July 26, 2010

Supporting the Troops?

Craig Watts, pastor of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and co-moderator for the Disciples Peace Fellowship, asks important questions for pacifists and Just War theorists.

by Craig M. Watts
In a recent conversation about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan I found myself echoing the words often spoken by antiwar folk: “I oppose the war but I support the troops.”  My conversation partner was quick to respond, “You really don’t.”  I replied, “So, you don’t think it’s possible to be supportive of the troops and stand against the way that are being misused in this war?”  He answered, “Perhaps that’s possible for some people.  But you’re a pacifist.  Even in the best of circumstances you don’t support the troops.  You may support the soldiers as men and women but not as troops.”

I had to concede his point.  I don’t support the troops as troops.  Since I oppose, not just the war in Iraq but war altogether, I oppose the very purpose of the troops.  While I do believe they are being abused as troops by placing them in an unjust war, I believe they are being abused as people – and abusive of people – when fighting any war.  I simply can’t square the purpose of troops with the purpose of Christians as taught by Jesus, and so I believe no Christian should be part of the troops.

Still what does it mean to “support” these men and women in the armed forces?  The language of support is often used but the meaning is less than clear.  A ribbon decal on a car bumper is trivial as an expression of support.  Surely there are some who have supported the troops in substantial ways: providing body armor, visiting injured veterans in VA hospitals, helping the children and families of soldiers, etc.  I’m not convinced these expressions of support are incompatible with opposing the Iraq war or standing against all war for that matter.

Many who insist that they support the troops often mean they affirm the efforts and sacrifices of the troops.  These supporters want to bolster and preserve the morale of the troops.  Even if misgivings about the rightness of the war sometimes stir within these supporters, they believe nothing should be done to compromise the resolve and focus of the soldiers in a time of war.  Consequently, for them supporting the troops and supporting the war can’t very well be separated.  Further, those who oppose the war are viewed as unsupportive to the troops.  First, because it will likely be discouraging to soldiers to see folks back home protesting the very endeavor they are sweating and dying for.  Second, because if questions about the justness of the cause infiltrate the hearts of the soldiers they are unlikely to continue fighting with single-minded conviction.

Sacrifice and courage are commendable.  However, sacrifice for an unjust cause is tragic and regrettable.  Offering morale boosting support for troops who are sacrificing for an unjust cause is inexcusable.  Such a sacrifice is misdirected.  We can and should, I believe, honor the well-meaning intention of the troops who are making sacrifices.  However, the particular expression and direction of their efforts deserves opposition.  Their sacrifices are being dishonored by a government that has put them in the service of an unworthy venture that should never have been entered into in the first place.  Any support that would encourage them to continue down the misbegotten path the government has placed them on lacks wisdom.

So what kind of support should be extended to men and women participating in this war?  Prayer is an appropriate first response.  Certainly prayers should be offered for the safety of those who are in places filled with hazard.  But physical well-being should not be the only focus.  Prayers should also be offered for the preservation of their emotional health and their moral sensitivity.  In the heat of conflict, acts are sometimes performed and condoned by soldiers that later can cause deep pain to their conscience.  The inward woundedness of soldiers who have been on the stage of deadly conflict can be as serious as injuries caused by bullets or bombs.  Offering a listening ear can be a meaningful way to offer support to those who have returned home.  When opportunity and resources allow, support groups for returning soldiers and their families can be provided.  Speaking up on behalf of expanding government sponsored veteran’s services is an important way to extend support. Numerous other things can be done.

Support of men and women in the military must not be seen as the exclusive province of those who support the war in Iraq or any other war. And the distinction between supporting the people who have fought in the war and support for fighting the war should be made sharp and clear. Any attempt to confuse the two should be renounced.


July 21, 2010

Ask And It Will Be Given

by Ragan Sutterfield
Genesis 18: 20-32; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:6-15; Luke 11:1-13

I heard a lecture by the philosopher Dallas Willard once in which he said that he believes that God wants to fulfill all of our desires and give us everything we want.  Of course, he said, there must be much work of transformation on the wanter before this can happen.  I am reminded of this as I read the Gospel for this week in which Jesus gives his disciples a prayer that will come to define their way of life and tells them, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

This is a radical opening for relationship, a possibility for fulfillment and actualization beyond anything else.  And what is it that is given for this asking?  The parallel passage to Luke 11:5-13 in Matthew 7:9-11 says that our Father in heaven will “give good things to those who ask him.”  But Luke doesn’t say that the gift awaiting the asker will be “good things,” but rather the Holy Spirit.

The two gospels are not as in conflict here as they might seem because the Holy Spirit is not simply a “good thing,” but the grounding and possibility of “good things.”  The Holy Spirit is what makes possible the transformation of the wanter.

