During the New York City leg of Brian McLaren's empowering Everything Must Change tour, Jay Bakker and I were asked to give a short reflection based on Brian's talk on "Which Jesus?" When I saw Brian's insightful slideshow presentation that contrasted the empire of Caesar with the kingdom of God, I had a sudden flashback to my Jan. 2007 trip to Israel.
In an ironic twist of fate, when I arrived in Jerusalem I learned that Condoleezza Rice, her entourage, and I would be staying at the same hotel. For the next three days, a slew of black SUVs headed off to the West Bank while I toured the sacred spots in Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem. By now, I had gotten accustomed to armed soldiers parading around the sacred spots of Israel. Still, every time I saw guns in the hotel lobby or had to pass through a rather intense security check just so I could go to my hotel room, the clash of empires hit me in the gut.
Earlier last month, I was able to attend a press screening for the James Carroll documentary Constantine's Sword. In this film, Carroll takes the audience on a visceral and visual tour, noting those points in history -- starting with the reign of Constantine -- where Christianity melded with the political empire. (Those looking to delve further into this issue can check out Abraham's Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Constantine's Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament, and When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs.)
Lest anyone think such actions are a thing of the past, several documentaries I just saw at the Tribeca Film Festival serve as visceral reminders of the ensuing carnage that still happens when the church becomes too closely aligned with the state. I sat through Milosevic on Trial, transfixed as the trial and excerpts from the graphic video and photographs that were introduced as evidence unfolded before my eyes. One montage I cannot get out of my mind involved snippets from a ceremony in which an Orthodox priest blesses the Scorpions, followed by a brutal sequence of atrocities committed by this Serbian paramilitary group. Also, in Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris highlights the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse through interviews and gripping photographs. While I'm aware that Morris has come under some criticism for paying for his interviews, the intensity of seeing this array of photos almost brought me to tears.
However, I found a glimmer of gospel hope in Pray the Devil Back to Hell. This documentary tells a compelling story of how Christian and Muslim women of Liberia joined forces to combat the violent warlords and the corrupt Charles Taylor regime. During a press conference, I learned from Leymah Gbowee, the leader of this movement, that Roman Catholic bishop and former president of the Liberian Council of Churches Michael K. Francis became her spiritual rock. The behind-the-scenes prophetic presence of Francis and other religious leaders gave these women the faith fuel they needed to walk the walk.
Armed with white T-shirts, the power of prayer, and their Bibles and Qurans, these women won a long-awaited peace that led to the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first elected female head of state and Liberia's first elected female president. In one scene that had the audience cheering, these women barricaded the site of the stalled peace talks in Ghana. The men could not leave the room even to eat until they drafted a workable peace plan. When the guards tried to arrest these women, they evoked the most powerful nonviolent weapon in their arsenal by threatening to remove their clothes. This strategy worked, as the guards chose not to bring shame upon themselves by forcing the women to expose their naked bodies. The women kept their clothes on but they also kept their promise that if need be, "they'll be back."
When I saw the trailer for Jamie Moffett's documentary The Ordinary Radicals, I caught other glimpses of the kingdom of heaven here on earth. I know that the radical words of Jesus can empower ordinary citizens here in the U.S. to transform their own communities because I've seen it in action. The Everything Must Change weekend with Brian made me realize the urgency of the global need for us to set aside our denominational differences and work together as the body of Christ to bring forth God's kingdom into the world. That's why I'm joining forces with Shane Claiborne, Chris Haw, and others to support Jesus for President.