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The STORY OF LIFE: A Narrative Approach Against the Death Penalty
By Marty Troyer

I confess I’m completely enamored with the Bible. Dozens of books written by scores of people over centuries, complete with multiple genres and competing streams of thought; yet treated as both human and divine at the same time. There are laws, songs, poetry, political cartoons, novellas, propaganda, and commentary. But more than anything, the Bible is “relentlessly narratival (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, pg. 206).” It is both a collection of stories (plural) and a story (singular). When Biblical authors wanted to communicate meaning and lifestyle, they invited you into a story.
As Alan and Eleanor Kreider have said, “Stories have the power to shape identity… our community stories shape our reflexive responses; they determine our behavior far more than the principles which we hold… This is true of the stories which shape our national identities and get citizens to behave in certain ways (Worship and Mission, pg 41).”

That stories shape behavior is certainly true about the death penalty. Did you know that every Western democracy but the U.S. has abolished the death penalty? Did you know Texas is responsible for one-third of all US executions, with Governor Rick Perry putting over 200 men and women to death during his time in office? The dominant story told in regards to the death penalty involves catch phrases like “justice,” “God commanded it,” “deterrent to crime,” and “it’s the law.”

As followers of Jesus Christ (himself a victim of the death penalty), I believe that all forms of capital punishment are evil and against the will of God. It is time for this outrageous policy to come to an end! In order to do so, we’ll have to look beneath the laws and through the dominant story to God’s story, which forms us to be completely pro-life. “God calls people to be socialized into a society shaped by the Bible’s story in which the odd story lives as good news (Kreider, pg 49).” I invite you into a deeper look at the story of life, a narrative approach against the death penalty.

Streams in the Hebrew Scriptures
At first glance Scripture seems conflicted on this issue. The core law code of the Hebrew Scriptures (The 10 Commandments) says, “Thou shall not kill.” And yet the death penalty (Leviticus 24:17-21), genocide and war seem to not just be tolerated but commanded at certain points by God. Before we declare an impasse, let’s look beyond the law codes to the actual stories involving murder, forgiveness, and the death penalty.

Noteworthy by their absence are any stories of the death penalty being carried out by command of God or God’s people. Murder, adultery, Sabbath-breaking, & being a false prophet all are grounds for the death penalty according to the law codes, but you never see it enacted in story form. This argument from silence is incomplete without looking at stories that do exist on this issue. When first we encounter a crime punishable by death in the Bible, we see a verdict not of execution but grace. First, chronologically and in importance is the graceful story of Cain’s protection by God (Genesis 4:15). It is only after this act of grace that we read in Genesis 9:6 “whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed.” This verse doesn’t appear to be prescriptive of future action, but rather descriptive of present reality. God, apparently, doesn’t live up to the very commands the text attributes to the divine. We again see grace in the story of Moses, whom God not only forgives but calls to be primary savior-figure of the pre-Christian era. Abraham, David, Esther, Daniel, Tamar, Hosea’s wife Gomer and others all stand justly condemned and guilty by the laws of their day, and walk away both free and heroic. Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah are unjustly accused and are spared for lives of faithfulness to God and community. Whether guilty or not, Hebrew stories override the laws every time. And nothing in key chunks of scripture (from the prophets, Job, the Psalms or Proverbs) affirms the death penalty in any way shape or form. As Stassen and Gushie say, “The direction of the Old Testament moves from the ancient practice of the death penalty toward its abolition (Kingdom Ethics, pg 205).”

Indeed, while there are conflicting streams of law, the key Hebrew stories play themselves out as a kind of commentary on this issue, clarifying in overwhelming fashion what once appeared an ambiguous question.

The strengthening current of early Christianity
It is with this Hebrew narrative that Jesus clearly aligns himself. When in the temple (John 8:1-7) Jesus comes to the defense of a justly accused and condemned to death woman caught in adultery. Jesus, who came “not to abolish the law but to fulfill it” undoubtedly knows Leviticus 20:10 says adulterous woman must die. And yet to fulfill the true law he clogs the victimization machinery saying “he who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” By drawing attention to the sins of the accused he draws attention to the grace of God. Jesus backs up his actions with teaching so radical Christian’s have for 2000 years done mental gymnastics to dismiss it: “love your enemies, do good to those who do you evil.” Unfortunately, many Christians are quick to dismiss these teachings as not applicable to national enemies and international war on grounds Jesus meant this on the interpersonal level. But when pressed to apply it on this personal level they are equally as quick to trade Jesus commands for a few ambiguous verses in Romans 13 interpreted to give carte blanch power over to the government. Aligning the church with the death machine paints God as vindictive judge and not the one who loves the world so much he gave his only Son.

Jesus detractors are right in one key way: this is a deeply personal issue. Nothing is more personal than love, and no one more justly defined as “enemy” than the murderer of a loved one. And yet, in his most challenging teaching Jesus calls us to love them, pray for them, and return good for evil. If not here at its most difficult, than where is Jesus crowned Lord of life?