Jesus tells us that a good parent will not “give a snake instead of a fish” when a child asks for a fish. Our problem is that often we ask for a snake when what we should have asked for, what will truly fulfill the desire that precedes the request, is a fish.  It is only by living “our lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith” (Colossians 2:6-7) that we will want what is truly good and good for us.  Of course as Colossians goes on to tell us, this transformation is only made possible through the burial and new life of baptism and the cross of Christ (2:12-14)—formational realities.

The prayer of the Our Father that Jesus gives at the beginning of Luke 11 also has this formational nature—making possible the asking that comes next.  As Robert Karris, OFM points out in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary this giving of a distinctive form of prayer “was the mark of a religious community…Jesus’ bequest of the Our Father to his disciples will not only teach them how to pray, but especially how to live and act as his followers.”

Both Luke and Colossians would indicate that the Christian practices of common prayer, baptism, Eucharist, etc. are not merely nice traditions, but key formational practices, formational practices that will help us speak and ask in truth so that we can truly get what we want (with that want free of the competing, mendacious formation that comes from the “rulers and authorities” that Christ disarmed with the cross (Col. 2:15)). 

When we are formed by and with the Church into the body of Christ we will be able to say with the Psalmist, “When I called, you answered me” (Ps. 138:4a) and we will be able to pray with Abraham that our cities be preserved for the sake of the righteous remnant (Genesis 18:20-32).


July 14, 2010

Knowing the One Thing

by Kyle Childress
Amos 8: 1-12; Luke 10: 38-42

Luke tells us that Jesus goes to the home of Mary and Martha.  They welcome him into their home and Martha gets busy doing the many things a good hostess does: preparing food, setting the table, straightening the room, picking up the newspapers that have piled up, and on and on.  Meanwhile sister Mary sits in front of Jesus listening to what he has to say.  Martha, understandably frustrated says, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister just sits there while I do all the work?  Tell her to get up and help!”  Jesus replies, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things: there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part …”

Several years ago I attended a national meeting of about two hundred clergy from around the country and representing various church traditions across the ecumenical spectrum.  In preparation we were asked to name what we considered the major obstacles to our church members’ growth as disciples.  Without a close second, church members’ busy-ness was easily agreed upon by clergy as the number one problem keeping them from growing in Christ.

Charles Campbell in his book, The Word Before the Powers, says that one of the strategies of the principalities and powers use to accomplish their deadly purposes is diversion.  The powers will do almost anything to keep us diverted from noticing what they’re doing as well as diverting us from knowing God (p. 37).  Entertainment and busy-ness are two primary ways we are diverted and distracted.  We become too busy to notice or care about anything beyond our daily routines, and therefore we become more fully captive to the powers.

And if this is true of lay-people, it is also true of clergy.  The most common exchange of greetings between clergy seems to be, “How are you?” and the reply usually is, “Busy.”  Our busy-ness in running the institutional church keeps us distracted from knowing God and discerning the work of the powers and we end up becoming “burned-out.”

Eugene Peterson said that although we all go through periods when we’re busier than at other times, overall our lives should be have an integrity about them; integrated in such a way that we are not running frenetically all of the time.  We are too busy, he says, because we are vain.  We want to appear important.  Significant.  And the crowded schedule and the heavy demands on my time are proof that I am important.  We live in a society that says busy-ness is proof of importance so we do the same.

Secondly, Peterson says, that we are too busy because we are lazy.  We let others decide what we will do instead of deciding ourselves.  C. S. Lewis used to say that only lazy people work hard.  By lazily abdicating what is important we let others decide what we do with our time and we end up doing everything but what is essential.

The prophet Amos says that the people can’t wait for church to be over so they can get back to their business of exploitation of the poor; they can’t wait for Sunday to end and Monday to begin.  Have they been distracted so long from God and the work of the powers that their distractions have become their obsessions?

So who are we and what are we to do?  Jesus says that Mary knew the one thing most needful as she sat at his feet and listened to him.  Jesus did not say we’re not to work; after all, Luke just told us the Parable of the Good Samaritan where Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”  But with his face turned to Jerusalem, Jesus is acutely aware of the central importance of who he is and what he has to say, as well as how distractions keep us from hearing him and following him.

Peterson reminds us of the scene in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, in which a whaleboat is being rowed through rough seas and wind and salt spray chasing the great white whale.  Sailors are laboring fiercely; rowing the oars, everyone in the boat is intently focused on the task of catching and harpooning the Great White, Moby Dick.  The big story is the larger than life conflict between good and evil, sea monster versus the morally outraged and deranged man, Captain Ahab and the captain shouts encouragement to his men to row faster and faster; then he threatens them and berates them to get them to row faster and faster.  Yet, in the front of the boat is one man who does nothing.  He is just sitting there.  He doesn’t hold an oar no matter how much the captain yells and no matter how much help the men need he does not pitch in to help.  This man does not even break a sweat.  No shouting, in fact he is completely silent with all of the crashing and cursing around him.  This man is the harpooner, quiet, poised, waiting.  And Melville writes this sentence, “To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil.”

