).

      •Amos makes this judgment: "Therefore because you trample upon the poor and take from them exactions of wheat, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them" (5:11).

      •Matthew's gospel notes: "Woe to you, scribes and pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows' houses and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive the greater condemnation" (23:14).

      We should recall, too, that the premier and most concise biblical statement about idolatry (which is the issue of Scripture) is found in Jesus' utterance: "You cannot serve God and mammon" (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13). Mammon was not some first-century Palestinian deity competing with Yahweh God for the loyalty of the people. No, it is simply a word meaning wealth, power, status.

      The third key biblical metaphor for this study is the word heart. In modern times, the heart is a metaphor for human emotions and sentiments, is the "romantic" organ and the most fickle of human organs.

      In Hebrew thinking, however, the heart was the center of decision-making, the place where every individual factor—rationality, emotions, intuition, social tradition, etc.—flowed together. The heart was the Supreme Court, if you will, adjudicating the various claims of each of the separate factors and handing down a final, irrevocable decision. The heart represented the deepest level of a human personality. The Latin word credo, from which we get the word "creed," comes from two words which together mean "I give my heart to." Listen to these texts:

      •Ezekiel gives voice to God's word: "And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances" (11:19-20).

      •The Psalmist sings: "It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice. They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, trusting in the Lord. Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid" (112:5-9).

      •Jeremiah predicts: "Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel.…I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts" (31:31-34).

      •In Matthew, Jesus makes these striking claims: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (6:21).

      •From the Acts of the Apostles: "Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which they possessed were their own, but they had everything in common" (4:32).

      The point of comparing these three biblical metaphors is to illustrate the fact that decisions about horses and houses are made in the human heart. The Kingdom of God is rightly said to be about human hearts, because it is in the human heart that choices are made about ultimate trust and security. Such decisions are not merely social, economic or political decisions. They are, at bottom, spiritual decisions. They are decisions about proper worship, about idolatry, about which god we will serve.

      "Idolatry does not have to do with plastic pieces on dashboards but with ideological commitments which assign our deep loyalties to matters of vested interest. . . . The issue is not that we are nonbelievers but that our belief is assigned to unworthy and unworkable objects.…Such idolatries are misguided attempts to secure the city by trust in other gods because the terms of security from Yahweh are too costly." {Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination, p. 56}

In biblical terms, therefore, giving one's "heart" to Jesus is in fact the most subversive, world-threatening thing that can happen to a person. When it comes to matters of the heart, Jesus can never, ever be an absentee landlord. Indeed, listen to the most explicit “Christological” statement coming from Jesus’ own lips, when John the Baptist—then in prison, entertaining doubts about his earlier confirmation of Jesus’ identity—sends his disciples to ask if Jesus really is the Anointed of God. Jesus responds: “Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matt. 11:4-5).

The healing of creation and the revealing of God’s purposes are inseparable. God’s plan of creation is never to be ripped from God’s plan of redemption. When the gratuitous love of God grips our hearts it creates its own momentum, prompting the gratuitous love for our neighbors. The proper acknowledgement for those who have no merited claim on Christ’ compassion is to mirror such compassion on behalf of those who have no merited claim on us. As St. Augustine said: “We imitate whom we adore.”

Let me close with what I consider a good attempt to restate in modern language Scripture’s call for the missionary mandate of healing and revealing:

As we enter this new millennium we reaffirm our abiding conviction that the God of Scripture manifests special concern for the cries of the poor—of the marginalized, the outcast, indeed all who have no access to the table. Correspondingly, we also believe that if the people of God are to be faithful to our calling we will locate ourselves in compassionate proximity to those whose lives are battered, bruised and broken. We do so not as an ethical demand or a work of righteousness but as a spiritual discipline. For we believe that God’s presence and voice are most easily recognized and understood in situations where life has been abandoned and hope is in retreat, where death is on the prowl and despair rules.

      On the edge of this new millennium we testify to the Spirit’s plea to the church and to the world: Disarm your hearts! Repent of your habits of violence and injustice; return to the One who bore you in mercy; rebuild ruined neighborhoods; restore marginalized peoples; resume the politics of forgiveness and an economy of manna (sufficiency); revive an ecological relationship with the created order; reject the escalating culture of violence and renew your commitment to building a culture of peace.” (Excerpted from the “Open Letter to the 18th Baptist World Congress” statement of the fourth international Baptist peace conference, 2-4 January 2000, Melbourne, Australia.)

            Sing with me the second stanza from that great missionary hymn:

“We’ve a song to be sun to the nations, That shall lift their hearts to the Lord,

A song that shall conquer evil, And shatter the spear and sword, And shatter the spear and sword.

For the darkness shall turn to dawning, And the dawning to noonday bright,

And Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth, The kingdom of love and light.”

 

Ken Sehested is executive director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and co-pastor of Circle of Mercy, a new congregation in Asheville, N.C.

# # #

We’ve a story to tell to the nations

The nonviolent war cry of the people of God

by Ken Sehested

“[V]iolence is the behavior of someone incapable of imagining other solutions to the problem at hand.”
—Vicenç Fisas

            New Testament scholar and activist Walker Wink provides one of the most helpful frameworks for understanding the addictive appeal of violence as a way to right wrongs. The “Myth of Redemptive Violence,” he wrote, “not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today.” [1]

            “Redemptive violence” is a myth not because it is fictive but because it is a compelling animator of human longing and labor for the commonweal. Except in rare cases of pathological personality disorder, the impulse to vengeance is rooted in the desire for moral coherence, i.e., the desire to make things right. The perception that one has been harmed may be accurate or delusional; but the felt experience is the same.

            Then, somewhere along the way, the desire to make things right escalates in both intensity and scale when fear enters the equation to exaggerate the needed response to injustice. Eventually you have the ingredients for “holy” war, carried out to protect personal reputation, or dignity of the tribe, race, or nation, and ultimately the honor of God.

            There is no effective means of reasoning against the assertion that God’s future is at stake. The justification of violence is never less than the earnest desire to make history come out right. The claim that “God told me to” submits to no cross-examination. This is when religion turns toxic. It is understandable that some, especially in the modern age, wish to sideline, if not eliminate, religiously-informed appeals to peacemaking. But as Soviet despot Joseph Stalin demonstrated, appeal to utopian aspirations (e.g., “scientific materialism”) need not involve god-talk.