But there is yet more to learn from Jesus, indeed, the core lesson of all: the singular irony that Jesus himself was executed! That Christians worship an executed criminal who promised paradise to a fellow victim must never be left out of this discussion, as it typically is. More than any other law code or story in the history of our faith, the Roman cross upon which Jesus was executed unmasks state sponsored killing to be morally bankrupt and an abomination in the eyes of God. According to J. Nelson Kraybill, the cross was “a form of execution reserved for people foolish enough to threaten or disobey the empire (Apocalypse and Allegiance, pg 20).” As the sign above Jesus at his death (“King of the Jews”) demonstrates, “both Jewish and Roman authorities were defending themselves against a real threat (Yoder, Politics of Jesus, pg 49).” In the eyes of religion and empire, the political Jesus was guilty and justly executed. This stands in stark contrast to God’s view of Jesus. In the eyes of God, he was perfect in faithfulness to God for inaugurating the kingdom through his suffering and death. This both/and answer to the question of Jesus guilt is precisely what undermines the very law code upon which any particular nation depends for judgments of death. The guilt, innocence, or conversion of the accused does not matter in the least. As one of our members has stated, “We don’t advocate for their lives because they are or are not Christians. We advocate for their lives because we are Christians.”

Like we found in the narrative stream of Hebrew scripture, the teachings and stories of Jesus lend strength to a pro-life stance concerning the death penalty.

The witness of the church
Though it may climax with Jesus, our pro-life story doesn’t end there. The New Testament mentions execution or its threat ten times, always as an evil “beastly” (see Revelation) act against God’s people. The early church was unanimously against the death penalty until they began to taste power. The Anabaptist tradition we are rooted in claims as its core narrative the execution of our ancestors. Victims of death penalty, thousands of early Anabaptists died at the hands of the state (usually state-sponsored churches) for their faith in Jesus. Mennonites stand in crowded company of entire communities executed by church and state for arbitrary and unjust (yet completely legal) reasons! Persecution of the early church, the Spanish Inquisition, witch trials, the “final solution,” were all attempts of the dominant culture to support both God and their law codes, but which fell devastatingly short of faithfulness. Looking at the whole of Judeo-Christian history one searches in vain for a community in power who utilized the death penalty without taint of total corruption. How can we assume to be different today?

And yet, still with all this, the American church gives our government a free pass to execute its citizens. Even worse, the church is often seen on the front lines of supporting this practice. A quick google search for “Christian support of capital punishment” comes up with hundreds of detailed sites. How can this be? When will our memory of God direct our actions? When will God’s narrative become our own? When will our silent thinking turn into faithful action?

For some, it already has.

Brad Myers has worked for years to abolish the death penalty. Through Amnesty International in Michigan, New Mexico and now Texas, Brad can be found not just thinking against the death penalty, but acting against it. Writing letters to those in power, praying for men and women on death row and inviting others to join him are just some of ways he has entered God’s story. Today, Brad acts informally as our congregational advocate against the death penalty, and is opening our eyes to partnerships with groups such as the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (http://tcadp.org/).

Bess Landis-Klassen has also been swept up by the grace filled memory of God. Since her mother’s murder in 1969 she has worked tirelessly to forgive her mother’s killer and to abolish the death penalty worldwide. Bess’ powerful story travels the country as part of Journey of Hope ~ From Violence to Healing campaign. You can read her family’s story at: http://www.mennoweekly.org/2009/3/23/after-murders-families-find-healing-path/

Brad and Bess are two examples today of folks standing in the powerful stream of God’s forgiving, nonviolent love. Perhaps still a minority in the court of public opinion, they have found their home in the story of God.

GOD’S STORY is our story
But what about you? Perhaps our executed Lord and ancestors leave you wanting to be quiet rather than seen for your faith. Perhaps you’re glad someone is doing something but equally glad it’s not you. Perhaps you’re content giving more ethical weight to several verses in Romans 13 than the very life of Jesus Christ. Or, perhaps like Cain, Abraham or Esther you’ve experienced grace and are now ready to pass it on by being more active. Perhaps the resurrection of Jesus vindicates the kingdom he lived to establish, and is now calling you to join God in establishing a brand new nonviolent world. Perhaps the innocent blood of our crucified Lord is calling you at home, work, at play and in the world more deeply into the story of life. “We know that as we enter into this dramatic story with freedom and allow it to shape our lives it endangers our conformity to conventional values and transforms our lives and our communities. It also enlists us in God’s mission (Kreider, pg 51).”

If this is so, you are not alone! Connect with God’s story of life in ways appropriate to your context. Perhaps consider one of the following:
• Appoint or be your congregations “Abolition Advocate.” Start by simply praying for people scheduled to be executed.
• Visit someone on Death Row.
• Sign advocacy letters to support the abolition of the death penalty in your state.
• Pray for grace, peace, nonviolence and a completely pro-life culture in the United States.
• Learn more by reading the Mennonite mandates to act against the death penalty at: https://houstonpeaceandjustice.wordpress.com/death-penalty/
• Join a local abolition organization and add the much needed Christian voice.
Remember, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)!” May you experience the love and forgiveness of Jesus for you, for all, for everyone as you enter more deeply into God’s story of life!