What a great sentence.  This harpooner knows who he is and he knows what is essential and what is not.  He does not get entangled in what would get in the way of what is important.  And he can only do the important by sitting in preparation.  Sitting makes all of his other activity possible.

Melville’s sentence brings to mind the Psalmist.  Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  And Isaiah 30:15, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”  Perhaps there is a connection in knowing and spending focused restful time with Christ and in Christ and our ability to “go and do likewise” in serving the needy?  Without the one thing most needful in Jesus, we not only become frenetically busy, but worse, we become pawns of the powers in exploiting and oppressing people who are poor.


July 10, 2010

Whose Word is It Anyway?

by Jenny Williams
Amos 7:7-17

In late summer 2004, I was approached by the Chair of the Democractic Party in the county in which I lived to offer a prayer at an upcoming appearance of John Edwards, then-Vice-Presidential candidate and pre-fall media darling. I received this phone call just weeks after returning to full-time pastoral ministry from maternity leave. I hemmed and hawed in response to her invitation, explaining that I was still trying to figure out each day how to get a shower, tend to pastoral duties, and be my son’s main food source. She was shocked at my lack of enthusiasm. Even though we had never met and she did not know me, she exclaimed, “I thought you would be honored to do it!” Truth be told, I faced the prospect with dread. The maternity issues were only part of my concerns. I knew I would have to speak the truth.

The Ekklesia Project has spent a lot of time in the past week considering the importance of words. Words matter. Our life begins with a divine Word who walked among us. Proclaiming that word requires both humility and courage.

Words got Amos into trouble. The Lord told Amos to prophesy to the people of his own country and heritage. The Lord’s words would not be pleasing to them as they were not the smooth words of a blessing of the status quo. They were jagged words, critical words about not measuring up. Amaziah, chaplain to the king of Israel, knew these were troublesome words and certainly not the kind that should be uttered in the king’s beautiful state-funded sanctuary. (“Constantinianism on a stick!” Stanely Hauerwas would say.)

Amaziah approached the king with a conveniently altered version of the Lord’s word to Amos—a version that did not include any mention of the issues for which Israel (and thereby the government) was being criticized. Rather Amaziah reported only that Amos was speaking of an impending punishment for Israel.

Then Amaziah confronted Amos, presumably under the pretense of guarding Amos’ best interests. Amos not only rejected Amaziah’s instruction to leave Bethel but corrected his deceptive spin. The words which Amos had spoken were not Amos’ words, but were the Lord’s. Amos reports, “The LORD took me from following the flock…the LORD said to me, ‘Go prophesy,’…Now therefore hear the word of the LORD.”

Will Willimon used to say that when a parishioner came to him with a complaint about Sunday’s sermon, he’d reply, “Don’t be mad at me! Be mad at Luke [or Mark, Matthew, John or Paul]! I’m just telling you what HE said!”

Gathering my courage, I did accept the invitation to pray at the rally. I wrote out my prayer in advance, knowing that I would be incredibly nervous about speaking the truth before Empire. After the Pledge of Allegiance, I was asked to come forward. I prayed — a longer prayer than they expected and certainly not rah-rah. My prayer was supposed to be a blessing of the event, I suppose. I never know why secular organizations insist on an “invocation.” I really don’t think most of those gatherings want or expect the Holy Spirit to show up.

In my prayer I recalled ancient Israel’s desire for Leaders; the fallenness of the people of God and their leaders; and the fallenness of leaders of modern-day nations. I prayed that God would enable them to admit when they had made mistakes. I asked God to help them be Christ-like leaders, and to help us be Christ-like in our support of leaders, which included our responsibility to hold them accountable. I don’t remember what else I prayed. But I did pray in the name of Jesus Christ. The room was strangely silent after I finished, so I suppose the organizers must have been grateful that my prayer was followed by some loud patriotic music to usher in Mr. Edwards.

A pastor’s job is to proclaim the Word of the Lord. The enfleshed, crucified, and resurrected Lord. But the proclamation of the Word does not only come from the mouths of pastors. It is proclaimed each time bodies gather to protest the School of the Americas, or mountaintop removal, or bulldozers who make way for settlements in the West Bank. Proclamation in word and deed is scary business.

When this calling sets us before the State, we have a choice. If we choose the way of Amaziah, we choose the way of mistakenly believing that we stand or fall on our own words — which is to choose the way of ignorance and perhaps privilege if you’re really smooth. If we choose the way of Amos, we choose the way of remembering that we stand only on The Word, knowing that it is not our own but it is the one spoken into existence before the ages. It may not be smooth, but it is true.