            In Laying Down the Sword: Why Christians Cannot Ignore the Bible’s Violence Verses, religious historian Philip Jenkins points out that contrary to much popular opinion, the Bible has far more directives urging violence than the Qur’an, some actually genocidal and coming directly from the mouth of God. [2] This is an important question for people of faith to acknowledge and wrestle with, and I know of no quick or satisfactory conclusion. I love the sharp-witted comment by Rev. William Sloan Coffin—“The Bible is a mirror with true reflection. If an ass looks in, don’t expect an apostle to look back”—but it’s not an adequate response to the scandal of what appears, at least in a flat reading, of divinely-directed violence.

            My purpose here is different, and it is this: The most overlooked fact in the so-called “holy war” tradition in Hebrew (and some in the newer Christian) scripture is the repeated insistence that victory is not secured by superior firepower or any form of human ingenuity. [3] “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord,” wrote the Prophet Zechariah. [4] No nation’s war-fighting doctrines reference the story of Gideon (Judges 7), who was instructed by God to radically reduce his fighting force; or the tactical merits of boy-warrior David’s slingshot against the giant Goliath’s lance and spear (1 Samuel 17); or the battle for Jericho, subdued by rams’ horns and liturgical procession (Joshua 6). So it was from the beginning of the Hebrews’ escape from Pharaoh’s army, when God’s military strategy was his instruction to Moses to fear not, stand firm, lift your staff to part the sea (Exodus 14:13-14).

            It is this latter text that begins a lengthy, and largely ignored, tradition in scripture instructing that in the face of threat, the friends of God are to “be still (be quiet, stand firm)” and “fear not” to “see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you.”

            The “be still/fear not” refrain is, in the wonderful words of Lois Barrett, the nonviolent war cry of the people of God in the midst of turmoil and threat. [5] It is granted not in settings of leisurely pastoral bliss but “in the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23). “Be still and know that I am God” implores the psalmist on the Beloved’s behalf (46:10), precisely when the mountains tremble, for it is within such turbulent crises that the assurance of the bow’s break, the spear’s shatter, and war’s cease is foretold.

            In the midst of raging storm, earthquake and fire Elijah is assured by a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-13). When enemies surround, “stand still and see the thing the Lord is about to do” (1 Samuel 12:16).

            Such stillness breaks out in the child’s fearless countenance though positioned between wolf and lamb, cow and bear, atop the viper’s very den (Isaiah 11). “[Q]uietness and trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). “And the effect of righteousness will be peace; and the result, quietness and trust” in “quiet resting places” (Isaiah 32:17-18). “Be silent” is the command from God’s rousing (Zechariah 2:13), “keep silence” before God (Habakkuk 2:20).

      In sharp contrast, the prophets castigated the Israel’s national defense strategies.

      • “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel" (Isaiah 31:1).

      • "Some boast of chariots, and some of horses; but we boast of the name of the Lord our God" (Psalm 20:7).

      • "A King is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save" (Psalm 33:16-17).

      • "But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will deliver them by the Lord their God; I will not deliver them by bow, nor by sword, not by war, not by horses, not by horsemen" (Hosea 1:7).

            Jesus repeatedly assured his disciples to “fear not,” even though “In the world you will have tribulation. But take courage [be of good cheer]; I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).  Such tribulation, when faced with all prior named virtues in the Beatitudes, qualifies the meek rather than the mighty for blessing (Matthew 5:10-11).

            Seems like every time angels appear their first words are “fear not” (Luke 1:13, 30; Matthew 1:20; Luke 2:10, Matthew 28:5), because the circumstances surrounding their arrival are treacherous. When the storm threatened and the disciples wailed, Jesus spoke to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” (Mark 4:39). “Rejoice in hope,” Paul told the church in Rome, “be patient [still] in tribulation” (12:12). The Spirit of God “does not make us timid [fearful], but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7), and “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18).

            The image of faith as a kind of fight is commonplace in the Newer Testament, nowhere more vividly than in Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, where he urged that little flock of Jesus to “put on the whole armor of God,” enumerating each of the various essential pieces of battle gear (6:10-17).

            During Jesus’ arrest, when Peter grabbed a sword to resist, Jesus rebuked him saying, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Abba, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:52-53).” In John’s fantastical vision, when in heaven all are gathered around the sacred scroll, sealed seven times over, the narrator weeps that none are worthy to break the seals. But then one of the elders cries out, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll. . . . Then I saw” the narrator continued, “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (Revelation 5:1-6). Without explanation, the Lion had transformed into a Lamb.

            Seen this way, our Eucharistic practice is a form of fear-displacement therapy. Followers of the Way discover their power in the ability to relinquish life, rather than take it, in service to the Beloved Community.

            In the days following the horrific terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, John Paul Lederach began asking himself (as many of us did) “how do people reach this level of anger, hatred and frustration?” He reflected on the “generational anger” that builds over time, generated by the history of Western powers’ political machinations in the Middle East (of which most know preciously little). Then he prophetically wrote:

            “They [terrorists] expect the lashing out of the giant against the weak, the many against the few. This will reinforce their capacity to perpetrate the myth they carefully seek to sustain: That they are under threat, fighting an irrational and mad system that had never taken them seriously and wishes to destroy them and their people.”

            Then he concluded, “What we need to destroy is their myth, not their people.” [6]

            The novelist and social commentator David James Duncan says it better than anyone on this point. “The only way I know to pluck from the hearts of enemies their desire to destroy us is to remove from their lives the sense that, for their own physical and spiritual survival, they must.” [7]

            Some may think it reckless or inappropriate to speak about a “nonviolent war cry” or other use of militant language, out of fear that the very use of such imagery will compromise the substance of nonviolent commitment. I disagree.

            Until we acknowledge that the life of faith is a struggle—that peace, like war, must be waged—our feet will forever be trapped in withdrawal and passivity in the face of conflict. To be sure, we have committed to limits on our struggle. We use different weapons. And the levels of our struggle are always multiple—Gandhi said his struggle was on three fronts: with the British, with his own people, and with himself.

            For those convinced that Jesus severed the root of this spiral of violence in his words, his life, his death and resurrection, our greatest need is a more compelling narrative replicated in our words and lives. Remember Paul’s important note that the struggle is “not against flesh and blood” but against “the spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12). The fight is not to dehumanize and thus claim justification for the destruction of our enemies but to challenge and overcome the “myth” that is itself the source of carnage.

