A soon-to-be college-bound Michael Brown is shot by Missouri police, reportedly while holding his hands above himself in surrender and while unarmed. The resulting protests turn violent, leading ultimately to police setting up barricades, complete with snipers, tear gas, and flash grenades. Local stores are decimated and scores are injured in the resulting tensions.
Not long ago, Eric Garner, another African-American man, died of suffocation while being submitted to a choke submission hold by a New York policeman.
Last year in North Carolina, a black man was shot 10 times by a policeman. And all of this is in the shadow the Trayvon Martin, whose tragic and unnecessary death, is still fresh in our minds and hearts.
As cited on the Economist website , it’s enough to elicit a grim question from Delores Jones-Brown, director of the John Jay College on Race, Crime and Justice. “People are asking,” she says, “Is it open season on us?”
Meanwhile, half a world away in Iraq, ISIS continues to wreak havoc, and the United States has resumed an airstrike campaign after a decade of military force trying to maintain a tentative peace in a fractured nation. Hardly a day goes by when we don’t have reports of more Israeli and Palestinian blood spilled over the historic Gaza conflict, and Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to — in the words of a recent TIME Magazine article — “create problems only he can solve.” All the while, he stokes resentments between east and west not seen since the Cold War, seeking, too, to weaken the cohesive strength of NATO and to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies in Europe.
What’s happening to us?
In fact, despite the swell of division and resulting violence, part of the issue is that we have such a sharply tuned and inexhaustible news cycle that places every tragedy, from St. Louis to Ukraine, right before us, morning and night. But this isn’t to say we’re not experiencing an unusual spike in our interracial, intercultural, and international conflicts.
So what do we do now?
John Paul Lederach, longtime peace activist and author of Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians , says he experienced an epiphany while doing peace work in Costa Rica. An anonymous caller threatened to kidnap and kill his daughter, which made the otherwise political work he was engaged in starkly personal. To that point, he had understood the well-known verse from John 3:16 “primarily used as a formula for salvation.” But after this experience, he says he reads it now with fresh eyes. He then saw in the verse the profoundness that,
“a parent gave a child for the restoration of and reconciliation with an enemy. This was the part that jumped out – it speaks to the quality of love for an enemy as the core marker of God’s example then emulated in Jesus. This quality of love embodies the nature of discipleship.”
In my book, postChristian: What’s Left? Can we fix it? Do we care? I point out that the “good news” of the Christian Gospel is one of liberation, rather than victory.
“A conqueror obliterates or oppresses the enemy. A liberator removes the enemy’s power over its victim, with this result: both oppressor and oppressed must find a way to coexist, living side by side in a world where they can no longer be content to label their enemy as 'other.'”
We appreciate the biblical image of the lion and the lamb lying down together in peace. But the issue, more often than not, is that we see the “other,” whoever it may be, as the lion. But most likely, they see a similar threat in us. Are we both lions? Both lambs?
Often times, though we don’t care to admit it, we’re some combination of the two. And until our own inner lion and lamb can find peaceful coexistence, it’s close to impossible to help realize it in the broader cultural context. I go on in postChristian to say:
“both see the 'other' as lions, preying on their identity, seeking to destroy something they hold dear. But if the lamb is liberated from the fear of being destroyed by the lion, the two must now engage in the hard work of learning how to live side by side. It no longer matters who is viewed as the predator and who as the prey. But it’s not fair, we say. We want justice, and all we’re given is peace! No wonder we killed Jesus. Would it really be any different today?”
In a recent interview, I asked Lederach how we even begin to engage this seemingly overwhelming task of peacemaking, especially when so much around us seems to be unraveling. “Start with things close at home and close at hand,” he says. “Don’t miss opportunities when they emerge – like a Sunday School argument. Notice how you listen and how you express things you feel deeply. Give yourself the gift of a meeting once a week or month with someone who is not like you, does not see the world the way you see it, and with whom probably disagree – a lifetime gift of being in relationship with the 'other.'”
It may seem small, even futile, to take on such apparently minor practices when larger needs are so obvious. And yet, until we’ve done the real, hard work of realizing the “lifetime gift of being in relationship with the other,” these cycles will inevitably repeat themselves, despite our best efforts.
It starts small, one person and one relationship at a time. And with God’s grace and our committed effort, it grows into something more beautiful than we could possibly imagine in our present reality.
Christian Piatt (christianpiatt.com) is the creator and editor of the Banned Questions book series and the author of PregMANcy, a memoir on faith, family, and parenting. His latest book, postChristian (Jericho Books), was published in August 2014.
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