Marty: How’s my faith going? Thanks for asking Peter. I gotta tell you, it’s tough down here in Texas. Everyone here claims to be Christian. There’s a church on every corner, & most of them are bigger than my hometown. It’s hard to follow Jesus when everyone claims to love him, then lives however they want.
Peter: Yea but Marty the real question isn’t if you love Jesus or not. It’s do you trust him? Do you believe that Jesus’ way of living is the best way of living your life? Do you believe the world he is creating is the best world imaginable? Do you believe him enough to “be obedient to Jesus Christ (1:2) which you were “chosen by God and sanctified by the Spirit for (1:2)”? One specific example would be, do you believe that God’s kingdom will come through violence or nonviolence? In other words, do you trust the path of peace? Do you trust that nonviolence is better than violence? If you do, “The reward for trusting him will be the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:9).”
Marty: I think I do. But in the real world it seems a lot more complex than just “trusting Jesus.” The world is messy, and violence is everywhere. What’s it mean to trust Jesus when state executions happen two in a week, our President fights terror with unmanned army drones, and we militarize our borders against “illegals”?
Peter: Well, you might remember Marty that once upon a time I too believed that violence could solve problems. When they arrested Jesus, I pulled out my knife and stabbed a guy, thinking the only way to protect him was to kill.
Marty: Yea, but it didn’t work! And Jesus totally shot you down for it!
Peter: I know! You’re right, it didn’t work. But that was I all I knew, I thought I was doing what was best. It wasn’t until later that I realized I had to choose: Jesus’ way of love and making peace or accepted cultures’ way of violence. Scripture says, “the grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God will last forever (1:24-25).” We all have to choose to follow God’s ways or our own.
Marty: But it’s not just the culture that celebrates violence and war, it’s the church too!
Peter: I know! That grieves the heart of God so deeply. But that’s exactly what I meant when I said, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone…They stumble because they do not listen to God’s word (2:7,8).” There are so many people who were just like me before I was converted: they claim to believe in Jesus but never realize that more than anything else believing in Jesus means we need to believe Jesus. Marty you can’t be like that! “For you are a chosen people, you are a kingdom of priests (2:9).” Being a Christian in Houston or anywhere else means you believe Jesus. You have to trust his wisdom is better than the worlds! That’s what I meant earlier when I said you have to trust him.
Marty: Ok, so back to my real life examples. What does it mean to trust Jesus in the face of war and terrorism?
Peter: “Don’t repay evil for evil…Turn away from evil and do good. Work hard at living in peace with others (3:9,11).” Trusting Jesus means you think this is indeed the best strategy, and so you practice that same behavior. It means not celebrating war on national holidays. It means not fighting terror with terror. It means forgiving our enemies is the best thing for society, not executing them. It means that one 4-star General in Afghanistan over another is not the answer.
Marty: To so many people that just sounds silly. They think we’re supposed to trust Jesus with our afterlife only…our hearts. I hear you saying we need to trust him in a different way than that. Are you saying that if we pray, Jesus will keep our country safe?
Peter: Not at all! That sounds very naïve, don’t you think? I’m saying that Jesus strategy for overcoming evil is a better strategy than violence. Violence just creates more violence and hate. “You have to worship Christ as Lord of your life (3:15),” which means doing what Jesus did: seek the peace and welfare of everyone, don’t follow the law of retribution, create communities of care and support, fight injustice, make sure everyone is in right relationship together, turn swords into plowshares, etc…. It’s as simple (and as complex) as that!
Marty: And you’re saying that this “strategy” can actually work? That nonviolence and peace building are viable options on the international scale?
Peter: Absolutely! If it was good enough for Jesus, why in the world would it not be good enough for you? Marty, “if you are asked about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it (3:15).” Peace works! It may not always work, but violence never ever works. It always creates more problems than it creates. But peace can and does change lives and communities. It’s not some post-utopian picture of life after the second coming, it’s what we’re supposed to be working for here and now! Jesus isn’t going to “save us” in some magic way, we’re supposed to work with him to create the kind of world where peace is the norm, not the exception.
Marty: Speaking of violence not working, Jesus told you at one point “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Was he talking about the justification for capital punishment or the fallacy of believing the myth of redemptive violence?
Peter: Peace was a big deal for Jesus. He taught about making peace a lot, forgiving our enemies (which he did from the cross!), building community, nonviolence as the only workable response in the face of evil. So yea, I would say he was thinking about how ineffective violence really is at accomplishing anything positive in the world. But he was also thinking about how degrading violence is to the human soul, both to those who inflict and receive it. Let’s be very clear about something here Marty, violence can cause a lot of suffering for people on all sides of the conflict. Jesus himself suffered as a victim of violence (3:18), but just like Jesus anyone and everyone can be “made alive in the spirit (3:18), because “he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you (1:3-4).” Violence enslaves us, but peace sets us free. Your friend Doug Ensminger has learned a lot about the incredible pain suffered by those who return from war. Peace isn’t just good news from a policy standpoint, but also from an emotional-psychological standpoint. So are you bold enough to share this Christian hope with others? Or are you content with being “the quiet in the land” and keeping it to yourself?
Marty: I’m not sure it matters either way. Most of my non-Mennonite friends just laugh at me when I talk about peace. They think it’s silly or naïve. And my congregation in Houston isn’t exactly the largest church in Texas!
Peter: “Be happy if you are insulted for being a Christian (4:14)!” You might not always be understood, but neither was Jesus. If they had understood what he was doing, they never would have killed him, would they? Of course not! But the world needs to hear this message of peace, now as much as ever. We need people willing to celebrate peace, and to talk about it during their lunch break at work. It’s too important not to. And too central to what it means to be Christian to leave behind.
Marty: Ok Peter, I have to ask one more question. When did you finally get it? I mean, clearly you never did while Jesus was actually here!
Peter: You’re right, I didn’t. It took me awhile. I “got it” when I began to see evidence of Jesus’ new kingdom breaking out all around me. I got it when enemies began to be reconciled, and when people with no business of being together lived together in harmony. I got it when God’s Divine Yes of Shalom overwhelmed me and captivated my attention so much that the ways of the world seemed dull and lifeless. Most of all, I got it when I realized, “give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about what happens to you (5:7).” Peace isn’t about taking matters into your own hands, its about putting our lives and our efforts in God’s hands. Peace, more than anything, is trusting God.