            This makes me think of that old missionary hymn, “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations.” Conflicting stories are what drive personal and communal violation. Odd as it sounds, the nonviolent war cry of the people of God inaugurates our proper evangelistic vocation, to incarnate a good news story, that destruction is not fated, that dystopian futures are not destined, that another world is not only possible but is actively moving in our direction.

            So our work is to figure out what that story looks like, sounds like, lives like. How does it mobilize and animate? What implications does it have for the ordering of our communities? What are the possible economic configurations and political arrangements of this story? What indigenous cultural traditions can be leveraged? What social capital can be wedded to structural policies which together go about the work of restoring right-relatedness, both within the human community and with creation itself?

            Furthermore, what is the civic significance of forgiveness? What are the material results of repentance? What is the judicial shape of restitution and reparation? Can we be revived to what the book of James (1:27) indicates is the nature of pure religion—attending the needs of widows and orphans, of all who lack access to the table of bounty and dignity, thereby reflecting God’s preferential option for the poor?

            Can we image such a daring story, one that “shall conquer evil and shatter the spear and sword . . . and Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth, the kingdom of love and light”? [8]

            Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur. The lamb has conquered; let us follow.

 #  #  #

[1] “The Myth of Redemptive Violence

[2] Take this short quiz to test your own familiarity of violence text in the Bible and in the Qur’an, “30 Most Violent Exhortations from the Bible and the Quran,” Valerie Tarico, AlterNet.

[3] Millard Lind's Yahweh Is A Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in Ancient Israel is a rigorous study of this question.

[4] Zechariah 4:6. For a few of the texts that explicitly rule out military power as the source of national strength, see Psalm 20:7; Psalm 33:16-17; Isaiah 31:1; Hosea 1:7.

[5] See Lois Barrett, The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press), 1987.

[6] “The Challenge of Terror: A Traveling Essay,” The Center for Justice & Peacebuilding

[7] “When Compassion Becomes Dissent: On the post-9/11 struggle to teach creative writing while awaiting the further annihilation of Iraq,” Orion Magazine, Jan-Feb 2003

[8] H. Ernest Nichol composed this 19th century hymn.

 

Itching for a brawl

To interpret the latest round of US-Iran tension, here is some history you need to know

by Ken Sehested

“The [US] rationale is embarrassingly circular—we must remain in
the Middle East to protect against terrorists who hate America
because we are in the Middle East.”
—Jeff Faux, “Why Are We in the Middle East?”

 

The US has been itching for a brawl with Iran for 40 years, ever since US embassy personnel in Tehran were taken hostage in 1979. Now, with the assassination of one of Iran’s top military and political leaders, General Qasem Soleimani, along with top Iraqi military figure Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Trump administration may choose to scratch.

The results could be catastrophic. This standoff has all the telltale signs of a street melee, when taunting leads to shoving, shoving leads to punches, then out come the weapons. In this case, the weapons would be million dollar missiles.

Soleimani’s job description was a combination of special forces commander, CIA director, and secretary of state. Can you imagine our reaction if Iran assassinated one of such stature in our government?

The US has legitimate grievances against Iran. You need not wink at Iranian foreign policy to question US belligerence. And before you assess our current hostilities, here are a few things you need to know about the history of relations between the US and Iran.

1. Few US citizens know that in 1953 the US Central Intelligence Agency planned, funded, and directed the overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Iran.

It then installed a dictator whose brutal reign lasted until his overthrow in 1979 during the Iranian revolution. (We remember the US hostages taken, but not the triggering cause.)

2. During the 1980s war between Iraq and Iran (with fatalities in the hundreds of thousands), the US removed Iraq from its “state sponsors of terrorism” list in order to expedite weapons transfers to the country—then our preferred ally in the region—as well as providing crucial military intelligence to Saddam Hussein. Among the weapons sold to Iraq were ingredients for Hussein’s chemical weapons which he used against Iran and then on his own Kurdish minority population. The US offered not even a whisper of complaint afterwards—until a decade later, when Iraq resumed its rogue-state status in America’s shifting Middle East crosshairs.

3. Also during the ‘80s, in President Reagan’s second term, high ranking White House officials undertook a secret deal to sell weapons to Iran (which was illegal by act of Congress) to fund the US-backed Contra war (also illegal by act of Congress) aimed at displacing the democratically elected Nicaraguan government.

Left: Iranian schoolgirls

4. In 1988 the US Navy shot down an Iranian passenger plane, flying in Iranian airspace, killing all 290 passengers and crew. President Reagan admitted “regrets,” saying the Navy ship’s commander thought it was an Iranian military jet. Defending the action, US Admiral William Crowe, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “emphasized from the outset that committing military units to the Persian Gulf mission would involve risks and uncertainties.'' Then Vice President George H.W. Bush said “I will never apologize for the United States—I don’t care what the facts are. . . . I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.”

5. Much has been made of Iran’s ability to launch cyber attacks on the US government and civilian infrastructure.

No one seems to be pointing out that the US (with Israeli assistance) launched the world’s first cyber assault against . . . you guessed it: Iran, with the “Stuxnet” malicious computer worm, causing significant damage to Iran’s nuclear energy program. It was first discovered in 2010 and had been launched as early as 2005.

6. The assassination of General Soleimani effectively crushed youth-led, civil society protests emerging in Iran, in Iraq, and in Lebanon against public corruption and government intransigence. Soleimani’s funeral brought literally millions of people onto Tehran’s streets not just for the expression of grief but also as an outcry against US interference in their country. The fireball that descended on Soleimani’s caravan dramatically cauterized public dissent.

7. On top of these, imagine yourself as an Iranian, knowing that the US has more than two dozen (that we know of) military bases in 10 countries surrounding your country, plus a naval carrier group stationed a few miles off your shoreline.

You know that Trump unilaterally withdrew from an effective treaty suppressing your country’s nuclear weapon capability. You know that the US has bombed 14 majority-Muslim countries since 1980. And you likely know the US already has over 60,000 troops in the Middle East, with more on the way.

As I write, more than a dozen Iranian ballistic missiles have targeted two Iraqi military bases hosting US troops. It will be a long night, and likely more bloody tomorrows. The quote that first comes to mind is among the briefest: “Hatred bounces” (e.e. cummings).

Not quite as precise, but more vivid, is this: “. . . they are a law unto themselves and promote their own honor. Their own strength is their god.” (Habakkuk 1:7b, 11c)

#  #  #

Ken Sehested is curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action. He was the founding co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, NC. In 2007 the congregation approved a statement titled “We say no: A Christian statement in opposition to war with Iran.” When US-Iran tensions rose again in 2012, the congregation reaffirmed and reissued its earlier statement—and likely will be again, in the coming days.

Also see:

• “US citizens should be very wary of any US rationale for an attack on Iran”

• “Worried about increasing US-Iran tensions? You should be

• “The latest US-Iran dust-up ; Reckless baiting . . . again

Worried about increasing US-Iran tensions?

You should be

by Ken Sehested

Worried about increasing US-Iran tensions? You should be. The stakes are high, Trump is recklessly impulsive and currently in need of a public distraction from the Mueller investigation. It’s not likely to be an all-out war, but some limited strike—maybe backing Israel to do so, as it did in 2007—that would further escalate belligerence.

(Remember: This year is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I which began with one assassination, in a country few US citizens had heard of, igniting what was then the deadliest war in history, due to a complex web of international alliances, planting the seeds of World War II, then the Cold War, and on and on.)

Hatred—as e.e. cummings said—bounces.

The US has legitimate policy grievances against Iran. What few here know, though, is that Iran has legitimate grievances against the US. Here are but three egregious examples.

1. Those include the fact that in 1953 the CIA, in coordination with Britain, overthrew the democratically-elected government of Iran and installed a dictator whose brutal reign lasted until the Shah’s overthrow in 1979. (We remember the US hostages taken, but not the triggering cause.)

2. During the 1980s war between Iraq and Iran, the US removed Iraq from its “state sponsors of terrorism” list in order to expedite weapons transfers to the country—then our preferred ally in the region—as well as providing crucial military intelligence to Saddam Hussein. Among the weapons sold to Iraq were ingredients for Hussein’s chemical weapons which he used against Iran and then on his own Kurdish minority population. The US offered not even a whisper of complaint afterwards—until a decade later, when Iraq resumed its rogue-state status in America’s shifting Middle East crosshairs.

3. In 1988 the US Navy shot down an Iranian passenger plane, flying in Iranian airspace, killing all 290 passengers. President Reagan admitted “regrets,” saying the Navy ship’s commander thought it was an Iranian military jet. Defending the action, US Admiral William Crowe, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “emphasized from the outset that committing military units to the Persian Gulf mission would involve risks and uncertainties.''

In other words: Sh*t happens, and we’re OK as long as we say sorry.

On top of these, imagine yourself as an Iranian, knowing that the US has more than two dozen (that we know of) military bases in 10 countries surrounding your country, plus two carrier groups in the Persian Gulf region.

“. . . The [US] rationale is embarrassingly circular—we must remain in the Middle East to protect against terrorists who hate America because we are in the Middle East.” —Jeff Faux, “Why Are We in the Middle East?”

What to do? Pay attention. While the mainstream media is not, as our president claims, “fake,” it is terribly myopic. Find alternate sources of news of current events. Dig for a little historical context. Register your concerns with congressional leaders. Find and/or create opportunities for conversation about these matters in your congregation and your larger community. Begin thinking now—don’t wait ‘til events spin out of control—about what you, personally, are willing to risk in response. If there’s nothing at stake in your choices—inconvenience, at least—there’s nothing of significance.

Finally, there are serious theological issues at stake and not just competing Democratic vs. Republican visions of foreign policy. As a starting point for this conversation, see this statement (“We say NO, again: Baiting Iran toward a dangerous collision”) unanimously approved by my own congregation—from 2007, in a period of similar tensions, then updated and reissued five years later in a subsequent round of US sabre rattling. We’re hauling it out yet again.

#  #  #

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Epiphany: Manifesting the Bias of Heaven

by Ken Sehested

      There are three versions of what Epiphany (“Manifestation”) is meant to commemorate in the church’s calendar. One of those traditions is to celebrate Jesus’ baptism on January 6. Another tradition—Eastern Orthodox, using the Julian calendar—observes Christmas on January 7. Yet another tradition celebrates Epiphany as marking the arrival of the magi—of “We Three Kings” fame, the figures played in every Christmas play by children dressed in bathrobes. Yet the common element in each is the inauguration of a confrontation between God’s Only Begotten and those in seats of power.

Art ©John August Swanson.

      As a baptismal occasion, this Manifestation inspired Jesus’ first sermon in the temple at Nazareth. The gathered crowd was so perturbed at his message of deliverance that the text says they “were filled with wrath” and attempted to launch him headlong over a cliff.

      As a birth announcement, this Manifestation so infuriated the reigning regime that the “rules of military engagement” were expanded to include the execution of all male infants in the region. And the First Family was forced to flee as refugees into Egypt, seeking political asylum from Herod’s rage.

      As an announcement of international import, this Manifestation threatened to implicate even visiting foreign dignitaries in the web of political intrigue, and they were smuggled out of town, on back roads, “by another way.”

      In each reading of the narrative, the message is clear: The Manifestation of God’s Intent will disrupt the world as we know it. Those for whom this “world” is “home”—who profit from current arrangements, from orthodoxies of every sort—will take offense at this swaddling-wrapped revolt.

      The bias of heaven is clear: The goodness of this news is evident only to “children,” to the defenseless ones, to the ones facing life on the road without provision, to the excluded and those judged unclean and unworthy.

   Biblically speaking, when you talk about heaven you’re liable to raise hell. Such is the speech of evangelical announcement. Everything else is mostly sentimental drivel, designed to calm the powerful and control the weak.

         But blessed are you poor, you mournful, you meek and merciful, you restorers of right-relatedness; blessed are you who are persecuted and accused in the cause of peace; for yours is the future, the riches of redemption, the solace of salvation, the bounty of the earth in all its goodness.

      God will arise, says the prophet Isaiah (33), at the sound of suffering: of weeping, from the envoys of peace; of mourning, from the land itself. And so shall we.

      Therefore, I say, rejoice.

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

 

Epiphany of the Lord

Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12

by Ken Sehested

(From "Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1," David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminister John Knox Press, 2009)

Although the Apostle doesn’t use epiphany (“manifestation”) in this text, he likely had something similar on his mind. Something new has happened in Jesus. Better yet, the Word—God’s “eternal purpose” (v. 11)—can now be “seen” (v. 9) in ways previously unimagined. This “mystery” is news even to the heavenly hosts (v. 10). There is something of a Copernican Revolution underway. The entire universe of God’s Providence has been revised: not only in the context of a Roman imperial venue (the Apostle is again writing from jail) but also in the redemptive story centered in Israel’s promise.