As the Church on the Sermon on the Mount, may we indeed be “For World Peace.

By Pastor Marty Troyer

The American flag behind the podium was larger than the side of our church building. The patriotic rituals of the color guard, national anthem, and pledge of allegiance religiously entered into with zeal and dedication. The glitz and glitter of the ballroom communicated power, wealth, and acceptance. The parade of heavy-hitting dignitaries – both local and international – was mindboggling in its scope and clout. The patriotic, Christian, and civic language and symbolism mingled so seamlessly one wondered if the separation of church and state was an ancient dream or a reality. This was the scene last Wednesday morning as 1500 people elegantly sat around tables at the 35th annual Houston Prayer Breakfast.

My antennae were on overload as I soaked up the scene of this gathering of Houston’s finest (or wealthiest) faith and political leaders, the stated goal of which is prayers of blessing for Houston. The program offered quotes from the founding fathers in the same font and style as quotes from scripture, quotes, which were used to emphasis America’s Christian heritage and the rightful place of citizens as being “quiet” in respect to government.

Though I was invited by a trusted friend who has recently taken me under his wing, I couldn’t help but feel an enormous disconnect between my own faith and the civil religion I experienced Wednesday.

There were two messages I felt they communicated at this event, both of which left me feeling on the fringe, outside the warm embrace of mainline Christianity’s safe wings. The primary verbalized message was complete and unquestioned support for the city and her leaders, our country and its public servants. It was a resounding “Yes!” to the way things are, the systems and structure of our world. There were no hints of a broken system, the economic downturn, militarism that is eating our youth, or the demands of justice, equality and dignity that cry out from every city street. It was complete and utter belief that the system works, and deserves our blessing & words of affirmation. This is not a belief that I share.

The second message, communicated mainly nonverbally through ritual and symbol, was a resounding “Yes!” to the Church’s lofty position within the system. Pride for the lofty position of the Christian community in Houston was garishly expressed in the location (downtown Hilton Americas ballroom), the décor, the tableware, the meal itself, the pomp, the dress. But pride of position was overwhelmingly symbolized in the patriotic rituals mentioned above. Throughout almost all the spoken prayers and scriptures one strained to hear the words over the din of clinking silverware and slurped coffee, people milled about. But when the mayor led us in the pledge of allegiance, or the anthem was played, attention was singularly focused without reserve. It was pointed out I was not appreciated when I did not join in saying the pledge, though my same tablemate chatted annoyingly throughout the prayers. I felt like we were patting ourselves on the back, declaring for all the world (and media!) to see, “Look at us, we’re sitting at the right hand of power!” I witnessed the church pushing to make itself palatable, clinging to its reputation, and, ultimately, sacrificing too much in the process. Together these verbal (“Yes!”) and nonverbal (“Yes!”) messages combined to baptize the civil religion that is so profoundly popular in Houston. This is not the faith that I hold dearly.

The death of Jesus at the hands of the politicians and religious leaders of his day shows the world to itself as it truly is, diagnosing the world as sin-sick and broken. We must be able to say not only “yes” to our culture, but also “no” to the injustice, violence, greed, racial discrimination, community divisions and xenophobia around us. Prayers of blessing are woefully inadequate to capture the necessary yes and no of our Easter faith. Our prayers must be energized with the “No!” of lament, sorrow, and protest for the world as it is.

But we, as people of faith, know equally well that Jesus resurrection revealed God’s kingdom to be as it truly is! God raising Jesus was God’s way of vindicating the life Jesus lived and taught: God’s resounding “YES!” for the new world Jesus was creating right here in our midst. We, like Jesus, believe that peace, justice and celebration go hand in hand with being the people of God. As people of faith, we are invited to say yes, but not to the ways of the world, but to the new heavens and earth that God is creating in and through Jesus Christ. We pledge our allegiance to Christ and God’s kingdom, and commit to following after Christ in life. Again, prayers of blessing for the world as it is fall woefully short of embracing and working toward God’s world as it is coming to be. Our prayers must be charged with the ‘Yes!’ of expectation and longing for change!

So what would my verbal prayers look like for Houston, if I was asked to lead prayers at the 36th annual prayer breakfast? And perhaps more importantly, what would be the non-verbal rituals and symbols that would form the faith community to be the kind of people who can say not just yes to culture, but both yes and no? Perhaps one day I’ll have the opportunity to pray at just such an event. Or, more intriguingly, perhaps we should throw our own Houston Prayer Breakfast and answer those questions together. What do your prayers for Houston look like?

Sermon Advent 4, December 20th, 2009
Micah 5:2-5a and Luke 1 Mary’s Song

Rarely in life do things appear clear to us. Complex, confusing, grey; but rarely does black and white clarity come to us in life. When it does, it seems to creep up at 3AM, or while raking leaves. I had such an experience recently while listening to our President give a speech.

After President Barack Obama’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace prize Desmond Tutu remarked, “You are now a Nobel laureate- become what you are!” Indeed, Mr. President, become what you are!

In his speech the President said several things that brought clarity to Christmas for me. Remember, Christmas is not so much the miraculous story of the virgin birth, as it is the miraculous birth of a new world coming when God bursts in and breaks out in our midst. In contrast, Obama said he was:

mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago — “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak — nothing passive, nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason… So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace…I understand why war is not popular. But I also know this: The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.[i]

This speech demands a choice: we can choose to believe the story of Christmas, justice and peace; or we can choose to believe the story of kings and Presidents, war and poverty.
Our prophetic text from Micah 5:2-5 pictures God coming humbly and with care as a shepherd, “And [God] shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord God. And they shall live secure.” We will be cared for, nurtured, fed, clothed, protected. This is the picture of God in the world that we celebrate at Christmas. But Micah continues, giving us perhaps the most clear and succinct definition of who Messiah will be when he comes, and of what he will do: “He is the one of peace!” Peace, not war will be the way of Messiah! For Micah, Jesus’ and our own day, the expectation is to fight evil with evil, war with war, and hatred with ever more hatred. But the coming one will be the one of peace! Mr. President, I’m afraid you were dead on when you joked during your campaign that you are not the Messiah. Indeed, you are not! There can be no peace without first security, and justice, for all.

Micah by no means stands alone in this picture of the world as it is being formed to become. Our Gospel text today is the song of Jesus’ mother, known as the Magnificat, in Luke 1:39-56.

Luke tells the story of God’s answer to the problem of evil in our world. In the face of chaos, empire, and death, we find humble Mary: poor, young, and illegitimate mother of a tiny baby boy. This is what happens when God bursts in and breaks out??? Where is the expected shock and awe? Where are the predator drones and troop increases? Where the deficit spending on the war machine?

In place of violence, we find humility. And in place of expected songs about cute noses, tiny toes, and mommy’s little angel, we find the radical in-breaking of the upside down kingdom. For Mary, God’s coming signals the powerful are to be brought low, the oppressed freed from tyranny, the wealthy emptied, the destitute “filled with good things”. This is Jubilee! This is what we’ve seen all throughout Advent, with mountains brought low and valley’s lifted up. It’s a picture of the world as it will look when all things are made right. It’s a kingdom of justice, sharing, economic equality and relationality with God and each other rather than a kingdom of political and military dominance.

One wonders, given the fact that this song was recorded by Luke 70 years after Mary first sang it, if perhaps she didn’t sing it only one time. Perhaps this song functioned not only as Mary’s song of praise, but more importantly also as formation for who Jesus became. Was Jesus who he was precisely because Mary sang this song to him as a boy? Mary, like Micah before and Jesus after, connects peace with necessary justice. This song, and not the drumbeats of war, is the true Christmas song.

And this interconnection between peace and justice reminds me of another church hero, this one from the 20th century. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Peace is not the absence of conflict, it is the presence of justice.” We’ve been talking here about the miraculous birth of a new world that comes when God bursts in and breaks out. This is that miraculous new world: where peace and justice walk hand in hand down the streets of Houston and Kabul; where poverty and riches in America are linked to war in Iraq; where Christmas purchases at LL Bean, Gymboree, Ikea, Kohls, Pier 1, Hanes, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Walmart[ii] are connected to modern day slavery in the Phillipines and Los Angeles; where war is overcome by anti-racism campaigns and efforts to include those not like ourselves.

But are Micah and Mary only offering us a picture of some far off dream-world, or is what they suggest an actual viable strategy? President Obama clearly sees it as whimsy and gumdrop wishes. But what about you? What about Scripture? What about Jesus?

This is NOT just some naïve dreamscape. Obama holds in one hand King and Ghandi. But by holding “realism” in his other hand, dispels everything they stood for! You cannot hold together nonviolence and war! It doesn’t even make sense, let alone work.

Mary and Micah are not naïve. Peace works! Peace is both the strategy of God, and the goal of the coming one. It’s both the vision of the world as it should be (what the Bible calls “Righteousness) and God’s way of making it happen. Nonviolence is the strongest weapon we can wield to overcome evil. History has proven this over and again. Mr President, your reading of history is wrong, and all too limited. Peace as a strategy does work!

Today, Mary and Micah would celebrate the story of Ghandi in India. Ghandi’s love for Jesus, and commitment to live like him, birthed an entirely new world for us to embrace. By seeing peace as both strategy and goal, Ghandi utilized the tools of nonviolence to win victory over empire. “The mighty British Army was halted in its tracks and had to withdraw from India (Brian McLaren).”