In the church’s history, Epiphany has three traditions. One is to commemorate Jesus’ baptism. Another, signifying his birth. And the third, the arrival of the magi, of “We Three Kings” fame, so often enacted in annual congregational Christmas pageants by children in bathrobes. In each case, though, the context inaugurates a confrontation with the way things are, between the Incarnate One and those who presently define reality.

As a baptismal occasion, this manifestation inspired Jesus’ first sermon in the temple at Nazareth, and eventually so enraged the faithful that they attempted to launch him over a cliff (Luke 4:29).

As a birth announcement, this manifestation so infuriated Rome’s Herodian rule that infant boys in the region around Bethlehem were exterminated. The threat prompted Mary and Joseph to flee with baby Jesus to Egyptian political sanctuary (Matt. 2:13-16).

As an announcement of international import, the manifestation implicated visiting dignitaries (“from the East”) in a web of political intrigue, forcing them to take back roads out of town and out of reach of despotic revenge.

Common to each variant, however, is the insistence that this manifestation of God’s Intent will disrupt the world as presently defined. Those for whom this “world” is “home”—all who profit from current arrangements, from orthodoxies of every sort—will take offense at this swaddling-wrapped revolt. Something new is being built; a new cornerstone (Eph. 2:21) is being laid. That’s the good part. The bad part is that existing structures may be razed to make room.

To understand the goodness of this news, one of our first pastoral tasks is to ask: For whom is this news bad?

The primary scandal on which the Apostle focused within the early Jesus movement involved something akin to racial/ethnic discrimination. The Law-of-Moses party had long ago inverted the Hebrew people’s “election” by God for redemptive purpose into the assumption of being God’s elite. The world had become divided between Jews and non-Jews (as today we divide the population between white and non-white). The Gentiles—goyim—were the others. Much like the 1787 U.S. Constitutional Convention which agreed that each African American slave would count as three-fifths of a person, the Gentiles came up short in the alleged divine apportionment scheme.

No wonder, then, the shock over the Apostle’s insistence that the others were no longer strangers and aliens but now fellow heirs, members of the same body, sharers in the promise. For some, the Apostle’s “dividing wall” of “hostility” (2:14) was actually a retaining wall, a provision of sanctuary, a needed safeguard and essential security “fence.”

And the religious overlords of the day were not happy, even within significant parts of the Jesus movement. Their world was being deconstructed. The Apostle was assaulting sacred demarcations, breaching holy boundaries, challenging the “historical understanding” of the faith; and, by implication, threatening the very character of God. It was a lot to swallow—probably even for some Gentile Christians who, in their new-convert enthusiasm, wanted to be completely immersed in the inherited protocol of righteous standing.

This new thing God is doing, the Apostle emphasized, wasn’t absolutely new. It was embedded from the beginning of God’s “eternal purpose,” now becoming manifest—brought to the light, revealed—in Christ Jesus. Maybe the Apostle, steeped in Torah training, was stumbling onto the obscured implication of the promise made by God to Abram: that Sarai was not forgotten, was “known” by God, and that together they would be a blessing to many nations.

Novelist Flannery O’Connor is credited with this startling paraphrase of the well-known line from John’s Gospel: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.” Immersion in the “mystery” of Christ is surely an odd-making adventure. But there’s another factor at work as well, indicated by another reworking of John’s line: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free. But first it will make you miserable.”

The misery factor in spiritual formation is an implication of the new cornerstone being laid, of the dividing wall’s crumbling, of the “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) emerging. This dislocating, deconstructing experience does not mean God is a sadist and likes to see us squirm. It’s simply the detoxifying process that accompanies the recovery from addiction to “the way things are.”

For pastoral leaders charged with guiding congregations into this new creation—bringing down hostile walls both within and without—one comprehensive way to imagine the task is by asking: What are the borders that need to be crossed, the boundaries that need to be broached, the walls that need to fall? What are the “human traditions” (Col. 2:8) that are confusing and confounding the believing community’s confessional practice? Given our habits of trusting only what we can see with our eyes, how can we strategically locate ourselves in compassionate proximity with those who are battered, bruised and broken by the world’s reigning disorder? Where, and how, can we intentionally place ourselves in ways that allow our blinders to be loosened, expanded, and eventually removed?

Good teachers know the truth in this aphorism about learning: I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand. How do we develop in our congregation a thirst for being doers of the Word and not hearers only (Jas. 1:22)? What does it take to help our folk make the transition from being convinced to being convicted? How can we recommend the “ministry of reconciliation” so that it is embraced as a spiritual discipline—a way of exposing ourselves to the grace of God through Christ Jesus—rather than merely an occasional effort to do kind things in the world?

#  #  #

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  13 December 2019 •  No. 203

Processional. This young drummer, Silas, is a member of Jesus the Redeemer Church in Kapenguria, Kenya, accompanying a praise song, “Sing With Joy, Jehovah Has Given Us Eternal Life.” (Thanks Boaz.)

Every year NASA produces a Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar. Pictured above: Spirals of dust swirl across trillions of kilometers of interstellar space as an expanding halo of light around a distant star, named V838 Monocerotis illuminates the giant cloud. The glow comes from the red supergiant star at the middle of the image, which gave off a flashbulb-like pulse of light, This image shows the progress the light-pulse had made after two years of traveling away from the star in all directions, imaged by Hubble on February 8, 2004. V838 Monocerotis is located about 20,000 light-years away from Earth in the direction of the constellation Monoceros, at the outer edge of our Milky Way galaxy.

Invocation. “Secure the lamb, the wolf no longer preys / Secure the child, no fear displays / The vow of vengeance bound evermore / God’s holy mountain safe and adored / Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel / Shall come to thee, O Israel!” —new lyrics to “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Call to worship. “Silent Night,” sung in Beirut, Lebanon, by a young Muslim women’s choir in Arabic. (Thanks Loren.) 

Remembering Joseph

A friend in Italy recently sent a remarkable 15th century icon of the Nativity (pictured at right). It would be uncommon, even in 21st century terms, because of its gender-bending depiction of the Holy Family.

Mary is shown reading Torah; Joseph is on the ground cuddling baby Jesus.

It makes me wonder if the artist (traditional iconographers did their work anonymously) was influenced by the Beguines, semi-monastic communities (initially in the Low Countries of Europe) of single women, beginning in the 12th century, who served the poor and marginalized, yet took no formal religious vows. Initially recognized by church authorities, their growing presence outside of male authorities, along with their theological creativity, led to repression.

I have long been especially curious about Joseph. Mary is obviously at the center of the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s true that she “submits” to the entreaty of the angel; but her submission is the stuff of revolt against the entrenched social order. Her surrender is an active collaboration; and, to every Herod—then and now—a national security threat.

Joseph, on the other hand, has a minor part in the story, and his presence on the stage is fleeting.

His reaction to Mary’s surprise pregnancy is magnanimous. The text says that he refused to publicly shame Mary for this cockamamie story of divine procreation. And then, planning to “dismiss her quietly” (Matthew 1:19), he reverses course and follows the angel’s dream time instruction to wed Mary. Then, after another dream, he guides Mary and baby Jesus through the desert as refugees from Herod’s rage, taking shelter in Egypt. After yet another dream, he brings the family back to Palestine, this time to Nazareth, north of Rome’s closely guarded grip.

After that, except for an indirect suggestion of his presence with Mary for Jesus’ post-natal “purification” ritual (Luke 2:22), he disappears from history. Though not, since then, in the imagination of shipwrecked sailors and abandoned children, for whom he is a patron saint.

Below is a poem inspired by his thin but intriguing storyline. (See also “Joseph,” a litany for worship drawn from the poem below, inspired by the Matthew 1:18-25.)

§  §  §

Joseph
Made redundant by the very breath of God.
What became of you?
Obedient to heaven’s outrageous instructions
amid Caesar’s assessment.
Unable to provide more than squalid accommodation
in your beloved’s night of travail.
Enduring embarrassed encounters
with wild-eyed shepherds and
strangely-clothed pilgrims
from obscure and distant lands,
each with incredulous stories of starry encounters.
Then hurtling toward Egypt—a land still haunted
by chained voices of ancestral slaves
—only steps ahead of Herod’s rage, the
Ramah-voice of Rachel weeping in the wind.
—continue reading “Joseph

§  §  §

Hymn of praise. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, / Holy Mary, pray for us now and in the hour of our death. / Amen. Amen. Amen.” —English translation of final verse of bar room rendition of Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” by Cantus & Chanticleer (Thanks David.)

Confession. “Lord, deliver me. Overnight, free shipping. / Deliver to my doorstep parties and parcels  / and carols of merriment but not the pause to look, / not self-awareness, not change, not repentance. / Never mind the child in the night, never mind / the cries beneath the carols, never mind / the ax lying at the root of the trees.” —Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Ax at the root,” Unfolding Light

Hymn of supplication. “Waiting For You,” an Advent song by The Many.

Good news

        • “Close to extinction, this humpback whale population is making comeback.” Dominic Rech, WMUR

        • A court in Michigan “throws a wrench in Nestle’s attempts to privatize water around the country.” Tom Perkins, Guardian

        • “India cancels plans for huge coal power stations as solar energy prices hit record low.” Ian Johnston, Independent

        • “The European Investment Bank (EIB), the world’s largest international public bank and lending arm of the European Union, adopted a new lending policy that will cut finance to most fossil fuel projects as it tries to become the world’s first ‘climate bank’.” 350.org (Thanks Betsy.)

Words of assurance. “Ode 9 of the Nativity of Christ,” by Archangel Voices. (Thanks Terry.)

Professing our faith. “World leaders are meeting in Spain to decide whether or not to bother with preventing the destruction of the earth, like people in a vehicle speeding toward a cliff deciding whether to brake or swerve or just chat about other things. Powerful senior citizens in the United States – Trump, Giuliani, Biden – are trading playground insults, and the middle-aged people who make a lot of decisions about how to handle this emergency seem incapable of thinking beyond the singularly imagination-killing criterion of short-term profit. . . .

        “There have been farsighted altruistic people in every generation, but there are signs of a wider evolution of imagination that is taking place among the young. We see that profound change in new ways of dealing with conflict, with rejecting competition and capitalism, new understandings of what is possible and ethical. We see the children are mature and too many old people are juvenile. Juvenility and maturity are no longer categories attached to how long you’ve been on Earth, but how far you see and how much you care.” —Rebecca Solnit, “The old made our climate mess. And the young will get us out of it,” Guardian

Word. “People talk about caterpillars becoming butterflies as though they just go into a cocoon, slap on wings, and are good to go. Caterpillars have to dissolve into a disgusting pile of goo to become butterflies. So if you’re a mess wrapped up in blankets right now, keep going.” —Jennifer Wright

Satire alert. “Evangelicals breaking up with Jesus,” by Mrs. Betty Bowers, Americans Best Christian.

Preach it. “When is the time for love to be born? / The inn is full on the planet earth, / And by a comet the sky is torn— / Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.” —excerpt from “The Risk of Birth,” Madeleine L’Engle

Can’t makes this sh*t up.

        • The Walmart store in Canton, Ohio, sponsored a Thanksgiving holiday canned goods drive for its own employees! (According to a National Employment Law Project report, Walmart is the lowest-paying large company in the US.) —Rick Ungar, Forbes (Thanks Brian.)

      • President Trump’s commentary on the looming water crisis. (56 second video.)

      • The US Border Patrol has purchases 33,000,000 rounds of ammunition for its new Glock handguns. Bloomberg

Call to the table. “So the christians and the pagans sat together at the table, / Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able, / And just before the meal was served, hands were held and prayers were said, / Sending hope for peace on earth to all their gods and goddesses.” —Dar Williams, "The Christians and the Pagans"

Helpful tools: Recommended podcast on Le Chambon & Andre Trocme

        A few communions have on their liturgical calendars the 28 December “Feast of the Holy Innocents,” to recollect the trauma of King Herod’s order to kill all the infants around Bethlehem in response to the magis’ announcement. (See Matthew 2:1-18. This story ought to be told every year, as a reminder that the Good News isn’t welcomed by those with a stake in the way things are.)

        “Waging Nonviolence,” a resource I consult frequently, is producing a 10-part podcast devoted to telling the story of the village of Le Chambon sur Lignon in southeastern France, which is credited with saving the lives of some 5,000 Jews during World War II. (Five episodes, each 30-40 minutes long, are already available, with five more to be released in the coming weeks.)