Today, Mary and Micah would celebrate the story of Martin Luther King Jr. in the American south. “By advocating love, forgiveness, and nonviolence, Dr. King also withstood the hatred and viciousness of those who believed in white supremacy. He, like Ghandi, was beaten and imprisoned. He was even stabbed and did not retaliate. Through this he inspired hope and gave millions of people a vision that transformed our entire society (Brian McLaren).”

And what of Obama’s claims about Hitler in WW2? I believe that today, Mary and Micah would celebrate the story of Denmark, where nonviolence was tried and held the great Blitzkrieg at bay, successfully halting Hitler’s armies and saving the lives of 7,000 Jews.

Mary and Micah would sing songs about “Otpar!” The Balkan nonviolent movement of the 1990’s that brought down Slobodan Milosevic. They would sing songs of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, breaking the back of Apartheid and building genuine community through Truth and Reconciliation. They would sing of the Velvet Revolution and its cousins in Eastern Europe climaxing in the fall of the Berlin Wall. I could go on.

They would sing the songs of peace, because peace works! Peace is God’s strategy for overcoming evil in our world. And folks, the list of nonviolent victories is long, longer than our President could ever imagine. But dig deep for military victory and you will find a very very short list.

This Christmas we celebrate the birth of an entirely new world. A world that is bursting and breaking into our midst through Jesus, “the one of peace!”

Theodore Dostoyevsky writes: “Of some thoughts one stands perplexed — especially at the sight of men’s sin—and wonders whether one should use force or humble love. Always decide to use humble love. If you resolve on that once and for all, you may subdue the whole world. Loving humility is marvelously strong, the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.”

Humble love; that is the story of Christmas!

This Christmas we have a choice. We can choose to believe the stale old way of kings and Presidents, war and terror. Or, we can choose to believe in the miraculous birth of the new way of Jesus, Mary and Micah; the way of peace, justice and humble love.

In our day, as in the 1st century, the problems seemed impossible to overcome. They were bloody, life and death problems, and fear filled the hearts of many. Violence, bloodshed, hatred, the machinery of war seem to be the only solution. But God’s answer to the prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done…” is the same today as it was then: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, for there was no room for them in the inn.” And when the call of the angels came to Mary like it comes to us, she responded, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Who do you believe?

Jesus, we celebrate your birth as the prince of peace! “The Prince of Peace is Jesus Christ. We who were formerly no people at all, and who knew of no peace, are now called to be a church of peace. True Christians do not know vengeance. They are the children of peace. Their hearts overflow with peace. Their mouths speak peace, and they walk in the way of peace (from Menno Simons, Reply to False Accusations, 1552).”

Houston Mennonite Church, we are now a peace church – become what you are!

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[i] More Obama Speech quotes:

The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms…So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.

The nonviolence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their faith in human progress — must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.

For if we lose that faith — if we dismiss it as silly or naive; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace — then we lose what is best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.

So let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls. Somewhere today, in the here and now, a soldier sees he’s outgunned but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protester awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, who believes that a cruel world still has a place for his dreams.

Let us live by their example.

[ii] All inductees into the 2009 “Sweatshop Hall of Fame.”

ADVENT 2009:Visions for Peace-Plans for War

Tuesday night’s Presidential address did little to keep me in the Advent spirit. Plans to escalate war fly in the face of everything I believe is at the core of Christmas, and at the core of what our world needs.

The New Testament calls on various Old Testament texts in order to interpret the meaning of Jesus birth. Strangely these texts have nothing to do with generosity or the mental gymnastics necessary to believe its better to give than receive. No, the New Testament almost univocally pulls on texts that promise justice and peace, deliverance from real-world oppression, an upside-down kingdom, and political-economic-spiritual “light” – a new and better world for all as defined by God. The New Testament supplements those Old Testament readings with its own interpretations of the birth that sharpen the contrast between the President’s plan. “Peace on earth among those whom God favors (Luke 2:14).” “God sent his son into the world…that we might love one another (1John 4:7-12).” “The word became flesh… and was full of grace and truth (John 1).”

On top of both of those accounts, the Christian church for 2,000 years has pulled various Old Testament texts to highlight the Messianic expectation of God’s people. These texts are a highlight reel of what they expected when Messiah (who turned out to be Jesus) finally came. Consistent with the two categories above, peace, justice, love, the upside-down kingdom are mentioned throughout our history of Advent. Perhaps my favorite of these is Isaiah 11:1-10, one of the grandest and most fascinating pictures of God’s kingdom ever! Isaiah’s picture of wolves and lambs together is an extraordinary picture of how the world will look when God answers the prayer: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).”

As the President spoke directly into the faces of future soldiers who will die for his war plans, I found myself begging instead for the words of Isaiah 11:9: “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of God.” And what is this knowledge of God that Isaiah tells us about? That “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together (11:6).” The message of Advent/Christmas is not security based on military might; nor is it the President’s catchy twist of words that “right makes might.” Violence under any name is still misguided, and ill-equipped to accomplish the necessary ends for Afghanistan or any region. Isaiah counters the “myth of redemptive violence” with his promise the coming Christ-child will overcome evil with his word of righteousness, faithfulness, and peace. Righteousness as pictured in the Old Testament is “the right ordering of the world according to God’s intention, with a special bias toward the poor and the outcast (John E. Toews, pg 401).” Proper ordering of Afghanistan does not include more war or a longstanding imperial presence. It includes faithfulness in relationship and nonviolence that leads to love of enemies. “When we hear the good news of the love of God,…our response includes… placing full trust in God alone…When we who once were God’s enemies are reconciled with God through Christ, we also experience reconciliation with others (Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, Article 8: Salvation).”