        At the center of this amazing story was André Trocmé, pastor of the Protestant congregation in Le Chambon, and his wife Magda. You may already know Philip Hallie’s book, “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There,” which first accounted this narrative to a broad audience.

        I recommend this series both for personal enrichment and for small group discussion as a means of shedding new light on the observance of the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

The state of our disunion.

        • Star baseball pitcher Gerrit Cole was hired away from the Houston Astros by the New York Yankees for a record-breaking $324,000,000 nine-year contract. Based on Cole’s statistics from the 2019 season—33 games, 101.9 pitches per game—Cole’s new contract will yield $10,695 per pitch. A worker making the federal minimum hourly wage of $7.25 will work a bit over seven months for what Cole makes for one pitch.

        • “U.S. stock market at record but farm bankruptcies at highest since 2011.” Clive McKeef, Market Watch

        • Watching immigrant children being tear-gassed at the US border “was the highlight of my Thanksgiving weekend.” —Fox News Host Tomi Lahren

Best one-liner. “The future is in the hands of those people who recognise the other as ‘you’ and themselves as part of an ‘us.’” —Pope Francis

Point of personal privilege. “Long one of our finest preachers, Nancy Hastings Sehested now takes her place as a supremely gifted writer among us. Sehested’s new book [Marked For Life: A Prison Chaplain’s Story] chronicles her 13 years as a chaplain in two men’s prisons in North Carolina, the last 10 in a maximum security facility where she distinguished herself as a sensitive, no-nonsense pastor to inmates, many convicted of particularly brutal crimes. Hers is a no sugar-coated account of life in prisons all too typical in the United States today; their brutality is confronted in gut-wrenching honesty—the brutality of the facilities themselves, that of some prison officers in confrontations with inmates, and that of bloody battles among prisoners themselves. Nor is this the chronicle of a benighted liberal making judgments from some exalted platform. Instead, it is an honest, self-reflective account of a minister who unexpectedly found herself at a crossroads in her pastoral ministry that led her into prison chaplaincy.” —continue reading Stan Hastey’s review of Marked For Life, Orbis Books

Altar call. “The search light in the big yard / Swings round with the gun / And spotlights the snowflakes / Like the dust in the sun / It's Christmas in prison / There'll be music tonight / I'll probably get homesick / I love you. Goodnight.” —John Prine, “Christmas in Prison” 

For the beauty of the earth. Watch this brief (0:20) video of a drop of water freezing to form a snow flakes.

Benediction. “Arise, you fear-confounded, attest / With Insurrection’s voice confess / Though death’s confine and terror’s darkest threat / Now govern earth’s refrain . . . and yet / Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel / Shall come to thee, O Israel!” —new lyrics to “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Recessional. “We are Christmas, we are God’s hands  / To care for one another in these war torn lands  / We are Christmas, the love that we share  / Will carry one another ‘til we understand  / We are Christmas.” —Spellman College Glee Club, “We Are Christmas

Just for fun. Allegro, an online auction site, gets the best Christmas commercial award with “English for Beginners.” (2:59 video. Thanks Suzii.)

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Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “‘Peace, like war, is waged’: A personal remembrance of Walker L. Knight, in light of Advent’s threat and promise,” a new essay

• “Joseph,” a litany for worship drawn from the poem below, inspired by the Matthew 1:18-25

• “Joseph,” a poem

• New lyrics to “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

• More Advent & Christmas resources for worship: Litanies, poems, sermons and new lyrics to old hymns

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org. Language not otherwise indicated above is that of the editor, as are those portions cited as “kls.” Don’t let the “copyright” notice keep you from circulating material you find here (and elsewhere in this site). Reprint permission is hereby granted in advance for noncommercial purposes.

Feel free to copy and post any original art on this site. (The ones with “prayerandpolitiks.org” at the bottom.) As well as other information you find helpful.

Your comments are always welcomed. If you have news, views, notes or quotes to add to the list above, please do. If you like what you read, pass this along to your friends. You can reach me directly at kensehested@prayerandpolitiks.org.

 

“Peace, like war, is waged”

A personal remembrance of Walker L. Knight, in light of Advent's threat and promise

by Ken Sehested

My mentor-cum-friend Walker Knight has died. It wasn’t a surprise—his health has been poor for several years. For him, and his family, it is likely merciful.

Acknowledging as much, though, doesn’t ease what appears to the living as a certain dimming of the light.

Having said that, it is significant that Walker breathed his last on the First Sunday in Advent.

§  §  §

Among my earliest childhood memories is an especially vivid one on a Christmas Eve. I was so eager for Christmas morning to arrive that it was nigh impossible to sleep. Even in our hard scrabble household, I knew some toys would be under the Christmas tree. Sometime in the night, I pretended going to bathroom, pausing to peer into the dark living room to see if I could make out what was there.

It was a “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” episode, with something like “visions of sugar-plums” dancing in my head. I didn’t know then that sugar-plums had nothing to do with fruit. They are small sugar balls. Sugar intake always escalates at Christmas. My Mama’s fudge was an annual extravagance.

Walker knew the taste of Advent wasn’t sweet; that the Gospels’ birth narratives are not candy-coated. Jesus was born in the context of state-sponsored terrorism. Mary’s famous “Magnificat” (banned for periods under US-supported military dictators in Chile, Argentina and Guatemala) was ripe with piety but culminated in politically seditious language, a full-throated announcement of God’s design to humble the powerful and raise the refuse.

Mary and Joseph and their swaddling-wrapped baby were targets. Walker knew there was an ideological struggle going on in Scripture’s Christmas story. All the honorific terms ascribed to Jesus—Lord, Savior, Prince of Peace—were titles assigned by Rome’s governing elite to Caesar. A dispute over lordship was brewing. Advent’s backdrop is danger, political intrigue, and insurrectionary fervor.

The occasion which drove Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was Caesar’s census, whose results were used to establish tax impositions. It was a source of Palestinian hatred and riotous outbreaks.

About the time Jesus was born, some 2,000 of his fellow Galileans were crucified for their political insurgency in a single day in Sepphoris, an hour’s walk from Nazareth, by order of Quintilus Varus, the Roman military commander. That infamy surely had a formative effect on Jesus.