This is an extraordinary voice this Christmas season! This is what we are called to be about. As the body of Christ, our fellowship is a foretaste of this vision, our worship is designed to celebrate it, our Christian education must be about forming people to be the type of people who work for this vision, our outreach works to spread it, and our giving is directed towards this end!

But this Advent vision was alarmingly absent from the President’s plan. The President sadly chose not to listen to the strategy of Isaiah but rather to listen to his war council.  He erroneously chose to believe one story over another: the story that proclaims violence can and does solve our problems.

But, as Christians, that is not our story.

Ours is the only story that can “win” in Afghanistan.

This Christmas, I grieve violence done in our name. I grieve that we are not creative enough to think of new and different plans. I grieve our inability to read the history of violence as being woefully deficient. I grieve our incalculable spending for destruction and our petty spending for development. I grieve the loss of life in American and Afghan families. I grieve that the church has yet to muster up a nonviolent training program (Isaiah 2:4 says that when Messiah comes they “shall not learn war anymore”) to rival that of Westpoint. But mostly, I grieve that another story besides that of Jesus birth has so captured our attention again this year that once again we will miss hearing the angels song: “Peace!”

I pray that you would believe Christmas is more than generosity and more than a miraculous virgin birth. Much moreso, it is the birth of a miraculous picture of the world as it should be! This Christmas, may we all come to more deeply believe in the proper ordering of our world as Isaiah saw it, and the story of peace that Scripture so boldly proclaims. Will you join me in this prayer for “righteousness”:

Your kingdom come, your will be done, in Afghanistan as it is in heaven. AMEN

Advent Prayer
Mary’s Song-
can we sing it on a bleak mid-winter midnight
while we wait for good news
and the wars just get worse
and the children keep dying?

Is the Child winning the battle
and we just can’t see well enough?

But we can pray- that the hope of the world
keeps being born in us
and God will do the rest! AMEN

Words for Worship 2, #175 by Linea Reimer Geiser.

One thing, more than any other, has captured my attention in the last several years. Its beauty, complexity, and force overwhelm me at times. I’ve caught myself at times being either giddy or afraid just thinking about it. And I think I understand a little more about Jesus when in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) he says that we are blessed when we hunger for it, because I am energized to talk about and work for it. What is this one thing? Justice!

Defining Justice
Did you know that the Bible talks about justice well over 1,000 times (a very conservative count)? Or that Jesus confronted the authorities of his day with their injustice 40 times? We are told over and again that the Lord loves justice (Isaiah 61:8) and executes justice (Deuteronomy 10:18); and that, like God, we are to “do justice” (Micah 6:8) and hunger/thirst/seek after justice (Matt 5:6 & 6:33). But what exactly is justice? And why do I care about it so much?

Justice, as I am learning, is mercy and kindness applied on a social scale. It is love writ large. In the same way love and mercy should define individual relationships, justice is the biblical term for what should define community. Beyond acts of charity towards individuals, justice creates patterns of behavior, systems of community, and relational interactions so there is no longer need for acts of charity. If a ministry of mercy would feed the poor through a food pantry, a ministry of justice would explore the systemic reasons why poverty exists in the first place, then seek to change the system so poverty is no more. The Bible closely ties justice to righteousness, and defines both words as that which creates and sustains right-relationship. And so to “do justice” is to do that which is necessary to establish right relationships at all levels within a community.

The book Kingdom Ethics suggests that justice has 4 dimensions:
1). “Deliverance of the poor and powerless from the injustice that they regularly experience;
2) lifting the foot of domineering power off the neck of the dominated and oppressed;
3) stopping the violence and establishing peace;
4) restoring the outcasts, the excluded, the Gentiles, the exiles and the refugees to community.”

Embracing an ethic of Justice
As a Mennonite, my church passed on to me a solid pacifist ethic that centered on interpersonal nonviolence and nonparticipation in international war. But in general my ethic did not include justice. My faith had little room to process such social realities as racism, sexism, homophobia, economic justice, political corruption, environmental degradation, judicial inequality, health care, globalization, or poverty. I saw the world (and myself in it) made up of individuals with the power to choose, rather than as systems or interconnected communities with a corporate identity. Justice demands seeing the world as one interconnected community, where the actions of the individual affect the reality of everyone.

How have I come to the point today where I fully embrace and work for both peace and justice?

I work for justice today because I have been swept up by the beauty and power of Jesus’ picture of the Kingdom God longs to establish. Ours is a kingdom where lambs snuggle with lions, the mountains and hills are leveled, dividing walls are broken down, all are welcome at the banquet table, neighbors and aliens are loved like we love ourselves, debts are wiped clean, injustice is punished and violence defeated, and religion is cleansed from being the purveyor of cheap grace. I love justice (Isaiah 61:8) because it is how God intends the world to be!

I work for justice today because I find myself more and more praying the prayers of Isaiah, the Psalmist, Jesus and Paul. “Rise up, O God! Lift up your hand! O Lord, you will do justice for the orphan and the oppressed (Psalm 10)!” These prayers boldly acknowledge there is brokenness in the world, address a God who longs to fix the brokenness, and call us to participate in the solution. It remains impossible for me to ignore that God’s heart beats with justice.

I have a long list of reasons I have embraced an ethic of justice in my adulthood: mentors, books, awareness, our move to Houston. But the core root of my conversion has been Jesus himself, who continues his unrelenting invitations for me to follow him. As early Anabaptist leader Hans Denck said so well, “no one can truly know Christ unless he follows him in life, and no one may follow him unless he has first known him.” As Christ was in the world, so are we called to be. As I draw closer to Christ my peace ethic has grown to embrace concern for all of God’s creation. Last week I drew the distinction between being a pacifist and being a peacemaker, this too has been part of my journey as I follow Jesus ever more closely. For peacemaking and justice are parallel terms, if not synonyms, and both are rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

On Sunday we conclude our worship series on being Pilgrims in the City by looking at what it means to be socially just citizens. I invite you to look at the texts for the service (Amos 5:21-24, Micah 2:1-2 & 6:6-8, Mark 12:35-13:3, Psalm 146) and to ask yourself the following questions for further discussion:

  • ·         When did I fall in love with justice?
  • ·         How do I define Justice?
  • ·         Where do I see injustice in our world, and what would it mean for someone to “do justice” in response?

Grace to you and peace from God and the Lord Jesus Christ!

What is the more powerful force in our world: violence, or peace?

Our President ordered the killing of more Pakistani civilians this week. This happens so frequently, and receives so little attention in the corporate media I find I need reminding of its outrage. Obama has already ordered more drone and missile attacks into Pakistan in his brief Nobel-winning Presidency than George Bush ordered in his entire second term in office. The fight with our “enemies” is said to be moving more into Pakistani territory, thus justifying these incursions. DemocracyNow news anchor Amy Goodman reported on October 28th that between 326-538 civilians have been killed since Obama took office, saying, “there is no longer any doubt that targeted killing has become official US policy.” All appearances point to an increase in drone attacks over the coming months, and thus to an increase in civilian casualites. To be clear, these drone attacks do not pass international law standards, the Christian theory of the Just War, let alone a nonviolent standard. These increased drone attacks come at the same time Obama is considering increasing troop levels in Afghanistan. War seems to be playing an ever bigger role in the toolbox of change for our President. But is it change we can believe in? Or is it just more of the culture of death we have come to be all too familiar with? Obama, like Bush before him, has bought too deeply into the myth of redemptive violence.

In this, he is not alone.

Closer to home, on Tuesday Texas put to death its 19th death row inmate this year (pushing Governor Rick Perry well over the 200 mark for his career!). Reginald Blanton declared his innocence, even while being strapped to the table. His last second appeal to the US Supreme court was denied, though questions remained regarding evidence tying him to the crime, and whether or not Blanton (a black man) received a fair trial from his all-white jury. Is it possible Texas murdered an innocent? It is, though this is certainly not the first time it’s been argued! Tuesday’s execution was in the wake of increased pressure on Perry for the possible execution of another innocent man in 2009, Cameron Todd Willingham. In the Willingham case, Perry has thrown up many a red herring, repeatedly pointing to Willingham’s “monstrous” personality and behavior, instead of looking at the evidence of the case. More than half a dozen top arson experts have declared the fire he was charged with starting was not even arson. The myth of redemptive violence is so pervasive that even during an election campaign Perry could not be convinced of a moratorium on the death penalty.

These two illustrations that purport violence can redeem are precisely why I do not consider myself a pacifist. The term is too passive, and suggests a reactive ethic. Because neither story affects me or my church, I could theoretically be pacifist and do nothing about either. Instead, I much prefer the term peacemaker. Along with being an actual biblical word, peace making is an active concept, suggesting an engaged ethic that pushes me to act regardless if these stories “affect” me or not. Being a peacemaker means I can’t just disagree with these state-sponsored actions, I need to actually work to change them.

Where are the voices for peace? Who will stand up to this culture of death and speak words of sanity and peace? Will the Mennonites, a peace church for over 500 years say anything?

Perhaps we need to listen again and by inspired to action by the words of our founder, Menno Simons, “The Prince of Peace is Jesus Christ. We who were formerly no people at all, and who knew of no peace, are now called to be a church of peace. True Christians do not know vengeance. They are the children of peace. Their hearts overflow with peace. Their mouths speak peace, and they walk in the way of peace (from Menno Simons, Reply to False Accusations, 1552).

These words are more than just good poetry. They frame responsible action in the face of the myth of redemptive violence. Our President, governor, Mayor, and even friends and family that we know and love have bought in to the myth of violence that redeems. These are times and issues that call us not to be passive, or even to celebrate our pacifist heritage. No, these are times and issues that call us to make peace, to work for peace. May we come to be known as people who envisioned a better way for our world, and who worked to make it so.

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