After being alerted by the Magi’s Roman customs declaration form, of their search for a predicted new king of Israel, Herod ordered the preemptive murder of all male infants in the region around Bethlehem, just after Mary and Joseph’s refugee flight through the desert to Egypt.

Most Protestants do not observe the Feast of the Holy Innocents on 28 December, so the massacre it attests is largely hidden from contemporary view by the mounds of scrap giftwrapping, strands of ribbon, and stacks of cheery Christmas cards destined for recycling.

§  §  §

Walker’s 1969 book, The Struggle for Integrity, is the reason my wife and I moved to Atlanta after finishing seminary in New York City. We had no jobs waiting; we just wanted to be part of Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, whose pastoral leadership (clergy and lay) refused to move to the suburbs when the neighborhood de-gentrified. It was a risk-your-assets moment, resulting in substantial membership loss. The refusal to comply with Jim Crow almost killed the church. But then came Epiphany’s visionary renewal. Clarity is often reserved for those with their backs against the wall.

Right: Walker L. Knight, photo by Lynn Farmer.

Over the ensuing years, Walker’s insightful voice helped lead the congregation through a longer series of dramatic decisions about its ever-deepening grasp of its mission as a countersign to larger cultural values. But not without renewed conflicts.

Walker knew that faith is often clarified not in the absence of conflict but within and through it. In a long prose poem printed in the December 1972 issue of Home Missions Magazine, which he edited, Walker dwelled at length on the risk of Advent and the fact that peacemaking entailed an active, even provocative engagement—whose practice is not for the faint of heart.

“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.”

Seven years later, then-US President Jimmy Carter quoted some of those lines in his speech marking the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, which he worked so hard to accomplish.

§  §  §

As the author of Hebrews aptly says it, following an extended summary of courageous faith figures, “For time would fail me to tell” the whole story of Walker Knight—not to mention his dearly beloved wife, Nell. The Knight household practiced “simple living” long before that was a thing; helped guide the church in giving full welcome to African Americans, to refugees, to the queer community, to speaking out—and enduring the resulting fallout—on a variety of justice, peace, and human rights commitments. (The church even voted to put the title to its building up as bail bond when its custodian suffered a brush with the law.) My wife Nancy and I were jointly ordained by this community, long before female ministers were considered legitimate.

When Seeds magazine was formed, focused on mobilizing faith communities to address the scourge of world hunger, we didn’t know a pica ruler from a peacock. Walker was our devoted teacher in the arts of editing and layout and design, vital consultant to our organizing work, and experienced tutor in articulating the theological vision undergirding our labors.

When I opened the Baptist Peace Fellowship office at Oakhurst, Walker allowed me to interrupt him at any time with questions and let me use the typesetting equipment he used for the final chapter of his professional career—writing, editing, and publishing an independent news journal to address the fallout of our denomination’s abduction by fundamentalist racketeers and rallying the plans and hopes and dreams of the displaced remnant.

Walker’s courage in composing poetry later inspired me to attempt the same. One I’m remembering—“Portal of praise: Praise as presage to Advent’s treason”—includes these lines.

“The Manger’s trailhead opens at / the portal of praise and genuflecting / thanks. Not because heaven arises to / piety’s incense. But because Advent’s / brush with mortal flesh is a perilous journey, / fraught with insurrection’s threat, / pregnancy’s scandal, birthed from / stabled bed, and Herod’s foam and fury. / The innocents take it in the chops every / time. Yet Advent threatens treason to / every Herod-hearted arrangement. . . . / Only praise can / leverage the earth’s maddening orbit back / to its Rightful Tender. No longer shall / the beggarly be auctioned to satisfy / ravenous demand, but they shall find / refuge, deliverance, in secured / Promised Land. For the Blessed One / has vowed a ransomed release from / misery’s increase: healing the lamed, / gathering the shamed, transforming / their weeping to a torrent of praise.”*

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*Read the entire text of "Portal of praise."
For a news story with details of Walker Knight's life, see this piece in Baptist News Global.
In 2013 Walker published a memoir, "From Zion to Atlanta."
©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

 

Advent & Christmas resources for worship

Litanies, poems, sermons and new lyrics to old hymns

by Ken Sehested

Poems

• "Silent night," an Advent poem

• “Annunciation

• “Advent longing

• “All flesh is destined for glory

• “Behold the Lamb

• “Boundary to Benedictus," a meditation on Zechariah

• “Joseph

• “The Singing of angels

• “The baptizer’s bargain

• “Portal of praise: Praise as presage to Advent’s treason

• “The quelling word: Emancipation is (still) coming," a poem inspired by Revelation 21:1-6a

• “The manger’s reach

• “Venite Adoremus (Come and Adore)”

• “The treasures of darkness,” a poem for Advent

Litanies

• “My soul magnifies you,” inspired by Luke 1: 46-55

• “Keeping watch: The angels appearance to the shepherds,inspired by Luke 2:8-15 and Lamentations 21:8-9, 14-15

• "Joseph," a litany for worship inspired by Matthew 1:18-25

• "Go tell John," a litany for worship inspired by Matthew 11:2-6

• “Big band or bluegrass,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 98

"Chords of Comfort," a litany for worship inspired by Isaiah 40

• "Comfort my people," a litany for worship inspired by Isaiah 40:1-5

• "Justice and peace will kiss," a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 85

• "Speak to the hungered of heart," a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 85

• "Anointed," a litany for worship inspired by Isaiah 61:1-2 & Luke 4:18

• "Acclaim the One whose breath is your bounty," a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 148

• "Enfleshed by the Word," a litany for worship inspired by Proverbs 8 and John 1:1-18

New lyrics to old hymns

Songs for Advent and Christmas: Old hymns, new lyrics

Articles

• “Undo the folded lie: Notes on the reckless folly of our season

• “The faux fight for Christmas: Backdrop on the annual year-end culture war

• “Watch night history: Awaiting the quelling word

• “Longing from below: An Advent meditation

Sermons

Watching and Waiting in a Half-Spent Night,” a sermon based on Matthew 24:36-44

• "Made Flesh Among Us," a sermon based on John 1:1-18

• “The Baptizer’s Bargain,” a sermon based on Luke 3:7-18; Zeph. 3:14-20; Phil. 4:4-7

• “The manger’s revolt: Mary’s Magnificat,” a sermon based on Luke 1:46-55

• “Same question, different outcomes: A meditation on Zechariah,” based on the story of Zechariah in Luke 1